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Female Disruptors: Margaret Wolfson is shaking up the branding industry

"Stay in the present"


Because I am an essentialist, I have one, not three, examples of helpful words along my journey. These words are: stay in the present. They come from the world champion freediver, GuillaumeNéry. Free divers dive with no oxygen tanks. He describes how he feels at 123 meters down into the water. Néry eloquently describes how, at 123 meters down, he feels like a speck of stardust, floating in the infinite, deep blue. It is a magical feeling. But on his return, at about half way up, he feels an urgent desire to breath. This makes him want to look up, to see or help him imagine the distance he has yet to traverse. But he cautions against doing this. Divers must keep their eyes on the safety rope in front of them. They must stay in the moment. They must not look up — or even imagine — the distance between themselves and the surface. If they do so, panic sets in. And panicking at that depth leads to certain death. It is a dramatic metaphor that reminds me of the crucial importance of staying in the moment. If I think about where the business is — though it has come a great distance in a short period of time — and where I want it to be, anxiety sets in. Whenever I feel this way, I remind myself of Nery’s free diving image. I keep my eyes on the “safety rope” of the present.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Margaret Wolfson, Founder and Chief Creative of River + Wolf, LLC, a New York City based brand naming agency with clients around the world. In addition to being the founder of River + Wolf, Margaret presently serves as a co-curator for the UC Santa Cruz Art Dean’s Lecture Series on Creative Entrepreneurship.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I had been doing brand naming for many years in parallel to my storytelling career. As a performer, I traveled a great deal, both nationally and internationally. I would do naming in down time. One of my last major performances prior to starting River + Wolf was in the Emirates. After the evening performances, I would work on naming projects in the hotel business center until the early morning hours. The more I named, the more fascinated I became with the field — it provided such an interesting way to blend my literary training and commercial interests as I have always been intrigued by product names and designs. I founded River + Wolf because I knew from my past experience building a performance company that starting and sustaining a company is a supremely creative act. Moreover, as a company owner, I would have the opportunity to help other creative entrepreneurs with their enterprises, either in terms of naming their companies or hiring them as consultants for River + Wolf.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The work itself is less disruptive — naming companies have been around since the 90s — than the fact that I made a complete and challenging career shift in my fifties. The idea that we need to follow just one major career path in our life is antiquated. And the idea that one’s twenties and thirties are the best time to be entrepreneurial is simply not true.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?

Since I started River + Wolf later in life, I need less mentoring than I might have if I had started earlier. I did need, however, need to believe that I could make the leap from my arts practice as a full-time storyteller to being an owner of a for-profit naming company. After seeing some of the naming work I had been doing as a consultant, Jonathan Galassi, a friend and colleague who is President and Publisher of the literary American publishing house, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, urged me to stop working for other branding companies and start my own. He dubbed naming Practical Poetry and this made me feel the leap, while big, wasn’t as impossible as it seemed. Steven Cayre, an early naming client when I was working as a consultant, was also a business mentor — he helped me see that I needed to consider all the work that went into name development and helped me re-think how I charged for my services. Both of these men were enormously helpful.

How are you going to shake things up next?

By helping younger artists understand that they can work as creatives in commercial enterprises like River + Wolf and still be artists.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Because I am an essentialist, I have one, not three, examples of helpful words along my journey. These words are: stay in the present. They come from the world champion freediver,GuillaumeNéry. Free divers dive with no oxygen tanks. He describes how he feels at 123 meters down into the water. Néry eloquently describes how, at 123 meters down, he feels like a speck of stardust, floating in the infinite, deep blue. It is a magical feeling. But on his return, at about half way up, he feels an urgent desire to breath. This makes him want to look up, to see or help him imagine the distance he has yet to traverse. But he cautions against doing this. Divers must keep their eyes on the safety rope in front of them. They must stay in the moment. They must not look up — or even imagine — the distance between themselves and the surface. If they do so, panic sets in. And panicking at that depth leads to certain death. It is a dramatic metaphor that reminds me of the crucial importance of staying in the moment. If I think about where the business is — though it has come a great distance in a short period of time — and where I want it to be, anxiety sets in. Whenever I feel this way, I remind myself of Nery’s free diving image. I keep my eyes on the “safety rope” of the present.

What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.

I read a great deal, from poetry and fiction to essays on the latest technology (currently fascinated by Singularity). So it is very difficult for me to point to one book that has impacted my thinking. They are all like many rivers flowing into the sea of my imagination, nourishing and informing it. But if I had to pick one as it relates to running River + Wolf, it would be Greg McKeown’s Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. As a business owner, there is always a desire to try to do everything possible to promote your company. Trying to travel all the potential marketing avenues we have at our fingertips today is a fool’s journey. As McKeown points out, it is crucial to prioritize. So I choose one or two marketing methods for a period of time. Trying to do more is crazymaking and leaves me feeling stressed. Going deep, not wide, is always better.

I was also inspired by Rick Varga, a speaker who participated in a lecture series on creative entrepreneurship I co-curated with the Arts Dean Susan Solt at the University of California Santa Cruz. Rick, who had just retired as a Creative Director at Apple, held up two television remotes. One featured a chaotic mess of buttons. The other, many of by Apple, had only two buttons. Rick called out the importance of reduction. That visual metaphor has stayed in my mind — and I think of it frequently when I try to cram too much into anything I am doing.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.

Masayoshi Son, the CEO of SoftBank and the architect of The Vision Fund, the world’s biggest technology fund. I would like to name new technologies that are a million times smarter than today’s robots. I also think it is important for women to better understand this emerging future world and even more, bring their voices and visions into it. Working on names for such projects provides a ring side seat.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Best way is at our website, www.riverandwolf.com. I can also be followed on Twitter (@riverandwolf), and LinkedIn. [email protected] works too.

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