Mirrors in Wonderland Illustration: Maya E Shakur
Location: My desk in the living room, Dubai
Running a digital family business has always been a labor of love, but after 10 years in E-commerce Land, it is time for a plot twist.
Scary, confusing, gut wrenching? Very. Yet, a solid change of direction can be worth the risk (and the lake of tears). Or so I thought, when I found myself standing in the middle of a labyrinth, staring at several signs with conflicting directions.
How did I get here? To answer that question, I must go back to the beginning and work my way to the end. Once upon all at the same time, all over the place, it wasn’t an affinity with technology or a need to disrupt that ignited my entrepreneurial streak, it was writing. I had used my writing skills as a fashion journalist for print magazines, as a digital columnist for ELLE, as a Dutch and English copywriter for advertising agencies, retailers, fashion, and beauty brands, as a ghostwriter for a Dutch celebrity and corporate board members, and after a move from Amsterdam to Los Angeles, I could even add “branded entertainment screenwriter and content producer for a comedy site” to my experience. What if I would combine all of that – the writing, the branded, the editorial – and wrap e-commerce in story?
As with most impossible thoughts before breakfast, they make you wonder out loud. And the louder I wondered, the more I went down, down, down the rabbit hole, straight into the www: the wild, weird, and wondrous. For a minute or two, I stood looking around, when suddenly the Interweb Woods appeared, and I heard myself say anxiously, “Which way? Which way?”
What I didn’t know at the time is that when you don’t know where to go, it doesn’t matter which road you choose. So, I still tried to make sense out of the next step, choosing north as my direction.
Unfortunately, there’s no place for logic in E-commerce Land. It is a place like no place on earth, and to survive it, you must be completely bonkers at least half of the time (slowly driven insane by ever-changing algorithms). Walking on, I stumbled over contradictory web-based logic, completely irrational circumstances, and unanswerable riddles. Somewhere down the road, I sat down and whispered, “I don’t know much and that’s a fact, but it would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”
Still, curiouser and curiouser, I worked my way through the topsy-turvy of site lay-outs and widgets and plug-ins and global shipping rates and faster shipping times, and safe checkouts, logistics and analytics, and a massive amount of commerce and product writing, story writing, editing, and graphic design, and styling illustrations and finding images, and writing press releases and newsletters and terms & conditions and following the latest on GDPR rules and other online shopping laws and registering trademarks and domain names….and I did it with a commitment to my goal: let story drive commerce.
You see, I wanted to treat e-commerce like writing a book and create a safe, happy place for people to shop a well-merchandised edit fitting to the lives and style of my store’s characters. A place where I could use my creative and conceptual skills to create a harmonious shopping experience, develop story ideas, write, create whimsical shopping edits, select the exact right products for my site’s story. I knew that I would never be able to become the person who lured people in with clickbait or blog about popular or controversial topics that might come up in Google search for increased traffic’s sake. I didn’t want to use freebies or continuous discounts to gain followers. Markus and I didn’t want our site and products to become investor’s tools, marching towards exit, so we bootstrapped and invested our own money.
But the more I wandered, the more the road never seemed to end, its pathways twisting and turning in different directions on different days. Personal blogs shifted to social platforms, words and photos had to take the backseat as short 15 second videos moved to the forefront, thoughtful comments turned into emoji-filled requests from fake accounts shouting, “I love it, I love you, post here!” (I do very well in the fake account segment). Algorithms took the steering wheel, dictating what someone saw where. I always seemed two-and-a-half steps behind. That’s the thing, isn’t it? When you try to keep up in a place where haste predominates, and everything seems to happen ‘just in time,’ you keep catching up rather than putting one foot in front of the other. So, I grew taller, smaller, and morphed into whatever was needed to make my site and social media pages commercially viable. Posting pics, stories, product information, hash-tagging all the way, while listening to the continuous song, “Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?”
And yes, I danced. To the whims of Algorithm, Bot, and AI; those three mad monarchs, sentencing before the verdict, keeping my site away from my audience. To win the dance battle, I just had to write more content, write more newsletters, buy more new products, answer more product and shipping questions, write more product texts, make more graphics, fix all website issues, find new plug-ins, boost more Instagram posts, write more social media captions, and make more Google, Facebook, and Instagram ads. I battled the results of ongoing stress: eye-infections, teeth infections, chronic hives, dizzy spells, I slept with a teeth protector because of my continuous teeth grinding. It didn’t matter. Whatever was needed to be dealt with to avoid standing still.
That’s why, every time I ran into a topic or thought I really wanted to flesh out in a longer essay (like this post here, kudos to you for still reading), I scribbled a note on one of my ever-growing to-write lists in one of my notebooks. I’d get to it, the moment, I’d be finished dancing. Maybe tomorrow, never today…
Or maybe right now. Insert sudden stop. Yes, life has a funny way to hit you with a sledgehammer, forcing you to do exactly the opposite of what you’re doing. This June, I found myself on the couch with a fever, coughing, sneezing, nauseated by the sight or thought of meat and chicken. What I thought would be a speedy recovery turned into long-Covid, with exhaustion, headaches, and brain fog for weeks turning into months on end. Suddenly, it was not just hard to speed up, connect dots, and do, it was frustratingly hard to remember words and formulate sentences.
Standing still made it impossible to avoid my own thoughts. Here they were, loud and clear. Some of them being “Who are you? What are you doing and why?” Trying to find answers made me realize that it was not just the online landscape that had changed dramatically. I had changed too. In fact, I knew who I was when I jumped into E-commerce, but I had changed several times since then.
In 2016, I became Indy’s academic coach slash tutor slash teacher in the Sciences, Language Arts, Social Studies, Art History when he moved from a private IB brick & mortar school to a private US online school in grade 2. Through this role, I became interested in how young children learn, in the bridge between neuroscience and teaching, the growth mindset, and story-and play driven learning. I read and taught and adapted.
As an intercountry adoptee, I reconnected with my birth country, Indonesia, in 2017. For the first time, I mourned the loss of a country, a culture, a language, a family, of what could have been. And for the first time, I celebrated the parts in me that are part of the beautiful SE-Asian diaspora, of a country that welcomed me home, no matter how long I’ve been away.
As a wife in a mixed marriage, Markus and I had many kitchen table conversations, finding our way through the multicultural and multiracial, oftentimes with hilarious outcomes, other times with eye opening learning moments. I became more at ease with being brown, which had been challenging growing up (yes, this deserves another post). And with that, I became more at ease writing diverse stories, making my character Sophie brown and Indonesian like me.
I already loved reading children’s books, and I already enjoyed writing in the tone of voice of my imaginative, adventurous characters, Frederick and Sophie, but as I took different children’s book writing courses and became part of writing groups, engaging with other (children’s book) writers, I fell deeply in love with writing for children. I imagined writing stories that bridge the different worlds I grew up in and add a dash of magic.
My mother passed away in 2021, and although we were estranged and hadn’t seen each other or spoken in over twelve years, the past became present, hitting me in the face like a wet towel (held by my inner child). In the same period, I learned that it was going to be pretty much impossible to have a second child. There was loss of what was and loss of what could have been.
Through therapy, I became more aware of my introvert nature, and of writing not just being a source of income or a tool to sell, but a lifeline for a brain fueled not by action but thoughtful reflection. Writing has always felt like a part of my being rather than a profession. Now I understood why. As an introvert, I am not aware of my thoughts unless I write them down. I have a good memory, but it takes a long time to retrieve memories, writing helps. I am a book worm and a storyteller because my energy-conserving nervous system makes me feel content and energized when reading a book, thinking deeply, or diving into their rich inner world of ideas. Writing is not just what I do… It’s who I am.
Indy has been the embodiment of change, growing up faster than the eye can see. Whereas I started as a thirty-something start-up-mom of a chubby three-year-old blob, I now am the forty-something entrepreneur-mom of a newly teenager who is exactly 5 centimeters taller than me. Instead of talk about Paw Patrol and Lightning McQueen, we now discuss the history of the world, wars, the brain, emotions, we laugh loudly at Trevor Noah’s stand-up shows, watch the same series, and yes – share a love and knack for quick witted sarcasm.
And then there was everyday life around the world. Building an e-commerce business became our One Family’s Search for Everything Across Europe, SE-Asia, USA, and the Middle East (with the title of the story not being Eat, Pray, Love, but more something like… Well, That Was Unexpected, or Not According to Plan). With a start in Berlin, Germany, we moved to Milan, Vienna, and now Dubai. Together, we traveled the world extensively, with family-business trips taking us to and through Rome, Venice, Vatican City, Paris, Amsterdam, New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Jakarta, Bali, Cannes, Monaco, Antwerp, Brussels, Munich, Frankfurt, St. Moritz, Geneva, Boston, Qatar, London, to name a few of the amazing places we visited and revisited.
I now understand and speak German well enough to be an active participant in a heated discussion, or be a judge in a panel in search of a fashion label’s new model (true story), I speak enough Italian to order a coffee, I speak Austrian well enough to know the difference between German and Austrian, I speak French enough to ask for forgiveness that I don’t speak enough French, and I now speak and write English better than my Dutch which has become a bit rusty as I didn’t use it much over the years.
Oh, and guess what… I learned how to ski in 2018 (if there’s something I thought that I – Pris of the Lowlands – would never do in my life, it was sliding down a mountain on skis). And one summer day, I learned that I do not trust gravity as I crawled down a
picturesque death-defying Swiss hill Mount Doom, holding onto grass for dear life, cold sweat dripping down my back, while Markus, Indy, three goats and what I think could have been a small cow, happily walked next to me.
All of this had not yet been written and experienced when I started my journey through E-Commerce Land. And it is because of diving into the weird, wild, and wondrous, actively testing the boundaries of my comfort zones, and saying yes to all the invitations life sent me, that I have become so much more aware of who I am, my abilities as an entrepreneur, a writer, a mom, a wife, an intercountry adoptee, an introvert, and a woman who is out of many places, one.
And this is where I am now. At a fork in the road, at the end of one pathway, at the beginning of another. Did I find the answer to the question that started it all ten years ago: what if I would wrap e-commerce in story? Yes, I did. I wrapped e-commerce in story and lo-and-behold a story unfolded. A coming-of-age adventure, starring an insecure 10-years younger me, failing forward, growing into “just Pris,” writing at a more thoughtful pace, adding her note to that wondrous tapestry of tales. It has been an E-Commerce journey to the center of myself (and my own labyrinth).
With that discovery, my goal shifted from let story drive commerce to let story drive. Preferably in long form essays and picture books instead of 30 second interpretive dance videos. I realized that I miss old school blogs with those memoir-like posts and ad-free pages that are just about the writing. This might be way too hopelessly romantic for the current state of the Interweb Woods but maybe that’s okay.
As I take an active step back to redefine and redecorate my site and self, I will mourn the loss of not just the e-commerce site as it was, but the loss of the ‘me’ I was in e-commerce. There is the loss of the different (shorter) forms and shapes of Indy as I stumbled my way through the entrepreneurial forest, and the fleeting moments we shared as a family in global business.
And then there’s excitement in gaining the time to tell, reflect, and think out loud on paper, seeing my images and words on the (digital) page and enjoying them (instead of rushing through to the next point on my never-ending to-do list). To finally write down my picture book ideas and that one middle school fantasy adventure I have been outlining for kids like the one I once was: from everywhere and nowhere in particular, trying to find a (magical) place to belong. And to write for magazines that cover topics that the me I am today, relates to.
There’s nothing left for me to do now but turn the Frederick & Sophie site into a place driven by the Frederick & Sophie stories and my personal ponderings. I will still let out my inner thing-finder, sharing some of my favorite things from around the online and offline world,picture books and toys included. Instead of me selling and shipping them, I will guide people through the jungle. Side note: I’m kind of excited to still use my shop as a “window” with some of the toys I had in store myself and add products I bought for Indy or myself in the last years or was shown by my toy suppliers and loved but never was able to put in my store due to a limited budget as a buyer.
I will give “my” toys one final hug in our warehouse before we really part ways. As a wise bear once said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard,” and I mostly feel lucky. Yet, I will miss knowing that my toys are safe and sound in our warehouse, I will miss our warehouse and our warehouse manager, I will miss talking with my suppliers, I will miss being a toy store manager, I will miss being Pris in E-Commerce Land. I’ll never be that me again, but… there’s no use going back to yesterday… as I was a different person then.