While most people think of tech startups as chaotic, and risky getting mine off the ground felt leisurely compared to Broadway!
In January of 2016, I was scheduling photo shoots for Liev Schreiber and Janet McTeer, the stars of my latest Broadway production, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was set to open in October.
(Fun fact: The day this provocative photo was shot was the first time Liev and Janet ever met!). My days were a whirlwind of cast auditions, costume and set design, budgeting, show press, and ticket pricing. The show was a success—but it was also my last as lead producer. Because by the time Les Liaisons wrapped in January of 2017, I had already launched my new tech startup company, What Should We Do, personalized recommendations and culture covering online and app-based service in NYC (and we've since expanded to L.A. and Chicago!).
The worlds of theater production and tech startup might seem galaxies apart, but the truth is I couldn't have had better preparation for my new venture than putting on plays and musicals. Each one of the 26 shows I've produced in my career was a startup! Beginning with just an idea—sometimes in the form of a manuscript and sometimes not even that much—my team and I would bring it to life by finding a space, hiring the cast and crew, and getting the word out to potential audiences. Every production presented new challenges that had to be solved quickly.
So while most people think of tech startups as chaotic, risky, and distressingly fast-paced, getting WSWD off the ground felt leisurely compared to Broadway!
That's not to say it has been easy, of course. Having never worked in tech or publishing, I had a lot to learn. To bring my idea to life, I kept these four lessons in mind every day.
Believe in your vision. I was really worried about being taken seriously. I didn't know the difference between an API and a CMS, and yet here I was wanting to build both of them. But I knew I had a good idea for WSWD. One of my lifelong missions has been to make arts and culture accessible to all (which is why I'm the chair of the Board of Trustees at the Public Theater; their motto is "Theater of, by, and for all people"). There is so much incredible art in New York City—art that goes way beyond expensive theater tickets or old-master painting exhibitions—but not everyone knows how or where to experience it. As someone who has lived in and loved NYC my whole life, I really wanted to help people find and enjoy all the cultural wonders of the city, no matter how much money they had. That's what we do at WSWD: Connect locals and visitors to incredible art, performances, food, and experiences at every price level.
Whenever I felt insecure about my qualifications or my lack of understanding about the specifics, I would remind myself of my vision. You can figure anything out when you love and believe in your idea. And, yes, I now know what an application programming service and a content management system are, thank you very much.
Build a great team. The first thing I would do as theater producer on a new show was hire a director. Together with her, we'd assemble the rest of the team: stage managers; a technical director; designers; a choreographer; PR people; and many others. I never pretended to know how to light a stage, but I knew the importance of hiring an experienced lighting designer. So when I decided to move forward with WSWD, I knew I couldn't do it without a great team on my side. That's the thing about trying something new: You don't have to know how to do everything; you just have to know when to accept help. I hired a fantastic team of web and app developers, editors, business development experts. I reached out to my network of artists, curators, critics, and tastemakers to create WSWD's team of local experts who could keep us up-to-date on the best performances, restaurants, and events in the city.
Then, trust the team you've built. It's one thing to build a team, though, and another to trust them enough to change the course of your business. No one should try to alter your vision, but sometimes the path to get there is different than you expected. In WSWD's early days, for example, I was reluctant to have a heavy emphasis on traditional theater because I was ready to be done with that world. I wanted to highlight quirky, avant-garde, and immersive performances and adventurous places to eat before and after. We do offer that—immersive theater is one of the most popular categories on our site and app—but my editors convinced me not to shy away from my experience and expertise on Broadway. Today, theater companies are some of our best partners and users can trust us to point them in the direction of truly great shows.
Always be making connections. I've talked and written many times before about my goal of meeting at least one new person every day, something I've done since I was just starting out in the theater scene over 25 years ago. And I don't just mean, "Hi, nice to meet you." I make it a point to sit down and chat with people, whether it's my barista, a fellow entrepreneur, a performer, a writer, my kids' friends…anyone! Everyone has a story to tell and everyone has a fresh perspective; these casual and often impromptu "meetings" have always been mutually beneficial.
Also, you never know when a connection will be made. When I would tell people about my new business, they would say, "Oh, you should meet my sister! She's an app developer!" or "I know a food writer who would be great for WSWD!" You may not become best friends or professional partners with all of the people you meet, but creating a large and diverse network of connections is indispensable to any business.
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I have always been in love with all things art- I was obsessed with drawing and painting before I was even walking. In high school, I started a career selling art through various gallery art shows and on Etsy. I then went on to study fine arts at the University of Southern California, with an emphasis in painting, but took classes in ceramics, printmaking, cinema and architecture to get a really well-rounded education on all sorts of art
During my senior year of college, my career path went through a huge transition; I started my own temporary tattoo brand, INKED by Dani, which is a brand of temporary tattoos based on my hand-drawn fine art designs.
The idea for the brand came one night after a themed party at college. My friends, knowing how much I loved drawing, asked me to cover them in hand-drawn doodles using eyeliner. The feedback from that night was overwhelming, everyone my friends saw that night was obsessed with the designs. In that moment, a lightbulb went off in my head... I could do some completely unique here and create chic temporary tattoos with an art-driven aesthetic, unlike anything else on the market. Other temporary tattoo brands were targeted to kids or lacked a sleek and millennial-driven look. It was a perfect pivot; I could utilize my fine arts training and tattoos as a new art medium to create a completely innovative brand.
Using the money I made from selling my artwork throughout high school and college, I funded the launch of INKED by Dani. I had always loved the look of dainty tattoos, but knew I could never commit to the real thing, and I knew my parents would kill me if I got a tattoo (I also knew that so many girls must have that same conflict). Starting INKED by Dani was a no-brainer.
I started off with a collection of about only 10 designs and sold them at sorority houses around USC. Our unique concept for on-trend and fashion-forward tattoos was spreading through word of mouth, and we quickly started growing an Instagram following. I was hustling all day from my room, cold calling retailers, sending blind samples and tons of emails, and trying to open up as many opportunities as I could.
Now, we're sold at over 10,000 retail locations (retailers include Target, Walmart, Urban Outfitters, Forever 21 and Hot Topic), and we've transformed temporary tattoos into a whole new form of wearable art.
My 4 best tips for starting your own business are:
- Just go with your gut! You'll never know what works until you try it. Go day by day and do everything in your power to work toward your goals. Be bold, but be sure to be thoughtful in your actions.
- Research your competitors and other successful brands in your category to determine how you can make your product stand out. Figure out where there is a need or hole in the market that your new offering or approach can fill.
- Don't spread yourself too thin. Delegate where possible, and stay focused each day on doing the best and most you can. Don't get too caught up in your end goal or the big picture to a point where it overwhelms or freezes you. You're already making a bold move to start something new, so try to prioritize what's important! I started off in the beginning hand packing every single tattoo pack that we sold and shipped. If I wanted to scale to align with the level of demand we were receiving, I needed to make the pivot to mass produce and relinquish the control of doing every step myself. I am a total perfectionist, so that was definitely hard! From that point on, overseeing production has been a huge part of my daily schedule, but by doing so I've been able to free up more time to focus on design, merchandising, and sales, allowing me to really focus on growing the business.
- Prioritize great product packaging and branding. It's so important to invest time in customer experience- how customers view and interact with your product. The packaging is just as important as the actual product inside! When we were starting off, we had high demand, and I definitely jumped the gun a bit on packaging so we could deliver product to the retailers when they wanted it. Since then, we've completely revamped the packaging into something upscale and unique that reflects what the brand is all about. Our product packaging is always called out as being one of our retailers' and customers' favorite part of our product!