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Karen Wang

When you hear that someone is an “overnight success”, rarely did it happen overnight. But our guest in this episode is kind of the exception. Kind of. Karen Wang is the founder of Dispel Dice. A luxury dice-making business that was Kickstarted into existence. Over the course of her 30 day campaign, she raised over $2 million. All for her stunning, beautiful, and bespoke dice. And that first $1 million, happened on day one.

Dungeons & Dragons & Dice (Part 1)
Dungeons & Dragons & Dice (Part 1)

Dungeons & Dragons & Dice (Part 1)

Ep
134
May
19
With
Karen Wang
Or Listen On:

How Dispel Dice made $1 million in one day.

When you hear that someone is an “overnight success”, rarely did it happen overnight. But our guest in this episode is kind of the exception. Kind of.

Karen Wang is the founder of Dispel Dice. A luxury dice-making business that was Kickstarted into existence. Over the course of her 30 day campaign, she raised over $2 million. All for her stunning, beautiful, and bespoke dice. And that first $1 million, happened on day one.

If your jaw isn’t on the floor, then please re-read that last paragraph. Because that kind of support for a debut Kickstarter campaign is unheard of.

But the path leading up to that fateful launch was no walk in the park. The same morning Karen pulled in her first million from Kickstarter, was the same morning her bank called to say that she had overdrawn her account.

In this two part episode Karen walks us through the windy, bump-ridden road she took to build the incredible business she runs today.

In part 1, we get to know the person behind the dice. How she went from feeling unfulfilled, unhappy, and dropping out of art school to finding her calling through a friendly game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Hosted By
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produced by
edited by
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Appearances

Episode Transcript

Karen:
... at this point I had seen enough of what the industry looked like that I understood how the jump needed to be made, and I didn't feel like I was getting that much out of art school anymore. I just didn't feel like I wanted to pay $20,000 a semester for a bunch of general ed classes so that I could get a certificate that I was increasingly becoming more aware didn't matter to people who were going to hire me. Wouldn't I just be better off taking that money and either investing it in a business, in a 401(k), in literally anything that isn't a depreciating asset?

Greg:
Welcome to the Futur Podcast, a show that explores the interesting overlap between design, marketing, and business. I'm Greg Gunn. When you hear about someone becoming an overnight success rarely did it happen overnight, but our guest today is kind of the exception, kind of. You see, she's the founder of Dispel Dice, a luxury dice making business that was kickstarted into existence. Over the course of her 30 day campaign she raised over $2 million through Kickstarter all for her beautiful and bespoke dice. That first $1 million happened on day one. Now, if your jaw isn't already on the floor then rewind and re-listen to what I just said because that is unheard of.
The path leading up to that fateful launch wasn't a walk in the park. In fact, the same morning she pulled in $1 million from Kickstarter was the same morning her bank called to tell her that she had overdrawn her account. In this two part episode our guest and former student of Chris's walks us through the windy, bump-ridden road she took to build the incredible business that she has today. In part one we get to know the person behind the dice, how she went from feeling unfulfilled, unhappy, and even dropping out of college, to finding her calling through a friendly game of Dungeons & Dragons. Are you excited to listen to this one yet? I know I am. Please enjoy part one of our conversation with Karen Wang.

Chris:
Karen, thanks for doing this. I know it was a little bit of a chase to get you to finally do this and I really appreciate everything that you're doing to be able to do this conversation with me. I know a lot of people wouldn't and I'm glad that you are. Karen, for people who don't know who you are, can you introduce yourself please?

Karen:
My name is Karen and I make dice. I don't have an introduction prepared-

Chris:
Let's do that again.

Karen:
I've never done anything like this.

Chris:
Okay, it's going to be a little bumpy here.

Karen:
All right, all right, okay ... Hi everybody, my name is Karen Wang and I was an illustrator, I studied illustration at ArtCenter before having a brief stint in animation, and I started making some dice. We ran a campaign on Kickstarter and it enjoyed some success so we're currently working on fulfilling that now, and navigating the pitfalls of running a small to medium size business with very little experience.

Chris:
Fantastic. The reason why we're talking is because your company Dispel has done something truly wonderful. First of all you're funded, so congratulations on doing this successful campaign on Kickstarter, but not to put words into your mouth, I want to let everybody know how much money you were able to raise in total on Kickstarter.

Karen:
It was very, very shocking. On Kickstarter itself we raised $2,392,156. On BackerKit, which was the software that integrates on the backend, people were able to add on additional sets, we were able to raise another $877,070.88.

Chris:
I like the specificity in which you're able to tell us that. If you can't already figure it out we're going to be talking a lot about Karen's success on becoming an entrepreneur and having, I do this in air quotes, "overnight success". Let's take this back to the start though. Full disclosure, I know Karen really well, she's been a student of mine and a friend for a number of years so there's a lot of information that I'm going to be able to hopefully dig into. Let's just get into it if that's okay. Is that okay with you, Karen?

Karen:
Yeah, absolutely. I'm super nervous, is that normal?

Chris:
Nothing is normal or not normal, whatever you're feeling, it's all fine.

Karen:
Okay, okay.

Chris:
For people who have watched the YouTube episode, and it's done quite well, they have so many questions, hang in there, we'll talk about all these things. We'll talk about what it was like to set up the campaign, what if anything she did specifically to get people interested in what she was doing and what the reaction was, but also now several months and over a year later, what it's been like for her and how it's transformed her life. Let's take us to the beginning. You're at ArtCenter, why did you choose illustration of all the different majors?

Karen:
I've drawn my entire life, I've really, really enjoyed drawing, it's something that I've turned to to express my interests. I like creating things, I like making things, and it's how I've interacted with all of the fandoms and hobbies that I've been a part of frankly.

Chris:
What are things that you're a fan of?

Karen:
I love comics, I love science fiction as we have discussed, I love fantasy, I like anime, I like video games, anything that's remotely nerdy I've probably dabbled in it in one way or another.

Chris:
Okay. This makes a lot of sense to me, you're a giant, fat nerd, and you're like, "Hey, how can I be a bigger nerd? Let me get into art and illustration." That sounds about right, right?

Karen:
Yeah. It was not something that I would say that my family was particularly thrilled about, I did not go down the planned path. Art in itself I think is already pretty unstable but also many paths that I want to travel, I actually think a commercial art career was the more stable path.

Chris:
Yeah. Was there a plan for you that was not illustration?

Karen:
I wouldn't call it a plan, I think it was just a desire inside of me, that I really wanted to do something else. While I really enjoyed drawing I didn't feel like all parts of myself were activated ...

Chris:
I see.

Karen:
... when I was working on it.

Chris:
Let me rephrase that question, I was just trying to pick up on your parents' desire for you to do something different. When you said you didn't do it according to plan, what did your parents want you to do?

Karen:
I think they wanted me to be a doctor, I think very quickly they realized that was not going to happen. They-

Chris:
I cannot see that, Karen. I'm sorry to say this. There's things I could see you doing, if I saw you in the hospital I'd be like, "Excuse me, I have to answer a phone call," and then I would not return.

Karen:
Yeah, I would not want myself as a doctor so I think that should tell you something.

Chris:
Okay, we're in agreement there. When it dawned on them that you weren't going to be a doctor, what was the other plan for you?

Karen:
They were hoping for a lawyer, an accountant ... It was almost like they went through the five stages of grief, there was a lot of bargaining, "What about an architect? That's kind of like drawing, that's kind of like illustration." Product designer because I think jobs were considered more plentiful for product designers, so even within art there were different tiers of what would be more stable. I just kept falling down that ladder.

Chris:
They even tried to get you to go into the different visual arts, like architecture and product design?

Karen:
Yeah, that was a ...

Chris:
Wow.

Karen:
... discussion that I had with them. My family was a family of immigrants so there was a lot of struggling when we were younger, so my parents' greatest wish for me was that I would be able to live a stale and secure life, because that was not something easily available to them.

Chris:
Yeah, I think that's a pretty natural desire for parents, just for their children not to suffer, but it's extremely strong in immigrant families, right?

Karen:
Absolutely. I can't speak to any other families but it was definitely a source of contention. There was a lot of very heated exchanges about this and I think I really did want stability and security, I sought it, I just could never make it work and it never felt true to me.

Chris:
Okay. Did they eventually give in and say, "Okay, fine. You're going to go to ArtCenter and you're going to study illustration"?

Karen:
Yes, they would give in, but I also continuously changed what I wanted, I didn't know what I wanted. I would try something for a little bit and then realize, "Wait, this actually isn't for me," once I got it.

Chris:
What were those things?

Karen:
I would say at first it was I wanted to go to an art high school. I went there, wasn't very interested in fine arts, went back to a normal high school. Then I wanted to go to School of Visual Arts in New York, I went there for a semester and realized the education there wasn't for me, then I came back and went to ArtCenter. They were very right to be worried, I was constantly switching around.

Chris:
Yes.

Karen:
Then I dropped out of ArtCenter, I dropped out of both colleges-

Chris:
Wait, don't even get there ... Wait, slow down. I'm not rushing this story, okay? How dare you?

Karen:
Okay, within both schools I also changed majors. At SVA I believe I changed from illustration to animation. Then I went to ArtCenter and I started out as an entertainment design major, then I switched to an illustration major.

Chris:
Okay, okay. Hold on a second here. You said you went to an art high school, which one did you go to?

Karen:
I went to one called LACHSA.

Chris:
Oh, you went to LACHSA? My son goes there.

Karen:
Yes. Then I quit.

Chris:
Okay, okay. Hold on. You grew up in LA then?

Karen:
I did, I did. I'm from LA, born and raised.

Chris:
Okay. You get into LACHSA and LACHSA is the number one art high school in this country I believe, it's not a small thing. I've seen TV shows like Fame before and I imagine it to be something like this. It's a highly concentrated program, it's on the campus of, what is it, Cal State Los Angeles, right?

Karen:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chris:
You get into LACHSA, and I know other people have gotten into LACHSA ... What was it about it that made you quit it?

Karen:
I think it was a lack of maturity and understanding that even if I didn't enjoy things in the short-term that long-term they might pay off. I felt out of place at the school, I felt like I didn't belong, I felt like an outcast, I didn't feel like I was studying the type of art that I found to be interesting. I think ultimately at that point I decided I wanted to be an industrial designer. I was 16, I didn't know what I wanted, so I decided to go back.

Chris:
Go back to what?

Karen:
To a normal high school. I hadn't tried that so I figured I'd give that a shot and see how I liked that.

Chris:
What school did you wind up going to?

Karen:
I went to Gabrielino High School, so that is located in San Gabriel.

Chris:
This is strange to me. You said that you felt like an outcast, that you didn't belong, but I was thinking if there was a school for nerds I think LACHSA would be safer for you than a normal high school.

Karen:
It was safer, I wouldn't say I made the right decision.

Chris:
Okay. I'm starting to notice a pattern about you Karen, but we'll get into that a little bit later. You go to LACHSA for how long?

Karen:
Two years.

Chris:
Okay, so you go back to what I would consider gen pop, general population in a prison, back to that yard and it's like, I don't know what ... If I was your dad I'm like, "Karen, let me just drive you to the normal high school and hang out there for a day before you make your decision." You finish out your high school at just a normal public high school then, yeah?

Karen:
I did.

Chris:
What was the experience like for you in those two years?

Karen:
I felt like even more of an outsider.

Chris:
Good move.

Karen:
I have made my fair share of mistakes but I think they led me on this very wacky journey.

Chris:
On a personal note let me ask you this question because LACHSA is a very small private ... Not private, just a really small school for artists, for high school. You go back to a normal high school which I imagine is much bigger, was that the case?

Karen:
It was much larger, I think I knew a lot of the people there from middle school and elementary school.

Chris:
I see. Was that part of the reason why you went back to normal high school? Did you miss them?

Karen:
I don't think so. I think I just wanted to try something different and I just never really felt like anything fit me, or anything ... Nothing seemed to be working, there didn't seem to be something where I felt like this is what I was meant to do, that I love this, so I decided to go back and try something different.

Chris:
Okay. Was there any redeeming quality about being at a normal high school?

Karen:
Yes. I took a speech and debate class and that was something ...

Chris:
What?

Karen:
... outside of anything I had ever done.

Chris:
Okay, that's hard to believe too so let me ...

Karen:
I didn't say I was good I just said I went outside of my comfort zone.

Chris:
You volunteered to take this class?

Karen:
I think so, yeah. I can't remember super well but I'm pretty sure it was an elective that I chose to be a part of willingly.

Chris:
Wow. What compelled you to be in speech and debate?

Karen:
I honestly couldn't tell you, it was probably just one of those spur of the moment things where I thought, "Hey, I should try this."

Chris:
These impulses thus far have led you astray each time I think but obviously we're talking for a reason so one of these impulses have worked out, but I don't want to get there just yet. Let's just move the timeline along. I imagine you, even in high school, as a fairly talented draftsperson. Your hand skills, your rendering skills must have been pretty good at that age, am I wrong?

Karen:
I didn't think so but I think it was something that I was working on. I had spent a lot of time doing it, I didn't really have any hobbies outside of that so it was something that I spent a lot of time on.

Chris:
At this point in time you're 17, 18 years old, are you going to the anime conferences and expos at this point?

Karen:
I am, I am a big nerd even at 17 and 18. I was really getting into the convention scene, I was a big fan of Comic-Cons as well, I was really into DC, Marvel, I was very excited about all of the movies coming out and about it worming its way into mainstream.

Chris:
Yes. Did your parents take you to the conferences and the expos or you just took yourself?

Karen:
When I was in high school we did have one person's parents who would drop us off at the convention.

Chris:
Okay, we're talking about in San Diego and Downtown LA, right?

Karen:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chris:
A friend's parent would drive the bunch of you down to San Diego?

Karen:
We didn't go to San Diego during that time, we would go to probably Downtown LA, Anaheim, I think at some point AX might have been at Long Beach.

Chris:
Yeah. Okay, somebody's parent or ... You'd find a way but it wasn't your parents, you didn't ask them, they didn't know?

Karen:
Yeah, I did not ask, they did not typically know. I think there were a few times later on where they definitely did pick me up from the airport, the parents would swap off.

Chris:
I see, so eventually they knew.

Karen:
Eventually, yes. I don't think they were really aware of what an anime convention was, I don't know that they would have let me go back if they were aware.

Chris:
Yeah, because I wasn't aware what an anime convention was until I joined as part of the board for SPJA which was I guess in my lat 30s, maybe early 40s even.

Karen:
I remember your first convention.

Chris:
You do?

Karen:
Yeah, I think you came ... I think I was interning for you during that time or I was working for you, and you came in and you were like, "Hey, did you know about this?"

Chris:
I'm like, "Karen, let me just tell you about this world you know nothing about. You got to find out about it, I got my finger on the pulse of what's going on." You're rolling your eyes, "Hey old man, I've been doing this for 10 years, welcome to the club."

Karen:
I'm more like, "God, I hope he doesn't find out."

Chris:
Yeah. [inaudible 00:17:59] the other day so ... Okay. All right. Okay, let's move on then. You're exploring your inner geek in the way that you express yourself through your art, and going to conferences and conventions, and participating as a fan. You get into School of Visual Arts which is in New York and a semester later you're like, "This is not it for me," right?

Karen:
Two semesters later.

Chris:
Two semesters later.

Karen:
I first tried to change majors. I originally entered as an illustration major, then I changed to an animation major, then I really realized this was not for me.

Chris:
Yikes. Okay, so you are spending money at this point or no?

Karen:
We were definitely spending money, it was a very tense conversation when I decided to come back home.

Chris:
Yeah. You finish your first year and have you essentially thrown that money away?

Karen:
I think some people would say that but I do not-

Chris:
Your parents?

Karen:
Yes. I'm not a fan of sunk cost fallacy because I've spent this year here, if I already know it's a waste at the end of the year do I spend another three years and another X amount of dollars here?

Chris:
Yes, yes, yes. You're aware that just because you change your mind, you can be detached from what you've invested because otherwise you're stuck in whatever decision you make, right?

Karen:
Yeah. It wasn't easy, it was still a very emotional decision and I really felt like a failure.

Chris:
Yeah. Okay, I get that, and that's pretty natural. When did you figure out that you were going to go to ArtCenter instead?

Karen:
When I left New York I was actually told by a teacher that if you wanted to have a shot at making things work as an artist, a lot of the best art schools are actually in California and that I should go back home.

Chris:
Wow.

Karen:
I won't reveal who said this but at that point I had been resolved to basically go to ArtCenter.

Chris:
Okay. Your teacher, one of your SVA teachers presumably, right? Finds out you're not interested in going to that school anymore and is like, "Well Karen, in fact you traveled all this way for nothing because the best schools are right where you live"?

Karen:
Yeah, that was difficult to hear and difficult to say to my parents.

Chris:
Had you not looked into the schools locally before deciding SVA?

Karen:
I really wanted to see someplace different, I really wanted to spread my wings a little bit and gain some independence.

Chris:
Yeah, okay. That makes a lot of sense, you went to the opposite coast just trying to figure out your own way. I have to say, as an 18-year-old that sounds to me like it's a really brave move. I moved down from San Jose to Los Angeles and it was like it was a big adventure but it was still in California, still kind of felt the same, a little bit warmer. Other than that it wasn't like a kid from the suburbs going into the city, that's a shocking experience, for a lot of people that's culture shock, right?

Karen:
There was definitely culture shock. I worked at a Bath & Body Works and a lot of my coworkers would laugh at me because I was totally unprepared for blizzards, I think I showed up in the snow in ballet flats. They definitely referred to me as California Girl. It was totally different and in some ways it was amazing because I could totally submerge myself in the city, I think I spent most of my time just working on figure drawing outside of class.

Chris:
I see. You got that dose of reality which was weather, the seasons do change, there's this other season we never see, it's called winter, and it gets really cold in New York, right?

Karen:
Oh my gosh, I went out with my hair wet, I didn't know that your hair could freeze if it was still wet.

Chris:
Wow. Okay California Girl. Let's get back, you return home, difficult conversation with your parents and also saying, "I'm sorry, I didn't do the homework, the great schools are right here," and you decide to go to ArtCenter. Tell me what that experience was like, getting into ArtCenter and how that might have changed for you now.

Karen:
Preparing an ArtCenter portfolio, I had a lot of friends who had gotten into ArtCenter so I kind of knew what the format for the portfolio looked like and I followed it pretty closely. I knew I wouldn't be able to go unless I got a pretty sizable scholarship so we went all out for it, submitted the portfolio, and it was a pretty standard process. I think just being my age and not having a lot of experience it seemed like such a big task to put together, but looking back it wasn't that bad and I got to see all of my work together. I think it's oftentimes very intimidating for artists to have to look at their work compiled together because then they have to face that their work may or may not be at the level that they want it to be at.

Chris:
Right. Did you say you have friends that went to ArtCenter?

Karen:
Yeah, I had a ton of friends who went to ArtCenter for entertainment design, I would say half of them dropped out and half of them graduated.

Chris:
Okay. How is it that you get to know all these people from ArtCenter?

Karen:
While I was in high school I also took ArtCenter Saturday High classes so there was a tight knit community that formed as a result of that. Most of those people went on to attend ArtCenter.

Chris:
I see. Wow, look at you, Karen. You grow up in LA, you get into LACHSA, you're like, "Poo poo LACHSA," but you're also going to Saturday High at ArtCenter, right? Which is also not cheap, right?

Karen:
No, they actually have a scholarship program, it's a few hundred dollars. It was pretty affordable I think because you can apply for a scholarship program with a portfolio. Mine was not good so I highly recommend if you want to go to apply. I don't know if it's still an active program.

Chris:
Right. Is it your parents driving you to Saturday High every weekend or was it someone else?

Karen:
Yes, my mother was very supportive.

Chris:
Yeah, that's ... I mean, look, even in LA, even if you live in San Gabriel that's still a drive up the hill to Pasadena. You do have support here, it's not like you don't have support.

Karen:
No, my parents I think fought me on everything because they were afraid of me, but they love me and want me to do well. I just think that there is such a fear of insecurity that the fact that I was choosing this to them completely un-walked path was terrifying.

Chris:
You said they're afraid of you or do you mean they're afraid for you?

Karen:
Afraid for me.

Chris:
Yeah, it's not like you're going to beat them up.

Karen:
No, no, no.

Chris:
It's like, "Mom, Dad, trust me, you don't want to hear the no answer, right?" Fist clenched like, "I ought to ..." Okay. They're just worried, they're typical loving parents, they're just concerned for their daughter, right?

Karen:
Yes.

Chris:
Yeah. I don't know why I haven't asked you this before, but do you have siblings?

Karen:
I have one sibling, she's very high performing.

Chris:
Younger?

Karen:
Younger.

Chris:
Okay. Did any part of this conversation involve, "We don't want you to spoil our genius child with your crazy antics"?

Karen:
I don't think I could spoil the genius child with my crazy antics, she was very self determined, she was almost the complete opposite of me. She goes to an Ivy League college, she's getting her PhD, she I think got full rides for her undergrad, master's, and PhD, she's super fit, she's very disciplined, sees everything through to the end. She is in a lot of ways everything that I wanted to be and was just not going to make happen.

Chris:
Okay Karen, with all due love and respect here I guess we know where all the brains went in the family. You got all the artistic genes, the entrepreneurial genes, the rebel genes, and she got everything else. I guess it works out just fine.

Karen:
I don't know, it seems kind of like an uneven sort of division honestly for most of my life.

Chris:
Yeah. That's when you're like, "Dear God, when we were divvying up the genes there, throw a dog a bone?" I'm the same way. I say this and people who are listening to me are probably gasping right now like, "Chris, you can't say that to someone." Hey man, look, I have two brothers. One was much cuter than me, one was much smarter and stronger than me, I'm like, "What do I have?" They both have hair, I don't have hair, it's like, "Huh, let's figure this out." They're both much more naturally athletically inclined than I am so I've had to overcome some things. What one takes away one gives in different ways, that's all I can say, Karen.

Karen:
It definitely did not seem like that for a very long time.

Chris:
Yeah, you have to kind of keep working at it, it's like, "Nope, that's not it. Nope, that's not it either. Maybe it's hidden at a comic convention. Nope, that's not it either. Okay."

Greg:
Time for a quick break but we'll be right back with more from Karen.
Welcome back to our conversation with Karen Wang.

Chris:
You're back in LA, you apply at ArtCenter but you have friends that go there so you kind of know what to do, so you put your portfolio together. With a lot of pressure on yourself now, you're possibly a year behind, you spent money before, you don't want to go down that same path again, so you get in and you get a scholarship, right?

Karen:
Yes.

Chris:
How much of a scholarship do you get?

Karen:
Oh gosh, I don't remember. I think when it started it was either a half ride or a little bit more than a half ride.

Chris:
Yeah. Then by the time you're fully immersed in the program ... I think you were at a full scholarship at some point, right?

Karen:
I was never at a full scholarship, no.

Chris:
Oh, you weren't?

Karen:
No, I did have financial aid which helped out tremendously.

Chris:
Okay. I don't know why I had that in my mind, I thought you told me before you had a full ride.

Karen:
Nope, I wish. That would be great.

Chris:
All right, fine. That's fine. I'm going to go back to this point later because you're making me feel like I'm senile and I don't remember things. Okay, we'll keep going here. You're bouncing all over the place, you're changing majors, you're looking at different things, so it's pretty consistent with who you've been up to this point, right?

Karen:
For sure. My parents were definitely worried because they had raised me, they had seen me basically bounce around constantly and not stick with anything. I think even in the short time that I was working with you, you said, "I'm a little worried because you kind of bounce around a lot, Karen."

Chris:
Yeah, now I know to the degree in which you were bouncing around. Before we get to that point let's take us to when you and I meet in class. At this point in time I'm teaching at ArtCenter now probably over 10 years and I'm teaching a class, I think it was called back then like sequential design or something like that, or main title design. Then in walks Karen Wang. Tell me what it was like for you coming to my class and then I will tell our dear listeners what it was like to meet you. Go ahead.

Karen:
Oh, good God. Okay. I had just transferred into motion graphics which was a I think branch of illustration, so I just switched majors yet again. I didn't know really anything about motion graphics, I didn't know who you were, and I came in and I remember you would just ask us crazy questions that I could not figure out the answer to, and it drove me insane because I just wasn't used to getting problems in classes that I could not solve.

Chris:
What kind of questions? You label it crazy, but what does that mean? What kind of questions?

Karen:
Out of the ordinary is probably a better way to put it. You didn't present the class the way that most classes had been presented to me.

Chris:
Okay, can you describe that?

Karen:
Yeah, in a lot of classes I get presented a block of information that I then have to memorize and recite in some way, or repeat in some way, or practice in some way. When you came into class instead you basically gave us a problem to solve and I could not solve it. I became kind of obsessed with it. I think for the entirety of the class that I took with you I could not solve the problem. I believe the first problem that you gave us was that you wanted us to ... Gosh, I going to bungle this, you wanted us to use typography and demonstrate global warming with it. You gave us a word and you wanted us to use a treatment of the type that would then demonstrate global warming, so you wanted the idea to be displayed. Looking back on that it's not a particularly complex problem but for a second semester Karen, boy, I was like, "Oh my God, this is so next level. How the hell am I supposed to figure this out?" It was really exciting to be able to kind of think about it even if I couldn't solve it.

Chris:
Wait a minute, you're only in second term, so it's year one for you?

Karen:
Yes.

Chris:
How'd you even get in my class? Most people are entering it I think second semester, most of the students that I get are juniors and seniors.

Karen:
This is probably where I should apologize to the administration of the two colleges that I went to. I was a really, really annoying student because I knew I was paying a ton of money so I was very aggressive about basically getting the classes that I wanted to get. I would talk to people, I would say, "Hey, which classes should I take?" Then I would find a way to get into those classes.

Chris:
Okay, so somebody that you knew in upper term had recommended that you try out this class with me?

Karen:
Yeah, I don't remember who. I'm sorry, it was too long ago.

Chris:
Yeah, it was so long ago, Karen.

Karen:
My memory is really bad.

Chris:
You're not even that old to be able to say that, let me just put that on the record, okay? Anyways, I do remember you very clearly and the nature of the assignment was this, it was a conceptual thinking problem solving assignment. You had to figure out this puzzle and there were just a few parts to the puzzle but it was actually very complicated in terms, like exposing how you knew to communicate things. If you're 19 or 20 years old it's going to be really difficult especially if you've not had classes that dealt with semiotics or conceptual thinking before. Now it makes a lot of sense, because you're only in second term ... It was difficult for your classmates and they were coming at it near the end of their schooling, and you were just at the beginning. I'll tell you this, I do remember you very clearly, I do remember the assignments and your behavior in class.
You did stand out in a very positive way because you are the one student that I had that consistently kept asking questions. You were like the Terminator, you just kept coming at me, and laughing, and expressing yourself, and saying, "What? What's going on there?" I knew that the energy that you brought was going to be helpful to me so that's when towards the end of the class I think I asked you, which I don't do that often, I asked you if you wanted to be my TA for the next semester. If I remember this, and I could be making up parts here, I think there was some initial reticence from you and you asked me why, I said, "Every class I need somebody with your energy. All you nee to do is come to class not with the answers but with more questions and just be you." I think that began what became an anomaly at ArtCenter where you were my TA for several classes and then you wound up being my intern/protege. Is that how you remember it?

Karen:
Yeah. I think you also at one point while I was doing this offered me my first job in design, you asked me to do some storyboarding for you as well. It really functioned I think more as a mentorship than ... I don't have a good term for it because it's not an internship, it wasn't an actual position of employment where I basically would execute something that your company needed done, but it was I a lot of ways a mentorship where we would learn collaboratively, I would learn collaboratively at least.

Chris:
Yeah, it was unique in its structure in that I wasn't putting you on any commercial work, what I wanted was to get your help in understanding how I could better teach the things I wanted to teach, and I would drive materials, ideas, concepts by you, and then have you document the process. Then also because you're a really good illustrator, to be able to draw the storyboards for me for inclusion in my next lecture, and we worked on this for at least a semester if not longer, and you just kept working at it. I think that's how our relationship began outside of school, right?

Karen:
Yes.

Chris:
Yeah. Okay, that's how that went. Now, if you're listening to this and you're thinking, "God, Chris is spending a lot of time here. Why isn't he getting to the part that I think we're all tuning in to get to?" The answer is because I think you need to understand a person, their motivations, their strengths, weaknesses, and their life decisions to get a more complete portrait. It's easy to look at something at the end and say, "Of course all those things make sense," but then we would be making a lot of assumptions as to who the person is.
Okay, let's move the timeline along here. This will be no shock and surprise to anyone that's been paying attention this far. Karen approaches me and she's like, "Chris, I'm thinking about dropping out of school." I'm like, "What are you talking about?" At this point you were already attending animation conventions and kind of earning your money so that you can afford school and other things as part of school, so in a way already you were a professional practicing illustrator making fan art. You were also freelancing and I think you were working at Cartoon Network at this time on the Powerpuff Girls, is that right?

Karen:
Not yet, I was still working with you at this point. I would say that I wasn't quite completely independent as a professional working in the industry just yet but I think at this point I had seen enough of what the industry looked like that I understood how the jump needed to be made and I didn't feel like I was getting that much out of art school anymore. A big part of it was because I actually front loaded a lot of my classes to be the art classes, so what I had remaining was all of the GEs and I just didn't feel like I wanted to pay, what? It was like $20,000 a semester for a bunch of general ed classes so that I could get a certificate that I was increasingly becoming more aware didn't matter to people who were going to hire me. If my goal was to become a commercial artist wouldn't I just be better off taking that money and either investing it in a business, in a 401(k), in literally anything that isn't a depreciating asset? That I think really is what drove me to make that decision.

Chris:
What decision is that?

Karen:
To drop out again.

Chris:
Oh, okay. How far in school are you at this point?

Karen:
I think I had really begun seriously thinking about it fourth term and then I pulled the trigger fifth term.

Chris:
Okay, so you stopped going to ArtCenter after fifth term?

Karen:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chris:
Now you're out in the world and you're freelancing, right?

Karen:
Yes.

Chris:
Where are you at this point?

Karen:
I was still working I think primarily with you at Blind but Futur was beginning its incubation period, it was something that was still being born, and created, and built. I think in my head I had basically studied under you, I had studied storyboarding and really developed an interest in it. I looked at where the stable, secure jobs for storyboarding were and a lot of it was in animation. I wanted to move into animation because there were health benefits, it was longer jobs, because in motion graphics typically the jobs are a few days at a time opposed to a few months. I began thinking about how I would make that transition over.

Chris:
You wound up where?

Karen:
I wound up at Cartoon Network on the Powerpuff Girls reboot.

Chris:
Okay, so you were working there, tell me what that experience was like for you.

Karen:
I think that working there made me realize that I was not a good fit to be a storyboard artist because I was a revisionist. I'm revising the work but really you have a pretty ... What is the opposite of the word dynamic?

Chris:
Rigid?

Karen:
Yeah, you have a very static workday where basically you're doing one thing that you're supposed to be incredibly good at the entire day, you should be a master of that. I was one, obviously not a master, and it was very difficult for me to do one thing every single day. It was almost the exact opposite of the structure that I had when I was your mentee back at Blind where I had a very dynamic day, where I was talking to people, I was engaging with people, I was thinking about many different subjects. Working on one thing every single day made me realize that was not a place where I could flourish and be happy.

Chris:
Yeah. I guess, would it be fair to say that once you worked for me it's like you can't work for anyone else?

Karen:
You did say that I was unemployable at one time.

Chris:
I was just kidding about that comment by the way, everybody is like, "Oh my God," rolling their eyes at me. We'll probably edit that part out. You were supposed to respond a little differently because I thought you would get that it was a joke but you answered it seriously.

Karen:
No, no. Increasingly I find that to be true and it's I think terrifying and freeing. I had finally gotten everything that I had asked for, everything that I wanted, and I wasn't happy. I needed to really evaluate what was going to make me happy.

Chris:
Why weren't you happy?

Karen:
At the time I didn't know because I had other friends who had jobs in animation and they were thrilled, they had worked their entire lives to get there. It paid well, you had great benefits, you had a lot of freedom, people I think were always really excited about that type of job, I think it's different than what a lot of people do. For some reason I think I just didn't feel all parts of myself were activated. There were things that I wanted to do that I couldn't do in that space and I'm not as disciplined as my sister who can do something that she doesn't like for a long period of time and do it well.

Chris:
Now that we know your sister it's like duh, not even close, Karen. We'll move on, okay. At what point are you figuring out, "Okay, I am not fulfilled at ArtCenter so I quit, and I'm not fulfilled working as a contract person doing storyboarding." What is the next option for you?

Karen:
I honestly did not know what the option was. I had saved my money and I think there was always this desire to start a business but I didn't have the knowledge, the experience, or the understanding of how to do it, and I was stuck in a rut. I was really depressed, really struggling. I had some really good friends who basically told me, "Hey, you need to try something different. You can't keep doing the same thing and hoping to get a different answer." There were times where I thought, "Maybe I'll just keep going down this path and maybe what I'm expecting from a job is just not what I should be looking for in a job." It's an incredibly privileged position to even be able to say that.
Ultimately I had a friend who did convince me to try something different. I had started to play D&D, I had talked to her about how I really wanted to make a specific type of dice because I didn't see it on the market at that point, and in her mind a light went off. She said, "If you do this people will come." I was like, "No one is going to come, no one is going to care about this," but she kept egging me on. I think there was just a breaking point where one day I woke up and I just thought, "I can't keep doing this. My heart is not in animation, I'm not putting my all into looking for other jobs and that's probably because I don't want another job, so I have to try something different."

Chris:
Okay, hold on. Is it worthwhile to talk about your adventures into real estate?

Karen:
Oh yeah. I was at some point so desperate I was like, "Let's try anything-"

Chris:
Okay, okay, hold on, we have to rewind the tape here. Karen, it seems like you don't even know your own story, but we'll go back in there. I need to understand all the things you tried because I don't want people just, "Oh yeah, you figured it out in the first thing and it just all works out." Life is much more complicated than that, you try lots of things, and you're the literal manifestation of a person who is like, "Tried that, don't want to do it. Tried that, don't ..." You keep changing until you find that one thing that ultimately becomes your calling for now. Let's just rewind the tape a little bit. At some point I know you told me, "Chris, I'm going to explore business, I'm just done with art for now." Where is that in the timeline?

Karen:
That was actually before Cartoon Network and that was the reason that I left the mentorship with you. It was a decision that I, like leaving LACHSA, came to regret very quickly. Basically I think at some point I realized I wanted to start a business, I wanted to try something different, but I just didn't know what direction to go in so I picked any direction. My cousin at the time was a realtor, she still is a realtor, and she and I were thinking about going into business. Unfortunately neither of us had the experience to really know how to build or run a business and I think I halfheartedly committed to it, but I think deep down I knew it wasn't going to work because this really wasn't what I wanted to do. I just knew that what I was doing beforehand wasn't working. I have all of these interests, business, art, design, everything that's nerdy, and I'm being pulled in all of these directions all the time.

Chris:
Wait, wait, wait, when you say you were pulled was it your cousin said, "Hey Karen, I know that you're still trying to figure things out but really you should do real estate with me, I think it's going to explode." When you say pulled, did you run towards these things or were you really pulled?

Karen:
That one I was pulled more, it was more like, "Oh, this seems like a convenient opportunity. It seems like she's having some success with this, she's having some stability with this." I think at that point I really craved some sort of stability. For some reason in my crazy mind I thought that would get me there and it just wasn't what I wanted to do. Very quickly.

Chris:
Wait, wait, wait, who pitched who? Did you say, "Hey cuz, let me do this thing with you," or did she say, "Hey Karen, do this thing with me"?

Karen:
I'm going to be totally honest, I can't remember. I can't remember which way it went. I've tried a lot of things that didn't work out.

Chris:
Yes. It's worth trying to figure out because when you say pulled somebody spins something, pitches something to you. When you run to it you say, "Hey, that looks cool, let me try that." I happen to think, if I were to guess, you weren't pulled at all, it was just like, "Nope, I'm bored, let me try this thing. Nope, I'm bored, let me try that thing," versus the devil sitting on your shoulder like, "Karen, real estate is the future," and you're like, "Really? I don't want to do that, I'm supposed to study art you know." It's like, "No, come with me," that's pulled, it's a little different.

Karen:
Nothing like that.

Chris:
You were drawn to things by your own conviction, right? Your own exploration, your own need to figure things out.

Karen:
It's very hard to get me to do something that I don't want to do and it's very hard to stop me from doing something that I am determined to try.

Chris:
I think that's been pretty obvious so far with the theme [crosstalk 00:46:27], Karen does what Karen wants, [crosstalk 00:46:31] ... Okay, whatever, you wind up working with your cousin in real estate. I remember this because you were dressing like an adult, no more shorts and t-shirts or whatever your normal thing was, you've got to show up as the real estate person, right? I believe you were starting to try to get your license for real estate, is that right?

Karen:
Yeah, I never even got my license. I kept dragging my feet because I think subconsciously I knew this wasn't what I wanted to do, I just didn't have an answer for what I wanted to do. That really did not go very far. If I really think about it being a realtor is probably my worst nightmare. I have people calling me all the time, I have to be super social, I have to show them around, that sounds terrifying to me. It's almost the worst job I can imagine for myself.

Chris:
Why would you do that then? What was the thing that was appealing to you?

Karen:
I think it was I was seeing someone who was having success with it and I wanted that feeling of success and stability.

Chris:
This dream that your parents had for you, it runs deep inside of you too, this need for stability, right?

Karen:
Yeah, I have a tremendous fear of failure and I think that was actually one of the things that you helped me to deprogram to some extent. I was constantly afraid of saying the wrong thing, making the wrong decision. I remember when I used to draw storyboards for you I would draw it in pencil, and you took that away and you gave me a Sharpie, and you just said, "Make your mistakes." That was extremely stressful by the way, but very helpful, where you have to commit it to paper and just be okay with the mistake. I think that desire for stability and safety, I was constantly at war with it because once I would get it or get close to it I would realize even though this was "more stable" I myself am not stable because this is not what I want to do, I'm not happy, I'm not fulfilled, so I would start to seek exits.

Chris:
Wow, I don't remember telling you that but if I were to post-rationalize what the heck was going on I would say that maybe, and correct me if I'm wrong here, probably what I was seeing was lack of commitment from you in decisions, working in pencil, reworking things. Then just saying, "Karen, you're good enough to just draw in ink, just go for it and make a commitment, visualize it in your mind, what it is that you want and then let your hands carve out from the paper what you see in your mind."

Karen:
Yes, you said it much more eloquently. I think what I took from it was basically if you draw in Sharpie you're committing to the drawing, you should feel comfortable doing that. I think you were really impressed by my Sharpie drawings, I was really afraid of them because I felt like they were not very good, I liked being able to rework it in pencil. Being able to draw in Sharpie really forced me to think about every line I was putting down, I think it made me better at storyboarding even if the drawings themselves were worse.

Chris:
Yeah, okay. That makes sense to me, I'll take that. You go into real estate, it doesn't work out, and now you're back at it again, and this is where you go for animation, like working at the Cartoon Network, right?

Karen:
Yep.

Chris:
Okay, so I think the show winds down at Cartoon Network and you're between seasons, and instead of going back what is it you decide to do?

Karen:
Yeah, the show itself is actually finished, they've wrapped up after season three, and I don't know what I'm going to do afterwards. At first my plan was to basically find another storyboarding job, it had afforded me enough stability that I could basically save my money and kind of project out a little further, and think about what I wanted to do. Honestly it was different day to day, what I wanted to do. I felt stuck because even though I wanted to make these dice there was so much inertia against starting, I didn't know how to make dice, I didn't know anything about silicon, I didn't know anything about resin. Just starting was the hardest part. I was struggling with a lot of depression at this point because I had a lot of anxiety about my future, I didn't know what direction I wanted to go.

Greg:
Next week we get into the dice making business. We'll talk about what Karen did leading up to her campaign, the pitfalls of manufacturing, and how it all transformed her life. See you then.


Thanks for joining us this time. If you haven't already, subscribe to our show on your favorite podcasting app and get a new insightful episode from us every week. The Futur Podcast is hosted by Chris Do and produced by me, Greg Gunn. Thank you to Anthony Barro for editing and mixing this episode, and thank you to Adam Sanborne for our intro music. If you enjoyed this episode then do us a favor by rating and reviewing our show on Apple Podcasts. It'll help us grow the show and make future episodes that much better. Have a question for Chris or me? Head over to TheFutur.com/HeyChris and ask away. We read every submission and we just might answer yours in a later episode. If you'd like to support the show and invest in yourself while you're at it visit TheFuture.com, you'll find video courses, digital products, and a bunch of helpful resources about design and creative business. Thanks again for listening and we'll see you next time.

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