FnGHi, I’m Clayton Weller. I’m a director, performer and writer. I would most definitely consider myself an artist. I’ve worked for years to hone my craft. I’ve taken classes, held myself to a relentless production schedule, and worked under people who have been producing art for longer than I’ve been alive.

Still, the best thing I’ve ever done for my art was … working in a tech startup.

A little over a year and a half ago, I was working in a non-profit arts organization thinking to myself: “I’ve made it. This is how artists make it. I’m a professional artist.” It didn’t matter that I was actually working in an office, or that I was getting paid well below market after a four month unpaid internship. It didn’t even matter that my artistic contribution was precisely… nothing. Art!

Then, through friend of a friend, I got hooked up with Kyle Kesterson and Dwayne Mercredi. We formed what became Freak’n Genius, and I plunged feet first into the Seattle startup community. A first hackathon, an accelerator, five offices, and $500,000 of funding later — I’m fundamentally changed.

The startup scene is vibrant and is constantly reinventing itself. While running Freak’n Genius, I stayed active in the arts community and I finally had some perspective. At a startup, I was doing satisfying work, getting paid to do it, and wondering: “Why isn’t art like this?”

I couldn’t answer it. I didn’t know why artists starve — why “theater is dying,” why arts organizations are struggling, etc. I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory reason.

Despite how awesome my life was, I felt a moral imperative to leave the tech community and take what I learned over to the world of art.

I’ve learned a bunch about apps, engineers, programming languages, servers, and all that tech specific stuff. But, that’s not the reason the tech startup community is absolutely killing it. It’s how the community is oriented. You grab the world with both hands, shake it, and demand its attention. Here’s how you do it:

Business isn’t what artists think it is

BusinessWhen you say the word “business” to someone, especially an artist, they automatically assume you’re talking about something stuffy, rigid, uncompromising, and [insert horrible adjective].

You say “business” but they hear “bureaucracy.” THEY ARE NOT THE SAME THING!

To treat them as such is the equivalent of saying “art” and “hipsters” are equivalent.

To eschew something because it can be done poorly, is a disservice to yourself, and might rival einsteins famous definition of insanity (look it up plebes!).

Startup methodology makes sense

One of the first things I did when I began my startup awakening was to read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. This book blew my mind. It made sense. Every page was: “Of course!” *forehead slap*.

Talking directly to people, iterating ideas before execution, creating a feedback loop with measurable data; it all makes perfect sense.

By doing this you create a real connection with your customer (audience) and develop a product (art) people will not only tolerate, but will clamor for. In terms that an artist would use: your art becomes relevant.

That’s a big deal.

The average artist does NONE of these things. Not only that, they intentionally avoid them. They lock themselves away to pursue their secret “vision.” When they receive negative criticism, they blame their audience (customer). WHAT?!?

There IS money out there

MoneyGet ready for the craziest thing that artists say: “There’s just no money out there.” That’s simply not true.

It’s a rationalization for them not making any money. It’s a way for them to feel OK with not being immediately successful. Let’s crunch some numbers, because that’s what I’ve learned in the Startup community:

  • Even the most frugal of Americans spent over $1,000 on entertainment in 2010 (the national average was around $2,500). Extrapolated for the total population of Seattle, we have a minimum of half a BILLION dollars.

  • In 2009, that average per capita income of a Seattleite was about $40,000. That means we could pay 12,500 people to do nothing but art if we wanted to.

  • If we gave up ice cream, we could employ another 750.

(Entertainment statsIncome statsIce cream stats – Population from Google. Math done by yours truly)

You don’t have to just take my word for this.

I’ve been in the arts community for a little over a month now. In that time, I’ve rallied people behind these “new” ideas and have started changing things already.

I launched a Kickstarter last Saturday to start a performance arts space. Beforehand, I simply asked performing artists what their biggest problems were, and then offered a solution (a price point that was fair). Then I developed a business plan that made sense.

Textbook, right?

Well, it worked. In three days, we raised nearly 200 percent of our minimum goal, and people keep pouring out of all corners of Seattle.

Thank you Seattle startup scene. You’re making a difference. You’re important. I salute you. I will continue to proselytize your intoxicating doctrine to the unenlightened masses!

Clayton Weller is the founder of the Pocket Theater, co-founder of Freak’n Genius, and the Artistic Director of SketchFest Seattle, the yearly sketch comedy festival. 

Comments

  • Shannon

    Totally agree that the arts community could learn a thing or two from the start-up world, but I also agree that there’s this resistance to anything that smacks of business. Art is a business and the sooner that artists can figure this out, the better. This doesn’t mean you’re not an Artist if you use business tactics. After all, no one can see art if it never leaves the studio and sees the light of day.

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