The Down Dilemma

Possibly a few years ago, I was fresh out of University and in the midst of my freelance empire building in the sprawling metropolis of Kamloops. Life was pretty good – I had a number of clients, was living with my girlfriend at the time, and the world was waiting for me. Next stop: The Legendary Vancouver.

Vancouver, to me, had always been the mythical, far away city of Wonderful Things. Growing up in small-town BC, Vancouver was the place where culture, art, fine espresso and beautiful people were to be found at any time of day or night.

As with most things, my freelancing hit a period of slow business, and I began to worry. I applied for a position in Vancouver with a major down manufacturer looking for someone to help with nearly all aspects of their branding, from package design to brochures, trade show materials, website design and more – they were looking for me.

The company called me for an interview, and I brought my portfolio of Jason’s Awesomeness along with me. I met with the president and vice-president in a bright, spacious boardroom and pitched my young heart out on why I was the best thing since the invention of fire. I showed them the logos I’d created, the sites I’d done, I told them about my creative “je ne c’est quoi” that could not be matched. I wanted this job – I needed it. This, this was going to be my stepping stone to Wonderland.

Yet, in the back of my head, a little voice whispered words of caution that I would of course disregard like hour-old coffee.

Suitably awed by my brilliance, the president and VP showed me around the offices, and took me next door to a beautiful new building with floor to ceiling windows and skylights. In here, they said, would be my new office, equipped with a shiny brand new Mac, a huge desk, and a large area for me to be creative in. Other than that pesky little voice, I was pretty much sold.

The president of the company said that he loved my work and what I had to offer. They immediately offered me a trial contract, to see if I was able to match my style to their industry. They gave me three different products, aimed at different markets, and asked me to create new packaging designs for them. I could do this working from home for an hourly wage, and if they liked what I created for them, the full-time gig was mine.

I immediately sped at exactly the legal limit back to Kamloops, bursting with ideas that would revolutionize down bedding forever. New York ad agencies would open offices in Vancouver just to get me on board. I researched their competitors and scoffed at their bland approaches. I created custom illustrations. Held a photo shoot. Created through the midnight hours until finally everything was perfect. I sent the files for review and even as I hit send, I knew the job was mine.

Time passed. I not-so-patiently waited by my phone, until I got the call. They loved it. Of course they did! They wanted me to start in a week, at which time they would finalize all of the particulars of my employment. I wasn’t worried. What I’d been making even on the trial contract period was decent for the time, so of course it could only be better than that, right?

Sadly, that little voice in the back of my head ruined my last week in Kamloops. It kept telling me not to get excited, that something was wrong with this. Ordinarily I would be beyond excited even just to visit Vancouver – to be moving there for a full time position? I should have been doing backflips while juggling flaming chainsaws.. but I wasn’t.

A good friend of mine was kind enough to let me stay with him for a while as I started with my job and found a place to live. With that feeling bothering me as much as it did, I didn’t leave until the night before my new job started, never telling anyone about it. I didn’t want to go to Vancouver. That’s almost like me saying I don’t want to own a Porsche. Unbelievable.

When the day came, I rolled up to my new company about 20 minutes early. The vice president was outside, waiting for me. Before I could even step out of my car he was telling me it was time to go and get started, and explaining that it was completely unacceptable to ever blame Vancouver traffic for being late, and so I should plan accordingly. The warning bells started swinging, not yet hitting the sides.

We went into his office where he explained that any and all creative ideas I had while in the company’s employ would belong to them, and that I could not do any freelance work at all. I politely reminded him that I had mentioned my freelancing in our original meeting, explained how I maintained a list of current clients, and the company had been fine with it. No longer, he said. The bell crashed loudly, and I should have left right then. I was told that personal calls, on personal cell phones, even during breaks, were not permitted. Yes, really. I didn’t ask why or how they could even think that fair; I was already shocked, and mildly alarmed by the bells ringing in my head. Still, I thought – If I need to make a call I’ll just close the door to my office, no one will know! Besides, I’m the Creative Genius – they need me! Surely I can get away with making a phone call on a coffee break. And really – wasn’t it all about the money? I needed it, they were paying it. Let’s go. We started to talk about wages.. and to start, they were going to offer me.. less than what they paid me during the trial contract. Sorry, what? The VP softly explained that since I would now be full time, I would in essence be making more than I had on the part time contract.. but we could review it in six months. I’d love to say that I stood up, threw a burning match on his desk and left, but I really did feel like I was between a rock and a dead place at that moment and needed almost any work I could get. I bit my tongue and acquiesced. I could do this. I had to. I would work at this place and to heck with their rule, I would freelance like a monster on the side. I’d work 20 hour days.. again. I’d make it work. Just let me get to my nice, big office, look out the windows onto the beautiful city, my beautiful city of Vancouver, turn on some music, and create. All would be okay.

Except, there was a change of plans. The beautiful new building wasn’t finished yet, and when it was they were going to try using it for something else for a while and so my office space was unavailable. Instead, they took me to a heavy steel door just off the production factory floor. Opening it up, I saw a closet – no, it was a room, about 4 feet wide and 20 feet long. There were no windows. No skylight. Just the hum and clanging of the factory.. and a tired, sad looking man sitting on the far end of the room. This would be my office, for the next six months, or perhaps longer, while they figured out what they wanted to do with my beautiful office space. Get creative, they said. No phone calls, and.. try not to get online too much. The dialup cuts out our company’s main line. Dialup. WHAT? Oh.. and one more thing? No listening to music while at work.

The heavy steel door slammed shut like a prison cell. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. How could anyone be creative in a closet like this? How could they promise me so much and give me THIS? I spent the day completely out of it. I opened up photoshop on a ten year old Mac and pushed a couple pixels around. I had no vision. Nothing. The day passed. Nobody came to check on my cellmate and I, and when the factory bell chimed the end of the day, we left. I was a mess. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t ask my girlfriend to leave her life to move to Vancouver to be a part of this with me – I knew I’d be a miserable wreck within one month. I couldn’t go back to Kamloops, either – not with my freelancing in the downturn it was in. I couldn’t do anything. I had nowhere to go. The city itself felt angry. The city I’d dreamt of living in almost my entire life didn’t want me there. Not like this.

I didn’t go back to my friend’s house. I parked my car by the beach and stood in the ocean. FInally, I called my dad. My mill-working, meat eating, animal hunting dad, and told him my situation. I fully expected him to tell me to stop being such a cry baby, pick up my bootstraps and go to work for the down company. I almost wanted him to tell me that so I could resign myself to it. Instead, he told me I couldn’t work in a place like that. Told me to try again at building my own empire. Told me to be brave and believe in myself.. and most importantly, that if things really did get too bad and didn’t work out, I’d always have a place to stay with him. At the time, I didn’t know that. Ever since that moment, I’ve always known it.

We ended our conversation and I called the president of the company at home to tell him I quit. He actually sounded surprised when he asked me why. I explained how they hadn’t delivered on any of what they promised, how the pay was unacceptable, and how being locked in a closet wasn’t exactly conducive to creativity. The man actually had the nerve to say he didn’t see why windows were important for an office, and then had no response when I asked why he had a corner office with floor to ceiling windows. He tried for a moment to dissuade me, but I somewhat politely thanked him for the opportunity and told him I could and would do better before hanging up. The instant I did, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders. The city behind me no longer felt angry. I knew I’d made the right choice.

That night, I packed up my car and headed back to Kamloops. Life would be hard for a while, but I persevered. I got new clients and some of my old clients started returning for more work. My work started getting sought out from all over the city. Eventually I would land a dream job working in the music industry, creating ads, posters and radio commercials to represent bands and artists I’d grown up listening and daydreaming to in my small BC hometown a lifetime ago. I’d face a few more challenges after that, and I’ll face more still, if I’m lucky – but it all goes back to that one “unopportunity” for me. From day one, my inner voice told me it was wrong, but in my fear and desperation, I was willing to accept it. It was only when I was brave and accepted the risk that I would realize my dreams. It was only when I embraced my Ambition that I would found it.

  – Jason Toma


The Tale of the Cheap Dress Shirt

While looking at my closet the other day, I wondered what my “style” really is. I found a mixture of t-shirts, dress shirts, suit jackets, sports jerseys, ties, jeans, dress pants and a few brave remnants of the late 90s I’ve never been able to bring myself to throw out. I’ll wear any of these (except the 90s refugees) on any given day and feel equally at home in any of them. Should the occasion call for it, I’m more than happy to rock the suit and tie – and sometimes, even when it doesn’t call for it. If it’s a casual day, jeans and a nice t-shirt are always an easy option. No matter where I show up, my friends and the people that know me are almost always prepared for whatever wardrobe choice I’ve taken that day.

This thought process got started the other day when I had a meeting at one of the office towers downtown. People in suits and power outfits blazed back and forth between offices and overpriced coffees. The sun reflected off of over-shined shoes and brass-cornered briefcases. In the midst of all this I parked my 20 year old sports car, slung my bag over my leather jacketed shoulder, and walked to my meeting. I made my way through the crowds and into the building my meeting was at. As I waited for the elevator, two other gentlemen came and waited beside me. They gave me a quick glance, surmised I wasn’t part of their group, and continued their conversation about nothing in particular. As I looked at them, I wondered if perhaps I was underdressed. In my head, the old Sesame Street song “One of these things is not like the other…” started playing. However, as it did, I looked at them again. The shirts were poorly cut, wrinkled, and looked like they’d skipped a wash cycle or two. Their collars were loose and the ties they wore didn’t go with the rest of what they were wearing. Generic, grey pants stood unevenly over dirty brown shoes.

My skin bristled. Not at their fashion choices (for the record, I can barely tie a tie – and don’t ask me about stripes with stripes – I have no idea) – but at their overall inauthenticity. I’d rather have shown up in shorts and sandals than be in the shoddy outfits they were in. They were dressing to a dress code, sure, but that was it. I understand not liking a dress code, I understand being a bit behind in your laundry – but if you have to do something, do it properly, yes?

I remembered my days of freelancing back in Kamloops, BC. I was fresh out of university and anxious to build my empire. My clients ranged from nightclubs to restaurants and party planners to auto body shops, clothing stores and even a tanning studio. The styles of work I did for each was vastly different; as was the way my clients thought of me. For one client, I would always show up in a freshly pressed shirt, cleanly shaven, early in the morning. For another, they knew me as the “crazy, rock’n’roll artist guy” (their words, not mine!) that had been out the night before at one of the nightclubs I worked with until all hours of the morning, no matter what day of the week it was. When I was meeting with them, I wouldn’t shave, leave my hair a bit more dishevelled (I mean hey, do artists really care?) and would put on something usually more appropriate for the club.

The thing was, I wasn’t being dishonest with any of my clients in my appearance. I knew what aspect of myself they had connected with, and if I enhanced it a little, I viewed it as salesmanship. If a client thought of me as the polite, well-dressed young man, I would be the best dressed man in Kamloops minding my Ps and Qs. If another thought me a gear head like the guys that worked in their shop, I’d make sure to talk about my cars as much as I did with friends and not clients. The point is – no matter where I was, I was genuine. I was comfortable and at ease.

It’s such a simple thing, but being okay and honest with yourself can help you face whatever difficult situation you are in. If someone isn’t being honest with how they’re presenting themselves to you, what else aren’t they being honest about? If they don’t care about how they look and how they represent their company.. well, you get it.

The elevator chimed and they both left. They turned a casual glance back at me, and I felt as if I was standing perhaps just a touch taller. Yes, I’d left my suit and tie at home, but I wasn’t the one pawing at my collar and itching out of my skin.

The doors closed again and I smiled to myself. I walked into a room full of fellow business owners who returned my smile when they saw me. I set my jacket and bag down and got compliments on my company shirt. The meeting began, and all thoughts of clothing and being genuine were cast aside. I didn’t need to think about these things, as I was where I was meant to be. My clients and colleagues had recognized me for who I was, as I had them. Business was discussed and goals were achieved.

Somewhere in a small town, and many years ago, a younger me in a jean jacket is smiling and happy.


– Jason
Founder, Ambition Branding