Shabnam Azadeh is a passionate entrepreneur navigating the murky waters of expanding an all-volunteer venture into a viable business. Her company is Adhesive&Co, a virtual creative agency with offices in New York City and San Francisco that helps creative professionals build and manage their careers. For photographers and other small businesses, she does everything from website design and social media strategy to branding work and negotiation. But while she started her business in January 2015, a different iteration of the organization has been around for more than eight years.
Rewind the clock back to 2008 and Azadeh was working as a photography agent in New York City. The recession had hit the creative industry hard and in-person networking was at an all time low. To combat this, Azadeh organized a happy hour with a few industry colleagues she hadn't seen in a while; it was productive and inspiring.
Adhesive&Co founder Shabnam Azadeh
The group decided to invite more colleagues and meet again the following month. This time, instead of a group of seven people, 60 showed up and Adhesive&Co, a community for creative professionals, was born. “It was really casual," she says. “We would meet at a dive bar or a photo studio, RSVPs and tickets weren't necessary. It was just a nice excuse to get together."
Azadeh and her co-founder (who has since left the company to pursue other opportunities) gave the group the tactile-sounding tagline “sticking creatives together" and for the next six years the events were held all over New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco. In January 2015, upon moving to San Francisco and quitting her job as a photography agent, Azadeh launched the consulting arm of Adhesive&Co to help people connected to her already robust community (3,000 members at that point) with certain aspects of their businesses.
“People at Adhesive events were asking me if I could help them with social media, editing their portfolios, making their websites easier to navigate and creating their visual identities," she says. “I realized there was a need out there to help with the business side, and the consulting company grew from there."
—Shabnam Azadeh, founder, Adhesvie&Co
Today, Adhesive&Co's community is stronger than ever—4,000 members and growing—and no-strings-attached events (staffed by volunteers) are still held monthly all over the country. The only difference is that, in addition, Azadeh is working as a consultant for several of her community members. This constant funnel of potential clients has been a blessing, but also comes with its own set of difficulties.
“I struggle with my own marketing language at times because I want to have an organic approach and not be salesy while letting them know that I'm here to support them," she says.
The marketing piece is still a work in progress, but one thing Azadeh is sure of is her boundaries; she has a strict set of guidelines for engagement with a client and is clear on being a strategic partner for her clients, working to help them move forward in their careers, not cold calling to net business on their behalf.
Adhesive&Co's community now has more than 4,000 members.
“I've found that it is healthy to say no," she says. “You have to know your worth. I once put together an estimate for a client and she responded by laughing. I knew then that the relationship would always be unhealthy. I had a choice to take the gig or walk away. I chose to let it go."
Looking ahead, Azadeh is focused on the growth of her free events as well as her consulting business. She'd like to attract event sponsorship and use revenues to start a lecture series. She also has an idea for an app that would help people stay connected between events. On the consulting side, she'd like to add a few employees and bring in members of her creative community for projects on an as-needed basis.
Azadeh with friend and event volunteer Carolyn Kelly
Azadeh has a few pieces of advice that can help other solopreneurs on their journeys. First, ask for help. “It really does take a village," she says. Second, have a clear message of what you want to do and stick to it. Third, “compartmentalize your anxiety," she says. “My motto is address it, assess it and release it. And take time for yourself. You can easily work seven straight days, but that will only make you lose focus. Build a structure that allows for time off."