G: Tell us a little bit about your background.
JL: I went to school at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee for Architecture and later I added a Minor in Business, basically because I like people and I saw that the design field was a lot more about solving problems sitting at a desk with your pad of paper more than it was about solving problems for people. During my time at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, I actually got an internship at a local design build firm and none of them are architects, they are actually artists. They would do interiors, furniture, sculpture, painting, and all of these crazy things and they weren’t very good at getting paid for it. I actually pushed them to do sales rather than doing design work, although I ended up doing a little bit of design work. I thought it was really interesting to see how people got exposed to design, exposed to work, and how this interaction between these artists and the people that could actually purchase their work, how they could work together. That was part of my influence. I always knew I was going to be somewhere in business, somewhere in design, but I never wanted to be an architect, even though I have an architecture degree. I love the process of solving problems and to me design is a great process to do that with. It is visual and people understand it, and that’s why I fell in love with it. I always thought it was more of a tool to get things done than it was to just create things that are pretty. I enjoy functional applications of design. After school, my last semester was actually spent here in Chicago. I applied to probably eight different firms across the US, seven of them were interior design firms, because that’s what I focused on in school, where I thought people actually touched architecture was through interiors, and then I applied to the SOM Urban Design & Planning studio in Chicago.
IG: Which makes a lot of sense… [laughs]
JL: Well, I did some traveling while I was in school and I just felt like design was something that could help people in general. I didn’t know what that meant at all. My professor at the time, who was a partner in Interiors at SOM, knew the partner in charge of Urban Design & Planning and thought it could be a good fit. I went in there, and it was completely different than anything that I had ever done before, which was a new challenge in and of itself, so I knew I wasn’t going to be doing something that I already knew how to do. It was a completely new thing. It was about people because in urban environments you are constantly trying to shape their space for more people than an office building, for example. So I got involved with urban design, and it was great. I feel like urban design was the perfect place for me, because it is really about sales, is about having really big ideas and then explaining those and showing that people need to take action to a boardroom. If you can’t explain your idea and you can’t break it down into the lowest common denominator you don’t get anything done. Learning how to visually explain concepts and principles, and working with all kinds of different people and different filters was a great framework for pushing forward with what I am doing now.
IG: You are kind of a salesman of ideas.
IG: Maybe sometimes the Urban Design & Planning studio was less of designing and more about selling ideas.
JL: And getting people excited too, because if they don’t get excited about the idea, then they get this nice shiny document that they put on their shelve and they never do anything with it. Then you don’t accomplish anything. Probably about a year into my time at SOM, I went back to Milwaukee and I had a friend who owned a boutique and she was going to be moving to Brady Street, which is basically the big shopping center in Milwaukee. And I was asking her what her plan was, “So you are going to go to this new space, what’s your plan?” At that time, she had beautiful clothing but she had pink satin on the wall, she had just the most confused brand you have ever seen in your life. How can you be that good at designing clothing and not have any clue about how to put together…
IG: … how to package the whole thing?
JL: Exactly. So I asked, “What is your plan?” And she said, “I am going to bring this, and put this over here, and do this…” And I said, “Ok, I’ll help you.” (laughs) It started with doing the interiors, just planning how she was going to fit into her new space, but then it went back into defining what was Brown Fox Boutique all about. Then it bridged from the interiors to doing her logo and branding to figuring out her marketing strategy. How are you going to get people in the door? It was natural for me to try to strategize the process that was going to help her be successful. To me, the same process by which you design an interior environment, you apply that to the process of designing a marketing plan or designing a logo.
IG: Again, maybe because design is more a process to address problems than just making things.
JL: I had a presentation in Pecha Kucha last year and in that presentation I explained design as the ability to see the path between where you are now and where you want to be. If you are designing a building, most people see an empty lot and then they see a completed building, and they have no idea how those things interact. Designers don’t necessarily know all the answers but they know when to ask questions, they know when to do research, they know how to build a foundation, they know how to then from there apply structure that then apply all these different principles that eventually become a building. So for my friend, what I hoped to do was imagine where she was then, and she knew where she wanted to be, which was some place successful with her boutique, and then just layout the steps in between there. I didn’t have all the answers, it was my first project, but I can do a logo, I can do a marketing plan, I can do all these things. It was creative and fun. That was my first “in” to the business world. I was up every night and was so exited about concepts. I hadn’t done that since school where you are thinking about things and can’t wait to wake up and do it again. Initially, I did want to work for somebody else, I wanted to work for start-ups through somebody else. Because I couldn’t find another firm to learn from to do what I wanted to do, I decided to create my own firm Till Creative.
IG: Once you had Till Creative set up, how did Layoff Moveon come into play?
JL: Last July, still working at SOM, I decided to quit to take on Till Creative. I walked into the partner’s office and said, “ I am going to pursue this, I don’t know what I am doing but that’s what I want to do, I am going to start this company”. They offered me part time so I went part time and that was basically paying my bills while I was formulating my company and working with a couple of new clients. But then, the economy went south and I got laid off of my part time job. Here I am, I have a handful of clients, pretty low paying… the things that were paying my bills no longer pay my bills and I decided that I needed to get a part time job. So I go out, college educated, my resume all shiny, and I am just trying to find a freaking serving job. I just want something to help pay the bills that I can work nights and I can still time to do my own thing, something flexible. If you have another office job, you have to be there specific times, you can’t get out if you have client meetings, all that stuff. I did not want to deal with it. I set out to find something simple, a serving job. And it was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. I sat there, day by day, calling 50 restaurants and bars a day, putting together resumes, constant rejection, wasting time all day. You go visit these places and they don’t want to talk to you. You are putting all this college education behind, trying to find something as simple as a serving job, and it was so frustrating. I was looking around thinking that there were 7 million people at that time that were unemployed, that were doing the exact same thing I was everyday, spending all this time on the computer, trying to find something somewhere but yet they could not relate to the people that were closest to them through those online outlets like Facebook and things like that because they are not in the same boat. Throughout this process of finding a job, I learned a lot, I learned a ton about how to get face time with people that you needed to get in front of in order to find a position, resume tricks and things like that, and I learned just from doing it. How can you connect with other people that are just doing it? The idea was to make a Delicious-type site of tips to finding jobs. And then, really the emotional aspect of being laid off is that you feel like nobody else is going through what you are going through, you are scared, you are unhappy, you are doubting yourself but really confident about your next step at the same time, this whole complex thing. I was only in for three weeks or something like that, but it seemed to me that there needed to be space to take on those challenges. I didn’t find one so I decided to make one.
IG: Is there any common member profile? Is there any specific market that people are trying to get in?
JL: It’s varied. I think the common thread is people that are at their low and are looking towards their high. Layoff Moveon is more about the emotional context of things than it is about action. It is also about action, but it is about dealing with what it is going on, dealing with that by sharing with other people that know what it is like to have that going on. People that want to share their destructive story of what happened, “I have been in a company for 20 years, and they call me in one day, they tell me that I was their right hand man and then they call me in and they say you are done, and they escorted me out of the building” or something ridiculous like that. Then there is a point where you move on, what are you doing now? what are you doing for yourself? how are you moving forward? The great thing about this recession is that people are starting to think a little bit further outside of the box. Whereas if there were plenty of jobs available, people might stay within the same industry that they might hate or look for something similar or not really expand their horizons. This is allowing people to expand upon what they really want to do rather than what might normally be the logical next step.
IG: How many members do you have and how is it progressing?
JL: We have 607 members, as of this morning, I checked before I came (laughs). It has been a slow progression, but we have actually had a little over 20,000 unique visitors come to the site. So, 600 people have chosen to share their story and the rest have come to read their stories. What is great is that I have gotten emails from users saying that this is part of their process of moving on. In my mind it’s been successful.
IG: Will Layoff Moveon stay online or explore other avenues, such as organizing some type of work meetings?
JL: It is one of our interests. However, I feel that we have created the emotional niche and there are plenty of other resources that are providing the physical, meeting, networking niche. There is an organization called Layoff Camp that I was involved with here in Chicago which hosts informal seminars and discussions regarding ways to move forward through entrepreneurship, or other means. We started Layoff Moveon with the idea that this is something people need, they need it now, and they might need it again in 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years. I see it as being more cyclical, so as the economy goes down and jobs are lost, the site becomes relevant again. Maybe we develop as technology changes, as platforms change, we change the nature of the site. It is really meant to fill a temporary need over a long period of time.
IG: Did you expect the big media interest in Layoff Moveon?
JL: You know, it was interesting because part of what I have learned through Layoff Moveon is how to put together a really comprehensive social media campaign. There is all this buzz about Facebook and Twitter right now, but I have really put together a process and learned how to use them as a toolset to get exposure and all of the coverage that we received for the website came through my activity on those simple sites. We were a little bit surprised, it is not easy to get into the Wall Street Journal or Glamour or other long-range publications like that. I guess it was a little bit of beginner’s luck and, really, a lot of hard work. I had an intern who helped me implement the social media marketing campaigns that we put together. I don’t think it was actually as much of a surprise as it was a happy thing that what we were working towards worked well.
IG: I think this takes us back to the beginning of the conversation, that design is about creating a process that right now you are applying to Layoff Moveon but when the conditions change, it can be applied again for the new situation.
JL: My business partner Josh Cotten did the backend database. When we started Layoff Moveon, we were actually hoping to make some money through advertising, which did not really work out, but we essentially got a 4 year degree in 4 months, that is how we look at it. That is the takeaway and now we can apply that problem solving in other situations as well as providing something that is been useful to 20,000 people in the process of getting over a layoff.