“How are you? How’s Fluff?”
Five years ago I believed starting another brand would help me find a deeper connection to people and myself. Yet there’s been times as a founder where I’ve felt more lost and disconnected than ever. On these days, I don’t know how to respond when people say, “How are you? How’s Fluff?”
The last four years of my career have been humbling to say the least. I don’t know what the next 6–12 months will hold. I’m both under and over stimulated, bored and engaged, concerned and excited. My problems are bigger than they’ve ever been, and yet seem somehow smaller. I’ve realised I’ve got more awareness. I’m learning to surrender. And I’m more hopeful than ever.
“We should be optimistic not because our problems are smaller than we thought, but because our capacity to solve them is larger than we thought.” — Kevin Kelly.
So, here’s what I’d want to say when people ask me how I am, and how Fluff is, but usually can’t.
First of all, is it a founder’s job to stay on track?
To maintain a perfect, bullet-proof vision from day one? To hold my values constant, and in front of me at all times? To always know what’s important? Is that what success is?
If so, I’ve stumbled too many times.
But surely, if we always know exactly what we’re doing, we’re not doing anything that new at all. And that’s true whether you’re talking big picture or details.
Maybe my ‘vision’ has remained the same, but my execution has chopped and changed, led down several paths, one way streets, dead ends etc. I’ve lagged, broken down, discovered new routes and seen some pretty cool sights along the way. I’ve realised that yes, I still want to create, but not in the same (previously aspiring) mode or pace. The joy of missing out, they say.
It could just be that I’m simply getting older and my priorities have changed. That I lack the energy, motivation, and resilience I did in my twenties. Or are resilience and energy just euphemisms for a naive kind of youthful optimism, masking irrationality and ignorance?
It could also be that I don’t think I can, nor want to keep up with changing technologies, commodities, and regulations.
Then again, I feel like I have more integrity — more of a purpose for creating a business I can see myself doing until I’m grey — than I ever did before.
So, have I kept my vision bullet-proof? Or have I learned and changed along the way?
I really hope it’s the latter.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I am tired of being interviewed and asked what questions I’d tell my younger self, and what advice I’d give to budding entrepreneurs.
To the former: have fun, be young! To the latter: don’t do it, save your money.
Nowadays I am pretty blunt if I meet up with anyone to discuss their idea. I simply ask them, ‘Why?’ About 10 times until we get somewhere. Is it creating something? (even if it’s connection), and what are you willing to do and sacrifice to get there? Because sacrifice will catch up to everyone at some point, even if you’re doing incredibly well (success can cost you time, relationships, awareness, anonymity/normalcy and relatability). And let’s not get started on the world.
This is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.
We are asked to write pitch decks with 5/10/20 year plans. But we’re also asked to show a return within 2–3 years. At the same time, we’re crafting stories for the press that say we want to build companies that are around for 100 years. Meanwhile we’re reading articles that tell us the world won’t even make it that long — because of us and these companies we are trying to build. In seeking to solve problems, we end up creating more which we in turn have to solve again. I have found myself in countless scenarios having to undo the impact of what I thought was helpful to begin.
Would it be more honest to say that we’re here for a good time, not a long time? To build something fun, something different, something interesting, that might make the world more fun, a bit different, more interesting? And that the first step is to make it profitable, to employ people, and then make it more sustainable or responsible. Is doing it the other way setting ourselves up for failure?
Is starting by saying we’re trying to change or impossibly, save the planet a lie? I say this because I’ve said versions of it, and that makes me feel uncomfortable, because I don’t know if it’s a promise I can keep. Yet it’s the promise every brand is currently making. It’s become the entry point for business these days: if you’re not saving the planet or donating all profits to charity or speaking about injustice then you really shouldn’t be doing business, should you? I genuinely don’t know the answer.
When or how often do I actually find meaning in/at Fluff?
Is it ok that sometimes I don’t? That sometimes the idea of selling and moving to a farm and writing about matters of the heart is a lot more tempting than writing ads about skincare and makeup?
“Marketing is our culture and our culture determines who we are.” — Seth Godin.
The point is, ironically, writing an ad about skincare or makeup at Fluff is actually about connection. Connecting to a simple idea about simplification — around messaging, routines, responsibility and identity. Connecting to people who’ve never felt connected to a brand before, or felt ostracised by an industry. If I can do any of the above at Fluff, I can probably write a few more ads.
Here’s what I‘m thinking right now.
I want to learn new skills and new ideas from new people. I don’t think that’s working for another company/someone else, unless it’s someone/thing I deeply care about. Maybe it’s learning in a school context again — philosophy or creative writing or do I just write things like this instead? Will I hate being told what to do, or is that what I’m actually craving? Stability, discipline, routine, consistency. Is it ok for a founder to want more?
I feel myself feeling more and more myself — ‘found’ if you will — when I’m writing things like this. It also feels like a totally inefficient use of my working day, however I’m reminding myself that this is what makes Fluff stand out.
To other founders, I want to say, hey. Even when this is good it can be bad, and more importantly, even when it’s bad, it can all be good. I’ve had some of my lowest points in this business, and with the help of friends and family, therapy, wine, etc. I’ve managed to get some perspective and realise this is literally — Fluff. It’s great, but it’s not everything. And it’s certainly not every part of me.
What we do is who we are, not what we’ve done.
I am so many other things, sister, friend, daughter, writer, thinker, feeler — things that I neglected when I defined myself solely as Erika, founder. It’s so easy to forget that I’m a human, being. We all are.
To everyone looking at my life, or other founder’s lives, listening to our podcasts and reading our interviews, remember that it’s PRs job to make things look pretty, especially in the beauty industry. No one wants to write about, or apparently read about, the less than glossy times. Instead they want to know what product is next, what my morning routine is, what my apartment looks like.
There are tradeoffs, but as William Braxton Irvine reminds all of us: “you are living the dream life.”
On the days where I feel lost and off track, I remind myself to be optimistic. My problems will vary from day to day, and I feel fortunate to get to tackle them with such amazing people around me. We’ve all got to do something with our time. May as well be this.
Here’s what I wish for.
I wish founders didn’t try so hard to uphold society’s expectations of success; an aesthetic that insists everything is going great when behind the scenes everything is not going great — or even if it is, it doesn’t always feel it. As a friend recently said, we’re all just people stuck in houses trying to pay bills.
I wish there was a podcast where founders discussed their biggest challenges or questions, in business or life — maybe I should make that. Not in a poor me, pity party way, just in a this is hard, I don’t have all the answers, what would you do in my position kind of way.
I wish we could drop this girl boss identity because it’s so far from what its original — possibly good — intentions were. I wish I could chat to an open, vulnerable businessman and be open and vulnerable too, without feeling like I need to prove anything, to him or myself.
I wish I could talk to VCs about my ‘Why’ and feel like they’re actually listening, instead of only looking at our P&L. This stopped being about money for me a long time ago — and while of course money is important, change is probably what we need most of all. Change in consumption, communication, and interaction. Long term.
I think if we can have these conversations and appreciate the nuance of being a founder, running (or working for) a business in this current climate, then we might feel a little less pressure, we might take things a little more slow. Some of us might choose to go into business, others might choose to stay out. Maybe it’ll encourage us to dive into investment or for others, fund things on our own.
We might end up with more questions than answers, but at least we’re not pretending to know it all, and we can appreciate that life is one long lesson.