From drugs and sexism to the United Nations and Sex and the City - the rise, fall and resurrection of my career as a t-shirt designer

Most of you probably don't know this, but a long, long time ago, way before I'd heard the term startup or PR, I stumbled into a brief and intense career as a t-shirt designer. Completely accidental of course - back then my main calling in life seemed to be to provoke and outrage, and fashion was a great way to go about it. At the time my best friend and I lived and worked at a fashion/furniture/bicycle shop called Sick in London's East End. Sick was a very apt name for the shop - I've written more about living at Sick in this blog post. Our boss was a former punk who'd come out with pretty outrageous stuff every now and again. I remember him calling us "useless fucking females" whenever we'd done something wrong, which was all the time - pretty unsurprising considering we were two 18-year-olds, put in charge of a shop in spite of never having worked in retail before. Now, ten years later, I find it pretty horrifying, but at the time we thought it was nothing but hilarious. We never took it to heart but rather reclaimed and owned it in ways that our boss, ironically, loved. Part of that process was turning it into fashion.

  One of my first t-shirt designs. I was sweeter than I look. I think.

One of my first t-shirt designs. I was sweeter than I look. I think.

It started as a provocative joke but pretty soon blog readers started asking how they could get their hands on one. My blog then was much bigger than it is now, with thousands of daily readers at its peak, and it wasn't long before I made way more money on the shirts than I did at Sick. After Vice Magazine included some of the shirts in a shoot, a distributor doing punk fashion got in touch and placed a bulk order (see guys, PR works!). I should've seen this was a business in the making, but I was young and I just wanted to have a bit of fun.

Coke built this body - inspired by my grandfather's t-shirt that said "beer built this body"

  Jason Jail - inspired by my then-crush Jason, who kept saying he was going to jail (?)

Jason Jail - inspired by my then-crush Jason, who kept saying he was going to jail (?)

I'd hate me too - inspired by all the trolling I received on my blog
 

I fucked Franz Kafka - really not sure where the inspiration came for this one...

Other people definitely saw the potential, though. The French fashion label Vetements presumably nicked one of my designs for one of their t-shirts, which was then sold for $980 and worn by the likes of Rihanna. Oh well.

You Fuckin Asshole, by me, 2009

You Fuck'n Asshole, by Vetements, 2016

Anyway - a year later I'd abandoned my career as an East London Klub Kid to move to South Africa. I didn't know it at the time, but this was basically the beginning of what I'd now call my political awakening. I worked at a Cape Town shelter for homeless women and children, and spent most evenings reading about some of the most prominent socio-economic issues faced by South Africa. HIV/AIDS is one of them, and as a result I decided to do a fashion campaign highlighting World AIDS Day. I designed, printed, modelled and sold several different designs, all focusing on the huge problem of people around the world not knowing their HIV status. All proceeds were donated to UN's Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. At that point the blog was much smaller, but I still managed to raise and donate some £500.

Know Your Status - One of the biggest issues in battling HIV/AIDS is that people don't know that they carry the virus

Fuck Responsibly - Clue's in the copy

  HIV Positive - There's still huge stigma around HIV/AIDS, and I think few people who are HIV positive would display it on a shirt. Not necessarily just because of the stigma, but also because people are obviously so much more than their status. The main reason I printed this top was to point out that there's no way of knowing what sexually active person is HIV positive or not, unless you've seen their test results. And that goes for you, too.

HIV Positive - There's still huge stigma around HIV/AIDS, and I think few people who are HIV positive would display it on a shirt. Not necessarily just because of the stigma, but also because people are obviously so much more than their status. The main reason I printed this top was to point out that there's no way of knowing what sexually active person is HIV positive or not, unless you've seen their test results. And that goes for you, too.

That was in 2010 and since then I haven't printed anything - up until last night, when I printed my very own We Should All Be Mirandas t-shirt. It’s an excellent parody on Dior's terribly ironic $700 We Should All Be Feminists shirt - as the designers say themselves, “It’s hard being a Miranda in the age of Trump and $700 feminist slogan tees. But if Mirandas ruled the world, the world would be a considerably less fucked up place. We should all be Mirandas: smart, pragmatic, ambitious and unafraid to eat cake out of the garbage“. I first spotted the shirt on Instagram in October and have tried to get my hands on the original since then. Alas, I've been unsuccessful, but with some spare time on my hands over the holiday season I bought the same printing gear I used at Sick all those years ago, to print my very first shirt in over seven years.

It felt great.

  We should all be Mirandas - inspired by @everyoutfitonsatc

We should all be Mirandas - inspired by @everyoutfitonsatc

Stuff I initiated in 2017 (and hope to keep up in 2018)

There are still four weeks left to the holidays, but I've already started thinking about 2017, all the curveballs it's thrown and all the greatness it's brought. I do feel like every year is sort of monumental in the things they offer (last year - was made redundant twice, Brexit, moved to Sweden after eight years abroad.. etc), but looking back at this year I can see three distinct changes I have pursued as part of my every-day life that have made my life disproportionately better.

Here's what.

Digital purge
I unfollowed more than 800 influencers, acquaintances and even friends on Instagram. I stopped reading the lifestyle blogs I’d been following for years. I deactivated notifications on Facebook. I bought an alarm clock and kicked my phone out of the bedroom (until I started using Natural Cycles and had to bring it back in again...).

The intended goal was to make my world bigger, by making it smaller. To see and appreciate what’s in front of me, as opposed to on a screen. That’s partly succeeded, but what’s also happened is that I’ve started working a lot more. The time I used to spend on the internet I now spend working, so if I hoped to relax more - and I’m not sure I did - that certainly didn’t happen.

I do, however, think more about what I have and how I can improve, instead of thinking of what I don’t have, which is what I did when I was constantly bombarded with other people’s seemingly perfect lives. I’ve slashed my time on Facebook by about 70%, only from deactivating notifications. And I think a lot less about conspicuous spending now that I don’t read blogs. This, in turn, means that I spend a lot less money overall - both because I work more so I simply don’t have the time to spend, and because I’m not exposed to content on blogs and social media that encourages me to spend.


Public speaking
I never really thought public speaking was for me - it hadn’t even crossed my mind until I was asked to do a talk earlier this year. Public speaking always seemed fun but I don’t think I thought I’d have anything to say. Pretty strange coming from a PR, I know, but my job is to train other people on what to say - not to get up on the soap box myself. Coaching others is very different from coaching yourself, so I started watching a lot of talks - both online and offline - to see exactly what a good talk is, how they’re structured, what works and what doesn’t.

My first public talk was at Media Evolution with some 60 people in the audience. Titled “Cowboys and KPIs - confessions of a PR”, it covered my trip to SXSW and how PRs can navigate around the difficulties of establishing KPIs when it comes to a place like SXSW. Since then I’ve done panel discussions at Gothenburg Tech Week, Think Accelerate and Fast Track Malmö, I’ve participated in a podcast on startup PR, I’ve hosted workshops at Fast Track Malmö, and I’m doing two talks in December, one at Sony Mobile on what corporates can learn from startup PR, and one at Minc on what startups can do in terms of PR during their first two years as a business. I also recently secured my first ever paid (!) talk, which is both exciting and encouraging - not for the money itself, but for the fact that in less than a year I’ve gone from never having done a talk, to my talks having an actual market value (!).

I hope to do a lot more public speaking in 2018. Since I usually talk about my work in startup PR, doing public talks forces me to take a step back and challenge myself, how I communicate and how I work with PR. It’s a win-win for me, my employer, my clients, and - hopefully - the people attending the talk.

  Me being eloquent as ever, at GBGTechWeek

Me being eloquent as ever, at GBGTechWeek

Side projects
I went to a conference in August this year where one of the speakers said that “the Mona-Lisa was a side project, what will be yours?” and all I could think at the time was FU, I’m stressed as is? It did, however, plant a seed, and since then I’ve MVP’d (ish, I never took it to market) one project and I’m currently tinkering with another. I’ve also stepped up freelancing, set up my own consultancy and worked on two big freelance PR announcements, one of which was international. They’re, by far, the biggest announcements I’ve done as a one-man band and I’m still a bit flabbergasted by the phenomenal results (though I did have my mentor on speed dial, for which I am forever grateful).

One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that the more idle time I have, the more time I have to wallow. It's borderline destructive and definitely distracting, and more than anything, it serves zero purpose. Side projects to the rescue - it doesn't have to be setting up a new business or launching something huge, just doing something like tennis once a week - and actually committing to it - is enough to keep your mind occupied.

  Tennis Thursdays - new tradition as of August 2017

Tennis Thursdays - new tradition as of August 2017

2017 has been my best year to date, for plenty of reasons. I'm slightly concerned I'll want to scale up even more and add on just as much more in 2018, which - simply put - won't be possible. That said, doing more forces you to sharpen the way you think, act, even speak. It's a never-ending learning curve, and I love it.

How working in PR has turned me into a better person (yes you read that right!)

Working in PR sometimes feels like a never ending learning curve. And in the best of ways. It's not just that you learn about new clients, their different propositions and - if you're lucky - how they're trying to challenge the status quo, but you also learn loads about how people work. In the best of worlds, you can channel those learnings into something much bigger than just your daily work of developing media strategies and pitching journos. In other words, I count myself incredibly lucky to get to learn so much about myself and others on a daily basis - below are three of many things working in PR has taught me, and how I believe they've turned me into a better person.

No idea is bullshit
This is obviously not true. Plenty of ideas are bullshit, and perhaps particularly in the VC drenched world of startups (AI-powered water bottles, anyone?). Nevertheless, in one of my first PR jobs our team had quarterly brainstorming sessions aptly named No Idea is Bullshit (or NIIBS). The point was for the entire growth team to come together and discuss different ways of cutting through the noise even though we had much smaller budgets than the corporate competition. If you walk in with a judgy mind, chances are you'll be pretty pessimistic about ideas that sound rubbish at first but might develop into something wonderfully fun, quirky and sales optimising. Over the past year I've been a one man PR team and I've had to do a lot of brainstorms on my own (a challenge if there ever was one!). If I hadn't been taught that NIIBS, chances are I would've beaten myself up for not coming up with great ideas in a split second. And this scales way beyond PR - you learn to be humble, think way outside the infamous box, and push ideas and conversations further, just to see where they might lead.

  When the startup I worked for decided to give the competition a scrub and showered the City of London with bubbles

When the startup I worked for decided to give the competition a scrub and showered the City of London with bubbles

Kindness aka diplomacy is key
As a PR you try to please several different stakeholders at once - clients, clients' clients as well as owners, board members and/or investors, journos, readers, policy makers, and a whole bunch of other people. They often go hand in hand, but just as often there might be a clash of what the journo wants to write and what the client wants to be written. Your job as a PR is to bridge the two. That's not always an easy feat - and indeed, that's what makes the job so much fun - and to be able to navigate you need to master the skill of diplomacy. Diplomacy, in turn, is dependent on you being kind and a pleasant person to work with. If you fail to demonstrate an understanding of what's important to the stakeholder you're in conversation with, regardless of whether that's the journo or the client, you're likely to get nowhere. Working in PR forces you to carefully consider the (often much) bigger picture, something that's been hugely useful for me in my personal life as well.

Rejection leaves room for perfection
I'm a sensitive soul and when I was younger I struggled with rejection or any kind of criticism that wasn't obviously constructive and presented in a diplomatic manner. That sort of attitude or approach towards life does not go down very well in PR, where rejection is rampant. If you can't deal with rejection, you can't work in PR. Simple as. I was terrified the first - and the second and the tenth - time I had to do a sell-in over the phone, but every time a journalist rejected my pitch I was forced to ask why, and what I could do to improve the pitch or the story. Why? Because otherwise I wouldn't have been able to explain the rejection to my client, which in the worst case scenario could have resulted in me losing my job. Working in PR has forced me to stop taking things so personally, and rather start listening to what people are saying so that I can adapt accordingly, in my professional as well as my personal life.

Working in PR is sometimes hard, but I'm also fairly confident it's one of the most fun jobs out there. Not just because you get to shout great ideas from the rooftops, or because of the addictive hit of adrenaline when coverage goes live, but also because you learn so many new things constantly. It's one of the many reasons why I love my job, and also one of the reasons why I can't see myself venturing into another field. #PRlife 4 life.

Three things I did this week to help me get to where I want to go

End of summer in Sweden feels almost like the beginning of a new year - people come back from having been on leave for weeks on end, energised and ready to kick-start the autumn. There's a real sense of being given a fresh start in a way that can be compared to starting a new year at uni or starting a new job, simply because you've been away from the office for so long. Naturally, not all Swedish workers have been away from work, but the vast majority has. And with the beginning of new things, you adopt new habits - or at least you try. I set some new goals for myself for the autumn of 2017 while I was on holiday, and now that I'm back on track I try to set myself up for success.

Here are three things I've done this week to help me get where I want to go:

Bought an alarm clock
Simple but important - I anticipate extremely high ROI on this one. Since I got my first iPhone seven years ago, I've used my phone as an alarm. At first it was fine, because at first I wasn't addicted to more social media channels than I care to quote. As for now, I check my phone several times a night, and I've been known to reply to messages in my sleep (!). But then again I also sleep eat, which means that I wake up with food in my bed at least once a week - raw broccoli, chocolate, peanuts - you name it, I sleep eat it. Maybe I should just acknowledge that I'm a hyperactive person... Even while asleep. All jokes aside (and I'm not even joking), it's been a long time since I last remembered a dream and it's because the first thing that happens when I wake up is me seeing all the zillion notifications that have come through overnight. No more - phone is being switched off overnight, starting today. Analogue night life here I come.

Pencilled down a reading schedule
I should've figured this one out ages ago, but I guess I've been busy checking my phone. It was actually Neil, the founder of the Nordic tech site The Nordic Web, who inspired me to structure my reading - he posted this on Facebook a few months back, and since then I've written monthly (!) schedules of what I want to read on a weekly basis. A bit like it was at university, actually. It's worked remarkably well in that my reading becomes a lot more focused, and if I feel that a book is dragging on I simply move on as I've got more shit to read. I have some wild plans of writing a book, and even wilder plans of changing the world with a fellow brand strategist, but I also have a limited amount of time. If I'm even gonna try and give it a go, I need to become much more efficient in how I consume information. Reading schedules is a first step on the way.

Cancelled Netflix
I've gone through about a zillion lists of "shit worth watching on Netflix", and I'm done. I also have commitment issues, generally in life, but specifically when it comes to TV shows. In spite of that, I find myself watching the weirdest of stuff that brings no added value to my life what so ever. That ends today, because I've cancelled Netflix (!). I've spent no more than an hour every other day or so on Netflix, but unlike before I now have a reading schedule which would suffer if I didn't take action. I get bored quite easily and when I come back home from a day at the office it's easy to just drift off into the world of nothingsness (also known as Netflix), and it's just not very productive. It would've been wholly different if I thoroughly enjoyed watching stuff, but I don't, so it has to go.

Will these three things change my life? Maybe not, but I'm not looking for fundamental change. I'm looking for a more focused me. I want to write more, read more, think more. I'm excited to evaluate these small changes in a few months time to see what impact it's had, if any. Time will tell.

  The new-ish me. Bouncing and all.

The new-ish me. Bouncing and all.

I went on three consecutive weeks of leave and this is what happened

It's now been almost a year since I relocated from London to Sweden, but it still feels pretty fresh. I reckon it's because I haven't yet gone through a full year of all seasons, festivals and other happenings that are bound to be different in Sweden from what they are in London. One such thing is annual leave - although I technically only have seven more days of annual leave in Sweden than I did in London (30 versus 23), most people in Sweden take about four consecutive weeks of leave during the summer. Yep, that's a full month's worth of leave in one single go. Last time I had that much time off in one go was before I started my first job, age 14. In other words, it's been 14 years since I last went more than one or two weeks without having any work to do. Committed to my newly found Swedishness, I decided to take a full three(!) consecutive weeks off work during July and August. Mind you, once I went on leave most of my colleagues, and indeed Sweden at large - or so it felt - had already been off and away from the office for about two weeks. In other words, I was already pretty relaxed as I went on holiday, as opposed to stressed out and on the verge of a breakdown as was often the case when I went on leave in London.

Nevertheless, having never done this before, I decided to look at how I was affected by being detached from work for so long. Here's what happened:


WEEK 1: ITCHY REFLECTION

  Three days and four books into my holiday

Three days and four books into my holiday

I went to Kos, Greece, with my sister and her two kids. Three days in I started getting a bit itchy and couldn't believe I was going to do basically nothing for three weeks. However, knowing that I had another three weeks of nothingness ahead allowed me to look back at the previous six months and actually spend a good amount of time thinking about my key learnings, drawn from achievements as well as fuck-ups, both in my professional and personal life. Going on leave for just a week doesn't really mean you get a fundamental break - it's just a blip in a longer time period, and chances are you'll also try to cram as much stuff as possible into that one week to "make the most of your holiday", meaning you'll have less time for reflection. I had none of that in Week 1 - in fact, I was borderline bored only a few days in.

This might explain why I'd towards the end of Week 1 already found enough peace to make a plan of what I hope to achieve and want to change in the coming autumn. We're all very good at making quarterly and annual plans for work, but most people don't seem to do the same for their personal lives - and I know I certainly didn't back when I was living in London, simply because I didn't have the emotional bandwidth that's needed for that sort of reflection.


WEEK 2: HOLIDAY STILLNESS

  Ten days in and all fun and games

Ten days in and all fun and games

I went to Lisbon with a group of nine friends and felt completely switched off from work. This was a pretty active holiday with loads of surfing, tennis and half marathon training, so there was a lot less time for reflection and reading than in week 1. We essentially spent a week just playing games and making afternoon cocktails, and it's some of the most fun I've had in a long time. I think we spoke about work once in an entire week - but we still had plenty of other conversations and activities going on, which forced me to remember who I am and what I like doing outside of work. This was the week when I was reminded of my love for heated debates, feminist literature and - who would've known - sports. I even signed up for tennis lessons in the autumn he he so we'll see how that goes.


WEEK 3: ONWARDS (AND A BIT OF CHEATING)

  18 days in and feeling somewhat clueless

18 days in and feeling somewhat clueless

In week 3 I was moving houses - very exciting, particularly considering that I moved into my first own (!) piece of real estate. I also started mentally preparing for going back to work by going to the hairdresser, getting my nails done, and essentially just removing any trace of me having lived in a pool for the past two weeks. I was getting seriously excited about going back to work - and then a prospective client got in touch and wanted to meet up for a coffee. There may or may not have been a nervous giggle from my end, and a brief thought as to whether I could still do my job after having been out of the loop for so long (two and a half weeks that is, but it felt like a lifetime). I went for the meeting, apparently remembered how to pitch a client, sealed the deal and went on to draft a first media strategy. The next day I had to go into the office for a strategy and planning day, which further pushed me to put my work hat on and remember what it is that I do, and why. I even started jumping up and down as we discussed the coming plans for the autumn hehe.

I'm amazed at how quickly I could switch off from work, and how quickly I could switch back on. Both processes made me slightly anxious before it had actually happened, but chances are that says more about me than it does switching on/off... Three weeks, or, as it were, two and a half, was just the right amount of leave for me. I know some people take five (!) and I'm sure it depends on whether you have kids or not (Swedish school holidays are never-ending - they go on for about ten weeks in the summer) but I reckon that would be way too much for me. But then again - who knows - maybe I'll learn to love it...