This Co-Founder Walked Away From Her Conferences At Their Peak. Here's Why.

 
Leigh Stein co-founded BinderCon and Out Of The Binders.

Leigh Stein co-founded BinderCon and Out Of The Binders.

If you're a woman/non-binary writer, chances are you've heard of The Binders Facebook group. But growing it from a 40,000-strong online community to a nationwide conference and nonprofit? It wasn't as easy as hitting "like," that's for sure.

The name comes from a gaffe Mitt Romey made during the 2012 presidential campaign, during which he declared he had “ binders full of women” whom he had considered for state leadership positions during his governorship.

Two years later, in the spring of 2014, freelance writer Anna Fitzpatrick started The Binders Facebook group, an internet coven for women and gender non-conforming writers to share advice, swap contacts and share their work.

“She thought there would be like 20 people in it,” says Leigh Stein, an early joiner to the group who quickly became influential in making the community sustainable. “(Anna’s) idea was that friends would invite friends, and she just invited a couple people. It exploded almost overnight, and I think within three months there were 30,000 people. “

Today, The Binders boasts more than 43,000 members, and its reach goes far beyond Facebook. In July 2014, Leigh broached the idea of an IRL conference to The Binders, a concept that caught on like wildfire. Leigh, along with her co-chair Lux Alptraum, got to work establishing the group as a non-profit (Out of the Binders) and organizing the first ever BinderCon, which took place in New York that October.

Prior to establishing Out of the Binders and planning BinderCons, Leigh had published two books, Dispatch from the Future and The Fallback Plan. She was at work on her third, a memoir called The Land of Enchantment. Over the course of the next two years, Leigh devoted herself to BinderCon’s twice yearly conferences in NYC and LA, at times even putting her own writing career on hold. By the summer of 2016, she was burnt out and on the brink of abandoning her writing career entirely.

We spoke with Leigh about the experience of turning a Facebook group into a non-profit and IRL conference, and how she knew when it was time to move on.

Kaylen Ralph: How did you first get involved with The Binders?

Leigh Stein: A friend of mine, Elissa Bassist, who runs Funny Women at The Rumpus, added me. I was obsessed with this group, I went on vacation to Budapest and brought my laptop with me so I could continue checking the group while I was on vacation. When I got home I was like, "Oh my god, this should be a conference." 

I started a mailing list of who wanted to help and get involved, and over a hundred people volunteered. There was a bunch of emails about it and Lux Alptraum, who became my co-founder, was the first person to say, "We need to raise money for this.”

My idea was literally to do one conference, I didn’t have a bigger vision for it at the time. We started a Kickstarter, our goal was to raise 40,000, we raised 55,000. Lux said a corporate sponsor would give us money for the conference, so she put these sponsor levels on the Kickstarter for $10,000, $5,000, $2,500, and I was like, “No one’s going to click that!”

I was sitting at my kitchen table and I saw that somebody had clicked the $10,000, and I was like, ‘This must be a hoax or something,’ It was from someone at Mailchimp. I just started crying, because I couldn’t believe it. Nothing I’d ever done had brought in $10,000 in my life.

Was Mailchimp your first official corporate sponsor then?

Yes, and they were an amazing supporter, and they sponsored every single one of our conferences. I love them, they’re the nicest people. They really support writers…they’re big supporters of literary stuff.

When Elissa invited you to the group, what point were you at in your career outside of the Binders?

I was working on my memoir. I hadn’t started sending it out for publication yet, but I was writing it. And I had two books published, a novel and a book of poems. I was teaching musical theater, babysitting and I was teaching poetry in the schools, but it was the summertime, so I was on a break.

It was Lux’s idea to turn BinderCon into a nonprofit and start doing two [conferences] a year, one in LA and one in NY. And so when I saw the scope of what this was going to be, I told my boss at the job where I was teaching poetry in schools that I wasn’t going to be able to do it that fall, I was too busy.

So, you had a fairly rapid progression of involvement from just group member to non-profit/conference co-founder?

Hindsight is 20/20, but I started quitting jobs so I could spend more time on this conference, but I wasn’t making money. So, it wasn’t the smartest financial decision, but there was such momentum, I felt like I had to keep giving to this because the potential was so amazing.

And within that potential, did you see the potential to make money down the road? Or were you not thinking about that?

We were starting to thinking about fundraising. I wasn’t ever salaried the whole time I worked for BinderCon, I shouldn’t even say worked, I was never an employee. Even when I said I was the executive director, that was a title I came up with. And if you talk to other small non-profits, people have titles but that doesn’t mean they’re a salaried employee, or an employee at all. I was able to get a stipend of $2,500 for that first conference…that was for three months of working 12 hours a day.

I wasn’t hitting the jackpot, but it just seemed like maybe it could turn into something. The dream was that I could work 20 hours a week on this, make $20,000 a year on stipends, and still do all my other freelancing stuff and write my books.

When did you start have to asking yourself the tough questions about this not panning out on the timeline you wanted it to?

I’ll say that it was difficult to fundraise outside of the conference. We sold tickets for the conference, we got sponsors for the conference, that’s how we brought in money to do the conference. Supporting writers from diverse backgrounds and marginalized writers who may not be able to afford a conference ticket was always a huge priority for us. To the first conference, I think we awarded fifty scholarships. We eventually cut that down over time, because we couldn’t afford to do it. We were giving away more than 50 percent of our tickets. That was a delicate balance of, how do we support people who need this resource and may not be able to afford it while still affording to put on the conference?

In the summer of 2016, I started to think, this isn’t sustainable for me personally, or the organization, to do two conferences a year. I tried to make an evidence-based case with a lot of data and spreadsheets for why we should go down to one conference a year and switch cities. I had a member of our board of advisors also joining me in this, trying to convince the board of directors, and I was not successful in persuading them to do this. So, I said, ok, I’m going to hang in there.

I read all these self-help books. I kept thinking it was a problem with me, and that this was a new experience leading such a big team and such a big organization. I thought I needed to shift my mindset, I needed to be a leader, and it was actually really lonely because I knew a million writers, I knew a bajillion writers and they’re some of my best friends, but because I was new to this nonprofit administration, I didn’t know a lot of other women my age who were running organizations. I didn’t have people I could talk to who got the struggles I was going through.

I also didn’t want to complain to my team because I was their boss. I had a staff of 24 of my main volunteers, and I didn’t want to whine or complain to them because I thought well, that’s not the behavior of a leader, so it was kind of lonely in what was becoming burnout.

Was there ever this feeling of working so hard and for little compensation to provide resources that you didn’t even have the time to benefit from yourself?

The work was really taking a toll on my physical and mental health. I got a repetitive stress injury in my wrist from working so much…from typing so much. I had pitched an essay to the New York Times Book Review in the fall of 2015. It’s like a week before BinderCon LA, and the NYT is like, “Hi, we’re going to run this essay next week. We need you to edit it by tomorrow," and this is when my wrists were acting up, and I just started crying.

And I posted in the Binders, and of course, they all knew I had a repetitive stress injury, and they were like, you need to get wrist braces. Go to CVS. Someone in The Binders who felt sorry for me actually PayPal’d me $50 to help me buy wrist braces. It makes me want to cry just thinking about it, there are so many amazing people in the community that I’ve met.

This was the spring of 2016, leading up to the summer of 2016 when I said we needed to cut back. In January of this year of 2017, it occurred to me that I was hanging in there and trying to fundraise because I thought if I raised the money I could hire somebody to replace me. I was like, I want to quit but I can’t quit because…I thought I needed to hire someone to replace me.

And I thought if I quit, then I’m a failure. And my friends were like, nobody’s going to think you’re a failure if you stop doing this, you’ve already done so much, that’s going to remain. That was the clarity I needed, that I didn’t have to do this anymore, that my reputation wouldn’t be ruined forever if I stopped doing this. And so I gave three months’ notice in January.

What have you been up to over this period?

My idea was I would resign as of May 1, and starting then, I would write a novel. And what I found was that I needed to sleep for two months, and that was really hard because I felt so unproductive and I felt really mad at myself, but I don’t think I even realized how burnt out I was. I’ve struggled with depression for 20 years, and I went back on Zoloft during this winter when things were so bad, and that really helped me. I thought, I’m just depressed and this will get me through.

I’ve been depressed before, and I’ll come out the other side. But this burnout, this is like another level. I was so cynical and jaded about everything. I told my boyfriend, "I’m not going to be a writer anymore, I’m never going to write again" and he was like, "Yes you will," and I was like, "Don’t tell me what to do!” It was really dark, and every email, every tweet was just like, the worst. It was just like when your skin is so sensitive, and everything hurts, but it was like that in my mind.

I would like to say that I’m making more money now than ever before. I slept for two months, and now I’m back to my old self. Only now can I see how burnt out I really was, because that wasn’t myself. So I am teaching writing, I am freelance proofreading and editing, I’m ghostwriting and I’m working on a new novel which I have to prioritize and do first thing in the morning. I got up at 5:30 so I could do it before I talked to you, which doesn’t happen every day, but I’m getting better at it.

I think I learned a lot from my experience at Binder Con, I’m proud of it, I learned a lot about, interestingly enough, I learned a lot about branding and marketing and sales. I learned more about the business side of writing that I never knew about, and I’m translating that into making more money for myself, and I feel so much better.

What advice do you have for young women who might be interested in starting a socially conscious or otherwise altruistic organization of their own, and how can they—from the start—protect their own needs and ambitions while still building a brand around helping others?

Start by asking questions…it’s like falling in love, when you fall in love, you don’t want to think about the worst case scenario. You don’t want to think you’re going to break up with your boyfriend when you’re just on your fifth date and totally head over heels for this guy. Even if you have a huge fan base that you love and loves you.

Words: Kaylen Ralph
Photo: Courtesy