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Artists know how to innovate

Posted by Chad O'Connor  March 5, 2014 06:00 AM

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[The We are the Creative Industries series: The Creative Industries - video game companies, design, marketing and architecture firms, and talented people who write books, design houses, shoot movies, make art and record music, just to name a few examples - are an important part of Massachusetts' economy, with $1 billion statewide impact and over 100,000 workers. Click here to learn more.]

Whenever I tell an established business owner that I'm an artist who just launched a start-up, I often get some version of the same kindly-meant question. "You do know a business is supposed to make money, right?"

I suppose I can't blame them for thinking all artists are impractical dreamers. Artists have similar silly assumptions about business people: that running a business must be a soul-numbing exercise, a cold and boring pursuit.

Why did no one tell me? Running a business is a wildly creative endeavor. Every day is different, with new problems to solve. What's more, the traits I've developed as an artist - such as risk-taking, perseverance, and careful observation - have proved surprisingly useful in business.

I spent 15 years working as a fine artist, painting murals for the luxury residential market. A few years ago, my computer artist/genius husband figured out a trade-secret way to copy my murals at life-size and print them onto rolls of canvas wallpaper. I launched Susan Harter Muralpapers with a small team of artists in 2013, selling luxury mural wallpaper to interior designers.

There are eight competitor companies in the world, and many have been in business for generations. They are mostly based in Paris or London, and paint the work by hand in China or Korea. Their work is gorgeous, but it is costly, hard to install, and can take months to arrive.

We create our work here in Boston, doing artist's prints of my original murals in our own studio. Our muralpaper looks just like a hand painted mural, but it ships quickly, installs more easily, and is less costly than our competitor's papers. It combines luxury with ease-of-use. Designers love it, and call the idea "Brilliant!"

I've learned what we've done is called "using disruptive new technology in an old industry." The more I learn about business, the more pleased and surprised I am that the things we do naturally have actual business names.

I met the national sales rep for one of our competitors recently. She was marveling over the quality of our product, and asking how we'd tackled copying such enormous pieces of artwork. She confided they'd just spent $150,000 on a room-sized scanner to try to solve the problem. She laughed when I told her we'd solved it with $2,500, a bit of Craigslist searching and a few trips to Home Depot.

Not knowing how to make stuff can be costly. Perhaps all businesses should keep an artist or two on staff. We love making stuff and solving problems. Because we enjoy making stuff, we keep tinkering at it until we make it as good as it can possibly be. That's Kaizen, by the way, the Japanese management principle of continuous improvement.

It's a skill you learn drawing from nature. You very quickly realize you have no clue what things really look like. A non-artist, asked to draw the human eye, makes a symbol that looks like a lemon. The artist studies the actual turn of the head, and draws something that looks like...well, I can't pick up a pencil and show you, but if you were sitting here with me, I would.

Because that's how artists think, in images as well as words, with tremendous attention to detail while still seeing the big picture. We recognize our fixed ideas might be dead wrong. We love finding simple and elegant solutions. We try, and erase, and start over, until we get it right.

I sat in on a college business class lately, and watched as an intelligent, older executive struggled to ask a question. It took me a while to translate the business-jargon, but what it boiled down to was this: "How can we teach people to innovate?"

The question astonished me. Teach people to innovate? You'd have to teach an artist to not innovate!

Business people have to be encouraged to think out of the box. Artists don't even see the box (which can create it's own set of problems).

This is why it's so fantastic Boston has created a space where we artists and innovators and business start-ups can all rub elbows- the Innovation District.

I could be a poster child for Boston's new Innovation District. I run the business from my live/work loft at Midway Studios. I was a MassChallenge semi-finalist. I sell the work through Webster and Company in the Boston Design Center.

I chat with other women in design businesses at Jill Rosenwald's "Design Salon." I meet and greet other entrepreneurs at District Hall. When I need business advice, I cross the channel to the Center for Women and Enterprise, or to my "Streetwise-MBA" class at Interise.

These are all places I can walk to from my home.

In fact, I don't even need to leave the building to get help, I just walk down the hall and ask my neighbors. I swapped a mural for great portraits from fashion photographer Joel Benjamin. I posed wearing a stunning necklace from Melle Finnelli. I've gotten lighting advice from photographer Peter Harris, and slogan advice from Mario Avila Design. I saw the laser-cut yet pleasantly organic work of sculptor Ivan Fernandez Gonzalez, and it sparked an idea for a new printing technique.

Taken altogether, it's the Creative Economy at work, and it's fantastic. I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

We have just been picked up by show rooms in New York and Los Angeles. I hope to stay in Boston as the business grows. My dream is a happy studio full of local artists, competing on creativity and innovation rather than cheap foreign labor. We plan to sell all over the nation, then all over the world, creating "Murals of the World You'd Love to Live In."

Susan Harter is the founder of Susan Harter Muralpapers, headquartered in the Innovation District.

[We are thankful for Global Business Hubís support of the Creative Industries. Please note: This article does not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development or its Creative Economy Industry Director for the Commonwealth, nor is it an endorsement of any views, products, or opinions contained therein. The author is solely responsible for the content.]

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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