[Aet has studied Journalism and Communication at the University of Tartu and. Her competences and tasks at SprayPrinter include managing the brand strategy, media relations, compiling written texts and producing promotional videos, event planning and organizing.]
I am back in Estonia.
And I have been frequently asked – “So, how was America?” And so far I haven’t been able to give a short, concise answer to that. It was so much. So much. And instead of an answer I will tell some story that associates with some personal culture shock and then I have to describe the whole background of it all and so on. That’s a given with long trips, especially trips that are not your usual tourist fare. The beginning of this trip also marked the beginning of me taking antidepressants which added an interesting dimension to the whole experience.
So, why did I went to the US in the first place?
We have an office there now. In fact, the SprayPrinter HQ is located there. And as I deal with the communications side of SprayPrinter it’s important for me to understand what exactly goes on there. To be perfectly honest, I felt a little isolated before this trip. Part of our team has been there since March. And now, being back, I’d like to borrow the words of my colleague Uku and say that I have an existential hangover.
One of my first missions in the US was at the PayPal HQ.
One important confession. We have the technology. And we have a market. But neither of those things are absolute. That’s a pretty big concession, especially if you haven’t build up a company yourself. And a company that is unlike anything else out there.
Here is a timelapse of the piece at PayPal HQ.
Nothing happens by itself. We have to figure out ourselves what our market is and who could benefit the most from this technology – a picture on a wall. Even this understanding – that our product is a picture on a wall – didn’t come easily. We’ve had a period of time when we wanted to reach “the bedroom of every housewife”. Many people presume that we are directly connected with street art. Because, you know, we use spray paint. The connection between the two is quickly made. But street artists don’t need our tool. They already have the necessary skills. So who might then need our technology? People who can’t draw? A new tool for artists? Advertising market? Entertaining people at events? Maker movement? Real-estate development? Architects? The options are seemingly endless. And the more there are options the more difficult it is to set your focus. Messages. You can’t address everyone at the same time. The result would be some kind of diarrhea of messaging.
And nobody will decide for you what your market is. People have opinions, of course. But you have to decide for yourself. You have to talk to people and understand what they like about the technology and where they would use it. And how we, perhaps, could make a business model out of that.
And you have to develop prototypes, according to your ideas and the feedback you get. And then you have to test the technology. And keep yourself alive as well. All of that simultaneously, right. So we’re constantly walking on a tightrope 30 meters above the air. And the only safety net you have, is courage itself. The courage to regard risk as a natural part of the process.
When Albert the mural robot broke down and we needed to find a way to finish the piece…
…and we did.
Because something unexpected could happen at any time. We had a print that came out really good. Everything went smoothly, people were already discussing while the robot was being set up whether this was some kind of performance art and what it could all mean. And the second the print was done the prototype started to hiss. Had it happened ten minutes before, the picture wouldn’t have been finished. And this was an event with several thousand attendees.
One of the most amazing experiences in the US for me.
My job also entails finding media coverage for us. I know that every live print has big risks. Still, I found every person with a camera and quite brazenly asked them to come and see what we were doing. It worked well. One of the hardest aspects of it all for me has been the constant living with risk. Knowing that everything can go south quickly and you don’t have anything to fall back on. But you can’t get cold feet.
Going on a mission… and then this happened.
You have adjust to living with that sort of uneasiness, so that you don’t panic. I am in general very sensitive to agitation, meaning I get nervous rather easily. This whole trip was really important in an ontogenetic sense or well… an opportunity to practice chilling out and getting out of your comfort zone. Because you don’t have any alternatives.
SprayPrinter in Silicon Valley Business Journal.
And everything takes time.
I think that the most interesting were the conversations I had. I really enjoyed the contrasts I saw. Maybe it was because we hanged out more at different art events. Until this time I had mostly attended startup conventions. There you get asked about your revenue, market share, development, IP etc. But at art shows I had talks about how this technology can change the world, what is art anyway and how our technology can broaden perceptions.
For example I met with a really cool NYC muralist. His name is Jose Castillo. We met at my first US event. There was this art exhibition at a hostel. And the minute I started talking to him I wished that I had a camera to record our conversation. He likes to provoke. And one of the things he said he likes about our technology, is that it creates debates. And he said the golden words – this is where art in fact starts. The means are always there, but what’s important is how you create your own style with those means. How to stand out among the masses? That is art.
No, I have met people who claim that our prints are not art, because they are done with a machine. That means that the artist’s role is diminished, right? Imagine that, you don’t have to climb scaffolding anymore and mess with lifts for two weeks straight! There is also the fear that SprayPrinter will take away jobs from artists. That’s a perfectly reasonable fear to have. When photo cameras were first invented people demonized that as well – it’s a machine and therefore it can’t be used to create art! Not like painting. But history has shown us that painting remains popular and photos haven’t replaced anything. It did however expand our perception of creativity. I think that our goal is – and I believe I talk on behalf of all our team members – to create a new art movement. To bring together artists and surfaces who otherwise wouldn’t have met at all. To offer a new kind of canvas to artists. I really like the idea of my colleague Sirla – that cities, places where we spend a big part of our lives, shouldn’t just be places where you move from point A to point B. It is our living environment.
And the nature of that environment affects greatly how we feel inside. What we think about. Whether we feel good or bad. Whether we feel safe or not. Whether people in certain parts of the city feel a sense of community. It affects how we perceive our identity as individuals, communities, cities, countries, people in general. Our goal is to make the whole world an art gallery.
While in the US I encountered a buzz term “creative placemaking”. I read different studies and articles. In short, creative placemaking is an environment where you feel good. This is very important. When people want to hang out together somewhere then that creates a certain identity for that place. Some examples – Boyle Heights in L.A. It was a real ghetto with a high crime rate. Not a nice place to chill. But then the community started to create cool things like a theater, cafes, murals, concerts etc. Now it’s a very hip neighbourhood.
Why? Because people feel good living there. One more important observation from a study – oneof the most important factor for millenials is when choosing a place to live is the social offerings . So cities that want to attract millenials need to think about this. And our technology is clearly a sprint towards creative placemaking.
Here’s a short documentary about that same city district and how creative placemaking has changed it.
One of the things that started to bug me while I was there was the feeling that I became emotionally more numb. I had to force myself, because there are so many homeless people there. Some San Francisco streets have tens of people just lying side by side on the pavement. You have to step over them. And there were many beggars as well. You just haven’t got enough to give them all something. Of course sometimes I did give them money. I’m especially susceptible when children have been brought along to beg. And I don’t know what the correct thing is to do. When I give them money does that feed the system? I have heard stories about kids being drugged to stay quiet for several hours. I don’t know. It really cut me deep sometimes. And then I read studies about how creative placemaking can combat homelessness.
There are many ways.
Firstly, people don’t want to live in harsh shelters, because that makes them feel like prisoners. Creating a homely feeling is really important for making people feel valued.
We’ve thought ourselves about giving our technology to homeless people. To give them a rod instead of fish, right. So they can make a living by printing murals. Everybody would win. I like that idea.
Anyway, a couple of days ago I walked around Tartu, my hometown in Estonia. And there was this guy playing violin on the street.
A small digression. I have come to the realization that you need to be as good a person as you can in any given situation. If you want to be happy you need to make other people happy as well. I really believe that. The problem is that people have different opinions about what is good. And from that come conflicts. It’s important to be honest with yourself. Even if the truth is uncomfortable. And don’t live in a perpetual illusion that you are a very good person. I think that most people believe that they are at heart a good person. Most people probably are. I mean that people are not strictly one or the other- good or bad. But you have to strive to be good. Most of you probably take that as a given. I reached that understanding through some twists and turns. Not that I didn’t always intuitively believe that. Because if people don’t analyze themselves from time to time and see that they could have handled some situations better then they are not capable of changing.
Anyway. Beggars. I have long ago decided that if I have any change in my pocket then I will gladly give it to someone. In US that’s a bit complicated. Firstly, in terms of money I was rather poor myself most of the time (living with my Estonian salary in the most expensive region in the US) and there were soooo many beggars everywhere. And now I saw a street musician in my own home town. They’ve been around before, of course, and I have given them something if I’ve had something to give. This time I didn’t have any change. So I walked past.
But I kept thinking. He was not even begging! He was performing! And he did it so beautifully.
Another digression. Again about being a good person. I value a meaningful life. And one of the keys to that is thinking that you are living in a movie. That motivates you to live with more style, I think. Who wants to be the asshole in a movie, anyway. But not so that you think that the world is here to serve you. We are the ones who take action and make things happen in this world. That’s an important component to one’s view of life, I believe. Does the world make things happen or you do? Your answer to that is telling of whether you think that anything is possible or not. And whether you have the necessary courage to make bold decisions. I think so at least.
And that guy with the violin offered records on the street. How great is that! Every street corner should have something like that. That violin music created this nice melancholy mood.
No. I believe in what he’s doing! So I walked back. I took out 10 euros and put it in his violin box. But if I hadn’t though to myself that hey, he is doing creative placemaking right now and offering people a nice change of mood, a shift in everyday reality, something surprising, new thoughts, a more festive atmosphere – then I probably wouldn’t have walked back. But now I was acquainted with this concept and I was richer for it.
While in the US I went along to many meetings as well. Like investor meetings. And I still can’t understand all of the business jargon spoken there. But I decided that instead of looking down in shame I will ask about different concepts and terms that I don’t understand fully. How else can I think in these categories at all? We can’t enter systems that we don’t comprehend. And language is a system. There’s even a saying that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. So, when I don’t know what something means then the most reasonable thing is to ask and find out, not to ignore it. Then I can really think about these things which wasn’t that easy in the beginning. In order to talk freely with your colleagues, you need to have a level of trust with each other. Otherwise it’s hard to even get along well. I think that getting along is a big motivating factor.
Best VC meeting eva… in a parking lot. And the dog. THE DOG!
Another important outcome of the US trip – the tightening of relationships within the team. We all lived in the same apartment. I, for example, slept in a closet. So we had to constantly sync all the household stuff with work stuff. Sometimes it was really hard. I often didn’t know whether we were just chatting or having a meeting. Is this the time to communicate our general thoughts or do I have to pick out certain tasks?
Our workday was never from nine to five. It felt like we were working every minute. We did manage to binge watch Stranger Things, watch some movies, sing and dance, but there were a lot of nights when we only slept 2-3 hours. And some nights we didn’t even manage that. Uku especially.
Uku had had 3 hours of sleep for 3 days. He is one of the nicest person I have ever met and we are so lucky to have him.
But I liked that we all shared one social space. That allowed us to have really interesting conversations and even if we did other stuff in between we could resume the conversation from the exact same spot. And otherwise we wouldn’t have gone so deep about Taoism or dreams or being the bigger person. Our physical and mental spaces were united. Shared.
Example of… well, something to do with mentality.
Some of my favourite moments from the whole mission were things like sneaking into the jacuzzi that was at the back of our building after an exhausting workday. We managed to hang out there long enough to reflect, visualize, to go into a peaceful meditative state before the security came and asked us to leave.
USA is a country that you can experience in many different ways, because it has a lot of dimensions. I’m very grateful to have been able to experience so many interesting and different worlds. To meet with the absolute best people in their fields and just simple millionaires. To observe the life of people living in the homeless village beside our building. I think that my world was enriched by both of these extremes.
I talked with many different people. Maybe the best lesson I got from this trip is that every conversation is valuable. And the best way to learn is to listen. Because everyone knows something that you don’t.
Uku hadn’t slept the night before. But they looked like straight out of a movie. And well, that’s the perfect way of living.