Lauren Stewart and Christina Kern Of Campfire & Co: “Get comfortable making mistakes and learning from them”

Get comfortable making mistakes and learning from them. It’s simple but really, you don’t know what you don’t know. And you will be put into so many situations where you just have to make decisions and figure it out without knowing. But! You have hindsight and you can learn and improve from your mistakes. Lauren Stewart […]

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Get comfortable making mistakes and learning from them.

It’s simple but really, you don’t know what you don’t know. And you will be put into so many situations where you just have to make decisions and figure it out without knowing. But! You have hindsight and you can learn and improve from your mistakes.

Lauren Stewart and Christina Kern are the co-founders of the design studio, Campfire & Co. Lauren’s knack for seeing the big picture is complemented by Christina’s passion for the details. The partners are both graduates of Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts and creative direct award-winning branding, websites, and interior design projects for innovative hospitality, corporate and nonprofit brands.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Campfire & Co. is a design studio that combines graphic, web, and interior design to create meaningful brand experiences. We work with hospitality brands as well as corporate and nonprofit clients that want their brand touchpoints to embody their personality and values.

We started the company in 2012 after a years-long friendship throughout college and a memorable cross-country road trip that solidified our passion for working together. We wanted to work with our friends and explore design in a lot of different ways. It worked out that a lot of our friends were also starting businesses that needed the services we wanted to offer. We were able to collaborate with them, help their businesses succeed, and start to build a portfolio of work we were really excited about and proud of. As we built up our client list, we were able to bring on additional team members and start to grow. We’re now a group of six designers and strategists who all bring unique skills and experience to the table.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

We started Campfire & Co. because the type of careers we wanted didn’t really exist in Richmond. We had originally met during college in the VCUarts department. We went through interior design school as good friends and often worked together on projects. After graduation, we took two very different career paths — Christina took a more traditional path, working for a large corporate firm doing projects at military bases across the world and I (Lauren) launched headfirst into the small business world, working for one and two-person design firms and getting my feet wet as a freelancer. At the height of the recession in 2009, we decided to take some time off (because there wasn’t a lot of work) and went on a cross-country road trip. It was on that trip that our idea of working together turned into a solid plan to start a business.

In your opinion, were you a natural- born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

Neither of us really identify as entrepreneurs or initially thought of ourselves that way. We trusted each other and that allowed us to embrace taking the risk of starting a business. The recession was a weird time to be working (especially in the construction industry) and all of our peers had multiple jobs to make ends meet. Work and careers already felt unstable and insecure, so it wasn’t a difficult leap to go from one somewhat unsteady path to another version of that. Our entrepreneurial skills developed over time, and we learned a lot just by making mistakes and trying again. We are problem solvers at heart, and I think that attitude certainly helps on the entrepreneurial journey.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

For Campfire, the biggest leg up on our journey early on wasn’t necessarily a specific person but a community of other small business owners and freelance designers. We were lucky enough to start working out of a creative coworking space (sort of at the early inception of that idea). Our neighbors (just a desk away) were other creative professionals doing the same thing as us, just a few years ahead. We were able to join mastermind groups and get loads of advice and support from those folks. A decade later, we still are still very close with many of those people and continue to professionally collaborate with them as well.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We created Campfire & Co. as a manifestation of the work we were inspired by and the lifestyle we wanted to lead. Those two aspects of who we are as a company — our services and our workplace culture — are still two of the biggest ways we stand out.

We go incredibly in-depth with our design services, helping clients to understand their values and vision all the way through to the physical details of how they deliver that service or product to the world. We help clients think extremely “big picture”, but we also go super granular into the details of design. There are not a lot of firms our size that help clients with this broad range of design services.

Additionally, we care a lot about making the process fun and casual but also organized and consistent. We bring the laid-back, creative energy of a freelancer in the package of a professional, systemized approach of a big agency. We legitimately love refining the process to perfection so we can focus all of our energy on exploring great ideas and having fun along the way. It’s been a while since we’ve worked anywhere else, but from the little experience we’ve had in the design industry at other firms, the experience we create for clients and our team is unique.

You are both successful business leaders. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Being a partnership, we believe a lot of our success has come from the combination of our natural abilities to create a well-rounded team. Our business is built on our friendship so a lot of the traits that make us good friends helped in our growth. The ability to let little things go and see the big picture is something Lauren is great at. She’s always ready to try something new and take risks as well. This makes her an incredibly fun person to hang out with but also a great entrepreneur.

Whereas my (Christina) love for the details and passion for finding the best hacks to make life easier, makes me a natural problem solver which can be an important asset in growing a business. I’m also always trying to find ways for us to have more fun and be more creative — but also get the work done.

I (Christina) really love to live in the details, and it’s helped transform our approach to operations. Because of that, we were able to shift our service offerings into bite-sized packages and that allowed us to create templates for promoting and delivering the work to our clients. When you offer a lot of services to a lot of client types, finding ways to make that information easy to digest is essential.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

A lot of well-intentioned folks told us early on to narrow in on our services and get more niche. It’s technically great advice and honestly, sometimes we tell our clients to try and get more specific with what they want to do and for whom. But for us, we knew the secret sauce was the fact that we offered multiple design services, specifically services that spanned graphic design and interior design. The ability to do both is what sets us apart.

However, we did take that advice (sort of) in our approach to clients. We worked hard to hone what type of clients valued the design work we wanted to do, and we strive to keep that path narrow so we can grow in the direction we choose.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

First and foremost, we set clear expectations with clients about schedules and deliverables. This helps us control unrealistic deadlines that push people to overwork or get burned out. We strive to create a work environment that matches the lifestyle we want, so late nights and working weekends are truly a last resort (and honestly extremely rare) for us. We have two weeks out of the year where we close the entire office, and we actively encourage our team to take time off to recharge and relax. We invest in team events, we try to make the office a place people want to be, and we work hard to be thoughtful managers that show our team we care about them as people more than we care about profit or deadlines.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Give yourself the opportunity to be the expert in the room. Seek out speaking engagements at conferences or other events. When you can’t snag that opportunity, create your own. Host events, workshops, conferences, or write helpful blog posts. Find the right way for you to offer pro bono services. But the absolute most important way to build credibility and trust is to make sure your clients walk away feeling happy and taken care of. Referrals are the most trustworthy source clients can learn about you through, so it is essential that your past clients are singing your praises all around town.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Competition is fierce and the market gets more saturated every day. Entrepreneurship is not novel anymore; everyone is taking a dip in the water (because it’s fun here!). But that means establishing your expertise is more important than ever.

On a more selfless note, providing advice and additional ways to access your knowledge isn’t just good for your business, it’s legitimately helpful for other business owners. Hosting workshops and events is a marketing tool but it’s also a way we give back to our business community.

Finally — it keeps you fresh! Every time we write a blog post, host a workshop, speak at an event, we always do extra research and confirm we are sharing the best, most relevant information to our audience. It also pushes us to learn new platforms or get comfortable with a new experience.

Fun story — the first time we ever presented to a group on our work and our business, we were literally terrified. The presentation was for a group of college students studying interior design and we full-on took shots of vodka in our car at 11 am before this talk because that was the kind of nerves we were bringing to the table. Our other partner Christie (who put together our presentation) was there and laughed her head off at us for being so nervous. Luckily, we don’t have to take shots anymore before public speaking events, but the experience pushed us to get comfortable with new experiences and we’re thankful for it.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Growing too quickly. Our natural inclination is to stay lean and grow slowly and it’s worked for us. It allows us to say no to things that don’t fit our vision or values and we are able to (mostly) grow in the direction we choose. If you’re seeking rapid growth, get your operations in tip-top shape (maybe hire a consultant to help) and be ready for criticism (take it to heart and improve based on the feedback).

Failure to understand or consider your audience. You don’t have to do market research to think critically about who your product or service is targeted at. Start with your intuition and then learn about them after you launch. Design the details of your client or customer experience with them in mind at every stage. Consumers are so savvy these days. Every business should know the major touchpoints of their client experience and be ready to invest in them.

Failure to make a realistic timeline. We’ve clearly mentioned we are process-oriented. If there’s not a timeline, how does anything happen? If designing an incredible brand is part of your launch vision, make sure there is time to meet a designer, hire them, and collaborate on the work. Rome wasn’t built in a day! Give yourself the time to do things well the first time.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

The emotional roller coaster of being an entrepreneur is as amazing as it is terrible. The highs really do outweigh the lows though. The major difference between working a typical job and starting a business is the weight of the responsibilities and the constant learning it requires.

Being responsible for the success or failure of your own business venture is hard, adding in the responsibility of providing stable employment for an incredibly talented team is infinitely harder. It’s thrilling and rewarding beyond your wildest dreams, but it absolutely keeps you up at night.

The constant need to learn on the job is another heavy element of entrepreneurship. While hiring experts and engaging in professional mentorship is 100% recommended, you will still have hundreds of moments where you have to learn by doing and improve by making mistakes. It forces you to embrace moments of discomfort on the regular.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Winning projects we felt like we had no business winning is probably one of the most exciting and thrilling experiences. Pitching yourself and your capabilities only to be rewarded by an incredible brand saying they trust you with their business is truly so incredible. Even with the small projects, we still get so excited and warm and fuzzy inside when we land a new client.

Receiving awards from your peers is another incredible highlight. One of the first years we submitted our work to our state’s interior design awards, we took home four or five awards, including the Best in Show award. It was shocking and humbling and one of the most fun nights ever. Having fellow designers validate your work is a really special moment.

Being recognized locally as someone “who works at Campfire” is amazing and hilarious and we will never tire of people letting us know they appreciate our work.

Having the opportunity to hire other talented designers and give them their “dream job” (their words!) is maybe the most incredible thing of all. Building a team is beyond rewarding, mentoring designers to fulfill their dreams and find their lane in life is probably one of those things we’ll say is what we are most proud of in life.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Being in the design industry puts you in a constant state of receiving criticism. As much as you are ready to “not take things personally,” there are rare circumstances where feedback can feel like a personal attack and not a project-specific critique. Those moments can really hit you hard and hurt you more deeply than you’d like to admit.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

For us, it’s important to admit out loud when something’s wrong or a client’s feedback has hurt you. We take a few moments to be honest about our feelings and let ourselves have them. After that, it’s time to move into problem-solving mode. We work to consider what our client was trying to communicate and what we can do to move the project forward.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Strong mentors and partners.

  • You cannot do this alone. REPEAT — You cannot do it alone! Find a team of consultants and mentors who can advise you. Financial advisors, lawyers, operations experts, therapists (!!), and others who can help fill the gaps of what you don’t know.
  • One of our business besties is also one of our mentors and frequent collaborators. We first met Sarah Milston, founder of The Spark Mill, at the coworking space we started our business in. She was a sounding board for ideas, business questions, and design projects as we worked to grow our business. Her strategy and marketing expertise helped fill so many gaps we had in our skillset. Eventually, we fell in love (professionally) and decided to move in together. We’ve been sharing an office ever since and continue to seek out Sarah for advice (personal and professional) and actively refer clients to her team.

2. Get comfortable talking, planning, and thinking about money

  • If you want your business to provide you with a stable income, you actually have to ask people for money in exchange for providing services. It’s very annoying but pretty essential. Once you get over that you can start to figure out all of the financial questions that will arise. We found that considering how much money you need to make (hard question but start somewhere) and working backward to a monthly income goal is a really helpful place to get started.
  • Early on, we struggled hard with pricing and planning for the variability of our income. In one of our mastermind groups, our friend Jim Coe shared a forecasting spreadsheet with us that helps you plan out your projected income over the year. A decade later, we are still using this spreadsheet! To say it transformed our business is an understatement.

3. Get comfortable making mistakes and learning from them.

  • It’s simple but really, you don’t know what you don’t know. And you will be put into so many situations where you just have to make decisions and figure it out without knowing. But! You have hindsight and you can learn and improve from your mistakes.
  • Sometimes those mistakes are small and sometimes… they are big. We coasted for a while with a very basic understanding of business contracts. We used a downloaded template and never thought too much about it because we hadn’t run into any issues. Our contract got us into a sticky situation where we wanted to end the contract and walk away from a project but couldn’t. We put our heads down and finished the project, but we simultaneously hired a lawyer to rewrite our contracts immediately. We are still learning every day though and honestly; it’s become part of our ethos. We debrief every project with the goal of refining our process to be continually better.

4. Take the time to hire an incredible team.

  • Hiring a great team is an invaluable asset to the growth of your company. Each time we go to hire a new employee, we work even harder to make the process thoughtful and inclusive, so we know our talent pool is exceptional. You spend all of your time with these folks, they are the future of your company, and they will bring the best ideas and most thoughtful insight — make sure you find the right fit.
  • Hiring our third partner Christie Thompson early on was a game-changer for us. She brought a completely different perspective and skillset but had roots in our industry. She helped us articulate our work to the world in a compelling and persuasive manner. She helped us figure out how to execute a ton of ideas we had and then brought her strategic perspective to our client work as well. Christie constantly looked for ways to make Campfire better and so after six years, we invited her to become a partner. Hiring good people can transform the growth of your company.

5. Be consistent with your communication.

  • We are probably overkill when it comes to templating our communication, but we really believe it helps us channel those precious moments of creativity and willpower into the most meaningful aspects of our work. Spoiler alert — writing emails is not one of those! If you write the same 10 emails over and over, make your life easier and template that communication. Even internally, the language we use to describe meetings is consistent. From a “team meet” to an “all-hands” to a “design and refine” — these are all terms our team understands and can quickly get up to speed as to what we’re about to do.
  • One of the most helpful communication templates we use is email templates for difficult scenarios. When we get pushback on pricing or schedules, when we learn a client is unhappy for some reason, when we get hard questions — we have a template email for (nearly) all of them. We often customize them or rephrase them to relate to the specific scenario, but it takes an immense weight off your shoulders when you don’t have to write difficult correspondence from scratch.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

We believe that resilience is learning how to get back up after being rejected and being nimble enough and open to adaptation. Resilient people are open to new ideas, they are able to see the silver lining, they’re willing to engage with the past and learn from it, they are comfortable in their shoes but open to change, they have a strong understanding and connection to their values, and they treat life like an experiment. When there’s less pressure to do it perfectly or have all of the answers, resiliency is much more accessible.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Lauren: I was a high school and college athlete, and that experience definitely shaped my perspective on resilience. I had a lot of coaches tell me to “suck it up” and while I wouldn’t really use those exact terms with someone else, the experience of constantly challenging myself helped me learn how to get back up and keep pushing.

Christina: I grew up as an only child and I think that experience helped me become independent at a very young age. That independence encouraged me to find my own version of myself and seek out people and experiences that supported my version of success.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Lauren: Almost always. Being optimistic comes naturally to me, which I’m thankful for. I always feel like there’s something to be learned from difficult situations and my affinity for seeing the big picture helps me stay out of that in-the-moment panicking.

Christina: In difficult situations, I tend to go into problem-solving mode. My ability to ideate helps us come up with lots of potential solutions. Our third partner Christie is definitely the one who helps edit those ideas and hone them into the one that makes the most sense.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

A leader’s example sets the tone for the entire workplace. Too much negativity can create a culture of seeing the bad in every situation. Being positive helps create a culture of gratitude and seeing the best in people.

Like we’ve mentioned, the design industry comes with a lot of critiques. Being positive in the middle of a chaotic construction project where there are a lot of factors and people beyond your control can be incredibly difficult, but we see it as our role to bring confidence and calm to the project. This helps the client and our team feel more comfortable, relaxed, and ready to problem solve.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

One of our favorite quotes comes from DJ Khalid’s book The Keys. “Rest Your Greatness” is one of the keys and DJ Khalid describes literally surrounding yourself with more pillows at night to get good quality rest. We can’t get enough of that type of simple, obvious, and yet hilariously accurate advice. But to take it deeper, this quote to us really means reinvesting in yourself (and ultimately your business). Investing in good sleep is another way of saying “do things that recharge and energize you.” For us, this means doing cool and fun things in the name of research and inspiration.

How can our readers further follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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