It’s Monday after our last outdoor market. I can’t really sleep in after years of waking up in a panic (‘Is is market day?!?!?”) in the wee hours of the morning, while most of Cleveland is still asleep. I slowly get out of bed, careful not to disturb the cat or dog. I am groggy and super sore after a full day of running, lifting, managing, photo-taking, battle-fighting, setting up, tearing down, crisis-averting, over-explaining, apologizing, listening, encouraging, enjoying, packing a uhaul, moving, chasing, cleaning, sorting, organizing, and smiling nonstop (even when I don’t want to).
I am still exhausted. But there’s truly no ‘day off’ for a boss. Not one who runs a fast-moving, high-profile startup. And today? It’s a good day. Sure, I’m sore. Sure, people are disappointed in me. Sure they’re mad. That’s part of the job, though. It’s too hard to be perfect in a world where just a few people manage the emotions and expectations of thousands of people.
I check my email to get the hate mail out of the way. Maybe that’s slightly too strong, let’s say the ‘dissatisfied mail’ out of the way. It’s best to put out fires early in the day.
There it is. I see the words “escalate” and “disappointed” just like I expected.
Thankfully I’ve learned not to take things personally anymore. I’ve learned how to see truth and fiction, I’ve learned how to set boundaries while maintaining integrity.
I jump on a call with Marketing Manager, Krista Jordan, who is coming back to work from maternity leave tomorrow.
I think to myself, ‘No one taught me how to do this,’ and I remember that I will know exactly how to do it my way. And I do.
And after chatting with her about how she’s feeling, what she’s nervous about and her dreamiest schedule I remember that I should thank you all for helping us close out our season with gusto.
It occurs to me that you all might not know a few things about us. You may not know that we spend countless hours figuring out just how to treat you to the best, most-curated small biz shopping experience in Cleveland. You might not know just how much you mean to us. You might not know that behind the scenes we’re also a business incubator. You might understand that businesses who end up here many times outgrow us and open storefronts, but you may not have realized that we planned that. We’re not just a market. There’s nothing traditional about us. So we thought we’d give you a little insight into our world.
We’re a business incubator + a hospitality business + marketing agency + event production company all rolled into one. (yes it’s as rigorous and exhausting as it sounds)
We’ve got both an internal and external mission.
We’ve got a lot of haters.
We spend MOST of our time keeping thousands of people safe.
We spend the next amount of our time pulling the right permits and paying the right fees.
We are a fast-moving startup.
Our jobs LOOK cute, but they’re actually really tough.
We spend a TON of hours learning how to become the best versions of ourselves.
We would never want to do this without you.
It’s always funny when people either want to work with us or work FOR us they completely have no clue what we actually do, how we make money and why we do what we do. First off, they think that all we do is snap our fingers and all these amazing business owners just get show up perky and ready to sell and with zero issues. HAHAHAAHAHHAAHAHAHA (thankfully this has gotten funny instead of insulting these days).
When I began Cleveland Flea in 2013, I knew it’d be popular but to tell you the truth, I had NO clue just how many of you would show up and make my life this difficult (and amazing, obviously). Instead of hosting a cute maker event, I was thrust into the position of taking care of thousands of people– almost overnight.
It was TERRIFYING. So many things could (and did) go wrong.
When I began Cleveland Flea, I had actually zero insight or experience in the running of large events where you need permits and permission and security and insurance and so much emotional resilience. SO MUCH.
I thought I was beginning a creative business incubator. And I did. But I also built a lot of other things unintentionally.
The reason we’re a business incubator is because we’re here to GROW businesses. You don’t have to be perfect to begin at Cleveland Flea. It’s sort of like a teaching hospital. Practical experience is what grows you. And we’re here as guides, mentors, teachers, confidents, comrades, and cheerleaders.
That’s right! It’s cool to be a #girlboss but I actually prefer to be called a #FemaleFounder which just sounds less cute and more grown up (to me, anyway).
Do you know what a Founder is? Well, my version of being a founder meant that I wanted to create a philosophy and grow a team to deliver that philosophy far and wide out into the world. I didn’t want to start a business. I was here to begin a revolution.
Building on that Founder stuff, my WHY is super important. I’m very passionate and connected to my mission. I realized that I needed both an external and internal mission to fire up a team to do the hard work ahead.
Our mission for Cleveland Flea is to help Cleveland love itself more.
Our mission for our team is to grow into the best versions of ourselves so that we can over-exceed expectations in all we do, so that we can have more money to invest in our own business and dreams.
I didn’t expect this.
You probably didn’t expect I’d say this!
But we seriously have a good deal of people who just don’t like us. Because we’re good at what we do. Because we’re changing the game. Because we’re doing things they can’t figure out how to do. Because they doubted us publicly. Because we won’t say YES to them. Because they’re jealous. Because who the hell knows.
We just have haters because we’re doing something. And I’m cool with it!
The BIGGEST responsibility is the safety of a bunch of people. And I’ll tell you– that takes A TON of time to both think about and execute on. I wish there was a company out there to help us with this, but it’s ultimately attached to personal responsibility so we take it seriously, roll up our sleeves, put down the fun, cute, creative stuff (cry for a while) and then get on with it.
It’s just part of the deal, so we make it a thing we care a lot about rather than avoid or get mad about.
YEP. Anyone who has started a business in Cleveland knows the red tape you’ll face. There is always someone ready and waiting to take your money to make sure you’re doing things properly. Which can sometimes be cool. But other times it’s a real time suck, and dream killer.
One of my dreams for this city is that one day there will be a website that makes being compliant EASY and EFFICIENT so we can all save time in our lives to be creative and think positively– not punitively.
It takes a good deal of coaching to break businesses out of the fear factor that pulling permitting puts them into. It’s just a creativity-stealer.
But we do it, because it’s what’s required.
We’re in year 6 but I still consider us a startup because we JUST evolved from a 1-person operation to a 6-person team that can now help me grow this into a biz with a much bigger impact.
Fast-moving startups require people who are dynamic and open and self-starters and passionate about the goals of the organization.
Fast-moving startups want to grow.
Fast-moving startups don’t play small.
Fast-moving startups are like speedy trains that don’t stop– you’ve got to jump on while they’re moving.
Fast-moving startups require a boss who is OBSESSED with the biz and has a killer internal guidance system.
Fast-moving startups must learn all the things at once– or fail.
The Flea looks real cute for your sake. And the experience of attending can be cute. But the experience of running it is NOT CUTE.
Delivering this experience is messy. It’s tough. It’s scary. It’s exhausting. It’s like moving 10 houses in one day during a hurricane while people are yelling at you.
That’s a part of our internal mission, and it’s just a personal philosophy that has allowed me to successfully grow a startup as an imperfect human facing tons of harsh external criticism.
We’re not here to people please. We’re here to dare greatly, to improve daily, to love ourselves and our city and you all with all our hearts.
We’re here to keep our eyes on our own work, not on the competition.
We’re here to have integrity to our own words. To hold ourselves accountable to being the best versions of ourselves.
This work is hard.
A lot of times we are exhausted and cold and bruised and battered.
And that can feel overwhelming, because most of you just get to enjoy the benefits of The Flea, while we battle away behind the scenes.
We did sign up for this, though.
We are tough enough.
And one of things that keeps us going is the thought of you (both vendors and shoppers) benefitting from this hard work.
Loving your city more.
Loving yourself more.
We see you. We love you. We are you.
Thank you for supporting us for 6 years. We can’t wait to continue loving on all of you during holiday and beyond.
Steph + Team Flea