Anna Goodson has built herself an international reputation with Anna Goodson Illustration Agency and the launch of MeatMarket Photography, and in recent years has gotten involved in the Montreal startup scene. This July will be her fifth year as a Startupfest judge and she was also the first female investor to come onboard for Startupfest.
But there’s a prevalent attitude in the startup scene that you should go big or go home. And Goodson wants young entrepreneurs to know that there are options. Specifically, that lifestyle businesses like hers are an option, and can actually allow for more freedom.
“If nobody hears about these other potentials, they won’t think about it. If everybody at these talks and startup events is using that ideology, ‘Think big or go home’, maybe there’s a whole group of women that are going home,” Goodson told MTLinTECH.
“The thing is, fundamentally, what’s really really important in life, everything that we do, is to be happy. And some people equate happiness with having a ton of money. Some people equate happiness with freedom. So it’s a matter of saying that we have options. Not a lot of people sit and talk about creating a really great business that you’re passionate about, that will probably do really well and let you have a great living, but you probably won’t sell for millions of dollars. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Which isn’t to say the level of freedom she has achieved at this point in her career was by any means easy. After school she worked at her father’s printing agency for a few years before striking out on an advertising career. Working her way up the ranks to Account Director, she had the autonomy to generate business and bring on new clients.
“You were kind of like an entrepreneur within this agency, so when you went out and developed business, you managed it and worked with the resources the agency had. I was like a mini agency within the agency.”
When the challenge started to wane, Goodson started working at a photography agency. But soon after, she felt ready to strike out on her own.
In 1996, armed with a motorola flip phone and a black and white 150 MG dial-up computer, I set out to start a business.
“The agency I had been working with was representing fashion photographers, so I knew quite a bit about photography and production. And I had met an illustrator who came to see the agency to ask if we would take him on. In those days, there weren’t very many agencies. He had gone to the other agency in the city and they had turned him down. So when I launched my business, I figured I would take him on, even though I knew nothing about illustration. I didn’t know such a career existed as a matter of fact.”
Goodson set to work growing her agency from home, cold calling for hours every day and convincing more illustrators to come on board. She would do all the legwork, there was no risk for them, and she would only make money as a commission on business she brought in.
“We didn’t have financing, so I went to the bank and met with a bank manager to see if I could get a small business loan. There was no funding, VCs, none of that existed for startups, and even less for women. I had no mentors. There was really nobody I could go talk to. So I went to the bank manager and he basically told me to come back with my father. Which, I was very insulted at 28/29 years old to be told to come back with my father after I had been working for some time. So I had no choice but to finance my business on my Visa.”
Having never taken a business class, Goodson relied on her innate business sense coupled with a knack for great timing.
“I met somebody several months after I launched, this woman who basically told me I needed to get a website. And I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. She used a word I’d never heard, she talked to me about a concept I could not wrap my head around. I was somebody who had worked with paper and printing and photography and illustration, I did not understand this surrealistic idea of something floating in the universe, this website thing. And she managed to convince me that I really needed this. We searched in 1996 to try to find somebody who knew how to build one of these crazy concoctions, and found somebody. So I had this thing built, this website. We existed. I didn’t really have access to it, because I think I barely had my dialup access at the time. But I had one, and I was very proud.”
Goodson really took advantage of the switch to digital. She came up with promotional mouse pads as a Christmas marketing stunt right at the time when art departments were all switching over to Mac computers and photoshop. She presented her business as international, a company that existed virtually, and avoided listing a physical address for the agency anywhere.
I remember meeting somebody at one point and saying ‘I really want to be international’. And the guy looked at me like I was out of my mind, this young Anglo girl from Quebec. And that was so motivating to me.
“I wanted to be the best in the world. Why not? I didn’t want to be the best in Montreal, that never occurred to me. I didn’t want to be the best woman. I wanted to be the absolute best most well renowned agency. I decided I wouldn’t say where I lived, I would be virtual. The concept was, there was only going to be time zones to separate us from our clients, and not borders. And I really focused on breaking into the States.”
After about five years, she had really started to make a name for her agency. People were coming to her and not the other way around.
“And here we are 21 years later. We’re definitely one of the most reputable agencies in the world. I have hundreds of artists from all over the planet contacting us on a regular basis. We work on the biggest campaigns in illustration imaginable. I’ve worked with every single magazine and newspaper. And we kind of made it. It’s a really cool success story, and really fun. Nobody handed me this business. I didn’t go into it with somebody, I didn’t have funding. I came up with this idea, I pursued it, and it was about being fun and being passionate. For 21 years I’ve been able to do what I went when I want. On one hand, I work my ass off, but on the other hand it’s not even work because it’s like a hobby.”
For the past few years, Goodson has been increasingly involved in the Montreal startup ecosystem. It will be her fifth year as a judge at Startupest, where she was also the first female investor brought on board.
“I got involved in startups about five years ago, because I’m always looking to get involved in new ventures and sort of mentor and talk to young women. And when I first got involved in the startup community in Montreal, I would go to events and there were no women. It was all men. It was a very intimidating milieu for the few young women that were there. And now five years later I see more and more women getting involved and taking part. I believe women need to see women. Women need to have women mentors, women need to speak to women founders, young women need to hear what you’ve gone through and what’s important.”
And one of the things she wants young women entrepreneurs to hear more about is options. Specifically, that lifestyle businesses like Goodson’s are an option. You don’t have to go big or go home, there’s a viable in-between that nobody talks about.
“It’s almost a condescending term, because a startup is where you build up this idea and eventually get lots of funding and then potentially flip it or get involved in the stock market, these huge goals. But a lifestyle business is where you make money, you have sales, you’re doing well and you can employ all kinds of different people, but it’s not going to be huge. You’re not going to be Facebook, you’re not going to be one of these humongous businesses. You’re just going to be a very good viable business that nobody is going to throw millions of dollars at to get started. Why always focus on having something huge? What about focusing on something that’s really great and allows you to have a really great lifestyle. If you want to be a parent, well, I get to be with my kids. I can control my time and I can be at my computer and breastfeed or go for a walk in the park and speak to clients.”
Nobody talks about this because it’s not sexy and it’s not appealing and it’s not big money, it’s not the dream. But it makes a hell of a lot of sense. My businesses are lifestyle businesses, and the reason I like that way of describing it, is it permits you to have a life.
“We live in this consumer society and we tend to think that the future and our happiness revolves around money. Of course it still takes money to have freedom and a family, but my business is a lifestyle business. There’s options. We’re moving away form the brick and mortar and going online and everything is changing. So you can still develop great online businesses, great concepts, but it’s nice to know that there are options.”
Photo by Pierre Arseneault