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I value few things more than my sense of financial security. Because of my risk-averse, pro-regular-paycheck nature, I’ve always marveled at people who have the courage to go out on their own and start a business or work as a freelancer. When I moved to Austin a few years ago, I noticed that many of the businesses I frequent are run by people around my age, in their late 20s and early 30s. I began to wonder if my friends who own businesses have something that I don’t. Do they have a different relationship to money, or to work? How did they recognize an entrepreneurial spirit in themselves, and then act on it once they did? I interviewed one of them in the hopes that I could understand just how tough someone had to be to start a business—in this economy—before turning 30.
My friend Dave moved to Austin in 2003 after earning his MM in Classical Guitar Performance and Literature from the Eastman School of Music. Over the next three years, he worked for five days at an independent toy store; for a year doing trail work as an AmeriCorps member; as a waiter; part-time at a homeless shelter; filing papers at a non-profit; and finally for a UT-area bar/cafe called the Spider House. And then he started The School of Feedback Guitar, and began offering guitar lessons.
How did you get started?
I remember driving around West Texas one time, coming back into Austin, and I thought, “Man, I don’t want to go back to my job. I just don’t. I hate it.” So I started working on a business plan at work, because what are they going to do? Fire me? I don’t care. I found a place, got all the stuff that I needed, all the furniture I needed, and just jumped in.
It just happened one day? You woke up and said “I’m going to do a business plan today”? Had you ever written a business plan before?
No, I’d never written one, but I’ve always had crazy ideas in my head that I’d try to write down.
Did you tell people that you were going to start a business?
No. I didn’t.
Did you consider yourself an entrepreneurial person? Prior to being burned out at these jobs, did you ever want to do your own thing?
Yes, absolutely. I just didn’t know how.
Although he didn’t have any business experience, Dave knew the kind of school he wanted to run. Unlike some of his old teachers, he wouldn’t bully or pressure his students. He’d teach music that beginning guitarists wanted to play, instead of forcing them to start with theory or notation. He ended up staying at the Spider House for five more months as he got the guitar school off the ground. Instead of saving up a certain amount of money and then quitting, he worked both jobs until lessons brought in an income similar to what he made at the cafe (“crappy money. Ah, youth.”). One of his friends “was kind enough to pretend that she wanted guitar lessons, god bless her,” but building the business was “a long slog.” Dave started by identifying how much he wanted to make in a year, and worked backward, calculating how many students he’d need to earn that much.
“Getting there was a hell of a lot tougher than I imagined,” he said. “It’s always a breeze to do some big, massively difficult thing in the mind.”
He found a small, soundproof studio to rent, and after it got torn down a year into his lease, he had to figure out how to move a business (“the most stressful thing in the world”) while maintaining a space to give lessons. He estimates that about two-thirds of what he spent his money on while getting started wasn’t actually necessary, but were things he “had to try anyway.”
The idea that you don’t have a guaranteed income, living with that uncertainty—It freaks me out too much to think about. I know a lot of people, similar to you, who have said things like “I was just so burnt out working at a restaurant job or my office job” or whatever, “so I went freelance.” I just can’t do that. I have so many weird complexes tied up with money and security that I just can’t.
You and me both!
So when you’re full, how many people are you teaching?
30 to 35.
And when it’s low, what can it drop to?
15 or less.
So about half. That’s crazy!
Yeah, those times I’m thinking, “Man. Wouldn’t it be great just to have a regular job?” When that sort of stuff happens, I mean, those are those times that you’re just like “oh yeah, that’s what I’m saving my money for.”
Dave once described to me the high and low points of a guitar teacher’s year. High: just after Christmas and New Year’s, when people gifted guitars resolve to learn to play them. Low: summers, when school’s out and people leave town for vacation. He read The Psychology of Money, which helped him to identify the feeling of “scarcity”—discomfort—as a driving financial force in his life.
“When I’m in that scarce mode,” he explained, “all I do is save money. I don’t go out, I don’t spend it.”
He developed a system of multiple checking and savings accounts. His everyday checking account is kept “right on the cusp”: There’s enough to pay bills and buy groceries (cigars, too), but not much else. A set amount goes to an account for new musical equipment, and the rest goes into savings, where it stays until, for example, half his students drop their lessons at the same time. Three hundred dollars is the monthly minimum he puts into savings and investments, and he’s strict about sticking to it (“especially in the dry months”). When more students are taking lessons, that extra goes right into savings.
Did anyone else in your family have their own business? Didn’t you tell me that your dad farmed?
My dad’s dad. As a matter of fact, that’s probably where it all comes from, isn’t it? My grandpa was really intense with farming. He would come up with all these solutions to problems, and would be able to get a higher crop yield than a lot of people. My dad really understood what it was to be an entrepreneur, because if one year they didn’t have a very high crop yield, they wouldn’t make very much money. They’d have to go to the bank and beg, which totally sucks. [My dad] never really wanted that, so he ended up getting a job at Xerox, of all places, and just kept that spirit going. That’s kind of the way he is.
I asked Dave every question I could think of to understand the secret of how a business comes into being. Did he do a lot of research while he was planning the school? No, not really, other than on local lesson pricing. He didn’t know any other business owners—in Austin or in his family. He knew he wanted music to be his job, and to have some semblance of a steady income, so he built on the teaching experience he’d had as a grad student. At one point he sought out some free help from Austin’s SCORE chapter, but realized that he’d rather make mistakes and learn to run a business the way he wanted to.
Actually getting everything started—did it just happen as fast or as easily as that?
It’s amazing what happens when you really commit to something. I think it’s a really big deal when somebody actually sticks all their eggs into one basket. Who gives a flying fuck if that basket falls over? You’re done. You don’t have to do it again. You can just go on with something else. You’ve got a fresh start. You know whatever it was before is done. And now you don’t have to worry about it. Put them all in one basket. Get it done. See what happens.
Did you have a contingency plan?
I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. Once I said I was going to do this, there was no backing out. I had to make this work. Contingency? Well, if I “failed” I could always keep trying until I made it work. Besides, I knew a regular job was guaranteed not to be nearly as fun. I had to make this work.
Dave told me that his answers to my financial questions—if he had a savings goal to start the business, if he had money to fall back on—prove that he pretty much let his passions fly forward without much of a plan. For that reason, maybe his story isn’t the most straightforward example of starting a business. But it did show me that going out on your own can be a creative act, just like starting any other kind of personal project. At some point, you just have to do it.
Have you changed anything since you started?
Nothing that I can think of. It’s just been: How can I make money without having a boss? It turns out that working with beginners is the most satisfying and the most interesting, and also there are a lot of beginners in Austin that really want to learn to play the guitar. There’s a market, so I found my niche, and I worked to get really good at it. I worked my ass off to make it even easier to approach. How can I get somebody to learn chords in one lesson instead of two? How can I get somebody to learn how to strum in four lessons or less? How can I get somebody to learn how to do chord progressions in one lesson?
You’re being like your grandpa!
I know! It’s crazy! I’m trying to get [the experience] to be more direct, more enjoyable, because as soon as you get somebody to their first song, and get them through that first song, it’s an absolute blast. They’re like “Oh. I see what this is all about.” And then they get really interested in it, and then they start practicing more—that’s what it’s all about. The motivation. That’s why I like working with beginners.
What are things you know now that you would share with other people?
Don’t overanalyze. Ever. Just fucking do it. I think I spent so much time overanalyzing what I wanted to do in years past, and the stuff that I didn’t overanalyze—when I just jumped into and made an ass out of myself with it—was totally worth it. I think the tiniest little bit of action, even if it’s the smallest action in the world, if it gets you closer to the goal, it’s better than just thinking about it, thinking about it, thinking about it.
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Photo Credit: Kara Mosher