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Life & Business

Life & Business: Jamie Leigh Moore

by Sabrina Smelko

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Architect, surgeon, artist; these were my career prospects as I knew it as a 15-year-old in high school. I remember feeling confused and stunted while staring at a list of possible careers on a computer screen, results based off of a few multiple choice questions and answers. None of them felt fully right for me, but then again, I didn’t know what any of them really meant.

Discovering what it is that you’re meant to do, let alone what you want to do, is terribly hard. And often, even going to college can only confuse you more as you realize the infinite possibilities. This was the story for me until I discovered my passion for illustration and design at nearly 20 years old — and I think it’s the story of most business owners — just as it was for production designer and prop stylist, Jamie Leigh Moore.

Inspired by powerful women in the creative industry paving their own way, Jamie move to Brooklyn, NY, and started hustling her work and name around. She worked various contracts in the field, such as her position as a crew-member on the show GIRLS, and after lots of hard work, dedication, and sleepless nights, Jamie made a name for herself and went it alone. She’s now a successful freelance business owner with a portfolio of projects for clients including Tribeca Film Festival, Nick Jr., TLC and San Pellegrino. Today, Jamie’s chatting with us about understanding what makes you marketable, how calm is key, and the “series of palpably awkward missteps and false starts” that led to the start of her business. –Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business?

The short answer is that there wasn’t a specific moment in time when I made a decision to start my own business. It happened out of necessity in order for me to get what I want out of my career — which is creativity, flexibility, being my own boss, and moving to New York.

The long answer involves a series of palpably awkward missteps and false starts. I’ve never lacked ambition or passion, but finding my niche post-art school was difficult. At 23, I was an MFA dropout, virtually broke, and literally packing boxes for money in a dimly lit basement (the time in my life that I dramatically characterize as my low point). I was obsessively researching women who found a way to marry creativity and business and who pioneered creative entrepreneurship as we know it today — women like Alyson Fox, Sibella Court, Emily Henderson, Anna Bond, Grace Bonney. I knew that this was my general trajectory and it required me taking the risk of moving to Brooklyn without a job, only $700 in my bank account, and renting a tiny room in a railroad apartment in deep Bushwick.

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Image above: From Brooklyn Book | Photo By Olivia Rae James

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

I more or less fell into what I’m doing now and decided to stick with it because it suited me so well. Props and design seemed to be a good starting point for everything I had been practicing and learning my whole life. I grew up in a household where creativity was completely embraced, so art and making things have always been a part of me — whether it was photography, painting, or annually redecorating my bedroom since age 7 (that included an unfortunate sponge-painting phase circa 1992).

After moving to Brooklyn, I contacted anyone and everyone working in film, design, and photography that would meet me. Within a month, one of those loose connections led me to a freelance position with the scenic painting crew on the first season of GIRLS. It was a foot in the door and a way to quickly acclimate myself to the world of set design, set decoration, and prop styling.

After a year of a half of freelance scenic painting, I had gained enough experience and contacts to go out on a limb and begin exclusively taking on design projects. The next two years were like a boot camp for learning how to build, design and decorate sets, events, interiors — you name it. I said yes to each and every project and opportunity that came my way — the scary, big ones that I was naïve enough to take on and the unglamorous ones that will never see the light of my portfolio. My business formed into this malleable service, as I’m able to bounce around from films to commercials to photos to interiors to events to personal projects and so on.

 

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

One idea that resonated with me and inspired a big turning point in my own business and personal growth was to think of pieces of my own identity as capital — meaning that it’s just as valuable as money. It’s very important to understand who you are and what makes you marketable. Anything you can do to more clearly define your tastes, your talent, your skills, are huge investments in yourself and your business.

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Image above: photo by Jamie Leigh Moore via Instagram

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The NY Film Production industry is male-dominated at the top and can be sexist. The reality is that it’s alarmingly difficult for a young female to have a respected voice among groups of older men. Gender bias and inaccurate, preconceived notions are all working against you, even before you open your mouth. So much so that you must painstakingly prove yourself competent each and every time you’re working with a new crew (and as a freelancer, you’re almost always working with a new crew). Of course, there are countless exceptions, and I’ve noticed progress as these issues are more a part of mainstream conversation than ever before.

 

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Problems are going to arise — your perfectly laid plan will fall apart, overnight shipping will fail you, things break, people change their minds, the custom window treatments you ordered are 8 inches too short… One deep breath and say, “Let’s see what we can do.” Calm is key, always.

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Image above: a still from Don-O-Mite

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

9-5 is completely out the window — you keep very odd and intense hours, you sacrifice sleep, time with friends, nights and weekends. I’ve re-booked six different flights and scheduled trips in the last year, but it all seems worth it to me. I’ll keep up with the pace until I feel otherwise. I’ve never been too concerned with work/life balance, but would instead rather focus on shaping my work into something that fits seamlessly into the life I want to have.

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Image above: from San Pellegrino Off the Menu Dinner. Photo by Jamie Leigh Moore via Instagram.

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

I’m just getting started with tremendous room to grow, so I’d like to speak again in about 10 years regarding great success! I’m excited to be at a point where I’m able to focus on personal projects that really challenge me creatively. Beyond that, yes, there’s not much stability or many guarantees in freelancing, but I would take that every day over predictability or boring or lack of challenge. Whether it’s decorating a 1960s British M16 office or propping a shoot filled with exotic taxidermy — it’s all new information, new people, and new experiences.

 

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

Design Matters Podcast – Debbie Millman gives me a particularly intense set of heart eyes. This interview with Stefan Sagmeister will give you so much to think about and Debbie’s personal narrative at the beginning is everything.

The Defining Decade – a must-read if you’re in your 20s.

The Great Discontent – I’ve been known to hole up for several days at a time and binge-read Great Discontent interviews. They are a tremendous source of inspiration.

Not specifically business-related, but read Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed for your soul and other things.

 

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

My painting professor in college told us that so much of painting is like washing dishes. Having a successful business is simply a lot of work — it takes an unbelievable focus and grit to get what you want. Consider how much you’re willing to wade through the muck — if it’s worth it to you, all your blood, sweat, and tears will pay you back tenfold.

 

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Comments

  • Oh this is brilliant & very inspirational! I’m on my way to self-employment but I still have the feeling it’ll be a long way. But that’s fine; in the meantime I read stories like Jamie’s & I think that always brings me one step further. Thanks for sharing this! x

  • This has long been my favorite series on Design*Sponge (and one of my favorites anywhere), and now it has one of my favorite people. Loved learning more about Jamie’s business! Thanks for sharing.

  • Professor K is the best! :)

    This was so inspiring to read, Jamie. So proud of you and all the hard work you’re doing!

  • This is a prime example of a person following their dreams…wherever it may take them. Taking risks, relying on the wisdom of the past, and learning from those who cross their path. It takes a tenacious attitude and an intrinsic drive to succeed in this world and this young lady inspires me to continue to cross off and add things to my bucket list! I shared this with my high school visual art students and although there were aspects they didn’t quite grasp, there were also excerpts that they could totally relate to. It definitely empowered them to think differently. Thanks for sharing this!

  • Wonderful article Jamie. The day I first met you I knew you would be a success at whatever you focused on. So happy for you and I wish you much success in work and on the journey of writing your ticket to joy and self discovery. Kudos!

  • Great read! Proud of you Jamie. I still have the photo you took of the smiley face espresso in Italy. Loved reading of your success .

  • I am a few years into my creative business and I can tell you it can be really tough but I get so much knowledge, inspiration and support through reading Jaime’s story and with features like this that keep me going. There is nothing on this earth I would rather do. Finding beauty in the everyday!