[quote style=”boxed”]Philosophically, bringing an idea to life means being open to anything. We want to let the ideas take shape organically instead of trying to control them, an essential practice when telling a story that is not your own.[/quote]
With Mia’s background in design and creative problem-solving, and Natasha’s love of storytelling and entrepreneurship, it was only a matter of time before the two found a way to work together. Velveteen Stories is their first venture as creative partners.
Natasha was born in Kentucky and started with the storytelling early. She had a knack for elaborately crafted tall tales, and her physician parents knew her future lay not in “the sciences.” Natasha continued in this vein, studying languages and literature in school. After a brief, tumultuous year in New York, where she balanced one too many “creative” jobs (and some chaotic shifts at a ramen restaurant), she moved to Japan to teach English at a rowdy all-boys high school. For the past 4 years, Natasha has immersed herself in the world of Seattle start-ups, where she got a crash course in growing teams and helping companies find their story. Natasha currently lives in Seattle with her husband, Locky.
Mia was born in Toronto to an eccentric family full of chefs and commercial artists. Coming from a background that emphasized a “hands on” approach to life, she was immersed at an early age in the creative process. Her education took a circuitous route, through fine art, furniture building, and industrial design, eventually culminating in a Masters of Education. For the past six years, Mia has applied these passions and skills to inspire countless young artists as a Fine Art and Design teacher at the Northwest School in Seattle. Mia continues to be a keen student of art and life, systematically tackling one creative pursuit after another. She has recently moved to Austin with Branden, her husband, Remi and Laswell (the dogs), and Richard (the alpha cat).
What are you working on right now?
We’re always honing our story-detection radar. Being conscious of the stories all around us is part of what we do. We listen for stories and, especially, we listen for the deep desire that many people have to remember and preserve their experiences.
We’re also trying to find and develop a niche that is hungry for this kind of preservation—the archivists, the romantics, the people who want to stop and smell the roses. It’s an ongoing quest to draw attention to both the ephemeral and the timeless parts of life.
We have two stories currently on deck. One story, The Great Heringa Migration, details the adventure of a young family of Dutch immigrants in the early fifties. The Heringas bought a tractor, built a wooden trailer, and hit the road in northern Alberta with dreams of a bright future in the rich farmlands of southern British Columbia. It was a treacherous journey through the Rocky Mountains, and with a top speed of five miles an hour and eight hundred miles to go, sure to be a long one! Needless to say, they made it in the end. Six sons, one daughter, and sixteen grandchildren later, their family looks forward to preserving their adventure in a storybook that they can share with generations to come.
The other commission is a departure for us and, we imagine, will be a good creative challenge. We’ve been asked to tell the story of a Seattle start-up. The book will detail the founding of the company, its mission to bring people together as they battle serious illnesses like cancer, and the ups and downs of the journey. We are excited about how we will capture the true story of a company and a team.
What does your typical day look like?
Mia wakes up with the sun, a regular guest of the Texas sky. Natasha looks imploringly at the heavens and wonders what happened to summer in Seattle. In our respective cities, we review email, enquiries and so forth, often over a morning “Tea & Skype” session. From there, it’s all havoc. Natasha heads to her second life writing and marketing for an independent gym that focuses on group fitness, and Mia attacks her latest DIY project, outfitting her new 1950’s cottage home in East Austin. At some point, on the verge of an actual heat-induced melt-down, Mia will go for a swim. Natasha will go hit some tennis balls or take a yoga class.
We divide tasks throughout the day by text and email. Sometimes this means responding to a request for more information, interviewing a client for his or her book, or making the first sketches for a commission.
Depending on our production schedule, we may hold an afternoon power session where we do some meat and potatoes storyboarding. This is the most intensive part of our process. We uncover and shape the story based on our interview with the client, discuss the style of illustrations, voice, and so forth.
The day usually ends with both of us reading. Natasha hunts down books about about writing and the future of work, while Mia usually curls up with her latest fiction obsession.
What is the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
Mia’s worst job was in retail, selling cheap “business casual” wear in a mall. Constantly scrutinized by a bevy of frustrated, power-hungry middle managers, she did her best to execute the “five steps to making a sale” with rote precision, but her creative spirit kept tripping her up. The lesson: Never again will Mia work a job where she needs to ask, “Can I interest you in a pair of socks to go with that pantsuit?” And never again will she work in a room with no windows.
Natasha also learned this lesson while temping in the basement mail room of “the Northwest’s largest dairy distributor.” The environment was toxic, despite (or maybe because of) the free chocolate milk and discounted butter (by the pound). She sorted and filed and became temporarily lactose intolerant.
3 trends that excite you?
- Democratization of style through DIY—the rise of modern craft
- Collaborative consumption
- Empathy in business
How do you bring ideas to life?
When we work with people, we try to really listen to what they themselves may not hear. We take our time and tease out ideas, excavating an experience and trying to truly capture our client’s voice.
When we are able to visualize the moments that people describe, Mia will use her technical and drawing skills to create an image that most likely didn’t exist in the real world. She is interested in using sensory details to evoke memory. She captures these details through the tone and texture of an illustration that shows, for example, the softness of an old quilt or the quality of light in a childhood bedroom.
Philosophically, bringing an idea to life means being open to anything. We want to let the ideas take shape organically instead of trying to control them, an essential practice when telling a story that is not your own.
What inspires you?
We are equal opportunity enthusiasts of culture. We are inspired by the diversity,complexity and absurdity of the world. All of it—from an old gas station down the street to a cutting edge art museum—all of it matters.
We are also inspired by the act of sharing. Hearing about what other creative people are doing and why they’re doing it blows our hair back. We regularly imagine how our work will affect a client. Will it delight them? Will it resonate? How will the story affect their family? Their community? This is very motivating and inspiring.
Also, people who have lived for a long time. We love old people.
What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
Our first real mistake was in failing to communicate the real value of what we do. In our early interactions with potential clients, we focused almost 100% on the finished product—a custom, hand-bound book that tells your story through text and x number of illustrations. We weren’t conveying the true value of what we were providing, which is our creative service. This sometimes led to potential clients being caught off guard by the cost of a proposal.
Since then, we have begun to really showcase the care and attention we pay to capturing our clients’ memories, the style and quality of the work, and the fact that every book is an entirely bespoke object that is as short or as long as the story it needs to tell. Most of all, we try to make it clear that every story is a one of a kind collaboration with our client.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
After finishing her degree in product design, Mia spent a long time trying to come up with a product to design and bring to market. Every time she had an idea, however, she would start doing the math on the margins of manufacturing and the start-up costs, and she would talk herself out of it. Mia finally realized that in this economy, the best product to market is your own creativity.
We live in a world where most people don’t identify themselves as “creative types” and often those people are willing to employ us “creative types” to be creative for them. Think of something creative that you do that people have thanked you for, and find a way to offer it as a service. Are you a great baker? How about offering pie workshop parties? Have great style? Create a wardrobe makeover service! Great sense of humour? How about crafting hilarious Christmas cards for hipster families? (No, wait, we might do that one…)
What do you read every day, and why?
Natasha: Bits and pieces from The New Yorker because the writing inspires me. Art, design and entrepreneurial blogs, as well as those of SwissMiss & Seth Godin, for their insights on trends and creative inspirations. Books about the future of work and community, because I think we’re better together.
Mia: DIY books and websites, Pinterest.com (more scanning than reading), and cookbooks to teach myself how to do more and make more. Equal helpings of contemporary literature and trashy pulp that may involve magic, Scandinavian detectives, or vampires, for a healthy intellectual diet with a few treats thrown in.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read, and why?
If you want to understand the stories behind ideas, trends, and products, read Chief Culture Officer by Grant McCracken. It’s a primer on listening, identifying and appreciating how culture, often seen in everyday stories, is shaping the world. Regardless of your industry, you will learn how to translate these observations for your team and lead people to more meaningful action.
What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?
Adobe Creative Suite and our iPhones
Three people we should follow on Twitter, and why?
Seth Godin (@ThisIsSethsBlog) because he believes that everyone can make art.
Tina Roth Eisenberg (@SwissMiss) because she delivers creative, mind-opening inspirations every single day.
Maria Popova (@brainpicker) because she is an “interestingness curator” and continues to proudly waves the geek flag for all of us.
Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?
Ed Norton (Crowdrise.com)
When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
Natasha: We were crazy and agreed to create a book in a week. I came to Mia’s house on the day we needed to print. Her face said two words: All. Nighter. Going about a hundred miles an hour, she told me that over the past 24 hours she had created ten new illustrations from scratch and that, at 3 in the morning, her inkwell had exploded, covering her from head to toe in India Ink. There was no time for a shower. In her lunatic state, she spritzed herself down with Windex, swabbed herself and the decks, and went back work. When I arrived, Mia looked like a human Rorschach test. I could not stop laughing.
How do you intend to scale up your business?
This is often the first question people ask us. “Your books sound incredible, but how can you make 1000 of them a month?” The simple answer is: We won’t. After many conversations about the development of our business, we realized that our goal isn’t to create a vast publishing empire; our goal is to create a business that provides the two of us with dynamic, challenging, and creatively fulfilling work. Of course we also want that work to be financially rewarding, but in the way of a small scale boutique or atelier rather than a churning factory. We’re very excited about the return to handmade artisanal products that is happening everywhere, from food to fashion, so we’re going to stay small for now. This speaks to why we’ve also chosen to work with a local printer and a bespoke book binder instead of going with a cheaper alternative, such as an online publishing site. We feel that by maintaining a smaller focus, we can grow in quality and scope, and create a service that has inherently more value. Our work is a labor of love, and we intend to keep it that way.
What are your biggest time-wasters when you’re working together?Where to begin!?
Snacking : Scones, pies, biscuits. We eat whatever delectable treat Mia has most recently baked. We are dedicated to our craft and must keep up our creative energy, even if it costs us our girlish figures.
Outfits : Planning imaginary outfits for meetings with future clients. After all, aesthetics and style are a large part of our product, so we better look the part.
Husbands. Talking about our husbands (and how much we love them). We have awesome husbands, they are very supportive of our work, and they give us lots of time alone together to chat.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.