Each year, students enter art school, eager to learn the skills to succeed as painters, sculptors or graphic designers. Unfortunately, many of those students never turn their talent into a career, even though they've paid top art schools up to $70,000 per year.
"The average tuition at the top 42 art and design schools in North America is actually over $50,000," says Ann Rea, a San Francisco artist who abandoned her own art, partly because of crippling student loans, before eventually finding success.
Rea recently spoke to me about The Making Art Making Money Series, an eight-course training program she offers that turns a student's art career into a startup.
"Students determine their niche and test their value proposition to prospects through a final 'prototype project,'" she says. "They pass their test by selling enough of their art from the final project to cover their tuition, at a minimum. It's a requirement in order to graduate."
The course costs just under $2,000. Students identify prospects, sell them their work, and interview the prospects on why they either bought or did not buy. Students use the feedback to figure out if they're on track.
The course even caught the attention of radio journalist Alex Blumberg, perhaps best known for his work on NPR's "This American Life." He featured Rea on his "Creative Live" class for storytelling on podcasts.
"When you are an artist, and you sell your art, you have a business," Rea says. "You have a micro business. I know that because you have to file a schedule C. You don't get a job as a fine artist. There is some limited number for commercial artists, but if you want to make your art and express yourself there is no job for that."
Questions Around Cost
It's quite the feel-good story. However, Rea gets questioned because her course costs close to $2,000. If she cares so much about artists deep in debt from art school, why is she adding to their overall bill?
"Most of my students are not recent art school graduates," she says. "They are artists who have tried to make a part-time or full time living for decades and they are looking for a better way."
As someone who writes about entrepreneurs and how they build their businesses, I thought this prototype idea was worth diving into more.
"It holds students accountable," she says. "It tests their offerings and confirms their grasp of what they've learned. The results of a student's final project can kick start their art enterprise, test their commitment to their work, or affirm that making art would be better left as a hobby."
Asking the Hard Questions
After hearing that, I was struck with the thought that most entrepreneurs aren't facing these tough questions. They aren't holding their businesses to the same standards that even this art-training program is holding its students. I believe many of today's founders would be better off if they left their startups as a hobby, or just got a job working somewhere else.
How many founders are really holding themselves accountable? How many are actually testing their offerings sufficiently? How many are engaging in activities that confirm their grasp of what they've learned?
Too few. It's not that they don't want to. It's that they don't have the resources, don't know how to go about it, or are convinced they don't need to because they're overconfident. Ultimately, many founders truly just don't know if people want what they offer.
Rea requires the artists to find their own referrals while navigating the tough world of art galleries, local art councils, and more.
Many entrepreneurs struggle to find their own referrals while navigating the harsh startup landscape. They'd do well with someone guiding them in these areas.
Sure there are incubators and accelerators. But not everyone can get into those.
Then there's the joy factor. If you listen to Rea's artists, one of the common themes is that they learned they really loved their art business (or they discovered they didn't).
Which entrepreneurs are learning this right now about their startup? How many are just grinding away because they think people expect them to build their product instead of because they enjoy it? Like it or not, joy is a key component in whether people find success in life or business. What's your joy factor look like right now?
Could this "prototype" idea, or at least just the hard questions that come along with it, be valuable for early-stage entrepreneurs? Could they be valuable even to those who have "friends and family" or other seed round investments?
I say yes. Self-assessment and evaluation is a good thing. It can help you get the perspective you need, or even go in a totally new direction that is a much better fit.