Hartford-based entrepreneur Amy LaBossiere is an award-winning mixed media artist and innovative thinker. She is also Administrative Director of Art of Tao LaBossiere LLC, Managing Partner at Still Waters Pond LLC, Co-Director of Hartford ArtSpace Gallery, and a marketing consultant with the University of Hartford Entrepreneurial Center.
Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price took a walk through Elizabeth Park with Amy and her beloved dog BeeBe to learn more about Amy’s entrepreneurial endeavors.
NAN PRICE: You are incredibly entrepreneurial. What does that term mean to you?
AMY LaBOSSIERE: I really think that the entrepreneurial spirit is more about people who look to create and manage small business. And small business can vary depending on who you’re talking to—it could be a solopreneur, someone who has several restaurants, or anybody in between.
With regard to entrepreneurship, I never thought I would be a small business owner. Even though my mother and my stepfather were small business owners, so it was part of my childhood. I always imagined myself working for someone else. To this day I’m still in awe. I still ask myself: Am I really doing this? I guess I am.
NP: It appears that you are! Can you share any takeaways from your overall experience as a small business owner?
AL: It’s taken some time, but over the years my husband Tao and I have developed the skill sets we need and we learned to ask other people for help in the areas where we need help. Learning to do that instead of thinking I have to do everything has been an important key to kind of maturing as a small business owner over time.
NP: You’re involved with so many things from a business owner lens. Let’s start by talking about the Art of Tao LaBossiere.
AL: The Art of Tao is a creative services company. That company is sort of a fusion of Tao and me. He used to have a company called Fine Art Painting. When we got together and decided that we would start working together I kept telling Tao, Fine Art Painting isn’t really who you are and what you do. Tao has such a breadth of capabilities as an artist. I told him: We need to make you the brand. Because this brand is you. That’s how we moved toward creating the Art of Tao LaBossiere.
NP: What have you learned from the process of creating and marketing that business?
AL: There are so many lessons. I think that one of the most important things I learned in my advertising industry business background is that listening is so important—and this business is no exception.
Really the art business, much like the marketing advertising business, is a problem-solving business. I hadn’t expected that. But art is solving problems. That’s something that Tao taught me.
When either of us are creating a work of art or we’re coming up with some kind of creative brand execution for a client, we’re solving a problem of some kind. Even when we start with the initial concept, we’re asking: What problem am I solving? And then, when we’re executing something, again we’re asking: What problem am my solving? And, also: What kinds of things are going to come up that are unexpected?
NP: That’s a good segue into Still Waters Pond. You underwent—and are hard at work to overcome—an unfortunate and unexpected event with that business. Can you talk about that experience and what you learned from it?
AL: Still Waters was originally a retreat center serving small groups. We had a devastating fire three years ago, which stopped our business in its tracks.
One of the biggest things I learned from that experience is in business you always have to expect the unexpected. I used to hear people say: You have to have a crisis management plan for your business. I thought: I know what that means, I have a crisis management plan in my head.
Anyway if anyone has a hospitality business, have a crisis management plan! Because it was a crisis!
We are currently in the process of rebuilding and we’ll be relaunching the business later this year. Still Waters will be open as a bed and breakfast and small group retreat center and then we’ll build upon that as we go.
NP: You became involved with reSET for both still Waters and the Art of Tao. Tell us about your experience.
AL: I was in the reSET accelerator program for social enterprise. It was a really great program. The fire happened at Still Waters while I was involved with the accelerator. It was really a weird time for me to be engaged in the middle of the process and have to have a major business calamity happen at the same time.
I went through the accelerator with the intention of converting both Art of Tao and Still Waters to social enterprises the first day it was possible in the state of Connecticut. And I did.
So I converted both companies from comfy, little, safe LLCs to benefit corporations. I was so caught up in the rose-colored glasses of what it meant to be a benefit corporation. I had no idea logistically of what I was getting myself into of running a corporation, what that was going to mean, and how that was going to change even simple things like my bookkeeping.
And when I had the conversations with my accountant and my bookkeeper—the in-depth conversations I should’ve had before I pulled the trigger on those things—I learned very quickly that I had made a grave mistake.
I spent the next three months converting both companies back to LLCs. What I realized was that Tao and I can still do all the social good we want to do in the world. And we don’t necessarily have to be a benefit corporation to do so.
NP: Speaking of social good, tell us about your involvement with Hartford ArtSpace Gallery. In what ways is it helping foster a community?
AL: I codirect Hartford ArtSpace Gallery with Tao. We are both volunteers. There’s no staff. Tao has been directing the space it for 20 years and I jumped in with him in 2008. I support the gallery helping artists with their shows and then I manage the Facebook group and the Facebook page.
Hartford ArtSpace Gallery isn’t actually a business of any kind. It’s just a space we organize as a gallery for the community. It’s a grassroots organization that exists because we organize it to be that way.
NP: Let’s talk about your involvement with the University of Hartford Entrepreneurial Center.
AL: I’m going into my fourth year of working with the Entrepreneurial Center. I actually started as a client—I still am a client. Shelli McMillen, who is the Program Manager, knows my background and knows me on a personal level. She asked me if I would ever be interested in working with the Entrepreneurial Center as a consultant. I said absolutely!
I started by doing assessments on the small businesses coming into the Center. I would do write ups about who the businesses were, what they were looking to do, and where they needed help.
I just loved it because I would meet these amazing entrepreneurs either looking to create something or involved with creating something. I got to find out about where they were at and what their passions were.
And then the other piece of it is the marketing consulting, where I will help these businesses create basic marketing plans and strategies for where they are going to go next.
NP: So you’re in a mentoring and advisory role there.
AL: Yes. The key is meeting business owners where they are. If I looked at a certain business and tried to present a plan that was not something they could execute, what would be the point? That would be a waste of time, even if it was the best thing for their business.
Especially with small businesses, I think it’s very important for people to know what they are capable of and they need to work with in their own sphere of where they are. Then we look at how they can get to the next level for themselves. I help nudge them with the goal of taking it up one more notch. Then, once they reach that notch, they can go up another level.
NP: In addition to participating in the reSET accelerator program and your work with University of Hartford Entrepreneurial Center. Have you worked with any other business resources in Connecticut?
AL: I’m very involved with the Entrepreneurial Center, I work with Business Advisor Lacey Banks and I’ve taken many of their workshops. I’ve worked with their consultants including lawyers and bookkeepers.
It’s amazing. I get so much out of it because in small business we don’t necessarily know what we don’t know—and we need to figure it out.
Because as far as I can see, we can read books and do all sorts of things, but it’s the life experience that really teaches us. And if we can find advisors who can help us skip some of the pitfalls we are likely to trip into, that’s a huge benefit.
I also continue to work with the Connecticut Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and I have a great advisor there. The SBDC was very pivotal in helping with me secure the loan for the rebuild at Still Waters Pond. They helped me put together the loan package.
What’s great is, the advisers at all these organizations are always going to offer new ways of seeing things.
NP: You live and work there in Hartford. What do you enjoy most about the city?
AL: One of the reasons why I absolutely adore Hartford is there are many artists. Particularly Tao. He’s one of the people who literally puts the art in Hartford with his under-the-radar work at Hartford ArtSpace Gallery, all his efforts as an entrepreneur, and his efforts to give back to the community.
There’s something very special about Hartford. When I first came to the Hartford area in the mid-90s I remember thinking Hartford is having its renaissance. Here we are 25 years later and we’re still saying the same thing. So you know, Hartford is always in the middle of a renaissance. Isn’t that beautiful?
Learn more about Amy LaBossiere on Twitter @AmyLaBossiere11.