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When life gives you lemons, make…beer?!?

I read with great interest this recent article in my local paper, Boulder’s Daily Camera, about some changes coming to a nearby brewery. (You can read the article here: http://www.dailycamera.com/lifestyles/beerandbrewing/ci_27755989/sanitas-brewing-expands-boulder)

Time and time again I am struck by how successful entrepreneurs have a way of not just enduring the inevitable challenges of starting and sustaining a venture, but turning those challenges around into something positive. This runs contrary to the illusion created by books and curricula that entrepreneurial success results from following a set of steps, like a cookbook: “Do this, this, and this, bake 30 minutes…and voila: it’s a cake!” The steps of the entrepreneurial process are incredibly important to know and understand (if I didn’t feel that way I wouldn’t spend so much time teaching them!), but as any entrepreneur will tell you, it’s rarely that simple. The steps are necessary but not sufficient.

One of the other key ingredients required is flexibility and adaptability. Entrepreneurial case studies are filled to overflowing with examples of ventures that began with a particular product, venue, or idea, only to discover early on that there was either a serious flaw with their concept or that there was an even better direction to pursue. In fact, serial entrepreneurs will tell you this is almost always the case: things hardly ever end up where they began, and the entrepreneur who bull-headedly sticks to his/her original concept in the face of data, customer feedback, or other factors pointing in a new direction will almost certainly end up failing.

Entrepreneurial adaptability plays out on a more micro level, too, as exhibited by the Sanitas Brewing story. There are two wonderful examples in the article. The first is the fact that the brewery is located next to an active rail line. Anybody who’s ever lived near an active rail line knows how rafter-shakingly loud a train whistle is – up to 110 decibels – especially when it’s right there. (Heck, I live half a mile from a rail line and if the wind is just right there are still times when I’m sure the engine is about to come through the bedroom window!) Rather than allow this to be an annoyance – or worse yet, a deterrence to customers – the folks at Sanitas Brewery decided to have some fun with the situation: for 15 minutes after a train passes they offer a discounted “Train Beer.” So now, rather than generating annoyed looks when the whistle blows, I’m sure the approach of a train is greeted with much cheering and toasts. Brilliant, eh?

Then there’s the matter of expansion and remodeling. Such projects can be extremely disruptive to a business, and can often cost a tremendous amount of money in lost business and irritated customers. Just a few weeks back I went into a local hotel expecting to grab a quiet cup of coffee at their lobby’s Starbucks outlet (finding a quiet coffee shop in Boulder is not an easy feat). Unfortunately, I found that the entire lobby area was blocked off behind temporary walls and plastic curtains. Sounds of construction filled the air, and the check-in desk was not even visible from the front entrance. Coffee was nowhere to be seen. A modest sign lamely proclaimed, “Sorry for our dust.” In other words, the message being sent to anybody coming into that business was that their inconvenience was not really a concern to the owners. “We’re under construction. Deal with it,” was the overwhelming vibe. As I was leaving to find another coffee venue I passed a couple who was checking in, luggage in tow. They took one look at the chaos, turned around, and muttered under their breath “This is crazy. We’re not staying here!” I wouldn’t be surprised if the poor handling of the hotel’s renovations caused other customers to make the same decision.

So how would Sanitas keep the customers coming while their space is being torn up? Offer them behind-the-scenes tours of the work and explain what’s going on and how it will benefit customers down the road. This simple act might be mildly inconvenient to the construction workers, but it’s a brilliant move on the part of the brewery: customers will generally be patient and understanding if they feel they’re not being ignored or disrespected. So much the better if they can be given a sense of ownership in the process. The behind-the-scenes tour says to the customer: “We’re sorry for the hassle, but we value you enough to let you in on what we’re doing. You’ll be glad we did this once it’s all over.” Who wouldn’t appreciate that?

Sanitas is a great example of the entrepreneur’s need to adapt to changing circumstances. It’s an incredibly important component of an entrepreneurial mindset, one that I call “turning an obstacle into an opportunity.” I’m not even a fan of beer, but hearing about the way the owners of Sanitas view their relationship with customers makes me want to pay them a visit!

Classical musicians have a hard time with this aspect of entrepreneurial action, though. Once again I blame our music education system, which trains students to perform according to a strict tradition of behavior (formal and removed from the audience), venue (a designated concert space that reinforces the distance between performer and audience), and context (a concert, in which everyone sits quiet and still). Since performing within this paradigm constitutes the overwhelming majority (if not the entirety) of a musician’s performing situations, it’s no wonder that adapting to new ways of performing and engaging an audience is a challenge. But it’s absolutely critical if a musician wishes to build a career in today’s musical marketplace.

So what are the obstacles facing today’s musicians, and how might those obstacles be turned into opportunities for new, innovative, and compelling approaches to delivering our music? Pondering the answer those questions will get you thinking like an entrepreneur.

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