A Conversation on the Art of Collaboration

How does one create a collaborative partnership that is primed for success? Are there strategies we can use to identify opportunities that might work and, conversely, what are the warning signs that you might be great friends but not necessarily great business partners? Are there tools that help a partnership or collaboration to work well?

These questions and others are at the heart of understanding what makes a collaborative venture a success. Navigating a collaborative relationship can be both rewarding and challenging; it helps to learn from those who have made a success of it.  

Recently I had an opportunity to delve into a rich conversation on the fine art of collaboration with two of our members, Sue Ann Gleason, owner of Conscious Bites Nutrition, and Cami Flake, of Cami Flake Photography.  

Sue Ann & Cami each have thriving creative businesses in their own right, and recently have developed and launched a new venture together: Eat. Play. Sleep, a weekend retreat offering pampering, play, and gorgeous food in a magical setting in Mill Valley, California.

Today's blog post features highlights from our conversation. We discuss the path they took in creating this new venture, the techniques they used to identify productive ways in which they could join forces, and the strategies they employed to make their partnership a success.

Peggy: Let’s start with your personal journeys.

What made you decide to transition to entrepreneurship from your more traditional roles? Sue Ann, I know you had a really successful career as a teacher and Cami you also had a creative background working for others and then decided to launch your own venture. What was the prompt, how did you get there, or was it an evolution?

Sue Ann: I was passionate about teaching but it was getting more and more difficult to employ the kinds of teaching practices that honored my teaching style (responsive educator) and the needs of my students. I was a strong proponent of inquiry-based learning and creative problem solving at a time when school systems across the country were putting their monies and efforts into teaching to the test.

And then I had a health crisis that pretty much took me to my knees. My doctors were happy to treat me with their prescription pads but I wasn’t ready to hop on the pharmaceutical train so I began a deep study of autoimmune disease and biochemical imbalances. Pretty soon I found myself back in school studying food as medicine and then later, culinary arts.

I retired from my beloved teaching career and started a business as a holistic health specialist and nourishment guide. It flourished and pretty soon one business grew into three separate entities. Not only did I enjoy the freedom it engendered, I also discovered there were qualities to my marketing approach that others were interested in learning so I added creative catalyst to my multi-passionate career and now much of my work is in supporting artists and entrepreneurs who are looking for support in creating courses and content and in growing their online presence. So really I’ve come full circle. I am using my background in curriculum and instruction to design and deliver my own programs and to support fellow entrepreneurs in doing the same.

Cami: What really pushed me to go out on my own was when I had my son. I needed a flexible schedule and there was no way I could go back to my job in advertising, leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and not returning ‘til 7:30 that night. Those were difficult hours before I had a sweet little baby waiting for me at home, I physically couldn’t do it. Luckily, my husband was making enough to support our family on one income. It was a tight budget but it was worth it to me. 

My dream job had always included some kind of camera in my hand and one day when I was out on a hike with a friend she asked, “So are you a photographer or not?” She had an event she was coordinating and needed a photographer. Without much hesitation I said, “Yes! Yes, I am.” That moment launched me onto this path. I immediately gave my mom back her DSLR camera and bought my own, took a camera immersion class and started practicing, practicing, practicing. My professional camera experience had been video up to that point and ‘still’ photography was quite different. I started photographing events and families, and assisting a local photographer, which also gave me a lot of confidence to step out on my own. 

Peggy: I’m also interested in your collaboration. How did you two connect and how did you come up with the idea of collaboration and the retreat you are co-leading?

Cami: I first discovered Sue Ann back in 2013. I signed up for her Eat Your Way to Gorgeous program to bring some inspiration back into my kitchen. It wasn’t easy trying to create a business with what felt like an overwhelming amount of domestic duties. I followed her newsletters and then signed up for another one of her programs, the Well Nourished Woman, a 3-month program with weekly calls.  I can’t say enough good things about it. It was during a time when I really needed to prioritize self-care. Her program was so thoughtful and nurturing that by the time it ended I really missed her. I needed that consistent push and validation to take care of myself first. I happened to see via Facebook that Sue Ann was coming out to California for a writing workshop so I piped in and asked if I could help organize a dinner with some of the Playing Big women, a group we both belonged to (Peggy, you were there!!), and it just so happened that Anne Lamott was offering an afternoon workshop in Marin that same weekend. We both signed up and that’s how I got to host Sue Ann! I was so happy to meet her in person and that’s really when our friendship began. From there, we started speaking on the phone once a month. We had a lot in common especially around writing and end of life issues so our conversations were rich. When she wanted to take her Luscious Legacy Living Room Tour on the road, I was the first to raise my hand. She invited me to share my photography work during her workshop and that was the catalyst for Eat. Play. Sleep. The idea of collaboration was born from the response we got from our participants. They wanted more and so did we!

Sue Ann: As Cami mentioned, our relationship began when she enrolled in one of my programs. We stayed in touch. I was planning a trip to California for a writer’s retreat when I noticed that Anne Lamott was going to be giving a talk at Book Passage. Cami and I decided to meet up. The thing I remember most vividly about my trip to San Rafael was Cami making her way down to San Francisco to pick me up from my hotel and take me to Anne Lamott’s talk at Book Passage, a bookstore right in her own hood. She had green juice awaiting me along with some yummy salads and we bonded over books. (Of course!) I felt so nourished by her presence. That’s a rare and wonderful treat in my world—I’m usually the one doing the nurturing!

And then after that, we started having regular conversations about elder care and end of life planning, a subject that is very near and dear to our hearts. Cami enrolled in my Luscious Legacy Project online course and then volunteered to host my very first Luscious Legacy Living Room Circle. Cami led a photography session for that Circle and we found that we worked well together. The feedback we received that day, that our mini retreat wasn’t long enough, was the catalyst to explore the idea of a weekend retreat that included gorgeous food, photography, writing and art. We’re calling it Eat.Play.Sleep.

Peggy: I think many women in business would pose the question: How did you identify opportunities that might work and, conversely, what are the warning signs that you might be great friends but not necessarily great business partners? How did you two know that this was a good fit?

Sue Ann: I would say that Cami and I grew our friendship before we initiated the partnership. Then, we dipped our toes in the collaborative stream with my Luscious Legacy Living Room Circle and we took our cues from the participants in our mini retreat who came away from that collaboration wanting more.

In addition to our desire to create something together, we have a deep regard and respect for each other and the work we do in the world. We also have an enormous amount of integrity and very similar values and teaching styles so this felt like a very good fit from the start.

Personally, I think it’s wise to start with a small endeavor and then evaluate closely what worked and what didn’t in much the same way we would evaluate our personal business endeavors. There is so much to be learned from collaboration when we stay curious.

Cami: I highly recommend a smaller endeavor first, too. I've experienced jumping into something bigger too soon and the work became stagnant. Establishing a working relationship after the friendship is an important stepping stone. It was an easy and natural evolution for me.  I had seen the quality of Sue Ann’s work and her character first hand and felt our values and work ethic were in complete alignment.

Peggy: What are your tools for success? It would be very useful for women to understand what strategies you came up with to help this partnership/collaboration work well.

Cami: I would point out relationship building and patience. We rarely, if ever, miss a phone meeting. It is a sacred time for me, and I do all I can to not change the schedule. And even now, while we are in launch mode, we communicate much more often and those phone meetings are sacred. I think that builds a lot of trust. 

It’s also important to maintain active communication. We connect via Facebook, email and weekly calls. At the end of each meeting, we set clear actionable goals to be completed by a designated date. This accountability helps us stay motivated and keeps us moving forward. It’s very effective.

We also offer each other individual business support. I fully support and believe whole-heartedly in Sue Ann’s work and this comes from experiencing it first before becoming friends. I can honestly say any program she creates, “I’m in!”

Sue Ann: A few years ago I listened to an audio book called Zen Howls by Natalie Goldberg and Dosho Port. In it, Dosho talks about the power in making ‘one positive effort toward the good’ each day. I decided to adopt that principle in my business, particularly when I am in the midst of a launch. That’s what Cami and I are using as a social accountability piece if you will.

In addition to some very specific structures that we have in place to keep us motivated and on track (weekly telephone meetings that we hold sacred and a private Facebook group where we check in daily to report on our outreach attempts) I am sending weekly emails to my community along with social media updates and regular blog posts to keep this delicious event ‘front of mind’.

Peggy: Women in their 40s and older are actually the predominant cohort for entrepreneurs and are the most primed for success but they also tend to have the most self doubt. Will you tell us how you two provide each other with cheerleading and encouragement, more so than just the tactical filling in gaps of expertise?

Sue Ann: For me this goes back to the success architecture Tara Mohr discusses in her book, Playing Big. In addition to building a support structure or scaffolding around our goals, I believe we need to surround ourselves with champions of our success, people who see and reflect back to us the light we don’t always see in ourselves. That is soooooooo important. I can think of one example specifically where Cami posted something on social media about our collaboration and she described me as an advocate for self-care. While self-care is a HUGE piece of my work I had never framed it quite that way. I remember coming away from that with a deeper sense of knowing that yes, I am that.

Cami: This comes back to good communication. The benefits of clearly sharing your needs can lead to being supported in ways that really make a difference. Sue Ann brought a lot of great ideas to the table, like the private FB page for us to quickly and visibly share our individual actions towards our goals. Sharing and editing each other’s work has also been very helpful. There’s always a lot of confidence building when I get a thumbs up from Sue Ann.  

Peggy: Have there been any struggles in your collaboration that we can learn from? Where have you stretched yourselves?

Cami: We are still in the middle of it, so our eyes are facing forward. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of reflecting to do once we’ve gone through the entire experience. But right now, I’d definitely say I’m being stretched especially in the marketing arena. It feels like the Wild West. How do you share your offering with a lot of interested people in a way that feels authentic and gentle?  It’s such a thoughtful process. I get a lot of strength and motivation from the collaboration by reframing my efforts. It’s much easier to promote Sue Ann’s efforts over my own. 

Sue Ann: I don’t feel as though there have been any struggles in the collaboration itself. My personal struggle has been in taking the leap from online event where I have nothing to lose but the time spent creating the marketing materials (sales page, logos, content creation, etc.) to holding an ‘in person’ event where the metrics (profit/loss, ROI, etc.) are hanging over my head each and every day. The stakes are higher and that feels scary at times. I also struggle with my marketing bandwidth, knowing that I have programs and services to promote in addition to this retreat but not wanting my Facebook page or my blog to become a billboard for my business. It’s important to me that my marketing efforts feel invitational; it’s a delicate balance. So the stretch for me is keeping this retreat ‘front of mind’ in my community while making sure that I am honoring the overall needs of my business and the tenor of my brand.

Peggy: Given what you know at this point in the journey, with the information you have, what, if anything, would you do differently?

Sue Ann: I think I would have seeded this event for a while before launching it. Typically when I launch a program I do some market research first and for me that usually looks like a survey or a newsletter to my community with a sign up form that leads to an early interest list. For example, I seeded my Luscious Legacy Project (online course) for an entire year prior to launching it with various blog posts and newsletters that led my readers to an early interest list. One day I saw that I had 80 women on the early interest list and I just knew it was time to complete the content and launch the course. With this retreat we were a little pressured to claim a date because the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts had limited availability so we moved rather quickly. I think we would have been better served by a more detailed launch plan taking into consideration both our personal and professional obligations. I also think that it would have served us to really look closely at our assets (current customers/client base, social media presence, speaking engagements, interview opportunities, etc.) to more clearly define the marketing strategies each of us could feasibly employ. For example, most of my marketing efforts are carried out in weekly newsletters and blog posts, written communication. Cami, on the other hand, is working primarily through word of mouth and local connections. Each of these marketing strategies has a unique set of challenges. We are both stretching our marketing muscles every single day.

Cami: I would have paid more attention to the timing. We launched the retreat this past summer while my son was still at home with me and that was a real challenge. I didn’t know how to be fully present for both my son and the launch so I felt a bit wobbly during that time. Next time I launch I’ll make a calendar of the whole process before choosing the event date. I would have loved more time for all of the marketing! It’s a much bigger job than I anticipated and there’s so much more I could have created for that, shoots and videos for example.

Peggy: And finally, tell us about Eat.Play.Sleep. Why do we need this retreat?

For me, Eat.Play.Sleep. is a chance to slow down, get present, play with creative tools and supplies, create and nourish ourselves with beautiful food and conversation. We need this retreat to take a step away from the abundant chaos of life and just breathe, reflect and get new perspectives on going forward. One of the greatest gifts, I received from a workshop I attended recently, besides the beautiful content, was quiet mornings and evenings. I had forgotten how nourishing that was. Now that I’m back in my regular routines, I notice when I haven’t had enough quiet time and because I’m more aware, I can do something about it before I get overwhelmed and shut down. That experience was a huge motivator in wanting to create this retreat. 

Sue Ann: I have found that my best ideas come from periods of rest and renewal. This is something I believe in soooooo strongly; it’s also my greatest challenge. I have a history of ‘busy.’ I have a greeting card on my desk that says: ‘I used to be driven. Then I pulled over.’ I keep it there to remind me that I no longer wish to live my life that way.

For me, play is a practice that I am committed to cultivating. I make it a ‘practice’ to stop working in the middle of the day for 20-minute (or longer) play date with something that inspires me—a play date in my kitchen, a play date in my garden, a play date with my paints or my camera. When I make play a practice, my life is infinitely better.

I want our Eat.Play.Sleep. participants to find inspiration in the exercises we craft and the experiences we immerse them in so that they leave us feeling replenished and restored with a reservoir of creative energy that feeds every aspect of their lives both personally and professionally.

Join the Conversation

Do you have experience developing collaborative ventures?

What worked well, and what would you do differently next time?