Lessons from the Digital Arts and Culture Accelerator, a 12-week programme to help nine arts organisations become 'investment ready'.
On 15 September, the Digital Arts and Culture Accelerator (DACA) culminated with a showcase held at RBS headquarters in the City of London. Nine projects condensed 12 weeks of intense work into a five-minute pitch to a room full of investors, with the goal of securing support to bring their product or service to a broader market.
DACA was launched in May 2016 by Arts Council England and Nesta, to offer follow-on support to nine alumni of the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. The Accelerator Network worked with this cohort to help turn their ideas for digital products and services into credible business propositions to present to potential investors and business support experts. Over 12 weeks, individuals from each arts organisation worked their way through an intensive syllabus, and then used the summer break to further refine their proposition and bring their colleagues up to speed.
All our participants told us that the accelerator was hard work, but stimulating and rewarding. Along with the high volume of new knowledge to take on board, they faced the concurrent challenge of how to embed this within their organisation.
A feature of the DACA programme that set it apart from other accelerators was that the participants were not ambition-driven tech company founders. They were, in the main, professionals working for arts charities whose mission is to deliver experiences to audiences and visitors week in, week out. Knitting together rapid product and business development with their day-to-day responsibilities called for considerable flexibility in working with colleagues and trustees.
An agile approach has been essential, even within the short life of the programme. Participants were urged from the outset to be open to change, and be prepared to drop closely-held beliefs in the light of new evidence. As the weeks went on, insights into areas such as market opportunities and competition, caused some projects to pivot away from their original proposition. New ideas were given space to emerge - whether in light bulb moments or in a more incremental way. Some rethought their approach to their venture as they understood better the skills and functions required to take it forward. For many, this raised questions that flowed beyond the accelerator project, sometimes to the heart of their organisational mission.
Participants were encouraged to reflect on what resources and structures are needed to build an income-generating product or service to cross subsidise their primary mission. This added a new dimension to existing discussions within arts and cultural organisations about trading activities, such as cafés and shops.
One of the largest shifts was in participants’ thinking beyond their current horizons. Many projects started with a product designed to solve a ‘local’ problem, albeit one that many similar arts organisations face. Through the programme, participants recognised that for a proposition to attract outside investment it must demonstrate a value proposition at scale. This can create tensions if it threatens to exceed the organisation’s core mission, particularly when working within charitable objectives.
The pitch day marked the formal end of the accelerator programme, but for the participants, it also marked the start of the next chapter. All nine organisations are committed taking their products and business plans on to the next stage, and exciting conversations are already beginning with potential new backers and supporters. We will watch with interest where their journey as fledgling entrepreneurs will take them next.
Their ongoing progress will be tracked until March 2017 when Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy will deliver an evaluation report that will share insights from the accelorator with the arts and culture sector.
You can hear more from the projects on their experience of the pitch day and of the 12-week programme in this video.
Image credit: Pixabay CC0 Public Domain