We had the good fortune of connecting with Colleen Bonniol and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Colleen, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Being comfortable taking risks has been the single most important guardian angel to my career. I would not be where I am today without taking risks. When I was 19, a friend stood me up on a date to attend a concert and, I hoped, get a job. Instead of feeling rejected and deciding not to go, I grabbed my resume and went alone, leaving by 6:00 a.m. for a 5-hour drive to DC with no ticket to the show. During intermission, I leaned over two rows of people to grab a large man in a hoodie (wearing a lot of lanyards and a walkie-talkie.). When he turned around to yell at me, I handed him my resume and politely asked to talk to the Lighting Designer. That is when my professional career began. I toured with Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour as an intern on weekends and went to college at Penn State during the week.
You can take a big risk and succeed or fail miserably, but you will still have the opportunity to get up and try again—it’s your decision. In general, I find that people are not afraid of risk. They are afraid of failure.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
There are two stories to most businesses right now. The story of the business as it was, and then the story of what we had to become! The last few years have upended the expectations around public safety and healthy environments and increased awareness and action around diversity, equity, and inclusion. MODE Studios is a 100% women-owned Hybrid Experience Agency. We create and produce Experiential Marketing, Architectural Installations, and Live Entertainment Productions that enable deep connections to audiences, patrons, and consumers. “Hybrid” means we provide concept development, design, direction, and production/execution, working closely with clients to create stories while building communities in the real and digital worlds. Hybrid also means that we have a team with wide-ranging backgrounds and expertise. We are a group of architects, designers, production managers, and theatrical magicians who work together to create something new every time.
The last two years of change have allowed us to really lean into our idea of Hybrid Experiences, developing a fully managed online community platform that allows our clients to entertain, connect and learn from each other. Our clients needed the ability to reach their vendors/buyers, and MODE provided online engagements that were equal to, if not better than, in-person experiences. We embraced our knowledge of audiences and technology, connecting storytelling to digital entertainment for new storytelling styles and engagements.
I started MODE in 1997 with Bob Bonniol. The company was originally called Monarch Designs LLC, but we quickly grew tired of getting phone calls for wedding butterfly releases. Lesson #1: Choose your name carefully! In 2001 we incorporated, keeping the company’s history by using the first two letters of MOnarch and DEsigns to get MODE.
True to our original name, we have transformed to do many things.— Lighting Design, Projection Mapping, Live Interactive Engagements, Architectural LED/Lighting Installations, and now Online Digital Communities and Online Adult Learning Design. Each design “mode” has allowed us to move into the next. We have literally taken all that we have learned and applied it in new areas.
Our background in the arts gave us a leading edge in thinking differently. Working with Marvel Studios on a global arena tour helped us develop interactive technology in our architectural lobby installation at Salesforce’s building in Bellevue, WA. The multiscreen projection design we created for Sinatra at the London Palladium informed how we created “worlds” for Chevy at the Detroit auto show. We approach each project with open minds and can make the impossible happen by drawing on all of the innovations we have created across disciplines. When musical artists, cruise lines, auto companies, or other organizations, large and small, want something fresh, joyous, and unique, they come to us with an idea of the result, and we build a comfortable path to get them there.
Looking back, it might appear to have been an easy process. In fact, many people may think it’s effortless to be an entrepreneur. After all, there is no one to tell you what to do; you set your own hours and pay, etc. That’s all wrong! MODE Studios has been the most insolent, contemptuous relationship I have ever had. Getting the business to grow from a needy toddler to a raging teenager has taken many dedicated and long hours and gut-wrenching worry. I am hoping it ages well over the next few years and allows me to retire!
Over the years, we have overcome the crash of 2008–2009, 9/11, and now a global pandemic. When we have faced adversity, we have survived by cocooning and re-emerging as something new to adapt to the new circumstances. We have used our theatrical grit and technical knowledge to design our way out of each of the past economic downturns.
Some of the lessons I have learned along the way are (in no particular order):
– Ask for help!
– Build your ability and capacity to empathize with others you disagree with.
– Don’t take “no” for an answer.
– Don’t be afraid to say “no.”
– Put your employees first.
– Lean into all conversations with an open mind.
– Be grateful and kind to everyone.
– Build and hang on to a really great advisory team (bankers, lawyers, accountants).
– Understand that at any one moment, there are opposing factors in all directions; you can only make decisions based on the information you have at that time. Seek out the answers you need but don’t delay in your decision making.
– Self-care is vital.
The thing I would most like people to know about MODE is that we are a group of creative problem solvers with an incredible diversity of backgrounds and talents. When you have something you want and don’t know how to get it, we are the people who can help. If you are interested in exploring something that has never been done in a live environment, we can find the answers and guide you along the way. We can take on a piece of a project or run the entire project depending on your needs. We work best as partners in solutions, because this type of relationship allows us to save our clients money in the long run.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them to?
There are so many ways to really enjoy Seattle. If I had a full day in the summer, we would start by renting kayaks and paddling around Lake Union, checking out the houseboats, and enjoying lunch dockside at The White Swan Public House. We would idle away our afternoon strolling through Fremont, followed by dinner at Tamura’s, where we would enjoy the best sushi anywhere. Afterward, we would fall into a food coma on the lawn while watching one of the Shakespeare in the Park shows available throughout the city.
If we had a week, we would attend a Seattle Mariners game, sail on Puget Sound, take a ferry to Bainbridge Island for breakfast, hike to secret hot springs in the Cascades, and spend a day in La Conner peeking at antiques and drinking local beer.
After La Conner, we would head out to Deception Pass State Park for an overnight camp and hike up the Goose Rock Trail. We would dine on fine wine and steaks cooked on the grill while watching the Perseids meteor shower and telling ghost stories around the campfire. It would be chilly, but the fire would keep us warm. After traveling back to Seattle, we would spend our last day at the Seattle Center, and seeing some live music or opera or the Seattle Kraken play hockey. At the end of the week, in the early morning, as we drive out of town toward the airport, I would point out the buildings and architectural features where MODE has contributed to outlining the Seattle skyline. They are lovely at dawn.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love, and encouragement of others. So is there someone you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I would like to give a warm shout-out to Dr. Janice R. Greene, President of the Women Business Enterprise Council (WBEC) Pacific chapter. She has helped me overcome the pitfalls of entrepreneurial life and really see the true value of leadership. Her support for me, MODE, and the other 900+ WBEs over the last 18 months has been instrumental in keeping our business successful and growing! If you are interested in certification through WBENC, email me; I am happy to discuss this further!
My second shout-out would be to my team! MODESTERS have the ability to turn wacky ideas into reality and design just about anything. They are the most collaborative and creative group of human beings I have ever had the pleasure to work with. Our anchor is Yutaka Kaneko, our Senior Project Manager and air traffic controller. In San Francisco, Ozlem Ordener leads digital development, community management, and the education department. In LA, we have Creative Director Butch Allen. The East Coast team is from New York to Florida and includes Creative Director/Producer Caryl Glaab, our COO Jo Johnson, and my Executive Assistant Sharon Hampson. The MODE team also includes my husband, Bob Bonniol. He is my partner in all things. Without Bob, life would be very dull indeed!
Lastly, a shout-out to all of my friends, mentors, and colleagues in WBENC, the TEA, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, ICIC, Robert Half Leadership, and the CEO Success Community. They have all taught me the valuable lesson of asking for help.
General Motors images courtesy of EWI Princess Cruise images courtesy of Princess Cruise Lines Panasonic Images courtesy of Bob Bonniol Nordstrom Image courtesy of Bob Bonniol