As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Samuel Clarke of BOURBON SUMMER CARTOON CRISIS.
BOURBON SUMMER CARTOON CRISIS is all about using post-apocalyptic art work to produce exquisitely constructed clothing from the most sumptuous and sustainable fabrics. The collection explores the tension between ostentatious prints and refined silhouettes. These garments embody the CRISIS philosophy — finding meaning and beauty amidst the chaos that surrounds us. Designed in New York City and produced by local artisans in The Garment District, each item is meticulously crafted to be as comfortable, flattering, and sustainable as possible. The brand uses Tencel™, linen, and silk in order to minimize the impact our company has on the environment as the ultimate goal is to produce negative carbon products. Rocking your loud CRISIS! prints shows the world that you share our passion for loud art, sustainability, and the glory of One True CRISIS!
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Hello! My name is Samuel Clarke. I am an artist, designer, and practicing physician. In late 2019 I started my clothing line, BOURBON SUMMER CARTOON CRISIS, featuring my artwork. We sourced the highest quality, most sustainable fabrics we could find and developed domestic manufacturing relationships in New York City’s Garment District. We refined our patterns to include playful 3D printed silver stud buttons. We were on track to launch in early 2020 but the COVID19 pandemic struck and my work in the hospital became overwhelming while our production stalled. Now the planet is emerging from this dark year and the brand has launched. Our clothes have been worn by notable individuals such as NBA player Danny Green and TikTok star Melissa Ong, and they’ve been featured in Forbes and on E!’s Daily Pop. We are very excited to take our energetic and celebratory artwork out into the world now as we all emerge from this dark year.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Holy moly, the first 6 months of this company were characterized by mistake after mistake. I had no experience in fashion and suffice it to say that medical school really didn’t equip me with the skills to manage clothing production. All the earliest patterns were based on my body measurements. Luckily, I hired a production manager who did have experience in garment production and she was kind enough to let me know that my body is oddly shaped. Since then, we hired fit models to ensure that our clothing fits as many body types as possible. So now we have flattering clothes and I’m learning to love my body again.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
BOURBON SUMMER CARTOON CRISIS is very much a family company in that my wife, Genevieve, has operated in turns as CFO, brand director, and general counsel. She is a lawyer by training and sees the big picture with a clarity that I don’t have. She came up with all of the ideas that really distinguish our products: the 3D printed buttons, the printed silk linings… In fact, she’s the brains behind this operation!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Purpose is at the absolute core of BOURBON SUMMER CARTOON CRISIS. This company aims to wed art, design, craftsmanship, and sustainability. We could have launched much earlier but we are very picky about the quality and sustainability of the materials that we use and the way in which our clothes are made. Now we have a collection that we are extremely proud of, worth every minute of delay. The research you reference is fascinating — it rings true for our company though we are still in the early stages. Our pride in our products and the greater purposes which they serve sustain us in times of delay or frustration.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I’ve been surprised by how much crossover there is between practicing medicine and running this brand. Both endeavors are characterized by unexpected misfortune, though the stakes are usually higher in medicine. I’ve always noticed that difficult times cause rifts within teams that can be devastating. In these times, I try to cool down the situation. Once everyone is calmer, I try to point out how indispensable each member of the team is. The goal of a leader in these situations is to arrest the process of blame casting. And if all else fails, aggressive self deprecation can help.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Never! I have a boundless desire to create. I’ve spent many sleepless nights envisioning the next work of art or product. There’s no lack of motivation, though focusing my energy efficiently can be challenging. For that, I always turn to my wife. We talk at great length about any projects and she smoothes off the rough edges from any concept. In fact, these discussions amplify my motivation. Talking with her makes these ephemeral dream projects feel real. And that iterative process of creativity and refinement is so rewarding.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Maintenance of team cohesion. The greatest threat that challenging times pose is the disintegration of the team. A leader needs to make sure that each team member knows their contributions towards the success of the company are valued, and understands how their work is building towards the company’s future. And that’s really essential during challenging times and easier times as well.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I really believe that all team members must feel a sense of agency. Setbacks will occur. Frustration is inevitable. But both of these things are surmountable — the true enemy is cynicism and the root of this is loss of agency. Team members need to feel like they’re being heard and that their opinions are valued. And that’s not something a leader can (or should) merely pay lip service to. I’ve always found that a diversity of opinions and ideas — even ones that are conflicting — winds up producing the best end result.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There is a common rubric in medicine for delivering bad news, SPIKES: Setting, Perception, Invitation, Knowledge, Empathy, and Strategy. I won’t get into the weeds of that rubric here but I’ve found that parts can be helpful outside of the medical field. People will try NOT to hear the bad news so make sure the setting is calm and quiet. Make your permission statement as simple and direct as possible, “I have some bad news, is now a good time to talk?”. Elicit a summary from your audience to make sure that you’ve been clear and that they aren’t misinterpreting your words. Remember that you would be doing them a disservice by allowing someone else to operate under a false assumption or misunderstanding. That just delays the inevitable, to the detriment of everyone involved.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plans are essential, but incorporating uncertainty into the plan is paramount. Plans are essential to keep you on course, within budget, and on schedule. But a leader also has to account for the unpredictable to a greater degree than may be obvious. Personally, I’ve found that it helps to incorporate a 30% x-factor to the budget and at least two months to the production timeline. If everything goes well, great! Your plan will help you do things efficiently. But if there are setbacks then you aren’t blindsided and you can adapt as needed.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Accountability at the top. In medicine and business, leaders must own their mistakes and take responsibility for not only their own decisions but also the decisions of the team members whom they’re leading. I’ve always found that doing so diffuses tension, reduces blame throwing among team members, and gets everyone back on course more quickly.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
There is no need to mine other companies for mistakes when my own leadership history is so rich with them. Mistake number one: Getting lost in the weeds. As a leader you need to be focused on the larger picture. There’s too much to do and if you get too engrossed in the minutia then the ship will get off course. Mistake number two: Viewing errors and mishaps as wasted time. Setbacks can provide important learning opportunities and they force you to stay flexible (and humble!). Mistake number three: Sacrificing your health. Maybe this is the doctor in me speaking, but I really believe it’s incredibly important to prioritize your health and the health of your team members (physical and mental) or the company will suffer and you’ll be miserable. Mistake number four: Losing sight of the joy. Hackneyed though it may be, I truly believe that if you have fun that will translate into your products and your customers will share your joy.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
There are many ways to grow. We sell luxury goods, but our main product is the experience of the artwork. When the pandemic hit and people holed up at home, the demand for the type of luxury items we were selling dropped. So if you can’t grow in sales, then how can you grow? Everyone was on their phones. So we started to focus on our digital brand visibility, setting ourselves up to be higher in public consciousness when times got better. We started taking our Instagram presence more seriously and experimenting with new types of content. We also grew in our capabilities, expanding our abilities to create 3D digital environments and figures. Use down time to plan, learn new skills, hone your craft and build your brand so that you can take advantage of the good times.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
You may have seen shades of these lessons in previous answers but here they go!
- Try to maintain a sense of perspective. Starting my business while continuing to practice medicine in the midst of a pandemic has really forced me to put issues with the business into perspective. I’ve had the privilege of caring for many patients confronting the end of their lives, and those experiences stay with me long after I leave the hospital. That’s not to say that setbacks in my business can’t be frustrating or demoralizing in their own right. But at the end of the day, a mistake in running my business isn’t a matter of life and death. Each day, I have the opportunity to try again, and I’m incredibly grateful for that chance.
- Trust the expertise of your team. One of the most common mistakes that leaders make is trying to micromanage their team. For the first six months of this company, I tried to do everything myself. I didn’t make a single correct decision — until I hired our production manager. She is an expert in clothing pattern design with a great rolodex of manufacturers. She spent several months just undoing the labyrinth of errors I had made. For every hour of work she does, it saves me 5–6 hours. Practically without fail, when I think she is wrong about something… she ends up being right! Hire talented people and then save yourself some time and frustration and trust your team. When you find reliable, talented, and motivated people you should clamp onto them like a lamprey and never let go.
- Be creative about your setbacks: Is this truly a setback or could it somehow be an advantage. Our products are complex and as a result there is always some kind of kink in the production. Getting a season done on schedule would be very challenging so what to do? Forget the schedule, perhaps it’s part of our outside, edgy, artsy brand to release seasons at irregular intervals.
- Stay focused on your goals. There is a lot to get excited about, if you are getting distracted frequently by shiny objects then… perhaps you should talk to my wife? She is excellent at stepping back and making sure we don’t lose sight of the big picture. Before we had even launched our first season, I suddenly got very excited about footwear, a notoriously onerous family of products to produce. The image of holy loafers, surrounded by a brilliant halo was so real in my mind I could practically taste them. When I discussed this idea with Genevieve, she gently reminded me that we hadn’t made, much less sold, any clothes yet so perhaps we should save the shoes for a future season. If you can’t stay focused on the end goal, hire (or marry) somebody who will help you.
- Plan for the uncertain. Going over budget is very common. There are always delays, road bumps, and the occasional life-altering pandemic. When we initially set out a budget for our first season we incorporated a 30% x-factor for any unknown problems. As we started to produce our silver 3D printed buttons and hardware, the price of silver soared in the setting of global market uncertainty. Bummer! But we had space in our budget for such a hitch, so it wasn’t an insurmountable problem.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” This was spoken by Richard Feynman during his address to the graduating class of CalTech in 1974. Before starting this company, I had an image of a successful leader as being a type of visionary at the top who would be able to see the perilous road ahead. Now I understand that my position at the head of this company is rife with blind spots and that I need to trust the instincts of my team to guide our progress.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Visit us on Instagram @bourbonsummercartooncrisis, or better yet… buy some clothes! You won’t be disappointed. I mean it, if you buy our clothes you will never be disappointed again….