Not your typical entrepreneur, Stev Guyer is the co-founder of Shadowbox Live, a performing arts non-profit in Columbus. Stev spoke to Entrepreneurship students at Ohio University last Monday. With long silver hair pulled into a ponytail and battered cowboy boots, Guyer evoked Neil Young more than, say, Bill Gates. Which is in many ways appropriate.
Guyer got his start in business in a rock band at the age of 16. “It turns out that everybody [in a band] is either drunk or stoned,” says Guyer, “which is not a useful way to do business.” As the sober band member, management duties fell to Guyer. He credits the early oversight of band finances, travel, equipment logistics, and performance details with making him a leader and entrepreneur.
When he tired of the musician’s life, or when disco took away market share—“disco is an evil”—Guyer sold life insurance, and then started a landscape-design company, despite having no experience. But the pull of the arts remained, and, as Guyer says, “I can’t afford to put my reality into someone else’s hands.” So he wrote a rock opera. Dawn of Infinite Dreams premiered in 1989. “It was awful,” Guyer says. “It just sucked so bad.” Despite his assessment, the production gave Guyer’s fledgling company a toehold in the industry, and inspired Guyer to do better. “It’s not good enough to be good enough [in business],” he says, “you have to be awesome.”
Today, Shadowbox is the largest residential theatre company in the U.S. It offers an eclectic mix of entertainment, including rock operas, live music, stand-up comedy, and sketch comedy. It boasts more than 60 troupe members and a dedicated audience. The organization also actively seeks opportunities to serve the community through partnerships with schools, civic organizations, and musicians. Perhaps most importantly in an era when arts are routinely trimmed from slim budgets, Shadowbox is viable. According to its website, the organization is “a healthy, vibrant, self-sustaining arts organization.” Guyer makes sure it stays that way by paying as much attention to finances as to the productions. “I don’t care what kind of organization you’re talking about, [creditors] want to know you can pay the damn bills.”
This entrepreneur harps on the importance of the “art of conversation.” He says this is one of the most critical skills a program at a university can teach—how to have an intelligent conversation. “The theater business is hard!” he said at the dinner before his presentation. People need a mental, emotional, and physical toughness.
When asked what the most important lesson for entrepreneurs to learn, Guyer immediately responds, “Don’t be afraid to fail! F**k up big! If you’re not screwing up you’re not learning.” Bill Gates and Neil Young would likely agree.