Grab a cold one, or a glass of wine, y’all. I’m about to get nostalgic and recount how I got here – it’s a long, but fun, journey!
Did y’all know I’m totally self-taught?
That’s right. With the exception of my first Photoshop experience when I was in high school, I taught myself everything I know about design, branding, and such. My education — multiple degrees — have absolutely ZERO to do with making a logo.
I have an associate’s degree from the community college back home, Brevard Community College. I think they changed their name to something East Coast, but I might be wrong. My bachelor’s degree is in Middle Eastern Studies. My master’s degree is in Organizational Leadership. When I was in the Air Force, I went to language school for a year. I became proficient in Farsi, and worked with the language for a few years after that. I’m also a few courses away from completing a Psychology graduate degree — I’m not sure if I ever will, because practicum sounds super scary. Not a lick of graphic design in there…
I learned everything I know because I experimented, read, watched videos, and Googled the heck out of stuff. Having a background in photography meant that it was a fairly easy transition into graphic design, and admittedly, I’m still far more comfy in Photoshop than Illustrator. I found that it was easy to teach myself new tricks and learn about new processes… and once I began working with small businesses and individuals looking into bettering themselves, I found that my diverse educational & professional backgrounds were handy.
Prior to joining the Air Force, I had a time and a half figuring out what I wanted to do with my life. I spent so much of my childhood dreaming of becoming a meteorologist. Not the weather girl on television, but a meteorologist that works at NOAA, someone that tracked hurricanes, chased storms, and lived this crazy amazing experience. (In my head, it would have been a crazy amazing experience.) I spent my first year in college at Florida Institute of Technology, and…well, instantly, I hated it. Seriously. I had no idea what I was in for when I declared meteorology as my major. All of this science and math crap, what the heck was this? I mean, couldn’t you just teach me to read the computer models?
I realized that it was a huge mistake and that I didn’t want to go through with this major in the first semester of school, and then addressed those concerns with my parents at the beginning of the second semester. One day, I addressed those concerns by coming home and stating that I was enlisting. Seriously. I’d already made up my mind that I was enlisting in the Air Force. I had no idea what I wanted to do because my world was basically turned upside down when I realized I was hating what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” When I told my parents about my decision, my mom’s only question was, “What branch?” When I confirmed Air Force, she seemed to breath a sigh of relief. Though I know they had concerns like any parent would, they fully supported my decision.
My recruiters were the best. I don’t think there are many people that will say that, since most people feel like the recruiters promise them the heavens & the earth if they just sign up. My recruiters seemed a bit taken aback when I walked in, asked to be recruited, and told them I would sign up only if I could be promised that I would be a linguist. I’d done some research and this was the only thing that appealed to me. Spanish was easy for me to learn, French equally as easy, so I figured…why not, right? I think they chuckled and told me I needed to take a preliminary ASVAB — sort of a pre-test, if you will — to see if I would be qualified for for this job category. According to my recruiters, not only did I qualify — I blew it out of the water.
They set me up with some additional MEPS testing, and the rest is history. My only “requirement” was that I not ship until the summer of 2004. I was able to sign up for the delayed enlistment program because I transferred to the local community college and was in school for my second year of college. My little brother was scheduled to graduate high school in 2004, and it was important for me to stay and see him graduate. It all worked out fabulously for me, and my recruiters were nothing but honest about stuff. (If you’re out there, guys, then-TSgts Mike Linnane & Manny Ojeda, thank you for being straight shooters.)
That decision to enlist is what set me on the path I’m on today. That decision, and all of the following decisions and experiences, have given me a really unique point of view and invaluable skills.
The Air Force
Aw! Look at me! It’s so nostalgic seeing a picture like this. This picture was taken by my parents, still in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. Seeing my parents was the first time I saw anyone, other than my flight-mates and all of the other trainees. As a somewhat unrelated side note, I’m still in touch with 20-ish of the gals I went through basic training with in 2004. Isn’t that insane? Six and a half weeks of training, a friendship to last a lifetime.
My time in the Air Force means that I’ve had an amazing opportunity to be around people from all over the United States & other countries. I was never stationed on an Air Force base, but rather an Army post. I worked in a joint environment — civilians, contractors, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and my fellow Airmen. It was definitely a unique environment to work in. Also, I learned about flexibility, working with so many different types of people from all over, and how we all have the same end goal but totally different methods to get there. Prior to joining, I learned about facing adversity & sticking to your guns if you want something. When I joined the military, there were some people that I knew that told me straight up that they did not support a woman joining the military.
My time in language school exposed me to different cultures, and also taught me that stereotyping and assumptions can cause you to miss out on some amazing experiences. I enlisted a mere 2 years after September 11, when so many people made incorrect assumptions about Islam and people that were different than themselves. Not only did I learn Farsi and meet some amazing expats, but I got to experience so many other languages and cultures simply by being on a post where other languages & cultures were being taught, having roommates that were learning other languages, and so on.
The best roomie I had was a Hebrew linguist. As many linguists can attest to, the first thing we learn in a language other than our assigned language is how to curse. I can still say, “What time is it, bitch, please?” in Hebrew because my roomie Leslie taught me. Leslie is a prime example of how quickly a friendship can be formed in certain circumstances, and never seems to go away. Leslie and I haven’t been in each other’s physical presence since 2005, at Goodfellow Air Force Base, but we maintain contact through social media. Over ten years since I’ve seen this girl, and we can recall specific memories we shared. I’m so thankful for relationships like this. We’ve both got families of our own now, we’re on opposite ends of the country, and still — we’re forever connected.
Back to what I was saying. Some of the best educational experiences I had weren’t even related to formal schooling. They were cultural experiences, or related to forming bonds with people that are absolutely nothing like you. There is absolutely no substitute for real world experiences when it comes to learning about people and different walks of life, and this is the part of my education that I value the most. I’m not knockin’ the people that have degrees in the field they work in. Not at all! In fact, I think it’s an amazing thing and I see so much value in it. Clearly, I do, otherwise I wouldn’t have racked up the degrees like I have. BUT…there’s something to be said for a motivated, driven person that teaches themselves something that they’re curious, or experiences something different firsthand! Real world experiences with people from different walks of life are invaluable.
Once language school was over, and the additional training requirements were complete, I wound up at my first (and only) permanent duty station — an Air Force gal on an Army post. Fort Gordon, Georgia. It was a cool experience, but then again, I had no “real” Air Force experience to compare it to — from the time I enlisted until the time I separated, the only Air Force bases I was ever on were for Basic Training, and for crypto training. Once settled in to my job, I started using tuition assistance to complete my bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies.
I had a plan, y’all. I was going to separate from the Air Force after six years, I would have my bachelor’s degree by then in a field relevant to where I wanted to work, and I would just be a contractor or civilian until retirement. It was a solid plan, and it worked!! …Up until I decided it wasn’t working for me anymore. [sad trombone] I received my degree in Middle Eastern Studies, which ultimately secured me a badass job as a contractor. I was still receiving my Air Force paycheck on terminal leave while working as a contractor. Those few months of drawing double paychecks were really nice. But, it wasn’t where I should be.
Contracting + Photography
I worked as a contractor for a little while, and began dabbling in my photography business on the side.
I don’t have a lot to say about being a contractor, but not because it wasn’t a good experience. It was merely a transition from wearing BDUs one day, to cute civilian clothing the next. While I loved not having to think about an outfit as a military member, I enjoyed being a “person” again. The contracting company I worked for was all around amazing. Our boss/company owner made himself accessible to us, which was unheard of for other companies. I’m Facebook friends with my former boss, as well as a few others that worked at the company headquarters. One lovely gal, Lori, and I shared breakfast one morning at an Augusta favorite, Ruth’s. Such a great memory, and I’m jealous that she still travels and has Ruth’s without me!
As I mentioned, I began dabbling in photography as a side thing while I was contracting. See that pic over there? I spent a good few years like that, behind the camera. It became a bit more serious than a hobby on the weekends or a mom with a camera. I realized eventually that the creative field was where I wanted and needed to be. It’s a bit ironic, because as my mom can attest, I was quite black & white as a kid. I wasn’t the “out there” creative, and she often wonders where all of this design stuff even came from! Long story short, I quit my contracting job in pursuit of my own photography company. Business was great for a while back east. Then I picked up and moved to California, and into a saturated market. People didn’t want to book me for free, let alone for payment.
I tried to make it work. I tried everything, and it was so frustrating. Every day, I would wake up, work on my website, look for opportunities, sign up for local information, send e-mails seeking out opportunities. I joined up with some non-profits to donate sessions in hopes that connections would lead to referrals, and I even began advertising on a well-known wedding resource website (a huge disappointment). This was my first massive failure, and it took me a long time to accept that it was failing.
My efforts were basically all for nothing, or so I thought. I helped Jeff with his landscaping company and pushed a mower once in a while. On some days, I’d ride around for a few hours and look for new opportunities and properties to pick up. On most days, though, I still clung to this hope that I’d be able to make this photography thing work. I eventually busied myself with learning more about other aspects of photography, finding myself inching closer to the design world.
Photoshop actions was my next venture. I did actions, overlays, textures, you name it. Though this business didn’t do fabulously, I saw a bit more action (ahaha, see what I did there?) than I did with the photography world. I think that this was because I could sell to anyone that was in the market for it, not just someone in my local area. I think this business was instrumental in allowing me to open my eyes to other possibilities.
The efforts I thought were all for nothing wound up teaching me a lot about what *not* to do. Those experiences taught me how to better operate a business. There were days where I was desperate for some interest or interaction, or some way to make a few bucks. I wanted to help out with finances which were already fairly questionable following a cross-country move with legitimately no plan or job secured. Some call it stupid and irresponsible, others call it adventurous. Say what you will, I wouldn’t change a thing about the decisions we made.
It took me a long time to realize that I learned something from these business failures. I was so embarrassed by them that I couldn’t look at it objectively. Admittedly, it’s still a bit painful to think about, and I’m not sure why. This was my first experience with a failure of that magnitude, and it was difficult to accept. It wasn’t as if I were a kid that did a poor job on a test. I had a BUSINESS, and a FAMILY that I was taking care of — I didn’t let myself down, I let my entire family down. That’s what it felt like, at least.
It took me a while to accept that I could give advice about business on BeckMcCormick.com, because I thought the failures would negate or invalidate advice and suggestions. Logically, it’s quite the opposite. I have the ability to redirect or identify traps. I know what it’s like to see a business nose-dive and crash miserably despite putting all of your efforts. There are a ton of business gurus out there that have ALL of the answers because they’ve succeeded, but I think I have one-up on them. I’ve failed, too, and I know how to pick myself up and be a badass with my next venture.
Eventually, the Photoshop action biz stopped. I was sinking a lot of time into something that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. We didn’t have the capital to begin advertising and reaching more people. As a result, we couldn’t spend money to feed the business. I had to give up on that one, too. Honestly, I felt my passion for it starting to slide.
I also felt like I was in a very poisonous industry, too. The photography industry is one of the most high school-like atmospheres ever. There’s so much name-calling and finger-pointing, so much stolen work, and so many people accusing each other of doing whatever. The groups I’d joined for camaraderie were full of internet drama, and it was toxic. About the point that I decided I was pulling the plug on the actions, another action/photographer’s tools company was dealing with accusations of stealing another’s work or not being up front about stuff… I’m not even sure what the *real* story was with it, but it solidified my decision to stay away from the “community” groups.
I started freelancing by writing articles and doing research, landing a few small jobs that didn’t pay superbly. All the while, I was going to school full-time and having to devote a fair amount of time to my studies. The majority of the 36 months STRAIGHT I stayed in school in California, I was in graduate level courses. (For those wondering, I used the Post 9-11 GI Bill; in order to receive full benefits, you must be enrolled full time ALL the time.) They were demanding, but not unreasonable, though they took a lot of my time. As the photography and actions failed, I began thinking about what I could do to help financially, while still working from home. My course load, coupled with ensuring that my schedule was open for the kids, meant that anywhere I worked outside of the home would undoubtedly have to be part time work. I didn’t know of any part time gigs other than the food industry that would allow me to define my hours, which would differ each day.
It eventually got to the point that these ideas simply didn’t pan out, and I started looking for a “real” job that was in the intel field, where I formerly worked. My clearance had expired, so no one even bothered to respond. I’d come to accept that trying to find a coffee shop or restaurant to work at would be the best option to earn a little money. While looking for opportunities, I had this brilliant idea that I could still do design work on the side. I’d started dabbling in wedding invitations and found that I enjoyed the process. I was applying for jobs in vain, so it couldn’t hurt to make a few wedding invitation samples and list ’em on Etsy.
Autumn Lane Paperie was born, at that point. This explains a great deal about the name, with “paperie” in it. It did start out in paper products + paper design, but it didn’t stay that way. In fact, it didn’t stay that way for long at all. I jumped into the logo design not too long after I’d had a few wedding-related orders, simply to see what would happen. My friend Ruthie would be my first logo order from back in the day. It was a little slow getting going — so much that Jeff told me that I should just give it up, but I felt like I still had fight left in me and I swore I’d make something work. This was a conversation I don’t remember having. He remembers it clearly, telling me I needed to give it up. Me, in typical feisty Irish gal form, argued with him and told him I’d simply make it happen. I was legitimately days away from clicking send on my Starbucks application, but something kept me from doing it.
Ultimately, quitting my contracting job and jumping into the self-employed arena taught me a lot of valuable things. I went from stable, predictable income to something that was unpredictable. It was often very precarious for us, with a family to support. I learned from the failures, realizing the mistakes I’d made along the way. For a lot of businesses and/or industries, there really needs to be a demand and something that sets you apart. Your business must fill a need, and you have to set yourself up in such a way that you have an edge on your competition.
That edge is what will attract the people you want to work with, or make you different. There are a lot of successful photographers in my area, but I had no reputation and barely knew anyone. To the masses, I was just another one to add to the mix, and someone else always edged me out. There are plenty of people that make tools for photographers around the world. There are any number of reasons why they do better than I did. I also learned a lot about myself, about drive, passion, and motivation, but it didn’t make people buy from me. Somehow, I arrived at the perfect combination. Since this blog is largely based on authenticity, I’ll be honest and say that I’m still not sure what the perfect combo was. I don’t know why it suddenly took off, other than the fact that I worked by butt off to make it happen and to ensure that my clients felt that I really cared…because I really do.
I mentioned before that my bachelor’s degree is in Middle Eastern Studies. Given that I already had proficiency in a Middle Eastern language, it seemed like the most logical choice. That, and I wanted to work in the Intel field at the time. The Air Force paid for this degree; I used tuition assistance. Amazing!! Service members don’t use this enough. Take note of this, and look into it, if you’re active military. The courses I took were pretty cool, but were really based on the past — Middle Eastern literature classics, and general knowledge, rather than the current state. Either way, I knew that this degree would give me a leg up on my fellow former-military job seekers in the same field. Most of my counterparts were not working toward a degree while working. In fact, most of my counterparts didn’t know tuition assistance even existed. They were banking on the GI Bill once they separated.
This degree, though, even if it wasn’t based on current events was hugely informative and useful for someone wanting information different than what is given on your local news. It broadened my view of the world. It has also given me a lot of information related to cultures other than my own. I think that this is very valuable as a business owner, period. You’ll do business with a ton of people, especially if you’re a business that can sell and provide services internationally.
My degree was awarded in 2009. While I was in school, I had a toddler, and I was also a single mom following my divorce. Let me say this. In general, my past, private life is generally kept as much. My bio daughter has a phenomenal father and a terrific family that she sees on the regular, and as far as blended or plentiful families go, she’s so very lucky. She has so many people that love and adore her, and I count myself among the most fortunate that she has such an amazeballs life with so many people that care for her. I only make mention of the fact that I had a very young child, working full time, and being single because there are so many other gals out there like me. It is 100% possible, y’all. It is possible to do it, without your work life, personal life, or studies suffering. It’s doable, and I know, because I DID THAT SHIT. In fact, I owned it. I graduated with honors, received awards from my job, AND my kid’s turned out freaking fantastic if I do say so myself!
Grad School – ???
When I picked up with school again once I got to California, I started on a Marriage & Family Therapy graduate degree. Psychology was always interesting to me. As my classes progressed, I got closer and closer to the practicum part. That’s the part where we’d actually be doing stuff in action and taking on internships and such. While doing mock-sessions in class, I struggled. I knew what to say, but once I was in front of the rest of the class, I struggled. I began to realize that I was more than likely not cut out for doing this stuff for real. My own anxiety would be the reason why I left the MFT program. Ironic, right?
I had a lot of time left on my GI Bill that I wanted to ensure I was using to its fullest. While I waited for acceptance into another graduate program, I decided that it would be reasonable to work on a second undergrad degree in Social Science. I’ve met the requirements for obtaining the degree, but haven’t actually applied for it. I really enjoyed these courses, too. It sort of seemed like a more broad view of how and why people do what they do, a lot of it had business-related undertones, and a lot of it had to do with psychology. These courses were pretty dang cool, and I carry a lot of those learning experiences with me today. The psychological aspect and social aspect of brand perception are hugely important. The concepts I learned about, I can take those and apply them to brand development.
The Organizational Leadership program was the next, and currently last, part of my education. (Let’s face it, I’m a serial student. I’m positive I’ll go back to school for more; I just don’t know what yet!) This graduate program was amazing. At the time, some of the stuff was a little bland, but as I get deeper and deeper into what I do right now, it’s applicable across the board. There were a few courses that I took in which we addressed the business side of leadership which really resonated with me. We talked about companies that had been successful from a leadership perspective and how that bleeds over into overall success, what being a leader in a business means, and so on.
As Autumn Lane has grown, it has become more than a company that makes pretty premade logos. It’s more than a graphic design package. Though these are things that Autumn Lane does, our higher end packages offer A LOT more than a good-lookin’ logo. We offer research & analysis on topics that can make or break a business, and ultimately, how to maximize your chances for success based on solid principles & concepts. Not only is it design, but there’s a fair amount of implementation and sound reasoning behind it. Design principles can be used to form a solid brand identity concept. When you pair that solidly designed concept with information, concepts, and principles rooted in leadership, social science, and psychology, it becomes something more.
That brings me to … now. Yes, now. The last 10ish years haven’t been easy as pie, but they sure have been an experience. Also, it makes me feel old to realize that it’s been over 10 years since I started this crazy-weird journey into adulthood and finding my path.
It’s still a bit painful on some days to think about the failures that ultimately led me here, but realizing that I’ve come up with a combination that works for me and my family has been such an accomplishment. Autumn Lane is still a quite young company, but our numbers are quite staggering when compared with what folks would consider the norm. I started Autumn Lane as a means of helping my family pay the bills, but it has become our sole means of providing for our family. It did so within six months of its start, when Jeff quit his job to work with me as a web designer. Now, we’re two strong as the CEO and VP (whaaaat?!) since incorporating, and we have our eldest, Lily, working for us. Lily’s not alone, though. Her uncle Ben also does work for us when the need arises, and Jeff’s mom Barbara handles all SEO and content authoring for our clients.
To say that it’s been a journey is a total understatement. I’ve trudged through enough crap and have experienced enough indecision and bad decisions to last a lifetime. I’ve never felt as though I belonged in a “job” as much as I do right now. I’m living the the dream, with flexibility, and my family. What more could a girl ask for?