Sundance Co//ab: Reflections at One Year

I love and hate running a start-up. It is harder by significant multiples than I ever remember at the start, much in the same way that women describe forgetting the pain of labor in between children. One has to forget, in both cases, to be willing to take this on again. Whenever I am not working on a startup it is so easy to look back and recount the high and low moments with humour and perspective. But, it is being in the moment, with all its intensity and immediacy, that is the true pile of human catnip that lures me back; hoping that experience, past and current insights, and not a small amount of luck will prevail and we will find ourselves in the 10% of startups that do succeed. I am fortunate to be building this current startup as a mission-driven initiative that does not have the same revenue pressures that a for-profit would, but we share the pressure of making something that meets the needs of our audience in the ways they need them met. Although it is early days still, and I am keenly aware that so much can go wrong, right now there are little green shoots that suggest this might be true for us, keeping us fired up and truly excited to start again every morning no matter what the previous day held.

I am not the first person to say all of that about startup life, and I have very little to offer by way of new insights, but I can share my observations of why, so far, Sundance Co//ab, is working. They are factors that I have observed before in common with other ventures that were successful, some of which are in my control, some not. They may not be a pattern but I do think they are similar enough to be worth noting (with a healthy dose of scepticism).

They are:

We have unbelievable access to creative vision and talent.
Sundance Institute has been supporting artists for decades and the belief in, love for, and experience in developing artists powers everything we do. We are unbelievably fortunate to have access to so many incredible thinkers and artists (including my incredible partner in all this, Michelle Satter.)

We understand exactly what we are trying to make.
Our goal is clear to us: create a space for artists to develop work in progress and help them to make the best piece of work that they can. We simplify against that mission every day to make sure we are only doing the things that will really achieve that goal. We know who we hope to be, and also who we are not, and how we might partner with others who have different but compatible ways of achieving the same thing.

Our target audience has similar needs, no matter who or where they are.
This is giant. We are not trying to solve for a multitude of needs — just the same need, met in multiple ways.

We have a kick-ass team and really smart advisors.
Having the right people in the right roles is huge. Access to talented advisors who can bring the insight and perspective that we lack due to the myopia of the work is critical. They are more experienced, more skeptical and each brings specific expertise in their own areas and we need that.

We have the space to experiment with autonomy.
We are a part of an incredible organization that believes in us, supports us, invests in us, and gives us the room to experiment and try. It means we can move quickly to succeed or fail.

This one is personal. I was this target audience early on in my career and know them from the inside out.
Solving a problem that I personally had, not a small problem, but a gaping hole of a problem, gives me insight and perspective that no amount of research can replace.

There is a final factor that maybe isn’t as universal but is necessary for me, and that is a sense of mission, that together we are working toward something that can have a real impact for artists and, we hope, lift them up so that the world can hear their voices. Whatever the many mundane and difficult things are that I will do today, that is my real job and I feel a deep sense of responsibility to those artists of this world who, despite all the difficulties in doing so, devote their lives to raising their own voices to tell the stories that bring us all together and make us collectively better. Now more than ever. There is simply nothing better than that and I hope that in another year’s time I’ll be able to say more about the ways in which we were able to make this all happen. Until then — it’s back to the grind and the catnip.