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Brave the Woods

The World and the Woods

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The investment was not only in those who were suffering for a season, but in teaching an entire generation the gift of generosity.

__Brad Woodard

One struggle that is common to so many young creatives is finding that gig, the one that fulfills a myriad of passions and consistently pays the bills. Equally as common, though, is the nagging sensation that the perfect job is still out there, waiting for you to find it. I’ve seen it in so many friends, myself even. How do you determine the right thing to do, the right time to do it? Is it just an obsession, or could it be an occupation? It’s easy to know what you love by what you do outside of work, but it’s too easy to relegate your hobbies to free time obsolescence. If your diversion keeps you up at night, demands a sacrifice, and leaves you feeling invigorated and proud, you’ve probably found where you’re meant to be. If you’ve found it in your day job, consider yourself lucky. But for many, no 9-5 can exhaust that stealthy Passion. It springs up uninvited, using your devotion against you. Inevitably, pursuing your calling involves a risk. For Brad and Krystal Woodard, it meant Braving the Woods.

I have to begin by confessing that it would be a piece of cake to play favorites with these two. First off, I simply cannot think of a business name I envy more. What could more simply or frankly communicate the adventure of choosing an unmarked path that you can only hope will lead you into a magical woodland of everything you want to do, be, and accomplish. But before you read this fairytale, you should perhaps be introduced to these characters. The first is Brad, chief woodsman, designer and illustrator extraordinaire. He chops the wood, if you will. Krystal builds fires and writes the map. In other words, she handles their marketing and business strategy. Then there’s Kai, the young one. He’s mostly for looks as far as we can tell, but he’s without a doubt a wood chopper in training. He’s even taken to calling drawing “work”, which we can’t help but adore. We’re not even trying to stop. In the chorus, there’s Kiva, a silent (not actually silent) partner in charge of morale. Together they shared with us how they patiently and steadily tracked their career towards doing what they do best and love most, and how that has paralleled their hope to see and change the world.

If you were to meet Brad and Krystal, you would undoubtedly notice what we did at first: their work revolves around family. They’re a team first and a business second, a strategy that has served their work and working relationship. You would also notice the respect they have for one another, down to the smallest of the tribe.

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They welcome us into their home in south Austin, immediately apologizing for their black lab rescue, Kiva’s, moist welcome. Their two year old son, Kai, cautiously nods his hellos before returning his attention entirely towards his dad. We take a moment to survey their home: tidy, modern, accented with a slew of bright posters and storytelling artifacts. It shows signs of attention to stories over stuff; nothing flashy or easily broken. The second floor of their spacious townhome is a distilled version of a family run business: an open area playroom/studio complete with a sewing station, action figures, some variant of a waist-high castle, and stacks of their latest design project piled in corners. Krystal laughs at her own explanation of how it works for them, acknowledging the chaos affectionately. The upstairs also hosts a nursery just beside what they deem the main office space. Interestingly, there appears to be more toys in the office than in the playroom, hanging on the walls or positioned on shelves, out of reach to tiny hands. Brad moves to point out a few favorites, explaining his love for toys, mostly vintage classics. Although he isn’t yet, Brad hastily assures us that Kai will, in fact, one day be allowed to play with them. In his twenties.

We sat down to our interview with all of the characters present: Krystal making a magnificent pile of baguette style French toast; Brad pivoting between answering Kai’s inquisitive gestures and our questions; Kai using his pouty cheek powers to commandere access to Mickey Mouse; and Kiva, again excessively moisturizing our unsuspecting hands from below the tabletop.

As a team with a sizable following, there were of course plenty of questions to ask about how Brave the Woods landed such big name clients as Target and Honda. But the aspects of their joint career that interested us most was their most recent project, a children’s book entitled Tatay’s Gift. In a way, the book is the culminated effort of their talents, personal histories, passions, and goals for Brave the Woods. “We’d always talked about writing a book together. It was one of those things like, yeah in the future it’s one of our goals to write a children’s book.” But in Novmber of 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan devastated huge portions of Southeast Asia, they decided to move that maybe someday timeline up, and do so as immediately as possible. When relief efforts to support those who had been hit by the typhoon had barely begun, a friend contacted Brad about partnering to raise relief funds. At first it was an idea to make art prints, or t-shirts, just something that could be done quickly to generate some quick cash to send. But the two mused over creating something bigger, more culturally relevant to the people who they would hopefully help. That’s when the dream became the gift.

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But let’s rewind. In 2005 when Brad was graduating high school, he decided to delay college in favor of spending two full years in the Philippines. He went as a missionary there, immersing himself in the language and the art of selflessness. As he puts it, those years right after high school typically equate to the most selfish period of life, a time most tightly wrapped around your own future and hopes.

Rather that indulging this normalized narcissism, Brad spent those years building his character and broadening his understanding of the world. Krystal, too, spent a summer in Japan as a foreign exchange student, enlarging her view of a world filled with adventure, but not without a multitude of ills. Rather than succumbing to the hopelessness of a world in need, the two already shared a hope to impact the world one day. Between English and graphic design classes, they met in college and soon found their complement in the other.

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In the six years that followed, Krystal listened lovingly to every one of Brad’s stories about the Philippines, likely two and three (or more) times over. When she heard the idea to raise funds for the place Brad loved so deeply, she immediately went to work, putting years of attentive listening to good use. The same morning Brad got the call about possible ideas for a sale of some kind, Krystal took to typing. In a few short hours, she had the first draft of Tatay’s Gift, a blended up version of Brad’s stories. No painful vacillating rewrites, no months of clawing out a story one page at a time. No research necessary; it was already in her.

Another important aspect of Tatay’s Gift is a theme of giving. The Kickstarter campaign they ran to raise money to print the book (thereby relieving sales to provide more funds directly to relief efforts) states that in addition to being an educational tool to teach kids the meaning of sharing, it was also intended to help them as parents “teach our son that he doesn’t have to be helpless in these situations.” The ultimate investment was not only in the Filipino people suffering for that season, but an investment in their son and his entire generation to become people of generosity. One small book to accomplish a movement in the future of the world.

But before Brave the Woods started shaking up history, the pair went through years of ragged internships, grueling jobs, and even great jobs that still left them wondering if they were in the right place. As a young married couple in college, they dreamed of one day having a collaborative studio to pool their talents and create the kind of work they truly wanted to have. Maybe it would take ten years or so, they figured. They also vowed to each other that if either one of them was ever unhappy in a place or situation or a job, they would do something immediately to change it. Getting to their final dream would take long enough, but they weren’t going to waste the in between years just waiting for that far off someday.

After several moves from job to job, state to state, they decided to quit their jobs and go ahead with the end-game plan. We were as eager as anyone could be to know the how. But instead of drawing us a formula, or walking us through a five-step plan to attaining your dream career, all they could give was that tired but true wisdom: “things have a way of falling into place.”

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But truthfully, Brave the Woods didn’t just fall into place. Initially, they worked days to keep their health insurance and the lights on. Nights were spent gaining ground with new clients and securing a steady work flow. With a lot of preparation – “but not really planned preparation” Brad jokes – and two fortuitous events falling into place, they started making it happen. First, Brad landed a gig as one of the first designers teaching classes for Skillshare teaching the basics of Illustrator and color theory. The classes exploded, and suddenly they had a years’ worth of salary built up in six months. Back-up money: check. Second, they shared everything they made on social media, and eventually fell into sharing it in particular channels to network with other designers. This allowed them to reach a hefty enough supply of clients to care for to warrant making the jump.

The final step to move full-time into running BTW full time was in part inspired by years of discontent in other jobs. But even so, “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Only after having pushed through seasons of major transition, night and day work schedules, and a final stroke of just the right timing, they breathed in deep and stepped off the path and onto their own.

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Also integral to the success they have worked out over time is the divion of labor between Brad and Krystal. Their partnership allows for quite a bit of overlap in their duties, but consciously plays to their complementary strengths. Even in college, the two minored in the other’s major. As a journalism major, Krystal does the bulk of the writing for the business and manages operations: emailing, blogging, and copy writing. Brad does the art, designing, and managing of their website. As a design thinker, Krystal has an invaluable eye in the artwork development process. As a complement to her critique, Brad reads everything she writes. They act as proficient editors for one another. “Since we’ve been together so long, we’ve made it our job to take an interest in each other’s things.” And because they have, both have improved in their ‘minor’ strength.

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As much as they have already accomplished with Brave the Woods, the two are still new to running their own design business. “I didn’t do it [full-time] until this last year. It’s always been my side job. I get way more commissioned work for illustration. And it just ended up being a better fit. If someone’s gonna pay be to draw a bear, or design a logo or a website and it’s the same price, I’ll draw the bear.” And rightly so. By producing more of the kind of work they enjoy most, they elicit a greater demand for more of the same. Tatay’s Gift alone is the beginning of what they hope will be a series of books devoted to different causes with corresponding themes. They’re love for education, kids, writing, and design is already making its mark, and we look forward to seeing what they valiantly and beautifully take on next.

So often, our biggest handicap in getting where we want to be is convincing ourselves that our dreams are for later. In the waiting period, so many creative ideas can get lost in the sandbags: student loans, raising a family, the endless battle to save a sum large enough to float a rocky beginning. It’s never easy deciding to do what you love when you don’t know if it will pay the bills, or when you’ll find the audience you need to survive. As we continue to learn from the adventurous and wise, we see more and more that the secret in achievement is deciding to do the work; no slacking, no excuses. Add to that patience beyond measure, at least a decent amount of talent, and an exponential love of learning and changing. Brad and Krystal have it all, and more: humility, trust, and a hope that design actually can change the world. But most importantly, from our small glimpse we learned that the real dream is doing whatever you love with the ones that you love more. Whether it’s a fabulous team you get to collaborate with at your job, a boss you count it an honor to work for, a client whose work you really believe in, or a partner you live and work with, no career or achievement or award can ever match the silent, earth-filling joy of learning to make your work matter. Cheers to those of you who have found it, and to those who haven’t given up the chase.

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