Thriving cities depend on the adventurous among us, who alter the urban landscape when they forge their own successful paths.
Each month, we ask an influential Pittsburgher: What was it like for you in the beginning?
Work: East Liberty
How Long: 2 years
Projects: Shift Collaborative, a creative firm helping nonprofit organizations and tech-start ups with brand strategies in earned, owned and paid media channels; UpTo, a social enterprise that uses popup strategies to provide small businesses access to creative services, deployed in select, niche main streets across the U.S.; and WordFabric, a web-based language algorithm that assists marketers in identifying key terms and concepts to strengthen their marketing efforts.
What was the defining moment that propelled you to start your own business?
For many years, I was the director of communications for the college of fine art of a local university. I had to be truly entrepreneurial and experimental in the creative tactics I deployed to raise awareness of college. We were in competition with Ivy League schools; I needed to create my own systems and media channels to gain the most visibility. While I was there, I completed my master’s degree, which has given me a practical and theoretical view of my profession. I also teach earned, owned and paid media strategies at two local universities. Teaching forces me to continually refine the way I articulate professional strategy and tactics, and therefore continues to inform my understanding of the profession. The confluence of these factors gave me the courage to start my own business. The opportunity was really about pursuing my own creative endeavors and defining a pattern of work where I can be creative and design social change. I was lucky to have some of the most progressive thinkers around me to partner and launch new ideas. Foremost among those is my business partner, Sarah Mayer.
What struggles did you face when starting your own business?
I have countless crazy ideas. On top of that, I have many artist, writer, engineer and designer friends who are always game to cultivate new projects. It was truly a challenge to define which ideas to pursue first. For instance, we have expanded our service business of Shift to include two new companies in UpTo and WordFabric. It was tough to decide to develop these particular ideas over others, and tough to figure out the right time to pursue them.
What was the riskiest move you ever made?
Of course, there are many risks involved in starting your own business. We applied two different ideas to the same business incubator. They are both fantastic ideas but we took a risk by submitting two ideas, knowing the incubator may think we do not have the capacity to manage the ideas. We knew deep down that the products were stellar and were going to make a difference in the market place, but we took a risk.
If you could change the past, is there anything involving your career that you would do differently?
Probably, but I don’t like to dwell on lost opportunities. I will say that I would have liked to have started my education as a studio artist. I think having a Masters of Fine Arts degree is more important than receiving a Masters of Business Administration certificate. Creative problem solving is radically changing the way we think about the world.
Could you ever go back to a “normal job,” working for someone else?
I don’t like the term “working for someone” else. We put the term “Collaborative” in the name of our service business for a reason. I find that people work best when they work together. Everyone has an agenda, areas of expertise and specialties. It’s the vision of a true collective to solve problems together. At Shift, Sarah and I are inspired by the research of Claus Østergaard from Aalborg University in Denmark, who theorizes that innovation is a social process. We believe that innovation comes when people and businesses interact across multiple disciplines and networks.
What personality traits must someone possess in order to do what you do and be successful?
Once, when pitching a product, an investor told me, “I’m not interested in learning your five year plan. I want to know how fast you can get it to the market, what my equity is, and how much money I will make – tomorrow.”
It is important to be to be patient. Your product or service will come to fruition when the timing is right. Also, be forward thinking and inspirational when articulating what your product or service will be in the future. If you don’t have those skills take an improvisation class or an acting course. Be passionate about your product or service, and be sensitive to mission creep. Stay focused to what is important to you.
In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where your work is today, what 3 words describe how you might have felt?
Enlightened, inspired, and invigorated.