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.

Mapping and storytelling

As a child, I drew maps. Maps which had our family house at the centre and a web of suburban streets radiating out from it, to the various destinations my parents would drive me to school, the shops, friends’ houses and so on. I liked plotting the various routes you could take to get to these places. And although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was constructing a narrative about me and my family in those maps, about the places which were important to us and the people who surrounded us.

I have been reminded of this recently by Peter Turchi’s book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. I found it in a bookshop in New York City, 3 blocks west and one block north from the apartment I was staying in. The book itself was lying flat on top of a row of other books in the sociology section. I think none of the staff knew exactly where to put it, so it inhabited no particular place in the bookshop’s own aisles – the streets of a bookshop – labelled by genre or topic. It was misplaced on its own map.

I can understand how. It’s a difficult book to categorise. It’s a series of short essays about the relationships between maps and stories – about how mapmaking is storytelling, and storytelling mapmaking. I want to capture just three of the many ideas it presents about this shared territory, and reflect on what it might mean for recording and seeking meaning from the narratives of individuals.

The map as the message

To view a map is to be invited to read someone’s world view. If you looked at my 5-year-old self’s view of my hometown and attempted to find your way from one end of it to the other, it would have been sadly inadequate. But you would have gained an understanding of how I navigated around it, about was important to 5-year-old me and what activities filled my days.

Sandridge amount mountains at Ulampara
Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri
Sandridge among mountains at Ulampara 1972

Maps are informed by the mapmaker’s ideas, but they also communicate those ideas. The mapmaker gets to select what features are recorded and what is left out. Maps made by the earliest European explorers of Australia, for instance, might show large featureless spaces in the middle of the continent, reinforcing notions of terra nullius. But if we could ask the local Indigenous populations of the time to show us their maps of the same regions, they would no doubt be filled with symbols describing the features of the landscape, navigating paths for the reader through geographic and mythological territory.

Stories, Turchi argues, are like this. Objectivity is impossible and what’s missing is as important as what’s included. Who’s telling the story and their intentions colour the work. The reader stops being a passive taker of direction and has to ask herself what knowledge is being proffered, what the gaps in that knowledge are and what motivations lie behind the selectivity of the mapmaker.

But we can take an extra step here and imagine the part that the mapmaker’s objectivity (or the lack of it) plays in encouraging the reader to enter their ideological world. Because as Turchi says, to actually use a map – to rely on it to get you from one end of town to another – is to subscribe temporarily to the mapmakers’ beliefs. “To learn how to read any map is to be indoctrinated into that mapmakers’ culture,” he writes, which might give us pause for thought the next time Google Maps tells us to take a certain toll road or suggests we fill up at a nearby service station.

Or we might find it comforting that with every day we spend navigating around New York or Alice Springs, guided by a benevolent mapmaker’s worldview, the more we move and react like a resident, gradually fitting in, gradually assuming a new identity. Becoming a local.

Stories create maps

“Where’s it set?” is a question we might ask a budding storyteller. It’s our starting point from where we’ll find our way to everything else within a story. If the answer is “Berlin 1938” or “the North Pole” or even “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, we as readers of these texts instantly start to build up our own mental geography. We start to conceive of place and create a context for us to help make sense of the story being told.

tolkien

The storyteller helps fill in these maps with detail. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare helps us picture the tension-filled distance between the houses of the Montagues and the Capulets, and helps us position the Apothecary’s house and the Chapel along the way. Some stories, like those by Tolkien, come illustrated by maps, the better for us to imagine the topographical barriers between Eriador and Mordor.  In stories like Moby Dick, The Iliad ­and Catch-22 we understand the characters by the literal and metaphoric journeys we follow them on, and their distance from home.

 

The map is also a common motif within storytelling. In a WW2 epic, perforated lines will creep across Europe as our heroes fly overhead. In a TV police procedural, mug shots of the suspects will be placed upon a whiteboard, red tape illustrating the linkages between the two. Stories that are successful and “world building” communicate their geographies implicitly. I know through repeated viewings, for instance, that Fawlty Towers’ guest rooms are upstairs and to the right, its dining room is in front of the kitchen and no-one’s ever had to draw me a map. And in games such as Minecraft and Fortnite players create and explore landscapes of their own making, noting landmarks, forging paths.

In this way, the description of places and the relationships between them is a fundamental storytelling element. And the places created can never be authoritative or 100% factual; even if the storyteller knew the streets and lanes of 1938 Berlin intimately, the version she creates for her story is still her own construct, created for her needs, never exact.

So the navigation between those places forms a kind of contract between storyteller and reader, based on the version the storyteller presents. Thus a shared agreement about the boundaries in which the story takes place is created. “A reader,” Turchi writes, “enters the world of a poem, or a story, realistic or otherwise, willing, at least for a short time, to believe it and accept its terms.” The storyteller becomes our guide, telling us most of the story and trusting the reader to fill in the blanks.

Stories act like maps

What she’s guiding you through is the map of the story. The purpose of a map, after all, is to help you get from point a to point b. Our storyteller is helping us get from the beginning of a story to its end, making sure we visit all the important stops along the way. Characters and incidents are our landmarks. A classic three act structure can be seen as three steppingstones, helping the reader get to the heart of the story, getting closer to the conclusion with every hop.

If wanted to, we could find maps that to help create those stories. We could follow the standard beats of a Hollywood blockbuster, if we wanted, as they have been charted by Robert McKee and others. The Hero’s Journey, as described by Joseph Campbell, can guide us through separation, initiation and return. Maybe these are more recipes than maps, but they all say, “start here, go there and end up there.” And they provide a level of comfort for the reader when that familiar path is followed. We feel in safe hands, that our storyteller knows the way.

In this way, through repetition of the well-worn narrative path, we as readers become inculcated in “good” storytelling structure. We like it when the Hero’s Journey plays out the way we expect because who doesn’t like to hear the hits? And if those familiar story beats aren’t hit in the right order, we can feel disconcerted and short changed.

Turchi was talking about a map’s inclusion of well-meaning cultural signifiers when he wrote, “every map intends not simply to serve us, but to influence us” but I think it also applies here. The more we create stories that intrinsically please us because they follow the one true map, the more those structures become entrenched and the more we seek out stories that fit those structures.

What this means for creating life histories

When we ask someone to tell us their story, we are, like the map reader, engaging in a temporary contract. We buy into their world and we ask them to set the boundaries. We ask them to select the important aspects and omit the unimportant ones. We ask them to start and stop the story. We ask them to assume the primary role in the narrative. They must be our Sherpa, guiding us through a world well known to them, but unfamiliar to us.

350px-Mercator_projection_Square

We know that perspective distorts the story, just the most common map of the world (the Mercator Projection) distorts the size and influence of many of its nations. And we assign ourselves the role of the cartographer; the person who’s going to make objective sense of this. Although subconsciously, we’ve filled in a lot of the blanks on our own. We’d decided what Berlin 1938 looked like based that movie we saw once, and we’ve decided who to cast as Hitler. (Cate Blanchett, as it happens). We are not – we cannot be – passive observers. We change the story simply by listening.

As a researcher and a collector of entrepreneurs’ stories, I can, at the least, be aware of these weaknesses of method. Still, I think the metaphor of “story as map” also offers a perspective that can be usefully overlaid on the narratives offered by research participants. In the participant’s description of place, the positioning of themselves within their own narrative and the extent to which their story conforms to an established storytelling structure, we can at least note how far they deviate from the familiar storytelling path and let them choose the destination.

Turchi, Peter.  (2004).  Maps of the imagination: the writer as cartographer.  San Antonio, Texas, Trinity University Press.