25 Conversations with Strangers

A few months back I was feeling rambunctious, uncertain, and directionless. I had applied to a government program down in Washington for after I completed my masters. I had prepared my application over the course of six months, spoken to people within the program, and completed the intensive exam prior to hitting “submit” with a wing, a prayer, and a dream. I was ultimately denied and received no feedback or reasoning behind the verdict. The path I thought I was on was on had just come to a dead-end. . . Now what?

I wish I could claim to have more of an understanding or give you (my lovely reader) an accredited recommendation on how to move on emotionally and psychologically from disappointment. . . but I can’t! I can, however, tell you that having conversations with strangers in coffee shops helped me come to terms with the fact that everyone has a crisscrossing, up-and-down, crazy life journey and departing from the expected is okay. Most importantly, an understanding that failure was fine and inevitable.

In November, I drew twenty-five blank lines in my journal and promised I’d fill the lines with names of people I’d have a cup of coffee with prior to May (my graduation month). And before you pass judgment, yes, I know that quantity and quality are very different things. I was thoughtful about who I spoke to and asked of their precious time. The number “twenty-five” felt like equatable to the number of minutes, effort, and uncomfortable-ness I wanted to dedicate to myself in search of answers and insight. Now, as we reach the end of February, I’m about half-way to my goal. I want to share with you what I’ve learned thus far from my journeys.

1. People are willing to help

When I made my list, I knew I’d have to reach out to people I had no connection with. I found their email or LinkedIn inbox and explained why I was interested in speaking to them. I was overwhelmed by these stranger’s willingness to help another stranger – blocking out time to talk and going as far to buy my cup of coffee. Some of the people I “cold-called” were my best conversations because there was so much to talk about. As I got into the rhythm of networking, people began recommending their friends, colleagues, and acquaintances – near and far. Through my conversations, I realized people are so willing to help and “give back” to young professionals in exchange for the help they received along the way. You just have to be willing to ask and show up to the table.

2. No one predicted their path

I spoke with vice presidents, major gift officers, marketing professionals, consultants, entrepreneurs, and everything in between. Despite varying careers, everyone shared the same sentiment. . . no one predicted their path or ended up doing what they sought out to do. It’s okay to begin your career one way and hop to something different. Likewise, it’s okay to have not a clue what you’re doing. Everyone starts somewhere.

3. Education is key

Education is a constant theme in my writings, but one that was present in many of my networking meetings. The professionals I spoke with encouraged education, had graduated from prestigious programs and universities or were on their way to returning to the classroom. Taking classes is an investment in yourself and your organization/employer. Education is key to your career and personal growth.

4. Relationships are priceless

I’ve heard and read so much about relationship-building and its importance in the workplace and professional world. I frequently see people view relationships as strategic moves on the game board of the corporate/nonprofit world. I’m here to remind you that people thrive on connection. . . and authentic connection at that. Meeting with the vice president of your company is valuable, but building a relationship with your colleague who sits next to you in your cubicle is just as important. Relationships are priceless, but it’s clear to others when your networking is inauthentic or transactional.

5. Questions need purpose

Since I was little, I’ve been “the planner” in every group. I’ve come a long way in living life more in the moment, but I take the good aspects of being a planner to my work and professional development. Before meeting anyone for coffee, I did research on their background and came prepared to ask meaningful questions about their career and journeys. I brought my notebook to each conversation and shamelessly took notes and did so afterward, too. Take the time to ask questions with purpose and intent.

6. Everyone has been where you are

I’m 24 and feeling the growing pains of my mid-twenties. The funny thing about age is literally everyone who is older than me knows exactly what it’s like to be in my shoes. Everyone knows what it’s like to be where you are. Whether you’re doubting your next move, unsure you’re in the right profession, or even in the right city, a stranger or fellow professional might provide guidance your friends and family can’t. You’re not alone on the journey to find your “dream job” or simply happiness in your day job.

7. Follow-up can vary

Many of my conversations thus far have ended with emails filled with resources, further connections, job application links, and promises for follow-up. On the other side, many ended with a “thank you” and well wishes. I found that not everyone has the capacity, interest, or inclination to keep expanding on the relationship – which is FINE! I left many conversations feeling like I got the most out of it being present in the moment and soaking in time with another person who has experiences and knowledge to share with me. I recommend to anyone beginning their networking journey to be thoughtful in follow-up and read whether or not the person wants to continue the relationship past the initial meeting.

The short of it? Get out there, order yourself a cup of coffee, and talk to a stranger. I guarantee you’ll learn the world is a lot smaller than you think and six degrees of separation is a very real concept.

If you’re interested in beginning your own networking journey, please don’t hesistate to reach out. I’d love to help you make your plan and get started! Email me at lauren@talkabouttown.org.

January Spotlight: Colin Comstock of Arsenal Mediaworks

Each month, I’ll be featuring an entrepreneur, an industry leader, or expert in the field here on The Talk About Town with the focus on marketing, storytelling, and balancing dreams and the 9-to-5 grind. 

Colin Comstock, the owner of Arsenal Mediaworks, founded his South Philly-based full-service video production company in 2006. His five-person team strives to bring the highest quality product to clients with a focus on the details and boasts clients like Penn Medicine, Movado, Kimco Realty, and Visit Bucks County. Headquartered in the sun-filled and iconic Bok Building, Arsenal Mediaworks continues to tell stories through a creative lens in an unparalleled way. 

LG: Thanks for being with us today, Colin! Tell us about yourself and Arsenal Mediaworks?

CC: Thank you for having me! I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the business!

Arsenal Mediaworks is a video production company based in the Bok Building in South Philadelphia and I am the owner and founder. We help people and businesses tell their story and communicate information through engaging and strategic video content. 

That can look pretty different depending on the project (ie: who the client is and what outlets we are creating the video for), but generally speaking, we produce client-facing “about us”/brand videos, social media content, internal communication videos and event videos for organizations large and small. 

We have also produced some long-form documentary and TV series/entertainment work recently and that is an area that we are going to continue to develop in 2020. 

LG: How was Arsenal Mediaworks created in 2006? What were you doing prior to becoming an entrepreneur? 

CC: Prior to 2006 I was a student at Temple University, a waiter at an Italian restaurant and a musician in a bunch of fledgling bands of various quality. I started doing video work for small businesses while still in college and I haven’t had another job since.

LG: How has Arsenal Mediaworks changed over the decades? How do you envision your company in 5 years?  

CC: Things have changed a lot over the last 15 years or so. I started off as a one-man-band taking odds and ends video gigs and slowly started to bring in freelancers more and more to help with larger projects. 

I hired my first full-time employee in 2012 and we started working out of my garage. Since then we’ve grown to a team of 5 full-time people (plus a network of freelancers) and we’ve been working out of a beautiful studio in the Bok Building since June of 2018. As we move forward I’ll be looking to hire a couple more people to help take some of the weight off of everyone’s shoulders and allow them to focus on the parts of their job that they enjoy and excel at most. 

LG: How did you build Arsenal Mediaworks’ marketing strategy? What tactic has made a difference in your marketing goals? 

CC: I was really struck by a book a friend recommended to me called “StoryBrand” by Donald Miller. The basic premise is that you want to make the customer the hero of your brand’s story and marketing materials (rather than yourself). 

In light of that, we try to position ourselves as “a guide” who can help people solve a problem through video, rather than just talking about all the cool stuff we’ve done and how long we’ve been in business. 

Beyond that, we are also big on showing the personality of our staff through our website and social media channels and believe that peeling back the curtain and showing that we don’t take ourselves too seriously helps build stronger connections with our clients and potential customers. We have a really good culture and a lot of fun working together and I think that definitely sets us apart from some of our peers. 

The Arsenal Mediaworks Team

LG: Your website really tells your company’s story. How did you create your website? What’s most important to you when people and prospective clients reach your site? 

CC: We are really lucky to have some brilliant multi-talented people on our crew (ahem, Mr James O’Brien) and he actually designs the website. Because it’s done in-house that allows us to kind of try things out and adapt/change a little easier (or cheaper) than if we were hiring a developer to do it. 

We’ve overhauled the site a couple times over the last several years and each time we’ve started from a place of “what we do we think is the most important thing to communicate” and worked backwards from that. We also knew we wanted to incorporate moving background video into our design so we identified a couple places where that would make sense early and specifically shot some clips to fit in that design.

With this most recent iteration we were obviously inspired by StoryBrand, but also a real desire to help demystify the production process. Producing video can be complicated, and there are often a lot of moving parts, but we’ve really honed in our processes over the last couple years and I think that’s helped make things a little easier for new clients to wrap their head around. 

LG: What’s the most rewarding part about being an entrepreneur? What’s the most challenging part? 

CC: I was recently accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program which is a 16 week intensive program for small business owners to really sharpen their business and entrepreneurial skills. I think having the schedule flexibility to be able to carve out an entire day out of the work-week to further develop myself is a real gift and benefit of being self-employed that I really appreciate. And beyond that, seeing how the people back in the studio really step up in my absence and handle the day-to-day operations is incredibly rewarding. 

On the other hand, nearly every day is challenging in a new (and often unforeseen) way. Running a business, especially a creative service agency, is not for the faint of heart – and the highs and lows/feast and famine stuff can really wear you down if you let it. I have a lot more grey hairs than I did a couple years ago but I’m really thankful for my team and our clients who have helped make each year better than the year before it. 

I’m also really blessed that my father, who was very successful in his career and is now retired, lives close by and we have continued a tradition that dates back to me being in high school of having breakfast together every Monday morning. That time together ends up being an awesome opportunity to bounce ideas off of him and seek advice. And being an entrepreneur means that if that goes long no one can reprimand me for being a little late to work in the morning 🙂

LG: What has been a major success in your business? A fail?

CC: When I think about what success looks like for us I think about lots of happy repeat customers who have grown alongside us. The world has changed so much in the last few years. I remember going to networking events in the early days and trying to convince people that they needed to use video as part of their marketing strategy. Now it seems most people inherently understand the power of video so we’ve shifted our focus to showing people why they should be strategic and thoughtful about the video they produce. 

As far as times I’ve failed, there have been a lot for sure, but speaking generally – I think I’ve often said yes to too many things and foregone sleep or eating in an attempt to keep pushing the business forward or take advantage of new opportunities. You can’t be everything to everyone and the times I’ve tried were shortsighted and have come back to bite me more often than not. 

LG: How do you manage the balance between your role as a father, a creative, and a business-owner?

CC: That’s a great question and something I think about a lot. One big thing for me was recognizing and accepting the fact that since I spend so much of day communicating with clients and employees, and trying to think big picture about the direction of the business, that it’s important for me to be protective of what little energy and headspace I have left over at the end of the day. 

I’m absolutely crazy about my wife and 3 daughters (!!!) and really desire to be a good husband and father to them. It can be tough because I often come home exhausted and with a lot of things still bouncing around in my mind – and they (particularly the little ones) don’t care about any of that stuff – as well they shouldn’t!

One of the big shifts I made a couple years ago was getting completely off of social media. Not just “I never check it” but actually deleting my accounts. For me, that was one less big distraction and thing that kept me from being fully present when I’m at home. All that other passive time doing the endless-scroll and seeing what other people are up to is all time that I could spend being present with them (or resting). 

I had convinced myself that I needed to be on social media for “work reasons” but I was able to delegate the Arsenal accounts to some very awesome people in the office and things have actually only grown since then. I couldn’t be happier, I’ve never felt more mentally healthy, and am pleased to say I’m never going back. Simplify, simplify.

LG: What’s your biggest piece of advice to entrepreneurs out there? 

CC: Seek out help and don’t be embarrassed by what you don’t know. 

Running a business is complicated and always changing. No one person is good at, or knows how to do, everything. In my case in particular I’m “a creative” whose business grew and essentially had to learn how to be a manager out of necessity. I never set out to run a business, I was just putting one foot in front of the other and knew I didn’t really want to wait tables for very long – mostly because I was really bad at it.

This is an incredible time to be alive and the amount of information we have at our fingertips is pretty amazing. But beyond searching the internet for things, it’s also important to get out and talk to other people. I joined an Entrepreneurs Small Group that gets together once a month to talk and present issues and hear from experts in different fields. It’s been really interesting to realize that even though we all do different things, a lot of our problems are the same and it’s nice to know you’re not alone in some of that stuff. Beyond that, if you can get into a program like Goldman Sachs 10KSB or “Power Up Your Business” or SBA’s “Emerging Leaders” – DO IT. The things you’ll learn and the people you’ll meet are totally worth the investment of your time. 

LG: What’s the one thing you wish you could go back and tell your younger self?

CC: Set aside money for taxes and don’t conflate your personal worth and identity with the success of your business. And dont forget to floss 🙂

LG: Here’s your chance. . . why does every company need to be using video!? 

CC: Ha! Thanks for the opportunity to make a pitch here. I would just say that video is an incredibly powerful communication tool that can really shape and change the perception and awareness of your brand or company. If it’s approached thoughtfully it can also be done efficiently and have a real measurable impact on your business and/or your culture. You don’t necessarily need to hire a production company for everything, but for the projects that need to be done right – give us a shout! 

If the New Year has sparked change in your company’s marketing plans, consider adding video to the mix! Get started with Arsenal Mediaworks today: https://www.arsenalmediaworks.com/contact-us 
Author’s Note: A special thank you to Colin for participating in this month’s spotlight!

What I Learned After One Year in Business

3 years ago, my cousin sent me a screenshot of a local food blogger’s Facebook post. She was looking for a social media writer to help her generate consistent content. I sent an email and established my first ever freelance client (shoutout to Fresh April Flours!).

2 years ago, a manager from my first job at Longwood Gardens pulled me into a marketing campaign for a local restaurant. Quickly, a few more clients trickled in.

1 year ago, I took a bold step to launch my own marketing and communications agency completely solo. What a year it’s been.

Being an entrepreneur and juggling one million roles, projects, hobbies, and a life at once isn’t easy, but everyone knows that. Throughout the past year, I’ve learned some really hard lessons that no one really plans for when you pack your backpack with tools and tricks you think you might need on the journey to make your business successful — whatever that word means to you. I’m here to share with you what I would go back in time and share with myself one year ago.

Each and every project and/or client you take on, becomes part of you and a reflection of your work. Make sure your partnership is one that’s true of your personal and business values.

Over the summer, I went to a meeting with a lovely woman who needed marketing support for her med spa business. She told me to meet her at her spa’s office and we’d talk about her big ideas and needs for social media. I quickly became aware that what she was looking for was help marketing her botox services on social media. I left the meeting with an odd feeling. I had failed to prepare and really understand what I was walking into. But most importantly, the actual subject matter butted heads with my own personal values. We had a few follow-up discussions and ultimately, didn’t end up working with one another which was for the best. Likewise, I became very involved in a project that was hugely focused on technology and sales. Simply put, that’s just not me! And boy, did it show in my work.

I wish I could go back in time and reiterate that not every client will be a perfect fit and initial conversations don’t always pan out to a contracted partnership. What’s most important is the ability to feel your role in a project and relationship with your client is ethical and true to you.

Managing expectations might not make you feel like a superhero, but it will mitigate stress and lead to healthy client relationships.

My worst habit is hanging up after a phone call and having a list of to-dos that I promised to do right away. I’ll often find myself telling clients (and even in my full-time job) that “I’ll have that done tonight!”. It’s not that I’m being deceitful or untrue. . . I’m simply not being aware of the hours in a day and what categorizes as a true priority. I’m a lover of deadlines, but tend to impose unrealistic ones on myself for no real reason.

After one year of business, it’s important to remind myself (still) that it’s better to be clear about your priorities and when deadlines are physically possible when conversing with clients. Acting like superwoman/superman will only get you late nights and headaches. After all, a girl has to sleep — preferably for eight hours.

Defining success for you is crucial to your mental health, your business, and your life.

There is so much pressure within the online community to build your business to a “six figure earning” overnight. If only an Instagram influencer class could really help you wave the magic wand over your social media following, client leads, and blog impressions. . . life doesn’t work that way. When I officially started my business last January, I made an editorial calendar, signed up for an email client, purchased a WordPress site and waited for the clients to just roll in like bees coming to honey. Ha! I quickly realized the bar I set for myself was unrealistic. I am fortunate to have a full-time job that pays the bills and provides my health insurance, but it takes up a whole lot of my time. Add in my family, my friends, my boyfriend (Hi James, I know you’re reading), working out, reading, and smelling the flowers every once and a while, and my business doesn’t really have a space in the landscape of Lauren’s life. . . So what to do?

I sat down and defined what success meant for me. I wrote a dollar amount that I wanted to earn in calendar year 2019 and worked really hard to get there. I made a promise to myself that I would never miss an event, milestone, or Girl’s Night to run my business (crazy, I know). And I made a promise to myself that not every prospective client was an automatic client. I invested more time than ever to nail down whether or not I could see myself working successfully with the person and their business.

As I look back on 2019, I am so proud of my one-woman show. I earned my monetary goal (and a little more). I spent more time with my family and friends than years before by learning to prioritize every minute of my time. And I receive almost 90% of my business from client referrals, proving I’ve done quite the job of developing relationships with my clients that are worthy of being The Talk About Town.

A special thanks to everyone who has supported me throughout this past year. Whether you asked about my work or bought me a coffee because I looked exhausted, I am so appreciative of every moment.

Cheers to 2020! 🥂