What happens after you design the life of your own making? What then?

the new work

Boomers will be our ruin, was our constant refrain in the late 90s. This was a time when we actively practiced our apathy, regarded the internet with a mixture of interest and suspicion, and carried cellular phones the size of small bricks. We survived grunge (barely), witnessed a 70s comeback (no thanks), and shirked off our over-generalized Gen-X moniker. We weren’t fragile unique snowflakes, but we didn’t aspire to be our parents either, and it would take a new generation of upstarts to fix the mistakes we initially made with the internet (remember the epic implosion of 2001? My unemployment checks sure do) and show us that everything we were taught to believe about work, success, and life, was far from gospel.

For seventeen years, I worked in an office. I did what I’d been told to do or mimicked generations past — I worked hard and paid my dues, knew my place in the hierarchy and adhered to it, and believed an Odyssean commute and a matching 401K were the “only way”. I never conceived of a career outside the confines of a cubicle until I learned that corporations couldn’t guarantee a safety net or protect you from market and industry volatility, and even though you were constantly reminded of your value and worth during the annual corporate retreats and holiday potlucks, your livelihood was predicated on a P&L. You were only as valuable and indisposable as a company was profitable. You existed for as long as a company could bear the weight of you.

In 1997, I graduated college with a plan: work in finance for 10–15 years, get married, have kids — the whole whitewashed nine-yard. Just stick to the plan, I told myself because this singular version of a dream, one that had been photocopied by multitudes, was the only way. Right?

Until I learned that I loathed finance. You could be good at something and still cry in bathroom stalls. My work didn’t challenge me, the dress code (yes, back then we had a suit dress code with only Fridays as a reprieve) was daunting, my coworkers all hailed from the same Northeast schools, and I became curious about this “Internet thing”. I spent nights and weekends navigating AOL and dial-up service (remember when no one could reach you because you were online? Good times.) and using my financial and accounting skills, I launched a small business where I bought designer clothes and accessories from outlets and samples sales in New York and sold them online. I did this successfully for two years, but still didn’t believe in the safety of going out on my own. I’d relegated my business to a side project, that thing that would steer me away from finance and I could mail my paper resumes to new companies in new industries. During this time, I managed to fit in getting my master’s degree in Fine Arts — the antithesis of my “safe” Bachelor’s of Science degree.

My plan in 1997 was a graft that didn’t take, an implanted organ rejected by its host. My views on marriage shifted — I cared less about the white dress and the fanfare and confetti and instead wanted a partner, regardless of the paperwork. I also realized that I didn’t want children, which made marriage at the time a trickier proposition. Instead, I wanted my career and my novels. I worried less about the whitewashed life and figured that a partner would eventually materialize.

By 2013, most of my views of success were usurped. Millennials annoyed me initially with their impatience toward hierarchy and their seemingly abnormal professional velocity. There seemed to be an urgency in this generation that hadn’t existed previously. I kept thinking know your placeuntil I began to wonder what is “your place”? I was reminded of how I hated being silenced in the room when I had good ideas simply for the fact that I was under 30. I wanted to work hard, true, but I also wanted to contribute and be respected even if I hadn’t yet gone gray. I’d spent time around smart and creative millennials, who had great ideas and worked hard, but believed one could take control of one’s success, that one’s identity was not inextricably bound to their title. I saw them leave and start their own ventures and at first, I was shocked (though mostly afraid), but that fear turned into envy because I thought: I could do this too. So I left a job that made me unhappy to venture out on my own.

At first, I thought, oh, I’ll probably consult for a few months and get a job. Fast forward three and half years later.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles that will instruct you on how to be successful as a freelancer. I’m not here to add to that noise, other than to say yes, it’s important to discern if this kind of work is right for you as opposed to being seduced by the glamour of working from home (it’s not glamorous, rather, it’s often isolating), getting experts like bookkeepers and lawyers are tantamount, and being smart about your offering and value proposition (i.e. what you do and why you do it better or differently than the freelancer down the block), know you have to have multiple projects going as a hedge and you have to always be pitching, closing, etc — these are all important and elucidated elsewhere in excruciating (and necessary) detail.

I turn 41 this weekend and it took me a really long time to be okay with not having a plan, of playing the days as they lay. That I’m not a failure because I didn’t cleave to what I had thought defined one’s personal and financial success and realized that definitions aren’t binary. That you can fail and fail better.

Sometimes I look at my peers or those who are younger than me and I think: they have it together. They bought a house, they live debt-free, and their life isn’t an artful navigation of student loan officers, creditors, and creative accounting. And for a moment I step into that comparison trap and before the claws snap I fall back. That’s their life, their definition of happiness, their path — not mine.

Would I love to be out of debt? Absolutely. Do I regret going to a fancy Ivy League school for a graduate degree when I could’ve saved money and gone somewhere equally good and local? Sure. But right now, right this moment,I have a business that makes me jump out of bed in the morning, I write the books I dream of writing, and I’m healthy (finally), sane, and the things I want will come…eventually. Right now, I focus less on a “plan” and more on living the best and most mindful life I can live. Right now, I focus on giving back and using my privilege to help others. Right now, I focus on living.

I read this quote today (I’m not a fan of Kerouac, but felt it appropriate):

And I will die, and you will die, and we all will die, and even the stars will fade out one after another in time.

You could look at it and think, that’s morbid, or you can view it as a call to live.

a phoebe + kate update // on playing small

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Everyone wants to be big. Everyone wants that McMansion life. A friend introduces me to someone and says, Felicia started an agency. I recoil in response. I joke about how I’m allergic to certain words: marriage, guru, agency. Another friend asks me about my plans for this non-agency. Do I want to be big? Do I want to go global? And then it occurs to me that I’m allergic to a whole lexicon. I spent two years recovering from working for a sociopath; I’m not booking a return ticket to that life in the near future. I don’t want to be on a magazine’s list. I don’t want photos of my staff in quirky outfits splashed across some fashion blog. I do not want to be big. Big means beholden. Big implies choices I’m not interested in making.

Big ruins everything. Focusing on the size and weight of things was nearly my ruin. It’s important to learn from one’s mistakes.

Months ago, I sat across from my psychiatrist. It hadn’t even been three months since I existed in another space, one in which I wanted to quietly end my life. The medication he prescribed, Wellbutrin, altered me overnight. I went from thinking this is all too much to this is manageable. I can work with this. I borrowed money from friends to continue my therapy until I was able to balance on two feet, and three months in, I found myself talking to him about purpose. 

I remember saying, just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I like doing it. Although I admired and respected the people with whom I worked, I didn’t feel challenged. Days felt rote. In response, my therapist asked me when was the last time I felt joy in my work. It need not be a huge project or a major accomplishment–just tell me this, when were you last challenged? I thought about that, a lot, and I laughed. You’re going to think this is ridiculous… I remember fidgeting on his couch, crossing one leg over the other, uncrossing, and crossing again. I recounted a day I’d spent with a former colleague turned friend turned partner on a project, and we were on my patio styling and taking pictures of beauty products. It was fun because my friend made me laugh the entire day, and part of me knew that what we’re doing was kind of good, but not yet great. Meaning, I had a lot to learn. It’s a feeling of standing in the middle of your life with the recognition that part of you was excited about starting over. And that feeling of wonder, of abandoning a cap and gown and navigating all the firsts (apartment, rent check, job, performance review, etc) was about finding joy in the mystery.   

Can you make something out of that? my therapist asked. I shook my head. I didn’t know.   

The walk from my therapist’s office to my home is about a mile and a half. I like the walk, it’s necessary as it allows me to process the past hour I spent being honest and vulnerable in ways I’m still not accustomed. Even recently, my therapist asked me if I perform in therapy. If I like to put on a show. To which I responded, yes, for the first 15 minutes–I need to warm up. I can’t just walk in here and lay it all out to bear. I need those 15 minutes because it allows me to manage the difficult 45.    

So, I’m walking home and with the passing of each block, I got excited. I’ve built businesses before. I started thinking about value proposition, and offering, and I thought about a company where I would partner with people smarter than me to create and tell stories about the brands we love.     

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Then I thought about all the capability decks I’d created for my previous agency and subsequent clients. I thought about the words I used and how I rolled my eyes while typing them. I didn’t want that bullshit. I didn’t want to be like the rest. I met with a few friends and tried a few different ways of explaining what I wanted to do, and people got excited. But still. I didn’t want the stress of a P&L, of overhead dictating creative decisions. I wanted the fluidity of project work, of having the flexibility in picking my collaborators and partners, without being beholden to a retainer. I didn’t want to work with anyone crazy. I didn’t want to become crazy. And I wanted to work with people smarter, older, and younger than me. 

So I looked at my new novel and I remembered the first novel I really loved, and Phoebe & Kate was born.  

My problem (well, one of many) is that I tire of things quickly. I get hot about something then I lose interest. So I deliberately created a business model that gave me a Houdini-esque escape clause should I want to move on. At first, it was as if I made all the obvious mistakes I spent years undoing. I hired an incompetent bookkeeper, whom I quickly fired. I lamented over LLC vs. S-Corp since the latter has greater tax advantages, yet comes with paperwork that could possibly drive you crazy. A wise friend told me to stick with an LLC for now, and sent me this handy comparison, which made my decision that much more palatable. Even though I just got hit with a California small business tax bill (WTF is it with California and TAXES?! For the love.) And although I told everyone I knew I was doing this non-agency thing, I didn’t put on my Willie Loman suit and pack a briefcase of decks to pitch the world. I wrote an article on Medium, sent a few emails, and hid under my desk.

For a time, I wondered what people would think. I worried about public failure knowing that there are people in this world who wish this for me, or take satisfaction in my undoing. And then I stopped giving a fuck because a few months ago I wanted to end my life and finally, here I was, fighting to create a new one. Fuck everyone, I thought. If this fails, it fails. At least I tried.

Over the past couple of months, I hired a new bookkeeper (Brittany is fucking awesome, please hire her) who is making me realize that although I might have worked in investment banking I know nothing about money. She’s helping me get my financial house in order. I’ve made investments in this business, and I’m still working out processes with freelancers who operate on different schedules or have varying ways in which they work and communicate. 

Then I landed two awesome clients and I fist-pumped the air and thought, holy shit, this might work. 

Last week, I spent two days with a friend, Joanna, who I knew from blogging (we met once or twice IRL, but kept up with one another via text and our blogs), a friend who is an exceptional stylist and thoughtful creative. A friend who has become a trusted collaborator. One who isn’t afraid to impart wisdom while at the same time letting me know when I need to stay in my lane. We took a room in a fancy-pants hotel in Santa Monica, Palihouse, since it resembled a home, complete with airy rooms and a pristine kitchen. I shuttled over thousands of dollars worth of espresso machines, props, and all the photography equipment I’d accumulated and Joanna rolled up with a suitcase of props and her vision. From her, I learned how a real photo shoot was supposed to roll.  

The experience was exhausting and exhilarating. We worked from morning to evening and I wanted to collapse into my bed and have someone fork-feed me pasta. This shoot, which took a dizzying 3 weeks to pull together (from content strategy to brainstorming to shot list creation to prop purchases, styling, shooting, editing, and delivery of selects to the client), but in that brief amount of time I felt I’d learned more than I had in the past three years. I spent months taking online photography classes, downloading tutorials, and although I’ll never be as adept as someone who’s a professional, that’s not what I’m going after. We’re not shooting national ad campaigns–we’re having fun with food and coffee. I don’t need to do more because I’m content with what I have and I’m privileged to have the ability to live out a second act.    

There’s so much I need to learn. How to balance schedules. How to make processes easier and fluid, especially for people living in different states and time zones. How to budget and project revenue and costs. How to get a good working margin. How to know when to grow.

All of this is happening while the specter that is my insane amount of debt looms. I’m focused on paying that down aggressively, which means I have to work longer hours than I should. I take on more than what I’m sometimes able to manage–all with the knowledge that this is temporary. That in a couple of months I’ll be able to hire an assistant who will be able to help me streamline the jobs that come in.

But I’m happy. I haven’t been able to say that in a long, long time. I have a book coming out next year, I’ve got my health (mental and otherwise) back on track, I’m starting to make friends and build a life in Los Angeles, and I’m dealing with my debt, head-on.

So this is 40.   

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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.

designing your life: bad-ass entrepreneur, persia tatar von huddleston’s sucre bleu

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Imagine living a life of your own design. You bolt out of bed each day because every day is now an awakening. Every day is finally yours. Some time ago someone told me that you can either work for your dream or someone else’s. This year, my friend Persia and I decided to pursue our dream. Over the past year I’ve been privileged to see her idea — a line of high-end luxury religious chocolate {Jesus sprinkled with sea salt, can you even?!} — bloom, and I can’t tell you how excited I am to see her dream realized. I asked Persia, my dear friend and badass entrepreneur, to talk about what lead her to make this auspicious leap. Below, she shares a bit about her journey.– FS

A few years ago I left a job that was just ok, for what I hoped was a job that would make me happier, have less anxiety and actually look forward to Mondays. That never happened.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve liked every job I’ve had to-date, I met awesome people who are now friends and mentors, created some cool things and learned a ton, but the joy and happiness just was never there. Maybe that’s alot to ask from something that affords you a living, but I don’t think it’s a lot to ask from something that takes up such a large percentage of our lives and our thoughts.

This winter, over coffee, Felicia told me that I need to do what makes me happy with such assertion and certainty that I had to listen. I finally realized I needed to stop trying to find a job that was my perfect dream and create my own. My new assignment was to connect things I love with something that I could love as a business. I came down to a few things: food and art. As I went through my daily motions I would meditate on how I could fuse these together in many ways…until one day it hit me.

caf71dde231b11e3bf4822000a1ddbe2_7A flicker of a dream I had as a kid came to me – to create a chocolate Jesus (yes I’m serious), this is something I had always wanted to do growing up. I realized this childhood idea is the fusion of food and art for me, in the form of delicious sculptures.

This summer I took my savings and created the first prototype Jesus working with the amazing people at Tumbador and am now launching on Kickstarter! From idea to reality in under a year! The process to get here has definitely been challenging, but I can say this is the most fun I’ve had in my life and I now look forward to my Mondays!

About SUCRÉ BLEU: We’re artists and pop culture enthusiasts who want to make the world sweeter and more deliciously irreverent. Through our company SUCRÉ BLEU we’re creating a line of absurdly delicious chocolate figures of our culture’s most revered icons.

Our aim is to provoke, amuse, entertain, and compel you to blurt out: “WTF? This is crazy, awesome, beautiful, weird AND delicious. Why would anyone make that?!”

Our debut product will be a seven-inch 72%, 5oz dark chocolate Jesus on a cross, sprinkled with sea salt. Each luxuriously rich chocolate will be packaged as a super mod museum sculpture and include a personal handwritten note from Jesus. Our limited-edition run of 500 will be sold on Kickstarter for the holidays — each box will be signed and numbered.

Support my sweet friend’s venture on Kickstarter by clicking here.