face of a brand

As long as I can remember, I’ve known that I wanted to own my own business. I didn’t know exactly what kind of business for a long time, but I knew that I could never be chained to a desk, and that the many hats worn by entrepreneurs appealed to my easily distractable nature. The entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in my family, especially on my dad’s side; my grandfather was a farmer, and several of my dad’s 14 siblings are self-employed. As a kid, it was rough sometimes when we had to forgo extras like class field trips or senior pictures due to liquidity issues (I particularly recall my parents cleaning out my bank account once in high school because one of the cars was getting repo’d) but I always respected my dad for sticking with it, and he now has a highly successful business… spend 10 minutes in the car anywhere in the metro area and you’re bound to see at least one of his billboards.

One thing I didn’t quite reckon on, though, was the pressure that comes with representing a brand and being a semi-public (in the tiny scene that is Detroit, at least) figure. I’m struggling right now to strike a balance between living a life that feels genuine to me, and presenting a certain edited persona to those who know me as the owner of my business (which I’m purposely not naming here because of Google). Typically, I have no problem being presented as “N, the owner of such and such,” and am flattered when friends talk up my products as they make introductions. But sometimes, the weight of that is oppressive, and I crave anonymity. I’m envious of people like my friend T, who owned a couple of restaurants and now sells vintage clothing out of her car. This is a woman with an outsized personality who gives no fucks about what anyone thinks or says about her, and somehow pulls it off. I guess my bourgeois side cares too much about public opinion to go that route, or I just don’t have the confidence or cojones to get away with it.

This is something I consider often when writing: finding a comfort zone somewhere between “I’m 41 years old for chrissakes and this is who I am, so screw it,” and thinking about what if my mom is reading, or some other relative, or business acquaintance, etc. I’ve been pretty low key about promoting the blog, but you never know who’s on the other side of the computer screen. At least I don’t have the problem my friend K has; she’s constantly concerned that her blog will be discovered by employers or clients.

This quandary of maintaining multiple identities really hit home when I was out with P last week. We’d been sipping wine since 2 or 3pm and it was around 6 when we went to meet our friend E at a wine bar in the neighborhood. As soon as we got there, P saw a group of acquaintances- a wine salesman and his wife and two of their friends, one of whom was a heart surgeon- and installed me and E at their table. After making hasty introductions, he left us there to fend for ourselves while he wandered off in search of… what, I don’t know exactly.

These were very nice people who had nothing but great things to say about my company (in fact, they were rather gushing about it). Normally, I’m pretty good at moving between various social groups and classes and being able to fit in almost anywhere… while I’m not wealthy and never will be, I am educated and well-traveled, and that counts for a lot. But this particular night, I chafed at having to sit there and plaster on a smile and make small talk. Some of this was probably annoyance at having been abandoned. No small part of it, though, was the abrupt transition from spending the previous few hours with a person to whom I can say anything and everything and be no less than 100% myself with no bullshit or filters, to all of a sudden having to radically shift gears and be the face of a brand that these people knew and loved.

The situation became completely unbearable when I decided to get some air (ok, air drawn through the filter of a Parliament Light) and the whole table except E erupted into mass shaming. Did it matter that, on average, I don’t even smoke a whole pack in a week? I was beyond annoyed at that point; I was freaked the hell out. I couldn’t even go smoke a single cigarette- my first of the night- without feeling like I was somehow tarnishing my business reputation. The whole episode made me feel irritated and trapped.

The reality is, these situations are going to arise and I have to navigate how I want to live, whether it be the institution of a carefully cultivated façade that coincides with the values of my brand (“dress for the job you want!”), or a completely transparent, this-is-me-take-it-or-leave-it attitude. I’m sure it’ll end up somewhere in between, and fluctuate from day to day as an ongoing struggle and unintended consequence of having the work life I always wanted. But I’m profoundly grateful for those people in my life with whom I can be unreservedly myself; it makes a big difference.

As a postscript to this story, we happened to run into the same couple at the same wine bar the other night; this time I sat down with them to chat of my own accord, and made small talk about a bunch of work-related stuff like distribution, sales, etc. And it was completely fine. Sometimes I can switch into that mode and it feels authentic. It’s just the times that it doesn’t that are problematic.

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