“Everyone said to me: Why would you start all over again? And I’d think—starting over sounds so freaking good right now.” After spending six years building a creative agency from scratch, Uli Beutter Cohen decided it was time for a change. She left the West Coast, traveled, and eventually landed in New York City. Uli is behind the enchanting Subway Book Review; above ground she is the co-founder of everbliss.
“Originally, I am from Germany. Before moving to New York three years ago, I was living in Portland Oregon. There, my husband Alec and I ran a creative agency, which we had grown to over twenty-five employees in six years. We had started it in our 20s, and as we got into our 30s, we were ready for something new. Around that time I started working with a coach. What I learned from this mentor changed my perspective completely. I wanted to immerse myself in this new thinking, so I went through a two year coach training and came out of it ready for the next challenge. I’m a huge believer in changing environments to see what remains constant. So Alec and I took our savings, traveled Asia for two months and then moved to New York. I found myself saying: you were a creative director in advertising, you’re a trained coach, you’re an entrepreneur—but you have no idea how that’s supposed to come together. Everything was in total chaos. I had thrown all the cards up in the air, and nothing had landed yet. I spent a lot of time asking myself, how does all of this fit together? And finally, after a lot of trial and error, it did.
First, I focused on my creative outlet. I knew I only had a limited window of time before I was so used to my New York life that the small, special details wouldn’t stand out that much anymore. On my commutes, I noticed how many people read printed books on the subway. I had been thinking about a way to strike up conversations with interesting New Yorkers and suddenly realized that their books were a great icebreaker to find out more about their lives. That’s how Subway Book Review started. It feels liberating to be at the helm of my own creative project that grows as I grow. It’s a pretty self-reflective and intimate experience, too. It requires me to stay in my practice. That includes seeing every person and every moment as a gift, but as a fleeting one.
You have to be open, overcome yourself and say ‘yes’ in the moment to get it. What happens after that is the most fun ever, I find.
The trial and error took place in my above ground life. I worked as a coach, a startup advisor and creative director which of course led to distracted efforts on all fronts. It was hard to give up my old career that I had worked so hard on and fully commit to the next thing. Luckily, I was invited to work out of Studiomates, a shared workspace that was founded by Tina Roth Eisenberg. It gave me focus and made me spend my time more intentionally. It’s also where I met my new business partner, Taras Kravtchouk, who was getting ready to build and launch an app that connects people to coaches and therapists in live video calls. It was a business match made in heaven that came at the right time.
The reality of being patient while things figure themselves out can pretty crazy. Let’s be honest for a moment: New York is an expensive place to live. The pressure is on from the moment you arrive. It can be really freaking hard, particularly if both you and your partner are self-employed.
But I think New York makes you a damn fine editor of how you spend your time, too.
I think ultimately, that’s one of the most important things about entrepreneurship: you have to redefine time and other terms for yourself. If you can’t do that, you’re really up against a wall. As an entrepreneur your life is unpredictable, but that can’t dictate how you spend your time. You also have to define what stability and success means to you. And that’s the opportunity and reason to be an entrepreneur: you get to create a very personal experience. My original definition of stability had come from parents who had full time jobs with one company for 25 years, climbing vertically on that one ladder. Whereas for me, entrepreneurship is a lot more horizontal in terms of the way things develop and build on each other. You have to question what success means to you. Is it a certain amount of money? Buying your own house? Being in the New York Times? That can be really tricky—defining your golden standard. For me, my golden standard is personal stability. If you take everything away, apartment, money, everything—who am I without all of that? What do I look like when I come home to me?
I think when you have that stability to really show up as yourself, that’s when the best things find you. That’s when the world lifts you up.
For a long time, I was trying to reach an invisible standard. I was trying to impress other people by showing how well I could stay on course. I freed myself from that by saying, I don’t care if I’m 32-years-old and starting over. Which is what everyone said to me: why would you start all over again? And I’d think—starting over sounds so freaking good right now. Why stay on course when the direction, the boat and the body of water isn’t right anymore? For what? Creating a blank canvas can be everything. It doesn’t mean you have to leave it all behind either.
Take what’s useful, discard the rest.
I’m learning to let life take me where I need to go. Because it’s going to do that anyway. You can’t fight it. And when something ends, it can be confusing and painful, but when you take that layer off, there’s always something more shiny and more truthful underneath.”
Photographed by An Rong Xu
As told to Amy Woodside, August 2015