From Studio Hustle to Running with Numbers: #AnotherWay towards Creative Prosperity

For years now, it's been clear that people are no longer satisfied with punching the clock at the same company for 25 years. People are changing not only their jobs, but also their entire professions multiple times throughout their life. It is, in fact, an incredible time for those of us who define ourselves as “Renaissance” if we know how to effectively operate in this ecosystem.

For me, shifting my career focus (or rather the path towards achieving my vision) was the smartest move I've ever made; but, it was no doubt a mind-bending endeavor. I went from pursuing a traditional, professional dance career (performing with companies, teaching at studios, and paying the bills with arts admin) to building an innovative accounting consulting firm. I even managed, despite my background, to be one of the “20 Under 40 Superstars” for my new-found industry — a path atypical of a choreographer, with a BA in Dance, and certainly for someone who aspires to remain active as an art maker!

But as my partner Emileena would say, this is a great example of finding #AnotherWay. So, below are six lessons from my journey that can help you to chart your own path towards creative prosperity. And, may your path be as limitless and fruitful as your passion is for the arts:

1. Building a business IS creative work. Get Curious:

Despite their outward differences, making dance and growing a business share the same need for creativity. As a choreographer, for example, you’re tasked with solving problems using the human body. Your mission is to communicate a creative idea through the medium of another human being, which is subject to bio-mechanics, physics, psychology, etc.,; and, you do so with the desire to express something that is boundless, an expression of your truest creative potential.

In short, you are faced with the problem of any creator: to make something (magical) out of nothing in spite of the perceived limitations of your resources (the tools you have available, i.e. the dancers, time, money, etc.).

From this perspective, I see building a business as the same. With the challenges of driving sales, managing finances and navigating compliance, these issues present themselves as an opportunity to continue your exploration as a creative problem solver. The only real differences, in this case, is that the medium has shifted and we are simply working with a different set of "perceived limitations."

As I continued my journey into the business world, tackling each problem with creative curiosity, I painted this blank canvas into the business that I wanted, a.k.a. The SUM Innovation Ecosystem. I leveraged my available resources and put in the time to refine my craft as a business person and omnipreneur. Today, I have came to appreciate the art of making business, and the craft of entrepreneurship, as much as I love the art of making dance.

2. Patience, because huge shifts happen organically and over time:

I didn’t simply pick my next pathway out of a hat. After college, I worked at several nonprofits while I built my contacts and skill sets in the dance and business world. In my last role as a nonprofit manager, the organization helped unemployed and low-income individuals enter the world of accounting through a comprehensive training program. Ultimately, it was in the pursuit of my work as a Development & Communications Director for this agency that I found myself where I am today.

I discovered, as I gained an appreciation for accounting, the potential creative people have if coupled with a true respect for the art of business.  And though some say accounting is the foundation of any great organization, I consider the accountant more akin to an architect. And just like a well-crafted ballet, both accounting & architecture are calculated and precise. Yes, all three of these things can be dull, but only if they lack inspiration, purpose and finely tuned execution.

Discovering the overlap between the art of dance and the role that accounting played in the art of business paved the way for me to effectively own on my role as the CEO.  But, it took time to get to this level of understanding and appreciation. I had to go deep in my practice as a business person to understand how intertwined these worlds could be. In some ways, I’m still on the journey as I work my way towards scaling up my startup dance company, Left Side Labs.

3. Cross boundaries freely with an open mind:

I went from instructing high school dancers in leotards to managing CPA relationships in three-piece suits. And, because I wasn’t tethered to the status quo like so many who’d entered the accounting profession through traditional means, I had no preconceptions of how things could be done. As a result, I found it easier to be creative, to explore my options, to look at what was being done by the best in the field, and to tune-in to current & future trends of the industry.

My blank slate approach made it easier to develop a growth strategy for SUM Innovation with a natural commitment to unconventional methods. This is, in fact, the spirit behind our name. Solving business problems with an open mind, as it turns out, is one of the greatest advantages creative professionals have as they enter into the business world. So go forth fearlessly as you cross those boundaries where #ArtsMeetsBiz.

4. Your “why” keeps you going:

As early as you can, define your “why,” especially if you hope to persevere when the going gets tough. Knowing your Creative Core makes your effort seem less than and keeps you grounded when new experiences threaten to sweep your time & attention away.

For me, it’s as simple as an unrelenting curiosity to integrate all that you do with who you want to become as a full-expressed creative professional. The desire to try and to learn is what drives me forward, because I know I don’t have to be perfect at everything. I just need to be me. And, it’s this thirst for knowledge and the desire to put my best foot forward for my customers and my employees that drives my success in business, and in art.

Understanding what’s behind your intentions will help you survive all the major transition, including the one that asks you to find that ‘other way.’ But a word of caution: don’t let the fear of success be your limitation.

As you embark on your journey, all of the unknowns can create doubt and you may feel discouraged as you work through failure. My best advice to you: find a coach, collaborator, mentor and/or friend to help you move through your growth challenges. They can hold you accountable, check your inauthenticity, and keep you aligned with your true values. Plus, taking time to journal write through these turning points will help to clear the clouds as you remember your “why.”

5. Discover how you learn best & practice the craft of business:

There’s a lot of new information to absorb during a career transition, especially one such as mine; and because you’re playing catch-up, you have to quickly determine how you learn best by exploring a variety of methods. My techniques have included:

  • Reading books & blogs and watching youtube videos.***
  • Leveraging online learning platforms like Udemy or Skillshare
  • Engaging with people/organizations and finding mentors/inspiration in others.
  • Practicing your ideas on a pet-project to learn by doing or volunteering to do things for an organization as you learn (be upfront about that, by the way).
  • Free-writing, mind-mapping, and blogging about the topic (because writing is ‘thinking on paper,’ and it’s helped me to process new info quickly).
  • Teaching what you’ve learned to others.

One day — after constant studying & practice — you’ll find that you may just know more than the next professional. It was shocking to me, for example, how quickly I was able to exceed in my knowledge of accounting technology than some professionals who had been in the business for 20+ years. Again, the artists advantage! (SEE #3 Above)

Remember: You must be aware of what you don’t know. You’re already starting off two steps behind with a move into business, especially if your education focused solely on your non-business craft. Being ignorant of your ignorance puts you another step behind. Business is a craft too, so you have a lot of learning to do if you want a great business that can support your creative spirit in full.

***Comment on this blog if you’re looking for great business book suggestions and videos to watch. Happy to point you in a direction, if it helps!

6. Just because you “should” do something doesn’t mean it’s right for you:

A former coach once told me that “should” can become a dirty word when you’re taking on a big endeavor. I know that I “should,” for example, get an accounting degree if I want to be an “accountant;” but, I’ve discovered that I don’t have to have that in order to successfully lead an accounting firm. “Should” tasks generally come from someone else’s expectations, but the only expectations that matter are your own.

As you evolve in your skill sets, it’s natural to begin forming your identity around your experiences with that skill set; but, you have to be careful not to pigeonhole yourself. Instead of seeing myself solely as a dance artist, for example, I looked at my work as a choreographer and recognized that my talents could be applied to more than just the stage. That’s what this is all about: finding how your skill sets translate across industries and learning what you’re really made of.

And the last thing I’ll say about the dirty word ‘should’ is this: The only thing you “should” do is be great at being YOU! Now, go have fun being the radical, creative entrepreneur that you truly are!

P.S. Are you looking to take your arts-based business to the next level? Not sure how to find #AnotherWay in the world of #ArtsMeetsBiz? Consider enrolling in our Arts Entrepreneurship Incubator Program and/or attending our Meetup Group.

Co-founder of ARTSLAB Mathew Heggem, a.k.a. "The Dancing CEO," is also the CEO of SUM Innovation, an accounting consulting firm that provides services to growing businesses & entrepreneurs. His team of 25 accounting consultants, CFOs, controller, bookkeepers, talent & technology experts, and recruiters help these businesses implement the right accounting solution for their growth & compliance needs. Learn more at www.suminnovation.com.

This article originally appeared in SimplyHired, originally titled “From Dancing to Accounting: Overlap in a Huge Career Change.” It has been updated to reflect new insights. Please comment below and/or share with others on your social channels to help spread the word.