With the news of Kate Spade's recent passing (reportedly by suicide), it's given me the courage to talk about something that weighs heavily on my mind and my heart daily. It's something I don't always know how to talk about. But it seems that I'm always thinking about it.
It is hard to fight for Creativity within the structure of Capitalism.
It's hard to manage the emotional toll of that fight on a daily basis, as a human being who is just trying to put good out into the world.
What does that have to do with Kate Spade? I don't know. But what I do know well is the experience of being a Visionary Founder of a fast-growth business in a fast-moving market with no real personal preparation. I've listened to podcasts with Kate and her husband Andy. I've read articles. I've admired Kate Spade (the company) for it's obvious commitment to creativity. It's something I can relate to. And I know it's not easy.
I work tirelessly to keep creativity at the forefront of my businesses. From methodically and gently encouraging busy, exhausted vendors to 'be more creative' while they're contending with permits and regulations and paying taxes to figuring out how to balance a budget myself while making sure creativity has a seat at the table, I feel that I'm in battle every single day.
An emotional battle. A battle that I lose far more than I win. It's a battle that takes so much energy, and most of you don't even realize it. It's a reason I don't criticize many people or businesses or organizations. I know first-hand that it's hard. And that most of us are trying our best.
Believing that businesses are not run by humans (and thus subject to human conditions) is detrimental to the health and joy of us all. I don't know how many times I've heard someone say:
- "You're a boss! You SHOULD have this figured out!"
- "But they're a business! It's standard that they should call me back immediately!"
- "Well, you're a business. This is what you asked for."
- "The customer is always right."
And I get it friends. Disappointment is a tough emotion to deal with. But can we talk for a moment about how hard people are working to deliver you all the things you have in your life? Many consumers take for granted that 'since this is a business', I don't need to treat them like a human. I don't need to be courteous and kind, because I'm not in a relationship with a person. It's just a business.'
Capitalism is a construct that we live within here in this country (and increasingly globally) that's both responsible for significant advancement but certainly also significant loss of human connection and joy. And within a system that values money over experience, creativity continues to be seen as unnecessary and frivolous– except for the fact that that IS what people want. What they don't realize is that we operate businesses in a system that is not built to prioritize the creative thought process but to get out to market quickly and find a way to pay the bills. Without a care for creativity, what you buy brings you less joy. It damages the environment. It puts children in danger. When we focus on profit alone (which is the game we're set up to play to make sure we can pay our bills and employees and all the additional fees thrown at small business owners), corners are cut and the worst part about it? IT'S TOTALLY JUSTIFIED.
Is money more important than people?
Does money bring you joy or does creativity bring you joy?
Without the expression of creativity, what will happen to our spirits? I've seen very good business owners go nearly mad wrestling with the demands of keeping the lights on within this capitalist structure while still contending with the desires of their heart to just throw caution to the wind and do something that is expressive of their soul (which is what their dreamiest customers want!! but it's also risky usually and we've all got bills to pay). It can be totally crushing to watch someone give up on the thing that brings them life. I've seen businesses fail because they become so obsessed with operations and finances that quality and creativity suffer and sales reflect that. It IS practical to prioritize creativity. But it's not the only thing we have to deal with. There's a lot to learn and do well if you want to turn an idea into an actual business that is competitive within a market and the fear and anxiety that comes along with that is almost more powerful than the drive to do what makes your heart soar. But it doesn't have to be this way.
What is it like to be a visionary founder? It is a battle. Most creative businesses don't follow the tech route of developing a product, finding an investor and then beginning. And many of those businesses fail, as well. The thing is, money is no guarantee that you'll make it. In the grand scheme of things, being innovative and relevant go farther than money– until that isn't true anymore. Until you need to scale.
I myself was in a severe depression for over a year because the demands of my business (to make enough money as we were growing exponentially, to care for the safety of tens of thousands of people, to deal with a surge of new fees and penalties because we were finally on the city's radar) for out exceeded my ability to take a break or focus on the creative aspects of my business. In fact, I was close to shutting it down. If it was only going to break me, not make me any money, create so many enemies AND I couldn't even ask for support then why the f*ck was I doing this? Luckily I was able to recalibrate for a moment, gather the courage to raise my prices and actually pay myself a living wage after working in my business tirelessly (and for the most part thanklessly) for nearly 6 years. I feel like I emerged from a 6 year war.
I full-well know what I'll hear from people about this writing:
- "But you weren't in a war. You just started a business. You could stop any time."
- "You don't deserve sympathy- you did this to yourself! You CHOSE this!"
- "You're a business! Buck up!"
Outward success does not have anything to do with how we feel internally. I am grateful for the success that I have built but it has taken an enormous toll on me– both financially and emotionally. And I would venture to say that most founders of fast-growth creative startups would say the same. I did not know what this life would entail before I started. I'm still happy I did it and I'm grateful to be where I am now but wow, was this shit hard.
I became a life coach 3 years ago when I finally realized that being a business owner IS NOT about business. It's about humans. I shifted my design practice to incorporate coaching bosses to be their best selves. To take chances. To trust their gut. To be kind to themselves. To expect and welcome failure. To create resilience and process emotion so that they can actually evolve and continue to do what they love. I believe this type of business owner has the capacity to change the world for the better. Because they are NOT cutting corners. Everything they do is because they love what they do and who they do it for. It is a direct connection to their heart. And that keeps them honest and connected to their customers. But they need our support. They need our encouragement. They need our understanding. What you need to know is that they are not businesses. Yes, they sell things. But the reason they are not businesses is that every detail and decision weighs heavily upon them. If they fall short, it's because they are human. And your disappointment with them and insistence that 'they're a business! They should be better!" is already looming large to them.
This is not to say that you shouldn't hold people who run businesses accountable. Most business owners want to improve. Many are scared to do so. But evolving is a direct reflection of them getting better at their craft and it typically leads to greater joy and better profits– if they're able to focus on evolving quality over paying their bills.
In a way, I'm grateful that the problems I have now (however large they may be to me) are different than they were day one. It means I've evolved, and that does feel great. It is a win I will continue to remember, especially when I'm back in that space of being a beginner at some new aspect of my business. You see, we're never done learning. Which means we're never done feeling all the feelings that go along with being new at something. Which means that it's continual emotional work. For all of us.
And when you're a creative business within the Midwest, it's easier in some ways and harder in others. There is less competition here. But there are also less people. And less people who are willing to take chances on something unfamiliar, even if that unfamiliar thing is of better quality and will lead to a better experience than what was previously available. Small business often comes with a bigger price tag, because IT IS MORE EXPENSIVE when you're a little guy. That's capitalism at play, friends. When you're bigger you can invest in ways to save you money. Maybe that's a machine or a great factory or a larger staff or whatever it is that makes you able to make more things faster. Most Visionary Founders and Creative Bosses don't want to scale that large, because running those types of businesses is not really what they signed up for. If we're going to go through the struggle to create our own thing, we're gonna damn well try to continue to like doing what we do.
What small, creative fast-growing startups do is magic. This small, cute, tiny, adorable market costs me close to $50,000 per month. And it's responsible for putting roughly $750,000 into the hands of visionary founders just like me each season (that's only for our regular season of 7 markets).
You. Heard. That. Right.
Do you know how much it cost me to get this cute business into a shape where it could be self-sustaining AND meet it's mission to help dreamers become doers?
Close to $750,000. Sure that might not sound like a lot when you think about business development, but does it sound like a lot if YOU were the one behind that type of effort? I'm sure it does. Because that's the real thing here. Visionary Founders are like anyone else. With a GIANT amount of money to make and a ton of new people to care about and a lot of new skills to learn.
And just like Kate Space, I have never borrowed a dime. I make a dollar and I put a dollar straight back into the business. Amid constant criticism, mind you. How dare I make money while these small businesses are working so hard to make ends meet. I always want to ask, "Why is it that you don't see that we're one of those guys, too?"
So, why is Creativity so scary?
Our tolerance to deal with the emotions that come up when one is producing creative work goes down significantly as we get older and putting our heart on our sleeve (creating work for others to see) can be terrifying. Unless we fought for creativity or our parents were super encouraging of our creative endeavors, it will have been most likely removed from our list of approved and practical activities long ago.
Still, I do think we're all creative. And all I've ever wanted to do is arm those with creative ideas to believe that it's possible to take them to fruition. To make a world a better place because of them. To grow an economy of independent founders.
I get how hard it is to hold on to creativity within the demands of capitalism. I have become the ultimate Defender of Creativity. And especially within a city nearly starved our of creativity through years of value engineering and tearing down and cutting budgets and telling young people and children that it's dangerous or silly or impractical or downright WRONG to express yourself creatively.
I've personally had enough of it. I don't know what happened to Kate Spade. But I do know that I identify with her struggle. I identify with the struggle of all creatives who are working hard to get their vision out to the world amidst naysayers and bankers and creditors and haters and those who are merely jealous. And even amidst their own brains telling them that it's not safe or it's not practical or that failure will mean the end of them.
I have finite emotional reserves to heal myself daily from the constant battle I am under to continue to put something of substance out into a world that, for the most part, does not even know what I do or the burden I carry to do it.
It is only because I love this city and I love Creativity that I've been able to forge forward, by the skin of my teeth.
Take care friends,
Founder + Creative Visionary, Cleveland Flea + Indie Foundry