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.
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.