Stories of creative entrepreneurship

Last week, my daughter said to me, “tell me about when I was a baby”. It’s a variation on a request made in many households – “tell me a story,” a child will say, or “tell us about the time when…” a family member will ask, seeking the pleasure of multiple retellings of events that grow into myths.

But outside those familial examples, how often does anyone ask you to tell your story? Or how often do you ask to hear someone’s else’s?  Perhaps an extraordinary event – a stroke of good or bad luck – may prompt us to invite someone to “tell me what happened”. But the longer stretch of events, those which when combined make up a career, or a relationship or a life – these we rarely take the time to elicit, listen to and reflect upon.

Amid all the hope, haste and hand sanitiser of 2021, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and documenting such stories. Specifically, the stories of entrepreneurs in the cultural and creative industries and how they founded and developed their enterprises. These stories are the source material for my PhD research and although I have spent years planning for these conversations, I was unprepared for how fascinating and engaging these stories are.

This post is an invitation for others to add their stories to the mix, but I also want to record a few observations about the process I’m undertaking and what the research is revealing.

How it works

So far, I’ve talked to people who have created businesses in architecture, music, design, film and performing arts. The scale of these businesses ranges from under $1m annual turnover to more than $20m. Some interviewees have exited their businesses, some are still growing them. All come to their commercial practice from a creative starting point – a common theme in these stories is the lack of an explicit intention to start a business, as opposed to a desire to work within a creative field.

My conversations take place via video call and interviewees tell me the story of their business – how it started, how it progressed and what the high and low points were along the way. In general, they speak fondly – often wryly – about their journey. They pinpoint seminal moments where circumstances changed and where prospects were boosted or challenged. They talk about the people who influenced and assisted them on their journeys. They recall – mostly with good humour – the moments when things went wrong. And all carefully position themselves centrally in the story, but also in context as just one part of the business they built.

Next I listen back to the interviews, transcribe them and place quotes from them on a narrative map. That map becomes a visual representation of the entrepreneurs’ journey, constructed using the interviewee’s own words. By placing quotes in a rough chronological order, as they relate to story elements such as self, others, actions, context and resources, we can see the forces which shaped the entrepreneurial venture and how it developed. The picture below shows an example of a segment of a map and you can read more about the five lanes technique I’m using here.

Then it’s back to the interviewee to retell the story, using the narrative map as a guide. It’s a chance to clarify what the interviewee meant, add detail where they want to and perhaps correct the record on topics where, on reflection, a different emphasis emerges. Quotes are moved around the map, some are deleted, and new ones added. What we’re left with is a rich, detailed account of the entrepreneurial journey for a creative practitioner, told verbally and visually.

What’s emerging

Here’s what I’ve learnt from these stories so far:

  • entrepreneurship in the cultural and creative industries is an unpredictable, often untidy process,
  • while formal business planning is absent, a constant forming and reforming of individual goals is present,
  • partnerships with other entrepreneurs with complementary skill sets is common and often fruitful,
  • the commitment to the creative practice which prompted an entrepreneurs’ journey is a constant, informing strategic decisions and being a source of ongoing motivation, and
  • entrepreneurship is often repeated, with second and third ventures often being created while the first is ongoing.

These interviews are truly building up a picture of what entrepreneurship looks like across the fuzzy boundaries of the cultural and creative industries. But for me it’s also proving an enlightening and hugely enjoyable experience – a chance to step back from all the talk and chat and buzz which fills the day, and just listen to someone else tell their story.

Would you like to tell your story of creative entrepreneurship? Or know someone who would? I’ll be collecting narratives throughout 2021. I’m looking for people who have founded an enterprise within one of the following creative industry sectors: music, performing arts, film, TV & radio, advertising and marketing, software and interactive content (incl. games), writing, publishing & print media, architecture, design and visual arts. Female entrepreneurs are particularly welcome. Enterprises can be of any size and can be operating or closed. People who have founded enterprises within not-for-profit organisations are also welcome. To participate, email me at drs544@uowmail.edu.au.

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