Artful Innovation™ was a five-day course in February 2017 to support small creative technology companies to examine their practice and strengthen their business cases. We're busy working on how we might continue to support artists and creative businesses to develop their entreprenurial skills.

Expert chocolate makers and storytellers Understory were selected to participate in Artful Innovation. Annie Zimmerman from Understory shares her experience.  

The idea of business has always been a bit a bit terrifying to me. Before this course, my view was polarized – I assumed that the corporate world was motivated by monetary success while artists/scientists were martyrs trying to change the world. I am a scientist and, having managed to shy away from having to talk about investors, taxes and audits, was apprehensive about spending five days learning about business development. I run Understory with James and am responsible for the psychological, scientific side. James landed us Artful Innovation and was excited about it, I on the other hand was apprehensive - Why would a business course help my input? How very wrong I was – the last five days has probably taught me more about how to make a difference than I could have ever predicted. Every lesson gave us a wealth of knowledge about a world we knew little about. We were given the space to workshop what we’d learnt at every stage, allowing our business to grow and change literally every hour. By the end of the five days, we were in agreement about what we wanted Understory to be, and strategies for how to realize that vision.

My preconceptions of a Wolf of Wall Street, take-no-prisoners business tycoon were quickly shattered by the wonderful Artful Innovation course leader, Stephen Gatfield. His background in psychology gave the entire course lesson a human feel. He was inspiring, thoughtful and engaging, and answered every one of our incessant questions with clarity. The entire Artful Innovation team encouraged us to challenge our approaches, and did so while remaining constantly supportive. Between the course tutors and other start-ups, we had formed a safe space where we were able to bounce ideas, test crazy thoughts and share any fears and apprehensions.

The unanimous success of the course can largely be attributed to the range and depth of experience held by the experts that we were introduced to. Every single speaker had us scribbling notes and asking questions as we tried to maximize their wisdom. Highlights included Pervasive Media Studio success stories, Sammy Payne from Open Bionics and Paul Archer from Duel. We all felt palpable inspiration after their talks; both gave expert advice on how to tell the story of our businesses and market test our products with a deliberate and intelligent approach. Greg Taylor from Elmwood gave us a memorable performance on how to form a narrative around our brand that is well defined, controversial, and unique. Rohan Gunatillake, founder of Mindfulness Everywhere and Buddhify, lead us on a (much needed) mindfulness practice. The opportunity to spend five days with other start-ups, mentors and experts was extraordinary, and fundamental to the transformations that each of us made.

From start to finish, every exercise taught us how our start-ups could become sustainable and viable businesses. The end of the course culminated in one final, and memorable lesson. We were asked to demonstrate what we had learned by pitching our business to outside investors. Although the feedback was perhaps more real-world benchmark, than we had anticipated, it was a steep learning curve on how best to communicate our story and product to potential partners and investors. This was a great experience that many don’t get the opportunity to have; the chance to make mistakes and, more importantly, learn from them, in a safe and supportive environment.

A running theme of Artful Innovation was interrogating the trade off between being profitable and protecting our artistic integrity. As scientists and artists we tend to arrogantly pride ourselves on being resistant to any desire for monetary success. ‘Selling out’ is possibly the worst insult that can be lobbed at an artist and, as a consequence, the prospect of business development appears to jeopardize our artistic or academic values. What I learnt from Artful Innovation was that turning your practice into a business allows you to maximize the influence of your work. In fact, I would say that framing Understory in a business context actually strengthened our artistic integrity. Applying corporate strategies to our company helped us to find clarity in what we are trying to accomplish, who would benefit from our products and why we want to achieve it. Establishing Understory’s identity and values was a key theme of the course that helped us to strip away any confusing side projects and focus in on what is truly important to us.

Having emerged from this exhilarating, tiring and inspiring whirlpool of information, returning to normal day-to-day work feels like an underwhelming change of pace. I miss the fast pace, adrenaline fueled, research led business planning. To everyone’s great surprise, I’ve started using words like ‘value propositions, ‘angel investors’ and ‘iterative approach’. Testing out my new lexicon, I proudly announced to my housemates that I’d become a business ‘mongrel’, only to have them politely inform me it was in fact called a business ‘mogul’ – turns out I’ve still got quite a bit to learn! Even so, the training we received from Artful Innovation will be invaluable to both my professional and personal development. I am sincerely grateful to have been a part of such a magical experience; I know it will have long-lasting effects on the way I work in the future.

Annie Zimmerman, Understory.

Artful Innovation is a Watershed initiative supported by the Network for Creative Enterprise: Coworking Bath (The Guild), Knowle West Media CentreSpike IslandUWE Bristol and Watershed. It is funded by Arts Council England and the European Regional Development Fund.

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