This is a story of starting a business from scratch, told in real time.
It’s my true story of building Polynate from idea to execution and — hopefully — to success.
This week has been riddled with pangs of self-doubt and a general feeling of “What the f am I doing?” There’s no real reason for any of it, other than the usual challenges of figuring out one’s own self-determined (or is it self-inflicted?) creative path. But boy I’ll tell you, this week has my mind running around a hamster wheel, chasing itself while standing in place.
I keep worrying about the next big step to take, and in what direction I lay my foot. I worry which way to go, and how to get there, and if it’s the right move for myself and Polynate. Moreover, I worry that it’s all for nothing, that in the end, my mind’s struggle will be without consequence because my actions will be without consequence. I think that’s what I’m most afraid — that I will give this my best, give it my all, and at the end of the day this will be nothing more than another rambling blog lost in the cacophony of the internet, and the world.
For those of you out there reading, I want to say thank you. A big THANK YOU. Hearing from you makes this all worth it, and eases my unease when it becomes unruly. Below, a few of my favorite emails from you, including one bearing the subject line “You and Your Head”:
It’s been awhile since I last posted. Sure, I’ve been busy on the freelance front, interviewing for upcoming profiles, and reworking the site to accommodate short form content, but mostly I haven’t felt there’s been much to report. I cold call, interview, photograph, write, design, publish, work, code, email, sleep, and eat. Again and again. While I seem to have fallen into a more productive pattern and am spending less time procrastinating and wasting time switching gears, I’m also finding the pattern lackluster and repetitive.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a pretty fickle person. Probably fickle to a fault. I haven’t lost interest in Polynate or what I’m trying to do with it, and I haven’t stopped believing in its value and possibility. But I will say that the grind of churning out profiles and the repetition that’s involved in constructing them has become less enjoyable. It’s become less a labor of love and more a labor of… labor.
In part, I think this is normal. I think even if you’re chasing your dream, and doing things your way, and forging your own path, and happy to be doing all of it, there will still be times when you’re just going through the motions to get to the next level. Times when the work you’ve created for yourself loses a bit of the shine it first had. Times when what was once exciting, new, and challenging becomes mundane, typical, and predictable. Times when you just need to ride the wave — the highs, the lows, and mostly the in-betweens.
I thought it might be worthwhile to explain a bit about myself, my work history and skill sets. I realize that although I’ve been sharing Polynate’s story for a while, I haven’t shared much of my own. I always thought in some ways it might be irrelevant — ironic, since Polynate is all about uncovering the person behind the brand. In the spirit of transparency, allow me to reintroduce myself.
Curious George and me, posing for mom
My name is Mia Sakai. I was born in San Francisco on January 1, 1984. When I was three, we moved across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Rafael, a sunny suburb in Marin County where I remained until moving to New York City at 18. I went to New York University and graduated in 2006 with a BA in studio art and a minor in journalism.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I got my first job at a one-hour photo printing shop (remember those, when people still used film and real cameras?). I worked there until graduating and also waited tables at a local Chinese restaurant, though most of my shifts were spent smoking cigarettes in the parking lot with the other waitresses. Throughout college, I worked as a salesgirl and cashier at various retail stores in SoHo, the last of which was A Bathing Ape.
A Bathing Ape in SoHo | Photo from www.us.bape.com
At the time, A Bathing Ape was all the rage. Freshly imported from Japan, the “cult” streetwear brand amassed a fanatical following of hip-hop royalty, Asian resellers, and downtown kids of the Union and Supreme variety. It was a fun time. I met everyone in hip-hop and then some. One of my frequent customers became a good buddy and was kind enough to offer me a job the summer after graduation. Or rather, I harped on him until he conceded.
Bloomberg White House Correspondents’ Dinner After-Party, 2008
September 2006 I went to work at Bloomberg L.P. as an event coordinator and general member of the design department. I worked on some fun high-profile events and met some really good people, but was ultimately horrified by the corporate environment. The long faces, slouched shoulders and tired eyes around me made me nervous. Will this be me in ten years? I wasn’t willing to find out. I was also green, unappreciative and stubborn. I quit two years later and a month after the financial meltdown of 2008. Like I said, green, unappreciative and stubborn.
I spent a month in northern Brazil with my mother and returned to the dead of winter, broke, unemployed and aimless. I went on a few half-hearted interviews but the job landscape was dismal at best. I was also terrified of reentering the corporate world after working up the courage to leave it. I took whatever work I could find: a hostessing job at a Jean-Georges restaurant in Tribeca for $11 an hour, and a shopgirl position at a small vintage boutique in the East Village. I was discouraged, poor and bored.
BoHo Bodega branding
I decided to do something about it. I had a crazy idea to make “The World’s First Pop-Up Green Bodega,” a temporary shop outfitted with eco-friendly, all-natural, ethically-responsible goods normally found in your typical corner store. Think paper towels, quick snacks, cold case drinks, and body products. It was an opportunity for green companies to market their product directly to consumers at a discounted price, while contributing to a charity, as all sales profit went directly to a local non-profit. I designed a logo, pitch deck, website and marketing materials. I implored a friend to work with me, and together we sold sponsorships, temporarily leased a storefront on Lafayette and Spring, had palettes of free product delivered, and opened to the public for five whole days. It was exhilarating and exhausting. After five months of work, I made $700. I needed a job.
Unsure of how to leverage BoHo Bodega — or the idea of producing pop-ups — into a sustainable business, I went back to working at a restaurant as a hostess and waitress. I had just turned 26. Five months in, a commercial director I met years before on a flight emailed me out of the blue and invited me to visit him on a shoot in Brooklyn. I met a few art department dudes, exchanged info, and a few months later did my first job for an Acuvue commercial as a shopper. I was given a van, a driver and $1200 in cash to buy a page worth of props (stroller, flowers, hot dog baskets, fake baby, contact lens case, etc). I made $500 for the day and was thrilled.
A 15 foot rope drawing I made on set
I started working on photoshoots as a shopper, prop assistant and production assistant. Each job was like being on a scavenger hunt — finding and collecting a variety of things in a maniacal frenzy all across the city. I fell into a regular gig as a wardrobe assistant on Macy’s commercials and have been doing that on and off for roughly four years.
Dow Jones New York office redesign, 2013
Two and a half years ago, my buddy and former Bloomberg boss invited me to do some freelance marketing work for his then-employer, Dow Jones. I gratefully accepted and took to it quickly, working on creative ways to bring the archaic company and The Wall Street Journal (its media darling) into the consciousness of those under 75. This included everything from designing premium products to redesigning office spaces to directing commercials for web and Taxi TV. I even went to Hong Kong the summer of 2013 to act as the regional marketing director for all of Asia. It was a big break. I was thrilled and excited and under qualified. What I lacked in experience I made up for with enthusiasm, dedication and hard work. I took my role seriously and was rewarded handsomely — both in compensation and regard for my work ethic. It was an exciting time that felt full of possibility.
Tim and me on Railay Beach, Thailand 2013
When my contract ended, Tim and I took two months to travel around Asia. We never spent more than six days in one place. Needless to say, we saw a lot of Asia. As with most travel, it was a fantastic, eye-opening experience. We returned to New York and settled into a depressed state of culture shock. I was back to being aimless and jobless, but at least this time I had a savings account.
Two months later in January 2014, I went to a talk on streetwear and had the idea for Polynate. A little over a year and here we are.
A large part of creating Polynate comes from my own desire and need for it. Clearly, I’ve been searching and wandering for longer than I’d like to admit. The thing about being a “creative type” is that there is no set path to get where you want to go. For me, it’s been both challenging to figure out where that is and also how to get there. I hope that by sharing the stories of other creative types, you (and I) can gain practical tips for learning how to find and navigate that path, and what to do when you hit a rock, dip or crossroad. Little by little, I think I’m finally figuring it out. I hope you are too, and I hope in some small way, Polynate can help.
One question I’m asked is how I find the people I interview. The answer has been a mix of friends, friends of friends, internet stalking, and now cold calls (or rather emails).
Finding people isn’t the issue. New York is flooded with cool people doing cool shit, and it’s always changing. The issue is getting to those people and convincing them to speak to you, particularly when they’re big time and you’re still small time.
Part of my plan to grow Polynate is to bring bigger names into the mix — people I’ve long admired that are well-established in their niche and well-respected among their peers. I’m not talking about giants like Martha Stewart or Mario Batali (but if you’re reading, holla). I just mean people who are making a mark in their corner of the world, doing it their way, and doing it well.
This week I spent a day researching such people and getting in touch the old fashioned way — by cold calling. You’d be surprised at what can come of filling in those little forms on the Contact page or emailing the anonymous “email@example.com” address. I certainly was. It doesn’t work every time, but as any good party planner knows, you always invite at least twice the guests you expect to have. Same rule applies here.
I’d like to say that making cold calls doesn’t send my heart aflutter or make my palms sweat like a boy at a 7th grade dance, but it just wouldn’t be the truth. If nerves were fuel, I’d be running on full.
I’m not exactly sure what I find so nerve-wracking about reaching out to total strangers whom I’ve long respected and secretly idolized. Sure, that’s part of it, but what it really comes down to is putting this thing that I’ve made in front of an audience I admire. Will it be good enough to warrant a response? Will they like it, understand it, want to be a part of it? Will they get it, and by extension, get me? To my utter surprise and delight, I’m now speaking with a few of their press reps and setting up future interviews. It’s all very exciting.
I guess the lesson is you’ve got to get over your nerves and just put yourself out there. It’s rather cliché, but you won’t know unless you try, right?
I’ve been thinking about how to:
a. Bring new visitors to the site.
b. Get existing visitors to stay longer and explore more.
c. Lower my bounce rate.
d. Take Polynate to the next level.
Everything points to creating more content more often, and also bringing that content to the forefront so it’s easily found. As Tim says, I need to feed the content beast. And I need to do it regularly.
Ever-omniscient Google has this handy little tool called Google Analytics. Paste a bit of their code into your code and what you have — for better or worse — is a bunch of graphs and metrics that give you a rundown of how your site is performing. Things like how many people view your site on a given day, or how many leave once they hit the homepage, or where they’re viewing based on country or city (shoutout to Brazil — I see you, muito obrigado). When you’re doing well and people are flocking to your site, Google Analytics is your best friend, cheering you on from the sidelines. When you’re doing shitty and you’ve hit a plateau in viewers or your bounce rate is higher than high, Google Analytics is your sworn enemy, mocking you from a secret club whose motto is “We’re better than you, get used to it.”
When the site launched, GA was my best friend. 200% growth in two weeks! Amazing! Since I’ve slowed down and released less content less often, I’ve seen a dip. Needless to say, I haven’t been tracking my metrics the way I was before.
In an effort to feed the content beast, grow Polynate, and subsequently befriend GA again, I’m revamping the site. I’m bringing more short content pieces (namely the blog entries for now) forward so they’re easier to find, and I’m mulling over various short format topics I think would be useful for starting a business. Basically, I’m trying some new things out and seeing what sticks.
What do you want to see and read?
A few of my interviewees have repeated the same piece of solid advice: be prepared for the unexpected. Don’t let surprises derail you. Leave 20% of your day to the unknown. Accept that shit happens.
Yesterday morning, a cup of coffee spilled onto my laptop. I watched it coat the keys, seep into the crevices. A mini flood of French Roast. Thankfully, the reaction to recover it was quick, and within five minutes it was powered off and turned upside down. It’s now drying on a grated rack over a fan in the closet. Web forums advise to let it dry for 72 hours before taking it to Apple to be thoroughly assessed. We’re 24 in.
Boy, was I bummed. After spending the past five weeks doing everything other than working on Polynate, I was anxious to get back into the swing of things this week. Clearly, that requires a working computer, my files and design programs. I was also this close to publishing a new Profile after five weeks of silence, and desperately anxious to get it out.
But, as previous Polynators have said before, you’ve just got to make it work and keep on going. So I unearthed my ancient computer from the depths of the closet, powered her up and tried to keep working. Operative word: tried. The thing is so old that the internet barely works because the browsers are so outdated, and the browsers can’t be updated because the operating system is so old. Ugh. But, you keep on going, right? Tim was kind enough to let me monopolize his computer for a while and I was able to piece together some of my files and make do. You can read the new Profile here.
I’m reminded today that there’s no use crying over spilt coffee, even if it is on your computer.
Photo by Jim Golden Studio
As you may have noticed, not a single thing was updated in January. No new Profile, no new posts, no newsletter emails. Not exactly the running start to 2015 I had hoped for.
What I’ve realized is that for Polynate to truly have a shot at success, I either need to put 100% of my time and energy into it, or I need to assemble a team. Better yet, I should do both. As much as I would love to quit my styling gig and devote all my time to growing Polynate, I’d be shooting myself in the financial foot. To help offset the time I spend working for money instead of working on Polynate, I need to find and hire talented contributors that can keep the ball rolling when I can’t.
Up until this point, I have been incredibly cautious and prudent in my monetary spending towards Polynate. A large part of what’s made Polynate possible has been its laughably low initial investment (I think in total I’ve spent less than $300 on website hosting, the domain and buying a license for the WordPress theme). In order to maintain a steady flow of content — which is all Polynate is at this point — I need to hire help. And as we all know, that requires money.
Graphic by Neil Secretario
Investing money in any of the numerous business ideas I’ve had has always been where I get gun-shy. I’ll explore and obsess over an idea until it requires money. But not this time.
I’ve decided to invest $5000 of my savings into getting Polynate off the ground. (Baller, right? Ha.) I realize that compared to most businesses, five grand is a drop in the bucket. Thankfully, Polynate is exempt from a lot of the usual costs associated with starting a business: a storefront, an office, inventory, equipment. The one thing it isn’t exempt from is paid help. I plan on outsourcing some of the workload to freelance contractors that can write and take photos for new Profiles.
If you’re a fan of the site, locally based in New York City, and are either a writer or a photographer, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. I’d love to meet you and discuss the possibilities.
Every year, Tim and I try to escape the crush of New Year’s Eve party-goers in New York in exchange for New Year’s Eve party-goers in anywhere else but New York. We’ve succeeded the past three years and were determined to make it four. So, here we are in Italy where we’ll be for the next two weeks on a four-stop mini tour. Fortunate? Yes. Impractical? Maybe. Incredible? Definitely.
In lieu of making resolutions, Tim likes to choose one word to define the new year. A word that encompasses your goals, your intentions, your state of being. This year was “execute” meaning to carry out or put into effect a plan, order, or course of action.
2014 has seen a lot of that for me, the most significant being Polynate. From having the idea in January, to working through it in the spring, to first interviews and coding attempts in the summer, to finally launching in the fall, and to continuing to build this winter, Polynate has been an ongoing exercise in execution.
Today, on the last day of 2014 and my 30th year (yikes), I am thinking about what the word for 2015 should be. Growth? Community? Expansion? Contemplation?
I hope you’ll join us in our New Year’s tradition and think about the word that will define your 2015. Mostly though, I want to wish you and yours all the best for a happy and healthy New Year. Let’s make it a good one!