(Looking for some background on the Creative Heroes series? Check out my intro post HERE!)
I’ve decided to take a break from the Creative Heroes series after today’s post. But it’s a wonderful interview to end things on! Without further ado, I’d like to introduce Karen LePage…
I haven’t known Karen for very long, but after meeting her at Sew Pro in September 2016, she quickly became one of my favorite people. She’s sweet and friendly and has a really fascinating background. Plus she does lovely work.
It should come as no surprise that some big names – such as Alison Glass, Heather Givans and Carrie Bloomston – have been eager to collaborate with her.
In fact, Karen and Alison released Woven Essentials and Knit Essentials not too long ago (both available on Alison’s website HERE and HERE). They are master patterns that come beautifully packaged with custom fit instructions and variations. I snagged a copy of Knit Essentials and, although I still haven’t had time to make anything from it yet, I can attest that it is a truly stunning product.
I caught up with Karen before the holidays while she was taking a break from Quilt Market prep to talk with her about an interesting facet of her work:
A wonderful role she calls the Unsung Hero.
I asked Karen to explain the idea of the Unsung Hero. Her response – which I love – is that it is a “creativity enabler.” She went on to say that many of her clients are “purchasing their time” back in order to get more creative work done. In other words, Karen takes care of technical tasks that her clients can’t (or don’t want to) do.
She told me that DIY is a wonderful thing, particularly for creative people who are just getting started with a business or creative career. But DEY (do EVERYTHING yourself) is not sustainable if you want to be successful. She explained that bootstrapping is one thing, but eventually reinvesting in support is necessary to get yourself to the next step.
This is where the Unsung Hero comes in.
She supports other creative folks with an impressive set of skills that she picked up over the years at various jobs and through self-education.
In her sessions at Sew Pro, as well as in our conversation, Karen shared her interesting background. I won’t list everything she’s done but her resume includes: coffee shop management, car sales, German language instruction, door-to-door sales (brave lady!), and research assistant, among other things. She also had an accomplished career with Ford Motor Company where she honed project management and technical skills.
What really strikes me about Karen’s background and interests, as well as some of the other Unsung Heroes I’ve met is an insatiable appetite for learning and the desire to dive deep into a particular skill or activity.
The Unsung Hero Role seems like a natural fit for so many creative people I’ve met.
In fact, many creative folks occasionally “freelance” their various skills to friends and peers. But how does a person go about building a career as an Unsung Hero? Karen was happy to share some advice:
- Figure out how you can add value. What can you do faster, better or less expensively than your fellow creatives? What are the things you like to do, that other creatives dread doing? (Karen has become somewhat of a CAD guru and another Unsung Hero I know is in love with spreadsheets)
- Be out in the world. Look and listen for opportunities. Express interest as you develop connections and people will bring you along.
- Don’t keep your non-creative abilities a secret. If you have specialty job skills – such as accounting – go after creative niches. After all, artists and craft businesses have to pay their taxes and keep track of sales too!
- Listen carefully. Karen has found that the questions other creatives ask her are clues to the type of services she can offer – places where others have limitations.
- Find collaborative environments. Karen is a member of Tara Swiger’s Starship Program and Community – groups like this provide an opportunity to share leads, swap services, and even get hired (see points #1-4!). There are hundreds of other creative environments, from paid mastermind communities to free Facebook groups out there. You just have to look!
Unsung Hero-ing isn’t the only thing we talked about. Naturally I was interested in learning how Karen manages her time, not only because she often juggles multiple clients but also because she has a family.
How does Karen do time management?
- Focus on priorities. Schedule full days for each client when there are competing deadlines. (I do this too – multitasking often leads to wasted time because focus gets disrupted)
- Have a work schedule. Karen generally works 9 am – 3 pm, and adjusts as needed for for big or urgent demands. She is also a stickler for timelines. It’s important to know what’s coming next.
- Mix things up. She occasionally works from a coffee shop and spends Mondays at a friend’s studio. This keeps things fun and fresh even if the work is mundane. It also helps avoid those at-home distractions (laundry, anyone?) when the pressure is on.
- Respect your limits and put things down. Karen’s career at Ford taught her that the work will still be there tomorrow. She tries not to become a victim of finishing “just one more thing.” This is what keeps people working crazy hours and burning out.
- Be flexible, understanding, and communicate well. Shit happens. But it’s much less of a hassle if you communicate, communicate, communicate!
How does Karen juggle being a #girlboss with parenting?
Karen’s stories about her years as a single mom tugged at my heart. Although I’ve never been a single parent, I know that even the struggles of parenting with a spouse are challenging. Single-parenting has got to be challenging times 10. These days, Karen is remarried, and only her youngest is still living at home. But during those rougher parenting years… how did she do it all? Karen didn’t sugar coat it.
Her answer? Get help!
She said it is simply not possible to run a business of any kind without help. And knowing that many creatives struggle with finances, it’s probably not going to be the luxurious hire-a-nanny kind of help. It’s the make-deals-with-your-spouse, bribe-your-parents, swap-childcare-with-friends-and-neighbors kind of help.
Her ultimate advice was this: get comfortable with cooperation. Learn to depend on your fellow human beings. There is no shame in asking for help, especially when you’re prepared to reciprocate. In fact, when we cooperate, we build better communities and live more fulfilling lives.
Gracious with her bounty of advice, Karen shared some parting tidbits:
- Stay sharp. Keep up-to-date with skills and developments in the work you are willing to offer.
- Keep learning. ‘Nuff said!
- Know that things happen for a reason. Start with a plan or an ambition to get things moving but be open to seeing what happens. You may end up going off in an unexpected – but totally awesome – direction.
- Find other ways to enjoy/explore your creativity. Karen is a fan of cultivating beginner’s mind and she highly recommends Carrie Bloomston’s book, The Little Spark: 30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity (I second that recommendation! It’s a super book!).
Many, many thanks to Karen for sharing her advice and enthusiasm! Do you do Unsung Hero work? Or are you interested in it? Comment below! I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts about making creative support a vocation!