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How to be a successful solopreneur:4 lessons from Renaissance festivals

My wife and I take our children to the local Renaissance festival every year. I always come home amazed at something I've seen:the woman doing the splits while hanging from silk curtains or the guy shoving the sword down her throat or the acrobatic team of three people contorting themselves in a way that hurts just to watch.
It's the modern take on running away to join the circus, but beneath the funny accents, outlandish outfits, and crazy stunts, it's is the devotion to the obvious passions of artists, which should inspire any entrepreneur. Many of them face the same daily challenges that everyone in YouEconomy faces, from negotiating contracts to finding new customers, knowing what to offload and what to do themselves.
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On top of all that, they also push the boundaries of the dangerous, look for ways to keep their performances fresh, and devote sometimes exhausting physical efforts.

They face more failures than anyone I have ever met. More importantly, they have learned to thrive on it, even feed on it.

They face more failures than anyone I have ever met. More importantly, they have learned to grow from it, even feed on it. Indeed, without fail, they would be stuck in the Middle Ages. Over the past few years, I have spoken with performers at Renaissance festivals across the country, and have come to the conclusion that I can learn everything I need to know about their solopreneur.
1. Choose a path.
Full credit to Jaime Zayas:I got the idea for this story during his performance at the St. Louis Renaissance Festival. Specifically, inspiration struck when I watched him juggle while hanging upside down from a trapeze. If there's a better metaphor for life as a solopreneur than juggling while hanging upside down from a trapeze, I haven't heard of it.
I wanted to know what kind of delightfully creative mind think, juggling isn't enough, standing upside down on a trapeze isn't enough, I'm going to do both at the same time. I wanted to choose this brain for a preview. Watching, I marveled at how long it took Zayas to learn how to do this. How many times did he drop the balls, get off the trapeze, pick them up, get back on the trapeze, and do it again?
Jaime and his wife, Vanessa Waggoner-Zayas, call the nonprofit profit by which they play and teach “Kinetic Tapestry,” and their explanation for that name is as good for a definition of YouEconomy as I've heard. Start with kinetics – everything they do involves movement, nothing is ever static. “Tapestry” refers to how they weave performance-related threads – teaching, aerial acts, mime, acting, clowning, hosting, juggling, etc.
“A lot of the artists we train, this are sons. The artists we collaborate with are threads,” Vanessa explains. “If you look at a tapestry from the back, it sometimes looks like a hot mess. But it's all woven together, all of these people's lives flowing in and out of our story. »
When I went out on my own as a writer, a small business counselor hammered into my head that I had to “pick a path” and stay there. I bristled at that. My friends who are successful writers – the definition of “way” in journalism – all hate it. My advisor assured me that my voice could be wide, but I had to have one, whether I liked it or not.
Jaime and Vanessa also have wide voices, and yet each distils their role in a single word . For Jaime, that word is clown; juggling, trapeze, etc. are tools he uses to be a clown. For Vanessa, she's a storyteller, and she tells stories through different modes of performance.
They try to make their voices as wide as possible while still staying within them. For example, they might get a call from a client who wants to hire a magician. Vanessa does basic card tricks and can perform them while mingling with the audience. She would suggest this as an alternative to a magic show.
The Kinetic Tapestry has grown by 30% in each of the last few years, causing Jaime and Vanessa to deal with capacity issues they don't have never had to face before. Now they have to choose more carefully which threads to put in their tapestry. This sometimes causes tension because they like to entertain. "You have to balance," Jaime said. “More than money, we want to perform. We want to do the show. How low are you willing to go? Your desire isn't just for the money, it's because you want to play. That's what your heart wants to do. »
Sometimes they follow their heart. They live in St. Louis and Jaime is a huge baseball fan. Two years ago, the St. Louis Cardinals held a day of Hispanic cultural celebration. Jaime, who is Puerto Rican, called the team and offered to play on stilts for the price of some game tickets, even though he knew full well that the game tickets didn't pay the grocery bill. . “I just want to do this gig, for fun. Now I can say, "Oh, they're one of my clients," he says. (Side note:Saying “Cardinals is one of my clients” in St. Louis is like saying “Disney is one of my clients” in a room full of kindergartens — instant cool factor. ) “I do it because it's stuff I want to do. But you have to be careful not to undersell yourself, and people get used to that. This is why you must always balance yourself. »
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Which brings me back to Jaime juggling while hanging upside down from a trapeze. He couldn't do that without incredible balance. Jaime came up with the idea when he was thinking about new numbers for the show – new threads to weave into their tapestry. He could already juggle by tilting his head back and throwing balls towards the ceiling. It occurred to him that he could use this same move if he was hanging from a trapeze.
Considering he could already juggle and he could already hang upside down from a trapeze , it didn't take long to learn how to combine the two. It looks a lot harder than it is.
2. Trust.
If the only word for Jaime Zayas is clown and the only word for Vanessa Wagoner-Zayas is storyteller , then the only word for Danielle Dupont is confidence . Dupont is the founder of Washing Well Wenches, which has 24 actresses and performs at 34 Renaissance festivals each year. “I trust the public,” she says. “I trust the management. I trust the people I hire. I dropped the details and I trust. ”
Early in Dupont's career, performers often gathered in a circle to make trust fall. Dupont has taken this up a notch. "I said to my group, 'Guys, do me a favor. When I fall backwards, I would love for you to throw me through the circle. Throw me as hard as you can back and forth. "They said, 'What if we drop you off? ""
That's a good question that Dupont answered, basically, who cares? Dupont says her sense of confidence isn't a naïve belief that everything will be fine, it's that even when things go wrong — sometimes especially when they do — she'll learn something valuable and come out stronger. “In my mind, the confidence exercise is not that I trust you to catch me,” she says. "In my mind, the confidence exercise is that I trust that I'm going to have fun, and if I fall, I'll probably survive and have a much better time." ”
Dupont had to learn and relearn the power of trust as Washing Well Wenches became “the biggest and longest running female-faced comedy show performing nationally on the Renaissance Festival circuit. ”.
Most performers Dupont hires are based on referrals, and she hopes only qualified candidates will be referred to her. Dupont says the show's script is funny, so she doesn't bother hiring funny actresses. “What I really need is a wise, kind and compassionate girl, because she will trust the public,” she says. “They will make sure the audience has fun. »
Once, a new recruit wanted to call his character Eureka. Dupont, whose character name is Daphne, favors more old-school names like Ruby, Pearl, and Dottie. Eureka didn't fit that mould. "I hated it," says Dupont. "What I meant was no. But I'm just not done with that word. So I said, if you really want . It hurt me to say, if you really want , but I said it. This year, her character has been around for 15 years and she is fabulous. I will almost never say no. Even when my gut reaction is to say no, I swallow it. Buddy, if you think this will work, go for it . I grind my teeth. I breathe and I respect those people I brought on board. »
Dupont lets Eureka, Dottie and the others run the script as they wish. She only gives them two basic rules, both of which allow them to stay in the way of the wash pit trenches. No, 1, stay in the period – jokes and modern references would rob the audience of the moment. And #2, keep it clean.
“People do all the pieces so differently,” she says. "As we watch all the other girls doing the show, we go, oh, that's cool, I never thought of doing it that way. Or oh, that's a funny phrase . There are many customers who will go to find our show all over the country and see the different permutations. The spirit remains the same. »
3. Take risks.
Cameron Tomele remembers exactly where he was when he got the “call”. He was at a coffee shop in Lakewood, Ohio, when he received confirmation that he had landed the contract he needed to turn Barely Balanced, the comedic, acrobatic routine he founded and supplemented with hustles, into a full-time job. “I had to stop for a second and take a few breaths, then go get a coffee and let it flow,” he says.
The concept he imagined while dreaming in detention had come true. In the 15 years since then, he's had to deal with every challenge a solopreneur can face, from setting prices to unloading tasks to maintaining his skills while learning new ones. br />Related: 7 Tips for the Struggling Entrepreneur
On the show, Tomele is known as “Medium,” and he performs alongside his wife, Margret “Small” Ebert and Jimmy “Large” Freer. I saw them perform in five different years at the Carolina Renaissance Festival near Charlotte, and they were my “go-tos” every year. Their shows were consistent in tone and content, but they were also different enough to keep me coming back. It's like a good restaurant – it sells the same popular dishes, while experimenting with special dishes. He keeps the ones that work and puts away the ones that don't. COURTESY OF BARELY BALANCED.
Tomele sees many benefits in constantly changing the show. First of all, it's a good business policy because it allows him to charge more as the show improves. Second, it keeps fans coming back. And thirdly, it prevents children and adults from getting bored on and off stage. Working hard on the show forces them to work hard for the rest of the company. “It has a ripple effect,” says Tomele. “Creativity begets creativity. ”
Tomele never knows where this creativity will come from or where it will take it. Barely Balanced's last move is a perfect example. It came like most of their stunts:a combination of diligent practice, early tinkering, and a light bulb moment from screwing.
Start with the seven rung ladder. The top rung is about 10 feet off the ground. Tomele spent a year trying to learn how to climb the ladder without her leaning against anything “and not fall to my death.”
One day he was practicing on the ladder and told Freer, who is called Large for a reason, to lift the ladder while he was perched on top. The move took a lot of strength from Freer, but it made it easier for Tomele to balance on the ladder. Plus, it looked cool – Tomele was 15 feet in the air. But the shot still needed more. “The times when things get easy, we like to say, 'How can we push the limits? », Explains Tomele. "Margret is like, 'Hey, how about I throw you some stuff for you to juggle? ""

It's not enough for something to be amazing, it also has to be funny.

First she threw bullets at him, then truncheons, then machetes. And it became routine:average balances on a scale. Large picks it up and holds it high. From 15 feet down, Small throws medium machetes, and he juggles them. When asked if the waterfall had a name, Tomele thought for a moment and said, “The Hernia-Maker.”
There is no way to predict The Hernia-Maker or draw it in advance. It happened, and that's part of the fun. The little ones, the medium ones and the big ones spent months perfecting the trick and then worked it for a few shows trying to figure out the best way to present it because it's not enough for a trick to be amazing, it has to also be funny.
First they tried a Humpty Dumpty theme - Tomele was high up and could fall and break. It turned into Tomele using the ladder like an old man uses a walker and declaring that no nursing home could contain him. That will probably change again. “Everything we do is constantly evolving,” he says. “I try not to think about anything we ever did. I'm always looking for that new thing we can add that will make it funnier, weirder, or more accessible. »
4. Embrace failure.
Here's a dirty little secret:"Audiences don't often know the really, really hard stuff from the moderately hard stuff," says Vanessa.
For example? "Splits. ”
I laughed when she said that, because when she did the splits while hanging from silk curtains held aloft by a crane, I clapped more than any other part of the act. I'd break in half if I tried that.
"Everyone goes crazy when you do the splits," she says. "It's like a sophomore level two thing. "
"SHHH! Jaime says, and they both laugh.
Whether they're performing something 'easy' like splits or challenging like the Hernia-Maker, some performers strive to be perfect on stage. But the only way to be perfect on stage is to fail again and again in practice. Some have trouble with that. Vanessa often tells her students how she refused to go skiing for years because she feared she wouldn't succeed. “I finally went and loved it,” she tells them. "I was so sorry that I missed all those opportunities to ski because I was so worried about how it was going to turn out."
She then asks her students how they think she did as a skier. "They say, 'great'. I say no! I fell on my butt for four hours! "But I kept going and I fell, and gradually, little by little, by the end of that day, I was starting to come down halfway down the rabbit slope. ”
And the onstage equivalent of falling on your butt can be turned into a positive if handled correctly. When I saw Kinetic Tapestry play, Jaime dropped a juggling ball (while getting up!) He made a joke, picked up the ball and started juggling again. I half wondered if he had dropped it on purpose. He did not do it. He sees a dropped ball not as a failure but as an opportunity to let out his inner clown.
For a dangerous shot, small, medium and large practice barely balanced until they can do it almost 100% of the time. But they don't always have to be perfect on stage. "We like to have (mistakes) on our show from time to time," says Tomele. “It reminds the audience of the danger, the risk, of things going wrong. If we can safely handle an accident, it brings reality back to reality. »
Sometimes, in fact, the mistakes are the most memorable parts of the show. "It's super liberating," says Tomele, not to demand perfection.
It's quite a feeling of someone who spends their time juggling machetes while perched on the top of a ladder that is hoisted 15 feet in the air. But it's an idea that many solopreneurs can embrace. After all, the show must go on.