In the United States alone, creative industries (like the arts, entertainment, design, etc.) contribute more than $760 billion per year to the US economy. In fact, they actually contribute more to the national economy than what many of us perceive to be more common and stable jobs, like construction, mining, utilities, insurance, and accommodation and food services industries.
Yet, despite the amount of capital and opportunity arts and cultural production has to offer, many of us are familiar with the age-old “starving artist” stereotype—this idea that creatives don’t (and shouldn’t) have any interests in practical business development. Creatives are often encouraged to shy away from skills assigned to the “right-brained,” like financial planning, budgeting and business development.
For Austin, Texas-based entrepreneur Ashland Viscosi, this disconnect became the foundation for her own company, Creatives Meet Business. Viscosi launched the project, also referred to as CMBATX, after her experiences working in independent film. She noticed the lack of community infrastructure and professional development in Austin’s creative scene and decided it was time to bridge the gap. So, for the last three years, Viscosi has hosted everything from meet-ups to workshops to goal-planning sessions, all centered around spurring financial sustainability for artists and creatives.
With her company’s annual conference, the Creatives Meet Business Experience, coming up, I chatted with Viscosi about her experience straddling different communities, working as a cultural producer and creating entrepreneurial programming.
Ashland ViscosiAshland Viscosi
Jane Claire Hervey: Let’s start with a basic, simple question—how would you describe who you are and what you do?
Ashland Viscosi: I love this question! I describe myself as a connector. I help connect people with each other and with knowledge. I care about creating a connected and empowered community and all of the programming I curate and produce, as well as the workshops I teach, are toward this goal. Under the Creatives Meet Business umbrella, I do several things. Our roundtable events provide insights and knowledge into how to be successful and sustainable in creating and growing a business (even if it’s a business of one). In addition to learning, these events are all about connecting attendees—creatives and entrepreneurs from all different backgrounds—with each other. Our podcast is created from content from these events and is a great way to learn or refresh yourself on every business topic under the sun. Then, there’s our annual three-day extravaganza that’s right around the corner, The Creatives Meet Business Experience, or CMBXP for short. It’s everything that we do on steroids! Over the course of three days, there are 51 hands-on workshops, mentorship sessions, and nightly happy hours that are all about helping attendees connect meaningfully with each other and learn the skills they need to thrive in business.
Hervey: So, when it comes to merging the biz and creative worlds, what do you find most interesting about the overlap? What comes from intentionally exchanging information between these two spaces?
Viscosi: In actuality, I don’t think there’s all that much that divides these two worlds, and I hope that my programming can help expose that. Everyone, regardless of industry, is creating something and looking for a way to make a living from it. There’s so much that unites everyone from that struggle. There are separate norms or sets of rules, but fundamentally, the struggles of being in business are all the same.
I love the lightbulb moment that folks experience when they realize that, yes they’re a creative, and yes they’re an artist, but they’re also a small business owner. Every exchange we can have between these worlds helps to minimize the gap between them. This space between worlds is also a great place for collaboration. You never know what kind of friendships, work opportunities, partnerships, and collaborations can emerge from mixing these worlds.
Hervey: You yourself are a multihyphenate creative. What sorts of projects are you working on now, and how did you get into creating experiences for others to learn, engage and share?
Viscosi: At the moment, my biggest project is CMBXP (Creatives Meet Business Experience) as we’re days away from this year’s event. One thing that makes CMBXP extra special is how intimate it is. By limiting the attendance to 300, attendees are better able to connect with the content and better able to create meaningful connections. It’s important to me to maintain the intimacy as it’s a special feature of the experience, but I do have plans to grow it. Instead of increasing attendance and making the Austin event larger, my goal is to provide resources regionally. I’ve been spending time in Portland, Oregon, determining if it’s the right next place to expand into.
How I got into creating experiences is a different story. I went through the Leadership Austin Emerge program back in 2014 and learned so much about myself from the process. I’ve always had a knack for building relationships and a really supportive network for myself, but that no longer felt like enough. Every now and again, I would find myself reflecting on the immortal words of Ben Parker (Spider-Man’s uncle): “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” I felt like it was no longer adequate to create a network for myself, I wanted to help others have that, too. Once I learned that my truest and deepest passion is helping others feel included and part of a community, everything else fell into place from there. My North Star, so to speak, with all of my programming and everything I do is to maximize connectivity, help knock down the walls that divide us, and create a space that everyone feels like they’re a part of.
Hervey: And how does that translate into your upcoming conference, the Creatives Meet Business Experience?
Viscosi: I’ve produced and been a part of the production team or staff for several conferences, festivals, and 800+ attendee galas. It was the morning after a three-day event I’d produced and I was driving to a meeting. Usually, my thoughts, if I’m capable of having any after the sheer exhaustion of it all, would center around being so glad the event was over. But that’s not what happened. Instead, there was this thought that hit—why do I keep helping others grow and develop their businesses but not focus some of that energy toward my own? While still driving to the meeting, I’d mapped out what I thought my audience would most want and had a framework for a three-day event by the time I parked.
CMBXP excites me in so many ways. I’m able to connect experts and thought leaders with an audience that’s thirsty for resources and support but do it in a way where they’re approachable. It also feels like summer camp, there are amazing opportunities to learn and grow, but the element I’m most proud of is how easy it is for attendees to meet and connect with each other. And they stay connected. Some have created sketch groups, others get together once a month for brunch, others now work together.
Creatives Meet Business Experience / Workshop in 2017.© David Brendan Hall / davidhallphotog.com
Hervey: In your experience, what makes an event most successful? Logistically and programmatically?
Viscosi: Listening to your audience! I don’t operate inside of a vacuum. I’m always interested and excited to hear from past and current attendees about what will improve their experience, however great or small. Whether they’re sharing about a venue being too warm or wanting a certain type of workshop included in future years, I always want to hear it. I do everything in my power to be as available to people as I possibly can be, whether that’s in person, text message, email, or social media.
Hervey: Speaking to your journey with Creatives Meet Business, what’s your best bit of bootstrapping advice?
Viscosi: Running a business is an iterative process. I constantly measure, tweak and adjust things. I know I mentioned it earlier, too, but a big piece of that is listening to your audience. They’re why I do what I do and I want to make sure my services and events are in alignment with their needs.
Oh, and one more thing. Celebrate your successes. It’s so easy to move onto the next thing, but before you do, take a breath and find something that you can actually do to celebrate what you’ve accomplished. My favorite way I’ve stopped and celebrated was drinking a bottle of wine I’d purchased on a family trip. I bought it just for that occasion—to celebrate completion of the first CMBXP—and it was a magical way to take a moment and reflect on what I’d actually just created.
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