“Whatever I start, I like it to be successful,” says Andrew Stawicki, co-founder of Our Kids Media with his wife Margaret Stawicki. “That requires dedication and passion. And I’m the passion person.” He laughs at that thought, perhaps knowing that the flipside—some of the technical details of running the business—can at times risk losing his attention. Since the beginning, it’s the big thoughts, and the passion, that Andrew brought to the project, and everything else in his life.
“If you look at my life, in general—coming to Canada, coming to the Star, building this company. Each time, I had to start again.” Andrew began his career in photojournalism in his native Poland, and he was very successful there. The decision to come to Canada was made at a moment of anxiety--he and his family were visiting Germany when martial law was declared in Poland. In response, they stayed with an eye to perhaps moving to Canada.
““It wasn’t that I was running away from something, I didn’t belong to the party, I was totally independent. It was just something that happened in my life, and it happened at the right time.” In Germany Andrew took photography assignments from Bild Zeitung, a national paper in a country that wasn’t his home, where he was the newcomer in an established, cloistered industry. Nevertheless, his phone was soon ringing off the hook, something he attributes to his ability to bring a new look to some established storylines.
“Part of my success with photography is because I like to tell stories. I can take days to create three images...”
Then, in coming to Canada, he did it all again, starting over in a country that wasn’t yet his home, where he wasn’t a part of the media community, and working in a language that wasn’t his mother tongue. “It’s not easy. You have to build,” he says. “If you try to deliver pizza at the same time as being a photographer, you’re not going to make it. But if you dedicate yourself, and work hard, you’ll always make it.”
In time he joined the staff of the Toronto Star. He photographed Leonard Cohen in his bathtub. He took that iconic photo of Mordecai Richler, looking over the top of his glasses. He contributed to the A Day In The Life Of books on Canada, Japan, the U.S, Spain and the Soviet Union.
“Part of my success with photography is because I like to tell stories. I can take days to create three images. I mean, you can shoot that in five minutes—just open a window, click, boom, done.” To do it right, he feels, requires something more. “You can’t open a business for money. You can’t. You have to open a business because you have a passion, because there is something you want to do.” And that’s just what he did.
In addition to his work with the Star, Andrew co-founded PhotoSensitive, a non-profit collective of photographers determined to explore how photography can contribute to social justice.
And, together with his wife, Margaret, he established a company to help families learn about camps, and to find the right camp for them: Our Kids. The idea grew out of a conversation around the dinner table one night that began with what was, on reflection, a pretty obvious question: one of the kids asked, “Why do we always go to the same camp?”
Neither Andrew or Margaret had a good answer. “It was a good camp!” Andrew says when thinking about it today. And, certainly, it was. They had seen a huge change in their daughter, a direct result of going to camp. There was clearly a lot of value there. That said, they had chosen a camp less out of a specific intention than by default. It was the camp they had heard about. And, given they had a good experience the first time, a certain inertia sets in: that’s where we go because, well, that’s where we go.
Still, the question niggled. Was it the best camp for them? Perhaps it was, but how would they know? What else were they missing? He also felt that, like them, many families weren’t aware of the range of value that camp can offer. There wasn’t any objective source for other parents who, presumably, were new to the concept or were otherwise asking the same kinds of questions. So they decided to make one.
The internet was just beginning to have an impact on how businesses grow, and the smaller businesses, such as Our Kids, had an innate agility to really engage with it
“I remember speaking with [photographer] Tony Hauser. I was standing at the front of his studio, we were chatting, and he said to me, ‘you’re brave.’” He laughs, knowing that, on some levels, it was less about bravery than it was naiveté. But his view to starting the company was undiminished. “As long as you have a passion you get it. How can I get a job at the Star? If you really want it, you’ll get it.”
The success of Our Kids was a result of that kind of dedication combined, in equal measure, with a canny ability to think ahead. And 1997, it turns out, was an especially propitious time to be thinking ahead. The internet was just beginning to have an impact on how businesses grow, and the smaller businesses, such as Our Kids, had an innate agility to really engage with it.
“Lots of media outlets were too late,” says Andrew. “They were so successful [in traditional media] they thought ‘why bother.’ But the train was going, and in two or three years, it was very difficult to catch up. With Our Kids, right away—this was on a different scale of course—we were thinking ahead to online delivery, apps. Perhaps it was small at the time, but we were ahead of everybody….and the industry was looking to us.”
He didn’t look only at emerging media, but rather saw print as part of a growing media landscape. The magazine became a touchstone of the business, and it remains one today while also charting the growth of the company. “The first magazine had only 40 camps. It was tiny. We grew every year. But at the same time we innovated every year. Our thinking about camp was entirely different.
“We were one of the first in Ontario to think ‘we have to change how people think about camp.’ Toronto is multicultural. … some people who didn’t know much about it thought going to camp was a waste of time and money. But that’s not true. So we had to educate them.” They advertised in the niche community papers, something that no camps had done prior. “We were the leader. Probably every camp is promoting to different ethnic groups today.”
In many ways, the work at Our Kids set a tone, and a style, that was repeated by others working in the camp field and beyond. Margaret, a fine artist and designer by trade, did all the design and layout for the magazines and, later, the web presence. Her work became a touchstone in the industry, one that other companies and guides now base their designs upon.
Two decades later, that desire to innovate, to remain vital and ahead of the curve remains undiminished. “You know, we’re doing okay,” says Andrew, “but OK now isn’t good three years from now. … I liked what I was doing. I liked design, I like to grow, and I had a little bit of luck, having great people to work with.”
All these years later, it’s clear that he still does.