The following interview is from a series I did as part of another project, GTHR.
From time to time we like to highlight creators. These individuals captivate us. They draw us out. They invite us into a fuller way of being. They are relentless seekers who are passionately building something that matters.
Their lives tell stories that beg to be shared. And we’re excited to introduce them to you, in their own words.
This week we’d like to introduce you to Blake Smith. Blake is the Co-Founder and CEO of Cladwell, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based startup who is blending software and fashion to help people create simple, minimal, personalized “capsule” wardrobes.
In one sentence, what is your purpose, or reason to be?
“To love another person is to see the face of God.” — Victor Hugo
How did you come to be where you are right now?
You assume I know where I am right now…Its been kind of a random journey—I did a lot of youth ministry in college, then was an analyst for a hedge fund for 2 years, then ran the finance and operations for a movie studio for 3 years, then became a father (3x now), then quit my job and started a fashion startup with some friends. The only through line has been “seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness and everything else will be given to you.” I think what He means by “kingdom” here is the the way he wants to world to be—since He’s a king. So when I follow what I think He’s made me for (my passions or curiosity), things have progressed forward; but when I’m self promoting or calculated, I tend to fall on my face.
What big decisions along the way have brought you to the here and now? The ones where courage conquered fear.
My wife’s first job was really bad. Her boss was pretty abusive. It was 2008, so having a job was a minor miracle in itself. I talked to a great friend about it, and he confronted me, saying “Blake, you’ve been talking about this for months. Do you think God has any new jobs lying around for your wife?” Fired up, I left the room, called my wife, and she put in her 2-weeks notice. By the end of the 2 weeks, she had an incredible offer from another employer in hand. It’s so funny because we’ve done so much riskier stuff since then, but that specific act really grew our faith.
The second one happened a year or two later when we decided to have children. I was 25 and working for the hedge fund, and I didn’t really think it was time yet—but randomly I prayed and asked God when he thought we should have kids. Weeks later I got this real strong desire to start a family—and it is literally the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. It has changed my career, identity, and how I see God and other people. The courage wasn’t in the decision, it was in the openness to ask God what He thought.
When did you realize you were creative? Any interesting moments as a child?
I was homeschooled and my favorite toys as a kid were cardboard, duct tape, and stuffed animals. I would create these worlds like a space station, or an olympic stadium or a 6-foot-tall tree in my room out of cardboard where I would pretend for literally hours and hours with all my stuffed animals. My mom really affirmed my creativity and those quirks and gave me a lot of space to be a little weirdo.
How has your faith shaped / influenced your work?
Our faith is literally everything, right? On a project level, I want whatever I do to promote trends that are about what God is about: Loving people and telling the truth.
The entertainment company that we started was made for the purpose of communicating positive values into families, and my current company, Cladwell, is about releasing people into freedom with clothing and curbing greed and exploitation in the industry.
In terms of people-work, I’m really trying to approach managing, legal, partnerships, etc… disregarding strategy that comes from fear, greed, or convention and just trust that integrity, truth, and wisdom are good enough.
It’s definitely a work in progress.
What’s your typical creative process these days?
I’m not really a sole-contributing creative professional these days—most of my work is about leveraging our team. So I’d say its journaling or reading, then calling a meeting, then white-boarding, then giving feedback and encouraging. It still feels creative, but its much more relational now.
When I get to create—first I go away and hide. Then I run it by people who are really gentle with me and watch how they react, then tweak as I go. When I do this I try approaches on for size a lot—like I’ll argue or lobby for it 100% and see if it sticks. Then if it doesn’t, I change my mind the next moment. I have to explain that to people otherwise I can come across as flaky or dishonest. My creative process is a total mess.
And when you’re not doing any of the above, where can we find you?
I read, talk, play or write songs, wakeboard, skateboard, and make cocktails—all with people I love.
Down time and work/life balance: How does this vibe with you? How do you make it all work?
I have two teams in my life: My family and Cladwell. We’re trying our best to blur the lines between those organizations as much as feasible at their relative stages. I don’t think work/life balance is worth pursuing, I just want one integrated life.
My teams (and the networks surround them) are my friends, source of income, ministry/mission, family, philanthropy, etc…I just want one life—that doesn’t require balance.
When it comes to rest, however: I believe that God made use to work 6 days a week, and rest one, so that’s what we try to do. Every Friday we have a big celebration at our house to celebrate the week’s work, then we light a candle, sing some songs, and usher in 24 hours of rest. No chores. No email. No intentionality. No obligations. Just rest and reflection. Then we hit it again on Sunday morning. I think that a literal 24-hour sabbath is one of the greatest inventions ever.
Most difficult situation to date?
Last winter we had some investment fall through at the last minute, I made a financially costly (almost fatal) strategy mistake, and I was having some family problems. I got totally stuck. I was so stressed and sad that I couldn’t even type. My friend Jeremy came over to my office and pulled me out of it through hours of journaling, counseling, and just being a great friend. I owe him a lot.
Biggest triumph / accomplishment?
That’s really hard actually. Its so rare that you ever feel like something is complete, y’know? I think its just the present. I have a beautiful family that we all like each other and a team of people that I love, and we’re working on something that we believe really matters. Even without our results and momentum, just the current state is kind of an accomplishment, isn’t it?
What would you tell your five year-ago self?
You don’t have to have a plan. Just do what you care about or what interests you.
Who do you look to for inspiration? Or, who madly lights you up and makes you want to chase down your dreams?
Jean Val Jean, the protagonist in Les Miserables. I have a picture of the scene of him dying hanging above my desk. He is a man who thought everyone and everything was out to hurt him, but learned to love by a man’s act of mercy and then sacrificing himself for others. I’m tearing up just writing about him.
Future plans? What dreams are in the pipeline?
I don’t really know. We have a lot to do with Cladwell. We want to create a viable alternative to the Fast Fashion industry (Disposable clothes like H&M, etc…) that is actually good for our souls, the environment, an workers in developing countries. I would love to make adoption and fostering in our country easier. I want my friend Andrew Fink to run for governor of Michigan and I’d like to run his campaign. I want to have more kids.
What three pieces of practical advice would you share with someone who wants to create, shape, and inspire a community of their own?
- Ignore what you “ought” to do.
- Ignore what your flesh wants to do.
- Pay attention to your desires that don’t come from #1 and #2.
- BONUS: There is wisdom in many counselors.
Any favorite methods, tools, or technology you’ve found to be essential?
I try to lock myself in my office every Sunday without any technology and think with a whiteboard and often times my wife, and we talk about what is going on across everything.
I’m kind of compulsive—like Buzzfeed’s prime target. So I hide all of the apps on my phone and computer so I never see their icons or notifications (see below). In order to do anything on a screen I have to search for it—and that moment of intentionality saves me from the browsing bug.
A weekly sabbath.
Slack for teams.
I have a cool iPhone case that carries two cards. I’ve lost my wallet too many times, and its really been helpful.
Capsule wardrobe. I only have 30 items of clothing in my closet at any one time (I rotate stuff out seasonally). It has made getting dressed simpler, it’s honed my style, and provided some fun restrictions for creativity. I highly recommend it, and my company helps you do it: Cladwell.com
A personal mantra?
Screw it let’s do it.
Where can we find you and your endeavors online?