Sunday, August 21, 2011

How to start up an arts company in a recession.

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Better Strangers exists by virtue of one of the main principles of entrepreneurship: if no-one else is doing what you want or need to be done, you might as well do it yourself. To the best of my awareness, Better Strangers is the only specifically feminist opera company around; it may well be the only one engaging as closely as we are (or aim to be) with feminist, LGBT, BME, class and disability issues.

As you’ll know, unless you’ve been living in a nuclear bunker under an island for the past two years, now is not exactly the most auspicious time to start up a small arts company with a social agenda. Funding for the arts in the UK has been cut - by 90%, according to placard statistics - and funding for charities and social enterprises is equally difficult to come by. And yet, here we are. I’m not going to say we’re a successful startup, having just announced that we’re postponing our first show due to funding uncertainties, but we’re here, and we’re hoping to make good on everything we’re aiming for.

I am 24 years old. This is my first attempt at managing anything, let alone helping to start up a whole company. I was under no illusions that it was going to be easy. I’m lucky to have a fantastic team behind me - Jessie, to whom inspiration seems to come as naturally as breathing; Sarah, a cool head in a heated time; Philip, who (aside from his excellent piano playing) specialises in telling us politely but firmly what is and is not a really silly idea. So, here is what I’ve learned about starting up a project like ours at a time like this.

1. Believe in the work. The only way you’re ever going to make an arts project work is if it’s something you live, eat, sleep and breathe. People - funders, audiences, whatever - will only care about what you’re doing if you do.

2. Build a solid team. As I’ve mentioned above, we’ve got some amazing people on board with Better Strangers. Make sure that your team is reliable, skilled, and having fun. Listen to your team - if they are telling you something, it is probably worth hearing.

3. Network. You know people. The people you know know more people. The odds are that you can find someone, somewhere in your extended network who can do that thing that you can’t find a provider for. Get to events; talk to people. Promote yourself. Be excited about your projects in the presence of new people. Talk about it on the Internet - it feels like shouting into the void, but someone is listening, I promise.

4. Be organised. Plan ahead. Build a schedule, keep to it, and make sure someone is responsible for keeping everyone on track. Factor in extra time for things going wrong.

4b. Be honest. If you’ve screwed up somewhere, talk it through. The sooner it comes out, the sooner it can be fixed and the easier it will be to build strategies to avoid screwing up the same way again. Do NOT play the blame game - it accomplishes nothing except pissing everybody off. A happy team is a healthy team.

5. Be realistic. I have been trying to do an awful lot of the admin and background work myself. Outside of Better Strangers, I am studying part time and working part time. The combination of these many factors has made me very ill. I have learned a hard lesson about what I can and cannot realistically do by myself. Make sure you’re aware of limits - your own, your team’s, your budget, and the scope of the project.

Are you also part of a feminist opera project? Let us know - it's always nice to have company!

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