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Risk, iteration and mastery: Fostering entrepreneurship in the arts through the Digital Arts and Culture Accelerator

The Digital Arts and Culture Accelerator was a pilot programme of next stage support for projects from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. This intervention was designed specifically to help projects explore investment readiness and economic viability with the aim of attracting new forms of finance beyond traditional routes. This one-off initiative will allow Arts Council England and Nesta to test how the accelerator model, which is now common in other sectors of business innovation, might work for the arts and cultural sector more generally.

The core Digital Arts and Culture Accelerator (DACA) syllabus – the Arts Accelerator Academy – leveraged training content from The Accelerator Network’s (TAN) pre-accelerator Fast Forward and 12-week Accelerator Academy programmes. The nine participants came into the process with ideas at different stages of development, from award-winning R&D projects, to working prototypes and unproven concepts. Motivations also varied and it was clear from the outset that equity investment was not appropriate for most. What our pioneers all displayed was a deep curiosity, willingness to learn, faith in the process and mastery in their respective fields. We were off to a promising start.

Adopting the startup mindset

The accelerator process equipped participants with a roadmap to discover, test and build their new venture in real time. And in this respect it is quite unique. It takes a user-led, action focused and iterative approach to formulating and validating a value proposition, which enables business model design and the eventual investment ask. The initial focus was on starting with the user, not the end product and testing how this works in real life, in situ, and reiterating the product based on this. This is an unusual change for arts organisations and doesn’t tend to be how they naturally conduct day-to-day operations. Each weekly sprint provided tools to develop the insights needed to define the opportunity, demonstrate demand for differentiation, prove the concept and evidence commercial interest.  

It was a steep learning curve and challenged participants to really interrogate their propositions from the investor perspective. Design thinking and visual tools such as empathy maps, user personas and the Venture Design Canvas were introduced to aid the process and were well received. Exercises such as designing interview questions for users and completing legal checklists helped make each milestone practical and implementable. The Socratic rather than prescriptive approach was thought provoking, but uncomfortable at times, often challenging long-held assumptions and revealing a real culture clash between commercial and not-for-profit perspectives.

Creating time, space and networks

The fixed-term nature provided an intensive and immersive learning experience that demanded enormous drive, commitment and energy to complete. Taking time out from business as usual is essential and necessary. But because the model is designed with startup founders in mind (who are committed full time to their venture) the pace and time commitment posed challenges for most participants. The experience in this format is not for the fainthearted with one participant describing it as “An entrepreneurial odyssey over 12 weeks!”

Creating a community of practice was an important goal for us as facilitators to activate the group’s collective ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. Each week sparked critical debate on the topic of the day and created space for collective problem solving. Like other accelerators, DACA was able to harness the power of the extensive TAN network to create an interdisciplinary community of coaches, speakers, mentors, investors, technologists and other creative and cultural pioneers. Bringing a range of experience, expertise and viewpoints to bear, from outside of the arts, was a key benefit that future accelerator programmes in this space should aim to model.

Onboarding and intrapreneurs

In addition to mentoring from seasoned entrepreneurs, DACA offered wrap around coaching from Paul Sturrock and myself. The demand for one-to-one support was greater than we’d anticipated and support to develop insights from data, as well as assistance with internal onboarding, were both common issues. Those participants who were either decision-makers themselves or secured internal champions from the outset tended to show the most progression - an important lesson for intrapreneurs that are blazing a trail. It also raised important questions about how we empower, incentivise and reward employees that are driving ideas forward.

The discipline of refining a proposition into a five-minute pitch – backed up by a business plan and due diligence - enabled participants to tell a confident, compelling and powerful story by the end of the process. Not only was this essential for attracting investors and partners, but also to pitch the opportunity back to the host or parent charity.

What next?

In my view DACA was a success on many levels, while highlighting the need for a series of interventions geared towards a diversity of funding and finance options. Arguably those arts innovators with the desire and potential to secure investment are well served by the mainstream startup infrastructure. Yet innovation challenges, pre-accelerators and accelerator/incubator hybrids could all create a valuable pipeline of support for others developing new products and services in the arts.  

All of the DACA participants have become Accelerator Academy alumni, joining a vibrant startup eco-system and creating legacy beyond the life of the pilot. But the entrepreneurial journey really begins here. It’s worth remembering that an intervention like this is as much as an investment in people as it is projects and organisations. Developing the aptitude, confidence and intuition to act in the face of uncertainty is an essential entrepreneurial trait and one that I’ve seen flourish in participants over the past weeks and months as a result of DACA. That combination of risk, iteration and mastery are arguably the features of both great art and great entrepreneurship. So what really excites me now is the scope for future versions of the DACA experiment to unlock this potential, supporting more entrepreneurial leaders and game-changers in the arts.

Author

Ellen O'Hara

Ellen O’Hara is a freelance creative and cultural strategist, SFEDI accredited coach, facilitator and published researcher. Working with creative people and organisations, she applie...