Thursday, March 31, 2016

Business Day | A Hard-Driving Executive’s Year of Learning to Let Go

Credit Edel Rodriguez
Growing up in the Indian Himalayas, I saw a steady stream of professionals — doctors, engineers, lawyers — leave their careers and live in ashrams and caves near my village. I never fully understood their motives. But 20 years later, I had the same strong urge to spend an extended time in silence and find a deep center of stillness within me after my mother’s untimely death from cancer.
My wife and I had also been contemplating taking time off from our jobs to write novels. We’d been balancing writing with corporate jobs for a decade and felt we were falling short of excellence in both. As a result, starting in late 2012 we decided to take a full year off from our jobs and go on a spiritual and creative sabbatical.
At the time, I was leading the Capri Sun and Kool-Aid brands as a director for Kraft Foods in New York, and my manager responded to my initial request for an unpaid sabbatical with a bewildered silence. Eventually, I convinced her — I think because I had the same specificity in my sabbatical goals as I had in my work goals. Rather than a general pitch of needing one year to “find myself,” I explained that I wanted to do a structured yoga teacher’s training for six weeks, spend one month in silent meditation, write for three months and so forth, all of which were emotionally urgent for me and would help me return more centered and effective.
Paradoxically, though, we began our sabbatical by consciously letting go of our goals. Trained as an engineer, I’ve always liked numbers, and over the years I’ve used left-brained, analytical models to make most decisions at work. Even in writing fiction, I tend to be heavily outline-driven, planning out character and story trajectories in microscopic detail over months before I write the first word. I wanted to experience a glimpse of transcendence in my writing by becoming more intuitive.
We went from Europe to India by road over three months with no plans and no bookings, deciding each day what to do next. On paper, this was a romantic idea; in reality, it meant a lot of nights sleeping in bus stands and train stations, and walking for miles with our heavy backpacks as we passed through small towns in places like Bulgaria and Turkey with no public transportation on weekends.
We committed to spending the year in bare accommodations and choosing the cheapest modes of transportation. For a couple of years, I’d been feeling that I’d lost the simplicity of my life. Too many of my conversations were revolving around organic food, dinner reservations and Off Broadway shows. We wanted to start our journey by stripping ourselves of superfluous material noise.
On reaching India, we learned yoga at a forest ashram in the south and meditation in the Himalayas. I was more agitated than calm in this period, mostly because I struggled with losing my independence while living on the ashram’s tight clock. You had to wake up at 5 a.m. as soon as the morning bell rang; you’d be marked “absent” from the yoga teacher’s training course if you were more than five minutes late for class. You couldn’t speak during mealtimes; every minute of the day was rigidly scheduled.
I was surprised by how discomforting it was to be a beginner again. For six months, I wasn’t a director at a big company in New York. I was just someone who’d barely done any yoga and meditation before and was reprimanded by gurus for being inflexible and restless. Slowly, I found a measure of stillness in the daily routine of the ashram, and I suspect that had as much to do with the gradual dissolution of my concepts and labels about myself, as it had to do with the practice on the mat.
We spent the last three months of the sabbatical writing our novels in a small Portuguese village. I meditated and did yoga every day, and for the first time, I wrote without outlines, structures and detailed character trajectories, trying to just become a medium for my characters to tell their stories. Like much of the sabbatical, it was outside my comfort zone, yet deeply rewarding.
Much to Kraft’s surprise, I did return to my job one year after I left. I thought I’d be calmer after spending much of the year practicing yoga and meditation, but I constantly fell short of my expectations in dealing with the usual stressful work situations.
Still, since my return, I’ve become much less rigid than before. Perhaps as a result of losing control for much of the year, I find myself more comfortable with trying out ideas on bursts of inspiration and spontaneity, mine or others’, versus linear, return-on-investment-driven models. Shortly after my return, for instance, I approved an advertising campaign that had nothing to do with the strategy I had planned, and it did better than anything I’d done before.
I’ve also become more open about my career paths. Not everyone is on a straight line from director to president to C.E.O. In the past, at work I kept to myself my deepening interests in meditation and writing so they wouldn’t be perceived as distractions from my career. Now I view them as one integrated stream of constant learning.
I’d expected to be passed over for promotions because I’d taken a year off. Instead my career accelerated after the sabbatical, and I quickly moved to a more senior position at Kraft. Then I left Kraft to become the chief marketing officer at a start-up. However, I have enough deeply entrenched memories of sleeping on ashram floors and falling over while in headstands never to take the titles too seriously.

Entrepreneurship | Pop-Up Stores Thrive in a World of Failing Retailers

Jane Mosbacher Morris, founder of To the Market, with a nine-piece Kantha tabletop set handmade by human trafficking survivors in Bangladesh. Credit Philip Scott Andrews for The New York Times
During trips to war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Jane Mosbacher Morris discovered, to her alarm, that women had little control over their finances. Some were forbidden to work or even touch money. The antidote, she decided, was starting an online market stocked with artisan works made by survivors of war, genocide, human trafficking and other abuses. The site To the Market would put much-needed money into their hands.
Each handmade piece on the site has a powerful back story, such as the deka necklace, which is made of recycled paper by female survivors of war in Northern Uganda.
“People want to know where something is made,” said Ms. Morris. “A piece may be spun in a leper colony or crafted in an AIDS shelter.”
But in cyberspace, goods can’t be touched. So Ms. Morris, who was a counterterrorism adviser for the State Department, turned to pop-up stores as a way to sell the jewelry, handbags and other items that carry these powerful stories.
She began pitching her pop-up stores at conferences, such as one for refugees put on by the Red Cross. Others are held in yoga studios or women’s homes. These places are usually free, and she can walk away with tens of thousands of dollars of sales, putting more money into the hands of survivors.
Entrepreneurs like Ms. Morris are helping revitalize pop-up stores, a decades-old retail concept. More party than hard sell, this new breed of pop-ups is becoming increasingly innovative and fun — far more than the seasonal pop-ups that once prevailed. And they are also increasingly profitable, experts say, since consumers crave these new experiences.
Using pop-ups does, of course, still help entrepreneurs stay nimble and lean. They do not need to sign long leases, stash away much cash or carry big credit lines. For their part, consumers can meet the designers and touch and feel their works, which cannot be done online. In the process, brands can be built more quickly, sales can be increased and new products can be tested.
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“Pop-up stores are a tremendous format,” said Burt Flickinger III, managing director at the Strategic Resource Group. “They are exponential ways to build a brand.”
These stores, and e-commerce, are putting big dents in older retail chains, Mr. Flickinger said. They are going through a “retail ice age,” he said, as once-reliable retail anchors like JC Penney and Sports Authority sputter. They are weighed down by high costs and long production schedules, he added.
“Consumers are looking for new ways to shop and new brands,” he added. “They want better quality at better prices. Legacy stores, though, have a harder time changing their mixes.”
In a Darwinian sales environment, pop-up stores are winning.
The hip eyeware maker Warby Parker helped push pop-up stores into a year-round, fun event. The company turned a school bus into a traveling eyewear shop, tricking it out with leather couches, wood paneling and even vintage books, and then took it on the road trip across the country.
“The bus was visual and out of the box,” said Melissa Gonzalez, author of the book “The Pop-Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connections in a Digital Age” (Lionesque Media, 2014). “And it showed that you don’t need a store.”
Pop-up entrepreneurs are continuing to innovate. Events are, well, popping up in garages, around pools and even in locked storage spaces. Some retailers are even doing 3-D pop-up printed jewelry, say experts. And one artist opened a gallery in a giant Christmas tree.
“They’re risk takers,” said Jeremy Baras, chief executive of PopUp Republic. “Pop-up stores are temporary so you can be more creative.” The event, he warns, should blend in your product or service, though, rather than being a distraction.
Handmade threaded baskets from Nicaraguan artisans, sold by To the Market. Credit Philip Scott Andrews/The New York Times
Catherine Nicole, who has an online jewelry boutique of the same name, has even ditched trade shows for pop-ups. She tries to hold two pop-ups sales a month, where she sells her jewelry, which is made of semiprecious gemstones that were inspired by travels to Spain and Africa. This strategy, she adds, is in keeping with her business model of staying lean and agile.
“It’s more lucrative to stay out of the game and approach it in an artisan style,” said Ms. Nicole, who studied apparel design at Parsons School of Design. “It leads to sticky customers.”
For one pop-up, she set up shop in the lobby of the software developer Ceres Logic, which many people passed through. And for Valentine’s Day, she sold her jewelry during men’s happy hour at a bar in Austin, which did not cost her anything, either. She also worked with flower vendors, chocolate sellers and a massage therapist for that event.
“I can’t compete with Forever 21’s prices or David Yurman’s notoriety,” she said. “But I can show my customers that I value them. They don’t want to walk into a store and be treated like nobodies.”
Like Ms. Nicole, other entrepreneurs are also forging partnerships with food makers and other artisans. And these events may be held at hotels, malls or other high-traffic locales. Successful pop-ups should ignite the five senses, Ms. Gonzalez explained, because they are selling lifestyle events.
Sense-bolstering is exactly what Paul Trible, a co-founder of the luxury men’s wear company Ledbury, aims for with pop-ups. To build popularity, he has been throwing partylike events, which have included bourbon tasting, local breweries and DJ’s who spin funk and soul music.
One pop-up party in Atlanta drew a crowd of more than 350. And Steven Yeun, a star of “The Walking Dead,” even brought Scott Gimple, a noted television show and comedy writer, who bought a blazer.
“We’re all about fit and quality, and that’s our mantra,” said Mr. Trible, who studied shirt making with a London master tailor after his dreams of going into finance evaporated during the financial crisis. “And that’s very tactile. You have to feel it. So these pop-ups are great introductions for customers.”
For Mr. Trible, pop-ups fuel sales. And typically, his best e-commerce customers spend the most money. He also uses pop-ups to test retail locations, such as the Georgetown area of Washington, where one pop-up store lasted for three months. The team looked at foot traffic, repeat buys and other variables. “We’re opening a permanent store in the same neighborhood,” he said
Mr. Trible added that organizing a pop-up event in one week can be stressful. “You need a staff that’s a SWAT team to execute,” he said.
Lack of planning, though, can doom the event. Retailers may not fully evaluate a location, said Ms. Gonzalez, or invest enough time in telling a story. “Understand the goal of a pop-up,” she advised.
During the early days of the Thursday Boot Company, pop-ups were held at a co-founder’s apartment in the Flatiron section of Manhattan. “We did fittings,” said Connor Wilson, Thursday Boot’s other co-founder. “Gave out free beer. And it was a chance to connect with customers.”
Another free pop-up was held at The Garret, a woodsy bar in Manhattan’s West Village, on a Saturday afternoon. It helped spur Thursday Boot’s Kickstarter campaign, which ended up raising $276,610 in one month, one of the most-financed footwear campaigns ever.
These days, Thursday Boot events are more formal. One three-month pop-up event was held at a retail space, which was part of Union Market in Washington Its handcrafted boots were displayed on industrial cable spools and the specially designed Thursday Boot flag was flying. “We’re trying to keep it fresh and fun,” said Mr. Wilson.
Shopping in person for handcrafted items is a nice change from buying online, said Ms. Morris. “And I love being part of the process,” she said.