Laura Simpson is a music industry professional, living with her family in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She founded The Syrup Factory in 2011 and is currently the co-founder and CEO of Side Door.
On @novascotiamusic: “I’ve had this Twitter handle for a really long time and I always come back to it as the thing that is me. It goes ‘always moving and seeking to move you’. If I had a tagline, that’s what it would be. My focus for a long time now is in supporting the arts and artists in many different ways, including helping people with finding their creative process, which might mean facilitating and that sort of thing. It all centres around art and creativity.“
What jobs have you had before Side Door that let you to this moment where you decided to start your own business in this space?
First, I was a photographer and freelance journalist for the arts scene. I was going around trying to get gigs writing about music, but you really can’t make a lot of money doing that, so I ended up becoming a regular journalist for several years. Then I worked for Music Nova Scotia for seven years. After sitting down with artists and learning about how awful it was to tour and not make a living, it solidified my feeling of wanting to make a change in the industry to address those issues. So I left and was mentored by the former president of Warner Brothers Records in Los Angeles for four months because I felt like I needed to be with somebody outside of Nova Scotia who could kind of “show me the way of the world”.
Then I came back and started The Syrup Factory, which is still in effect and run by the co-owner Sarah Jamer. Also, I did Make.Do.Camp for a couple years. That was awesome initiative and we’ll be doing a few smaller follow-up events but I don’t know if it’ll ever be resurrected to its full glory.
During all of these projects, my ultimate goal was to create Side Door (it wasn’t called SideDoor in my head yet). I had been hosting house concerts since 2011 and coincided with all of my values like connection over art, supporting artists, sharing art with friends, all while in an inclusive and intimate environment.
What did your prior work influence this concept of Side Door?
For the Syrup Factory, I was looking to support artists but not “own a piece of them” because the traditional way of working with artists is you get a cut of everything they make and I wasn’t interested in helping artists under that method. The Syrup Factory was based on project management, marketing support, and basically anything we could fit in our wheelhouse. So we can bring in freelancers and apply them to certain projects ad-hoc for the length of time that is necessary. The idea is for us to support artists in being their best self, take care of the business side of things, and generally relieve the stress that artists are feeling in that regard.
Make.Do.Camp was another big project of yours, although it strays from the music industry. How did that come about?
When I was living in LA, I went to this camp called the Unique Camp (which doesn’t exist anymore) that was founded by this Canadian. It’s basically like a grown-up camp. There were lots of interesting workshops, creative activities and they took our phones away for the days that we were there. So the big thing that I took away from the experience was how real of a need there is to disconnect in that sense.
So I basically took the concept with the blessing of the founder and adapted it for Nova Scotia. I kept the four-day aspect and got rid of the devices, even for the workshops (i.e. no PowerPoints). So we were having our workshops out in the field and it was really about how your environment dictates how you’re going to learn and be with people. The camp was also completely dry (no alcohol, no drugs) because we wanted people to be completely present. I’m still friends with a lot of these people from camp. That network effect was stronger than anything else I’ve seen.
What is Side Door and what was your inspiration for creating the company?
From my perspective, Side Door was about how to increase the value of live performance for the artist, audience, for everyone involved. A lot of the stuff I’ve done on my own has centred around trying to deconstruct power structures. I was doing house concerts with The Syrup Factory and we never took a cut from those ticket sales, we always gave 100% to the artist. One thing I was doing was giving a cut to the ticket company. Side Door would be a tech platform to take care of ticketing and cut down on administrative tasks, as well as the other discussions that it takes to make a show.
I had this vision to address these issues drawn out since 2015. Around the same time, Dan Mangan had a sub-label of artists that he was managing. Dan had grown up doing house concerts. He knew the value of them, one of the main reasons being the lifelong fans that he had met that way. So Dan was taking his sub-label artists and was trying to get them hosted by these fans at their houses. Our mutual friend had been hearing us both talk about this shared passion. So we got in touch while I was in LA and then met here in Nova Scotia in January of 2016. Then we spent 2016 trying to figure out whether we could trust each other and where we were going to land with the project.
How did you navigate that relationship with Dan? How did you build trust?
I was grateful to have spent time with other leaders and partners to learn and make mistakes before then. When I met Sarah Jamer, she was a student who eventually volunteered with me, then worked with me and now she’s my partner. So I had already been through a growth process with someone and was already understanding the value of learning to share power and trust somebody. I also think that’s a natural tendency for women and parents especially, because you don’t have eighty hours to your work, so delegation is important.
People told me at one point that I could do this on my own, but it’s the yin and yang that Dan and I bring to it that made it worth exploring. So when I flew out to Vancouver in the spring of 2016, we spent a bunch of days working out the logistical stuff but my last day there we went for a walk in Stanley Park and just talked. I asked him his dealbreakers, principles, and we had a lot of real talk. At the end of the walk I fell in the mud and he got me a change of clothes from his place so it ended up being this great, weird bonding experience.
It’s like a marriage. You have to fully trust somebody and have a common goal even if you got there from very different paths.
What kind of tough decisions and sacrifices did you have to make along the way and how did you overcome them?
Leaving my family for four months to go to LA was one of the hardest things I did. I was really afraid of what people would think about me. The decision came about because my husband encouraged me to do the mentorship program with the best possible person. That door opening was amazing but then making that decision and dealing with the consequences (i.e. missing my daughter’s first day of school, and Halloween). So I think about that as a sacrifice that has led me to everything else.
From both a personal and career perspective, how do you define success?
Success is deeply affiliated with identifying what your true contribution to your community is and aligning your actions with that. Once you get there and you start making decisions to allow you make that contribution grow, that’s success to me. I haven’t felt success like I have now before and it’s not because of money, fame, or notoriety. It’s because I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve aligned my actions with what I really care about.
Do you identify yourself as a social entrepreneur?
I don’t think I’ve actively self-identified as a social entrepreneur but I wouldn’t deny it. There’s a trepidation I have about being an incorporated company that accepts private equity and calling myself a social enterprise because rallying against capitalism is still a thing, especially in my community and industry. The way I see it, I’m using the system at hand to disrupt by working from the inside out. Social enterprise is a piece of my heart but not my business structure.
What resources did you benefit from the most when starting a business in this space?
The Propel ICT accelerator is a really helpful program that we benefited from. Being a part of the community at Volta has been great. The SMU Entrepreneurship Centre has been there at every step and has supported in a multitude of ways. Venture for Canada has also been a great organization to have conversations with about hiring. I also did a mentorship program through Music Nova Scotia (that led to the connection in LA) that supported living costs during an internship.
Any other advice?
I’m 40 and it’s taken until this year to really know myself and trust my gut and it’s still a work in progress. I know that’s a cliche thing to say but cliches are there for a reason. This idea of knowing yourself and following your instincts gets diminished a lot. If you can trust those gut instincts, it will get you to success sooner.