Adventures in Creative Entrepreneurship at Denver Startup Week

DSW Ambassador: Jon Shadel

If you want to put a roomful of creative professionals on edge, simply start talking about financing.

Such conversations almost always hit on the tension between artistic expression and commercial opportunity — conjuring the binary stereotypes of the sellout and the starving artist. It’s a common unease in the arts and letters, but certainly not a new one.

The history of creative disciplines is as much about aesthetics as it is about economics, from aristocratic patronage and royal scribes all the way to Etsy and Patreon today. There’s a reason that formal portraits and religious scenes fill entire art textbooks; it’s not that painters of old were obsessed with portraying the rich, powerful and sacred, though some invariably were. The primary catalysts were patrons with money in their pockets. Artists had the skills and aesthetics they desired. In simple terms, it’s supply and demand as much as it is benevolence and altruism.

Creativity is, of course, not all about money. That’s crude reductionism. But capital indisputably enables the professional act of creation. The bones of these financial arrangements haven’t changed too much in the past few centuries.

A similar dynamic is at play in our present era of digital disruption — that delicate balancing act of staying true to the vision of a creative venture while building a sustainable business model to fund it. Creative entrepreneurs today rely on a vast network of patronage (e.g., members, subscribers, crowdfunding, contracts with major brands, influencer campaigns, angel investors, venture capital and so on).

This is the topic that recently defined my days at this year’s Denver Startup Week.

Designer Track session at DSW 2018

I traveled to the Mile High City in September with a cohort of several dozen entrepreneurs, startup mavens and tech-industry insiders. I was honored to attend as a 2018 Ambassador, a program that brings talent from across the country to Denver each year to experience the largest event of its kind in North America.

What immediately appealed to me about Denver Startup Week is its interdisciplinary and inclusive nature. The different “tracks” include events that specifically focus on creative founders, design and craft, and the business of creativity, from art and media to beauty and apparel.

My schedule revolved around the design and founder tracks, as I’m currently in the early phases of launching an editorial subscription platform. A genderqueer editor and producer based in Portland, Oregon, I have experience working with many top media outlets; I was the senior editor at one of the Pacific Northwest’s leading publishing companies, and I’ve consulted with a range of brands on editorial strategy and content development. But most of all, I’ve dipped my toes in entrepreneurship before, which means I’ve learned from many mistakes. I came to Denver Startup Week looking forward to connecting not only with the other Ambassadors but also networking with founders and investors who have worked in a similar space.

Turns out, Denver’s burgeoning creative scene was the ideal environment to grapple with the nitty-gritty issues of bringing a concept to life. Denver is well known for its growing tech economy. Having only ever flown over the Rockies or changed planes at the Denver International Airport, I was surprised to discover the city also has a rich creative community, something the myriad murals and street art hint at.

A series of workshops and events — several sponsored by international accelerator Creative Startups — specifically addressed the nuances of such ventures: For example, a standout forum at the University of Colorado’s Denver Business School outlined relevant paths to funding, with a panel of investors present to answer granular questions. An informal Q&A at Backstage Coffee featured some of the artists behind Santa Fe’s wildly successful Meow Wolf, which recently announced a new experiential art space coming to Denver in 2020.

Meow Wolf CEO and Founder, Vince Kadlubek, at the DSW Kickoff Breakfast

There is no single solution to the many challenges founders in this sector face. Meow Wolf’s success has as much to do with their tact in marketing to curious audiences as the magic of immersive art. But even as their organizational culture evolves as they grow far beyond the borders of New Mexico, Meow Wolf succeeds commercially by kindling the unconventional spirit that brought the artist collective together in the first place.

The big-picture takeaway? Winning creative startups do not sacrifice their artistic vision to find commercial success — they fan the flames.