Traverse City Startup: Building a Brand for Kids, Community and Love of Creativity


Heather and I have reached the point where we’re starting to feel a great sense of urgency. “Life is short” is cliche, but there’s no doubt that time seems to be accelerating during this season in our lives.

I often write in this space about the importance of pursuing dreams and living boldly. One of the biggest fears that many people have, which is one that we share, is reaching the end of life with a sense of regret about dreams left on the table. The more awake we’ve become to what we want from life, the more conscious we’ve become to how short life really is.

We didn’t always feel this way. It wasn’t that long ago that the future seemed infinite. Whether it’s kids, or having reached a certain age in life, today we try to approach each day as a new gift that we should live as if it were our last. This means not wasting time on things that aren’t taking us where we want to go.

More often than not we fail to live up to that high bar, but by taking things one day at a time, with a focus on the present, sometimes we look up and realize that in many ways we’ve come further than we imagined we could. We’ve made big changes over the last few years, which have opened up a new world of opportunities.

However, one aspect of our lives that hasn’t changed all that much is our work. We’ve been entrepreneurs for over a decade. Our business – brand strategy and creative services – has changed little over that time. Work is a huge part of life, and has a significant impact on happiness, so after taking a bit of time to adjust to our new life Up North, we knew it was time to take a closer look at our work.

The Origin 

A big part of our motivation in starting Life and Whim was to explore new avenues for creativity, meet new people, and pursue our passion for the outdoor lifestyle this region offers. Over the past year we’ve had the pleasure of writing, photographing and designing related to topics that interest us, and in the process have had the opportunity to work with many amazing people in our community. One of the most fulfilling aspects of Life and Whim has been planning and executing special events and projects such as Traverse City’s Fairy TrailsStreet Piano and Scavenger Hunt.

We had no particular objective in mind when starting Life and Whim other than to do work we love while showcasing a place we love. Through our experience, we determined that we wanted to do something more with Life and Whim.

For us, that meant building a business that aligns with our mission and values – to create something focused on adventure and empowerment, community and collaboration.

But we didn’t want to force it. Our plan was to have no plan, and be open to inspiration – whenever, wherever and however it struck. Our vision began to take shape in the fall. Our Muse arrived around Halloween, on a visit to Jacob’s Farm.

This photo is of our oldest daughter, Maddie, at Jacob’s following trick-or-treating in downtown Traverse City. Maddie is wearing elements of the “Nature Girl” costume that maddie and Heather created together for Halloween this year. After looking at the photo – the joy on her face, the energy that she exudes – Heather and I looked at each other. There was something here.

The photo reminded us, more than anything, of the look on so many kids’ faces as they ran through the woods – wild and free – at the opening of the Fairy Trails back in May. The identical thought simultaneously occurred to us: What if we could build something that tapped into the sense of freedom and adventurous spirit that Maddie embodied?

When to Leap?

The first – and as it turns out the biggest – hurdle we had to overcome in order to make our dream a reality was indecision. Like most people, we come up with ideas (some good, many bad) all of the time. As most successful makers and creators will tell you, though, ideas are a dime a dozen. Even in the case of a really good idea, execution is what really matters. So we were faced with the same quandary that we always face after coming up with an idea, which is: Is it time to take a leap? Is this an idea worth risking greatly for?

There are only some many arrows in our quiver, we knew, so we need to use them wisely. But among many good alternatives, how do you commit to just one?

We’re now on the other side of our own paradox of choice. As discussed below, we’re committed and moving full-steam ahead toward our dream. So, in light of our own breakthrough, I wanted to share a few thoughts for anyone who is looking to climb over their own wall of resistance.

Consider this question: Is there a creative breakthrough that you are desperate to make, but you’re shutting your eyes to it? This is the struggle of the aspiring writer who doesn’t write, the aspiring chef who doesn’t cook, the aspiring entrepreneur who doesn’t start a business.

A person in this position is poised for their own breakthrough. The desire is there, but there’s no forward movement due to fear and other forms of resistance. What they often don’t recognize is that the angst they feel is an indicator of aspiration. It’s a reflection of the dream that burns inside them.

If the dream is strong enough, it will be more painful not to pursue it at all, then it will be to pursue it and fail.

At this point, once someone has recognized that they must pursue a dream, their job is to open themselves up to inspiration. Inspiration strikes in many different places, from the pages of a book to a corn maze in Traverse City. Inspiration is what helps the aspiring writer create the outline of her first novel. When inspiration strikes, it’s time to leap.

But inspiration doesn’t come freely. It comes to those who start. For most writers, it’s not their first novel that gets sold to a publisher, it’s their fifth. There’s magic in making a start. It’s why, for us, inspiration struck nine months after starting Life and Whim. We wrote tens of thousands of words, took hundreds of photos, and doggedly designed, planned and plotted before an idea arose that unrelentingly tugged at our pant leg.

Had we not started and put the work in? Then that moment in the corn maze would have just been another moment, and not the inciting incident it became.

Of course, when inspiration strikes, it’s the beginning, not the end of the story. All of the hard work is ahead. Resistance will continue to rear it’s ugly head in an effort to derail, distract and distance you from the dream you seek. Ironically, the strongest resistance will often come from the least expected places. The best, indeed, the only thing to do in this situation is to plow ahead.

The Beacon of Mission and Values

Nourished by a nice dose of inspiration, we rode the wave. The outline of an idea formed in early November and we began to sketch out ideas. Having been entrepreneurs for over a decade, we were excited by the opportunity to start something from scratch and build a company that embodies our vision for what a company should be. So rather than diving right into product design and development, we began with mission and values. We knew that we wanted to be in this for the long-term, so first had to get the foundation right. Here’s what we wrote down:

  • To build a brand that is lovingly designed and handcrafted in Michigan, and reflects our passion for design and the great outdoors.
  • To create things that empower and inspire people, especially kids, to be creative, imaginative and have fun while immersed in nature.
  • To prioritize quality and craftsmanship in everything we do and make.
  • To offer our customers only products that we’re proud to wear and use ourselves. In other words, what we make must be what we love.
  • To tap into, and work collaboratively with, the expansive network of creative and inspiring entrepreneurs in this region. We want Life and Whim to be an honest, open and uplifting platform that helps others grow and prosper.
  • To continue to create and build places and experiences, like the Fairy Trails, that encourage kids and families to spend more time in nature. We believe that the great outdoors inspires greatness in people of all ages.
  • To build a company with a social mission to help others, especially kids who may not have access to support or resources, cultivate a love of nature and explore creative pursuits. We will do this by donating a portion of proceeds from every purchase to a cause that embodies our mission, and we – and those who work with us – will continue to devote our own time and resources to help those in need.
  • Finally, to never compromise our values.

We were, and are, motivated to follow in the footsteps of global brands, like TOMS, and local brands, like M22 and Hagerty, and try to be a positive force in our community. But in order to do so, we knew we needed to design and develop a collection of goods and a method of selling them that aligns with our mission and values.

Living Out a Dream

From a young age, Heather has been driven to design and create. As a child, her passion to design was best exemplified in notebooks full of sketches of dresses, shirts, skirts and other apparel items she created on paper. This passion pursued her until college, at which time she decided to embark on a more conventional path and study graphic design, rather than fashion design. A degree in graphic design, she concluded, would lead to more job opportunities and a more stable career.

While she set aside her dream of designing clothes – as opposed to logos and websites – she never buried it. And so, as we embarked on this journey to build something through Life and Whim, it became obvious to us both that it was the perfect time, and opportunity, to resurrect it.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of the work we’ve been doing is that it has been a true family affair. From the fun ideas our girls have offered, to the seamstress skills my mom has contributed, we’ve been able to draw upon a wide range of creative inspiration and contribution.

As we’ll reveal in greater detail in the months to come prior to our launch this spring, Life and Whim will be offering a collection of apparel and other products, for both kids and adults, that reflect our passion for design and the great outdoors. Along the way, we’ll be tapping into and collaborating with Northern Michigan’s creative community in order to showcase the talent this region features.

We’ll also be asking for your help! Since day one we’ve tried to make Life and Whim a collaborative, community-oriented brand. Throughout our upcoming startup phase, we’ll be soliciting feedback from our readers that will help us build something that reflects not just our vision, but yours as well.

As you can probably tell, we’re extremely excited about what’s in store for Life and Whim this year and beyond. While we’re in the very early stages of where we want to take things, we’re having lots of fun and can’t wait to share more of our story with you. There are sure to be lots of trials, tribulations – and hopefully some triumphs too!

One thing we know for sure: Brands aren’t built alone. They exist only by providing value and making a positive contribution to those they serve. We can’t wait to embark on this adventurous journey – together!

AdventuresJay Harrington