Bryna O’Neill is a co-founder and CMO of Theatre Galleria. She maintains an active singing career and has performed internationally at Universal Studios Japan and with the USO Show Troupe.
This post is part of the NYU Summer Launchpad blog series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way. Learn more about the NYU Summer Launchpad 2016 participants here.
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane!…No…It’s Progress Redefined
While you may have dismissed this scrawling as either a loser’s Pictionary entry or a kindergartner's self-portrait, I submit to you that these nonsensical scribbles double as one of the most accurate, graphical representations of the birth of a startup… at least for Theatre Galleria.
At the onset of our startup journey, my co-founder Jackie Kroeger and I believed we had a clear, linear path to success. We had identified the problem and the perfect solution, and all we needed to do was to execute. In our vision, we would be hailed as saviors of the theatre industry, rescuing it from its antiquated methods of sourcing props, sets, and costumes.
The reality of execution turned out to be a very humbling process. Unbeknownst to us, we had skipped the necessary “scribble” phase of our customer and product development.
Within our first week of Summer Launchpad, our projections about what our path to success would look like were quickly dismantled. To paraphrase Steve Blank, start-ups are not smaller versions of the existing, large corporations we aspire them to be. Startups are meant to reside in the search and customer discovery phase until problems and their accompanying solutions are proven many times over. The linear path we had previously delineated for Theatre Galleria had to be abandoned in exchange for the messier trajectory of research and validation.
The Value of Knowing What You Don’t Know
Entrepreneurs enter their respective market space under the presumption that they are the EXPERTS. We were certainly no different. As a performer in the theatre industry, I was a first-hand witness to the problems we were trying to solve and, coupled with my co-founder's background, had the connections to immediately distribute our one-stop-shop solution.
The problem with the presumption of being an expert is that it can lead to a dangerously static mindset that immobilizes the continued development of expertise.
This is not to discredit the expertise that we do bring to the table, but it is truly invaluable to recognize that there’s more to know beyond your own purview of experience. Acknowledging what you don’t know makes you that much more receptive to experiences other than your own and a continued learner of your space.
We would have been spared a lot of our initial frustration had our decisions been rooted in the collective customer expertise and not our own.
Reframing Your Progress
There have been times in our startup journey when we seemingly hit a dead end, with nothing but piles of failed ideas and decisions left in our wake. (There’s nothing like facing a load-out of 150 theatre seats that weigh as much as you do to make you question all of your life choices).
In these awful, yet often hilarious, moments, we’ve been able to regain our stride through the power of recontextualizing perceived failures. This goes beyond “learning from one’s mistakes.” This is the mental reframing of stopping-points as markers of progress.
As a performer, redefining success comes with the territory. There are fewer traditional indicators of progress, so it becomes necessary to reframe experiences so that momentum isn’t completely lost.
This mental reframing has been incredibly useful in the nascent stages of our startup. It can be difficult to feel a sense of progress when customer discovery and research is an iterative and unglamourous process.
Much of our time has been spent going back to the drawing board or abandoning decisions that were based on untested hypotheses. Our successful navigation through this process has required an active commitment to mentally designating moments of progress. You can only proceed with sheer will and brute force for so long. At a certain point, you have to create your own momentum to carry you through to the next breakthrough.
Theatre Galleria’s journey thus far may often play out like scenes from the Odd Couple–with bits of physical comedy thrown in–however, I view it as progress.