In June 2009 after graduating college, my best friend and I went into business together.
Because of our backgrounds in classical music we wanted to make a dent in the performing arts industry---a field that’s exceedingly focused on tradition and favors individuals with decades of experience. We embarked on our journey with a lot of gumption but negligible industry experience, so we knew we were in for an uphill battle.
Six years later, we look back with a little bit of awe at our younger selves. Today, we couldn’t feel more grateful to run not one, but two companies! There were many lessons we learned in our first year of business that set the groundwork for our success. Here are the 5 most important:
1. Don’t Fear the Pivot
We launched our business soon after winning second place in a business-plan competition at Tufts University, where Julia went to college. But once we tried implementing it, we realized much of our concept would need to change. In some ways, the fact that our “winning” plan didn’t work out so well in the real world felt like failure. But the truth is, pivoting and shifting your plan is essential. As uncomfortable and frustrating as it is, “plan” and “reality” rarely align in business. Since that moment, we’ve adjusted our business model and strategy several times, sometimes in major ways.
2. Talk to People. A Lot.
After realizing that our first concept wouldn’t work, how did we find our way? Our strategy was simple: to meet and talk to as many people as possible. To get their advice, to build relationships, and to practice pitching ourselves. We figured that eventually our concept would come across with more and more clarity, and it did! This strategy included a hosting series of video interviews with prominent musicians and arts leaders. (We couldn’t believe who said yes!)
Doing interviews became a great way for us to develop a track record and a small following as we figured out what we were actually going to do with our business. It was a great honor for us to interview musicians like Hilary Hahn, Nadine Sierra, and perhaps most randomly, Seth Rogen! All told we did well over 100 interviews and have stayed in contact with many of the people we spoke with.
3. Work on Yourself.
In our experience, succeeding in business requires tremendous internal fortitude as well as the ability to get stuff done. Having spent our entire lives in high-pressure academic environments, Julia and I had no problem with taking action. However, our experiences in a perpetual rat race of school left us with some bad habits in terms of our mental game---habits that we weren’t even aware of until we began working with a life coach.
We learned from our two fantastic coaches (also a pair of female business owners: Carolyn Freyer-Jones and Michelle Bauman), that we had been holding ourselves back through our mindset, beliefs about ourselves, and assumptions about our abilities. We also gained support in communicating with each other, and ultimately found a new approach for how we could support clients through these methods.
4. Be Willing to Learn.
Starting a business, especially if you’re bootstrapping, requires you to wear many hats. Not only did we lack experience in the performing arts industry, we’d had no previous experience in any of the basic areas needed to run a business. Since we had little money to spend on outsourcing, our approach was to learn it all ourselves---even if things got a little messy.
The best part of this steep learning curve is that it taught us to be undeterred when our qualifications or experience was questioned. Early on, we decided that if we weren’t qualified in some area to begin with, we’d work to develop that competency on our own. This attitude has empowered us to take on new tasks and directions with a lot more confidence than we’d have otherwise. Becoming qualified is a choice you make. There are typically ample resources to develop the skills you need, even when you’re on the job and learning as you go along.
5. Failure Is an Option (But Only If You Try, Try Again).
Most of the things that we now do well---and are even known for---were total flops at first. Some of our early requests for interviews? Rejected. Our first sales calls? Total disasters. The first workshop we organized didn’t fill enough for us to break even on our costs. The first festival we produced almost fell apart when a major partner failed to deliver last minute.
The reason we’ve achieved anything today is that we kept trying again. But the real trick is to keep refining things even if they’re NOT a failure. Companies that last do so because they stay focused on the reality of today and their predictions about tomorrow---not because of their successes yesterday. We’ve tried to maintain a beginner’s mindset and not get too attached to anything we’re becoming known for.
6. The Road Is Tough...But Totally Worth It
Remember, your first year (or two or three…) of business can look messy. Networking can feel awkward, especially when you’re practicing a new pitch about something that you haven’t yet fully internalized or figured out yourself. Sure, your work might not immediately be up to snuff. Your state of mind bobbles up and down. Mistakes you make might result in financial repercussions that you need to own up to and make good on.
Well-meaning friends and relatives may question your efforts in painful ways that sting because a part of you wonders the same things. Some days, it feels like it’s not worth it. But that’s the mystery and wonder of creation. Sometimes you have to toil in the weeds, pulling them out to see the seedlings that are springing forward, slowly but surely.
It’s through that process that new ideas emerge. And those are winning ideas that win in the real world.
Julia Torgovitskaya and Jennifer Rosenfeld are co-founders of iCadenza, which provides career development coaching to musicians and performing artists of all career stages, and Cadenza Artists, an artist management company and talent agency representing over 75 music, dance, and multidisciplinary projects in a wide variety of genres. Get their free guide: 10 Secrets to Positive Self-Promotion.