I have a lot of hangups, judgments and, well, let’s say stuff, about today’s successful “entrepreneurs.” Namely, influencers who have figured out marketing strategies around themselves and created multi-million dollar businesses around them.
And yet, I envy them.
I’ve worked at two coveted agencies. World-leading, top-tier agencies that many people fight to get their foot into the door at. They are the stuff that Mad Men was built on. Red Sky Interactive was at the top of the internet 1.0 boom in San Francisco when I first got out of art school and joined them as a Designer. My first project was for Nike, then Miller Lite, then Sutterhome and Absolut. These are the names that any creative wants in their portfolios. These are the names that every household knows and has come to respect. It was proof that what I was doing for a living mattered.
From there I headed to Los Angeles and got a freelance gig that turned into full-time employment at coveted TBWA\Chiat\Day. I stayed there for nearly a decade working on Nissan, Infiniti, Visa, Lucky Brand Jeans, and well, any new business pitch that floated through the doors. Again, Fortune 100 brands that anyone in the world had heard of. It was exciting for my family to be able to share with their friends what I was working on and get nodding heads of approval. Working hard day and night on creative work that was going to be seen by millions fueled my passion. I was doing work that was prestigious and famous. It was self-congratulatory and self-important.
I then co-founded and created a full-service design agency based in Venice, CA. We built that into a multi-million dollar business in a little over a year. By year 3 we had 24 employees and were contemplating the idea of expansion versus reduction. It was a lot to manage and we wanted to always produce top-tier quality work for ourselves and clients and maintain the facade of a work-life balance. (Our employees had it; we did not.)
In year 3 we started to open to the idea that in order to grow past our current situation and bring in bigger money, we were going to have to do some PR. Our client base was all word-of-mouth, and from previous relationships I had held working in the industry for nearly two decades. To scale, we needed more clients. To get more clients, we needed visibility.
Here’s the kicker: we were a design and marketing agency that never publicized our own work. We never talked about ourselves. I was asked to speak on panels as a woman entrepreneur and I passed on them because I thought, what value could I possibly bring? All that was based on fear. I can speak for myself personally in that I never wanted to share what we were doing unless I could point to a marker of success. I didn’t want to fail in public, so I kept as much private as I could for as long as I could.
We started to interview for PR people and most of them were interested in the woman entrepreneur story, but a lot of them struggled to see how they could position us or have any success in pitching us. This left me numb and validated a limiting belief that I was harboring: I’m not good enough, what I’ve built is not good enough, and no one is interested in hearing about us unless we land a big Fortune 500 client. That we were making amazing world-class creations and tripling both our clients’ and our own income on shoe-string budgets was of no interest to anyone in the PR world, and that left me feeling deflated.
Here’s where the resentment of an influencer comes in. (Note, this is a broad statement.) From the outside, it appears they have nothing but themselves and maybe a knack for writing or taking pictures or creating content. And from that, big brands want to utilize their outreach and connection, and then POOF, influencers suddenly get money for pimping goods. Or, said influencer gets savvy on what it is they’re doing and creates courses to sell them to people who’d like to also have that lifestyle or dream. They sell them as get-rich, get-known schemes and call them marketing, advertising, and design.
I want to shout and shake. Something along the lines of the following goes through my head: (For dramatic effect imagine the camera pointing up at me from down below, making me larger and scarier than life. My finger is pointing and wagging indignantly.)
“I worked at the largest advertising agencies in the world on the biggest brands in the world, and you call this cookie-cutter crap marketing and DESIGN? And you’re going to SELL it to other people? How DARE you! How dare you.”
In my mind, there are two camps. The real entrepreneurs, the ones who have created a business that produces a product or service for customers. The businesses that might get venture capital, the ones that make the NASDAC or S&P, employ hundreds if not thousands, the ones that make work that matters. And then there are all these bloggers and influencers who accidentally got successful and are shoveling drivel for others to buy. Ouch. Well, hello, judgemental lady! I see you there hiding behind your skewed view of success.
That agency I helped create and build? After 5 years, I sold my shares to my partner because I was very sick and my body wasn’t going to have it anymore. I needed to step away and heal. After 18 months of using food as medicine, engaging in some serious mental transformation, helping others, volunteering, creating two startups (that I then jettisoned), joining NFP boards, coaching, mentoring and consulting — I needed to stop, think and listen to what it is I really wanted to do in this world. It’s always been there. I’ve been circling around it for a long time now.
It’s this: I want to help people. I want to share with the world what I know about entrepreneurship, being a woman in business, about healing and treating yourself right. To share that it’s OK to be a wreck, to be on a road of discovery. To heal and have set-backs and to change your mind. To truly share this with the world, I need to embrace being seen. Being out there, creating content. Showing myself, my world and creating a connection with them.
Nurturing has always been my way, I’ve just put it second to achieving more and creating clout for myself through the association of my work. My new work is helping others and in order to do it properly and at scale, I get to let go of judgments, past resentments and embrace this new world of sharing and creating.
I’ve been walking around the mountain for a long time now in hopes that an entrance to the express elevator would appear. Turns out I just need to look at the mountain and start climbing. Starting at the bottom and working my way to the top. There are some well-worn paths ahead of me, so I get to choose if I’ll take them or pave my own way. But none of the paths are wide enough for me to carry any more of the “stuff,” AKA judgements, that I put on other people. There is only room for me, my positive thoughts and love for others along the way.