Yesterday, I spent the day in almost-solitude, doing some writing on my book, and working on designs for clients. Yay for progress! Today is going to be crazy, and since I don’t have any new content written, I thought I’d share my presentation from AH Inspired. This is the talk I gave to the 30+ women who recently attended Amber Housley Inspired in Nashville. I always type out my talks before giving them, but I never actually read them during the talk, so the actual presentation was a lot more of me just talking, and not as formal as this reads. At any rate, I wanted to share. Enjoy!
I don’t want to talk about my successes, because that’s not where I learned anything. And if the goal is for you to leave here challenged, motivated, and inspired, telling you where I peaked isn’t going to be anything but me bragging–yuck. I think it’s more fair to say that peaking is FUN. We all know that. Surfing the crest of the wave is invigorating. But waves always crash. So, if there is anything I want do while I’m here, it’s to prepare you for the crash, and encourage you to enjoy the crest.
I started my first business in 2002. I’ve owned well over a dozen since then, but that first business was my baby. Bootstrapped babysitting money turned into a thriving wholesale business. Interestingly enough, I also started blogging in 2002, and blogged sporadically over the next decade. But I kept those two things very separate: the blogging was personal, the business was business. And never the twain shall meet.
And then one day, a friend told me that a brand was a holistic thing. That it started on the inside, and grew from there. To me, that made no sense. A brand was a promise. And, if you ran a stationery company, the promise was good customer service, because that’s what retailers wanted. End of story. I had also figured out over time that an “official” business had to have a strategic plan. And a strategic plan was was a vision, a mission, some values, some goals. In my mind, with a brand promise and a strategic plan, anyone with a lick of sense should be able to conquer the business world. (Oh, the things I was about to learn.)
So I started to do some research. Somewhere along the way, I came across this formula for building an amazing brand: 1) start with genuine purpose, 2) get specific about who, 3) communicate passionately and consistently. I knew instantly what I had to do: find purpose.
So, I started researching. I came across Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why. Sinek explains in the book that most people can tell you WHAT they do. Some people can tell you HOW, with what values, they do it. Very few people can tell you WHY. I wrote a blog post about it. And it seemed to resonate with folks, this whole purpose thing. And all the smart people seemed to say the same thing: that the people who know their WHY are more successful than the people that don’t. That if you don’t have a purpose, a mission, or a why, you’re going to flounder. A LOT.
It was safe to say that I was floundering. I was in the middle of the crashing wave. I had laid off six employees the week before Christmas 2011, over half my staff, and proceeded to close every business and brand that wasn’t working. I was pulling the plug, and the waters were starting to swirl. The choices I made were the right choices for me, and my family, but I was between a rock and a hard place for sure: the choices were not going to make my customers, employees, vendors, and contractors happy. Over the course of a decade of business, things had changed. Branding had changed. Business had changed. The stationery industry had changed. And there simply wasn’t a way to keep everyone happy anymore. Not only was there not enough of me to go around, but unsustainablity had caught up with me: there weren’t enough dollars to go around anymore either.
I call this next phase of my life “Step out from behind the logo.” I made an active choice to BE the brand. At the time, I hand transferred my blog to a slightly more transparent domain: I was blogging from my married name, which was Whitney Kolb. But I decided to marry the two, merging my business blog with my personal blog, and start to tell my story. I believed, and still believe, that I can bootstrap a company again–a different kind of business, but a business nevertheless. Even though I knew I wasn’t making everyone happy with my decisions, I also knew that I was in this for the long haul, not the short term. I knew there would be time to have those conversations and set things straight in the future. And I also knew that a sustainable business that I’d be able to run from home while my kids played in the backyard, was worth it.
There are six important things that happened over this “step out from behind the logo” period, that prepared me for the crash:
- I dreamed big. This is an exercise and discipline that dates back to when I was 16, and I made my first “crazy list”. On that list, I had written: start a company, write a book, get married, have kids, live in the south of France for a year, among other things. This list was a vision, albeit a BIG one, of where I wanted to go.
- I clarified my goals. I’ve kept a goal setting notebook since I was in college–it still sits beside my nightstand. So this wasn’t anything new for me, but it did need reflection. Those crazy dreams need to become goals, at some point in time or another, right? I segmented those goals into a quadrant, and one by one started crossing off the least important, and combining those that could be combined, until I was left with a top three goals. These goals would serve as the foundation for my future mission statement.
- I defined my values. I also did a ton of research and learned a lot about values. Values are intrinsic to who you are. You cannot change them without massive, life-altering results. You don’t want to change them. You have to dig to find them. I looked in a hundred places, at least, before coming up with a rock solid list of values–the things I value MOST in life. On a daily basis, I make sure I am putting these things first in my life.
- I knew my strengths. Your strengths, skills, and talents are your biggest asset in life. They don’t cost you anything. They are the wind at your back, and if you make good use of them, you’ll have a smoother ride. I made sure that the projects and collaborations I was involved in used my strengths.
- I learned–am learning–to honor my passions. To honor the values that mean the most to me. To take time off to do the things that bring me joy. To respect the principle of white space, and to UNAPOLOGETICALLY preserve it in my schedule. Chopping onions. Decorating my house. Cuddling with my kids. These are the things that must be honored, and heaven forbid, must not be sacrificed.
- I made it a mission. A manifesto, even. I believe that through the power of choices and change, that anyone can live a well-designed life. I believe that each of you have that ability within you. I believe that in knowing your strengths, honoring your passions, and defining your values, you’ll find clarity, and your brand’s key messaging, to boot. I believe that in dreaming big and clarifying your goals on a yearly basis, you’re pressing a reset button. I believe that in being here, you are committing yourself to being the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. And I believe that everyone around you–friends, family, spouses, kids, employees–will benefit because of your commitment to yourself.
My mission in life is to glorify God, authentically. To exemplify the power of choices and change. To love with gratitude and creativity. To help others do the same.
I have so far to go. This actually isn’t even the complete story. Things crashed, and they crashed big time. There are days where I feel like they are still crashing. But knowing what I want, knowing what I value, knowing where I’m going has made all the difference. Deciding to authenticate who I am and telling the world what I have to offer has made all the difference.