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Business of creativity could use entrepreneurial boost

SANTA FE, N.M. — It happened so organically that Emily Bennett didn’t immediately recognize the shift afoot.

Baby Blastoff! is a baby clothing line that Emily Bennett started in the converted garage at her Albuquerque home. She's hoping to turn the small creative enterprise into a new career. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Baby Blastoff! is a baby clothing line that Emily Bennett started in the converted garage at her Albuquerque home. She’s hoping to turn the small creative enterprise into a new career. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

When she started designing baby clothes in a converted garage at her Albuquerque home, she didn’t exactly see it as a business. She was simply exercising her natural creativity.

Having found run-of-the-mill baby clothing too trite – especially what she perceived as its reinforcement of “boy” and “girl” stereotypes – she taught herself the computer graphics and silk-screening skills needed to design her own, gender-neutral alternatives. A then-teacher who had taken a year off to stay at home with her newborn son, Bennett started selling her onesies and T-shirts at local farmers markets.

Before she knew it, she’d birthed a small enterprise – Baby Blastoff!, a children’s clothing line made in an Albuquerque factory, and sold through a handful of boutiques in and outside of New Mexico.

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“I started this business,” she said. “I had no idea that’s what I was going to do, but I did and, since then, have really aspired to make it a new career.”

Albuquerque brims with people such as Bennett – artists, designers, musicians and others trying to make it in the so-called “creative economy.”

The arts and culture industries are already big business in New Mexico. A recent study by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico found that the industries represent 5.5 percent of the state’s jobs, and $1.37 billion in wages and salaries, even more than the hospitality and restaurant industries.

The state also has a higher-than-average concentration of arts- and culture-related businesses.

Yet they are smaller enterprises, employing an average of 6.2 people versus 11.3 nationally, according to the research report written by BBER’s Jeffrey Mitchell and Gillian Joyce. And, the report notes, employees in the state’s arts and culture industry rank 40th nationally when it comes to salary, earning $29,349 on average per year compared to $48,860 nationally.

It’s an obvious growth opportunity and one with potential ripple effects: Mitchell has noted that a rich arts and culture scene often begets economic development.

“People with big ideas who need to recruit workers gravitate to engaging, vibrant communities to start their new companies,” said Marla Wood, who works with creative entrepreneurs through the Keshet Ideas and Innovation Center, a new, arts-focused Albuquerque incubator. “Successful creative entrepreneurship attracts more entrepreneurship.”

Unique position

Kris Thoeni of Kris Thoeni Designs photographs one of her scarves as part of a new WESST program that helps local artisans build an online shop through Etsy. (Courtesy of WESST)

Kris Thoeni of Kris Thoeni Designs photographs one of her scarves as part of a new WESST program that helps local artisans build an online shop through Etsy. (Courtesy of WESST)

Launching a creative enterprise is no easy feat; it may even present specific difficulties beyond traditional startup hurdles.

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Access to capital remains one of the chief challenges. George Kenefic of The Loan Fund, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit community lender, says the nature of the work may turn off lenders who see artists as risky borrowers given the potential ebb and flow of their income. Many ultimately self-fund their endeavors.

Time management also presents a problem. Some devote so many hours to their creative process that little time remains for managing – or even learning to manage – a business.

“Artists are in the unique position of having to build the business and be the means of production,” said Kristine Maltrud, CEO and founder of ArtSpark, a New Mexico-based company that has educated and consulted artists on technology and business matters since 2010. “They have to produce work, then they have to know how to do their books and know how to do their website. What we’re seeing for artists that are becoming successful is it becomes a real crunch. It’s like ‘Oh, I spend 14 hours doing the business side of my artwork, and it’s midnight and I didn’t have any creative time.'”

Nancy Zastudil, who started Central Features gallery in Downtown Albuquerque last fall, has had to adjust to a hectic schedule. Without room in the budget to hire employees yet, she’s handling all gallery-related responsibilities. She’s also working two jobs until Central Features – which she and her partner self-funded – gains traction.

“One person trying to do a million things can get a little bit tiring,” she said.

That time crunch has so far prevented Zastudil from attending programs intended to help creative entrepreneurs with business development. What she knows on the subject has come from peer advice and, she said with a laugh, “Google.”

But that is changing: She recently signed up for a Keshet Ideas and Innovation Center membership. And Zastudil – who hopes eventually to create new jobs through Central Features – is eager to learn.

“I could very easily find the money to hire a bookkeeper or marketing consultant or something like that but, at the same time, since it’s my business, I want to understand that stuff before I hand it off,” she said.

Available resources

The Keshet center is one of a small but growing number of organizations working in Albuquerque to help artists and other creative entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.

Robin Day of Robin's Naturals photographs her handmade soap to upload to Etsy. The Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship Program helps local artisans build an online business.(Courtesy of Wesst)

Robin Day of Robin’s Naturals photographs her handmade soap to upload to Etsy. The Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship Program helps local artisans build an online business.(Courtesy of Wesst)

The nonprofit, which started last July, offers consulting and hosts workshops, such as “How To Make Money Making Music” and “How To Start and Maintain Successful Gallery Relationships.” It also has three companies in residence and plans to expand to accommodate up to seven.

Wood said the incubator – which operates under the Keshet Center for the Arts umbrella – aims to make business topics less intimidating and to “demystify” the related lexicon. It also wants to help combat the stereotype that artists don’t have a mind for business.

“We have been told this so many times that often artists believe they are ‘not good at business,'” Wood said, noting that artists’ ingenuity, work ethic and experience with failure actually can help them in business. “The truth is, most artists are incredibly well-suited to be entrepreneurs.”

The Keshet center also is collaborating with The Loan Fund. The nonprofit lender – which has worked infrequently with artists in the past 25 years – received a $200,000 grant to bolster the entrepreneurial community in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The Loan Fund will use the money to make credit available to artists and to underwrite certain Keshet workshops so attendance is free.

Meanwhile, UNM’s Anderson School of Management and the College of Fine Arts collaborated last fall to launch an eight-week certificate program on the business of art. Also open to non-UNM students, it covers topics like cash management, marketing, strategic planning and related legal issues like intellectual property protection.

Regina Chavez Puccetti, a Fine Arts faculty member who designed the course with Audrey Arnold, said they saw a need for a professional development program that doesn’t require participants to enroll in a degree program. It will be offered every spring.

WESST, an Albuquerque-based small business development and training nonprofit, began targeting artisans last fall with a course that helps them set up an online store through the Etsy craft website. WESST plans to offer the eight-week course at least twice a year in Albuquerque and is expanding it to Santa Fe.

In addition, WESST aids creative professionals through its general business planning, marketing and business finance courses. Julianna Silva, WESST’s Albuquerque regional manager and marketing director, said the organization also has helped entrepreneurs decide how to price their products.

Bennett of Baby Blastoff! has attended WESST workshops and had multiple consulting sessions through the organization. She said she knew “like, nothing” about business before starting her own, but has found a community of locals willing to offer guidance, including a local author with garment manufacturing know-how, and other small vendors and producers she’s met at farmers markets.

“Accessing resources (like) going to WESST or talking to people in the community about what to do, that’s helped me get through that fear and keep going,” Bennett said.

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