I spent 25 years in the wrong profession. What made me leave? I wish I could say that I left them wanting more after Jesus spoke to me in a dream and I repented of my shallow ways… But the truth is, I have always espoused to the gritty. God knows how determined I am. He knew I would never leave, unless He made it impossible for me to stay.
The Back Story
I grew up in Carmel, Indiana, a suburb just north of Indianapolis.
My father is an entrepreneur. We had a large and beautiful home. But it was the 1980’s, and like so many families during that time, we were living beyond our means. This instilled in me both an unhealthy desire for money as well as an unhealthy fear. The fear of not having enough of it.
No one in my immediate family had graduated from college at the time, but I loved school and it seemed that all of my classmates were going. My friend, Vicki, brought over an application for Indiana University one night. She sat with me at our kitchen table as I filled it out while we ate Taco Bell. It was the only school I applied to.
In the fall of 1985, I went to Bloomington, Indiana, and started college as a Telecommunications major. I wanted to be a newscaster. But when I found out what the average salary was for a reporter I changed my major to business. I had been told that the business school at IU was exceptional and that you had to apply to get in. That last tidbit sealed the deal because I craved the affirmation that “being chosen” would bring. It was the decade of Wallstreet, Baby Boom, and “yuppies”. Oh yes, this was the character I wanted to play. And I would get to wear power suits with big shoulder pads…
Upon graduation, I went to work for my father’s business. I lived with my parents to save money, waitressed on the weekends, and went to night school to get my MBA. I concentrated in Finance, not because I liked it, but because I already had a degree in Marketing and wanted something more hardcore. I was extremely insecure and thought this would help.
I tell people that the only thing worse than working for a business that is going under is working for a business that is going under – and is your father’s. The trauma of going through that from 1989 to 1995 crushed any entrepreneurial spark I may have had. And it also added fuel to the fire of my already warped money issues. My goal was now to produce widgets at XYZ Corp. I wanted to work for The Man. I wanted job security, a good salary, a defined career path and to know that my paycheck would clear. This was pre-Enron. Accounting firms were elegant and respected. Dependable and solid. I loathed accounting, but I loved the money and security it would provide.
To advance in this environment I would need to get my CPA. For many, that is a deal-breaker. But for me, it was catnip dipped in chocolate. This was more than an opportunity to face a challenge and come out victorious. It was an opportunity for 3 more letters after my name. Remember my insecurities? Getting an MBA in Finance hadn’t helped. One of my instructors signed all of his correspondence: John Smith, MBA CPA. “What a badass”, I thought. “I want to be one too.” What followed was a 17-year period of complete stability and “security”. I got married, had 2 children, built and moved into our dream home, and was working for a big four accounting firm.
Who Shredded My Cheese?
You know that experiment where they drop the frog into boiling water, and it jumps out immediately but if they turn the heat up slowly it stays too long until it can’t get out on its own and boils to death? I was the frog in scenario B.
In 2013 the wheels started to fall off. I lost my job at the accounting firm and was adrift for the first time in my adult life. I knew in my heart that Corporate Finance was not my calling, but I was afraid. And embarrassed. So, I went to work for another accounting firm. Again, I was a hexagonal peg trying to fit into a round hole. That job only lasted for 2 years but during that time I was part of a special project that involved the creation of a new service line. It lit a fire in me that I took to the next opportunity. And although that opportunity also ended with me in a fetal position, I had worked alongside an incredibly talented man who gave me a PhD education in Systems & Operations.
I love the line in It’s a Wonderful Life, “No man is a failure who has friends.” It was one of those friends, Scott Reitano, who gave me my dignity after this last heartbreak by taking me into his business, Reitano Design Group. He didn’t need me full-time but invited me to be his Director of Operations three days a week until I got my sea legs back. He was my boss, my marriage counselor, and my friend. I will never forget his kindness.
I found that I loved the process of solving problems, creating processes, and presenting stale data visually and from a bird’s eye view. I believe that any message can be made more impactful when presented in a visually compelling manner. It seemed that everything I was drawn to related to the visual presentation of a message. But I felt scattered and very concerned about my long-term career prospects. I recall speaking with Scott about what I enjoyed doing. He asked an important question: “But how do you monetize that?” I had no idea. At the time I thought that perhaps these passions should be pursued as a hobby. Enough dicking around. I still needed to earn an income and felt such regret for the stress I was putting on my husband and family. While fear pushed me to “get a job” and take pictures on the weekend I was drawn to this thing that I couldn’t verbalize like a moth to the flame.
I lamented about this to a mastermind group that I was a part of in 2015, and expressed disappointment in myself, for having lost my “financial” focus. I was worried that I had become scattered because I was being drawn to other areas of business (marketing, operations, HR). I didn’t want to be a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Then one of the people in the group, Jenny, said something that changed my perspective and made me feel hopeful:
You are not scattered. You are an entrepreneur.
Oh, how I wish I could write that I started my company while I was working for Reitano Design Group. That I was finally done chasing the almighty dollar and title. I wish I could say that I bounced ideas off Scott and that we brainstormed on his whiteboard after hours. But I got an offer. It was with a public accounting firm. I would be acting as an outsourced CFO for various non-profit organizations…God help me. I went for it. Fear won that day.
The bad thing about that situation was how unbelievably bad it was on every level. The good thing about that situation was how unbelievably bad it was on every level. This time I finally left on my own. What did learn there? The most important lesson of all. I learned that my soul was not for sale. I learned that there was something else I was meant to do. I was not sure what it was, but I knew that it did not require an active CPA license. The clarity was nice. But the struggle remained real.
Remember that love-hate relationship I had with money? That was a super heavy wet blanket… But you know what was also a super heavy wet blanket? Clinical depression and marital discord, which was now a part of my life. We went to a marriage counselor and downsized our home because I didn’t know what I would be able to earn doing something I couldn’t quite verbalize. Those were very dark days. I didn’t want to leave that house. None of us did. And if I had not spent so much money decorating it to impress others and myself, we would have been equipped to weather a financial low patch.
(This is us signing the purchase agreement for our townhouse.)
I felt possessed by a force that demanded clarity of the situation. I covered an entire wall of our guest room with whiteboard paper and created the world’s largest mind map of my life.
I was desperate to make sense of the things I was wanting to learn and do. The things I had loved as a child. The areas where I TRULY excelled. They had to somehow be connected and fashioned into something marketable that could be monetized and scaled. It was “MBA meets starving artist” in the mother of all throwdowns.
Nowhere on my wall did it say: ASSETS = LIABILITIES + OWNERS EQUITY.
Love at first sight
In October, 2016, I happened upon a link in the New York Times to an article called “Snowfall: Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.” I was mesmerized by the use of parallax, imagery, video, text-over, and transitional effects in this interactive digital presentation that was a visual feast. What is this? That was the first time I saw the term “digital storytelling” and I can tell you where I was sitting and what I was wearing. I went to my “beautiful mind” wall and finally saw what Jon Acuff calls “The through-line”, the common denominator. It was the sharing of powerful stories using multiple types of media. Words, color, imagery, photography, video, time-lapse, music, and text effects. These were all things I had loved as a child and throughout my teen years.
I met with my friend, who is a marketing savant, Chris Hoyt. He asked me “what bread are you offering?” When I told him I wanted to “change the world, one story at a time,” he told me to prepare to starve. (He said it MUCH nicer than that…) Of course he liked the big picture, but he also knew that mommy needed new shoes… and that I would have to start by offering something more concrete and focused. I had a long-term vision but it would have to roll out in phases. I had to start with something basic and mainstream that would generate income fast.
On Wikipedia, Digital Storytelling is the creation of interactive online stories that combine photographs, video, animation, sound, music, text, and often a narrative voice. Although we were going to start out by offering only one of these elements, I would continue to hone my skills in the other areas and build a network of like-minded freelancers who could help me scale the work later.
My plan was to embrace the “where opportunity meets preparation” mindset. The needs of our clients would provide a breadcrumb trail that would dictate the ultimate mix of services we would provide. Our goal was to go in offering one thing, while equipped to provide substantially more.
Just Do It
On Tuesday, March 23, 2017, I called my friend, Vicki. She’s the one who brought the IU application to me 35 years earlier. She met me at Panera bread where I proceeded to cry openly at our table. I hadn’t slept or washed in a fortnight as I had been finishing up the website, setting it up to accept credit card payments and monthly memberships, linking all the systems using plugins, and testing the infrastructure. I was so tired I was seeing the Care Bears in my peripheral vision. And I was scared. Shitless. What if this doesn’t fly? There was no plan B.
As usual, Vicki cut to the chase. “I’ve seen your site. It’s ready. If you don’t post a link on Facebook by 5 pm tonight I will digitally out you.” God love her.
Versailles Daily Design was presented on Facebook that afternoon. It was a monthly subscription service that offered branded social media content for small businesses and entrepreneurs who saw the value of these networks but had been ignoring them due to time constraints. The post garnered 95 likes, 42 comments, and 7 shares. I got my first client the next day. Jennifer is a sorority sister who owns a yoga studio in St. Louis. Theta love…
By the end of the week, I had 3 clients. I had never been so excited to be earning $12,000/yr. in my life.
The Island Of Misfit Toys
Our client base was made up of small businesses, entrepreneurs, and solopreneurs. What I hadn’t anticipated was how much I would enjoy working with these scrappy folks.
They were game for just about anything we suggested and came from a place of yes. I had finally found people who didn’t think I was ridiculous. To go from having my PowerPoint rejected by compliance because it had fade transitions to filming time-lapse video of a dental office while they decorated their Christmas tree felt like walking out of a movie theater on a sunny afternoon. All of the things I had loved as a child: writing, imagery, and visual presentation were now being used. I also realized that the recent career experiences that had caused me so much pain brought distinctly specific pieces of knowledge that were needed in this new endeavor.
finding our purpose
It didn’t take long for us to branch out in the services we were providing. During the summer of 2017, we segregated our video production work and launched Feral Moth Media. In 2018 we added website design to our service line and consolidated into one company: Storycast Network.
Circle of Life
Our first client as Storycast was my Father, who had started a new company. Here is an e-mail he sent after meeting him for lunch. Never underestimate the power of the phrase “I believe in you.”
Our mission is sharing excellent stories in a compelling way across digital channels. Our vision is that a story we produce will touch someone on the other side of the world in a profound way. That as a result of seeing or hearing it they will act in a way that positively impacts their life, their descendants’ lives, and the world. By the end of 2016, all of the things that I hung my identity on had been stripped away: My career, my salary, my home, and almost my marriage. Let me tell you one thing: This struggle – the one that crushed my soul and gutted me – has been the greatest gift of my life. If you are going through a hard time, I encourage you to take heart. Find your tribe, hone your skills and pray for clarity. Because we live in times such as these, anyone can create an online platform and produce content that can be seen by people all over the world. It is our pleasure and honor to seek out stories of excellence and hope and to share them. There are so many amazing people doing extraordinary things.
I bet you are one of them.
I am a recovering CPA* with a passion for stories of redemption and resilience. After spending 20 years in the wrong profession I happened upon an online article in the New York Times called Snowfall in 2016. This was my introduction to the concept of “digital storytelling”. A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: Your heart. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul. I live in Carmel, Indiana with my husband of 26 years, Ed, our 2 children, Betsy and Jack, and 2 bichon frises – Charlotte and Dash. I am the Founder of Storycast Network and The Jacksonville Foundation. In 2020 I published a book about my journey to the autism spectrum with my son, Jack. I would love to hear more about your story. You can reach me at email@example.com. Or visit my website.
*CPA is inactive (and morbidly obese.)