The spring 2014 issue of STORY, rolling on the presses. Photo: Julie Wilson

Hiding in Plain Sight

The real deal on what it feels like to fail.

by Julie Wilson

For more than 20 years, I have proudly worn the badge of journalist. Part of this job is to ask questions. Only today, I am asking myself one of the toughest questions I’ve ever imagined: did I do the right thing by closing my business?

Let’s go back four years ago, when the idea of starting my own magazine — after years of serving as captain of other people’s publications — pretty much smacked me in the face in order to take notice. In all honesty, I do not have an entrepreneur’s spirit; it’s not that I mind the work, it’s just that I never saw myself at a podium speaking to women’s business groups or learning QuickBooks at 44 years old. But I do live by a radical “truth begets all” mantra, and the best way to do this is to be your own boss. If I want to write about rape culture on college campuses, I don’t have to “sell” the idea to anyone. Fuck everybody, I’m doing it.

The more I shopped the idea around, the more things simply fell into place. Photographers reached out to shoot for us. Writers came out of the woodwork. And they were all willing to cut their rates substantially so that our new magazine would have a good start in life.

OK, if I’m going to lay it ALL out there, I must share that starting this magazine came to me in a dream. In my dream, it was late at night, and I was driving in a heavily wooded area with a faceless photographer in the passenger’s seat. All I could see was his camera bag. Three months later, and I’m shooting on a mountain top in Eastern Kentucky with a photographer I had just met a month before. We spent a total of 22 hours, round trip, on this shoot, which meant we were leaving late in the evening. And in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, evening is as black as the coal found in its seams. At 1 a.m., I look over and the exact image from my dream has made it to reality. I don’t believe in superstitions, talismans, wishing on stars or any of that bullshit. But I believe my own mind, so I had to take this as a sign that I was traveling the right road.

Over the past four years, I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with people whom I would most likely never encounter in my daily life. And from that, I’ve been given the gifts of clarity, perspective and grace.

I am taking my proverbial hammer’s claw to pry open what is usually boarded up: the downfall and all of its demons.

And those spirited gifts are coming in handy as I face the prospect of closing the doors. As a Type A, my tools of the trade include action, decision, research, interviews. I actively engage with people to produce stories that can fall along the spectrum of curious to life-changing. I know this, and I do not take this knowledge lightly. I will freely bare my soul to gain the confidence of my new acquaintances, putting myself out there just as I am asking them to. So people have now come to see me as open and engaging, and those traits are now painful and serve as targets on my back as I try to hide in plain sight.

Despite having run this business for nearly four years now, there are people who have just become familiar with the magazine (the dilemma of having only two daily people on staff). Their spark of interest is new, and they want it to be fanned so they can grow. But I am already on the other side, figuring out how to wind down and set my sights on something new. How do I let go while others are clamoring for more? If only they had become fans a year ago.

So, in keeping with my “all truth be told” philosophy, I am pulling back the curtain so you can see the intimate details. It’s the underbelly of business failure that most entrepreneurs try to board up with planks of fake smiles and perceived acceptance, nailed together with rusted dreams and self-doubt. Now, I am taking my proverbial hammer’s claw to pry open what is usually boarded up: the downfall and all of its demons.

You may have read stories about C-level managers who have been laid off, only to find salvation behind the espresso maker at their local Starbucks. Or business owners who say they became fed up with the minefield of entrepreneurship and went back to the corporate world. I’m not saying these revelations are not true for some, but it’s hard to swallow that these same impassioned players will find permanent solace in their new career direction. Especially when the change was not made by choice but by circumstance.

Things you shouldn’t say to someone who has to say goodbye to their dream

And with all sincerity, many friends have posed the following points to me. And here are my responses:

“The money will come. Just be patient.”
If I could pay my electric bill in patience, then there would be no problem. But the realities of what daily life requires — food, shelter, coffee so I don’t commit any social faux-pas — requires more than hope.

“You can’t afford not to.”
Really? Tell that to my bank account. It says I can’t. I believe it.

Here’s the straight scoop: it cost us more than $10,000 to print one issue. Just to print. Not to write. Not to shoot. Not to design. Just print. And we had to pay that up front, before we received any advertising revenue.

Advertising alone can’t sustain a magazine. That’s where subscriptions come in. Yet your average consumer has no idea that simply by paying for a subscription up front, that helps us keep the lights on. Borrowing issues from your hairdresser is great for branding, but not so much for longevity.

“Do you really want to go back and work for someone else?”
I did the corporate world set-up for more than 15 years, and every moment in that culture reminded me that running my own magazine was what I was meant to do. Hiding in the abyss of my closet are suits with years of conference room and marathon meetings still clinging to them like ghosts. Most days now, I wear jeans and a vintage t-shirt. I may or may not have pink hair. Not standard corporate protocol.

But the grass is always greener … I’ve seen both sides of the coin, working for someone else vs. working for myself. I get the feeling that returning to the former will take on a different perspective now that I’ve been in the boss’s chair. We’ll find out soon enough.

The myriad of inspirational Pinterest pins are beautiful … in theory.
“Every day is a second chance.”
“Own your dreams. There is no better way to make them happen.”

Sorry, but that may be the worst fucking advice ever. I owned my dreams for years, traveling days at a time, fueled by sparkling water, beef jerky and passion. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t enough. I’m not saying I wasn’t enough. But circumstances dictated otherwise. Does this mean I failed? In the literal sense, yes. I fully admit that.

But the one pin that’s true is this:
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Robert F. Kennedy

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