WorkParty

by Jaclyn Johnson

Clock Icon 13 minute read

Introduction

Hard work = the American Dream. This is what I was raised on.

WorkParty = the new American Dream. Or, rather, that’s what I’m proposing. What I mean is: WorkParty is the hard work that the American dream is based on, but driven by passion rather than necessity. When you’re workpartying, you don’t clock in or out, but tune into every minute because you are a part of something you love.

And it’s unbelievably hard.

As a young professional in my twenties, I suffered two massive blows. I looked, leapt, moved across the country for a job, and then I was abruptly let go. Attempting to turn that door into a window, I launched a promising company with a trusted business partner, but soon discovered that she had made some detrimental decisions for the company without my knowledge. I went through a brutal business breakup. I was twenty-four.

But it was worthwhile—by the time I was thirty-two, I had sold a company, launched a much-buzzed-about new one, bought my first home, found the love of my life, and had a million ups and downs in between.

How?

By turning distrust into determination, frustration into fuel, and heartache into hard work.

Oh yeah, and that determination, fuel, and hard work? It can be so. much. fun.

Not because my office is filled with streamers and champagne. Hardly. It’s spreadsheets and team meetings, where I happen to be surrounded by other strong women. Together, we’re all creating and cultivating the careers of our dreams together. We leaned in, and now we are standing up. We are redefining work for a new generation of women who want it all and more, and guess what? They can have it and so can you.

I am not the Wolf of Wall Street; I am not Tony Robbins here to espouse my great theories on life; this is not a marketing scheme. Rather, WorkParty is the lessons I learned and the advice I had wished I’d gotten when I was twenty-one and at my first major job. Or when I was twenty-four, bright-eyed and a bit naive, launching my first company with a business partner. Or twenty-eight and striking out on my own. Or even thirty, having created and cultivated a community of over five hundred thousand women.

So consider this my official invitation to you to start your own #workparty. Where creative and entrepreneurial woman celebrate each other’s successes. Where you can celebrate your own achievements because you are doing it all yourself, unabashedly, at the best bash the workplace has ever known. Because, listen, the joy has been sucked out of our careers for far too long. And we’re bringing it back. Who said business had to be boring?

These are my experiences, these are the hard-fought lessons I learned, and this is your guide to making it all happen and more.

Work hard. Party on.

 

Chapter One

When Crushing It Crushes You

You aren’t good or bad at anything you haven’t tried. You can’t fear what you haven’t figured out yet, and sometimes naïveté can be the best business strategy of all.

But sometimes you might try something, give it your all, even move across the country for it, and get fired. Or, ahem, “politely let go.”

That’s the beginning of my story, at least, but let’s back up a little bit.

I started my career during a time I like to call “P.E.”

Pre-exclamation. Pre-emoji. There was no such a thing as a hashtag either.

No one was livestreaming their lives, outfits, or meals. And I truly believed life was somewhat like a rom-com: work hard, move to the big city, a dashing dude sweeps you off your feet, and you live happily ever after in your apartment that is always spotless, right? Wrong.

But there I was, a recent graduate of NYU, and like so many other women who trekked the sidewalks of Manhattan in heels before me (before you realize you need to bring flats with you everywhere because, again, #notlikeamovie), I was eager to crush it at my career. The big-corner-office, chic-power-suit, boss-haircut, eager-assistant, town car kind of crushing it. And for a minute, it was working. I dyed my hair black and spent a critical few minutes every day blow-drying my side-swooping bangs. Think big belts and boho bags. Sure, I was dating a club promotor—not exactly the sort of partner who shared my corner-office goals, no, but he did facilitate some wild nights that ended with sunrises and pizza slices.

I had happened into a career in a little something called “social media” five years before it would hit the mainstream. I was a boss at the Blogspot, I was tweeting on Twitter, I was posting in forums (I know, #LOL), and I had a blog, which I know sounds not-that-exciting present day, but at the time was a rare thing. I called the blog Some Notes on Napkins, and it was my own little corner of the internet, my musings on twenty-something life in the Big Apple with a bent on fashion and style.

The first post, April 7, 2007, is still up (go ahead and Google it) and is called “Leave It to Karl [Lagerfeld].” SNON was a mix of cutout editorial collages I put together in PowerPoint, trends I was loving, places to eat, my literal LiveJournal of my twenties. I posted playlists, outfit inspiration, outfit flat lays, art, design, and street style. Less a digital diary than an archive of inspiration, trends, and makers I had my eye on, and people were reading it. A lot of people.

I didn’t even know what analytics were until a colleague showed me and said, “You get about three thousand people to your site every day.” UM, WHAT. Who? It wasn’t just my mom? What was thing I had created? Now, many years later, there is a part of me that is embarrassed looking back at an internet time machine, a relic of a former life, but then, I was Carrie Bradshaw–ing my life in NYC with my friends, living alone in the East Village in a five-story walk-up, and somehow making it work before blogging equaled major dollars. The internet was a truly authentic and vulnerable place.

Now I want to note that at the time my blog made approximately zero dollars. So I spent my days running accounts at a startup marketing agency by the name of Attention, now a preeminent global communications firm with household-name clients. Back then, though, I was employee number three in a company full of all dudes and was brought on to spearhead their “pink vertical,” and by that I mean their fashion and beauty clients. I had quite literally responded to a Craigslist job posting that read “Seeking Female Account Executive Interested in Fashion and the Internet.” I immediately responded to the flagrantly non-politically-correct ad, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Despite Attention’s office space—a.k.a. the back corner of an under-construction corner in someone else’s office in the Flatiron district—the agency was actually really ahead of its time. Sure, the front office was being run by an online poker company that bore a Boiler Room resemblance. Spoiler alert: They were raided by the FBI about three months into our office cohabitation. But we kept our (much more legal) business chugging along. Attention was dubbing us “word-of-mouth marketing” experts, the beginnings of what would become social media marketing before it had a name. Social media as we know and heart it today wasn’t really a thing, which means there was no snap, tag, or share yet. But there was Twitter, Facebook, blogging, and forums—all things I was familiar with and good at.

I had stumbled upon the whitespace (more on that later) in the newfound digital marketing world, and I understood the internet in the way forty-something white men couldn’t (and still can’t). Because of that savvy, I was getting promoted, poached, and escalated up the corporate ladder so quickly that I assumed that the next stop was #towncarlife.

It all came naturally to me, this new digital language and world. I vividly remember high school English class always being a struggle (shout out, Mrs. Pilcher). The problem? My writing style. I wrote in short, quippy, and to-the-point sentences—meaning no “hereafters” or “therefores.” Conversational and relatable, my writing wasn’t exactly the five-paragraph structure my English teacher wanted. The papers I wrote were marked up in red, citing poor syntax and too many colloquialisms. And yet I couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong. Only after graduating magna cum laude with a journalism degree from New York University did I realize what I had been doing.

I had been blogging my way through high school English.

I was talking in tweets before Twitter existed. Beginning, middle, and end? Supporting paragraphs and conclusions? No thanks. You can keep your MLA format and debate the AP style guide. At Attention and on Some Notes on Napkins, I was finally putting that impulse to good use.

 

—————

PAUSE

Keep in mind: If you want to succeed, you have to be able to break from tradition fearlessly and sometimes recklessly and sometimes while feeling genuinely uncomfortable with everyone telling you no. No truly successful entrepreneur these days has followed some preordained path to success. There is no “right.” There’s only saying yes, figuring it out, and knowing there will be a few bumps along the way.

—————

 

For the first time in my semiadult life, I had found my niche. And when I wasn’t updating my now thriving blog, I was grinding it out creating some of the first social media campaigns. At my day job, I launched the Barbie x MAC collaboration, was seeding Estée Lauder products to influential tastemakers before they were called influencers or tastemakers, and was creating Facebook pages for brands and building content strategies, essentially establishing protocol of how this whole online world could work. AND I LOVED IT.

Influencers, if you don’t already know, (mainly) started as bloggers—the girls taking outfit of the day (#OOTD) photos, DIYers, and the like—who turned their blogs into bona fide businesses (more on that later!).

And about five months into my tenure as the sole female employee at Attention, two more women were hired. I rapidly on-boarded them as my ride-or-die best friends, and I’m proud to say they are still my number ones. They affected my career in countless ways (more on that later, too!), and I am forever grateful for our time spent in that cramped office space, rats and all.

We—the influencers—had immediately seen the potential in this digital world. And because I understood the world from both the blogging end and the marketing end, I knew I was capable. I was working both sides of the table, and as such, I brought ideas to that table.

To his credit, my boss at Attention appreciated all of the hard work and was supportive of my blog side project. Even though he didn’t get what I was doing, he understood that it gave me inroads into the communities he wanted to tap. Sure, it was just social media, but it was the new way of the world. I knew it, he knew it, and we both knew that I knew more than him. Case in point: In 2017, markets who prioritized blogging efforts were thirteen times more likely to see positive ROI. We call that lucky number thirteen.

Bottom line, I was twenty-two, upgrading my life, on the right path, working hard, and paying dues.

And it was a big deal to me.

My parents are wholesale car dealers. We grew up middle class in Florida. They have never been to a fancy cocktail party or traveled outside of the United States. They referred to NYC as the “big city.” They have owned and run their own business successfully for as long as I can remember (which is amazing to me; maintaining a marriage and a business for thirty years is no joke), and while they didn’t go to college, they believe in the principle of hard and honest work and instilled that ethic within me and my sister, who also owns her own business.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that hard and honest work wasn’t always the ticket, or that nepotism and dollars can really get you any job, internship, or position you wanted. I was frustrated. My dad, unfortunately for me, didn’t have an in-line to Anna Wintour. It took time for me to realize that even though you might be the best candidate, sometimes you’re not the right political move within a company. Other people had one-ups or had ins. I didn’t know the business world wasn’t based on a merit system. I didn’t know about pedigrees and rubbing elbows with the right people. I had the benefit of naïveté, which served me well multiple times in the beginning.

“You don’t know what you don’t know” can truly be a blessing.

Not a blessing? The recession.

I had left Attention after being poached by a larger company called IAC, a scary acronym for InterActiveCorp, to lead their “social media” efforts across multiple businesses but mainly their startup Pronto (a now-defunct Amazon competitor). That also came with a director title, a six-figure salary, and a company that had an unlimited snack section and a built-in espresso bar.* I was moving up.

And as it happens, amid my “crushing it,” and nearly hitting corner—office goals, the recession hit, and the proverbial shit hit the fan for my career trajectory, and a lot of other people’s. I was also in the midst of ending a relationship, the end of my apartment lease happened to be coming up, and my company was downsizing quickly. All of these things made me feel like I was in the midst of a tornado with no way out.

One morning midtornado, I was called in for a meeting with the CEO of the company, and I thought, This is it, I’m getting the ax. So many questions ran through my head: Where would I go next? Was it a mistake to have left my last job? Did I still have the contact information of that high-up person at that other company who I might need to phone in a favor from?

But instead, the CEO presented me with two options: take a salary cut or be transferred to Los Angeles to a sister company, a company called Citysearch (think Yelp’s older, unrulier brother), with the same job, same salary, same title.

At this point in my life, I had moved to three different cities solo—and I mean solo. So. Obviously. Lonely. Often. I didn’t know one warm body in LA, which, however daunting, is an experience I highly recommend because part of being entrepreneurial is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Well, I’d done it once, so I convinced myself I could do it again, rebuild from scratch. Start something new in a new city. I had never been to Los Angeles—in Florida, where I grew up, the West Coast wasn’t the best coast. Admittedly, the knowledge I had was rife with stereotypes: entertainment flash, boobs, crystals, and a lot of health food. I was picturing movie LA, and I liked black turtlenecks, sarcasm, and the subway. And yet it sort of felt like the universe was pulling me in this direction. My gut was telling me it was time to do something potentially drastic, and my boss (who remains a friend and mentor to this day) really sold me on the whole SoCal package. And let’s be real, I didn’t have much of a choice. When people are getting fired left and right, and you get offered a new life without a pay downgrade? You take it.

Little did I know, that decision would set in motion a chain of events that have changed my life entirely. So I packed up my stuff, bid my besties farewell, and headed to La La Land. My safety net? Telling myself over and over again on the plane ride that I could always move back if this was one big epic fail.

Speaking of fail, I nearly missed my flight to California—an uncharacteristic near miss. Maybe fear of my impending LA life nearly got the best of me. Maybe I was procrastinating the logistics. I do know that I made my flight with minutes to spare and a ridiculously high resting heart rate. After what felt like the longest bicoastal flight imaginable, I landed in sunny SoCal eager to hit the ground running and make human friends.

I pulled up to my Koreatown loft, unpacked my clothing, and prepared for my first day at work. My new position was “basically” the same as my previous role, but my title was a little different, and that, well, that worried me from the very start. I went from being director of social media, a vertical I knew and understood in my core, to director of PR. Those two little letters have a lot of power, but at the time traditional PR efforts were a more antiquated approach to what I’d been doing. Our offices were on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, adding to the strange Los Angeles cliché I felt I was turning into.

But the whole executive team talked me off a ledge. I would be fine, they said. It’s basically the same thing, they said.

 

—————

PAUSE

Let’s call this out for what it is. Oftentimes in our careers when we feel like we have little choice in the matter, jobs or changes are positioned as “the same.” They never are. No matter how similar something appears, you will never repeat the same role twice. When someone tells you same job, same responsibility, different title, take that with a healthy amount of skepticism and ask some tough questions. Like: Why is my title different? I wish I’d known to ask.

—————

 

Uproot my whole life. Sure! Why not! What did I have to lose? Apparently a lot.

 

Footnote

*We’ll talk dollars, cents, and how to make sense of it all in the upcoming chapters, but I didn’t want to drop the “six-figure salary” bomb like it’s nothing (my parents were convinced I was doing something illegal when I told them what I was getting paid). I was an exception, making a salary not typically reserved for young people ripe with inexperience and questions about their 401(k) accounts. But sometimes, when you stumble upon a burgeoning marketplace (even in a recession) and have a unique, scalable skill set, you, too, will find yourself making serious dollars without serious experience.

Related Reads