8 Ways My Theater Degree Helps Me Succeed as a Small Business Owner

Actors rehearsing on stage
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A major in theater often sits atop lists of the most useless college degrees, but by studying theater as an undergrad, I actually think I learned how to bootstrap my business. (I also went to a state college, so it was an affordable theater degree. Shout out to Minnesota State University - Mankato!) Here's a list of the valuable skills I acquired there that I've taken to heart over the last 10 years, and how they affect my business today.

1. Show Up

In theater, if you don't audition, you won't get cast. You have to put yourself out there. Nowadays, I email people I don't know. I didn't know that this was weird. I've always reached out to people whose work I admire. I email people every week, and I don't expect anything in return. Sometimes I get an email back; sometimes I don't. But that's OK, because I just wanted to let that person know how his or her work has affected me. In theater, you audition for show after show after show, and you rarely get cast -- but if you don't put yourself out there, you'll never get cast. People ask how I've managed to get so much press in the past year; the answer simple: I'm not afraid to put myself out there.

2. Connect With People Immediately

Theater always attracts the most interesting characters, and you learn to accept people for their uniqueness. You also learn how to get along with people who drive you nuts. More importantly, theater taught me how to connect with people instantly. I love finding out what others are interested in and connecting them with others who share their interests. I learned (just a few years ago) that this is called "networking." I thought everyone did this!

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Get used to being rejected -- and get over it. %Again, I connect with people and form relationships without expecting anything in return. It's fun for me, and it's helped me grow my business because other people will say, "I'm going to connect you with so-and-so about blah-blah-blah" and then an email later, we're connected! It's often the people skills or "soft skills" that separate those who are successful in business from those who aren't. I love making friends with new people who share my passions. It's part of the reason I love Twitter so much!

3. Get Used to Hearing 'No'

As a performer, I auditioned for shows all the time. The process goes like this: You go in, you do a one-minute monologue, sing 16 bars of a song, say "thank you," and that's it. You often don't hear back. When you do, it's called a "callback." (Side note: I got a callback for the lead in almost every musical in college, but never got cast as the lead even once. This means it was down to me and a few other girls. At the time, that was soul crushing, but read on.) I think this is really good training for an entrepreneur because you get used to hearing "no." Some prospects become clients, and some don't. Regardless, the best thing you can do is learn from the experience and move on to the next one. Get used to being rejected -- and get over it.

4. Be Entertaining

You should enjoy your business and make it fun -- that's what keeps life interesting. I really love to teach, and I truly believe it's my job to educate my clients about their money. I also love giving presentations on money to high school or college students. I try to make them fun and entertaining. It's because of my theater training that I'm not afraid to give an impromptu speech at an event, speak in a classroom, or give a toast at a friend's wedding. It's called improvisation, and it's something I learned in college. Daniel Pink mentions the importance of improv in his book "To Sell Is Human," which I highly recommend. These are life skills that can help anyone who runs a business.

5. Work Your Butt Off

I performed in 15 full-length shows while I was in college, plus dozens of scenes and workshops. (If you Google me, you're sure to find some hilarious performance photos that involved big hair.) I rehearsed from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Friday, for most of my college career. I didn't know what "free time" was until I graduated and worked a day job.

When you run your own business, you have to work your butt off. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%You're in control of your time, but it doesn't fall into the normal 8-to-5 week that most people work. I love that I can meet my mom for lunch on a Tuesday, but that also means sometimes I'm cranking out a blog post on a Saturday night. Do what you need to do to move your business forward every day.

As a business owner, you either pay someone to do something for you, or you learn how to do it yourself. You'll be surprised at what a YouTube tutorial can teach you. (Quick: Do a YouTube search right now for whatever you want to learn!) Luckily, I'm a life learner, because it's been imperative that I "bootstrap" my business for the first year.

6. Learn From Experts and Invest in Yourself

When you have an opportunity to learn from experts, take advantage of it. In theater, we call this a "master class." It's when a well-regarded director, producer or performer decides to teach a workshop. Yes, it costs money and it takes time and energy, but you should go. Why? Because you'll learn more in those few hours than you've learned in the last six months.

In business, I do this by attending conferences and reading books. Actors are always taking voice lessons, dance classes, and investing in their craft. I learned the importance of investing in one's self from my undergrad years. I've always loved reading, but now that I own a Kindle, I'm a voracious reader. I spend money on books that have to do with marketing, personal growth, Gen Y, finance, and entrepreneurship. Learning from people who are at the top of their field will help you grow by leaps and bounds. This is why I love podcasts so much: They're a free way to listen to experts and apply their knowledge and advice to help me grow my business. (Check out my last post, 5 Podcasts That'll Help You Think Like an Entrepreneur).

7. Take Risks and Embrace Vulnerability

Blogging is scary. Quitting your job to start a business is terrifying. These things take guts. I don't think that I'd have been as willing to take those leaps had I not been a theater major. I had four years of intense training on learning what it means to up the stakes, take risks and be vulnerable.

Example: Sometimes you show up to an audition and you're paired with some guy (who you don't know) to read a scene together. In the scene, you kiss. You have to kiss a person you just met and pretend to be madly in love with him, with only enough prep time to read through the scene once and say, "Hi. I'm Sophia. Nice to meet you." (Really, this happens all the time.)

As a business owner, you have to put yourself out there: with your website, your blog, and through social media. It might not always be pretty or perfect, but that's OK. It's part of being human, and most people like the fact that you're not perfect. It's part of embracing vulnerability. (Need help? Watch Brené Brown's TED Talk on the power of vulnerability.) All of this is enormously challenging, but it's worth it. At times, I've received a few hurtful comments, but for the most part, my community really enjoys the content I'm creating and supports my work, so it inspires me to keep going.

8. Never Stop Creating

As an actor, you're always auditioning for shows while you're still performing in another show, because when your show ends, you're unemployed. The goal is to always have something on the horizon. A theater person will always ask, "What are you doing next?" Now I feel this way about press and media coverage. I tend to believe that the last piece of press I received will be my last, so I'm constantly responding to HARO requests, emailing reporters, and setting up phone calls with journalists. I've been quoted in Forbes seven times in the last six months, and each time I'm convinced it'll be my last (which I now know it's not, since I have an interview with a contributor from Forbes on Wednesday and was quoted in this piece on money mistakes.

I've come to realize that it's not any one thing that takes your business to the next level, but rather consistent effort every week over a long period of time that eventually pays off in ways you never anticipated.

Quiz: The Small Business Impact
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8 Ways My Theater Degree Helps Me Succeed as a Small Business Owner

A. 50
B. 500
C. 1,500
D. 2,000

According to the Small Business Administration's size standards, the definition of small business varies widely, depending upon the industry that they work with. For example, petroleum refineries, ammunition manufacturers, and thirteen other businesses can qualify as "small businesses" if they have fewer than 1,500 employees.

A. $650,000
B. $950,000
C. $1 million
D. $35.5 million

Another way of looking at a company's size is its yearly income. For parking lots, industrial launderers, home centers and fourteen other businesses, yearly gross income of $35.5 million is the cut-off between a small business and a large one.

A. 50
B. 250
C. 750
D. 1,500

In the European Union, policymakers take the idea of small businesses at face value. According to the SME User Guide of the European Commission, a small business can have no more than 50 employees. Interestingly, this is also the cut-off line drawn by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

A. 5%
B. 20%
C. 43%
D. 57%

According to the Small Business Administration, a stunning 43% of all private payroll in the U.S. comes from small businesses. In other words, almost half of all privately-paid salaries come from small businesses, not big conglomerates.

A. 1%
B. 3%
C. 10%
D. 40%

Tax critics argue that increasing taxes on millionaires would cripple small businesses. In reality, however, only 3.31% of small business owners make $1 million or more per year. In fact, over 75% make less than $200,000 per year -- putting them well below the cut-off for President Obama's proposed tax increases.

Small businesses are a big part of the engine that propels the American economy -- study after study shows that they are the quickest to add jobs, the biggest growth sector of the economy, and a major contributor to GDP.

But are America's small businesses being used to sell its taxpayers a bill of goods? When huge airline manufacturers and home repair stores are getting many of the same benefits as the local mom and pop store, it's worth asking if we need to reconsider our small business standards -- and support the people who really need it.

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