Although your studio may be based on furthering artistic pursuits, a studio is a business, and a good part of its success depends on being realistic about this. I taught and helped manage one music school where the board of directors hired an orchestra conductor with fundraising expertise as the school’s director. Unfortunately, she’d had no business experience and not only didn’t understand how to make the business work, but didn’t even know how to ask the right questions.
Understanding the business part of your work is essential, but it’s crucial to recognize that size matters. Getting an MBA or reading big business advice books may not give you what you need to handle a small business.
That’s because most studios are small businesses. It is possible, of course, that you are part of a chain of studios. In that case, you may function as a middle manager, and must hew to the budgets and regulations of a larger corporation.
However, since most studios are small businesses, it’s important to realize that a lot of the popular business advice out there may not apply very well to you. Clarifying which business practices suit you and your day-to-day work can have a big impact on how you handle your work, how you can best work with staff, students, and community, and how to handle competition.
I’d like to tell you a couple of brief stories about how I learned that some business “wisdom” was not geared towards my business, and what I did about it.
I used to own a small but national CD distributing company. As business picked up and I had to hire help and deal with payroll and a larger office, I decided to visit SCORE, the Senior Corps of Retired Executives. This free service employs retired business people to advise owners of small businesses on how to successfully start up and grow their business.
One day I had a meeting at SCORE with 3 of their advisors, and they lambasted me for various weaknesses they pointed out to me in my organization and plans. Let me say that SCORE provides valuable services and publications for small businesses. However, that meeting wasn’t the only one that was distressing and humiliating to me. I started to wonder why their criticisms seemed a little out of touch with what I knew about my business and my market. Then I asked each of the advisors about his experience in business. What I learned fit in with what I learned later about another SCORE advisor who acted as treasurer of the board of directors of a music school.
What I discovered was that each of those men had worked for large corporations. Each one had had jobs in which their budgets were set for them, their tasks delegated by their bosses, and their jobs and promotions were on the line based on how well they served corporate management. None of them had run a small business. I realized that their criticisms of my work were by the book, and based on no real experience of what I was actually doing.
As a small business owner or manager, you are not being controlled by a corporate budget, corporate culture, or assignments from your boss. You created your studio, or are entrusted to run it, and chances are, you probably greet people at the door, hire teachers, say goodbye to students, take payments, do mailings, do accounting, handle your marketing, and sweep the floor!
Small business people not only do everything, they also invent a lot of their own procedures. As owner of my own small business, I had created many of my policies and procedures based on the needs of the business, not based on a how-to book or on the requirements of my bosses. Knowing my work, my market, and my suppliers, I knew where things were headed in a personal way that those retired corporate executives had only read about.
As a small business manager, you have to be creative based on the needs of the studio and the people you deal with every day. If you take to heart too much of the big business advice out on the market, you might start acting like a corporate manager and forget who you work with and for every day, and chances are, those people will not like it. Unlike the corporate middle manager who has to manage a budget that can afford to absorb mistakes here and there, you have to toe the line, and make decisions that really work for you. And you can’t always delegate everything to someone — even if you do, you still have to follow up to make sure things are done the way you want them, because everything about your studio says something about you.
Unlike big business, small businesses have to take direct responsibility for how they handle their employees and customers. We can’t hide behind company policy.
Very often we hear, over and over, a lot of shrieking about “business” (some call this politics!), but we have to be very careful about what we’re listening to. A lot of the sloganeering and maneuvering on behalf of “business” is really about making things smoother for big businesses, not small businesses. The distinction is rarely discussed in public but makes a huge difference in practice.
Big businesses mostly work with other big businesses. They do great things, especially with economy of scale, but they often have enough money to manipulate local economies, to put local small businesses out of business, to get tax breaks and influence laws and regulators. Much of this has little or nothing to do with the kind of work small businesses have to focus on daily–responsibly working with their customers, employees, and communities. Small businesses are local and can’t survive without local support and respect.
One time, as a member of my city’s Chamber of Commerce, I got tired of reading the Chamber’s newsletter claiming to represent “business” when really they were representing big business. At that time (10 years ago), the Chamber had five major insurance companies on board, and therefore opposed broader health care coverages that would have been a boon to us small businesses — we could have hired top talent, attracting them with health benefits, and growing our businesses. I complained to the Chamber president that maybe we should start a new Chamber of Commerce for small business. He got so scared, he invited me in for an hour’s meeting!
Maybe we should have Small Business Chambers of Commerce that can really represent local businesses. In the mean time, think about the difference. Hold your head up, and be careful not to buy into every claim by a politician that they say will benefit “business”. Some of those regulations they want to get rid of are exactly the regulations that keep big businesses from putting small businesses out of business!
And remember that you’re local. Don’t get too impersonal with your customers/students, faculty or community, just because some book or advisor tells you that you don’t have time to be flexible, considerate, or respectful. Build your community and your business one person at a time, and they’ll support you in turn.