Start a business. Write a book. Quit a life-draining job. Travel the world. What are the things you really want to do, but feel like you can’t quite take the leap? How are you waiting to express yourself? What do you feel you are hiding from the world? What needs to finally be set free?
So many of these questions connect back to our authenticity: who we really are and how we really want to be living.
But being yourself shouldn’t feel so hard. Sometimes, all it takes is some inspiration, advice, and encouragement to see the way to being a truer version of you. In the Authenticity Series, I talk to people who are all walking different paths, in their own ways, in the hopes that others will be able to do the same.
When is it time to trust your gut and take a leap of faith? How do you know when an idea is worth pursuing? What does it take to stay optimistic when it feels like everything is going wrong?
These aren’t easy questions, but they are ones that a lot of us grapple with at one point or another – and sometimes throughout our entire lives.
Which is why I’m so excited about this installment of the Authenticity Series, featuring Kerry “Kiki” Wade and Lynn “Buckshot” Bebee, the founders of Blackbird Studios, located in Hamilton, Ontario.
Now in its eighth year, Blackbird offers handmade, screenprinted clothing for “a girl with a past, a woman with a history.”
For anyone looking to build a life fueled by your own creativity – where your art and ideas actually pay the bills – the story of Blackbird Studios is one to look to for inspiration. Blackbird is a true homegrown success story that has built itself not only as an incredible business, but also as a catalyst within its community.
Though of course, none of it happened overnight.
Kerry, a lifelong entrepreneur, had three other stores before Blackbird. And Lynn spent time in the corporate world before realizing that that path was not the one she was meant to be on.
The roads we take to get to where we are rarely end up being straight. But if we stay open to change and aren’t afraid to take a detour, we can end up in some really interesting places.
Here’s what Kerry and Lynn have to say about how they got to where they are now.
Let’s start at the beginning. You’re both very original and everything about how present yourselves is part of your own sense of self-expression. How did you first figure out you weren’t like other people?
Kerry: I think I always knew that from birth. You just know it. It’s like when you’re with your friends and you never quite feel like you fit in.
I come from a family of artists and musicians so I didn’t have a choice (laughs). I designed all my own clothing since I was about seven or eight. I had some pretty kooky outfits.
And then, I think I heard this from somebody else, but basically I’m unemployable.
When I say “unemployable,” it’s not that you don’t have any skills, it’s just that that sort of construct you don’t really fit into, so why bother. I’ve tried every once in a while to go into that corporate-type world, but it never works.
And at what point did you realize that?
Kerry: About two weeks ago. (laughs) You always try, because it’s interesting.
But we are business women, so we always have to step into that world to talk to city developers, people who do financing, that kind of thing, so we need to understand that world, too.
Lynn: My story is different. I wasn’t on any clear path.
I lived in 27 different places before I was 16. My family moved a lot, and I think because of that I became very resilient. I also didn’t develop deep connections and relationships with people because I was obviously on the go all the time.
So for a lot of that time, I lived in my head, and that really became true when I actually started working in the corporate world.
When I raised my son I was a human resources manager for a large operations company.
And it never worked. It never worked. I would sit in a board meeting and I would go, “I am not these people at all.”
And it was hard, because it was like, I need to put food on the table, but I hate this environment.
I remember going to the doctor’s during that time saying, “I’m falling asleep in every single meeting. I can’t stay awake,” and they were, “You’re bored. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re bored.”
So when I got the golden handshake, it was like thank you. And they were like, “We’re so sorry.”
And it was okay.
I knew I had to change professions.
Even when I was going through the corporate lifestyle, I was still playing guitar and still doing shows. I was always a performance artist. But it really didn’t come full circle until I actually left, and then everything opened up and changed.
That’s when I met Kerry and the world became a whole new oyster for me and I could do anything I wanted.
And that’s still my philosophy. I can do anything I want that I focus on.
What does it take to take a leap of faith like that? Because that can be a scary change for a lot of people.
Lynn: It was bizarre, because I made a great salary and I remember thinking, I can live off of $250 a month. I’m sure I can. I’m sure it’s possible! (laughs) And it is possible, if you just don’t eat.
But money did become secondary. It wasn’t the necessary evil that I was chasing after anymore.
It was like, let the money part go and whatever you believe in and dream in, the money will come back to you. And I’m still a strong believer in that.
It was the golden handshake that pushed me. It was tough, but it got me going.
Kerry, you mentioned feeling “unemployable.” What kind of path did that put you on before Blackbird?
Kerry: I had three stores before this. I’ve always been in fashion.
And when I say unemployable, I mean I could never work a corporate job. Not that I couldn’t do it – I have done it – I hate it. But I just go through the motions. I don’t know how people do it. I’m sure a lot of people are happy to do it, but I’m not one of them.
I’ve always made things. That’s how my career started. I wore cool clothing that I made and people wanted me to make it for them. I was kind of lucky like that.
I hung out with a lot of musicians and on Queen West in Toronto in the late ‘70s, early ’80s. You couldn’t just go out and buy something really cool like you can today. There was really no alternative scene.
There was vintage clothing, but if anybody wanted new clothing they had to get somebody to make it for them, and I was that person and I always made money doing it.
What are some of the fears you’ve had to overcome in getting Blackbird to where it is now?
Kerry: I think our greatest fear is financing. Because we’re artists, we’re used to living off very little. To go for financing for a really big project and a huge idea is terrifying. Now we have to sell ourselves to this ideal that we’re not really a part of.
Lynn: As I’m aging, I still need to really stay attuned to what younger people are following and what’s driving them. And that’s why I host an open stage night, because I see fresh people come through. But the generation gap is getting broader, and that’s my biggest fear, losing touch with what’s happening.
And in financing, could there be pressure to change your vision?
Kerry: If it doesn’t work, we’re on to something else. We are pretty fearless in our vision. Sure, it could be a great financial gain, but if it comes at a cost of your mental health or your reputation then we move on from it. We can’t be pressured that way.
What kind of promises have you had to make to yourself to make sure you’re not compromising?
Kerry: Well, we made a commitment to the business when we first sat down to talk about it. We said it’s a twenty-year plan, not a five-year plan. We also promised that we can count on each other for that longevity.
The promise to myself now is, because I’m so work-driven and I am what I do, is more self-care.
Because I’m what is driving this business, as is Lynn, and if we’re not taking care of ourselves, we’re in trouble. That’s a huge lesson that I learned this year – again – because it’s really important to see that twenty-year plan through.
Lynn: I made a promise to myself to never, ever go back to the corporate world. Even if I’m selling pebbles on the beach.
Kerry: Another thing we promised to each other is we’re always going to be friends. We know that. We need to make sure that’s first.
Blackbird has evolved a lot over time – I remember when you started you had a lot of t-shirts, too, and now you’re really focused on dresses, coats, bigger pieces. How have you figured out that evolution along the way?
Lynn: We took a little bit of time in the beginning. We went into this with jobs in the beginning, so we weren’t in a desperate situation and we could take the first three years to figure out and hone what Blackbird was.
Kerry: We were at a trade show and we were selling t-shirts and dresses. And all six dresses sold for $200 each. So we were like, “We could make ten t-shirts, or one dress.” So that was part of the evolution. No more band merch.
But the evolution of Blackbird is non-ending because it all comes from our creativity.
In starting any new venture, there’s no guarantee of success. So how did you decide that Blackbird was the business you wanted to start together?
Lynn: I think for me, it was a natural process. We started out working in a kitchen together, then talking fashion together, and we were in bands sort of together. I didn’t really have to put any thought into it. It was like, “Fashion? Of course. Let’s do this together.” I needed to go to school to get some skills and Kerry gave me the time to do that.
Kerry: Blackbird has always been easy. The work is hard, but it’s just easy. The concepts are easy. The designs are easy. The opportunities come.
But it is preparation. We know our stuff. I research to death. I’m a nerd that way. I love researching collections, business, marketing, so we know our stuff and then we just need to connect the dots.
Lynn, in terms of having gone back to school, can you take about that process a bit? Sometimes knowing that you need to go back to school for something can trigger a lot of impatience, especially if you feel like you want to make a change right now.
Lynn: I needed to learn pattern drafting and what was great about George Brown was they offered the classes on Sundays, so I did that for about a year and half.
When I left the corporate world, there as a bit of a gap. I was in the Poisoned Aeros at that time and I think that was for five or six years, and all I did then was be in music.
As I knew the Poisoned Aeros was ending I knew change had to come in a big way. This rockstar life wasn’t paying the bills and I was getting older.
I needed to do something, and if it was focused on fashion, great. And in that decision I knew I had to go back to school, and I knew I had a lot of skills from my corporate job in human resources, too.
So you were careful not to get stuck on an arbitrary deadline or anything for yourself. It seems like that’s what stops a lot us: We see where we want to go, but once we realize there’s an extra step that needs to be taken it starts to feel like a delay and we don’t invest the time or the work in getting past it.
Lynn: Well, when I met Kerry I was 45 or 46, so thinking of going back to school and changing your whole career – well, look at us now. So that was a great step. You can do it at any point in your life.
Kerry: You can talk about it, or you can do it. You can spend three years talking about going to school, or you can just go to school. Knowledge should never end, anyway. We’re always learning.
Is there ever anything you see entrepreneurs doing where you think, “Oh no, don’t do that.”
Kerry: No, I’m like, “Do it! Make all the mistakes and learn.”
Lynn: That’s one thing we’ve learned growing older is zip it, because everyone has to walk through their own fires.
Kerry: We make mistakes every day. Sometimes they’re funny. Sometimes they’re terrible. But we allow ourselves to make mistakes.
Have you ever encountered naysayers along the way?
Lynn: We don’t listen. It would be hell. Just stay on your path, trust your intuition, and you’ll get there.
Kerry: There are naysayers because we have some pretty crazy ideas, but those are the best ones to make come true.
How do you stay optimistic when you have a goal or a target and you don’t need meet?
Kerry: Every time you can say, “I can see everything that’s wrong and what I can do better next time.”
Lynn: Being optimistic is hard sometimes, there’s no question. But when things aren’t going our way, it’s almost like Kerry and I get mad and push through it. It’s like a tension that’s driving us and we won’t take no for answer.
So I think we get fierce when that happens. We won’t take it sitting down and I feel the power of that tension when things are going wrong.
Kerry: It’s not easy, but we have the power to make those changes and harness our ideas. If an idea doesn’t work, we just go to the next one because we have 150 more and we just keep moving.