Jami Curl: Queen of Candy

Jami Curl Factory Photo.jpg

Jami Curl is many things; author, mother, candy maker, business owner is just the shortlist. We wanted to interview her as we’re huge fans of her candy-making cookbook Candy is Magic, as well as the small batch candy company she owned in Portland named QUIN. During our interview she shared about how trademark battles can turn your whole world upside down (even if you’ve done everything to legally protect your brand!), and the responsibilities of leading a team. Check it out!

Hello hello! Can you tell me a bit about what you’re up to these days?
I do a variety of things! The first is that I’m teaching candy making classes. I just finished and it just went live – a candy making class through Craftsy [ed note: Now Bluprint] online, which was just purchased by NBCUniversal. My class was one of the first classes they did in a new way. It’s been fun.  There’s 6 lessons and I teach basically every kind of candy you’d ever want to make. We did a lot of interesting stuff with camera work and hilarious bits here and there – they built a set custom from candy, which was a beautiful set. So that is happening.

And then right now I’m writing a baking cookbook for Ten Speed Press which is coming out in the early spring of 2020. Which, when I say it, seems like a long time from now, but when I look at the work I have to do with it, is basically tomorrow-- it feels like. So that has been fun. I’m also currently teaching a series of classes at my library. Letter writing! One is a “How to Write Letters” class and the other is a series of classes where we’re trying really hard to form a pen pal club at the library, but I have started it under the guise of letter writing and what you can use to write letters on, things you can find, how to make a correspondence kit so you always have your letter writing materials with you, how to figure out who to write letters to these days because people don’t write letters anymore... so doing that.

And then I teach a couple of classes on innovation. I’ve done that for a couple of schools around Portland. Oh! And I also am a volunteer college essay mentor, so I go to high schools where juniors are writing applications and I help. And then the thing that I do to make money--because a lot of that stuff is volunteer or very little pay--is that I am currently the COO of an online music education company. And I am a Mom! So I do a lot of things, all at once.

I have always done multiple things at once because I have a lot of interests. And QUIN obviously has always been my first love. Prior to QUIN I owned a bakery, so I have always loved treats, making treats, and teaching people how to make treats. It was not until this year that QUIN was--we were--roughed up in a trademark dispute. Not really a dispute. There was another company that wanted the QUIN trademark. And after sort of a long--not a battle, but a long series of emails from lawyers, and this and that from lawyers, and bills from lawyers--we ended up essentially surrendering the QUIN trademark. The legal bills were so high and it got to be a very tiring fight, if that makes sense. Right now QUIN doesn’t exist as a candy company because we don’t own the name as it applies to candy anymore. Someone else took it, basically. I don’t know.  There’s a lot of mysteries in life, but that’s my big mystery in life right now-- what will happen next for the candy company formerly named QUIN.

I didn’t realize that someone else could swoop in like that!
Well, here’s the crazy thing – we did everything we needed to do to protect the name QUIN as it applies to the way we were using it. We had a trademark for over 5 years, put all the money and effort into doing that and then built a brand about that. I don’t usually do anything without making sure we can do it first. So, obviously, do what you’re supposed to do. We filed a trademark for the name, used an attorney to make sure that patent and trademark office looks at your application fairly and awards it. They don’t just give you a trademark because you’ve applied for it, they actually do research to make sure that what you’re trademarking, no one else has it trademarked, or that there would be no confusion. So this other company kind of presented it as confusion. Even though they don’t make candy. But it turns out they were pretty aggressively going after anyone with that name, even dog supplements.

It wasn’t that I thought “Oh, let’s name the company QUIN,” and I didn’t do anything to protect it. I did all the things you’re supposed to do, but it goes to show that even when you’re at that point and you feel protected, somebody who has the money and the energy to outlast you, can. We could’ve gone into an even longer legal battle and gone to court, but I didn’t start a candy company to spend 3 years in a battle with someone. And that’s kind of my basic philosophy of life, which is that I obviously want to make money so I can have a livelihood and support my kid and all that. But I also don’t really want to spend time doing something that makes me miserable or makes me doubt myself. And, in the end, when you are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop or a call from a lawyer, that’s how the last 18 months/2 years of QUIN was spent. It’s a crazy thing because it’s something that I loved.

It’s never an easy decision because we had a whole staff I had to consider. But it got to the point where it was too crazy to continue fighting for it. So now we’re at this pause and figuring out what to do next.

Wow – that is so frustrating! I am so sorry that happened to you!
If anything, it’s helpful as a story to tell people who are starting out, or have a small business, once you have that trademark in place and you’re using it, and you’re using it in the ways that you’re supposed to be using it, it’s interesting see that somebody who has more money than you can come along and make a play for it.

Do you think you would want to start QUIN 2.0 but with another name?
Yes. I have no plans to give up hope on it. That’s what I think has been the hardest for people to understand. This isn’t information that I have spread widely, didn’t give an explanation for what has happened to QUIN, most people don’t even know. I haven’t closed any doors or made any huge decisions. I have our recipes and the way that we did things still on my side so yes, no real decisions made and I’ve just been regrouping a little bit these last few months to figure out how I feel. I want to get to the point where it makes me happy again rather than being something that I am only worried about.

Well, since QUIN 2.0 is on the horizon and you are indeed a candy-making expert, let’s talk about that for a bit! Was there a seasonality to running Quin?
Yes. Any holiday that you can think of where candy is given or candy can be thought to be given, so Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day, those types of holidays, we had definite upticks. And Valentine’s Day. The summer months are always difficult for two reasons. It’s a little bit slower and it’s so hot almost everywhere we ship candy. And that was always a worry, making candy in a place like Portland, where if the air conditioning in the room where we make the candy stops working, then what do we do with all of our inventory? All of it is so sensitive to heat. So, the seasonality of it is something you plan for. You look at the calendar every year and you can figure out production ahead so that you know at Christmastime you’re going to need XYZ, for seasonal products like an advent calendar.  We would start planning how we’d make enough candy to fill all orders for our own store and for shipping online for Christmas in July.

It was almost as if you never really knew what month it was because in the summer, it’s Christmas and at Christmas time it’s the summer. And then you have to try to figure out how to make the slower times as short as possible so that everybody who’s working is busy enough and so that you are not making too much candy. Because one of things about QUIN is that our candy is very fresh and we don’t sell anything that’s old. We’re not aiming for a long shelf life with any of it. During the times that are slow, you could say “Let’s just make a ton of candy right now and save it for the future XYZ holiday,” but we never liked to do that because it’s anti what the ethos of the company was.

Was that was one of the trickier things to figure out?
Production and numbers – figuring out too much or too little. And storage of candy was always sort of a stressful thing. The one thing I didn’t mention before is that the other side of it is, if you’re running with a lean staff so that you know during the slower times you don’t have to lay anyone off, then during the really busy times the employees who are making the candy are working really hard to get a lot done. It was always a little bit of stress to figure out exactly how. Thankfully, markets change, and from year to year things are different, which keeps it interesting. But that also means once you figure something out, you basically start re-figuring it out-- it never stays the same.

16-0309-TiC-BTS_LMK9203.JPG

Was everyone on your team full time?
Yeah, all the candy makers were full time. And people who cut and wrapped the candy were also all full time.

I was wondering if that was done by hand or if there was a cutting and wrapping machine!
We did invest in a machine that we bought from a company in New York that was vintage. Yeah, it didn’t put cut pieces in [wrappers], but you put cut pieces in it and it wrapped it all. There was an incident when we were moving from one factory space to another and the machine fell off the back of the moving truck...yeah.

How large was the entire QUIN team?
We had 16 people including someone who did customer service. And  including someone who worked at our retail store.

That’s a big team!
When I owned bakeries, my team was always over 30 people, so I was always relieved because it reduced the amount of time spent doing HR and things like that because it was less people. But throughout my career working with individuals, I’ve had highs and lows with being a manager, if that makes sense. At some points, I really, really enjoy it and then at other points it was something that I would look to another manager to do for me.

But at the end, the point of doing these types of businesses is that you have this whole team of people who are there, willingly helping you achieve this vision or this dream that you have. And for that reason alone, I always endeavor to treat the people who are working in the best possible ways in terms of how much money they are making. Then you know people are willingly helping you. Yes, they’re getting paid, but they still could go and choose to do whatever they wanted. But they’re there, with you, trying to see this thing through. And it’s the most humbling thing, to lead a team in that way.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

Thank you so much, Jami! It was such a pleasure getting to learn more about what you do. Readers, after running off to appease your sweet tooth, come back next week for a wise and thoughtful how-to from Jami that’s all about finding your magic.

Liz Fosslien: Author & Illustrator

headshot1.jpg

Ok, let’s get into it! What is your official job title?
I’m an author and illustrator based in Berkeley. No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Emotions at Work, the book I just co-authored and illustrated, will be published by Penguin in January 2019!

Could you tell us the story of your career so far? 
I studied Economics and Math at Pomona, and then became an economic consultant. Law firms hired the company I worked for to do damages analysis or any stats analysis they needed to support their case. It’s a job I always thought I wanted-- on paper it seemed to have a lot of things that I enjoyed. Also, my parents are immigrants, and they drilled into me: “Go to school, get a well-paying job, wear a business suit, do that for the rest of your life and you’re set!”

After a while, I physically burnt out. I was getting sick all the time, and I realized it would be hard for me to have a successful career there because of how anxious I was becoming. So, I left with no backup plan. I’d been going down to this Starbucks down the street twice a day, and I read that if you work there part-time, they offer health insurance. I walked in and asked,“You know me as your customer, can I be a barista?”

I worked at Starbucks for six months. During that time, I taught myself data visualization. I wanted to do something more creative and that seemed like a wonderful intersection of art and math. I also tried to see what I could have done to make myself happier in that job. That’s when I started digging into psychology and reading about what changes might have made me happier.  

Later, I worked at Genius, which at the time was called Rap Genius. There were maybe twenty employees when I joined, so it seemed like a really cool opportunity to help shape the future of a product I loved. I worked between the product and the community teams.

After that, I joined Parliament, which was founded by Peter Sims, a best-selling business book author. Parliament brings Fortune 500 executives together with authors, researchers, and entrepreneurs who help them tackle problems they might have within their corporations. I worked there until I left to focus on the book.

Before we go further, could you define what data visualization is?
I would define it as presenting data in a way that makes it accessible  to anyone. If you have no background in math or stats, you should still be able to look at an image or log into a portal and find the information you need to do your job well.

How did you realize you had the skills to do data visualization?
I love taking concepts that might seem difficult or boring—like math, stats, economics—and making them engaging. In terms of hard skills, having a quantitative background really helped. I had some basic coding skills. And then—I never studied it—but a general interest in art. 

Speaking of illustration, have you always drawn? How did you come to be an illustrator?
Drawing was born out of my interest in data visualization. As a way to play around with various chart styles, I started putting my feelings into charts. Then I started doing charts around common experiences, like, “How to get a job.” And slowly, in addition to drawing a line, I’d draw a little figure in the corner, which eventually evolved into full-on cartoons. I didn’t take any classes. I downloaded a free 30-day trial version of Adobe Illustrator. I kept creating new accounts until I finally said, “Ok, I should just buy this.” I spent hours on Pinterest. I’d type Liana Finck (an illustrator) into the search bar and look through everything she’s ever done.

whatdoyoudo1.png

What’s one thing you didn’t expect you’d have to do in your current job but you find yourself doing?
Dealing with a lot of spreadsheets. Mollie, my co-author, and I have a spreadsheet, and I think there are twenty-one tabs in it. Excel sheets are useful for any job!

Good to know. What do you do day-to-day?
There’s still a lot of writing. That’s one thing I wasn’t expecting once you finish a book. Mollie and I are putting together articles for different publications that give readers an idea of what the book is about. I also spend a  good chunk of my time illustrating for our Instagram account. And finally, we’ve been giving emotion-at-work-related workshops at companies like Adobe and IDEO.

How did you and Mollie find each other? Any insights into working with someone closely?
When I moved to New York to work for Genius, I knew very few people, so I emailed my friends and said, “Set me up on blind friend dates!” Mollie was my first blind friend date, and we immediately bonded. We’re both introverts, diligent when it comes to our sleep routine, and have favorite sleep masks and ear plugs. Mollie was writing articles (she was at Parsons getting her masters) about organizational design. We thought it might be fun to write an article together.

We wrote an article that detailed what it’s like to be an introvert, which was published on Quiet Revolution (Susan Cain’s website, the woman who wrote Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking). It went viral and was featured in a bunch of publications.

In terms of working together, it’s about checking in. We’re still really good friends and, given that we’ve been working together on an at-times intense project for two years, that’s wonderful! One thing we realized is that the times we’d get grumpy with each other were the times we hadn’t talked. When you start working on a project with a friend, it’s easy to start only having interactions centered around work. Three months into the book project. I realized I had no idea what was going on in Mollie’s personal life.

So we said, “Every weekend, for fifteen minutes, we can only talk about our personal lives.” That helped us see each other not just as “That colleague,” but as “My friend that I care about.” Also, maintaining the frequency of phone and video conversations is important. If you’re only emailing each other, it’s easy to misread tone and get offended.

A lot of it is also about figuring out how to give and receive critical feedback. Hearing what you need to change can be extremely painful. I’d get critical feedback and I used to be, like, “I’m questioning everything about myself,” and spiral. Now, I understand that criticism can be useful, so I have to manage my own emotional response. A thing I love that we have in the book is keeping a Smile File. When a person sends you an email saying “I love your work,” or “This was great,” or a text, or anything nice, you screenshot it and put it in your Smile File. So, when you do get critical feedback, you can go back to the Smile File and say, “This is one data point in the entire picture of who I am.”

 It’s also about learning how to give feedback. Initially, Mollie would send me a draft and I would hammer out emails with bullet points of things that needed to be changed. After a while she said, “Your emails make me feel really bad.” When I thought about it, that made total sense. So I started emotionally proof-reading my emails. I’d write down all my bullet points, then I’d take a step back and think, “What am I not saying?” Especially when you’re working remotely and you’re using digital communication, it’s really easy to leave out the things you might say in person, like “Oh my gosh, this was so good.” 

We also started a spreadsheet that had ten statements like, “I’m happy with where the book is,” “I feel good about my contributions,” “I feel good about the other person’s contributions,” “I’m anxious,” Every two weeks, on a scale of 1-10, 10 being, “I so agree with this,” we’d fill out how we were feeling and how we thought the other person was feeling. I might say, “I feel 9 about how good the book is, and I think Mollie feels 8.” Any time there was a huge disparity in what I thought Mollie felt and what Mollie actually felt, it indicated there was miscommunication and we needed to talk.

whatdoyoudo2.png

Was your time at Starbucks when you decided to write about emotions at work? How did you decide to write a book at all?
Starbucks didn’t really push me into writing, but it did push me into drawing and being more appreciative of the power of art and design. Starbucks is so thoughtful about design! In every store there’s really precise instructions for how to lay out the pastries. They have circular tables so you can sit there alone and not look alone. The music changes based on the time of day. They really understand that design done well can be incredibly lucrative and incredibly powerful in evoking emotions. That definitely had an influence on me, in that I’ve been really thoughtful about how to make this book design feel friendly, affectionate, and empathetic.

As for how I started the book, I made “14 Ways an Economist Says ‘I Love You’” charts and they went viral. I noticed someone was liking a bunch of my Tweets. When I saw it was a book agent, I reached out to her and said, “I’ve always wanted to do a children’s book!” But she said, “Given these math charts you’re making, your target audience is adults. If you put some research behind these and add a narrative, this could be a really great book.”

It seemed so much more fun to work on a book with a friend, to have a partner. Even just someone to bounce ideas off of. I never set out to write a book, but I feel very grateful to get to do it, and with one of my good friends.

What was the process of writing a book like?
For non-fiction books, you don’t have to have a complete manuscript when you sell it to a publisher. You just need  a proposal. There’s one sample chapter, a pretty detailed outline, and then a good chunk of the proposal is how you’re going to market the book. We worked with our agent and spent eight months putting it together. It was a 70-page proposal. Our agent sent it to maybe twenty publishers, and got responses from about half of them, which I think is pretty standard. Then we met with those publishers in person in New York.

Pretty early on we realized our main message was: “Emotions don’t have to be this really scary thing. They’re also not something that you have to constantly be battling or suppressing. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling, figure out what’s useful and go from there.” 

We picked a publisher that let us make our book a different size than the typical business book, and have the illustrations be in two colors (black and blue). Writing the book took about a year and a half. Between actually finishing the book and having it come out there’s about six months of prepping for the launch. 

whatdoyoudo3.png

Have you encountered any resistance or skepticism to talking about emotions at work?
The first skeptic was my dad. He’s a doctor, a true, to-the-core scientist who told me, “I don’t want people to have emotions at work, it’s going to be a mess!” So Mollie and I tried to look for research that created a financial case for emotion at work. One example is if employees feel a sense of belonging. If they feel that they can bring their true self to work, suggest ideas, make mistakes, and not have to hide half of who they are in the workplace, they’re much more likely to stay at the company longer, they’re happier, and more productive.

Another example is Project Aristotle, a study Google ran that looks at what makes a team good. At the beginning they thought if you put a bunch of senior level people on a team, that will be the best team. But what they found is that it’s less about the who and more about how they treat each other. If you create an environment in which people feel it’s ok to take risks, they don’t feel they’re going to be judged, and you have a much more innovative team. There’s an obvious financial outcome.

What is the biggest misconception about emotion in the workplace?
The biggest misconception is that when we say emotion at work we mean “Feel it all, to anyone, all the time.” This is especially relevant for leadership. There’s now a push for: “Leaders should be empathetic and vulnerable.” That is very true, up until a certain point. If I know that there are issues at the company and you act like an unemotional robot, I feel like you’re obviously showing me a fake version of yourself and I’m not going to trust anything you say. A leader should acknowledge when something is going on.

 But that’s different then the leader saying, “Oh my God, I’m completely overwhelmed, everything is falling apart!” You want to speak to what’s going on but not destabilize your entire staff. We call that selective vulnerability. A way to practice that is to acknowledge what’s happening, but then providing a path forward.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

IMG_0023.JPG

Thanks so much, Liz! Readers,to tide you over until next week, for more from Liz and Mollie, go check out their Instagram here or pre-order their book No Hard Feelings here. Then, check back in next week for another hearty dose of wisdom from Liz!

Asiya Yakhina: Product Designer at The New York Times

mee.jpg

This week, we interviewed someone who scored a very cool job right out of undergrad. Asiya Yakhina is a Product Designer at The New York Times who uses technology and data to help readers. In her job, she supports the parts of The Times we don’t necessarily think about everyday – the digital infrastructure that creates the best possible experience for subscribers. Read on to learn about designing products digitally, working at a huge company, and how she uses technology to create thoughtful experiences. 

Let’s start with the basics. What’s your official title?
I’m a product designer at The New York Times.

You’d interact with the messages that I touched in one way or the other, either when you first subscribed or when you visit your account page on the NYT website. The stuff we work on probably isn’t first to come to mind when you think about The Times. My team is kind of like a backstage crew in a theater. We’re not performing in front of the audience, but we’re lighting the show, we’re selling the tickets, we suggest what other shows you might like, and we listen to you if you’re not happy with the play.

2. Have you always had an interest in design? Where does it stem from?
I’ve enjoyed drawing and painting since I was a kid so I’ve always wanted to make visual things. Though my day-to-day work is less visual than I expected :) So I just try to sketch in my free time or on my commutes.

sketching.jpg

Can you tell me a bit about what you were doing before this?
I was studying at Wellesley College, taking classes in art and computer science. During my junior and senior years - also working on a couple of research and design projects at the Design Lab at MIT.

What was the process like to be hired at the NYT?
It was quite seamless. After I sent in my application, there was a phone call. It was exactly two years ago but, from what I remember, we talked about my background, the work that I’ve done and my interest in the role. After that I came into the office to talk to the people who I would be working with. I applied for several open roles, so I was talking to people from multiple teams. I shared two of my previous projects for the portfolio review, talked a lot about my interest in validating ideas with real users and, as a result, got an offer for a position focused on designing experiences for tests and experiments.

What are your main responsibilities in this role?
I’m on the new subscriber on-boarding team. My main responsibility is to help design a strategy and, later, an actual experience that will help our new subscribers get as much value from their subscription as they hoped to get, or maybe even more. Since we’re in the earlier strategy stage as a new team, in practice that means having a lot of meetings, conversations, and brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas we’d like to test out with our users.

wireframes.png

What’s the environment at your office like? Is it corporate, and is there a dress code? 
Corporate - probably? The dress code is something like “business casual”. Though I also see people comfortably stepping outside of those boundaries without being judged or excluded. Work days are usually 8 hours, they can be from 9 to 5, or 10 to 6. It just depends on your meeting schedule and personal habits. As for bigger culture things, there are definitely certain patterns in how people talk and navigate work/social situations; it’s usually done with a level of thoughtfulness, respect, and perhaps a bit of distance. Though those kinds of patterns vary from team to team. As people get to know each other better, they’re generally more comfortable to open up. I often see examples of how in smaller groups the individual personality has the real power to transform the culture within the team, while also challenging certain rules or ways of thinking. That’s what I’ve seen happening in my new team, at least.

What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on at The Times?
Last fall I worked on an email series aimed for readers who have cancelled their subscription. The email experience that was already in place didn't come from a very thoughtful place and was essentially bombarding people who unsubscribed with discounted offers to get them back. It’s tricky to challenge a practice that someone else designed and implemented. Firstly, it can get personal. Secondly, in this particular case, an argument could be made that enough people click on the subscription offers and come back. But we found a pretty fun and helpful metaphor that could challenge the old approach. The metaphor compares our relationship with a reader to a romantic relationship. Would you find it strange if your ex texted you a couple of days after you broke up, asking if you’d like to hang out, as if nothing happened? Probably not. That metaphor helped us a lot in navigating the political implications and soon it became pretty to clear to everyone that talking to our readers after a cancellation needed a more thoughtful touch. 

brainstorm.jpg

What’s it like to work in a big company as a designer?
The Times has a strong design community which means that I’m surrounded by really smart and experienced designers who are there to guide me when needed. Critique is a huge part of the process and I really appreciate the opportunity to get my work reviewed. I found both of these things pretty valuable, particularly because this is my first full-time job out of college.

What are your least and most favorite parts of the job?
Working in a big company sometimes feels like working on a really big ship. For that ship to stay on an optimal course, a bunch of little parts and mechanisms have to be in sync and agreement. Thinking about it this way leaves me in awe of the scale of the mission that I’m contributing to. So that’s one of the favorite parts. The least favorite part is just a flip side of what I just described. We can’t always move fast, things take a while, and sometimes that’s the only way.

Are there certain design programs that you use on a daily basis?
Sketch, Figma - for mocking up static designs. InVision - for making prototypes and sometimes Principle for motion prototyping.

workspace.jpg

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
Illustrating children’ books. Or making video games.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self!

AsiyaCard.jpg

Thank you so much, Asiya! We loved learning about your role and what digital design entails. Readers, after renewing your subscription to the NYT (or signing up for the first time), come back next week to learn more about how Asiya balances work and her personal projects. (Photos provided by Asiya Yakhina).