What It’s Like to Go “All-In” With a Start-up Dream

Like many artists who eventually choose to transition into nonperforming careers, Robert Hartwell had a dream to coach students. He started a small business with his own savings (and big personality) that within three years was generating $1 million in annual revenue.

Robert Hartwell, in suit, smiling, in front of backdrop with Gathered logo repeated.
Robert Hartwell’s business, The Broadway Collective, celebrates four years in January 2020. Courtesy of The Broadway Collective

The Broadway Collective
Robert Hartwell, founder and artistic director
Date founded: 2016
Staff: 5 employees; a core team of 10 independent contractors for web development, copywriting, legal, financial; 150 freelance Broadway performers he pays to do coaching and teach classes

By the time Robert Hartwell started his business, The Broadway Collective, Inc., he was 28 and closing in on 10 years of performing on Broadway (in Motown at the time). His dream was to coach young performers and help them achieve their dreams as musical theater professionals. 

“I can keep doing this [performing] for another 5 to 10 years,” he told himself. “But I’m not going to be exactly where I want to be in my life. I want a family; I want a home. I can’t do that the way I want to do that if I’m doing eight shows a week.” 

The company he founded in 2016 takes an innovative approach to training the next generation of Broadway performers, mainly via three programs that combine live training enhanced with online support and coaching: Gathered is a weeklong summer intensive held in New York City; Hello Broadway is a yearlong online academy that includes weekly coaching and feedback; Hello Broadway Live is a traveling weekend master class in dance, vocal, acting and audition technique. TBC faculty is an impressive who’s who of Broadway performers.

Robert Hartwell at Hello Broadway Live, his traveling weekend master class.
Hello Broadway Live is a traveling weekend master class. Courtesy of TBC

To fund his start-up, Hartwell chose to continue performing during the first two years of running his company, all the while pouring his personal earnings and savings back into his fledgling company. 

He remembers clearly the day he gave notice that he was leaving the cast of Hello Dolly to run The Broadway Collective full-time. His timing was surprising. The night before, the show had won a number of Tonys. “Bette [Midler] called me up to her dressing room, and she said, ‘What are you doing? Are you a crazy person? You can’t leave a Broadway show.’ I told her, ‘Bette, I need to do exactly what you did. You bet on yourself and I think it paid off pretty well.’”

And that year—the year he gave up his safety net and went all-in as a business owner—was when TBC hit seven figure revenues. 

Hartwell has seen remarkable success in four short years, reaching nearly 3,000 students and their parents. And he’s gained some unexpected wisdom along the way.

You may not need an MBA, but you need to know the basics before you hire experts.

Hartwell had taught for other companies and knew up front what he wanted to do differently with TBC in terms of curriculum. But when it came to running a business, there was much he needed to learn. His research ultimately led him to a small-business coach and attorney, Rachel Rodgers, and her Small Business Bodyguard program. From materials on her website, he learned how to establish the best legal structure for the company and set in place the core documents and systems to protect his business operation.  

“At first it was just me and one assistant,” Hartwell says. “Because of that, I learned every system in the business. I learned how to build the website; I learned how to build the payment processor; I learned how to talk to credit card companies when we got a charge back; I learned how to file our taxes. There were no other hands to do it. I would not go back [and do it differently], because I wouldn’t know every facet of my business.”

Money comes and goes—belief in yourself is the real investment.

“It’s hard being an entrepreneur. You are going to fall a lot,” says Hartwell, who is about the most upbeat person one can imagine, flashing his mile-wide grin. “You will have a lot of restless nights, and you will wonder is this going to work. At the same time, you have to keep betting on yourself.”

It was this kind of outlook that Rodgers says initially impressed her about Hartwell. “I can tell from a mile away when someone is not serious,” she says. “You have to be truly committed. Robert has been that way from day one.”

Rodgers helped him with legal essentials, such as incorporation, client contracts, website terms and conditions, and intellectual property protection. Hartwell made a strategic decision early on that he would not seek bank financing or outside investors.  

“I didn’t want to have anyone coming to me asking: Why this curriculum; why this city and not that city? I trust myself. I didn’t want a board member telling me you can do this, and you can do that because they gave me a couple of thousand dollars to open the company. No, I’ll go dance for my own couple of thousand dollars. So that’s what I did.” 

Rachel Rodgers (left) of Small Business Bodyguard, with Robert Hartwell.
Rachel Rodgers of Small Business Bodyguard helped Hartwell establish a solid legal foundation for his business. Courtesy of TBC

Rodgers recommended he structure the business as an S corporation. “It protects you as a business owner,” she says. “Even if you don’t have assets at the start, you will, as your business grows. You’ll pay yourself, and you’ll want to protect that, should you be sued or the business gets dissolved. If you don’t set up the structure in the beginning, you won’t do it once you’re in the melee of it all. Do it right at the outset.”

Being wrong won’t sink your business—but be ready to course-correct.

It recently became clear that program expenses were too high for Hartwell’s touring master class program Hello Broadway Live. So based on advice from his CFO, he decided to make a big change for 2020. Rather than take a team out to 10 cities, he announced the tour dates this year would all take place in NYC. He had reason to believe participants would jump at the opportunity to come to NYC for a weekend workshop because his summer workshop in the city, Gathered, sells out every year.

“I was so wrong! In the two weeks when I was expecting a huge portion of our yearly revenue to come in, we received only a fraction of it.” 

His CFO gave him the news about slow enrollment in a routine monthly phone meeting. “I felt paralyzed after that call. But it was a moment for me to say, ‘now you get a choice to pivot. I now need to go back to my customers—my parents and my students—and really figure it out.’”

Two social media posts from Robert Hartwell: September 26 talking about some bad financial news he received; October 28, reporting a turnaround: "Our 2020 Hello Broadway Live National Tour is officially sold out. You have no idea how full my heart is with this news," he wrote on Facebook.
Hartwell is very transparent about his business challenges. He posted to Facebook his shock over some financial bad news. A month later, after correcting his plan for Hello Broadway Live, the tour sold out. Facebook, courtesy of Robert Hartwell

Within 48 hours, Hartwell and his team reconceptualized their plan. He listened to feedback from his customers and restructured the offering to include traveling to nine cities. The tour was completely sold out one month later.

“It was the first offer I put out that didn’t resonate with our customers,” he says. “That made me really sad because I pride myself on listening to what their needs are. You need to listen to the people you’ve hired, but you also need to never forget where all the inspiration came from in the first place.”

When a program isn’t profitable—give more (rather than cut back). 

Once he realized it wouldn’t work to cut costs of the national tour, Hartwell focused his attention on improving the financial results of another part of the business. Enrollment for Hello Broadway, the yearlong online coaching support, was not as high as he believed it could be. He was convinced his customers didn’t understand this program and that he simply needed to present it differently. His solution? Offer participants in the touring master class a free month of online education up front, so that by the time he met them in person, they would already have experienced the power of online coaching. “The second that we turned it around,” he says, “the sales started to move.” This program provides the kind of monthly recurring revenue that Rodgers says “is key to a consistently profitable business and sustainable growth.”

Another place where TBC gives added value is in programming for parents of participants. “They’re not just training the next generation of Broadway,” says Rodgers. “There’s a workshop for parents; they put out a newsletter for parents.” Hartwell has harnessed the power of working Broadway performers on his team, who can give parents a firsthand perspective about how to support their talented child. This is smart programming in the end, because it results in satisfied customers and repeat enrollment. The staff of the summer intensive includes a chaperone for the students—something Hartwell prominently promotes to parents during registration.

Robert Hartwell leading a dance class at Gathered, a summer intensive from his company, The Broadway Collective.
Gathered, a summer intensive in NYC, sells out every year. Courtesy of TBC

Hiring staff doesn’t mean you’ll work less.

Hartwell now has an administrative staff of five full-time employees, and he typically works a 60-hour week, six or seven days. “I thought hiring employees was going to make everything so much easier,” he says. “It was easier to run the company by myself with one assistant. You’re dealing with other people’s schedules, with other people’s needs, other people’s talents. There’s a huge amount of trust and organization and humility that also have to come into play. We’ve had to take time to figure out how we all work together.” 

Adjusting from doing it all himself to delegating to staff is an ongoing process. “You have to give them permission to be a superstar,” he says. “I believe everyone I’ve hired is a star, but they’re taking co-star roles because they’ve got me at the head of it saying, ‘OK, I’ll do this and I’ll do that.” He’s had to learn that delegating authority, not just tasks, allows his staff to feel ownership. “Allow them to shine; allow them to do their thing. I’ll just hang out with my students’ parents, talk to them. That’s fun for me.” 

Robert Hartwell, founder of The Broadway Collective, working with a group of dance students.
“For me, it’s never how big we can grow,” says Hartwell. “I like to go narrow and deep.” Courtesy of TBC

Rodgers says that growing TBC’s staff will be essential to the company’s future success. “Once you hit a million in revenue, you have to do less. You can’t keep your hands wrapped around it,” she says. “Most entrepreneurs do it all themselves for far too long.”

In the meantime, Hartwell is mindful about the way the company grows. “I like small classrooms, so for me it’s never how big we can grow,” he says. “I like to go narrow and deep. For our master classes I like under 30 students. So we’ll have 60 students in each city but split them into two groups. Online, we definitely keep the student-to-teacher ratio really nice and tight. Our summer program is 40 students per session. I stay within those metrics to know how we grow.”

Rodgers calls that approach “sustainable growth.” “It’s amazing how quickly you can grow when you grow in a way that is sustainable,” she says. “Robert takes advice and then adds his creativity. I feel like he’s building it in a sustainable way, where it will continue to grow and meet his dreams.” 

Karen Hildebrand is editor in chief of Dance Teacher magazine.