competing with toddlers turned strategists

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It must be good to be a thirty-year-old guy, a friend tells me one day over diner pancakes and eggs. I’ve known my friend for nearly a decade and we meet for breakfast to trade war stories of the freelance life. He listens to me prattle on about being outbid my men and toddlers turned strategists, and after a long silence passes my friend, the epitome of cool, calm and collected, confesses that he’s afraid of approaching his “best-buy” date. Do I know what it’s like to be a forty-something, fifty-something man being interviewed by a kid who just learned how to shave? I nod in tacit agreement (about the age, not the gender) and I think about my friend, who’s razor sharp and one of the smartest people I know, a man who looks good for his age and then it occurs to me that in thinking that phrase, looks good for his age, I’ve too been programmed to believe that on a long enough timeline, we’ll all approach our best-buy date. We’ll all face professional extinction.

Unless you’ve been burrowing under a fortress of Winona Ryder movies, Soul Asylum DVDs, re-runs of All in The Family and Different Strokes, or choruses of Conjunction Junction, the world as we know it has changed. My generation (the ubiquitous X) grew up without the Internet or tethered to devices that provided a means for connection/disconnection, and we were taught to believe that you had to pay your dues; you had to work long and hard for professional success. We filed papers in file cabinets, we took unpaid internships (I couldn’t afford to), we faxed, and we didn’t speak unless spoken to because we were groomed to know our place in the pecking order. We were programmed to respect hierarchy as if the corporate world were some aboriginal tribe with the CEO serving as its all-knowing elder.

No wonder we were called Generation Apathy. No wonder the next generation took a look at the ones that preceded it and said, you’ve got to be kidding me. You could hear the collective group-text murmur of hell no. This is a generation who would go on to break ranks and tear apart everything we had come to know about one’s career trajectory. Theirs was a generation that wouldn’t settle.

Most of my peers have perfected their get-off-my-lawn rhetoric. Gen-X’ers love to throw around words like “entitled”, “greedy”, “lazy” and “impatient”. However, a day doesn’t go by when we don’t hear the constant refrain of Generation Fucked — millennials are poor and burning out. But this story isn’t about the plight of Gen Y; it’s about age and struggle.

Many of my close friends are in the 20s and 30s and there’s much to be said for reverse mentorship. Our generations have tremendous, equal value and we’d be insane not to collaborate to undo the ruin that Boomers imposed on us. Millennials have ruffled the proverbial feathers of the status quo and we’ve seen an avalanche of companies focused on impact and social good, an uptick in entrepreneurship, careers based solely on using the internet (or building applications and software for it), and more importantly, they changed the perception of the freelancer as no longer a code for failure. Consulting isn’t a dirty word or what you did when you were in-between jobs. Finally, people stopped asking when was I going to get a “real job” because freelancing has been legitimized. Organizations and a plethora of websites are devoted to the care and feeding of this new breed of worker.

After I left a job that was slowly killing me, I envisioned taking some time off and then returning to the world of sixteen-hour days, supply requisition forms, and 401Ks. However, one client turned into another and suddenly my days were of my own design. Instead of taking on clients I didn’t believe in for the sake of paying employees and managing overhead, I connected with business and brands I believed in. I took on projects that challenged me, and I found that creativity couldn’t be found chained to a desk. I’ve done some of my best work in the past few years, and being a consultant has fulfilled me in ways I hadn’t imagined.

Every freelancer will tell you the hardest part of their job is deal flow. Some are lucky to have retainer clients — a consistent stream of income that provides a financial salve in the months where their inbox is filled with tumbleweed and crickets. I’ve been privileged to have consistent work over the past three years, but a buzz that was once annoying has morphed into a shout I can’t ignore. The buzz being: wow, you’re really expensive.

Last week I wrote about the value of experience, but I didn’t touch on age and how it could potentially be a liability. Last fall I bid on a big global project and I priced it fairly because I knew the work would look stellar in my portfolio and the client would be a coup. However, the client came back to me and told me that my fair rate was “extremely high” (huh?) and that others came in at half or a third of my rate. Considering the work and scope involved, I found it impossible to price south. I wrote the client and outlined what would be needed for the role:

  1. Someone who’s successfully launched products in global and local markets.
  2. Someone who understood the nuances + cultural indicators between markets.
  3. Someone who could create an actionable global strategy with measurable results but also break down the tactical roadmap, budgets, and resources needed.
  4. Someone who had an in-market resource on-hand.

Ultimately, I won the project and the client confided that no one came close to the experience needed for the role but they were willing to cut costs where possible. I’ve been seeing this a lot lately. People who have little to no experience mispricing their work or misrepresenting their level of experience. Anyone who owns a Snapchat or Instagram account is automatically a strategist. Anyone who can create a sentence with a subject, verb, and object, is automatically a seasoned copywriter or journalist. Part of me wonders if I could be a surgeon if I binge-watched enough of Discovery Health.

We live in an age of P&L surgeons who are all too happy to take scalpels to their marketing budgets, to settle for “just good enough” instead of successful and extraordinary. Businesses who are willing to sacrifice short-term bottom line benefits for long-term brand health and business growth.

It’s no secret that society reveres the young. Helen Mirren looks “great for her age”, women are encouraged to age gracefully, and people who have dedicated their careers and lives to companies are quietly being replaced by their younger, phone-toting doppelgangers. No one wants to be reminded — in life and in business — of the inevitability of extinction. People feed off the energy and verve of the young, resulting in bottom-heavy staff plans and ignoring the precarious balance needed in weighing verve with experience and perspective. We live in an age where one is endlessly traded in for another rather than playing the long and viewing the composition of a team and company with a level of diversity (gender, sexual orientation, and age) that will drive real and meaningful growth.

Instead, many tenured freelancers feel their age as an indelible mark, a liability and a perception that experience automatically means expensive — as if placing the correct value on our breadth and depth of experience is viewed in the pejorative. Or perhaps they feel age breed a lack of verve and passion. Most of us feel the cost cutting, projects awarded to those with less experience or who are willing to take on more for less. Photo editor and writer, Heather Clark McKinnon, laments, “Content creators and editors are paid less now for the same work. As a photo editor for a huge American company, my contract has gone down 35 percent over the last 8 years. They are now outsourcing most of the work to India.”

While freelancing is finally a viable, respected career option, it’s become Darwinian, and to remain relevant and working we need to maintain diverse revenue streams or capture and own a niche. Otherwise, we find ourselves boxed in forever competing on price as the years tick on and the days age us. Today, several of my peers have shared encouraging words, that there are clients — even if it seems few and far in between — who believe in the power of experience, who understand the need to diversify their teams, who believe in what and whom they invest. We’re grateful for people like Stephanie Faris Berry, who shares that, “as someone who regularly hires designers for the author side of my business, I have personally seen the experience vs. price argument play out. When I hire someone, I know what I hire will represent my “brand” and when someone quotes $25 and someone else is quoting $150, the $150 designer immediately gets my attention. I might settle for something in between those two extremes, but it will be someone who has talent and experience vs. someone who is new and cheap. I think anyone who is serious about building and growing a brand will see that experience as worth it.”

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not knocking the hustle of the young, hungry and inexperienced — but I believe that an environment where clients still pull the strings (regardless of the guise of “freedom” promised to freelancers) creates tension between those who have experience vs. the young and ambitious, creating a severe divide. And what we’re left with is an old refrain dusted off, a record played on repeat: how can I get this cheaper?

We should complement, not compete.

Photo Credit: Pexels

you want to pay me $250 for a comprehensive marketing strategy? that’s cute.

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Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

Let’s not talk about the time I was offered $250 for a comprehensive marketing strategy — weeks worth of work — and say we did.

There’s something many of my peers have been discussing in private groups and behind closed doors but no dares to speak out loud for fear of losing work. We trade emails where editors think $25 for 500-word articles, replete with secondary sources and rounds of revision, to be a living wage. We lament over the fact that seasoned marketers are being outbid by people with little to no actual work experience beyond preening themselves in front of a camera. I’m told, why would I pay X if Competitor A offers a third of your rate, to which I respond: I don’t compete on price; I compete on value, efficacy, and experience. Last week someone told me that she made more money doing the same thing ten years ago than she does now. Her professional life is one of diminishing returns: she has to work twice as hard now to make the same money she made a decade ago. In a private Facebook group, scores of influential bloggers talk about how brands and publicists trot out the word “exposure” in exchange for free work. Recently, writer Victoria Philpott shared a perfect scenario of this charade in her incisive essay about the trap of blogging for exposure:

A new startup wants you to review their app on your site, host a competition to give 5 away to your readers and write about them on the App Store. In return you’ll get to be one of the first to try the new app. You go back and tell them that’s advertising and will cost but they ‘don’t have the budget for that’.

So, they want a good few hours work, and access to your audience, in return for an app you didn’t ask for or want?

Another friend seethes when she’s told by her editor that college kids would be willing to work for free (or for a fraction of the standard rate) because everyone wants exposure and experience. In a hustle economy, everyone’s juggling side gigs and projects, and the refrain is constant: we’re working harder for less.

I worked through college — balancing a 20+ hour work week with a full course load, volunteer activities, and a social life. Most of my internships were paid because I couldn’t afford not to make money, and while I understood that my compensation directly correlated with my experience, it was unthinkable to compete with full-time employees’ comp, people who had years of experience.

Let me be clear and say that this isn’t a get-off-my-lawn rant, a Gen X vs. Gen Y kerfuffle that rivals Biggie and Tupac. We need each other, and I believe in the power of symbiotic mentorship. After I left a digital marketing agency where I was an equity partner, I kept in close contact with many people who reported to me, brilliant women who went on to break ranks and with whom I forged close relationships. Although we were 10–15 years apart in age, we knew our respective value, and it was equal and powerful. I mentored women on being a manager and leader, how to negotiate comp and deal with toxic employees, and they kept me fresh on burgeoning trends and social media, and what I’ve learned most from my millennial friends is the power of reinvention. Of taking something old and seeing in it the new.

So if you’re ready to get riled up at the kids today, there are plenty of articles on Medium that will satiate you — this is not one of them.

For the past few years, I’ve witnessed a disturbing trend in some agencies where they’ve skimmed the top (less P&L impact) and hired junior talent in hopes of growing them rapidly into senior roles. A whole middle layer of management was nearly non-existent, so you had very senior people too deep in the weeds and junior talent feeling overwhelmed and non-equipped to manage work and situations in which they had little experience. In The Devil’s Advocate (bear with me), Al Pacino’s character tells a young and arrogant Keanu Reeves:

I know you got talent, I knew that before you got here. It’s just the other thing I wonder about: pressure, it changes everything. Some people you squeeze them, they focus. Others fold. Can you summon your talent at will? Can you deliver on a deadline? Can you sleep at night?

Some people surprise you — they’re natural leaders and they exude confidence and acumen beyond their years, a talent that’s rare and priceless. A soon-to-be college grad outlines, in detail, how hard she worked to get published in bold-face publications before graduation, and I respect her tenacity, talent, and hustle. Yet, there’s something to be said for tenure, for having the years, for enduring experience and learning from it and then having the perspective that only time and distance brings to bear on new situations. I will always believe in the adage “you get what you pay for”.Replacing tenured talent with cheap labor to save bottom-line impact isn’t a viable long-term strategy. Placing band-aids on dams might work in the short-term but inevitably the dam will burst.

There’s real and tangible value in having a college or intern perspective. There’s value in having someone who knows the nuances of a particular social media channel give input on content and strategy. However, the value is complementary, not interchangeable. Just because someone will do something for free doesn’t mean you need to take advantage of it for the short-term savings, completely sacrificing the value of experience and perspective. Complement, don’t replace all.

Let’s revisit that offer of $250 and what comprises an integrated marketing strategy. Building a strategy requires (I’m summarizing big time here):

  1. Discovery/Research: A complete brand and business immersion and discussions with staff across business units — all of this in the context of industry factors and consumer trends/behavior
  2. Key Learnings: From all of the research and discussions, I tend to identify challenges and opportunities, along with some kick fixes or wins. Since I’m removed from the day-to-day, I have the fortune of distance and perspective and can usually identify issues (internal and external) and opportunities that staff too close to the business might miss
  3. Objectives/Goals Discussion: This is lengthy, and often we review past day and performance as well as a deeper conversation about their existing customer base. We discuss quantifiable and qualitative goals and objectives, knowing that our strategy has to satisfy or meet those goals/objectives. We discuss what success is and how to measure/optimize it, by channel, by tactic
  4. Strategy Outline: This is the “What” — What we’ll do to service the goals/objectives. This isn’t a tactic, a “we’ll launch an Instagram channel” or “we’ll hire a YouTube celeb to bolster our brand” — this is the big idea and plan that will impact the entire business, and will be implemented across paid, owned, earned and partner media.
  5. Tactical Roadmap: From the strategy falls the tactics, which brings the ideas to life in a practical way, i.e. the “How”. This will invariably require the collaboration between partners (internal and external) for development of distinct and detailed plans with budgets, timelines, and allocated resources

So you think all that work — weeks of labor — is worth $250? I’ve worked hard for 17+ years to be paid $250 for a marketing strategy? Surely you jest.

You think the hours it takes for writers to find sources, compose interview questions, transcribe interviews, draft articles and make revisions are worth $25? $100? $250?

As Shannon Barber so sagely writes: “No one can eat exposure.” I tell people I’m not operating a non-profit. Would I ask my doctor to reduce her rate because someone down the street charges less? Would I nickel and dime a plumber? Would I ask someone to paint my apartment for free in exchange for an Instagram post? Why is it that people find it easy to diminish the value of writers and marketers (non-tactile skills)? Why is it so easy to sacrifice quality for short-term profit?

When will brands and businesses focus on complementary talent rather than bottom-line savings that hurt over time?


I originally published this post on Medium

built by women: meghan cleary, founder of MeghanSAYS® shoes

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Did you know that there are less than 10 footwear companies in the United States run by women? Women purchase twice as many shoes as men yet only eleven women designers/manufacturers were represented in the Power 100? So many companies create products believing they have their customer’s best interests and sartorial desires at heart, but my dear friend, Meghan Cleary, involves her customers at every stage of the product development process and she’s one of the kindest, smartest, passionate, and funniest women I know. Meg and I met in 2006 and back then we were in the business of bringing women together (specifically in book publishing + writing) to collaborate and support one another. Every month I hosted a gathering of 50-100 women in hopes that there would be strength in numbers, and Meg’s tireless and unwavering support (from finding us spaces to bringing the coolest people into the room) marks the kind of woman she is: mentor, friend, collaborator.

It’s been formidable to witness her bloom from passionate shoe aficionado to a company owner, and when I sampled her products first-hand, not only did I love the price point ($98-$168) for the quality, her shoes were stylish and comfortable. She’s someone who I always want to celebrate and even though I took a break from posting on this space, I wanted to share with you not only her line but her verve and wisdom. Meg’s worth breaking my break (I’m still on hiatus). I hope our chat will inspire you just as much as she’s always, always inspired me. –FS

 

Felicia C. Sullivan: When I first met you, nearly a decade ago in New York, you were this ebullient force who had just published a book about shoes and was a fierce connector—you had a way of bringing smart, passionate woman in your network together that was infectious. We’re both from the east coast and I remember how we talked about our respective journeys west. What motivated you to leave New York, and what have you gained (and lost) as a result of calling Los Angeles your home.

Meghan Cleary: Well, first of all, that is so nice to hear. I remember being a part of really trying to bring women writers together with you and it was so fun. There are so many groups now like Binders doing that online it’s cool to think we were there in the beginning.

In terms of making my shift to the left coast, I had been thinking about moving to Los Angeles for about a year before I finally came out. I had a lot of friends here, and after ten years in NYC — and watching my once quaint West Village neighborhood turn into a high-end shopping mall (!) — I was craving some physical things — mainly space and light. The idea of having more space and more access to nature was a big thought — as a creative person literal, physical space can be really freeing. I was also looking for an easier lifestyle, not so much the daily schlep. Originally I was going to come out for six months and see how I liked it, but here we are eight years later! What’s interesting is how many people from NYC have made the leap. There are more of us here now than ever although I’m like don’t tell any more people how great it is — we want it all to ourselves!

In October 2008, I came out here for a TV appearance on TVGUIDE network. I was on a show called “Fashion Team”, which was a really great show about actual fashion — really well produced. One of the co-hosts who interviewed me was Lawrence Zarian. He was incredibly encouraging and took me aside after the show and told me I was one of the very few experts that came on the show who actually know what I was talking about and knew my subject matter. His words kind of planted a seed in my mind and by the end of the weekend, I was like ok, I’m coming out. It was perfect timing. My contract for consulting I had with a big bank had just ended, and I was free to go. A month later I got on a plane with my dog – it was Nov 5, 2008, the day after the election and everyone was in a really jubilant mood.

10428-1 TOGETHER(1)FS: I admire you because you navigate disparate worlds with ease. You have a background in financial writing and marketing, you are the expert in footwear –how do you balance the reality of having to be a freelancer (doing the things that pay the bills) while pursuing what gets you out of the bed in the morning (your new shoe line, MeghanSAYS®)? How do you make time for both and do you feel a sense of balance?

MC: Well, thank you so much. There are so many people like us that have to juggle and hustle. Choosing a creative life means you have to really get inventive about your income streams, learn how to manage your cash flow like a fierce businessperson and be flexible. I got really fortunate early on in that I worked in finance doing marketing and it is something I can always return to. I actually enjoy it because it is so different than my creative life – it’s very calming, in fact because it works another part of my mind and there is often a beginning, middle and end to a project. I’ve found that my natural penchant for narrative and story is extremely helpful as well in my financial consulting realm.

In terms of balance – well, I think balance is kind of bullshit. There is no balance — there’s maybe balance over the long-term but for me, it is more about figuring out how and when to expend energy. There are certain times of day I get more done in an hour than I would in three hours at another time of day. As a woman there are certain times of the month I am more creative and outgoing, some days I’m more introverted and marinating. What types of people do I spend what levels of energy with, how do I sustain energy over a long day? My biggest challenge has been allowing my body to rest when I am sick. I still find this a challenge. Especially as a creative person, if you are consulting too, you don’t get paid for missing a day. The hustle is always there in the back of your mind, and as a creative person, we are not given stability and pensions and etc. You have to make that all for yourself. Fortunately, as the workforce changes, there are a ton of resources to do so, and as I said, especially as a woman you have to get financially savvy – and it still can be challenging even then. Barbara Stanny is a great person to read about this. Also my friend Laura Shin writes a ton of helpful articles on freelancing and personal finance.

LA TimesFS: Your journey to shoe designer is amazing! Tell us how MeghanSAYS® came to be, and your vision for the debut collection and the brand.

MC: Thank you! It has been so exciting honestly. I became obsessed with shoes when I was five years old and I also wanted to be a psychologist when I was little, I started writing poetry when I was 10 and I have always loved dressing up. What I do has been kind of a weird blend of all of these things. I’m deeply interested in shoes in relation to questions about culture and identity, what they say about people. I love really spirited, fun design. Through my work as a shoe expert and listening directly to actual women, I learned there was a huge gap in the market for what women wanted in a shoe. I thought it would be fun to begin to try to meet that need in a really fun, spirited way. The collection itself came out of an offhand conversation with a friend at a holiday party – one thing led to another, and soon I had a manufacturer who was willing to underwrite the first line of samples. This is huge for a woman entrepreneur – we do not have the same type of access to capital and infrastructure that men do so it was a huge beautiful thing they were will willing to do it. My first meeting at Soho House, I brought shoes to the table literally and put them on the table – I had a very clear vision of styles I wanted, what I was thinking of. While I was talking, the woman at the next table leaned over and asked about the prototypes I had on the table — she wanted to know where to get them! I think that helped and boom! We had a line. I wanted to create shoes for women that were easy to wear and at the same time extremely fun. I don’t take the word fun lightly by the way – there’s so much in our society set up for not fun, to actually try to infuse it into things you do, and in this case, an actual product I feel is essential.

FS: I love that your line is affordable and stylish without sacrificing on quality—a rare breed in the shoe business. Is this balance a challenge (if so, how), and did you have a price range in mind for your woman going into the design and manufacturing process?

MC: I love that you called that out – it was something I thought about a lot. What I learned is that how you are able to price your product is largely based on how many shoes you can get a retailer to order and your relationship and negotiating power with a factory. It sounds totally backward I know, and you need to go into the design and sample process with an idea of where you’d like to be pricing-wise obviously, but it all comes down to how many shoes you are making. The more you make, the lower the price the factory can give you. So the more a retailer buys, the better pricing you can give them and, in turn, the customer. You also have to figure in margins for your manufacturer and yourself. I got incredibly lucky that the manufacturer I partnered with has amazing relationships with factories and was able to get the pricing we wanted. Although in order to keep the flat under $100 I took a huge margin hit. I have practically no margin on the flat but I was adamant I did not want them to be over $100.

FS: What has surprised you most about launching your business? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

MC: I was surprised and honestly I am always surprised when I set out to make a product – making actual physical things gives you a whole new appreciation for how things get created from a sketch to on someone’s feet. All this year I literally go into a shop and am like wow – can you believe this glass was made wherever it was made, and now it is here on this shelf and I can buy it! How amazing! Seriously, the amount of things that have to come together to make a thing, and then get that thing into the store, seems like a Sisyphean task. But it happens! It all happens and comes together. You wouldn’t think you would get so excited about supply chain or shipping logistics, but you do! Again my manufacturer has a huge infrastructure already set up so for me to plug in was amazing – and still it was full of surprises even though it’s a well-oiled machine. That’s just the nature of making THINGS.

FS: I’ve met a lot of people our age who feel regret. Regret that they didn’t pursue this or that life sooner or hadn’t met their partner earlier in life, but I tend to believe that we find ourselves at a certain place because of all the choices we’ve made, not in spite of them. Would you agree? Do you have any regrets about the paths you’ve taken?

MC: I think honestly the only thing I regret is spending ANY time on worrying or what my brilliant friend Vanessa McGrady calls future tripping. It is a natural part and parcel of being an artist to have fear, anxiety, dread and resistance come up. It’s only now I feel like NO! I do not want to spend time dragging myself into that pit like I have spent too much time doing that. Saying that, I also have a very fearless side of myself as well. I don’t really listen when I hear naysayers and I have a special penchant for just doing things. Like ok, that sounds fun, I’m gonna do that. I do. That’s how I wrote a pilot last year and how I started a shoe line. Literally because well, why not?

My godson Daniel is the cutest; he calls me a “possibilitarian”. I try to stay in that zone so my only regret is when I’m out of that zone and I spend any time out of it.

FS: Have you endured any challenges building a business as a woman? How did you manage them?

85653-24A BLACK-2MC: I think the challenges I face as a woman are extremely subtle and some not so subtle. I am a white, college-educated woman, so I have a certain amount of privilege in the world and ease with which I can navigate the world. Saying that, I know that because of income inequality, I have not earned as much as my male counterparts, and I am a pretty fierce negotiator, so I certainly probably have come close but over time I could have probably earned more as a man. Also, women are just not given the same financial tools and information from a young age as many men are. I remember I had a great boss at one of the banks I worked at and I asked him how should I invest my money and he was like just park it in a money market – because it was assumed I would get married. He didn’t say get fierce with your 401K, and use it to try and buy real estate or learn about stocks — it was kind of like ok, honey just put it there — and he was an amazing guy who I looked up to in so many ways. I think had I more financial savvy I would be further along. When I first read Barbara Stanny’s Prince Charming’s Not Coming — it opened my eyes about how I think about the ambiguous “future” when it comes to finance. We all sometimes have magical thinking when it comes to money. I’ve gotten very savvy over the years, but still could be so much savvier.

Then there are real, logistical and institutional issues — women do not have the same access as men to capital and financing. And if you are entering a male-dominated business, oftentimes it’s difficult to make the relationships necessary to take the business forward. Factories, sourcing, etc are usually male-dominated so you have to partner up with people or find other ways to convince people to work with you. Capital is the lifeblood of businesses especially when making a product so to not have that access can cripple you early on.

In terms of how I managed these issues, honestly, I just plow ahead. I don’t think about it too much. I find that in a lot of cases, passion, enthusiasm and having a clear vision resonates with people and they will take a chance with you. You only need like one person to get on board.

FS: Who/What has inspired you along the way and why?

MC: So many people. My mom taught me how to work things out and hustle. We got hit by a recession in Michigan when I was little and she was always super resourceful and taught me the same skills. Very handy for creatives! My auntie Mary who did my logo for MeghanSAYS® and all my illustrations for my Shoe Are You?® book and web series. My aunt Kit who had the awesomest shoe collection ever and was a major businesswoman and marketer. My dad who always finds some kind of humor in every situation. He loves to throw in “slingback pump” into any conversation because now he knows what that is! My brother who always is super hilarious. Funny is a big thing in my life and I can giggle my face off with all these people. My boyfriend Tim is one of my major sounding boards. He works in entertainment so he totally gets the creative side of things and is always a huge proponent of just going for the creativity full on.  My BFF in New York, Sarah, who I call the The Rabbi, always tells it like it is. And my BFF in LA, Vanessa, who is always down for blowing up the fear. Jason Campbell who always pushes me to look at design and style in new ways. I also belong to an extraordinary writing group who I call The Pod run by David Hochman — they are my secret superpower group.

FS: What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own business or going freelance? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding shoe/manufacturing-related ventures?

MC:
1. Don’t quit your day job/Quit your day job. What I mean by this is keep your sources of revenue flowing, but try not to get too caught up in the daily grind of a j-o-b. Like the office politics, etc. Keep it light, keep it observational, positive. You need to keep your psychic space to create so don’t spend it on office blah blah blah.
2. Learn how to manage cash flow and what that is!
3. Be flexible.
4. Lose the shame in working a day job! People get so wrapped up in appearances. I’ve found most of my day job people are my biggest supporters! I’m always very appropriate when revealing what I do in addition to my regular work, you have to feel it out at your particular workplace, but once you tell people you’d be surprised how many people want to be your cheerleader. Because you are doing the risky thing, the thing many are afraid to do. It doesn’t feel courageous sometimes but it is.

Regarding footwear – wow – that’s a whole other interview! I’ve learned a lot but I’d say in the end it all comes down to product and your factory. You want a great factory that wants to make the best product for you – especially because in my case my actual name is on it!

FS: What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

MC:
• Burt’s Bees lip balm
• I TRY to meditate – don’t always get there but I try
• Petting and walking my dog – best oxytocin booster ever!

FS Most importantly, which of your shoes do we absolutely NEED in our closet and what is your favorite of the collection?

MC: The ballet flat!!! Seriously you can have one in every color – it is so comfortable, perfect travel shoe and just the chic-est shoe around IMHO. Makes every foot look amazing from size 5 to size 11. The denim is beyond, the floral is super punchy, the b/w gingham I wear literally every day though now I am alternating it with the blush sparkle microsuede because I just fell in love with that one too!

 

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All images courtesy of Meghan Cleary. 

on social media: flowers, coffee, a book on the table + a quivering heart

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You should know that it took me a while to find the right fake photo for this post. An image that conveys a mood of a life so messily, yet so beautifully lived–a kind of Kinfolk existence where everyone is preened to dishabille perfection. The kind of life you could live if only you tried harder, if only you purchased that precious mug. The equivalent of a drive-by life, but instead of surveying wreckage we’re marveling over feet in knit socks, gloved hands, the spines of old books, and steam rising up from a mug. It occurs to me that this life is an even more terrifying wreckage because the damages it inflicts are elusive, monstrous. We don’t see the hurt coming.

In 1999, I’d grown uneasy with my career at an investment bank. This was a time when you mailed paper resumes and you never conceived of leaving your industry. I’d meet with recruiters who told me that the only jobs worth applying for were those at merchant and investment bank. Perhaps a foreign bank, they suggested. Perhaps you can work for the Japanese although the amount of women in senior positions is anemic. You can only go so far. At the time, I lived with my father above a barn in Long Island where it would take several hours to download a single file. I had an AOL account and I used the internet for messaging people and purchasing collectibles off eBay. One morning on the train to work I made the connection between an unmet need and a fervent desire–people around the country wanted access to designer goods without the hefty price tag. I lived in New York where samples sales and outlet shopping were the norm for those who could afford it, and I started a business where I purchased goods and re-sold them online. I filed for an LLC, did my own taxes, photographed the goods, wrote pithy descriptions and posted the goods online. My only risks at the time were inventory management (holding products that I couldn’t move) and overseas credit card fraud (of which I once fell prey), but the upside was immeasurable. I carved out experience in an industry where I had none. After a year of managing a successful online business, I got a job at a burgeoning dot.com in 2000. Over the next 16 years, I would take jobs and live much of my adult life being a part of the online space. I was able to move across industries simply because I was one of the rare few who had real business experience but knew how to navigate the Internet.

I built projects online, made friends, published writing–all in this rarefied existence, a marketplace where people told stories, shared ideas and wanted to be heard.

I’ve written a lot about the unseemly aspects of playing online. I’ve read countless click-bait articles about how the web is making us brain dead sociopaths while allowing for meaningful connections and a platform for disenfranchised communities. I’ve read the spectrum. I’ve worked on the brand side and have understood the business side of bridging the gap between consumers and companies. I’ve been on the consumer side where I crave stories and connection. I’ve been in the middle where I’ve seen how social media has shaped and grown careers, how one post could rocket someone to infamy, how a tweet can cause a maelstrom of online chatter on the level of a tsunami. Admittedly I’m indebted to social media because it shaped much of my professional career, it’s educated and informed me on the lives and plights of people of which I wouldn’t ordinally be exposed, and it’s brought me some of my closest friends. Having a postage stamp of virtual real estate has given me the privilege of sharing my thoughts with strangers. But…but…

Maybe I’m feeling particularly sensitive lately but I’m feeling dwarfed by the sheer volume of you. I feel subsumed by the masks we all wear on one channel and how they’re cautiously (or not) removed or switched on another. I de-activated my Facebook account over the weekend because I grew exhausted scrolling through everyone’s projections of their best lives lived, replete with photo-tagging and witticisms. I grew tired of the self-editing, the curating. Then I went to Twitter, a place where I receive much of my world + business news, and I felt subsumed. Syrian refugees, the banal evangelism of “happy” via listicle and newsletter, the rape allegations against James Deen, the terrorist attack on Planned Parenthood, the relentless sales (please stop telling me what you think I need and do not need), and personal brand self-promotion, the deserved rage toward the U.S.–a country far from benign, gun control, the mind-boggling stupidity of Donald Trump, and on it goes. I felt the phoniness of Facebook jutting up against the realness of Twitter and I posted a picture of my cat on Instagram because everyone I know has pretty much tired of me talking about depression. There was a moment when I just didn’t want to see because it (everything) was just too fucking much.

Or maybe I’m just on edge. Who can say? I guess I feel like I’m vacillating between two precarious states–feeling everything (the collective bandaids ripping off all at once) and nothing at all (the cool desensitization that accompanies being numb; the anesthetic). The equivalent of a song played on volume 10 and a room gone silent.

I once had a friend who lived what appeared to be an enviable life. Her blog was serene and beautiful as was she, she traveled the world and took pictures of herself in fanciful hotels. This was a time when there weren’t many blogs online and I remembered feeling like I wanted to dive into her world and feel everything it. Our paths crossed and we became friends and then we stopped being friends because the life she architected online was partly true, but only a single aspect of her character–and there I go believing that this slice was the sum of her parts. I don’t remember why we stopped being friends, I just thought you are not who you say you are. Part of that’s my fault because I was feeding off of this fantasy, that if I had proximity to it the fantasy would rub my sadness away. That never happened and I had to find other ways to build a life that made sense for me, but I get the escapism. I know all these projections on social media aren’t the entire story, but I can’t help but feel sickened by the partials or the nothingness.

Perhaps this is why I love The Leftovers so much–it’s a show that terrifically navigates our desperate need to be awake but also the beauty in our sometimes quiet desire to be asleep. The storyline pushes the extreme (of faith, love and rage), inviting us to feel so that we could understand contrast in a way that we couldn’t before. There are days when it feels right to walk around in white, smoking cigarettes, writing things down in an effort to make people remember versus the constant chatter of those living their half-lives.

I read a few articles that spoke of the paralysis that comes with having unlimited choice. I’m feeling this, acutely. Sometimes it’s nice to have guardrails, confinement, and constraints. Sometimes it’s comforting for the shouts to dull down to a murmur because right now social media feels like me opening a door to an onslaught of primal screaming. I don’t have a solution to any of this, only that I’m trying really hard to carve out the small space in the world where I can know, feel, create without the burden of noise.

Until then I’m going to keep staring at this photo, wondering if I should get off Twitter too. Wondering if my feeling this noise-induced paralysis is related to what’s going on in my life and the fear that surrounds it.

 

freelancer roundtable: we tackled your money questions

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When people ask me how long I’ll stick with this freelancing thing, I tell them I’ll play this hand until I’m forced to fold. Until I have $0 in my bank account and all my credit cards are maxed and I’m facing eviction. I’ll keep at this because setting my own hours, having control over which clients I’ll take on, and the freedom to write short stories, is the greatest gift I’ve given myself. It’s been over two years and I’m still at it, and even though I’m going through a dry spell right now, I’m turning my attention to writing as much as I can and sharing all the knowledge I’ve gained so far.

Money is such a sensitive topic for some, and I think that’s bananas. We, especially women, NEED to talk about money so we can level the playing field. Talking about money helps us create and fight for our worth. I hope you enjoy our responses, and if you find these panels helpful, let me know in the comments (along with suggestions for future roundtables). Now on to the questions!

Harper Spero writes: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a connector. I’ve connected people with friends, jobs, apartments, business opportunities, sponsorship/partnership opportunities and the list goes on. I get completely jazzed from making these connections. As a new entrepreneur, I’ve realized how much time I’ve put into doing this pro bono and have FINALLY realized how valuable my resources and connections are. I’m in the process of building out an affiliate program in order to be compensated for making connections but am stuck on the challenge of….how much do I charge? What are my contacts worth? So much of what makes a publicist successful are the relationships they’ve established. I welcome your thoughts regarding pricing and structure. Thanks ladies!!!

Meghan Cleary: Dear Harper, you sound amazing first of all. Without knowing exactly what types of connections you are interested in monetizing it’s hard to say as I have found there are so many different structures and so many different ways it can go. For example someone doing business development at a startup might get a fee of 3-5% for introducing to the startup to a VC that then comes through with funding. For securing a strategic partnership or sponsorship, it could be as high as 15% depending. And then in some industries, connecting people is considered part of the job and doesn’t bring in the revenue in and of itself, but instead drives a business pipeline of potential deals. Saying all of that, my main advice if you want to monetize your connections, is to create some type of ballpark deal structure for yourself based on how much value the connection will yield on both sides.

Leah Singer: Good for you for realizing your time and expertise has value! I’d do some research to find out what the standard rates are for publicists and communications experts in your city/state. Then determine how much money you need to live on, and then come up with a formula based on that. Your time IS valuable. So don’t undercut yourself.

Aly Walansky: While I know nothing of doing something like this via an affiliate program model (though it’s a very interesting concept), my going response when asked for coffee to “pick my brain” is along the lines of “Thanks so much for thinking of me, my rate for an hour of consulting is…” – and that rate can change based on what we are discussing (and how in-depth you expect me to get), but I guarantee you it’s more than the cost of a latte.

Felicia Sullivan: Harper, congratulations! This sounds like a fascinating venture, and I’m hoping you might educate us down the road on what you’ve learned from it? In terms of monetizing your contacts, I’m going to agree with Meghan on this one. I don’t see this endeavor functioning purely in binary terms. Depending on the situation, you can benefit through remuneration, experience, goodwill or through additional connections/relationships. If your referral brings a tangible financial benefit between the two introducing parties, then I’d take, at minimum, a 10% commission. For example, I’ve referred a client to a friend who has an agency, and my friend paid me 15% of the first year’s retainer income. Sometimes, I make connections where there isn’t an explicit, expressed objective, but I think the karma I’ll get in bringing together two smart people is invaluable. I also think it puts me in someone’s mindset. In that way, I’ve gotten business because of this good karma. It’s not an A+B=C relationship, but the goodwill comes back to me at some point.

In short, it really depends on the situation, your motivations, and the desired outcome. Do you think the person can you offer you up something in terms of contact barter? Are you doing it because you’re being altruistic? Or is this a pure financial benefit? One thing I would stress–don’t make your contacts purely about financial gain. That fosters greed and it never bodes well for anyone.

Joy Bennett writes: This will be such a good series! I’m totally with you on being more transparent about money.

I find myself struggling to make the jump from charging per hour to charging by value. I hear over and over that this is a better way to do it, but I don’t know how. Time is at least measurable, so it’s easier to wrap my head around.

But some projects have a start and end, while others (especially social media management) are ongoing and can become time sucks if you let them.

I currently have different hourly rates for different kinds of work, which is my first go at value-based pricing. I do want to build in time for some things – especially limits on how much time I will devote to monitoring social or limits to numbers of revisions. I usually start with a rough estimate of hours X an hourly rate to get to an amount per project. But I also factor in how much I want to do a given project and the client’s budget, which means sometimes I lowball myself and take work on for love, not money. Other times charging what I believe I’m worth will cost me work and makes me think I’ve overpriced myself. It ends up feeling so subjective. Is this lack of a set estimating process normal? Or is there a better more objective way to do it?

How do you approach this?

MC: Dear Joy, Here is my number best resource and tool to go to value-based pricing. It is free and a true gem: http://www.freshbooks.com/blog/breakingthetimebarrier/

LS: I prefer to charge by project than hour too. The worst thing you can do is get into a situation where a client wants to nickel and dime the minutes you spend on a project. So for larger projects that are more one-time based, then I do a project rate. I detail to the client what that amount includes (e.g. meeting, phone calls, research, drafting document, two revisions/edits, and delivery date).

That being said, I do have some clients that want monthly, ongoing work. There are two ways to approach this. One is an hourly rate, which I tend to do if I know it’s monthly work. You can also do a retainer amount. Similar to the project scope, you charge $XX per month that includes all the work you do. I think if the work you do is writing, this is the best way to do that because it’s sometimes impossible to know if an article will take you two hours or 20 minutes. And you don’t want to get short-changed because something may take you less time.

AW: It’s totally normal. I absolutely have some projects that I take at “love” rates and others I ask for more money. There’s a quality of life issue. Will I be miserable this whole project? Or is it something super fun and interesting that I will enjoy and feel fulfilled at the end of?

FS: Joy, I have several models based on the project, timeline, and sanity level of the client–all meant to protect my time and hours. If the deliverable is a packaged product (i.e. a brand guideline, a strategy, copywriting for a website), I charge a flat project fee and that fee is based on a calculation of a number of hours I think the project will take, giving a little cushion for veering off the road, emails, and the like. That project fee has an hourly cap attached to it, and I’ll often say, this costs $5000 for X amount of hours, and anything over that hourly costs Y in terms of hourly rate. Some clients fear hourly because costs can get out of control, while a flat fee + hourly gives both of an assurance that the price is contained but the value of the work gets rightful compensation. Make sense?

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Lena writes: Should you price your services differently when you’re first starting out doing freelance work? I always feel uncomfortable quoting people a price that is “standard” among graphic design or editorial professionals when I just graduated from college so recently. But it could go both ways – either discredit the work that I do and make people think my services are actually worth less, or help me build a portfolio by attracting clients who would otherwise not be able to afford my work even if that means shortchanging my income.

MC: Dear Lena, This is a question everyone grapples with at every stage of their career. The most important thing is to determine the value in it for you – and your desire or passion for the project. Even if a publication cannot pay you what you want will that piece work for you in other ways? Will it introduce you to new sources of editors to pitch or get in front of? Will it allow you to monetize your writing or graphic work in other ways? If they can’t give the rate, can they give promo – marketing your article or work in their emails or social media? In the end, you need to decide how much you desire the project – does it light you up? Would it be fun to work on? Do you love it? And then determine if it would for you to take a hit monetarily because you love it so much or because it will work for you and elevate you in other ways. This is different than just doing whatever work comes your way for whatever rate when you are building your name in your field. Determine and evaluate what will work on a case-by-case basis for you.

LS: There are several things that you should consider with this. You need to charge the amount you need to earn a livable wage. Don’t undersell yourself just because you’re new to freelancing. If you were in the same line of work prior to freelancing – or were in college and received the training – then you’re not new to the business. For many people, money equals value. If you don’t charge the standard, a client may not think you do the same quality work that others do. Also, your clients aren’t going to know how many other clients and work projects you have. Just because you may only have one or two clients to start, you’re a business and that’s what you’re selling to others that need your services. This is not to say that it’s bad to take on one or two pro bono clients when you’re first starting out. But don’t make that a continued practice. Charge what you’re worth!

AW: Yes. There’s absolutely instances when I accepted a lower rate when I was “new” –and in some cases, I simply didn’t know how to fight for myself or respect my work yet, but I also was building a portfolio and they were giving me that opportunity.

FS: This is a GREAT question. While I have a set hourly, day and project rate, I’ll often adjust those based on the client, considerations of my portfolio mix (i.e. I really want to do X kind of work to bring some more diversity), or pro bono work because it makes me feel like a decent human. If you came from a set salary and years of experience, why take a pay cut? Your talent and experience didn’t change, your job did.

Think about it in terms of how you’d negotiate your salary for your next job. Are you taking a role that’s a stretch, where you’ll have something to add to your professional toolbox (this is bullshit jargon, but I like it) so maybe the pay cut pays dividends in the end. And once you prove value and indispensability, you can negotiate up pretty quickly. If you’re moving laterally or a promotion up, I’d keep my rate or raise it.

Sometimes you’ll charge less because you believe in the project, you love the people, you’ll get something true and meaningful out of it (the non-tangibles), but for the most part don’t discount yourself.

Amanda writes: I’m in the food writing, recipe development, and food photography field as a freelancer. Status quo in the industry is to have a rate sheet that depicts different services available, as that is what the brands or PR agencies ask to see. What I hate about this is it feels like I am pigeon hole-ing myself. It can totally depend on the project, the timing, the urgency, the rights to the images/copy, and most of all, then the rates are set for some time. It doesn’t feel like I have much wiggle room. Do you have any advice on how to handle that?

I’m also wondering how to negotiate, rather than back down after 1 exchange of “my rate is this” “we only have this for budget”. It seems that I always want to make something work and end up undercharging.

Thanks so much for your help!
Amanda ~ heartbeetkitchen.com

MC: Dear Amanda, This is bummer but certain industries have a cost of entry and sounds like that’s what this is for yours. You want to be considered so you need the rate sheet but the reality we all know is it always depends on the project what the rate comes down to. My advice would be to create a very specific rate sheet with clear parameters around additional fees – like you mention for rights, etc. Don’t asterisk them in small type, be up front and clear. Use the rate card as a discussion starter to get your foot in the door for the gig, and then ask a lot of questions about the project to get a better sense of what it would cost. Give an estimate based on what they tell you. Then put together a very detailed scope document when you get ready to sign with the client. Include the scope of work you will perform, rates and clear parameters about additional fees for over time, rights, etc. That way you will give yourself some padding. In terms of they have x to work with and it will cost y, see my answer to Lena. You have to decide if you want it and it will work for you. But saying that, I’d always say to their first number, can you do z? Z being 30 percent more than what they are offering. If not, you asked and you can determine from there if you want to do it.

General thoughts about $:

To everyone, be aware that there is always price perception in the market – a very huge tool in the marketing world. Many times people will not perceive the value of something if it is priced too cheaply, so marking up your fees can actually help in some cases. Obviously you don’t want to mark yourself up and out of the market or charge exorbitantly high rates – but be aware that often if you are priced too low the person hiring you might think well this person doesn’t value their work, why should i?

General advice to every woman working, in business for themselves or in the world in general – always, always ask for 30% more than you think you can get. You will get it. And you will also be correcting our wage gap one deal at a time.

Also no one work for free, please and thank you.

LS: Developing a draft of a rate sheet is important because it will help you get an idea of what you want to charge for certain services. But just because you have a rate sheet doesn’t mean it’s published and set in stone. You are right that the project scope will be different for each client. I say develop the rate sheet, and then tailor it toward to the client and project.

With respect to negotiation, you should only do what you’re comfortable. So if the company wants a different rate – and you really want the project – maybe it’s worth negotiating your rate down a bit. But if you get the sense the project won’t be worth it or you’re not excited about it, hold firm with your rate and leave it at that. If they don’t accept your rate, it’s not the right fit.

AW: I have been guilty of under selling myself, too. But I always find negotiation is fine. Not all projects can be fit into neat little rate sheet categories. It’s OK to have a discussion and see what they need and what you can do for that.

FS: I second Meghan’s answer, and I would also check out my response to Lena’s question, which allows for some flexibility in holding to a base rate, with wiggle room for negotiation. I’ve also tackled projects with phases (you deliver a portion of the work) so the client has budget flexibility and you get paid for your work. And honestly, most brands have the budget they’re just allocating it to different people. I shouldn’t have to reduce my rate or take less money because the client doesn’t have the budget? It makes me think of this Oatmeal comic and this write-up of the recent HuffPo/Wil Wheaton kerfluffle. They’re valued at $50MM but they can’t pay their writers? PLEASE.

get over being funny about money: a freelancer’s roundtable (we’re taking your questions!)

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People are funny about money. You can get fired for asking about someone else’s compensation (although companies like Buffer thrive on transparency when others talk about mutinies and chaos should we speak openly about salaries), and often it’s considered rude or gauche to talk about money. Money is what you make but be secretive about it. Certainly don’t talk about. Especially if you’re a woman. Especially if you’re anything but white.

Employers use the guise of secrecy because they want to “protect” their employees, however, it’s more like they don’t want people bearing witness to grave inequality and they definitely don’t want an avalanche of comp increases as a result. Because what employers are really protecting is their P&L.

When I went freelance, I was surprised to find that this secrecy around salary, or how one makes a living, is as prevalent and pernicious as ever. I’ve known at least a dozen women who severely underpriced their services because they thought less is what they deserved. Or, they simply didn’t know how to price themselves because context didn’t exist. Sure, there are scores of articles about rate calculations, etc, but most of us really rely on people we know, people who occupy our space. And many people are still not talking, still.

I took on a project with a woman who was, at the time, one of my closest friends. I was interested in what she did, brand marketing and the creation of brand narratives and architecture, and I asked her how much she was being paid for her portion of the project. Not because I wanted to be rude, but I wanted to understand how my peer priced her deliverables and deliverables, and how I, should I want to go that route, can calculate accurate project and day rates.

My “friend” acted as if she were a CIA operative. I was confused. What did she think I was going to? Did she really believe I was coming from a nefarious place rather than one of curiosity? I needed help and it was only when I made my request plain, you wouldn’t help your friend, a woman, a peer trying to make a living, with information?

I’ve met with women (boutique agency execs) recently who didn’t know how to price their services. I’ve known bloggers who had no idea how to quote for sponsored posts. I know women who don’t have their day/project/hourly rates, and the ranges in which they operate based on client, scope, level of client craziness, etc. They didn’t know how to build in payment clauses (or non-payment) into their contracts.

I’m learning that when I get frustrated it’s more productive to share and connect than just bitch about something (and I do that too, don’t worry). So I’ve gathered up a few friends who are successful freelancers to answer YOUR QUESTIONS ABOUT MONEY. From writers to consultants to small business owners, all of them have a range of experience and acumen, and I hope they can give you advice you need to feel empowered to promote yourself and your work in a fair way.

Leave your questions in the comments section of this post and we’ll rock out the answers within the next two weeks.

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OUR ROUNDTABLE (and we’ve got more coming!):

Aly Walansky created A Little Aly-tude on SheKnows.com in 2006, as one of the first well-known beauty and style blogs on the Internet. Over time, it became a foremost source for advice, tips, reviews, and commentary across the lifestyle genre.

Her writing can be seen across the Internet as well as in several print publications. She contributes regularly to Beauty High, AskMen.com, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, The Daily Meal, xoJane, HowAboutWe, Life &Beauty, Latest Hairstyles, Celebuzz, DailyMakeover.com, The Fashion Spot, New Beauty Magazine, Bella NYC Magazine, and many more.

Aly’s roots exist — pun intended! — in the realm of beauty and style, and she is quoted in countless publications on a weekly basis, and has appeared as a beauty expert on the FOX network and various radio programming, but her focus is far wider. She’s a popular travel and food writer and has traveled across the globe in the name of culinary, historical, and spa journalism.

Aly currently resides in New York City. Contact Aly at alywalansky@gmail.com

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With a background in textile design (Anthropologie, Nordstrom, & Blissliving Home) and an obsession for sharing (favorite products, favorite recipes, favorite dates-gone-wrong), in 2012 Joanna Hawley created Jojotastic as a lifestyle blog focused on runway-fresh fashion, inspiring modern-but-modest home interiors, and her addiction to donuts. (Her cat obsession mingles in there, too.)

A well-established style influencer on the interwebs, Joanna was one of the first Pinterest users (with 4 million followers to prove it). Known for her raw honesty — this isn’t just another blog with pretty photos and flawless stories — Joanna seeks to inspire readers to live their truest lives.

Joanna’s work has been featured in national outlets including Oh Joy!Design for Mankind,  Clementine Daily,Rugs Direct, and Anthology Magazine, where she was an online editor for three years. Recent Jojotastic brand collaborations include Gap, Ziploc, Pottery Barn, Urban Outfitters, and Airbnb.

Joanna’s passions include filling her passport, rock climbing, freestyle flower arranging, her cat Georgette, her dog Noodle, and questing for the perfect apple pie. Or cupcake. Or donut.

Joanna currently resides in Seattle. Other recent homes include San Francisco and Philadelphia, but her badass spirit is universal. And her spirit animal is chocolate.

Her desk plaque reads “You are doing a great f—ing job.” And that’s pretty much her motto.

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Laurel Anderson is a freelance writer and social media and communications strategist. She provides digital marketing and communications consulting services to individuals, companies, brands and other organizations that need help telling their story. When not telling the stories of others, Laurel is usually hanging out on her front porch or the local coffee shop crafting her own. Her website is http://www.laureleanderson.com and includes her work, social links and Lola Speaks (her intermittent blog).

As a writer of more than twenty years, Laurel has covered everything from daily news stories, people profiles, entertainment, lifestyle, gossip, fashion, trends, movie reviews and more for both print and online publications. She has been known to tackle both serious issues and lighthearted topics during her column run with a local newspaper. Years of entertainment work allowed her to experience both sides of the industry while working on and writing about shows like Canadian Idol, So You Think You Can Dance and Canada’s Walk of Fame.

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Leah Singer helps businesses tell their story and connect with their ideal audience and clients through writing and marketing strategy. She teaches marketing and branding to college students, and works extensively with institutions of higher education and businesses within the law field. Leah is a perfect fit for businesses without marketing departments. She is also a freelance writer and has written for The Huffington Post, Club Mid at Scary Mommy, Red Tricycle (where she serves as San Diego editor), Edible San Diego, Millionaire Girls’ Movement; and other national blogs and websites. She also blogs personally at Leah’s Thoughts.

Leah left a lucrative career in higher education to become a full-time freelancer three years ago and hasn’t looked back since. She was a speechwriter and communications manager for two college presidents at San Diego’s largest public university, and oversaw communications for San Diego State University’s Enrollment Services Department. Before that, Leah worked in marketing and public relations at KPBS public broadcasting station.

You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Meghan Cleary is Contributing Editor, The Hollywood Reporter, Pret-a-Reporter, and author of two books on what your shoes say about you. She writes primarily about footwear, trends and cultural implications of shoes. She is also co-founder of MeghanSAYS shoes, debuting December 1 on Nordstrom.com. Her website and blog are located at shoeareyou.com

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

built by women: melissa lim, founder of beautimy

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Since I’ve moved to Los Angeles, I’ve absolved to find smart, passionate women who are building things and breaking ranks. In two week’s time, I’ll host a salon of 15 women who are artists, creators, and founders–all as a means for collaboration and support. As you can imagine, I’m wading in the deep end, far beyond my comfort zone, but it’s worth it. I met Melissa Lim via a Facebook group, and her energy and excitement are infectious. She’s launching Beautimy, a “a progressive, co-creation platform that empowers women by transforming them from passive consumers to conscious creators of their own high quality organic personal care products online.”

I hope her verve and honesty inspire you to build, create.

First off, congratulations on Beautimy! In the past few years, we’ve seen a host of beauty companies come to the market with an eye toward sustainability and ingredients derived from nature rather than in lab. We’ve also seen the rise of apps like Think Dirty, which target an ingredient-conscious consumer. I’m excited for your vision for Beautimy. Can you tell us about how Beautimy came to be, and what you envision as its future?

Melissa Lim: I’m glad you’re excited!

I grew up with technology and I started testing and using a lot of beauty products since I was very young, so it was only a matter of time before I merged the two together.

I was working for a high-traffic woman’s website where I dealt with some of the top beauty and fashion brands like L’Oreal, Chanel, Neutrogena, Mac, Benefit, etc. Not only was my team entrusted with our clients’ big budget to come out with creative marketing campaigns, I was also fortunate enough to have a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how their most popular products are being manufactured from scratch to finish. I learned what most of us already suspected — that most brands use similar manufacturers and ingredients, but invested heavily in their marketing to command mindshare and a different market price.

The two industries I’m most passionate about also happen to be very practical because they’re highly profitable billion-dollar recession-proof industries to play in, but it is precisely because of that, that there is so much competition. It feels very much like a David vs. Goliath situation, and in order to be competitive, I have to create my own blue ocean and make the competition irrelevant if you will. I don’t want to play the zero-sum game; I rather create than to compete. People always ask, “how are you different?”

Here’s how we differentiate ourselves:

1) Mass customization – I believe that mass customization is the future of e-commerce
2) All-natural ingredients sustainably-sourced from the USA
3) Social enterprise – we have something similar to a TOMs, Warby Parker, MyLokai.com model where we give 20% of our profits to charity and also work with human sex trafficking shelters to help women reintegrate back to society by teaching them how to make our products

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It’s so clear from your background that you’ve a passion for start-ups, specifically in the online space. How did you make the leap from working for companies that have such a strong, passionate vision to forming your own venture? What lessons did you learn from OpenRice, CozyCot, etc?

ML: Thanks for doing your research on me! Right after I graduated, I was fortunate enough to gain full-time employment for a large financially-healthy company at a competitive salary during one of my generation’s worse economic crisis while a lot of my highly, if not more, qualified peers were having difficulty finding great jobs.

However, despite the stability and obvious upward career trajectory, I was getting restless with too much bureaucracy, because at my very essence, I’m more of a creative innovator than an operational person. I get daily energy from dreaming up new things instead of managing the nitty-gritty day-to-day affair of scaling up to new heights.

I decided to join a big holding company that owns high-traffic job portals in Asia and they were launching in the country that I was then residing, so I decided to jump at the opportunity. I launched/work with projects/startups backed by much more stable and bigger companies so that gave me the safety net and resources to experiment but at the same time the feel of a startup.

Have you endured any challenges with Beautimy specific to your gender? We’ve read countless articles about the struggle for female founders to secure funding—have you found this to be the case? If so, how have you overcome these challenges? Can you share any specific anecdotes?

ML: Oh, trust me, I’ve read and heard so many gender-related horror stories and have already primed myself for the worse case scenarios – but then I realize that these fears are mostly irrational and I do not want to live with that kind of paranoia, and we make real what we pay attention to. You are confined only by the walls you build yourself.

Sometimes there is a misalignment of intentions when you first connect with the opposite gender. You see them as a professional contact, but they see you as nothing more than a romantic interest – but I believe that you teach people how to treat you.

Don’t let other people’s voices drown your own inner voice. Ever. Mind over matter.

I could definitely recall one specific anecdote that has been etched into my memory. Once, an industry heavyweight obnoxiously uttered this to me and my team of young fresh female members: “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen, little girl”. For some reason, that comment didn’t offend me but thrilled and amused me. Precisely because I’m not shaken by that comment and continued to surpass all expectations that I gained respect in a pressure-cooker male-dominated environment.

Ellen Chisa wrote a terrific piece about what she learned in her first year at HBS. One of the leadership lessons challenges you to understand your worst self. I imagine that this is appropriate for all leaders, even more so for entrepreneurs since new ventures can be so all encompassing. When it comes to being a leader, what is your worst self and when does it come out? And what do you do to combat it?

ML: Patience isn’t exactly my best virtue and when blood sugar is low, sleep is inadequate, tempers flare and misplaced anger take commonplace.

Everything that Ben Horowitz wrote in this article on managing your own psychology helps a lot because you constantly feel like you’re failing, but it is only by reading other people’s experiences that it makes me feel so much less alone.

What has surprised you most about launching your own company? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

ML: You will never feel like you’re ever prepared enough. You’re putting out fires all the time. There is a kind of valedictory feel to any sort of creative output but mistakes are the portals of discovery and the best way to get started is to quit talk and being doing and keep doing it until you’re successful. Advice is largely irrelevant because we all have our own inherent biases. This quote from Ira Glass on storytelling:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

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Who has inspired you along the way and why?

ML: I get inspiration everywhere. I believe that if something isn’t beautiful, useful or inspiring, that we’re probably better without it. Kat Cole, Shiza Shahid, the two sisters from Juicy Couture, Ivanka Trump, Elizabeth Holmes, Hillary Clinton, etc.

What are the three things that people who are interested in launching a start-up should know? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding beauty-related ventures?

ML: The age-old adage “just do it” because done is better than perfect. See point number 5. Everyone is different and will go through different experiences. The only way to get started is to quit talking and start doing. Take baby steps. Watch the power of vulnerability by Brene Brown. Feel free to imitate others because we’re all imperfect mirrors.

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day? What are three books you’ve read that have helped you along the way?

ML: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. “How Will You Measure Your Life” by HBS professor Clayton Christensen.

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All images courtesy of Melissa Lim.

built by women: arlene gibbs, interior decorator, screenwriter/producer

arlene gibbs

When I first visited Rome in 2008, Arlene took me to the most incredible Italian restaurant–one I would never have found on a map. We were introduced by a woman who was interested in adapting my memoir for film. Although the project fell through, I’m thankful for having met Arlene and for our long-distance friendship since, punctuated by my occasional visits to Italy.

I admire Arlene deeply, embarrassingly so. She left a job, country, and life in pursuit of something other. She wasn’t tethered to age as a means of trapping one in one’s vocation, rather she set out to find her place in the world. Up until a few months ago she was a successful writer/producer and now tell stories in another form: interiors. I love women with verve, women who take risks, break ranks, and live without apology. Arlene is all of these things, but in the end she’s a truth-teller. I only hope to be as successful as I move through my acts. Let her story inspire you. –FS

When I first met you, you’d recently emigrated to Rome from the U.S. Truth be told, I admired you, how brave you were to leave a successful career behind for something other. This was a time before we’d read articles about expats and second acts. Your career has spanned politics, film and entertainment—but tell us how you returned to your first love: decorating. Why did you leave producing behind?

Arlene Gibbs: What timing. Until two months ago, I had two careers going on, screenwriter/producer, and decorator.

When we first met, I was writing full-time and developing a few projects as a producer. Everyone told me it would be impossible to be a screenwriter/producer based in Rome (especially without a trust fund). Even after our movie Jumping The Broom was released, and importantly was a hit, I heard the same thing. Nothing changed. Nobody cared. It was a “niche” film. When I pointed out to a producer friend that there were plenty of successful British screenwriters who worked in Hollywood but lived in London, I was told, “Yes, but they are British, white, and male.”

To your last question, it took me forever to see the light. Earlier this summer, one of my dear friends, who lives in Rome, said that the universe was screaming at me and I was ignoring the signs. This friend is usually not that crunchy. I needed to heed her advice.

Then I read this quote from JJ Martin, an American fashion and design journalist who lives in Milan, and everything clicked.

The best advice I’ve ever received was to look at everything that comes your way as an opportunity. Do not underestimate the power of chance and fate. Do what you love, what opens you up, not what closes you down, and makes you act like an asshole. Be responsible, be loving, be caring. That’s what I advise to anyone starting out. If you truly love fashion, it will come to you.

She’s talking about fashion but it could be applied to any creative endeavor. I wasn’t an asshole when I worked in Hollywood, my former assistants still speak to me, but I was not myself. I became a very bitter person.

I was recently hired for a decorating project in Los Angeles. It was my first trip back since making my big decision. It was a great experience. I returned to Rome feeling positive instead of depressed.

I’ve met a lot of people our age who feel regret. Regret that they didn’t pursue this or that life sooner, hadn’t met their partner earlier in life, but I tend to believe that we find ourselves at a certain place because of all the choices we’ve made, not in spite of them. Would you agree? Do you have any regrets about the paths you’ve taken?

AG: I agree with you but I had so many regrets when I lived in Los Angeles. I wish I had started working in Hollywood at a younger age. That a woman in her EARLY 30s was told to lie about her age was ridiculous.

I wish I had worked on Wall Street, saved a lot of money, and then moved to L.A. to work in the Biz. I wish I had trusted my gut more, instead of trying to be something I wasn’t. My parents are from the Caribbean and couldn’t understand why I would choose to work in a field where migraines and panic attacks were normal.

Now, I don’t have regrets. It took me a while to get to the thing I’m supposed to do. I do believe all the experiences I’ve had, good and bad, were invaluable opportunities to learn. I think it’s just as important to know what you don’t do well, not just the areas/jobs where you excel.

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Image Credit: Gina Gomez.

You’ve endured and prospered (IMO) amidst the one-two punch of being an expat and building a business for yourself in Italy. The challenges you faced (and perhaps struggle with still?) –would you say they’re mutually exclusive, or are they more like a ven diagram, one challenge eclipsing or being born out of another?

AG: Hmmm. I worked in Hollywood, which is not a meritocracy, so many of the things that infuriate American and British expats/immigrants about Italy, don’t faze me.

Is it easy to be an entrepreneur in Italy? No, it’s not. True, I do work internationally but my business is based here and Italy ranks as one of the most difficult countries for businesses. The newish Renzi government is trying to make things easier. We’ll see.

The red tape here is bonkers but it’s still easier than being a black woman working in Hollywood. Did you see the first episode of Project Greenlight this week? No words (FS: I did, and I agree, no words. I thought Damon was one of the good ones).

Regarding your previous work in film and politics– I imagine both careers required navigating verbal landmines and dealing with strong personalities. Do you feel your time spent in both careers helped you in your freelance one?

AG: Absolutely. Also, all three are about story telling, a narrative. Interior design does it in a visual way, like film, but instead of moving images it’s more tactile, fabric, form/function, etc.

A practical question—how did you build a client base and portfolio? Are there any challenges distinct to Italy?

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Credits: Arlene Gibbs, Interior Designer. Architect: Domenico Minchilli. Photography: Mario Flores

AG: It doesn’t matter if you’re self taught or graduated from Parsons with straight A’s, when you’re first starting out, your clients will be friends and family (or people who are friends with your friends or family), especially for residential projects. It’s very intimate to work with someone in/on your home.

In time, if your work is published, clients who are not your friends/family will find you. However, even then, there is a courtship of sorts. Word of mouth is very important, of course. Clients will refer you to their family/friends.

Regarding my challenges that are unique to Italy, there are a few.

Before my internship, I never worked in an Italian office. I wrote all day, in English, at home by myself. My Italian did not improve when I first moved to Rome, as I wasn’t in school studying anymore. There are a lot of expats in Rome and my Italian friends speak English well. Now that I’m working with artisans, contractors, and some vendors who don’t speak English, I cannot just switch to English when I get frustrated trying to communicate. During most of my workday I’m using technical vocabulary that is not used in everyday conversation. It’s not surprising that sometimes my brain hurts. Learning a new language as an adult is tough but I’m determined to become truly fluent.

In Italy architects do the majority of interior design work. There are more architects in Rome than in the entire country of France. It’s very competitive.

In the States, technically, there’s a huge difference between an interior designer and a decorator. The former is able to do structural work and could be seen as an interior architect. Many American architects disagree. Here, there isn’t a difference as both decorators and interiors designers are not architects. End of story. If there is structural work to be done, you call an architect and/or an engineer and collaborate. I don’t know if it’s a plus or a minus that there aren’t many interior designers/decorators in Italy. Perhaps it’s not relevant.

I do know that networking in Italy is not like the States. It’s less aggressive, even in Milan. It’s a big learning curve.

Have you endured any challenges building an interior decorating business specific to being a woman or woman of color? How did you manage them?

AG: No, I haven’t. After working in a male-dominated industry for years, it was odd at first to attend design industry conferences/events and see so many women! And there are women over the age of forty. What is happening?

What has surprised you most about launching your business? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

AG: I’m surprised by how welcoming and helpful my colleagues were/are. It unnerves me. Seriously.

As my friends know, I’m very organized. My Italian friends find all my lists and my discomfort with last minutes plans hilarious but my anal retentive ways have served me well.

Working for myself, I still struggle with setting clear work/life boundaries. They bleed into each other. It’s not healthy and counter-productive especially when you work in a creative field. It’s important to step on the brakes and disconnect once in a while. If you’re going, going, going all the time how can you really take things in? What’s inspiring you?

Do I need to return text messages and emails on Sundays and/or at 9:00 p.m. at night? My business is young and I do feel a lot of pressure to be available to my clients 24/7.

As a friend said, I’m not an ER doctor. Of course it’s okay for clients to email me when things are on their minds but unless it’s an emergency (which in decorating what could that be on a day when there are no deliveries) I can return the emails on Monday.

Who has inspired you along the way and why?

AG: Man, this would be such a long list. There have been many people who have inspired me directly or indirectly. What they all have in common is passion. They have worked in different fields and many have had non-traditional career paths. I have been that person who was sleepwalking through life and now I appreciate how lucky I am to do what I love.

What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own business or going freelance? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding interior-related ventures?

AG:
If you’re going to freelance in a creative field learn and respect the craft.
I know people complain about the Millennials but I don’t think this is a generation issue but an instant gratification issue.

There’s nothing wrong with exploring different fields. If you want to do something creative, do it but realize it’s going to take some time and hard work. Take it seriously, or don’t bother.

I was the oldest interior design intern ever but that experience was priceless. I’ve been fortunate to have people trust me and believe in my skills. I don’t know everything and I’m grateful to have more established peers in my life who mentor me. I’ve made mistakes and will continue to do so as I’m not a robot. But I learn from them and try not to make the same mistake twice. I’m floored by the number of people I meet here who think they can just, poof, wake up one day and be a success at something they know nothing about and takes people years to learn.

Do your homework.
Some people freelance because they have been downsized. Others choose to freelance. Either way, it’s important to find out as much as you can about the nuts and bolts of your new endeavor, not just the fun and sexy part.

Write a business plan. One could be the most talented creative person on the planet but if they cannot run a business, they will not succeed. Attend design conferences in your city or the big national ones in New York or Los Angeles. In Europe there are large international conferences in Milan, Paris, and London.

Many designers have workshops or bootcamps. A note of caution, choose wisely. There are bloggers who decorate/design and decorator/designers who blog (occasionally). Huge difference. Be clear about what you want to gain from the experience. I attended Kathryn M. Ireland’s workshop in Los Angeles (she also has one in France) early in my career and still use the tools I learned everyday. It was informative and also a blast.

For design creatives I highly recommend the book, The Business of Design by Keith Granet.

Have a POV.
This doesn’t a mean a minimalist designer cannot work with a maximalist client. If you look at the work of the most respected and successful designers, they all have a distinct POV. There are elements of their DNA in each project but the home fits the client’s tastes and needs.

Anyone can take a pretty photo during Fashion Week and post it on Instagram. The street style photographers who have broken through did so because they had a POV. Once this social media bubble burst or shifts (again) the creatives who have something to say and an interesting way to say it will continue to work.

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

Working out.
I’m a morning person and one of my favorite things to do is jog or walk through the streets of Rome to Villa Borghese or Doria Pamphili Park. That early in the morning, the streets are quiet and the light is incredible. Living in Rome is a pain sometimes with all the bureaucracy, the tour buses, drunk American exchange students, the noise, people who refuse to clean up after their dogs, etc. Then you jog past the building where Bernini lived and buildings like the Pantheon and remember why you put up with Rome’s craziness. She’s inspiring, beautiful, and humbling.

Moleskine daily calendar.
I do have a calendar on my Mac and each project has a punch sheet or action items list but there’s something about literally crossing things off on a to-do-list that makes me happy and feel very accomplished.

iPhone.
I resisted getting one, as I was tired of everyone going on about their iPhones as if they just had a baby or something.

Now I don’t know how I lived without it for so long. I have a ton of information in one tiny device. It holds my contacts, my calendar, a camera, apps I use all the time like Instagram, Pinterest, WhatApp, Shazam, Goggle, a translation app, a compass, my music, pictures of my projects and moodboards, etc. etc.

All images courtesy of Arlene Gibbs, except where noted.

built by women: jenna tanenbaum, founder of green blender

jenna-smoothie Today I’m chatting with Jenna Tanenbaum, founder of Green Blender, a service that delivers organic ingredients and recipes for superfood smoothies–right to your doorstep. Enjoy!

First off, congratulations on closing a round of seed funding! I’m in awe of Green Blender, and how you’ve transformed a genius idea into a fully-fledged business. Can you tell us about how Green Blender came to be, and what you envision as its future?

Jenna Tanenbaum: Thank you! The idea really came out of a frustration I had around health and wellness. Obviously what we eat is very important to our health, but in our society, when people decide to improve their health, often times, they go down a path of extremes and deprivation. We decide to give up carbs or go on a very restrictive diet and exercise plan where “no pain, no gain” becomes a mantra. I, myself, have gone on countless diets and cleanses where I am literally ticking off the days until I can have fro-yo and pizza again. This is not a sustainable approach to health and does not build healthy habits that last. Food becomes the enemy in these situations where guilt and restrictions run rampant.

I wanted to start a company that let people indulge in their health. If you love the food you are eating and it also taste great and is easy to make, then that’s sustainable. Investing in health is one of the smartest placed bets you can make.

I love that I am helping people start their day with a healthy decision and I’m ultimately helping them form not only a healthier lifestyle, but also a better relationship with the food they eat.

It’s so clear from your background that you’ve a passion for start-ups. How did you make the leap from working for companies that have such a strong, passionate vision to forming your own venture? What lessons did you learn from the meteoric rise of ClassPass?

JT: I have had a pretty eclectic career to say the least. I went to school for business and finance and started off as a consultant working in anti-money laundering and consumer compliance. I quickly realized that working in the regulatory industry wasn’t for me.

I remember reading a piece about the culture of Sales Force on a flight back from a client’s site and realized that I had to get into a company that had a strong culture. This is what spurred my career in start-ups. I was a product analyst at a real time data company, Chartbeat, and then went into marketing at ClassPass.

I learned two main things working at high growth start-ups. 1. The founders have to be passionate about the problem they are trying to solve and 2. The team needs to be passionate about the problem the company is trying to solve.

The first point flows into the second. How can you expect your team to be passionate about something if you are not?

What has surprised you most about launching your own company? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

JT: Running a company, especially a health and food company, is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I was prepared to help people but I didn’t realize how deeply rewarding and satisfying I would find it. Food is so emotionally charged. Hearing how Green Blender has helped customers combat obesity, high blood pressure and lethargy while at the same time repairing the relationship they have with their health and with their food is truly an amazing feeling.

Who has inspired you along the way and why?

JT: My co-founder, Amir Cohen, inspires me all the time. Not only are we partners at Green Blender, but we are partners in life. He was the person who ultimately convinced me to quit my job, take a risk, and work on this idea with him. He inspires me because his approach to work and problem solving is so different than my own. I tend to be more of a work-aholic and he is constantly showing me that I can enjoy the process and I don’t need to be glued to my computer to be productive and effective.

I love working with him because I love observing how he executes ideas. He is very thoughtful and meticulous but he is a playful leader. He loves fun and really cares if others are having fun around him. I think this mentality really brings the most out of the people who interact with our brand. His approach is contagious and I can’t help but enjoy the process when I’m around him.

What are the three things that people who are interested in launching a start-up should know? Are there specific lessons you can share regarding food-related ventures?

JT: The three things I’ve learned:
1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable – this is my mantra. I am constantly pushing myself out of my safe heavens and getting out there to try something new. I truly believe that’s where you grow and learn the most. I am extremely camera shy when shooting videos but I recently committed myself to making a new Green Blender smoothie every morning on our Periscope channel. I seriously get a little shaky every time I hit start broadcast.
2. Get a product out there as soon as you can – Before we launched we had a lot of theories about who our customers might be and what they might want. We spent a lot of time thinking about them and designed our theoretical product with them in mind. Once we launched, of course, all that work went out the window and our actual customers took shape. One of the biggest mistakes an entrepreneur can do is wait to launch the perfect product.
3. Nobody will solve your problems but you – This is a big one. Core business problems must be approached head on – no consultant, employee or software will be able to solve the key problems in your business. Of course delegate as much as possible, but you must find the answer to the issues core to your business.

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day?

JT: My blender – This goes without saying. I drink the Green Blender kool-aid hard core and will make a smoothie from that week’s box for breakfast. I’m then usually at my blender a few times a week testing new recipe ideas.

Rapportive – Rapportive is a Gmail extension that uses email address to pull LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. Green Blender is building a strong following and I use this tool to help identify potential leads for brand ambassadors and business development deals.

MeetEdgar – there is no way around it, brands must maintain a presence on social media platforms. Consistency (along with great content) is king and MeetEdgar let’s Green Blender categorize and rotate a lot of our evergreen content so my team doesn’t have to waste time republishing and writing content we can use again.

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All images courtesy of Green Blender.

built by women: chatting that agency life, instagram stars, pink cats, and integrity with alex dickerson

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What do I miss most about New York? My friends. When I got sober, it took me years to rebuild all the friendships I’d broken. Some remained as they were–in a state of disrepair–while others found themselves mended and transformed into something healthier, new. You leave your dead behind (you may even have to kill them yourself) in order to move on. I’m grateful for the women in my life because they challenge, support, and inspire me. They make me laugh that ugly laugh, the kind that finds you choked up in tears.

I regret that I haven’t met Alex sooner. While I was waving everyone away, muttering no new friends, my friend Grace rolled her eyes, ignored my nonsense, and set me up with Alex because I suspected she knew that we’d become fast friends.

I mean, Alex is the owner of a pink cat. That really should tell you everything.

Alex is one of the great ones. She’s smart, sharp, acerbic, and honest. There’s no hey, girl! (kiss kiss), followed by a turn of a head, a whisper of something unkind. Alex is real, plays it as it lays, and if I can find a way to smother her and her pink panther out west, know that I would do it.

On a professional note, Alex received her MBA in Spain, speaks flawless Spanish, and is the founder of a boutique communications agency in New York, focusing on jewelry and accessories designers. Her business philosophy is in-step with how she lives her private life: surround yourself with good people and help them make magic happen.

While I supposed to publish this next week, I couldn’t wait to share this with you. In this chat between two friends, Alex brings the truth and I’m here for all of it. –FS

We’ve talked about this often—our allergy to the traditional agency structure. And while it’s a fit for some, it sends people like us fleeing for cover. Can you tell us about how Le Brain came to be, how you’ve distinctly set it apart from the boutique agency pack, and what you envision as its future?

Alex Dickerson: I worked in an array of agencies of all sizes for almost 10 years and ultimately I realized I wanted to be master of my own destiny, choose my own clients, and create a portfolio of brands that inspired me and “made sense” as a group. I’d seen that agencies could be a place for mediocre people to hide, or ascend up the ranks without deserving it. I’d also seen that agency leaders could be money-hungry and willing take on anyone able to pay a bloated monthly retainer, despite the client not fitting with the employees’ skill sets. I was tired of watching the owners cash a fat check each month while I struggled with accounts that didn’t fit my profile (i.e. the utility bag brand that was sold at Office Depot, while I was the Luxury Jewelry director…say what?)

And so, Le Brain was born.

We are different because we are strategic, honest and thoughtful – I won’t take on a client that isn’t right because they have a big bank account. I mean, if we are talking 6-figures a month, maybe I’ll sing a sell-out tune, but I really try to only work with designers that do something that inspires me and my team, and at their heart, are decent people. We aren’t a place where I go out and pitch and promise the world to prospective clients and then dump it on an intern’s lap and say, “Deliver this with a full page in ELLE Fashion News next month, thanks, bye.” We are a place that challenges ideas (we aren’t “yes girls”) because if it doesn’t make sense, why are we doing it? Good work starts by knowing your market and managing expectations.

We really try to work as a team and each support our clients and projects with the unique skills that we all have. The future? Fewer clients, more money, more attention—thanks, Jerry McGuire. No seriously, I like what we are doing and how we continually evolve – we aren’t just a PR firm, and I hope as we grow that becomes less and less of a descriptor of our work. I want to help clients build their brands from the bottom up…product shots, lifestyle images, web development, collaborations, editorial, influencers, and financial success. I really enjoy being able to be a partner to our clients.

It amazes me how the lines between marketing disciplines have blurred in the past ten years. It used to be that you had siloed departments, budgets and roles, and every department worked (or seemingly so) independent of one another. However, with everyone being online that way of business changed overnight, flattened it. Turned the model inside out and punched it in the face a couple of times. Now, the most successful businesses work when disciplines collaborate since the consumer is in control. What’s it like juggling brand work, traditional PR and social?

AD: Welcome to the juggle, Axl Rose. What’s it like? Mind-blowingly frustrating and creative and stressful and fast-paced. A land filled with possibility and limitless options – which is awesome but really challenging when you’re trying to stay in front of the trends and advise clients on what’s best for them.

I love that all of these areas are fused because it means that we have the chance to create the collateral materials that we know will work, and then when we do get results we can post it to our own audience that we have built. It is powerful. At the same time, it is awful because now many brands expect all of those aspects to be housed under the general term of “PR” but they don’t acknowledge the different skill sets it requires and the need to compensate us for the enlarged scope of work we are doing. That, and the fact that a client attention span is so much shorter, and just when you’ve got one thing properly in place they want you to do a Periscope campaign, without having tested the first thing they thought about trying.

One of the things we often talk about, at length, is the shifting influencer climate (see how I made that professional?). I think we both agree that people who do good and honest work should be compensated appropriately. What challenges have you faced as someone who has to negotiate with influencers (or their agents), but at the same time has to appease clients?

AD: The influencer climate is a scene out of Mean Girls. My new catch phrase when I assess influencers with clients is: “Let’s just make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.” This whole market is very much a bubble – and I truly think/hope it is going to burst soon. Are there talented voices out there? ABSOLUTELY – there are fantastic digital influencers with original content, researched opinions and a genuine point of view. And there are a lot of women who are doing absolutely nothing and getting paid for it, and they’re are ruining it for the rest of us. People that have bought followers early, before people could catch on, and then somehow made a following out of it with some sweet photoshopping skillz. People who charge a fortune and somehow get big brands with thoughtless budgets to pay, but really have no credibility or taste.

Challenges I’ve faced in this arena – the biggest one is that this market really hasn’t been around long enough to truly measure the return. Yes we can talk about unique page views and engagement (these are both so vague and malleable) but what does that really mean? Does it matter that your picture of your hot dog legs at the beach got 15k likes and you tagged a bikini company in the photo? Did the bikini company really get anything out of that? Doubtful.

When it comes to dealing with the agencies…man that one is tough. I get it, they serve a purpose. But it feels like there’s a monopoly system happening and a few big players just acquire all this “talent” without really vetting them, and suddenly the price tags skyrocket with nothing really behind it. Then the smaller brands are screwed and are forced to compete in the same space as a brand that has a huge budget and is willing to shell out $10k for an Instagram post for a crappy handbag. It can feel insurmountable to the emerging designer.

Am I bitter I didn’t start a blog years ago and now make a fortune off of talking about the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale? You bet I am.

le brain
le brain

Talk to me about getting your MBA in Spain. Have you ever thought about picking up and leaving the U.S.?

AD: Every. Single. Day. Living in Barcelona and studying there were the happiest years of my life. What a unique opportunity to step out of the traditional adult track to interact with a group of super smart individuals from all over the world. The MBA really taught me to think on my feet and also to have confidence that if I don’t know something I can either fake it, ask the right questions or just learn how to do it. I was definitely the Elle Woods acceptance, btw. Me, fashion PR girl, sitting front row in Corporate Finance.

I would love to live abroad again. The culture and mindset are so different in other locations – they don’t give you a gold star for unnecessarily logging insane hours and working over the weekend. They don’t give you a trophy just for showing up. I find that their system is built more on merit and they reward those that get it done, that work smart (not just hard) and perform.

Have you endured any challenges running a company and building a business specific to being a woman?

AD: I find that people don’t take women as seriously as they take men. Men don’t take women as seriously, women don’t take women as seriously. I went in to talk to a financial planner about the future of the business and he couldn’t have been more condescending. He lead with a smirk, saying, “So you know what a P&L is?” I almost threw my folder full of excel sheets showing my sensitivity analysis in his face. I politely informed him that just because I work in fashion and get my period that I shockingly could do math. Then I left. I’m sure he probably turned around to his colleague and said, “That raging b*tch clearly has PMS.” The moral of the story, as a woman you have to navigate around people’s misconceptions of what you know and what you can endure – you have to play their game and your own, and that is tough.

Alex Dickerson, my friend + badass agency owner
Alex Dickerson, my friend + badass agency owner
Ellen Chisa wrote a terrific piece about what she learned in her first year at HBS. One of the leadership lessons challenges you to understand your worst self. I imagine that this is appropriate for all leaders, even more so for entrepreneurs since new ventures can be so all encompassing. When it comes to being a leader, what is your worst self and when does it come out? And what do you do to combat it?

AD: My worst self is a defensive, stubborn, nagger that is focused on pleasing everyone to get over crushing self-doubt. Wow, I suck. This worst self comes out when I know what I have said or done is right but someone disagrees with me – if a client comes back and criticizes a campaign we did or isn’t satisfied with what I think is a fantastic result. To combat it, I try to address it head on and say “listen, I realize that I am having a big reaction to this and I might nag/be stubborn/be defensive about it, but that is because…” In my experience if you tell people what you feel, in no uncertain terms, they will be more willing to level with you. My team appreciates it when I stop myself in a tirade and say, “Yes, I’m nagging you and it is because I am nervous about something.” It is ok to be human – people can forget that in the work place.

What has surprised you most about launching Le Brain? What didn’t you expect? More importantly, what were you (or not) prepared for?

AD: The thing I expected the least is that I still feel like I’m working for someone else – I often take my freedom for granted and find myself limited. Felicia, you recommended a wonderful book that helps me get unblocked in those particularly dark times – The Crossroads of Should and Must. When I sat down and really thought about it, I came to conclusion that it is very possible that I am already doing my “must” but I have built up a bunch of internal mental barriers that somehow make it feel like my “should.” Sorry for those that haven’t read the book as this probably sounds like garbage – do yourself a favor and go out and read it.

Homepolish-9713-room-design-4f6d290f
Le Brain

Homepolish-9713-room-design-973a08be

Who has inspired you along the way and why?

AD: I am very lucky to have an amazing group of friends that are all kicking ass and taking names, and these people inspire me daily. From designers to bloggers to buyers to writers to entrepreneurs, women with limitless energy and smarts surround me. When I’m feeling down or less-than I can talk to one of them and draw some power from one of their successes and feel that I’m back on track. Natalie, Grace, Karen, Jen, Tara, Felicia, you guys are at the top of my speed dial list.

My very first mentor in fashion was a man named Adrian, who has sadly since passed away. He taught me that you should always try to love what you’re doing, no matter what, and to find a way to be irreplaceable wherever you are. He was the first one that really showed me how to fake it ‘til I made it and he brought such glamour and passion to everything he touched. It didn’t matter that I was an intern and he was a VP, he treated me with respect and really took time to teach me. I’ll never forget him.

What are the three things that people who are interested in launching their own company (agency or otherwise)?

AD: My three pieces of advice or observations from having my own company are:
• Fake it ‘til you make it – whatever you say with confidence instantly becomes fact
• Don’t be afraid to say no to projects and to turn business down – don’t sell out, ever – it WILL come back to bite you
• Don’t be shocked when you find out that you’re the last one to get paid…your employees and clients secretly own you, haha

What are the three essential tools (or resources) you rely upon to get through your day? I was going to say Oscar, your pink cat, but I’ll let you take this one. ☺

AD: I couldn’t get through the day without:
• Talking to friends and laughing about the absurdity of what crosses our desks – sarcasm is key to diffuse some of the stress.
• My perfect pink kitten…seriously, he’s a blue Abyssinian and such a distinguished gentleman with delicate pink ears and a pink belly. I come home and instantly forget about what was bothering me when he snuggles up. Crazy cat lady? Maybe.
• Reading short digests of news and gossip because in my business we trade in knowing just a shred of information. Nothing like an US Weekly email headline to get me through an awkward conversation with an editor or client – hey, did you hear that Bethenny has a new boyfriend? What’s that all about! AND SCENE.

oscar, the pink cat

All images courtesy of Alex Dickerson + Home Polish.