Rising Through Resilience: Bonnie Kuhl of Archer and Olive On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Stop and breathe. When I’m feeling overwhelmed (which is just about every other day, to be honest) I need to create space for myself. I block my mornings every weekday in case I need time to recover from a stressful event or to prepare a plan for one that’s going to happen. I don’t always need to use it, but giving myself some space to sit and draw, rest, and get oriented in the right direction is important to me.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bonnie Kuhl. Bonnie is the CEO and Founder of Archer and Olive, and Co-Owner and Co-Founder of Aluma. After her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder and general anxiety disorder, Bonnie has dedicated her businesses to helping others with their mental wellness. In particular, Archer and Olive is a luxury stationery brand with a focus on wellbeing and mental health, while Aluma provides mental wellness workbooks for mothers to make time for themselves in motherhood.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
Absolutely! Firstly, I would say I’ve always been an art-focused person. I was really into scrapbooking back in high school and college, though at the time it wasn’t much more than a need to make something that looked pretty, and I just got a lot of practice creating. But when I got into college my relationship with art and creativity changed. I had some really strange feelings that ultimately, I learned were depression and bipolar disorder. For a long time, I didn’t know what it was, and during that period of my life I wasn’t making good decisions, and both my education and my personal life were slipping. My parents and I couldn’t afford lots of things I needed for school or any mental health support at the time, so it wasn’t looking good. It wasn’t until I learned of a mental health program for students at my school that I was able to see a psychiatrist and get financial and medical support. That program saved my life, and even supported the expensive school supplies I needed in the Art Department for my degree
From then on, as part of my “treatment” I used art as a tool to keep my mood stable, organize my thoughts, reduce my anxiety, and take control of my mental health. The idea behind Archer and Olive was to help other people achieve their goals, exercise their creativity and provide them with the tools to manage their mental health too. The planner side of my business is near and dear to me because I use that practical version of art as a tool to keep me on track when I feel off-center, mentally. Fast forward several years and I’m married, and Archer and Olive is expanding every year!
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I don’t know how interesting it is, but it certainly speaks to how I think resilience plays into business:
Six or so years ago when I first tried making a business out of my art it was with wedding stationery and design. I made a lot of connections and people seemed to like my floral art, especially for weddings, invitations, and the like. All signs pointed to: this is going well: People liked me, my work, I had lots of connections, and was profitable. But after doing it for a couple of wedding seasons I had to be honest with myself: I really didn’t like the wedding industry at all, for lots of reasons. I wanted more creative control, and a less pressured environment. So, I quit it.
That was when I started making journals and painting more. When I first started selling notebooks, people didn’t like them. I felt a lot of cognitive dissonance: I was doing well before, should I have quit? I like this, but do other people? Is that bad? But I just kept making things and doing my day job. One day people were trying to paint in my books, and having a hard time with it (I had too). I made my pages thicker, and people (including me) loved it! We built a little following, and then listened more, made more, and grew more.
This is a good example because it highlights one common and one not so common example of resilience: I found something that was profitable, that I hated and I quit it. Then I started doing something I loved, that was harder to catch on. But I was able to find flow in something I loved, and was able to keep making and making until it worked for my customers. Resilience is finding what works for you when it doesn’t, period.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Definitely our customer service. We have made a really big effort to bake empathy for people into every part of our company. Where it meets the public is through our wonderful customer support team. As a business you want to grow and make money, but it’s because of the way people (both inside and outside the company) feel about what you’re doing for them.
For example, we had a customer who had emailed in when we launched our mental health campaign. The campaign consisted of a notebook and pen bundle, along with access to a custom digital program developed in partnership with a psychiatrist. The program provided customers with weekly journaling prompts, weekly videos and online resources tailored to their personality type. During the launch, I mentioned on social media our ongoing program where people can reach out if they don’t have the means to purchase a journal. A woman emailed in to be added to the donation list, and then instantly responded that she felt bad for asking and just to ignore her request. Well in true A&O fashion we went above and beyond, as A&O has created a space for no one to feel shame when they contact us. She was beyond touched by this and couldn’t help but share her experience with anyone around her. She even went out of the way to send such kind letters to our customer delight team. But even more so, our customers were inspired by this to reach out to our team to donate the bundles and/or the digital program themselves to others in the community.
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?
Someone who has greatly helped me achieve what I have to this day is John Ratliff. I met John through EO (Entrepreneurs Organization) in Austin, which is probably one of the best decisions I’ve made professionally. In a call with him about the company, he gave me the best piece of advice: Get a Line of Credit, Get a CFO, Watch your Cash Flow. Finance in business is not and will never be my strength, so this was important to hear. Several months later I hired a CFO and re-oriented our financial strategy and I feel much more confident about our books and the longevity of my business.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
The first thing I want to clarify is what I believe is a common misconception about resilience: It is not being beaten down every day on something for a really long time because you heard somewhere you should “not be a quitter”. To me, resilience means “always adapting”. Resilient people change when it’s necessary to achieve their goal, even if that means quitting something. To be resilient I think people also need to be able to slow down. If you’re pursuing something and you can’t take a break after a big obstacle, you can’t possibly consolidate the information and regain enough stamina to make smart decisions. Being able to move, stop, see things in perspective, and adapt are the big traits of resilient people to me.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
When my husband and I talk about people we admire, I always talk about Abraham Lincoln. It has nothing to do with politics or American history. Like me, he struggled with mental health issues, but also lots of other personal things. Whenever I think of how I am going to get out of bed today, I think about all of the huge decisions he had to make while dealing with his family’s health and deaths, his own health, depression, and all of the turmoil and terrible things happening in our country at the time. Yet, somehow, he is well known for taking his time to write letters, self-control, and empathy. Despite any flaws and faults, he must have put a lot of effort into slowing down, gaining perspective, and taking small steps to move things forward, as honestly as he could. That inspires me.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I’ve been lucky in that I don’t think that anyone has stared me down and told me: “No that’s not doable, stop it”. But indirectly my whole life I’ve gotten signals like that. Growing up, my parents were in pretty traditional roles. Also, most of the time, with four young kids and little money, they were focused on making sure we had the basics to be happy. All the women I was surrounded with were incredible mothers and loved children. If I’m honest, I’ve never been like that. I love being a mom but it’s never felt like “my calling”. There wasn’t anything about exploring a career, or the adventure of making something, selling it and sharing it with other people. So, growing up I think the indirect messages I received were that I needed to provide for my family and take care of my children because that’s what they did, and there was no room for anything else. I grew into an adult thinking that was the goal and making something or having a business was something that other people far away did, not me. Luckily, I soon talked myself into it.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Well as I mentioned in my “backstory”, I had the biggest setback in my life in college. I was mentally ill, with no barriers or help, away from home, with the independence to do what I wanted. I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have that I won’t go into detail about here, but suffice it to say if I hadn’t stopped, I wouldn’t be here today. I was bouncing between regret, happiness, confusion, and sadness. I was about to drop out of school and leave town for the wrong reasons with no plan. Luckily, during some lucid moments, I reached out to a program at my school called DARS, which supported people with disabilities in school. They saved me, really. They helped me get a doctor and medication. When I started feeling normal, they helped me afford supplies for school. Not having to worry about those things made it so much easier to focus on my life and wellness. Shortly after that I started dating my now husband and building a life. I’d call that a bounce back.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
As I mentioned, we grew up pretty poor. So as a young girl there were always things other people had that I wanted, but couldn’t get. I couldn’t get my hair done, or nice cool clothes, or accessories, or trendy school supplies. I remember when I was young, I had to find creative ways to get those things. The one thing I knew I could get lots of money for at that age was candy. I started selling candy at school to get money to get cool school supplies and accessories. The school eventually shut me down. But I still had a skill: art. So, I started making and selling bookmarks instead for 50 cents each. When I learned to knit, I realized I could sell those for even more so I sold knitted caps at school. That gave me a little bit of an income to splurge on things I couldn’t get otherwise. I’m pretty proud of navigating that.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Always have a milestone. As you can imagine with a notebook business, I journal and plan A LOT. You can’t keep getting up time after time without knowing what’s getting you up. Be clear and honest with yourself about what it is you’re trying to do. That can be a soft thing, or a hard number, but have something you use to help you get back on track… or to help you realize when you need to let go of so you don’t make the same mistake.
- Stop and breathe. When I’m feeling overwhelmed (which is just about every other day, to be honest) I need to create space for myself. I block my mornings every weekday in case I need time to recover from a stressful event or to prepare a plan for one that’s going to happen. I don’t always need to use it, but giving myself some space to sit and draw, rest, and get oriented in the right direction is important to me.
- Talk about it. “Can we chat?” is often what I’ll say to my partner on my way to the couch after we put our son to bed. He knows that usually something is going on and we need to turn chill time into sound boarding time. If it’s not that then it’s with our therapist every other week. If I’m having trouble bouncing back or moving forward on something, it really helps to just bounce it off a sympathetic ear. You don’t have to ask for advice, just let them know you need to let some stuff out. If you don’t come to a conclusion, you’ll at least feel a little better.
- Give yourself one day. Some days, I just can’t do it. I can’t even look at my list, think about the thing that happened, or get up. When it’s just not happening, I give myself permission to give in for one day and promise myself that tomorrow I’m going to start again. I can sleep, watch sad movies, sit outside, journal, whatever; I take a personal day. But, when I go to bed, I go early, and the next day I get up and get started again. If it takes multiple days, it’s time to start considering if my goal is the right one.
- Re-orient yourself. When all else fails trying to get back on the horse, maybe it’s time to try another horse. That doesn’t mean quitting your goal, necessarily. For example, for me, I take comments and reviews of A&O very personally. During a launch we always had a lot of emails and comments, but it was just absolutely draining for me to make everyone happy. At the time, though, that was part of the job: great customer service and launching products. After grinding against that problem for months, to my family and I’s detriment, I decided that was not the way I was going to move the business forward. I couldn’t keep going if I did that. So, after taking a day or two to figure it out, I hired some great people to help manage that, while I focused on product design. I didn’t know if we could afford it, but it was a great investment! We launched more products that year than ever before, and I did my best work. I kept going, by quitting, and setting a new target.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of or to shame people about. In more metropolitan communities it is making strides, but there are lots of communities where different types of mental health problems still marginalize people, and it makes it hard for people (like me) to get ahead. I wish the resources I had in college could be made available to everyone with an illness.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
This may not be the answer you’re looking for but, I’ve always wanted to have a sit down with Jack Black. If I’m asked who I want to have a meal with I want to laugh and talk about interesting stories. From everything I read he seems like an approachable, down to earth guy who could deliver on that!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on Instagram at @archerandolive and @archerandolive.community, and @explorealuma. On YouTube at Archer and Olive, and Facebook at Archer and Olive and Archer and Olive Community.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Rising Through Resilience: Bonnie Kuhl of Archer and Olive On The Five Things You Can Do To Become… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.