29 October 2010
You Gotta Believe: Transitioning from corporate to independent in the themed entertainment business
by Jumana Brodersen, The Jco, LL
Jumana Brodersen is president of the J Co, LLC, a design consulting firm that specializes in planning and design of venues that entertain and immerse guests. With a background in architecture, she has designed and managed projects as a consultant since 1982. Since 1998, she has worked on the owner side, planning and developing new attractions. She specializes in balancing vision and logistics. Prior to founding the Jco, she was corporate director of creative development with Busch Entertainment Corp. for 10 years. Website: http://thejco.com.
Before launching my own business, I could count on one hand (actually, on one of Mickey Mouse's hands) the number of positions I'd had to actually interview for - when I joined a small firm in Dallas Texas fresh out of architecture school in 1981, when I joined RTKL in 1986, when I moved to St Louis and joined PGAV in 1988, and when I hired on at Busch Entertainment Corp. in 1998. (I have held numerous other positions but they all came to me through recommendations.) I stayed on at Busch as Director of Creative Development until, in 2008, the company announced it was relocating to Orlando. Rather than resettle myself and my two girls, I decided it was time to take the plunge, and I started The Jco, LLC.
That minimalist record of job interviews is something I was very proud of. But it's in the past. Now, virtually every day there's some kind of interview. It's called selling yourself, and it's something I thought I'd never have to do again after joining Busch, but I've embraced it. It is a necessary step to getting work, and it must be repeated many times per project. That's right – per project. Before you land that contract, chances are you will have to sell yourself and your skills to four or five different people in the organization, so they can all feel they are on board with the new consultant.
The world is a different place when you're on your own. Although I left Busch voluntarily, I'm facing many of the same issues as those who were laid off or downsized in this economy.
The good news is that no matter how bad the economy is, there is work available. But you do have to dig hard to find it. And just as there's no one person to interview with on a project, there's no one way to find a job. One of my current projects, the renovation and expansion of a children’s play area for Tivoli Gardens, came about through my participating in a trade seminar (the TEA Summit). The client liked my presentation on the work I had done as Creative Director on Jungala for Busch Gardens Africa, and contacted me later.
When the client pre-selects you, that's as good as it gets. Also pretty good is when a third party recommends you to the client and they invite you to come out and sell yourself. You sometimes have to pay your own way, but you don't have throngs of other candidates to compete with. The more challenging, common and confidence busting scenario, of course, is the RFP. As you write your proposal, you know that everyone else (including your former corporate colleagues) is writing theirs.
I have submitted about 10 proposals in response to RFPs and been shortlisted for two, and of those two I landed one, with the St Louis Zoo, where I am currently working on two animal attractions, and the renovation of the North Entrance “The Living World.” There were seven Zoo board members to sell myself to, but it was a gang interview, so I only had to clean and wear the suit once. Being shortlisted is exhilarating but it also leads to some of the hardest work you'll ever do, trying to sell yourself for the last leg of the journey. (And then, they may pick someone else. You're allowed to say “Bummer!” once, forcefully, when this happens. Then, talk to the person who did get the job. Find out how they positioned themselves, and learn from it.)
Cultivating visibility is extremely important, and your next opportunity could depend on it. Wouldn't it be marvelous if the client already had a pretty good idea of who you are, what you can do and if they want to work with you? That's fantasy. Once you are outside the corporate cocoon, you will find that people (a) very often don't know who you are or what you did, (b) treat you very differently now that you are no longer a potential route to employment. Of course, you need your own website and business card, you need to become active on social networks and in trade associations, be visible in the media, attend industry events and so forth. These all take time and money. And they take a lot of hard thought, because you have to figure out and communicate, in meaningful terms, who you are, what you have that clients value, what you can do and also what you want to do. Think hard about your skill set, and about who will be reading your information. (Also, think about how busy they are. Don't make it complicated for them – spell it out.)
Don't be vague. There are a dozen – or a hundred - other people who worked on the same projects you're laying claim to, and are waving around the same photos. (I know, because their brochures used to come across my desk.) What, exactly, did you do (and what exactly can you do for your prospective new client)? The more precise you are, the easier it will be for a client to visualize where you fit on their team. Depending on the role(s) you have played, there may be challenges in substantiating your work. My thing is front-end concept design. That's a key role in the early stages, but by the time the project opens and the greatest attention is focused on it, I'm no longer front and center. For example, on Jungala I had an internal design team working with me to flesh out the concept from my vision. Then, I parceled out the contract work to different companies. I'm not the architect of record and I didn't produce the end product. Recommendations from past clients and colleagues who can testify to my role and value on this and other projects have been very important to me in building an independent image and creating greater awareness of my contributions to the field.
Don't be over-selective – times are hard and it's good to broaden your horizons – but at the same time it is important to stay within the boundaries of what you are really good at. Because when the recovery hits, you don't want to be on the wrong path. Don't have your nose in the air, but before pursuing an opportunity, ask yourself, “Is this really my forte? Suppose I get this job – how will it position me for the future? Is this a branch of my path, or is it another path altogether?” Follow your bliss, even in bad times. The work you do now will be the best proof of what you can do next.
Over-selectivity will definitely work against you in the networking arena. Keep all your connections strong and keep making new ones – you can't know which of them may lead to your next job, or who you will find yourself working alongside, or under, next time around. It's a small world: don't burn bridges.
Finally, there's a kind of acceptance or even fatalism that I've cultivated in this new phase of doing business. I recognize that I don't have ultimate control. I may have drive, confidence, and skill but I'm not going to win every time. As they say at SeaWorld, you gotta “Believe.”