Building a company - or anything - from the ground up requires a hefty cocktail of conviction and naivete. My creative partner, Taryn Vander Hoop, and I had considerable pours of each when we began our dance company out of graduate school. The Great Recession of 2008 was in full swing and prospects for artists looked grim - not unlike what many have encountered during today’s Covid crisis. The scarcity of opportunities forced us to create them for ourselves with no real understanding of how to do that. While I deeply treasure the breadth and depth of my dance education, coursework in the business of dance and applicable knowledge in navigating the logistics of the industry were lacking. In starting from zero, we relied on common sense, observation and a shameless penchant for asking a lot of people a lot of questions.
While asking for advice ended up being powerful in many ways (more on that later), we didn’t often get the specifics we so desperately needed. A lot of what we heard was vague (“brand yourselves”), broad-sweeping (“fundraise”), and cagey (“design a budget”). This left us with more questions than answers: what are the elements of branding, what specific tools are best for fundraising, and how much do things cost? Showing me your itemized list of expenses would be much more helpful had you not redacted the values. I vowed to be a transparent resource for future artists seeking the same guidance.
Of course, there are challenges in offering curated advice as each journey is unique to its creators. There is no surefire approach. Survival in this realm requires the naivete to believe you will succeed and the fortitude to keep that delusion alive until your luck kicks in. That’s the misleading thing about lady luck - she’s not the serendipitous leprechaun that appears out of nowhere the second you need her. She’s the sneaky nymph watching you struggle from afar until she is sufficiently satisfied that her gifts will be used wisely. (I am not suggesting that the leprechaun kind of luck does not exist - simply that it’s much more elusive than in our fantasies.) The advice I can offer comes in the form of a few idiosyncratic anecdotes about two young artists who built their company with no legacy behind them, no company funding and no established connections - just blind instinct. This grassroots approach led to both comical blunders and surprising successes.
The key here is to make it as easy as possible for people to help you.
Many aspiring choreographers have a celebrated performing career under their belts before striking out on their own. This can provide them the benefit of name recognition, and access to a built-in audience and prospective donors. We had no such professional affiliations and no established relationships to use to our advantage beyond our individual networks - which is unquestionably each artist’s greatest asset. The road is grueling and uncertain either way, but starting from zero presented unique challenges.
You run a company the second you say you do. The next step is figuring out how to prove to the rest of the world that it exists - and moreover, has value - which is where branding comes in. Names, logos, color schemes, and mission statements are all essential, but the visuals are of outsized importance. Creating a company out of thin air was problematic for us in that there was no history of work - and, therefore, no visuals. So we manufactured them. We snuck into the theater of the grad school we had since graduated from, wrangled a student photographer and lighting designer, and staged a fake photo shoot. We fashioned multiple “costumes” out of clothes from our closets and cheap purchases and performed a variety of movement motifs against a dynamic backdrop of lights and quick bursts of the camera shutter. These photographs propelled us through our first year of production - not only for marketing purposes, but as a means of fundraising. (The advent of social media has made this “fake it ‘til you make it” approach all the more accessible.)
Nobody told us how to fundraise. We had the wherewithal to set up a meeting with a prominent dance benefactor that Taryn happened to have an existing connection to (again, your personal network is your greatest asset). Nobody told us what to do in that meeting. We had the wherewithal to fashion a booklet about our non-existent company which included written materials, visuals from our fake photo shoot, and a projected budget (a half-baked product of research and wild guesses). Nobody told us how much to ask for. We had the wherewithal to ask for $40,000. The prominent dance benefactor humored our request with a polite (and knowing) smile. She gave us 1/16 of the requested amount, but ended up becoming one of our greatest supporters over the years. We learned that our general ignorance could work in our favor - and so began our quest to identify important people and ask them for money... I mean, advice.
One such meeting resulted in the most memorable moment of our fundraising journey, and the single greatest anecdote I offer to anyone seeking advice. Through name-dropping and networking, we were able to secure a meeting with the executor of a reputable dance foundation. By this time, we were about a year into the company - with dozens of makeshift meetings and laughable donation requests under our belts. We gave our best “appropriate for a foundation” spiel using updated presentation materials. These types of meetings rarely ended with a specific request for money and were conducted more in the spirit of “this is who we are, this is what we do and the scale we hope to do it on - do you have any feedback or suggestions to offer as we navigate through this world?” After a moment of pause, the executor sat back in her chair and said, “I see what you’re doing here. Ask for money, you’ll get advice. Ask for advice, you’ll get money.” This single moment reinforced that our strategy was, in fact, a strategy. And while getting called out should have been awkward - it emboldened us further. The foundation donated $1,000 - an above average gift for organizations of our size.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the prospect of fundraising, but its essence is simple: ask people for money.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the prospect of fundraising, but its essence is simple: ask people for money. I used to think, “Why would anyone give me their money?” Taryn’s rebuke was, “Why wouldn’t they give me their money - if they have some to give?” It was an important lesson in perspective, and adopting her attitude on this matter proved essential: if you don’t ask people for money, you will not get it. And often, they will give it to you. We compiled a list of everyone we knew and emailed each person individually announcing the advent of our company and asking for support. Neither of us came from family money, or had easy access to people with wealth, and yet it always appeared from unexpected places. My father - who ran a tutoring business in a small town - took it upon himself to forward our announcement email en masse to his listserv, hoping for $50 here and there. Almost immediately, he received a response from one of his student’s mothers who was so happy with his services (and aid in getting her child into college) that she sent us a check for $5,000.
Grassroots fundraising went hand-in-hand with expanding our network, as we knew that reaching far beyond the arts community would be essential for survival. We aspired to produce work in reputable venues with substantial house capacities, and knew that we could not rely on our dance community solely to fill those seats. Again, we tapped into our network of professionals outside of the arts, asking for introductions to anyone who could guide us in an entrepreneurial fashion. We bounced from one coffee date to the next, as each meeting inevitably led to, “You should get in touch with [insert name], they sit on the board of [insert arts organization].” Many of these meetings resulted in long-lasting relationships with lawyers, financial managers, entrepreneurs, designers and philanthropists - many of whom became members of our Advisory Board.
The Advisory Board was our answer to the requisite - but often deemed unnecessary for organizations of our size and legal status - Board of Directors*. The general consensus was that only companies with proven infrastructures benefited from an official Board, and that it wouldn’t be a worthwhile investment of our resources to pursue. Because we set out to build a functionally operating company from the outset - as opposed to slowly working our way up - we decided to simulate this structural entity with an Advisory Board in anticipation of one day achieving fame and fortune and subsequently converting its members. We planned quarterly meetings and kept in constant communication with them through updates on our activities, personal advice-seeking lunches, requests for feedback on our materials and addressing future company funding needs. They became confidantes, advisors and friends. (These members are personally motivated to participate and are typically patrons of the arts or philanthropists who must send their tax dollars somewhere - and prefer to see them spent in support of cultural organizations.)
One of our earliest Advisory Board members suggested a strategy for building an audience using a Host Committee - which proved to be an extraordinary organizational asset. This helped us sell out every self-produced season, including 4-night runs at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in NYC with a house of 175 seats per night. The Host Committee was yet another method of expanding our reach through our personal network. We solicited friends and professionals to become Hosts for our productions, which entailed corralling 10-15 of their friends to attend our performances, often with the allure of “let’s have a fun night out with drinks and art!” In exchange for the Host’s participation, we offered them billing on our marketing materials and exclusive, though moderate, perks (such as pre-sale discount codes). Again, those who participated were often personally motivated to do so beyond what we could offer them. It would only take a dozen Hosts to add up to one sold-out evening of performances. We created customized digital postcards for each person and offered email templates to make it as easy as possible for them to organize and spread the word. The same tactic applied to our performers, as we tapped into their networks as well, at times even offering incentives for the number of tickets sold.
You run a company the second you say you do. The next step is figuring out how to prove to the rest of the world that it exists - and moreover, has value.
Many artists suffer from the inability to promote themselves, thereby shying away from the very fundamental truth that you must not only build community, you must also ask of your community. This was a very uncomfortable mountain for me to climb, but its effectiveness was proven time and time again. And more often than not, our community was incredibly responsive - even enthusiastic - to contribute to our endeavors. And when they were not, well…that is the nature of rejection, an artist’s constant companion.
The key here is to make it as easy as possible for people to help you. Give them the information they need in the most accessible format and follow-up. There is an old marketing theory called the Rule of Seven that suggests that prospects need to see your message seven times before taking action. Anyone on our email list can attest that we far surpassed this number, yet we were often met with gratitude for the incessant reminders. People are busy, they are not (always) ignoring you.
Creating opportunities from the ground up in any realm - whether it’s building a company, launching a festival or organizing a program - requires the foundational elements of funding and infrastructure. Our greatest power in acquiring both came from our grassroots approach to connecting and cultivating relationships. Utilize your network. (Even if it makes you uncomfortable. Even if you think there’s nothing down that road.) Ask for advice. (People love to give it.) Personalize your invitations. (Never mass email.) Be consistent. (Follow-up. Remind people that you exist.) Have community inside and outside of your industry. (We were sometimes overly focused outside of our industry and neglected the inside.) Be kind and interested in others. (Support your fellow artists). Show up. Ask questions. Stay connected. Find your own way.
*A Board of Directors is legally required for organizations with 501c3 status, allowing a nonprofit to operate tax-exempt. We initially used a fiscal sponsor to provide us with this status until it became clear that our finances would benefit from incorporating. An Advisory member generously offered his legal expertise and submitted an application on our behalf, allowing us to officially register as a 501c3 and convert members of our Advisory Board into a Board of Directors.