CEO Interview: Alice Loy, CEO and Co-Founder of Creative Startups

Creative Startups describes itself as “a leading acceleration program for creative founders.” Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Alice Loy recently took time out to chat with our editor Bianca Polizzi about how they’re helping creatives see their place in the creative economy and optimize the value of their creativity.

Hi Alice, it’s great to have you with us today. I’d just really love to learn a little bit more about Creative Startups and exactly how it works.

Thanks for having me, Bianca. I appreciate it. I love the work that you guys do at The Farm and it’s been fun getting to know you guys and your team a little.

So Creative Startups, we are the world’s leading accelerator and we offer courses for creatives. We focus entirely on the creative industries. We work with entrepreneurs building immersive entertainment experiences, music studios, digital media advertising, and others. If you are in the creative sector and are building a business, we are more than thrilled to meet and work with you.

We are based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’ve done programs in the Middle East, in Europe, in Asia, and all over the United States. We started the organization in 2007 before there was really a thing called “the creative economy.” Now it’s so fun to see how much the creative economy and the ‘creator economy’ is just booming. It’s so cool!  It was our dream for the longest time, and now to see it blossoming and creatives feeling like they can build businesses wherever they are is amazing. It’s beautiful!

That’s really exciting and so true. It seems to have just suddenly become this cultural shift where everybody’s allowing themselves to be true to their creative selves. I guess that’s down to the fact that you can start your own business now and learn and grow.

I think there’s a bit of rejection, rightfully, of some of the values and ways that people think about entrepreneurship, which honestly were never true. Like the mythology around the “lone cowboy entrepreneur.”

That’s not true. All entrepreneurs build businesses embedded in a community, in a network,  and any successful entrepreneur will tell you that the list of people who helped them get to where they are is too long to even go through.

And that finally has become understood and people are rejecting the (previously embedded) idea. We’re seeing what’s going on with that mythology elevating people like Mark Zuckerberg and others and we’re questioning now, “Really? Are you just not responsible to the rest of us? Because it feels like maybe you should be.”

Creatives have a sense of community and a sense of where their ideas are coming from and that’s people and places and culture and heritage, and now, technologies. Creatives are tied to one another and understand that those connections are what drives humanity forward, so their businesses are different. And now people understand the value of creative businesses.

That actually leads me to my next question. Can you tell me about your team and how you decided to do this? Are you all creatives yourselves, or was it just that you realized that there was a real gap in the market?

It was both. In 2006, I was teaching a business school class of MBA students, and half of them were starting creative businesses. On the first day, I asked everybody to stand up, introduce themselves, and say what’s the business idea they’re considering or already working on.

They’re going through things like, “I want to start a Flamenco dance school” or, “I want to start a playground on the Navajo Nation that is grounded in the Sacred Four directions in the  mountains.” 

I started thinking, “Okay, that’s all cultural and creative!” and I had lined up all these speakers and case studies that were like environmental and public health. They weren’t really culturally creative. That was 15 years ago and looking back now, it’s shocking to think that there was literally no program for cultural and creative entrepreneurs at that time. There was nothing!

So over the past 15 years, little by little, we sort of chipped away and now we offer, across the team, everything from courses like Google Analytics - Emily Hunerwadel is our marketing director - to immersive experience design and profitability - that’s with Andrew Lacanienta. We can do anything around film or digital media, but we don’t teach people about how to be creative. We never do that.

I love that! It has to be passion-driven.


We teach people how to run a business. We innately understand creatives and their perspective and get the challenges they’re grappling with.

On your website, you talk about this huge acceleration program and your venture financing and dedicated business resources. So the idea is that there are two sides to it, if I’m right. One side is about really teaching everybody what they need to know and the other side is then being able to create these courses yourself, right? Am I correct in thinking that?

It’s interesting because of the conversation we had with you guys: you know, coworking space as an incubator. During the pandemic, we’ve had to reimagine their value. Like what we do with our communities - it used to be, sort of, centered on physical space, which was how we all thought about the world in all kinds of ways. 

Now we’re realizing that maybe it’s not just physical space. Maybe it’s sometimes physical space. Maybe it’s also online learning communities. Or it’s just courses that people can get their toe in and see if they’re interested and then maybe move on.    

So we’re working with a select group of coworking spaces as incubators to build courses for their communities. In other words, what do you guys see at The Farm? Or what do we see in Albuquerque if we work with a team down there? What are the needs of the creatives and what would get people being engaged in the incubator or coworking space even though they might not be coming in every day? How do we re-engage in that community? Because again, entrepreneurs need community. It lifts us up. Markets are about community and people and exchange. We can’t do it from our couches. Not entirely, at least.

I wonder if it’s about moving into this digital sphere of networking but it’s so difficult because when you’re in a big group call, it’s hard to voice yourself and even to know when to talk or to know when someone’s talking at you and it can be a little rigid and strange. It would be interesting to see how we would move into that sphere.

We’re fortunate in that we’ve been doing online classes since 2014. When we built our first Accelerator Program back then, we knew that a lot of the creatives who would come to the program were not going to be able to come to a thing every day, like they were building their business. New Mexico is a huge state. We ended up only having half of the entrepreneurs from New Mexico. The rest were from around the US or the world. 

Fortunately, we had built it online and just figured, “Well, we’ll do these group calls.” Zoom wasn’t quite a thing back then. Now it’s really easy with Zoom because we can use breakout rooms. We do facilitator breakout rooms so we can have 40 or 50 people in a class and we do not hear from people, “Oh I felt like I never got to talk at all.” It’s actually super interactive. The trick is our faculty have PhDs in teaching entrepreneurship, which is really important because a lot of people confuse teaching with talking. 

Talking about a subject is not necessarily teaching a subject. Especially with entrepreneurs who tend to learn intuitively and experientially, it’s super important to have a pedagogy where you’re building in constant exploration and then a little bit of explanation. 

The best way to do that is to sort of say, “Okay, here’s a challenge. Go work on that. Come back and share what you learn. Let’s talk about it. Let’s explain and clarify a little bit. And now go work on it some more.” So you’re building your business, but you’re also bringing that knowledge into your body. You didn’t just read it - which is fine - but with entrepreneurs you can’t just read it, you have to do it. 

Our courses are very interactive and we have a lot of fun. They’re accompanied by homework, and we have workbooks that are fun. We have a course right now called Capital for Creators, which demystifies the process of raising money for your business, and we have eight key numbers that you have to know before you can pitch to raise money. And we walk through how you calculate those numbers, and this is easy math. It’s like fifth-grade math! We demystified all of it. 

By the end, people are like, “Yeah, I totally get it. I know what my customer lifetime value is. I know what my conversion rate is. I know what my sales cycle is. I know what my customer acquisition is.” It’s so empowering - and it’s fun!

I guess it’s difficult because as a creative mind, it can be really tough to get your mind around logical, administrative tasks.

Creatives have been lied to forever. “Creatives aren’t good with math.” People don’t say that to me anymore because I do the smackdown. I’m like, “Right, Einstein. Thanks.” I just don’t tolerate the idea that creatives are not mathematically inclined. It’s ridiculous. “Mozart. Thanks!”

If you ever look at the Navajo weaving, a rug. These are generally women weavers who are building the most complex geometric designs from their heads, they just see it. That level of mathematical skill is unreal!  

I can understand that. Music is math. It’s all math. It’s just about sitting down with the stigma that surrounds accountancy and you feel like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that, I would rather paint.” 

That’s exactly what it is. And we shut the stigma out the door,and we’re like, “No!”

You make it fun!

We make it fun! And it really is easy. I’m not like a math person, and I can do all pitch math. If I can do it, anyone can do it.

Are there any requirements for people to join?

That’s a good question because we get approached by folks who ask us, “What is the right course for me?” and we do our best to get them to the right course or accelerator. Our fundamental job is to build confidence. 

If you tell me, “Alice, you’re gonna do a triathlon. So we’re gonna start you with a 3-mile swim in the ocean.” I’m gonna be like, “What?!” and you would just make me immediately feel like a failure, instead of, “How do you feel about swimming half a mile in the pool?”... “Yeah, I can totally do that actually!”

So what we’re trying to do is, we know you can be a world-class entrepreneur but let’s be real about where you’re at right now and identify, “Okay, so it sounds like you’re struggling with going to market. You have this great idea, you have a prototype, you gave it away, people liked it. Now how do you sell it?”

That’s a different place than, “We have half a million in revenues. We think we’ll hit a million next year. But after that, we’re not sure how to grow and we think we need to raise money.”

Those are just really different places. 

You pair them to the right course.

Exactly! Again, so that they come out having swum that half a mile around the pool, feeling ready to now do a mile - and pretty soon they’re going to swim the open ocean! 

It doesn’t happen overnight, but if people start with the right groove and they’re feeling like, “I totally know what I’m doing. I have these amazing advisors. I have a community. I know who to go to when I hit a wall,” they can start to overcome anything.

Do you have a most popular course?

Probably our LABS. Our LABS is kind of our pre-accelerator to a 6-week course. This happens to creatives a lot: they get what we call “lucky revenue” where creatives are often doing something and people are sort of like, “You’re doing what? Would you do that at my birthday party?” or, “Would you bring that over here and set it up at my business?” And they’re like, “God, people are paying me for this. This is weird!” 

And then it occurs to them one day, “Is this a business? Can I quit my job and do this full-time?” And a lot of times the answer is yes, but you need to map out how it becomes a business where you’re ready to say, “Okay, I’m quitting my job. I see predictable revenue. I’m gonna be able to pay my rent for the next year doing this.”   

That stage of business for creatives is really common. And generally, for those, we just tell them, “The LABS is just right for you.”

I find that as well it’s almost like a lot of my friends start small businesses, and it will go awesome because all of their friends and family want to support this new venture. And then suddenly, it dries up and they don’t know what to do with it because all of their immediate ‘target audience’ has already purchased what they’re selling. 

Going back to what you said earlier, there is some amount of stigma around charging money for creativity. “A real artist doesn’t charge money.” Well, that’s so ridiculous, right? Like if I could rock out more to The Weeknd’s music every day, I would, and I would pay way more. 

When you unpack that and say, “No, really. Look around you. Most of the beautiful things in your life were created by an artist and you probably paid for them.” Art costs money. Really great art costs a fair amount of money. And that’s fine because artists should be paid for their work, especially when you look at the value they bring to our lives every day. 

We sort of work to dismiss that right away: you can’t do business if you’re not gonna charge money. This is kind of an insider’s tip: we always say, “We are not interested in hearing about how you’re gonna give your product to people who can afford it.” That is not a business strategy, that’s philanthropy. You do that later, after you’ve figured out your business strategy. A lot of creatives feel concerned that they are leaving people behind, as they should, but the best way for us, as a society, to overcome that is to empower our entrepreneurs who are fundamentally concerned about that so that they’re building a tide that lifts all boats. Because right now, we’re investing, as a society, in entrepreneurs who really don’t care about the rest of us. We need to stop that and invest in entrepreneurs who do care about everyone.

I know it’s called Creative Startups but how do you quantify ‘creative’?

We used to get hammered on that a lot, and people would say, “Aren’t all entrepreneurs creative?” I don’t know. I guess. I haven’t met all entrepreneurs. I would say, “All human beings have a capacity to be enormously creative,” so certainly entrepreneurs have a capacity to be enormously creative. I love entrepreneurs building any kind of business, it’s exciting for me. So actually, all entrepreneurs tend to be creative, yes, but there are creative sectors as designated by the World Bank, the UN, and the US Department of Commerce. 

If we do a study, for example, on the impact of the creative industry in the Southwest US,  we go in and we select what the Department of Commerce calls our creative sector. Now where this gets complicated is, “Is GoPro a creative company or a tech company?”

That’s a good question! I would say a tech company…

I don’t think so.  

Interesting!

I think we’ve started to confuse the term ‘tech company’ with ‘high-growth company.’ I would say it’s a creative high-growth company that looks, in its financial statements, an awful lot like a tech company.  

We have Meow Wolf here in New Mexico, and many years ago, we were their first investor. We have seen their growth firsthand. Some people are tempted to call it a tech company. It is not a tech company. They are a collective of artists. They are clear about who they are and what they do. But when you look at their finances, they look like a tech company. It looks like a high-growth company.

Is Disney a tech company or a creative company?

Oh gosh! I would go for creative, but I just don’t know.

Right? I know! What’s exciting, honestly, Bianca, is that thank goodness, some of these old paradigms just don’t matter anymore, like “who cares?” So what we say to people is “Describe why you consider yourself to be a creative and how you would bring that creativity in your business.” And we have had people who would literally then write in their application “I don’t think I’m very creative.” Out of maybe 5,000 applications, we’ve had about 3 like that.  

Just on that note, so people apply to do the courses?

Some programs, people apply to. Others have a fee. It’s just varied.

Just to summarize and finish up, so if anybody wants to contact you and apply, how do they do that?    

They can email me via [email protected]. I will respond to any creative entrepreneur who asks for a 20-minute phone call. I understand firsthand the challenges around building a business and sometimes how lonely and scary it can feel. I get a lot out of those phone calls because every conversation with an entrepreneur opens my mind to a new part of the industry or to a new challenge that I can help people figure out. So those 20 minutes are valuable for me and hopefully, maybe, helpful for entrepreneurs who reach out.

I’m sure of it! Thank you so much for your time and energy and for your knowledge. This has been a really interesting segment. 

Thank you for inviting us! 

For creative entrepreneurs who want to learn more about Creative Startups, you can go visit their official website. You may also check them out on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube

Author:

@Mark Rosario

Date:

11-01-2021

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