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Women in Business
Brenda Bergen is, among many other things, a process person. She wants to know why and how we do the things we do. A conversation with her is likely to take infinite spins and turns. In it, she'll dazzle you with stories and insights, listen intently, and ask questions you may need to think on. Her work as a creative director and designer spans the music industry and luxury worlds and her extracurriculars include things like Get Fueled, a blog she uses to explore the creative processes of really cool people. Boundless can easily be applied to her energy, creativity, and capacity to make things interesting.
She offered to share some of her own processes of reflection and assessment.
Following Up By Looking Back
I’ve been thinking lately about my career, what I’ve done, what I’m doing and what I want to do. I’ve been lucky; I’ve had some wonderful experiences and opportunities—going to a mind-blowing grad school (Cranbrook Academy of Art), living in one of the most exciting cities in the world (NYC), working for various entertainment companies (Vibe Magazine, VH1, Atlantic Records). All of this surrounded my interest in graphic design and photography and creating personalities.
The Power of Breaks
And then, I started to feel a little stir-crazy. I know, how could that be? But it’s true, it became routine and my designs felt repetitive. I needed to do something BIG and I needed to make something by hand—off the computer. So, I left the record company to go off on my own. One of the first projects I did was for Ford Motor Co. Car show—BIG graphics. And I took my hobby (jewelry) and created a line and sold to stores like Steven Alan and Erica Tanov. It was great; I worked on a huge variety of projects.
A few years later, I moved to Chicago, had a son, and took another break. Then, I fell into the job of Creative Director for Vosges Haut-Chocolat (who could pass THAT up?!).
What It Seems
And now, I’ve circled back around to having my own design business, for the second time. And, like most of you, I pause sometimes and take a look around. I see people I’ve gone to school with or colleagues who seem to be more successful. ‘Seem’, that’s the magic word. I don’t actually know how they feel about their career, but it looks more successful from the outside. I wonder, if I had stuck with a straight path, would I be more successful (whatever that means)?
I know some of you are thinking—wha ?? You ARE successful, you jack ass, don’t you appreciate it? Yes, I do appreciate it. I have this odd combo of happiness and optimism mixed with constant dis-satisfaction. Because I know I can do better. I’m always thinking—how can I make this more interesting, more fun. How can I elevate this brand? How can I make this design better? And then that nagging questions pops up in my brain—do I even want to be doing design? I’ve always been ‘in like’ with design, but never ‘in love’ with it. My career has taken twists and turns and forks. I’ve always wanted to make things, or design things, but never the same things, and I need to change up my environment.
The Positive Power of Change
Sometimes I like working in a company, heading up a team, with an office and every resource I could ever need. And then, I like some freedom and flexibility and the ability to play my music REALLY loud and sing along to it. So now, even though I sometimes wonder if I'm ‘as successful’ as some of my colleagues, I've started assessing where my successes lie. I do get to make some pretty great decisions. I get to decide what I work on (most of the time) and who I work with (no a-holes). I decide when I work (I feel most creative at midnight) and where I work (this summer, I’ll be working from my sailboat—anyone want to co-work with me?).
No Need For the Straight Path
But I wonder…what’s next? and how do I get there? I’m feeling a tiny bit stir crazy again, I want to get back to my carefree bold and fearless design that I used to do. I want to produce and create big juicy projects, a series of cookbooks maybe, art directing for photo shoots again, or curating fashion or products. I want to do work that brings me across the ocean or the planet—a fresh perspective. I want to break out of my norm and take another fork. I guess this is exactly why I could never follow that one straight path, but hopefully this road still takes me to the top of my game.
Our spring salon focused on women working together in business - whether as partners, clients, or studio sharers. Lee Clifford is the co-founder of Altruette, a jewelry company with a philanthropic focus, donating 50% of their net profits to their cause partners. Lee brings an interesting perspective to the table, as she and her co-founder live halfway across the country from one another. Today Lee shares advice on a few items to consider before starting a business partnership with another individual.
Reader's Note: this piece is adapted from an online column Lee wrote for Inc. Magazine's website.
After diving into the Spring salon theme, I’m thrilled to be sharing a bit about working with a business partner long distance today. Julie and I met more than a decade ago (we had offices across the hall from each other as young reporters at Fortune Magazine in New York). When we decided to leave our jobs together to start a company in 2010, we really only knew one thing: that we loved working together. (Oh, and that we wanted to create a really awesome company that helped raise money for the causes we cared about – Altruette). I say ‘together,’ though by the time we quit our jobs, we were based in different cities. People ask me all the time what it’s like having a business partner and how we knew we could make a partnership work. I always say it’s a leap of faith – but in truth I was pretty certain Julie and I would make great business partners. Here’s why.
We’re Not Best Friends!
Don’t get me wrong – we are great friends. We went to each other’s weddings, we’ve traveled with our families, our babies play together. But we’re not best friends. We met through work and that has always been the starting point of our relationship. Seeing someone at work is different from knowing someone socially. Julie had seen me hit deadline after deadline. I’ve seen Julie take a room full of editors and art directors with completely opposing visions and get them all on the same page. We had traveled together. We’d disagreed and compromised. But the beautiful thing is that having that history, now when we disagree – and even the best of partners do – it’s not loaded with emotional baggage like it might be with a close friend. (“She always has to have the last word – it’s been like that since 7th grade!”)
The Houseguest Test
You know how there are some people in life who you adore, admire, respect, maybe even think they’re brilliant…but if they were to stay with you for more than two nights you might lose your mind? Well, a business partner is somewhat like a houseguest that moves in permanently. You will be stunned by the amount of time you spend working on your startup. The hundreds of hours you spend together on the phone, the thousands of emails, the number of trips. If your partner has the potential to get under your skin even a little bit, you’re going to be in big trouble. Think about it this way: if you wouldn’t want this person moving into your spare bedroom for the summer, don’t go into business with them.
It’s said that forming a partnership is like a second marriage. So perhaps it’s not surprising that we each ended up with a business partner that shares many similarities with our spouses. Lee’s husband is a champion brainstormer – just like Julie. Julie’s husband is a detail oriented perfectionist – as is Lee. That underscores an important point: we picked someone to work with that has skills that complement our own. With only two of us running Altruette, we had to cover as many bases as possible. Julie’s love of meeting new people and networking is vital to our business, as is Lee’s glee at making sure each spec sheet is picture perfect. One of the questions we’re asked the most is how we divide our responsibilities, and the truth is: we don’t really have to. We’re both so clearly good at different things that nine times out of ten it’s obvious who should handle what job.
Which brings me to one final point about working with a partner – especially one that lives in another city. This is a variant of the marriage rule “never go to bed mad.” I’d amend that to say “Never send an angry email.” Email is a great tool – but can cause so much friction. Whenever I find myself typing something that has even a hint of annoyance in it, I hit delete and pick up the phone. It has saved so much drama and meant that there are no hidden agendas/bitter feelings/misinterpreted comments.
I feel so lucky to have found such a wonderful partner and I’d love to hear from others out there in the Forth community that have business partners. Do opposites always attract? Do you ever get sick of each other? How do you handle disagreements?
If you have answers to any of Lee's questions, or thoughts of your own to share, we'd love to hear 'em!
We were so excited when Melissa Salvatore offered to host the Forth spring salon at Hertiage Littles, the adorable kids bike shop/milk-and-cookies bar that she owns with her husband Mike. The Heritage Littles space is unique because it houses three additional businesses in the basement - A Little Photo Studio which Melissa owns and operates, Avery House photography, and the Chicago branch of Smilebooth. On top of that, Melissa recently brought on her long-time friend Becca Doell to join in running the operations at A Little Photo Studio.
At our spring salon both of these ladies shared valuable insights on the joys and challenges of women working together in business. Today Melissa & Becca dish on the transition from 'just friends' to being 'friends and coworkers', sharing what they've learned about each other since the partnership began, how they've benefited from sharing a studio space with other businesses, and tips they'd give women who are considering going into business together. Read on!
The two of you have been long-time friends, but just recently started working together. What were the some of the biggest considerations you each had to address before deciding to move forward with expanding your relationship from friendship into the co-worker/co-collaborator sphere?
(Becca) Our biggest concern was hashing out numbers (salary, etc.) and making sure everything was super legit and contractual to avoid potential arguments/conflict over vagueries in that department later. The funny thing is, we were so concerned about that, but we still haven't actually drawn up a contract! My feeling about that though is if Melissa were to sit me down and say, I don't think we're working well together and we need to go our separate ways, I would say cool, thanks for thinking of me in the first place. If she were to sit me down and say, I have to stop loving you because I think you're a terrible person, I would be devastated. For me, business, money, contracts, etc. are fleeting and terrestrial, whereas my love for her and our friendship is forever. That may sound naive, but it really is true for me. I think the depth of friendship you have with someone can make a huge difference in the success or failure of a professional partnership. A solid base of open communication can get two people through anything. If you know each others' strengths/weaknesses/annoying quirks/body odors, and you've already had years to figure out if those quirks or body odors are deal breakers in terms of how much time you want to spend with this person, then it's hard to fail.
(Melissa) Well, Becca beat me to the punch in answering these questions and how can I compete with that answer!?! I mean, this is how we work so well with each other. We each have our own voice, talents and skills but at the same time can finish each other's sentences. I have a few friends who it just doesn't matter what you do with each other or where you are at in life or where you live, you will still be friends and she has always been one of those. We approached this move with caution (on paper) but also (in reality) with a leap of faith. It just happened that the timing worked out (all very quickly actually). There was a 7 year lull where we hardly spoke on the phone or kept in touch, but once we reconnected and the idea was brought up for her to move and join this creative venture, it just worked. I personally approached it from a standpoint that if it works out then great and we will figure out all the details along the way. It was very important to both of us that the contracts and money needed to be discussed and firmed up, but there also needed to be fluidity in the process. My biggest fear was that she wouldn't feel comfortable or "ownership" of the ideas or space since it was not hers to start, but she is so great at diving right in that my biggest fear has already been curbed.
What is one thing you've learned about each other since starting to work together?
(Becca) I've learned that Melissa's energy level is as expansive as the universe. It has no end and no beginning and is accelerating as we speak. As long as I've known her, she's done at least 3 things at once, but she amazes me every time she finds the fuel from one muffin and a coffee to photograph 3 families with 3 three kids back to back, answer 4 email accounts, return 5 phone calls, go home and make dinner,give her son a bath, read him two books, put him to bed, clean up dinner, AND watch Shark Tank with a clear and happy head.
(Melissa) Can you ask Becca questions every day so that I can hear all these wonderful things? I'm blushing. I don't know if it is as much of what I have learned about Becca, but what I already knew - that she can roll with the punches in new situations. With our new studio and how much is on our daily plate, it has really been less training and more diving in and getting to business. She is great at keeping to tasks and helping the studio execute our ideas (the ones that would be on the never ending to-do list if I was doing this alone.) I also re-learned about her amazing talent to sing a song while burping.
Your space houses four businesses under one roof. Can you share one way think your businesses/you as creatives have benefited from co-working? What are some challenges of a situation like this as well?
(Melissa) It is wonderful to have the shared usage of such a large space and also to share with such creative and equally as motivated people. The space is shared between 2 couples: Myself and Mike who own Heritage Littles and A Little Photo Studio and Matt and Stevi Savage who own AveryHouse and the Chicago franchise of Smilebooth. There are ways that our businesses all intertwine with each other and we are able to bounce ideas off of each other and cross-promote. The biggest challenge is scheduling and working out how and when the space is used. As organized as we were with the set-up, at the end of the day, your customers decide how a space is used. Overall, this was a cautious approach to opening another retail space for Mike and I and it was done between friends with the knowledge that there would be challenges and an adjustment period. We also followed our golden rule of not leaving things too vague and hashed out many of the details when putting together a contract before entering the space together and we both were in understanding that when it comes down to it, it is a business decision and if it doesn't work out in a year, it wouldn't affect our friendship.
At the end of the day, It was important for both of our families to have work-life integration with some balance and by sharing a creative space together this has opened up many opportunities and freed up a lot of family time without feeling burdened by the overhead.
1. (Becca) I think you definitely need to weigh the pros and cons of you both being mothers and what that means for productivity and workflow. We don't have that problem yet, but I know it was a huge consideration for Melissa and other friends she's thought of working with. Because I don't have kids, I'm not tied to any schedule other than my own. I can rearrange my day for work, whereas some days Melissa has to rearrange work to fit into her home life. I know if and when I do start a family, Melissa would be more understanding of the different ways family can interrupt a work week.
2. (melissa) I'd say respect - woman have a tendency to compete with one another. There needs to be a level of respect for the other person and their workflow. And with that said, for me that meant the need to have the same work ethics as the person I hired as my "right-hand-woman". I wouldn't have collaborated with anyone that didn't work hard regardless of what is going on in their personal life. I think that for women the entire benefit of being in your own business is that the flexibility outweighs the stress of running your own business. But it is goes full circle because for the flexibility to be successful, you have to have a great work ethic.
3. Keep an extra box of tampons at work.