The event design team at TINSEL has been making beautiful music together since they were in college. Erica Taylor Haskins, Liz Castelli and Adette Contreras originally met while singing with the The GW Vibes at The George Washington University. Many years, and a few day jobs later, the three now run a successful business designing high-end events for clients including Squarespace, Botkier, Swarovski and KLM Airlines.
Early on in their entrepreneurial adventure, the co-founders laid out 15 core values for their business. Clearly defining those values has helped them grow TINSEL from a wedding planning side-business into a full-time luxury “experiential design” firm working with a collective of 80+ creatives, all while staying true to their company culture and mission. We spoke with Erica, Liz and Adette about defining company culture, working well as a team and remembering to toot your own horn.
Adette, Liz and Erica, how did you get into the event design business?
To be honest, we hate to reveal this piece of our origin story because it sounds like a bit of dumb luck, but we very much fell into events. Liz had just planned and designed her own wedding. She’d created a stand-out, rock ‘n' roll vibe at an industrial space in Long Island City in a time before Pinterest and Instagram, when weddings were pretty traditional. She really loved the creative process and using her own edgy personal brand as the "color" of the wedding.
We were all unhappy with our day jobs, so we thought it would be a fun distraction to try to replicate that approach for other people. We are all type-A overachievers by nature, so it was inevitable that our side gig would turn into a viable, scalable business.
During this early chapter of our business, we initially called ourselves "wedding planners.” That was until we actually planned a few weddings and figured out that it wasn't quite the role we wanted to play. We attended a wedding fair where someone gave a presentation about event design, a specific segment of the industry we didn't even know existed. It was clear to us that this was actually where our passions were.
The early days of TINSEL were extraordinarily challenging, because we were learning how to run a business while simultaneously learning what that business even was.
TINSEL has three founders. How did you originally come together and make your business a reality?
We are friends from college, and we worked together as part of a self-driven creative collective. Our partnership has always been built on a foundation of mutual admiration, unshakeable support and respect for the fluidity of the creative process.
As for making the business a reality, our timing was a solid mix of intention and circumstance. We’d started TINSEL as a side gig in 2010. By 2012 we felt confident we could grow the business from a part-time commitment to a full-time career option. Before we were totally ready to go all in, Adette and Erica were laid off from their day jobs. At that point, we decided to make a go of it, which remains one of the scariest chapters of this journey. Without the security of a steady paycheck or the ability to coast through a 9-to-5, we had no choice but to grow TINSEL into a solid, structured, process-oriented business -- and we had to do that quickly.
We were awarded a $5,000 grant through a local business plan competition, the Brooklyn Public Library's PowerUP! Program, but besides that, we have remained self-funded. We have bootstrapped this business in every penny-pinching sense of the word. Starting and scaling a business this way isn't ideal, but it keeps you honest and committed to establishing processes and practices that actually work.
A TINSEL designed event for Spotify
Each of your three founders has different backgrounds and strengths. How do you complement one another?
There is a reason that our logo is a triangle. The symbol represents our partnership and ability to support one another in the right ways.
Adette is our why. She’s a big-picture thinker and really drives the larger strategy behind what we do and how we present our brand to the world. She pushes us to think about where we want to be in five, ten, 20 years and how to get there.
Liz is our how. She heads up our operations to make sure our machine is moving as efficiently and effectively as possible -- that extends to the production of client work, as well as our own internal procedures like staffing, billing, sales and proposal-writing.
Erica is our who. Her role is a combination of client service and vendor relations -- or, more broadly, how we partner with the people in our network. So much of what we do is about collaboration and identifying how our work can be mutually beneficial for everyone who touches our business.
With three leaders, how do you deal with a conflict that may arise?
We have always approached any disagreements from a place of love and deference. In fact, we have an ongoing joke about "aggressively agreeing" with one another!
Having worked together so closely for so long, we are well-versed in the things that each of us cares deeply about. We also know the topics that will trigger a more loaded conversation versus discussing things that can be taken care of very quickly and without emotional weight. In the end, our “true north” question that helps us resolve any conflict is, "What’s best for TINSEL?"
The answer is always rooted in what's best for our company and our team. And being a three-person leadership team also helps us make decisions by majority. If two of us feel strongly about something, usually the third person will trust that shared voice.
You have outlined 15 values to guide your company culture including collaboration, problem solving and gratitude. How did you define these values?
Adette led the thinking on these values, basing them on early conversations we had when we were establishing what we wanted our company to represent. Beyond producing good work, we dreamed of building a company that was a great place for people to work and consistently creating a positive experience for clients. Even now, we constantly run through exercises to fully define what our brand stands for and how that informs what we put out into the world.
Why was defining your company culture so important?
Defining our company culture through this set of values has been important in three key ways. First, our values have acted as a roadmap for how we decide to grow in certain areas and how we evolve our brand. As long as every new big decision supports our key values, we know it's the right step to take.
Second, having a clearly defined set of priorities has attracted a self-selecting audience of employees and staff candidates. When creatives who apply to work with us see themselves reflected in values like collaboration, authenticity, and transparency, they know that TINSEL is more than just a place to work. For many of our team members, it's a safe place to belong, share and grow. On the other side of that coin, when these values don't align with how someone is used to working, that comes to light quickly, and they usually don't last very long with us.
Third, being very explicit about our expectations for how we operate is a standing promise to our clients. We hold ourselves and our team accountable to reflect our high standards, always. If we are ever working in a way that doesn't reflect these values, then we aren't doing our job.
Of course, TINSEL is always a work in progress. While our values have remained the same, each new project and experience adds color to how we interpret and internalize what each point means.
Setting up for a Whitney Art Museum party
How do these values come into play in an average workday?
Each value is tested and proven throughout any given workday, but the one that comes into play the most frequently is the ampersand, which symbolizes “our collaborative spirit and our connection to everyone around us.”
We are so proud of the creative collective we have amassed over the last eight years of business. Our TINSEL community extends beyond our core team to encompass a broad network of artists, creative specialists, professional advisors, trusted vendors, favorite venues, mentors and cheerleaders. All of those voices come into play as we plan, design and produce our events, creating awesomely multi-faceted productions that our bigger than anything we could have done as a trio.
On a more granular level, the power of the collective informs how we start each project, with a team-brainstorm session based on the classic improv rule of "Yes, and ..." We aren't precious or territorial about our design work. Life and work are much more exciting when we get to say "Yes" to making a good idea even better.
What’s your favorite, and least favorite, thing about working for yourself?
Working for ourselves is at once the most rewarding and most challenging experience. People often comment to us that it must be so great to wake up whenever we want, have unlimited vacation time and so on. This is true on a very superficial level. Yes, it is truly empowering to be able to build our own schedules and make the business work for the lifestyle that we want. However, that also means we have to be extremely intentional about how we balance work and life. The reality is we have had to incredibly conscious about making sure we actually take time off to unplug and recharge.
In the early days of TINSEL, it felt like we were working around the clock -- early mornings, late nights, weekends, often missing time with friends and family. Now that we have a talented team in place to manage most day-to-day client work, we have the ability to appreciate a bit of distance. We now live in somewhat of a gray space where work and life are so closely tied and often tend to blend together. For better or for worse, it's inevitable that we have to tiptoe into work-related conversations while on vacation or during off-hours. But, absolutely for better, it also means we have the flexibility to incorporate personal time into the standard work day in a way that most people are never able to.
Each of us takes great pride in saying we are business owners. We frequently revisit that statistics that only about half of all businesses survive the first five years and that only a small fraction of women-owned businesses make it to the ten-year mark. Knowing we have built a successful business against such odds keeps us going and propels us to pursue even bigger goals, year over year.
The TINSEL office in DUMBO Brooklyn, NY
Do you have any wisdom to share with budding entrepreneurs?
We could write a book! And we may in the near future, so stay tuned ... But for now, here are our top five tips:
1. Identify your biggest areas of strength to focus on, then hire people to take care of everything else. There are so many pieces of running a business to think about. There aren't enough hours or lattes in the day to do everything (or, at least, to do everything well). Rather than spending your time and energy trudging through work you either don't know or don't care to know, build a team of experts to get those things done.
2. If you are entering an already saturated market, identify what makes your product or service different. Make that your brand. Talk about it early and often.
3. Be your own biggest cheerleader. We find that women in particular are often shy about sharing the news about the businesses they are growing. For whatever reason, they feel guilty about tooting their own horn. But if you don't, who will?
4. Enter the market at the right price-point. As people often do, we naively underpriced ourselves in the beginning, making the excuse that we were still learning our trade. But then as we got better and better, we found ourselves fighting an uphill battle against ourselves to raise our prices because our audience had already established where they thought we sat in the market (as a "bargain" option instead of a luxury service).
5. Be religious about negotiating in your favor. Understand your value and advocate for it. If you aren't making money, you don't have a business. You have a time-consuming hobby.
Speaking of hobbies - we hear there’s an interest in personality quizzes?
The three of us are collectively obsessed with personality tests and exercises that help assign attributes to how we function in the workplace and in the world at large. That includes Meyers-Briggs, the Gallup Strengths Finder, tarot card readings, aura readings, Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat and even the impact of moon phases and what our astrological sign means. Fun fact: We are all Aquarius! Our team humors us by joining us in the revelations every time we find a new online quiz or identifying tool.
QB Community members, how have you defined your company’s culture? Do you remained aligned with your company values? If you get off-track, how do you course-correct?
Want to weigh in but not yet a QB Community member? Click HERE to sign up in a flash!