I met Helen via a Facebook Community called Bunz well over a year ago. Came to find out that she’s be connected to me and my life in varying degrees, for well over the decade that I have lived in Toronto. I honestly don’t know if I know a more interesting person. Creative describes her perfectly but somehow doesn’t even scratch the surface. Creator, oracle, bad-ass business lady; Helen holds all of these titles and more.
Tell us about a time that life handed you lemons. Did you make lemonade?
Yours truly had a real heavy quarter-life crisis, Saturn Return - whatever you prefer to call it - and I found myself disillusioned with the world I got my degree in (Theatre Design) and stuck in a retail role in an industry on the brink of collapse.
The very short version is that that time in my life really propelled me to where I am; not only did I go back to school, but I took a chance on myself and decided that I was correct that one day social media ‘would be a thing’. I pushed myself to look for opportunities and put myself in front of them, went through creating a list of ideal qualities someone in the role I saw myself in having and then going about acquiring them, and basically rolling with all the punches that come from working in an emerging industry. I’d say it paid off.
Describe your ideal work environment to get sh*t done.
I’m very open about having ADHD, and as time goes by, I don’t feel badly about stating that I am actually a little anti-social when it comes to work. On the one hand, I love traditional office environments and hours, because I thrive on structure, collaboration, and having a designated workplace allows me to keep boundaries on my professional and personal life. On the other hand, I have a difficult time in open-concept offices, and live for my noise-cancelling headphones. So I guess a library or busy coffee shop would be ideal; a little noisy and populated, but I could totally go into my own world. Either that, or maybe I will get my own office one day. Not dropping hints or anything.
After that first year, how did you scale your business and continue to grow?
I’m actually in the process of overhauling my ‘side hustle’ - actually, I hate that term, because frankly, I don’t want to hustle. I want to enjoy it.
Let’s call it my passion project - or, I don’t know, let’s work on creating a new term altogether instead.
I’ve been offering custom cross stitch portraiture for the past couple of years, and recently found it very dissatisfying; it’s true what they say about how doing what you love for money eventually takes the joy from it as it transforms into obligation, and the time I was spending on commissions kept me away from creating for the sake of creation.
Recently I’ve been returning to creating my own original works, and to be honest, the demand for them has totally taken me aback. We always hope that people appreciate our art, not just the craft, but also our vision and intentions - this goes for not only creative work, but any business idea - and a rejection of that output can feel like a rejection of you as a person.
Each one is original, one of a kind, and made for me first - selling them is simply practical, otherwise my whole life would be overtaken with embroidery, and while the output is far lower than my custom orders, it’s been incredibly successful. Next up is an overhaul of my site and branding, as well as trying to figure out how to keep up with the interest while maintaining that special, unique nature of each piece.
How much of your success as an entrepreneur has come from taking risks versus playing it safe?
Well, I suppose that some would consider maintaining my main career while developing this part of my life could be considered playing it safe, but I genuinely enjoy all aspects of my work life and don’t really have an interest in choosing one or the other.
Even if it fails - whatever that looks like - I never think of taking a chance on myself as a risk. At the very least, I know I learned something I can use for the next venture, but that extension of the idea into the real world is always daunting. For me, the biggest risk lies in vulnerability; asking people to pay attention, to participate, to like my output and consider buying it, especially as I put so much of myself into that side of my work.
How do you measure success in your career?
If I was totally honest, I would say it’s not a metric I apply to my career at all. I never saw myself here in this space, in this role, at this level, so who’s to know what the point on the map where I arrive at success lives? Ultimately, most measurements of success are both totally subjective and forever just out of reach - so perhaps feeling like I am a success instead of a perennial near-success will be the biggest win for me.
You're 30 minutes away from walking into an important meeting. What do you do to get yourself in the right headspace?
A fresh cup of coffee, a print-out of my notes and a highlighter, and of course - a really great playlist. Mussorgsky’s ‘Night On Bald Mountain’ are always good choices, because apparently I’m a total drama queen.
What is something on your bucket list?
My 9-to-5 definitely has a bucket list of brands I would love to work on. So far I’ve been very fortunate to work on a couple of truly iconic clients, but there’s always a shortlist of problems I’d love to be asked to try and solve. Of course, I’d love to have my artwork featured in a gallery space too; that’s something that I don’t anticipate I’ll feel ready for any time soon, but that’s definitely one I’d like to put in the bucket.
Remaining fresh and innovative as a business owner can be hard. How do you stay creative and where do you look for inspiration?
If there’s one thing that spending most of my life on the internet has taught me, it’s that everything is interesting to someone. As a rule I try to not to discount the weird or the obscure corners I sometimes I end up in, and I’m forever asking myself why - why do we care, why do we connect with this, or why is it done this way?
I’m also very fortunate to have a wide and varied social circle; artists, musicians, tech innovators, academics and critics, people in my main industry - especially as most of them are true polymaths. My friends are an endless source of inspiration and regularly pique my curiosity, provide me with a fresh point of view and challenge me.
What is something that you read, watch or listen to regularly?
The very nature of my day job means I spend a lot of time online and consuming near-embarrassing levels of media, so the easy response is a lot of things, all of the time. I make sure I always make time for ‘Stuff You Should Know’ and ‘Reply All’ on my podcast rotation, at least one new Spotify suggested playlist a week to make sure I’m discovering new acts, and have a serious soft spot for ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and a little too much wrestling.
It’s something I think people are often surprised to find out about, but it’s been a genuine love of mine since childhood; please, ask me about my overly-intellectualized analysis of the culture of ‘sports entertainment.’ My partner and I have also been working through every film and television episode featured in ‘We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror’ by Howard David Ingram over the past few weeks - we have a tendency of creating epic projects for ourselves like that.
Finding time for yourself can be difficult as an entrepreneur. Do you have a self-care routine and what does that look like?
Making sure I schedule time to do literally nothing for any particular outcome. That’s a weird sentence to read, but that is a promise I make to myself and I keep to it, because otherwise every moment of every day has something in it, and even fun things become a source of intense discussion and analysis.
That’s it. My self-care is doing nothing. Turning my brain off for a couple of hours a week to read, marvel over a gross pore nose strip, dance around the house, stare out a window - that sort of thing.
What excites you most about your career?
The past ten years have seen incredible changes. Whiplash-inducing growth, unexpected collapses, a complete shift in how we communicate with each others and the world; you name it, it’s happened.
It’s why I could never consider ‘quitting my day job’. I want to be there for the next ten years.
I can’t wait to see what we do next.
**Fun fact: Post photoshoot at MLHQ, Helen gave our photographer a card reading in the jungle room.
Photos by Emma Arsenault