Interview 013: Kelsey Kreiling
Kelsey Kreiling is Cofounder and Creative Director of Presence Agency. She focuses some of her brilliant, sunshiny energy on digital media for companies in fashion and hospitality, and a generous heap of said energy on connecting people she believes in. For example, Kelsey has now secured me two, count 'em TWO full-time jobs in the not quite two years that I've known her, and she continues to score mega friend points with each passing day. Furthermore, her career trajectory, relationships, and prioritization of travel are hugely inspiring -- and she has the best hair I've ever seen on a real person.
What character stuff have you had to actively work on over the past several years?
So, almost two years ago, I quit a job and created a new business with a partner. I wish I could tell you that at the time I was thinking about that business with a sense of purpose, but honestly, I was so completely and utterly burned by the companies I'd worked for before, that I fled, thinking "Nothing can be worse than being screwed in the service of someone else's fortune, so if I'm going to be stressed, it might as well be for myself."
Yeah, it was a dark time. People who have met me throughout the course of my life would generally describe me as cheerful and optimistic, but if we'd been introduced in 2014, you'd probably sense some feral desperation, complete exhaustion and just general panic in my eyes. I'd taken a series of two jobs for financial stability and ended up coming out of each with serious paycheck PTSD.
Once our company did become real, we were extraordinarily lucky, launching our business with one of the best clients we could have possibly had in Chicago, but as anyone who has freelanced or owned their own business will tell you (when they're feeling honest and drinking whiskey) you won't always be lucky and there will ALWAYS be clients who come along and pay late. When we went through our first quiet winter, waiting on five figures from a past client and not being able to pay ourselves, I wasn't sure we'd make it. I woke up everyday feeling a sense of profound dread.
All I could think about was the money I didn't have, the stress hormones that were flooding my body and the debt I was in. I lived my life one bill away from a complete meltdown, and my mental toughness totally eroded. I'd prided myself on being strong, being capable, being a brave person, but every day was a tightrope. I woke up one day and realized that without meaning to, I'd given a series of people and situations the steering wheel of my emotions and I had to find a way to get back that control.
How are you doing on that stuff now?
The first step was being honest with both my business partner and my boyfriend. They both knew I was in bad shape, but I don't think I'd shared with them the extent of my distress until I broke. On the home front, we were able to come up with a plan to help alleviate some of the pressure. With our business, we developed a roadmap, focusing on our goal of stability, and then growth.
Sure enough, winter passed and new projects came up. It was still challenging, but we grew steadily and even launched a new product that helped us tremendously with our project flow. Finally, and most importantly, we broke up with the client who hired us the most, but paid us the latest. I won't lie- that was terrifying. We liked them, we had done great work with them. They'd given us so many opportunities, but we knew we had to cultivate clients who respected our time, and honored our deadlines.
Things are better now -- I'm officially an optimist again -- but I now work very hard to make sure my kindness isn't perceived as weakness. Over time, my skin got thicker and I grew more comfortable holding our clients to a high standard of behavior, or declining to work for people we knew wouldn't treat us well. I discovered that by being mentally tough, firm but fair, I could actually be the softer, kinder, more at peace person I really wanted to be.
How would you describe your purpose?
I don't know that I have a specific purpose. I'm really comforted by the idea that I'm just a dust mote floating in a giant universe of time and space and history. Sometimes I'm just super thankful I didn't end up a snail, but while I'm here I'd like to give a lot of love to the people in my life, see as much of the world as I can and, to invoke a sports metaphor (which is totally my #personalbrand), leave it all on the field.
Define your career... Then tell us how it's different then you thought it would be.
I think professionally, I'm a creative mercenary. I like to help people find excellent solutions to challenging problems. I was so lucky to find my work soulmate in my business partner, who is equally obsessed with doing everything better, every time. That's a hard skill for companies to cultivate in house, and we love bringing our particular brand of enthusiasm to new teams and helping them do awesome things.
Do you feel like you've made it yet? Have things clicked? Explain.
This week, I was lying in bed, and I realized that I was happy, that my stress levels were WAY more normal and in all of the ways that matter, I felt satisfied. I had a little moment when I was like, "Oh no! Did I peak early?" but decided that it was okay to sit with that placidity and remember it, because come on, of course things will change.
How do you think others perceive your life path? Do you care?
So, my fiance and I travel a lot- I'm home maybe 2 or 3 weeks out of each month and sometimes I worry that people think I don't work, because we're posting photos from Non-Chicago places. Really, we're always working, just from different locations. We have to work REALLY hard to have a normal work-life balance, especially when we're home, because we both hold down odd hours. Each year we try to take an "Airplane Mode" trip with no email, no clients, but it's more stressful to not work, than vacation completely. And that freedom was also something my business partner cultivated as a priority when we created our business.
Sometimes I do get self conscious about it- like recently I got real weird and didn't tell my family I was leaving for a trip because I thought they'd think I was being a slacker, but my mom told me that was SO silly. She reminded me that we just never know what's going to happen and if tomorrow was my last day, I'd never regret working on a website in Seville rather than at my apartment in Chicago.
Speaking of others, how have your relationships shaped you?
My family is a huge force in my life, like the ocean on a sea arch. They've carved me and smoothed me down and made me interesting. It hasn't always been easy, but we're getting to the sweet part of life together and I can't wait to see what those relationships evolve into.
My fiancé came into my life after I'd had the wind knocked out of me too many times. Just before I met him, I'd taken some time to get my head together and every day since, he's helped me become a kinder, calmer person.
I never thought I'd use the phrase "Unconditional love" to refer to someone I wasn't married to or romantically involved with, but my business partner Mal challenges me and delights me SO much. We both have strong personalities, but somehow, we compliment each other perfectly and I'd work on ANY project with her.
What's your perspective on life like now as opposed to 5 years ago? 10 years ago?
I had no perspective ten years ago. That time was the most difficult period that I've ever experienced. I had two traumatic experiences, separated by just half a year and I hope that I'll always be able to say that was the worst time, but I now know that my ability to withstand pain is greater than I ever thought.
Five years ago, I was still really processing and dealing with the fallout of that time. I had never in my life gone to therapy, but I worked my way up to it and this is the first year that I feel like I'm seeing clearly. I have a lot less anger, a lot less fear. I'm always going to be vibrating on an anxietyish frequency, but now it feels more like excitement and anticipation. My perspective now is that this is the only moment we have. Do good, tell your people that you love them, and (I'm still working on this one) you can't control a damn thing, so let it go.
What are you most looking forward to?
Short term: I'm going to see Sufjan Stevens at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado this summer and I am very, very excited about that.
Long term: I can't wait to see where our business goes. The nights are long, the days are stressful, but when it's working, there's nothing like that joy.
In your daily life, when are you happiest?
We have really nice skylights in our bedroom, so I often wake up pretty happy from the sun. I live one door down from Gaslight Coffee and I always get cheerful when I give myself the gift of a morning break to pop down there. At the end of the night, Zack and I usually watch a TV show together on the couch, and it's a calming end to the day.
On the other hand, how do you pull yourself out of a funk when you're in one? And how did you most likely wind up in said hypothetical funk in the first place?
I often think that I should make a poster to remind myself of this: Clean your room, do yoga, cook a nice dinner. Those three things usually fix whatever ails me, but they're all SO hard to do when you're in a funk. I think I'm very accomplishment driven, so when things aren't clicking with a project, or money is stressing me out, it feels good to do something that feels like an achievement.
Any other questions you wish someone would ask you?
"What's your favorite podcast?"
The answer is Call Your Girlfriend and everyone should listen to it.