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April 06, 2015 | Tom Ballard

Local entrepreneurs offer business tips for creative start-ups

KECBy Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

Those who have studied vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems will tell you that a focus simply on technology is not enough to be successful. The very technology-oriented people you are trying to attract to or retain in a community also want access to arts, entertainment, music, restaurants and coffee shops.

With that backdrop in mind, we attended the most recent “First Friday Fanfare” hosted last week by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. The theme was “Business for Artists,” and it was a lively interaction between more than two dozen attendees and three local entrepreneurs.

“In celebration of moving into Dogwood Arts season, we are focused on the arts and how you can make a business of it,” KEC’s Jim Biggs said, adding, “They (the panelists) are all trying to make Knoxville a cool place.”

The entrepreneurial trio was Marcus Hall, Founder of Marc Nelson Denim; Lisa Gifford Mueller, professional photographer, fused glass artist, and community volunteer; and Preston Farabow, Owner of Aespyre Metal Design at Ironwood Studios.

Over the course of more than an hour, several key themes emerged – the importance of relationship building, a willingness to suppress your creative ego in deference to the customer, the importance of clearly communicating the cost of your work for a client even if you charge less, and the role of a story in relation to your endeavor.

The topic that garnered the most discussion centered on the core theme – turning something artistic and creative into a financially viable business. An early questioner asked for advice on how to deal with a situation where you spend days developing something for the customer, and it is quickly rejected.

“We all have a different visual,” Hall noted. “What you may like . . . everyone may not agree. Don’t let it get in your ego.”

The Knoxville native who returned to the community several years ago to start his business offered an insightful story from his last day as a hair stylist. Hall said he was about to depart the shop when a young lady came in and pleaded with him to style her hair for a special event. He spent nearly eight hours on the task. When he told her what it cost, she decided she did not like it after all.

“I said that it’s on me,” Hall explained. That response was echoed by the other panelists who had similar experiences, sometimes simply reducing their prices or not charging at all to satisfy customers.

“Never give it away for less than you can afford,” Mueller advised. Having made the statement, she quickly noted that an early strategy of her photography firm was to refrain from charging for some photo shoots with the expectation that the clients would share the photos with their friends, driving customers to her.

“You don’t give some, you give a lot initially when you start a business,” Hall said in relation to pricing and strategies such as Mueller’s to gain traction and recognition.

Farabow explained that an approach that has worked for him is to provide some of his art for non-profit fundraisers.

“Every year I give a little more away than I can afford to do,” he said. Yet, new prospects become aware of his work at these auctions and become customers. It was described as the ripple effect.

“The least favorite part of my job is pricing my work,” Farabow acknowledged. “I used to think it was a bad question to ask, ‘What is your budget?’ It’s not.”

Other suggestions for addressing the financial issues included developing a rate card for your services and securing a deposit before work begins to try to minimize final cost issues when the work is completed.

Farabow offered an insightful gem with the deposit approach that he takes with potential customers.

“If you take me seriously, here is what I have to offer,” he tells the prospect. “I’ll take you seriously when you put down a deposit.”

KEC’s “First Friday Fanfare” is usually at 4 p.m. the first Friday of each month.

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