Artists as Entrepreneurs


Thinking and thriving like a startup

I’ve been fascinated to think about how entrepreneurship applies outside of Tech. And so it was great to go to TEDGlobal this year and get some inspiration. During some great conversations that I wrote about here – TEDGlobal: 10 things I didn’t expect to learn, and a question – a renowned and celebrated opera singer, Carla Dirlikov said she’d like to come to a Startup Secrets workshop, I said “yes, but only if you teach me afterward how to relate entrepreneurship to artists”.

Anyone who meets Carla knows immediately that she’s as much an entrepreneur as she is an Artist, she’s built her formidable career in a truly startup like manner – see So it was no surprise to me that Carla followed through and joined our workshop on Value Proposition, adding tremendous value herself to attendees who asked challenging questions of her afterwards. Those of you who follow me know I prefer frameworks to answers, so I challenged Carla to share her thoughts for Artists as Entrepreneurs in a framework. I’m delighted to share her inspiring thinking below. Thank you Carla!

Guest Article: Carla Dirlikov, Opera Singercarlad-blog-pic
Over the course of the last few months I have been approached by a number of artistic colleagues, asking me how it is that I am able to sustain a career as an opera singer in today’s tough economy. So it was timely that Michael asked to outline my thinking, at a time when the arts have been severely affected by the economic crisis, and many of my fellow artists are struggling to make ends meet.


Unfortunately, our conservatory training didn’t prepare us for a tough economy. In fact, it didn’t really prepare us for much. The general mantra, in my experience at music schools is:

“Just practice and things will work out.”

This is an approach which leaves a lot to chance. Rather than ask questions, we are encouraged to close our eyes, focus on our artistry, and somehow pray for a miracle. Sound like a good plan to you?!

I believe that we can actually improve our likeliness of becoming successful with a more proactive approach. Instead of ignoring the practical questions of how to find work as an artist, I encourage artists to think about their futures and ask even more questions. This is a process which takes time, as it has to do with getting to know yourself and your skills in order to create a plan (or two).

Artist as an Entrepreneur
Most importantly, we artists must first learn to disassociate our “personal” selves from our artistry. That is to say, we must start looking at our careers as being different from who we are as individuals. This process is very hard! Think of the way you feel about listening to the sound of your voice on your voicemail. It can be very startling to look at one’s self from the outside.

This is exactly why it’s so important that we as artists have tools to help us in this process. The tools that I have found most helpful come from an entrepreneurial approach. By thinking of myself not as an artist but as an entrepreneur with a business, I could start to make plans for my future and set goals.

I feel that I learned a lot from Michael Skok in this regard, particularly from his workshop on the Value Proposition. He specifically challenges people to think about what they are uniquely qualified to do. The best piece of advice I ever got, from a wonderful conductor, was to find what I do better than anyone else-in other words, find what makes you unique! This is the essence of your Value Proposition as an artist, which can help you to realize how you can capitalize on your special unique talent.

You may think that being an artist already makes you unique, but my goal is to encourage you to find ways to stand out among other artists. In doing so you will have to better understand your strengths (and weaknesses) and define what you can best offer. As you do this, you will want to organize your thoughts. I encourage you to think like a business owner, and follow the traditional template of creating a vision, mission and list of goals.

Finally, nobody can do this alone. It’s important to take time to define your network and seek help from those who believe in you.

I believe that now, more than ever, the world needs great artists. By creatively applying entrepreneurial concepts to an artistic career, I’m confident that we can give more artists a stronger chance of succeeding.



Where do you start?
When Michael challenged me to think about a framework, I first wanted to share how I organize myself – around a simple notebook.

Notebook concept
First, buy yourself a notebook. I realized a few years ago that it would be impossible for me to commit to memory all of the valuable knowledge that my teachers, mentors and colleagues have passed on to me. Yet, these lessons are critical, especially as the arts are often fields in which the best form of learning is to be taught artistic traditions without textbooks. Verbal coaching and demonstration – this is how our craft has been passed down from one generation to the next.

Your notebook will give you the following advantages:

  1. You don’t have to remember everything, you just have to write it down!
  2. You can organize what you learn in a way that is most helpful
  3. It’s very affordable, and portable — more than a computer, iPad or cell phone!

My notebook is organized in the following categories, or chapters:

  1. Administration
  2. Auditions/Appointments
  3. Technique

For the purposes of this article, I thought I would focus on the Administration chapter, as this is the most critical in developing an entrepreneurial approach. I have developed a four step process that I hope you will find helpful in the organization of your business.

First, I recommend that you take some time to carefully asses your skills in order to gain a better sense of what you have to offer. I have found the following tools very helpful:


Self-examination can be an intimidating task. Here’s a very simple rubric you can use – assess your:

S: Strengths
W: Weaknesses
O: Opportunities
T: Threats

In helping with your S.W.O.T. analysis, I suggest that you also evaluate your skills based on the following inventory:

2. Artist’s Self Inventory:

Artistic skills:

  • Technique
  • Expressiveness
  • Aesthetic taste
  • Individual Artistry
  • Ability to learn quickly

Dramatic Skills:

  • Charisma
  • Versatility
  • Ability to take direction/artistic criticism
  • Ability to collaborate/work in a group setting
  • Ability to communicate/relate ideas

Related skills/areas of knowledge:

  • Languages
  • Knowledge of history of one’s craft
  • Knowledge of related crafts
  • Marketing skills

Personal Traits

  • Ability to build and maintain relationships
  • Discipline
  • Dependability/punctuality
  • Drive
  • Perseverance
  • Confidence
  • Mental Health
  • Knowledge of one’s own limitations
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Personal fortitude
  • Ability to live with rejection

Entrepreneurial Skills

  • Ability to identify problems rationally
  • Ability to establish a realistic work load
  • Ability to set goals
  • Networking skills
  • Writing skills
  • Ability to manage finances
  • Willingness to travel


1. Vision: What do you hope to achieve? What’s your dream? This category should relate more to how it is you aspire to grow artistically.

2. Mission: Know why you are an artist! What made you want to do this? What are you setting out to achieve? This category should have more to do with practical and logical goals of where your business is now.

3. Goals: Take the time to write down what it is you hope to achieve. Doing so will give you something to come back to when you may feel lost. Also, hopefully it will heighten your sense of accomplishment once you achieve your goal! Write down your aspirations for:

  • Six months
  • One year
  • Five year

You may also want to form a separate category, titled “dreams” — for goals that seem far fetched for now, but that you hope to achieve. Think big! But remember – Be Pragmatic! Revisit this list after you have accumulated experience to understand and learn from the teachable moments you encountered, and with the hope of adding some of these items into your goal plans. Michael Skok also offered a workshop on Vision, Mission and Culture if you want to dig in a little deeper.


I believe that our greatest resources as artists are the people who we work with. Much of our business is based on building a reputation and a name for ourselves. Consider these three things:

1. Board of Directors (aka your “Kitchen Cabinet”)
This is your core team of people who help you to run your business. The people that you assign to this category should:

  • Believe in you (perhaps even more than you believe in yourself at the beginning)
  • Be willing to act as resources/references for you
  • Be available for you, especially when you are making important decisions
  • Most importantly, these should be folks that you trust with your career

Ideally your Board of Directors should have between 5-10 people. It’s important to diversify this group so that you can have a wide variety of perspectives. I would also suggest re-evaluating your Board from time to time, especially if you are an emerging artist who is still growing.

You will meet many people who will want to support you, and it’s up to you to determine whom you would like to invite to be members of your Board. Please keep in mind that it’s important that you feel you are able to trust these individuals, and in my experience trust is something that is built over time. Ask yourself, “Will this person have my back?”. You may also want to ask yourself if the people you invite have an agenda. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as there is a level of honesty and transparency regarding this.

Ideas for this category would be:

  • Agent/Manager
  • Mentor
  • Teacher
  • Administrator
  • Patron
  • Colleague/Collaborator
  • Friend

2. Wider Network:
You should have a larger network of people whom you meet and/or work with, whom you would like to include in your business network

3. Evaluate your network:
Once you have established who your board of directors are as well as your wider network, consider applying the same S.W.O.T. model to evaluate your resources.


After assessing all of the above, consider how your skill set AND your resources can help you to achieve your goals. It is important to construct a strategy for yourself, which can serve as a roadmap to reaching your goals. Just as important: consult your roadmap, to see if you are on track.

I recommend that you consider the following:

ROI – when making decisions, always ask yourself, what’s the Return on Investment? Please remember, this may not always be monetary. It may be that by volunteering time with a colleague or teacher, you may gain a valuable resource as a mentor or advisor.

Marketing – consider your market. Who is your audience? Are you aiming at a national career? Do you speak any foreign languages? Could you consider broadening your audience to include international markets? This may open up many new possibilities.

There’s a reason our industry is called show business – because it’s a business as much as a calling. Take control of your business and you will be the master of your artistry.


In summary to fully experience your potential, look at yourself as an artist and an entrepreneur.

  1. Examine your skills and your resources. As you tally these assets you will gain confidence to pursue your goals and your dreams.
  2. Stay motivated by assessing what inspires you. This is your fuel, and there is nothing more convincing than passion!
  3. Most of all – discover who you are! Ask yourself – “what makes me unique?” “What do I have that nobody else has?” Be confident in your uniqueness, and share your passion. Remember: your art informs your heart and your mind supports your art.

As Michael says, if you think like a startup you can thrive. I hope this framework will inspire you to realize your dreams and I look forward to hearing of your success and welcome your thoughts in the comments below.