My night as a woman

I got back from Fiji last night, and an experience I will never forget.

I learned something about tribes, and I learned something about women. And I guess I learned a little something about myself.

Thought I’d share.

About a year ago my speaking agent asked me if I wanted to do a talk in Fiji for an organisation called Business Chicks. Yes, I have a speaking agent. Yes, I find the whole idea a bit weird.

Nonetheless – I said yes (naturally) and then promptly forgot about it, until about two months ago, when the idea of escaping the death knell of Melbourne winter became understandably appealing.

I started asking around about Business Chicks, to discover that not only were they quite widely known, but they seemed to be widely well-regarded. I jumped online and did a bit of research. Bought a book the founder, Emma Isaacs, wrote, called Winging It. I was drawn in by her candour, and impressed with her hustle.

Now normally in the lead-up to a speaking gig, two things happen for me. One – the conference organisers attempt to tick off potential sources of anxiety. Could I send my presentation, 16×9 format? Are there any videos embedded? Could I send through my flight details. And two – the clients who’ve booked me want to tell me all about their companies, their audience, and what they want from the conference, so I can tailor my talk to help them drive home their message.

But I got none of that in this particular lead-up.

I got a series of emails from Business Chicks, bursting with excitement about the upcoming event, and a link to a form with a bunch of questions about me. Good questions – what am I excited about right now? What am I really good at? Could I share a “pinch-me” moment?

The same questions that everyone going was being asked, as it turned out. I didn’t get treated as a speaker, I got treated as a member. That was a good start, and together with the book and the unpaid endorsements from people I knew and respected, I started getting a little more excited about the event.

And a little more nervous.

I saw the speaker line-up. Impressive women, all.

When I arrived, on the table in my villa was a beautifully printed and bound book with photos and anecdotes from each of the speakers and attendees. Page after page I flipped, wondering… okay. All women.

Someone I am lucky to know named Kate Morris, founder of Adore Beauty, is a bit of a champion of balancing the gender representation of speakers at conferences and on panels. She’s helped me get better at asking the question before accepting a gig, or even better, taking the gig, and then asking the question on social media.

You’ll perhaps be unsurprised by how many organisers “haven’t yet finalised the speaker lineup”, and how quickly three women are slipped last minute into said lineup, when you ask the question on facebook and twitter, rather than email.

And so it was with a wry grin that I accepted the fact that I was indisputably and irrevocably the token male at this conference.

I went to the welcome drinks, and do you know what struck me immediately? This wasn’t like any conference audience I’d ever seen. This was a fucking tribe. There was energy in the air, under the steamy, stormy Fiji skies.

Know what I was mostly feeling? Like I was intruding.

I remember I went up to the bar to get champagne for my table, in an effort that reeked of desperation to be useful, and the Fijian barman, one of the only other men in sight, leant over to me and whispered “so you the only man here, huh?” with a smirk that was part sympathy, part envy, and a whole lot of bewilderment.

And I couldn’t help but think that these one hundred and twenty women had come together to be free and vulnerable and inspired and empowered and you know what? Day one? Token man – you can fuck off, thank you. Day three maybe – come back to us, we may be up for a little male company, but for now, this is our time. Good bye.

Of course, I wasn’t made to feel unwelcome. In fact, I was welcomed very warmly. But I couldn’t help but feel like I was intruding. Like I didn’t belong.

I know it sounds okay on the surface, perhaps if you’re a man reading, to be the only male at a conference full of driven, creative, connected women, and that had occurred to me, but in reality it was a little intimidating. 

But you know what happened? I came to realise, through the energy and hospitality of these people, that this wasn’t a tribe of women after all.

This was a tribe of people, united by a fire in each of their bellies that drove them to make something, to build something, to create something they were passionate about. Something on and of and with purpose.

And with that, I connected. That was me too. We shared that.

And maybe it was the champagne, maybe it was the balmy air or the Pacific constellations or the intoxicating array of colours and shapes and fabrics at once foreign and fascinating, but I didn’t feel like I was intruding any more.

I felt like I belonged.

Know what else I noticed? There was none of the usual posturing and positioning you get when a group of strangers come together at a conference. None of the forced networking. Sure, there were those natural extroverted connectors who were bringing people in, and those introverts grateful for the invitations, but it was all happening with smiles and hugs and simple humanness, and what genuinely felt like giving, not taking.

The stakes rose as the day of my talk approached. I didn’t want to let these people down. They had welcomed me. Had transformed me, in a way.

I told my story, I shared my failures, my mistakes, my fears, and my learnings. I shared my belief that ultimately, it all came down to what we stood for, to unite our tribes.

Someone came up to me afterwards and told me with fervent eyes that they had come to the conference resigned to quit their business and get a job, but during the one hour and five minutes of my story, they had changed their mind.

Another woman came up to me in tears, sobbing “it’s me! They’re not my daughter’s issues, they’re mine. My fears! I worry so that she doesn’t have a solid career, she tries this, and tries that, and I think she’s unhappy, but she’s not! It’s just my worry. Oh, I have to tell her that I understand, that I’m so proud of her…”

The MC – a Jersey-born and twanged inspiration named Karen James (who I want very much to be my friend and mentor) hugged me onstage through choked-back tears and confessed the crippling anxiety she had felt these past four months over an impending and life-changing decision.

She afterward put up a slide of a clownfish and explained how as schools living within their anemones, a female always ruled, and if the Queen died, the next dominant male would somehow manifest a sex change and take her place.

Challenge accepted, I turned up to the final night’s celebrations, fancy-dress themed around the letter “F”, as a Female.

It was funny, but also, and I just giggled a little as I wrote this – it was kind of like the final rite of my inclusion with this extraordinary group of people.

We danced, Farmgirl and Fairy and Flower Child and Frida and I, and we jumped in the pool in dresses and undies, and there was no Fear of sexualisation, only Freedom.

We hugged, and I was taught by not half bad surfer Layne Beachley the humble healing art of not “giving” a hug, but sharing one.

I came to understand that this culture was the manifestation of the true and open soul of Emma, the Business Chicks founder, dressed that night as Fiona from Shrek.

So comfortable did I become, that near the end of the night I found myself, soaking wet and half naked, getting drinks from the bar, having spared the Zimmerman dress I had borrowed from getting ruined.

I got another taste of life as a woman then, as a particularly merry patron smacked my bum and tried to pull down my pants, and got a bit belligerent when I asked her to stop.

My first thought was “it’s okay, it’s late, and let’s face it, I am standing at a bar in wet undies.” The implications of so normalising the situation aren’t lost on me, in these momentous and encouraging times of movement toward equality.

I didn’t feel particularly threatened in the moment, just mildly irritated. But I’m guessing that if I had to go through that every Saturday night for the next twenty years, it would get tiresome at best, traumatic more likely.

I share this incident with you not to shame anyone – god no, it was very not in keeping with the experience I had with this phenomenal tribe of women, one and all. Indeed, I strongly considered not including it at all.

But it was significant to my experience that night, my night as a woman. And oddly, contributed to my sense of connectedness.

What an extraordinary weekend!

I learned, or relearned, that inclusion can and should ignore the surface “likenesses”, be they gender or race or whatever. Inclusion, belonging – it’s about shared values, human experiences. 

I had a wonderful, emotional, connected and transformative time, the only man in a tribe of women.

Thank you, Business Chicks, and the people of Fiji who looked after us. May I, through this agency, attempt to help unite tribes so connected and true.

Alright Then, Go Get On With It

Flipping

It’s raining. And howling.

I’m sitting in an airbnb in Coogee, up for the week in Sydney with my son, who has a “meetup” with a few of his flipping idols. That’s trampolining. It’s a whole thing. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him so excited. He just ran past me on his way to the toilet screaming “only eighteen hours until the meetup!”.

He feels part of something. Makes me smile, bless his beautiful flipping heart.

I, too, am excited, though not in such a delightfully rabid way.

I have a day booked this week, here in Sydney, with a new “client”. (lord, I hate that word. Partner? I haven’t solved that one yet. Feel free to suggest something non-corporate, non-agency, clear and simple and not naff or overly googley)

I’ve known them for a while, even used their product. The founder (I’ll share more openly once we’re into the project, I promise, with their permission) called my up after reading the first story I posted, and I loved what he said:

“I’m proud of what we’ve built. I’m proud of the company, but I’m not proud of the brand. I want to change that. I want to fall in love with our brand.”

There’s a lot to be excited about, actually, since last I wrote. My week last week kind of exploded with potential.

Two hours in a café in Adelaide and the brand new CEO of a thirty-five year old company and I manifested a vision for their future that is really something quite beautiful and harmonious and worth having in the world, and – in his words – banished the fears he had about his new role, and the enormity of the endeavour. It was the kind of meeting that left us both a little dazed and giddy, and wondering what the catch was.

The catch is, of course, that it’ll take three years to execute on, but it’s a beautiful thing, and I’m so excited to get working on it.

Interestingly, this person was the first person I met with after leaving Vinomofo. I was feeling pretty fragile, I remember, moreso than I let on, and we caught up for a coffee, and I told him about my idea to create an agency. He said “mate, everyone will want to work with you.”

He would have had no idea just how much I needed those words, at that time.

I had a call with the founder of another potential (something), a great business that has grown like crazy and just raised a bunch of capital. He contacted me after a talk I gave for twenty five entrepreneurs that was basically about all my failures, and what I’d learned from them, and the fears and doubts that constantly eat at your dreams.

“I feel that fear,” he said to me, “all the time. I don’t know if I know what I’m doing.”

He does. It’s a cracking business, and he’s executing it well. But I like that it was specifically that connection we had that led to us in all likelihood working together. What a wonderfully human beginning.

In one day last week I was offered three jobs, all paying very well plus equity. I declined each, but will be working with a couple of them through the agency. Another handful of good companies are waiting on proposals from me, as I dive into their sites, learning and experiencing what I can as a user, ideas blooming.

I know this all sounds a bit self-congratulatory, and I don’t mean it to be. It was just such an exhilarating week. That’s exactly how I felt. Exhilarated, purely and delightfully.

This was the week that turned Cult Tribal from an idea into a business.

Amidst the meetings and phone calls with potential clients/partners/(help!) I also got a crash-course in Xero by Kim from Business One Group (her own business), who is going to look after my “books”. Kim was recommended by Marty from Ocean Labs, who is looking after IT for me, and is a good person.

Nick and Andrew from Lynx Digital, who work about four desks away from me at The Commons in Collingwood, helped get my culttribal.com site up and live in under a day, so I could post my first story the week before last. I’m sure I annoyed the hell out of them, being able to simply walk up to their desks and interrupt them with a hundred demands like “do you think we could move the signup field below the articles?”

One of the things I was afraid of was feeling alone. Feeling like I was in this on my own.

I don’t feel that. I feel perhaps more connected, more supported, than I ever have, and I want to say thank you to everyone who is part of this story – not only for helping me build this agency, but for helping me feel like I’m part of something bigger than just me.

One meeting I had was particularly inspiring. I was over at another space, speaking with their community lead, Al Jeffrey (hope you don’t mind being named, Al), about doing some entrepreneur-in-residence stuff with them next year.

I really liked Al, and could have talked about tribes and connection for hours. I was telling him about the way I believed a brand had to be connected with purpose, had to stand for something, and took him through the process I was working on to help brands connect with that.

He told me to check out the Community Canvas – an open source framework for building communities, put together and shared by some very clever people from around the world.

I went back to my desk after the meeting and looked it up – wow. It was virtually play by play, piece by piece, what I’d been working on. A wave of relief washed over me – this made sense, this thinking.

I’m not building a brand agency – I’m building an agency that helps brands unite tribes.

That was a moment of blazing clarity. Thank you Al.

Four days later, I was already questioning it. Not because it might be wrong, but because after another inspiring conversation later in the week, which presented not a brand transformation challenge, but a cultural one. One that also needed an operational transformation, I realised that I’m creating a transformation agency.

I think I’m connecting with the possibility that this agency can, in time, help transform not only brands, cultures, human customer experiences, but can lead social, political, and environmental change.

I know that sounds rah-rah, but it’s igniting me. It’s like it’s all coming together, all the strands, the possibilities.

Even the brand transformations I’m working on now, I’m thinking about them in a way that is bigger, purer, because of this vision that is forming in my future.

I sat down and decided to put myself through the process I was building out for the agency, and I’ll share that with you before I get back to “work”.

I started with one simple question…

“André, WHY are you doing this?”

And this is the honest, unmanufactured answer that came…

“I want businesses to do things right.

“Offer something that betters the world. Stand for something. Treat people right. Be aware of their impact on the world. Care more. Be honest. Be human.”

“And what does that do?”

“It creates trust. And sadly, it’s remarkably different, and will get talked about. That, in of itself, attracts people.

“Start with that at the core of your values, and live them.

“I believe in their hearts, people want permission to do things right, but they’re afraid that will be too naive, or too hard, or will conflict with doing things “smart”, or will conflict with profitability.

“Create a brand that stands for something, and you can be a movement. And attract like-minded people who care. That’s a tribe.”

“So what’s my purpose?”

“To help people do things right.”

“What do I stand for?”

Doing things right.  Or perhaps “doing things good.” 

“So what is it that will connect MY tribe?”

“People who want to do things right, and believe that this would make for a better fucking world. People who think “oh, thank Christ someone’s doing it. I want to do it too”. This is the movement.”

And this is what I wrote down, and then turned into something of a “logo in progress”, as befits my “agency in progress”:

CULT TRIBAL
Transformation Agency
Culture | Brand | Tribe
“Do Things Good”

 

“Alright then, go get on with it!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Thing About Cliffhangers

Cliffhanger

The thing about cliffhangers…

Ha. Apologies for the use of such an indulgent storytelling device – it was 40% writer games, 60% awareness that the post was getting quite long.

Before I continue the story, I want to just note what an astonishing thing it was for me, last Wednesday. Of course I felt humbled with gratitude, and I certainly felt connected, and still do, which is… well, everything.

But what fascinated me perhaps most was the spectrum of empathy in the replies. From simple and heartfelt support, to deep shared understanding of this feeling of starting out on something anew. But from a lot of people, particularly friends, there was concern.

Beautiful and caring, but concern for me nonetheless.

I guess in writing about the fears that dance alongside the exhilaration of embarking on a new adventure, I didn’t feel like I was in a bad place. Rather was just being open about everything I was feeling.

And so my response to a lot of really fucking lovely people was along the lines of “hey, I’m good, I’m fine, I’m actually really excited…”, but it was not without wondering each time if they’re sensing something that I’m missing. Should I not be fine? Am I not not, in fact, fine?

Anyway, I think I’m good. Very good in fact. But I have lost that comfort that comes from walking the same route to work each day. You know that feeling? When most of what you’re passing is familiar, and with that comforting, but also invisible.

Venture down a new path, and everything is loud and bright. You grasp those glimpses of familiarity, and you take in all of the new, but your lizard brain is on high alert.

Well, that’s me, I think, as I sit here writing this on a Monday morning, from the dining table in my apartment, rather than the desk in the co-working space (my desk? Not sure it feels like that quite yet, but it’s a good space), because my kids are over here with me in Melbourne for the school holidays.

There was also someone who replied – and I quote – “Wow this is the most contrived BS I’ve ever read. Can I please have my three minutes back.”

Which I found quite excellent, and became the first moment of decision I had to make around compromising my decision to be open and honest. It was a comment directly on the wordpress site where I posted the story, and I didn’t approve and publish it right away.

Which is a bit hypocritical. It won’t be by any means the hardest decision I’ll have to make, in committing to openness and humility. It’s up there now. Cheers, Rod, and no, you can’t have your three minutes back. That’ll learn you…

So where were we? Oh yes…

On Monday 6th August, 2018, as I walked out the door of the board meeting that ended my life as CEO of Vinomofo, I had an idea.

I hadn’t really known exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew this passion for purpose had been building inside me. Not only brands with purpose, but people. Me, my own purpose. What do you stand for?

We humans, we yearn for a sense of belonging. Even if you don’t like RnB or the Kardashians or the Real Housewives of any of the cities or AFL or almond milk or whatever, even if you feel like you don’t belong in the world around you, and you just want to hide in the library playing dungeons and dragons, away from the kids who belittle you or straight out smash apples on your head when you’re walking to your classroom…

Even then, you’re searching for somewhere you belong. Something to feel a part of. Some sort of community, a tribe.

And if you, as a brand for instance, want to be that something, want to unite a tribe, then you have to stand for something.

Also, I have really come to believe (and I’m by no means alone, nor a pioneer in this) that doing the right thing (by your customers, your suppliers, your employees) is the most important thing in business.

Doing the right thing by a customer (a person!) builds trust, engagement, connection. And sadly, it’s still noteworthy enough that people will talk about it. Do the right thing, and people will come back (retention), and tell their friends (organic growth).

It’s always pretty obvious, what the right thing is. We pretend it’s not, we “business people”, but it is. What would you want to happen for you in this situation?

I also challenge this notion that you have to find a balance between doing what is right for your customers, and what is right for the company (what is profitable). Know what is good for profitability? Retention and organic growth.

Anyway, these are the things that had been wriggling around inside of me. I pressed the down button and waited for the lift, expecting to feel… what? Falling, I guess. I expected to feel like I was falling from the sky. Because I was.

But I couldn’t stop smiling. Like, wide and goofy, bigger-than-my-face kind of smiling.

It was a forty-five minute walk from the city to my airbnb in Carlton, up near the cemetery, and on that walk, I was assaulted – that’s the only way I can describe it – with this idea. It came by way of a hundred thoughts, realisations, connections, and they all led to this core idea…

Of starting an agency.

I’ll share with you, absolutely unedited, the scribblings I wrote when I got to the apartment:

Cult

Culture – Brand – Tribe

A culture, brand and customer experience agency.

Surely there’s a better way to charge than by time.

Better off only ever setting fixed fees, or retainers. We should take on responsibility for scoping.

FULL transparency. RADICAL.

Just create a culture that is absolutely uncompromising.

Be very selective with clients and their campaigns.

What about content and social? So many people do it.

Give Back – a program where corporates can pay, as part of their fee, for our agency to service a charity or startup. Robin Hood revenue model: Those who can afford, pay for those who can’t. But they must get plenty out of it.

Build CultOps – a plug-and-play Culture and Operations framework – software and methodology.

This idea of standing for something, building tribes, being proud of what we do and our impact on the world – these are what this agency can bring to the world.

Do workshops in companies, working with founders and leads to build their cultures and brands, that they may stand for something and attract a tribe.

We can help transform companies to be GOOD.

Agency Rules:

–       No cold calling. Build relationships only. If going to pitch to someone, make it an extraordinary, non-sales pitch. In fact, give something first. For free. Something valuable.

–       No bullshit. Not EVER.

–       Transparency and truth. ALWAYS.

–       Only good, smart people who care.

–       Never do anything average.

–       Stay small and make lots of money doing good things.

Is there a freelancer/collaborative org structure model. One where everyone in the agency is an owner, in some part.

Not exactly profound, but it was the beginning of my new adventure. The very next thing I did was to write a manifesto, which I’ll share with you in the next installment.

I have thirteen actual and potential brand partners that have asked me to help them. Seven came in response to my post last week.

I better get on with it, we’ve got some good work to do!

Thank you for connecting with me – we’re the beginnings, perhaps, of a new tribe. What is it that connects us, I wonder?

Cheers,
André