Small Business Profile: Jenna Liberman + Chloe List, Founders of Slow Down Co. - Chicago
Hi Jenna and Chloe! Tell us a little bit about yourselves. What are your backgrounds?
Jenna: I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and went to UW Madison for school. I was in the business program there, and I knew I wanted to be in and around food, but I didn’t quite know how. I got involved with Slow Food, which is an international organization that’s about local, organic, fair food. At the time, it was really fringe. Now it’s as mainstream and greenwashed as you can get, but at the time it was this revolutionary idea. Michael Pollan's Book The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed my life.
I got involved in food and I did some work in the front of the house and back of the house; I was not cut out for either, but I was good at talking to people and marketing. My first big job out of college was clipping at a little PR firm. I landed at 22 my dream job, like 5 years too early, and I started working for One Off Hospitality, which is a restaurant group here in Chicago that owns big restaurants like Big Star, Publican, Blackbird and Avec. I ran their marketing, PR, and at the time social media - really anything that needed to get done, I was doing and learning on the job. It was years of busting my ass and loving every minute of it and imposter syndrome.
About a year and a half in, we realized that it was way too much work for one person. I was good at certain things, but not everything, so we hired Chloe to take lead on social media and graphic design. Chloe and I felt at that time, it was the most creative and excited we’d ever been about work, and that energy of the two of us creating was something really special. I continued at that job for just about 4 years before feeling like I had reached the ceiling there, and I did not want to be an owner of a restaurant. I left on the best terms possible, and worked at a small boutique PR agency, called SKOOG Productions, and I lead their food and beverage division. It was such a good opportunity to learn how you’re supposed to do this work, because my training was, more or less, figuring out ways to do it on my own. It was great to learn the traditional route, and then find the middle ground that felt like my way of doing it. I was there for a year and was pretty bored. Chloe and I were wondering if we should do our own thing, but didn’t know what that was going to look like.
Chloe: I also grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I went to U of I and studied advertising. I was originally in journalism, because in high school I thought I was going to work at a magazine (Teen Vogue was my dream job, like everyone else). When I graduated, I thought I knew what I wanted to do - be a creative at an agency because that was what my program prepared me for. I realized though that I didn’t have a portfolio so no one was going to hire me as a designer or art director without one. So I went to Chicago Portfolio School and took my first real design classes. I was really bored because all my friends had 9-5's and my classes were at night, so I was really antsy to work. I saw a posting on Time Out’s website for a marketing designer and applied on a whim, thinking they won’t hire me. They called me and I ended up getting a job there and quitting portfolio school after a quarter and a half.
Time Out is where I started really becoming interested in restaurants because that was a lot of what they wrote about. Then the magazine closed after I worked there for a month and a half and I got laid off. I ended up getting a job at Modern Luxury as a designer there, and that felt like design bootcamp because of the volume of design stuff I had to do. Then I got bored there and was networking with other creative people in the city - that’s when I heard about the job at One Off. At this time, I was really obsessed with Instagram, eating out at restaurants, and posting all the time. I wasn’t qualified whatsoever for the job, but I still got it. It was a dream job.
We had so much fun working together and making cool stuff happen, but it was also a grind, and I wasn’t cut out for that level of intensity. I was burnt out after a year and had always said I would move to San Francisco. I quit my job and got rid of my apartment and moved there. I ended up getting a job right before I left with a PR firm. I still wanted to work around restaurants, so I looked up Tartine Bakery, because I was obsessed, and found who did their PR and emailed them and gave a little pitch about hiring me. Then they made a job for me, which was really cool. I never actively tried to freelance, but things would just come my way and I would continue to do stuff for One Off. After two years, I was not doing enough of the projects I wanted to be doing and I felt like I was coasting.
How did you begin Slow Down Co.?
Jenna: Over this time we were G-Chatting each other and I went on a trip to California to visit Chloe. We had a great time, and her now ex-boyfriend was listening to us talk about ideas and suggested to just start a business where I was at and then eventually grow it to be where I wanted it to be. It was a mad idea to me that it didn’t have to be a fully baked idea before you jump in, because I’m organized and orderly and I follow rules. It was this revolutionary idea. When I got back to Chicago, I messaged Chloe and said that I thought I was going to take the jump and start a PR firm. I definitely wanted a business partner and Chloe was asking me what kind of person I was thinking of. I said "I don’t know, maybe a graphic designer."
Chloe: And I was like, uh hello! Me.
Jenna: This whole time I had wanted to work with Chloe, but wasn’t sure she would want to. I thought it could be something that would happen down the road. I didn’t want to bully her into starting a business with me. I wanted it to be something that we were equal partners in, because in our previous roles, I was technically her manager.
Where did the name Slow Down come from?
Jenna: We started in early February with what we thought this would look like. We read a lot and pulled out old business school books. We did a lean canvas which is really helpful because a business plan is kind of outdated these days. We did a lot of research, but the name Slow Down was a pretty quick decision. After a week or two, Chloe was like slow down…
Chloe: It was more like 2 days.
Jenna: Neither of us thought it was really going to happen, but we just kept doing it. We thought of a name, and then we had a URL, and then somehow we had an operating agreement.
Chloe: We went far enough that we couldn’t really turn around. I was first trying to be clever with our initials for the name, but I thought there should be some sort of meaning behind it. The way I came up with it is from when we were working at One Off together, all of our shared account passwords were ‘slowdown’.
Jenna: I tend to move fast, and on day one of the job I said just slow down. So the background of my computer was slow down and my passwords were slow down.
Chloe: That popped into my head and I thought it was perfect. I told Jenna “Slow Down” on February 9th and she had this calendar by this artist Matthew Hoffman, when she looked at it there was a quote that said slow down and we were done. It also makes sense for our approach.
Jenna: It’s a constant reminder to be intentional with the way that we operate and live our lives.
How did you define your roles and tasks in the business?
Chloe: It was pretty organic. I feel like we each work from our strengths. For Jenna, it was clear that she was going to be sales/business development. So then I thought about what value that I could add. I do all of our bookkeeping and accounting. Anything that needs words, Jenna does, and anything that needs visuals, I do.
Jenna: Unless it’s quippy.
Chloe: Yeah, I do the captions.
Jenna: I think it was being organized and risk averse. For me to feel comfortable taking the leap, I needed to have a game plan. A lot of what we did before starting our business was identifying who would do what, and then if, for some reason, we had a lot of graphic design needs, how I could step in. We’re both cross-trained in everything because we want to be able to support each other, not running two separate businesses under one overhead. I find our work is best when we’re both actually involved. When it comes to PR, Chloe often comes up with pitches for me to pitch on behalf of our clients, because she’s an avid consumer of media. When it comes to messaging, I’ll spend hours and hours trying to come up with brand strategy, and she’ll come in and say it doesn’t feel human enough or whatever it is.
On the flip side, with graphic design, I’ll say when I can’t read something. It’s beautiful, but illegible. I’ll come up with something completely different that triggers something in her brain that’s brilliant. We try to use design in our pitching, which is not something that’s typical.
When you began, did you have a specific client in mind?
Jenna: The buckets that we launched were food + beverage, lifestyle, and hospitality. We’ve turned down opportunities that we feel are too far out of our wheelhouse. Our marketing is a bit more focused on who are clientele are, but our design is a little bit looser.
Chloe: When we were starting out, we made a list of dream clients, so that helped.
Jenna: We wanted to be mindful to diversify. We just didn’t want to do restaurant design and PR. We’re interested in food product, skincare, different things that aren’t necessarily in the restaurant/bar realm.
Do you have a most memorable or most challenging project that you’ve worked on?
Jenna: We are working with Chicago Style, and they are three women who are incredible. We were brought on kind of as the fourth partner since we’ve been involved since the ideation process. We’re helping them with their marketing, PR, branding, messaging, website, and all of these various things that they do. Being able to utilize our skills to further a message and an idea that’s super important to us, which is diversity and inclusive voices within the food and beverage space, has been really awesome. We were able to, because the story is so phenomenal and the timeliness was right, have the New York Times announce that. The response that we’ve felt for our business and the response that they’re received has been really cool because PR is only as powerful as the message you’re supporting. It has been cool to drive things forward with their conversation in the climate now in regards to being a woman in this industry. We used all of the products that we offer, above and beyond for them, so it has been really fun to really work deeply with someone.
Chloe: That was what was in my head too. I feel like we have all these different offerings, but that was the first project where we did them all at once. It was helping them birth this thing from branding to programs.
Jenna: Sweetgreen was also cool and Ludlow. We’ve been lucky enough, within the course of 7 short months, to be involved with really awesome projects. Throwing a great party is something we love to do. Whether it’s an opening party for Ludlow Liquors or Sweetgreen Fulton Market, being able to craft an experience and how that relates to the larger story, is really fun, rather that just throwing a party.
What makes you passionate about what you do?
Chloe: For me, it’s that all of these things that I fangirl about and am really interested in and obsessed with, come together in my job. When I’m sucked down the rabbit hole of the internet reading recipes, it’s kind of work related. Having an excuse to consume all of these things is cool. Taking our skills and helping people push their dreams forward through storytelling.
Jenna: Ever since I was young, I never felt like I was a creative, but I was always surrounded by creative people and I loved helping them funnel their ideas into a product, end result, or goal. My favorite part of my job is helping these wonderful, creative people, that we are lucky enough to work with, channel their ideas into something that is living and breathing and real, and helping them focus and stay on task. A lot of what we do is project management. It’s not sexy, but it’s fun and exciting to say that we built this with you. I think the reason that people are continuing to stick with us thus far is because we help bring the best of themselves out.
What challenges have you faced with Slow Down?
Jenna: One is imposter syndrome. We balance each other out because I’m her biggest fan, and she’s my biggest fan. We often think ‘what the fuck, I can’t believe we’re getting paid to do this’.
Chloe: It’s because it doesn’t feel like work always.
Jenna: We’re often reminded that it’s not something that everyone can do. The fear of delivering is my biggest thing that keeps me up at night. These wonderful people have amazing stories and amazing products, and they’re trusting us. So how do we execute in a way that they’re not only satisfied, but happy. That’s terrifying to me, both personally and professionally. We need that for our business to sustain itself, but I don’t want to let my friends down. It’s not that I can’t do it, but am I good enough in order to help them?
Chloe: All of a sudden, here we are, and it’s 7 months in, and I have to know all these things that I never thought I would have to know, like payroll taxes. Sometimes it feels a little scary.
How do you deal with moments of self-doubt?
Chloe: I don’t do something reactively to the doubt, but I do things preventatively for it. I consume a lot of self-help books, not necessarily because I need them, but I like reading books like that to keep my brain wired. Yoga, mediation, and all those things really help. She’s rolling her eyes.
Jenna: I’m doing them. I just don’t always like it.
I know a lot of fun, capable people, so if I’m feeling scared, I think of worst case scenario, who can I lean on and who can I ask for help? If something feels like it’s spinning out, at what point do I need to ask for help. Whether I feel confident in myself, I certainly feel confident in those around me. We feel like it’s a seesaw. One of us is usually solid while the other one is spinning.
Are there resources that have been helpful to you?
Chloe: Debbie Millman is an incredible designer, she’s a partner at Pentagram, but she knows everyone in the design world. She has the podcast Design Matters and I’ve listened to every episode and learned so much from her. Similarly, I learned so much from Grace Bonney’s podcast, After the Jump. Anything that either of them do, I consume immediately. I read You are a Badass by Jen Sincero a year and a half ago, and it kicked my butt in a good way. I feel like sometimes you read these books and don’t put things into practice, but the chapter about affirmations made me actually do them. I designed a phone background with one of them on it to remind myself, and I swear to god it rewired my brain because I saw this thing so often. It sounds woo woo, but you can make things happen if you just shift your thinking.
Jenna: I’m constantly paying attention to different businesses and trying to figure out how they’re working. I’m more people focused in my resources. I’m constantly meeting people and talking to people.
Why do you think it’s important for women to support each other?
Jenna: When I was at One Off and felt like I had kind of hit the glass ceiling there, I started a practice of meeting one new person every week or so, typically a woman, and just learning what they do. I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave my job yet or not, but I knew I needed something. I met so many incredible women in this city, in fields outside of my own.
Women are open and willing to help and share, and most of the time, be really human. There isn’t this facade up. We’re best suited to support each other. Women can talk about how badass they are, while also holding the idea that they are completely drowning and faking it, and it can all be true. Many of our friends and peers who have businesses are men, and they don’t seem to have the same nuanced thoughts at the same time. Not to say that some don’t, but some of them are more headstrong.
Women need to support each other because it’s incredibly fulfilling to help someone else who is a little further behind, and so incredibly helpful to talk to someone who’s a few miles ahead about how they’re living their lives.
Chloe: I just got coffee with this girl who’s a design student at the school I went to, and I feel like I learned as much about myself while talking to her as she probably did. It’s cool going in both directions, you take and you give.
Jenna: Very rarely being on the giving end of that, have I left feeling that that was a waste of time. Usually you’re inspired by someone who’s hungry and young.
Chloe: And it makes you realize how far you’ve come. You can’t feel like a complete imposter when you just taught this girl something.
Who are some of your favorite creative women?
Jenna: Jen Gotch, duh. I love how honest she is with her vulnerability and I identify with the way that she communicates her insecurities and flaws. I tow that same line of is she coming untethered or is she fabulous? I resonate with watching her public persona.
- Haley Nahman (of Man Repeller): she is so good with words and clothes
- Carolina Mariana Rodriguez: would love to spend a day in her head and see the world the way she sees it
- Jesse Marble: always blown away by the photos she creates
- Alaina Sullivan: I want to eat everything she cooks and wish I made everything she designs
- Aimee Brodeur: (of Feedback NY): as a food and grocery store obsessed person I'm inspired by the stories she's telling
- Jessica Murnane: again, inspired by the stories she's telling and her mission
What are your favorite spots in Chicago?
Jenna: We have guides of all of our favorite places. Rootstock and Cafe Marie-Jeanne. Sportsman's and Ludlow Liquors. Demera is so good - Ethiopian in Uptown. Humboldt Park is one of my favorite places to walk.
Chloe: Avec is my #1 forever. I like Crickett Hill - it’s up by Montrose. I think I may like it because it’s the one part of the city that isn’t flat. Red + White, this natural wine bar in Bucktown. The Zen Garage is my yoga place.
Jenna: We also really love grocery stores. The Amish Market on Western and Cortez is special. My favorite market is Fresh Farms.