During the second semester of my final year here at Oberlin, I took on two large projects, one being my senior recital and the other being a benefit concert for Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless that my friend Jenny Huang and I organized ourselves. Organizing this concert was a learning experience in itself, unlike any class I had ever taken at Oberlin. It was my first big step into creating my own career and being my own advocate.
I believe that being your own advocate and bringing entrepreneurial skills to whatever work you’re doing is so important in today’s world. The idea for a benefit concert started in the fall of 2017. Jenny Huang and I were enrolled in a course called Intro to Entrepreneurship with Bara Watts. Inspired by many of the concepts we discussed in class, I wanted to get out of the practice room and bring music out into the community. I wanted to learn more about how to be my own entrepreneur and make this my Winter Term project.
Step One: A talk with Entrepreneurship Director Bara Watts about how to go about organizing a benefit concert. The first thing we did was make a checklist of my responsibilities, talk about how to get connected with nonprofits and a venue, and figure out how to set a monetary estimate. I started off with unrealistic expectations: “We’re going to get 500 people and fill a huge space.” However, I believe it is still better to start out big and be ambitious rather than fall short. Bara Watts also encouraged me to apply for the LaunchU Business Start-Up Program: a free 2-week boot camp that takes place during Winter Term and finishes with a pitch competition.
Step Two: A partner. After deciding that I wanted to turn this project into a business model and participate in the LaunchU Business Program, I realized that this was not something that would be easy to do by myself. My friend Jenny was interested in partnering with me on this. Because we were already best friends, we had to draw up a partner agreement in order to clarify our roles in the business and keep things professional. Bara Watts told us that business partnerships that start as friendships are sometimes the most unstable… we were determined to succeed in both relationships.
Step Three: Connecting with a nonprofit. After lots of research, we decided we wanted to work with Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless for this benefit concert. I got in contact with a board member through LinkedIn, and we then set up a meeting with the Executive Director at their office in Cleveland. I was drawn to Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless because of their focus on the long-term issues surrounding homelessness. Their work is centered on giving the homeless a voice in politics and within the community, as well as working toward changing policies in the city which hinder the homeless. Before we met with the Executive Director, we were both very nervous, but we realized that our idea was more valid than we were giving it credit for. Our first meeting was a step in the right direction.
Step Four: Connecting with a venue. Because I worked as organist at Bay Presbyterian Church for a year and loved the congregation there, it was my first choice for the benefit concert venue. We met with Sharon from Bay Presbyterian Church to discuss the idea, along with the executive director of Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. By this point, I was thinking more realistically about turnout. Bay Presbyterian Church is unique in that it holds two different sanctuaries: one that holds about 200 people and another that holds 700-800. We decided on the smaller venue. Bay Presbyterian Church was extremely generous and offered their sound and video facilities for us to use, along with the drumset we needed for our jazz combo.
Step Five: Applying for grants. During the month of December, we applied for some Winter Term grants and discussed where else we could look for funds to put on this concert and pay for marketing expenses. Applying for grants, we learned, is time-consuming and takes a lot of effort, oftentimes without much result. We got a small grant from the Bonner Center which really helped us out; however, we didn't receive any of the other grants we applied for. This was also the stage when we began to figure out our own individual roles within this business project. I was more drawn towards the writing and marketing aspects, whereas Jenny took on the budget and the calculations.
Step Six: Research. Building a business or even just developing a large project like our benefit concert demands a great awareness of what others are accomplishing in the field. We familiarized ourselves with other music organizations in the Cleveland area, such as the Cleveland Orchestra, City Music, Apollo’s Fire, and others. We also found an organization called Music for Food, which held professional concerts to fundraise for food banks. We studied the aspects that made these organizations successful. We also did research on seemingly unrelated businesses: Goodwill, Airbnb, Uber, Amazon, and so forth. I became so absorbed in learning how successful businesses worked that I began listening to podcasts like Planet Money.
Our next research step was actually calling up nonprofits and getting more information about how nonprofits fundraise, how much of their revenue comes from fundraising, what kinds of events they hold, where they spend their money, and so forth. My job was to get in contact with the Directors of Development and Marketing from a handful of Cleveland nonprofits and collect this kind of qualitative data over the phone. I even expressed our business model to some of them and received further thoughts, impressions, and was able to more accurately gauge the level of interest.
We also spoke with as many people as we could about our advertising options. We connected with the Oberlin Arts Center, Oberlin Business Partnership, and Cathy Strauss in the Conservatory Communications Office among many others within the Oberlin area and beyond.
Step Seven: LaunchU. During the LaunchU, we weren’t as focused on this individual benefit concert as we were on the business that could result from it. We learned so many things. We began by crafting a more sophisticated business model. At first, our idea was merely to hold benefit concerts featuring Oberlin Conservatory musicians and benefitting various nonprofits in the Greater Cleveland area. However, our business model transformed enormously. We added a gig service element and created something that, on paper, looked a lot more financially sustainable. During LaunchU, we also listened to many speakers, learned about accounting, marketing, law, created a logo and a business pitch, did research, and developed a strong foundation in the essentials of creating a business. After the LaunchU boot camp, we pitched our business idea in front of a row of investors at the Apollo Theater. We also had to answer 2 hours of questions.
Step Eight: Date and program. After LaunchU, we needed to set a date. It took a lot of schedule planning craziness but we finally settled on April 7th.
Step Nine: Marketing design. Next, we worked on designing a poster and such to aid us in our advertising efforts. Neither of us is an artist, but the job got done.
Step Ten: Sponsors. To put on the event and pay for our expenses, we asked for help from various businesses in the Bay Village, Oberlin, and nearby communities. We worked with Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to draft an appropriate letter and different monetary sponsorship levels. Although we received five significant monetary donations to the event, we found that even more companies were interested in sponsoring items to go towards something like an event raffle.
Step Eleven: Program. To be honest, we waited pretty long to solidify this. It was more difficult than we expected to find 1. An appropriately diverse set of performing groups and instrumentation, 2. People who were all available at 4:30 on April 7th, and 3. Groups that could perform pieces that were highly accessible to non-classical audiences. We ended up with a great program: a string quartet, Jenny and myself at the piano, a baritone vocalist, and a jazz combo. Each group had about fifteen minutes of music ready to go, which was the perfect amount to keep the audience engaged.
Step Twelve: The Event Goes Live! We were worried at first, because there weren’t as many ticket sales as we had hoped in the beginning. However, we soon realized that this is a natural part of selling tickets. As time progressed, we were surprised by the large number of sponsors that were eager to support us.
Step Thirteen: Advertising. We called and emailed several radio stations with our PSA for the event; we added it to event calendars and put our fliers around the Bay Village area. We emailed everyone we know. I also visited Bay High School to talk with the students there about the event. We put it into bulletins at churches and two weeks before the concert we made daily posts on Facebook featuring the musicians’ biographies. Advertising was a beast.
Step Fourteen: Event logistics. I had to design the fliers, collect advertisements from all of our sponsors, print, purchase food for the event and ask for volunteers, give the musicians all of their information, order the musicians along with speakers from Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless on their experiences with homelessness, communicate with Bay Presbyterian Church about setup and so much more. We obviously had to communicate with Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless about who was bringing what, how we would set up the raffles, and more.
Step Fifteen: Putting on the concert. The day of the concert was packed with running around trying to make sure everything was in place. We were so lucky to have all the help that we did, with volunteers running tickets, helping design the raffles, and donating food to the reception. With all of the setup that had to be done, naturally, there were certain things that went forgotten. It was so bizarre to sit in the audience and watch everything play out as it did. It felt so unnatural to sit there and let the concert unfold without any more meddling. However, we were so happy with how the concert turned out. We had about 70 people there and raised more than $2,000 for Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. The musicians played wonderfully, and the homeless speakers brought all of their authenticity to the event.
I learned so many things from putting on this concert, but some of the biggest were:
- Making decisions took up a great deal of time.
- As I re-read all of these steps, it looks like so much less work than it actually felt. I realize that so much of the time that we spent planning this was spent on figuring out tiny details, making decisions about ticket prices, formatting fliers correctly, and other related responsibilities. Because we hadn’t found a structure or a routine yet, things took longer than they should have. Sometimes I felt very bogged down by the most mundane tasks. But this is what happens.
- The opportunity cost of asking for sponsorship has to be measured.
- Raffle sponsorship was great, but the effectiveness is in the hands of the audience. We received an incredible number of sponsors for our raffles. While we appreciated the generosity so much and knew we had some incredibly attractive raffle items, the actual income that we earned from the raffles was probably not equal to the opportunity cost that was given in all the communication, sponsorship letters and emails, and amount of time driving around picking up the donations and items. Almost everyone at the event entered the raffles; people were very excited. But we learned that raffles would be even more effective in larger settings.
- To build something great, you have to be okay with taking on the most mundane of tasks to get there.
- There were so many things that I felt were not always worth my time and many tasks that I felt like I wasn't the most equipped to perform in comparison to others. I also found that things take a lot more time the first time around. Once you've gotten the hang of it and have developed a structure, they start to play out themselves. Of course, you also get more tired.
- You have to be bold.
- The most significant way that I’ve grown from this experience is in learning that I have the world in my hands. Sending an email or phone call goes a long way. The business world is held together by the relationships we have with others. I don’t usually have confidence in my own ideas, but in this setting, I had to be. To get anything done, I had to push forward, no matter what fear I had that the results wouldn’t turn out as planned or that I had made a wrong decision along the way. I discovered that if I had a vision, I just needed to test it. When I wanted something done, I needed to do it. The world isn’t waiting for you, so why wait for it?
I feel different after putting together this benefit concert and trying to build a business. After the concert, I had a large amount of school work to catch up on and had to put the business to the side. Perhaps I will continue this work in the future, but either way, I know that everything I did has been like enrolling in a course in itself. I have learned that I am only as small as I make myself. I now know that pushing forward is the only way to know which direction is forward. Thanks to my Entrepreneurship teacher and mentor, who has been there to push me, encourage me, and educate me the entire way, I feel like I have become so much more unashamedly myself. Even more importantly, I feel like I have promoted positive change. I brought people together for an afternoon of inspiring music and education on the issue of homelessness in Cleveland. I helped raise funds for an organization which I know will use those funds well. No matter what the future holds, I can at least be happy with that stride in itself.
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May 7, 2021