Katie is the founder of SMAKK Studios. When we met her, she eagerly shared with us the positive and negatives of starting her business. She was wearing an elegant blue dress and brought along her dog, Penny.
She immediately told us, “I started a creative agency 7 years ago called SMAKK Studios, based in Brooklyn. We develop new and existing brands – and help to guide them to new levels of growth. We’re 15 people now and work with values-based and impact-driven companies. It’s not just about making money, but making the brands that consider the social and environmental impact of their businesses successful.”
Where are you from, and was creativity always part of your life?
I grew up in the Boston area, and I was there until I went to college. I did a study abroad program in Paris my freshman year then came back and graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts University. I came out of school with a lot of knowledge of fine art, contemporary art, and I definitely didn’t think I would be doing what I am doing now. At the SMFA, you take a class to learn a skill set, and it’s your responsibility to show up, learn that skill, and develop it. There were no grades for studio classes. At the end of the semester we presented our full semester’s work in front of a panel of students and professors. They then decided how much credit we received for the semester. What you did in an individual class had no bearing; it was the full body of work you produced that you were judged on. It was very much a sink or swim mentality. In that environment, I learned how to explain my artwork and articulate the concepts behind my work, and that background has helped me tremendously as a Creative Director.
What advice would you give to someone starting a new brand right now?
“Ask yourself what you’re really adding to the vertical you are entering. Are you offering something truly unique from what is already in the market? Do you have a differentiating story? If you aren’t starting something that’s better for people and the planet, then why are you doing it? We work with a lot of established brands, but we love working with passionate founders. I always encourage the brands we work with to lean in to what’s authentic, human, emotional, and real. Established brands can’t buy the authenticity that smaller brands come to the table with.”
Were you always creative as a child or were you more business focused?
“In third grade I do remember thinking that I would either be an artist or a ‘business woman’ – whatever that is to a 3rd grader. I was always one of those people that was drawn to visual and creative pursuits. I loved to draw and paint and make things with my hands.
Growing up we had a neighbor who was going blind, she was a patron of a small local museum called the Fuller Art Museum that had a great studio program. She told my mom that I should take classes there. I have vivid memories of the smell of oil paint in their painting studios – the classes there fed that side of me early on.
In college I was going to school for studio art. I moved to New York when I graduated, at the time it felt like the place to be to make art and show my work. But as I got into advertising, I started to find branding very creatively compelling. When I started SMAKK, I found I was going to the studio less and less because building a business was feeding my creative side in the same way making art had in the past.”
What was your favorite project with SMAKK?
“I have some that are older that I love, but I’m always most excited by the things we are working on at the moment. Right now, we have a number of clients with amazing female entrepreneurs at the helm, and I love the projects we’re working on with them. We’re working with these founding teams that are not just passionate, but inspiring, kind people that are so much fun to collaborate with. I’m kind of in love with what we have going on right now.”
What does it mean to you to be powerful?
“For me, I think there are two sides. First, there’s the power that comes from an internal sense of self that allows you to be unswayed by the trivialities and things you can’t control in the world. During my days I have tons of interactions, meetings, surprises, and a million random things can happen. With the good there are always set-backs, emergencies, and conflicts big and small. If I let every every external thing get the best of me, then I’m at the mercy of circumstance. I’ve learned that no matter how rough the seas, the boat only sinks when we let the water in.
Second, I feel powerful when I’m able to lift others up. That can be giving people what they need in their careers, using the skill sets at my disposal to help our partners succeed, or just having a great moment with someone at the coffee shop on the way to work. We interact with so many people every day, and we have the power to make an interaction a little bit better or worse. We can add something really great or negative to every situation. That’s a power everyone has.”
What was the hardest part about establishing your agency? Did you have any bad days?
“It hasn’t always been a straight path. People never share the negatives of their journey on social media and we should! Sometimes starting a business, or getting through a rough patch is kind of ugly and not great. It can be isolating. We work on something, pour our hearts into it, and sometimes it doesn’t work out like we hoped. That happens literally every day to people, but it’s not what we share with each other. We all put on a sunny face for the internet – and it can be really easy to assume that’s reality, but it’s not always what’s going on behind the scenes. There is a lot of strength and power to be gained failing, that’s how you learn grit and resilience. I’ve learned a lot more from my failures than my successes.
I try to look at failures as the universe telling me that there’s something I need to learn from the situation, so I can figure out what to do better for the next time. I’ve stopped asking, ‘why is this happening to me?’ but instead, ‘what am I supposed to learn from this?’”