This is way more than motivation Monday
Meet Worker Bee Supply, the studio pushing purpose, authentically.
I first came across Worker Bee Supply on Instagram, naturally, almost three years ago and had them at the PK Maker Edition to sell stuff! I picked up Sandi Falconer’s Make No Little Plans, which still sits in my living room, its vivid red mountains reminding me to push big ideas forward. I continued to follow what they were up to -- on Instagram, duh, and quietly at markets because I’m actually pretty shy. And what’s super clear is they too make no little plans. I met up with them at Fix, the new-ish coffee and bike shop on Gladstone near Queen. A quick jaunt from work and I was catching up with these two.
Eugen Sakhnenko and Becca Gilgan are a duo on a mission -- inspiring people to take that path they deep down desperately want to take, that one that’s nagging, that’s going to take more of them, but give more back. They help people find the push they need by talking about their passions, putting the right messages in front of their faces, and sharing experiences with stellar video and photography. They’ve got lots of exciting things coming up. New projects, new collaborations, new directions for the studio. Read on about how two of the most generous people I’ve met (did I tell you they even introduced us to Bartender Atlas??) are making shit happen.
ALSO! Don’t miss out on their Portrait Pop-up this weekend (April 30)!! There’s a few spots left!
Starting out with the Long View in Mind
LR: Should we start at the beginning? How did Worker Bee Supply get started?
B: Worker Bee Launched in July 2015 and we’ve been together since the fall of 2011. It was Eugen’s idea to begin with. He was about to go to New York on an internship for four months and he just had this idea. This was August 2013. So he put out some feelers asking his friends about it. It took a while to get our footing. The following year we started to reach out to people.
E: The content, the photography and video, was a core driver of the business from the start. We don’t really talk about it as a thing we focus on publicly. We will later this year; we’ll put it out more. But the idea was to build a product-based company that was more like an organization that not just sold prints -- it developed new business models for creatives to make sustainable income. As we decentralize work, more people work for themselves, work in a mixture, work part time, do side projects.
LR: Yes, the gig economy is definitely a thing.
E: For us we thought this is happening, it's going to happen poorly or it is going to happen well. So our focus is on how we are able to positively influence this trend on as large a scale as we can, over time. Because if it happens well it is like the best thing that happens for everyone. And if it happens poorly then it's like the worst thing. Basically everyone is unemployed. But if it happens well nobody is dependent on any large single power and then over time shitty companies just go out of business because they have no talent pool to choose from.
So our thing was how do we start promoting this idea as a culture. We should be doing things that are purposeful and we really believe in, and that's how the line of prints started as a way to interject that philosophy into people’s everyday lives. And take a thoughtful approach to problems they encounter everyday. Take a longer view. And working with illustrators, we’ve been freelancers, it’s horrible waiting for a company that is great to work with but takes so long to pay. How do we create another avenue for illustrators to make money? When people work with us they get paid continually, based on every sale as well as an upfront fee. They don't do spec work. They get an advance for the first set and once we sell that first set, they just get a fee on an ongoing basis. They also get photography and promotion materials, and that’s bonus.
We want to move away from being freelancers ourselves. We both do a lot of different kinds of work, like Becca was saying, from events to families to corporate stuff, but then I do magazine work, web series, architectural photography. So a lot of our work is in media, design, education, and business. But we do a large mix.
Getting Things Done Together
LR: How do you split up the work?
B: That was something we were really trying to figure out last year, specifically what my role was going to be. Initially we found artists together. Though I’ve been doing that more. I find artists mainly through Instagram. It’s so easy, find one person, then just keep going. Then reaching out to the artist, setting up the initial meeting, sending the brief and quotes over to them.
E: When we started doing it, it was just in a spreadsheet. It was obvious that we’re both photographers, so the main thing to do was to create all the media around it. I was dealing with the artists for a while, and then Becca took that over. And then when we started doing media, we come, we shoot a video and photos, then edit everything. Most of this stuff is both of us now.
B: I remember the first shoot we did with Sandy, it was all you. You did all the photography, everything, but by the time we got to the second or third person I had fallen into the role of photographer, which works out really well because Eugen conducts the interview and has the moving camera, and I’ll take behind the scenes photos. And when he is shooting B roll of people working, I will be shooting as well, so we get it in one go. And then I shoot portraits and such. It works really well.
E: That’s how we started working together, then at a certain point, we had to figure out how involved Becca was going to be. Is this our company together? And I think also in part because of how people were reacting to us, it made more sense for Worker Bee to be both of us, together. We also became a bit more of a business in other ways. We began defining our roles more. So we talk about it like Becca handles all collaboration, in whatever way that means, from finding artists, to connecting, making it happen, finding influencers, to longer term -- Becca is really good at engaging people online in subtle ways. Suddenly we’re hanging out with them, and I don’t know how that happened.
B: I get determined! And I love an internet celebrity …
The Joys of Collaborating
LR: Are you finding that people open? It always feels a bit risky reaching out.
B: Oh ya it’s been really receptive. We have a mix of people who meet us and email us after and want to get involved; some have seen us around; then people who are friends of ours already. I’m really involved with City of Craft. But I was a fan for a long time, then a volunteer, now staff photographer, then have a booth.
E: That’s how we found our first artists. Through Becca’s relationships.
LR: Toronto is a big city, but a small city. It’s all the same people circling around.
B: Participating in City of Craft and being around, sometimes I get teased about how much I like to talk to people, but I admire their work or business, so I’m going to let them know. That’s how I became friends with these people and nudged my way into that world and got to take pictures. It’s important for them to have pictures as promotion. And then we got to be a vendor, which was exciting. That was awesome for us.
LR: And what about your work on Pixel and Bristle?
E: Ya, there’s a group of people who put it on. Originally we were discussing, when it was being designed, to be more the media support versus being involved in the running of it. We’ve been talking about the next one, in the summer.
LR: Yes! It’s so important to spread these events out through the year, versus just at the holidays.
B: And the first one we did last June was amazing. By far the best market we’ve ever done. Consistently busy all day. We did well. I think it’s cool. It’s an interesting time of year to have that. We did a lot of experimenting with different shows last year. Fleas, from small to big ones. A lot weren’t good. But doing those shows with a focused theme and finished products are good. So Pixel and Bristle and City of Craft are the best.
E: Exactly. With Pixel and Bristle we got all the vendors to come to the studio to shoot messages and photos, then we were putting it out, the vendors were putting it out. Everyone gets good promo material. And the word gets out. This is so important to success for markets. That worked out really well, so we’ll continue.
The What and the Why
LR: How much of your work are the prints, and how much other stuff?
E: We don’t really think of it that way, per se. We don’t divide it up like that. Our focus right now is to build a community essentially. That’s number one. We’re not focused on what’s the fastest way we can sell as many prints as possible. It’s not like we don’t have money coming in through media, which can use to fund things if we need to. Most of the media I do is under Worker Bee. It all feeds into each other. The print piece is the most public piece we do, but it’s not everything. It doesn’t take most of our time.
LR: That makes sense. Once a print is set up, it shouldn’t require a ton of additional effort on your part.
E: Exactly, and now we’re shifting to focus on things like the wholesale part of the business, and the strategy and media side. How can businesses collaborate with creatives? And to do this in an interesting way that doesn’t just rip off their thing. How can you integrate these people and help each other accomplish goals. Whether collaborations or prints or when we talk to businesses about media, it’s not just digital but physical media. We want there to be honesty behind things, instead of hawking crap.
LR: You have a pretty focused story. Do you see any branching out, or just extending it in other ways.
B: A good jumping off point is why we want to make inspirational prints.
E: There’s a company called Baltimore Print Studios. Screenprinting, letterpress, etc. The people who were starting it needed money. They released somewhat limited edition screenprint to help fund it. And it was a quote from Herb Keller, the former CEO of American Airlines, when the company came back from the dead. Someone asked him, what’s your plan for turning this sinking ship around? And he said, “We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” So that was the quote. I had that on my wall, and any time you’re working on your own, everyday you can choose a finite amount of things to do, out of seemingly infinite options. There’s no limit. When you start doing something, you hit a roadblock, you feel like you chose the wrong thing, you look at the quote, and just keep doing things. The goal, the growth, is in the doing things, not in the getting things done. So every time I’d look up, and it always inspired me.
If you have a message that isn’t just, “You’re awesome.” Instead: “Hey, this is a problem, but you can solve it, keep thinking about it.” This is much more empowering. It let’s you get over that moment of insecurity or self-consciousness. This is normal, it’s part of the process, keep going. The prints help send this message out into the world. You should think about what you’re spending your time doing. You can solve your own problems. You can advance your own projects. It wasn’t the be all, end all. Everyone should have the right to choose what they want to do with their life, every day. You should be able to create your own schedule. Whether that thing is help another company accomplish something really cool, or do something on your own or collaborate with another person to do something. The point is being able to choose.
The prints act as a messaging system. Step 1: spread the philosophy. Step 2: How do we convince companies that this is an important thing to focus on. You should be pushing your messaging. Get people to care about what you’re doing. After the financial market crashed and people lost jobs, we graduated peak unemployment. Why would I trust working for one of these companies. They don’t care at all. You shouldn’t and you don’t have to. If you’re not happy, you can change things for yourself. The media helps people talk through purpose, whether to employees or consumers. Then with individuals, we’ll do other products, non-print related. What are tools you can use that are very simple structures to set up in your life that nudge you in the right direction. That’s how it’ll ladder out. Next year we’ll announce the media side much more publicly, we’ve been doing tons of projects with different companies for case studies, so we do Kickstarters, for example, we do strategy and kits. Or we make web series that help tell the story of why people should care. Take a concept, convey the purpose.
We want to help implement these initiatives with goal of helping people. It’s not just to get paid. That’s not the point. We have an approach to creating large amounts of content quickly, which is really different to how traditional photography is created. It has a long brief and a detailed shot list, super scripted and you blow the budget because you need those exact things. What you need is hundreds of photos, all the time. Our approach is more authentic because companies are conveying purpose and there’s less bureaucracy in terms of process; we can create more media. The prints are just one tool. If you put up a print that’s meaningful, every time someone sees it and thinks about it as art, and you know the story behind it, all of a sudden you’re discussing purpose. We all need to start working purposefully together on real problems. Forget passing laws, etcetera, let’s just do it. We just want to move people and push them.