I’ve known Mitch Flynn professionally for more than 10 years. We became closer as my interest in cycling led me to the Ride 4 Roswell, of which he founded. I’ve always known Mitch to have an easy way with coming up with usable creative marketing ideas. I wondered if he had any thoughts on how this creativity spilled over into a life of giving that he and Ellen Goldstein, his wife of 30 years, practice.
The Architecture of an Idea
Mitch has guided lots of ideas into reality over the last 40 years. He freely admits to preferring being the architect rather than the builder. He sees good ideas as having “a level of completion to them. When they’re good, everything is just right. They are unassailable”
The choice of “architect” is key because linking a good idea to a level of completion is what a builder might expect when being handed drawings. During our interview Mitch freely played out the success of his business, his outsized resume of volunteering - from founding the Ride 4 Roswell, to his supporting his alma maters all the way to his neighborhood block club as if he were simply sharing another idea.
After being asked to join the Roswell Park Alliance in 1991, he cast about for something more to do than sell tickets to black tie events. “I thought maybe they wanted to do a grassroots event. I had done charity bike rides and took notes on how they did it so I was able to put together a pretty complete proposal. Next I went on a yoga retreat in summer of 1995. I came back full of energy and ideas. I sat down and laid out the plan and i pitched it – but it was by no means an instant hit. It took Roswell a really long time to get back to me – not what I expected. It turns out that it was a split decision to go ahead with it.
The momentum from going on a yoga retreat, being in the right place as a volunteer for Roswell, and my interest in cycling combined to get it going… from the start I always knew it would get to $1 million – but it took from 1996 to 2006 to get there, so it was an 11-year overnight success. Last year it raised $4.6 million and cumulatively in 21 years it’s raised north of $40 million – so I guess you could call it a success. One of my inspirations is the book The Tipping Point – the hockey stick curve of an epidemic exactly matches The Ride’s growth - from 1996 - 2003 was like the shaft – flat, and from 2004 to now, the sharp up-curve of the blade as the event grew exponentially. It’s a perfect illustration of Gladwell’s concept. "
When the giver is an optimist
“A lot of philanthropy...has a self-interest side to it for a lot of different reasons that aren't necessarily bad. In the marketing business, shops will take on pro bono work because it gives them the freedom to do what they do at the highest level. If it’s free – ie, donated work – you’re not likely to have a client telling you what to do. That was part of the fun of doing all the marketing work for The Ride for the first 11 years – we were given free rein – it was pretty much all on us at Flynn & Friends. We had the self satisfaction of doing our own thing and got some nice accolades – we won the PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) “best of show” for the work we did to launch the event and then again a decade later for what we did for The Ride’s 10th anniversary.
I served as a mentor or reactor for CEL students. I probably have done that for 40-50 businesses. It’s not necessarily for profit. On the other hand it is a good networking tool and I’ve been fortunate enough to get business from it.
I was one of the founders of our block club out of self-interest and a sense of community – as a homeowner I want to guard against crime and raise quality of life…and sleep better at night.
Spinning is also a volunteer thing. (Mitch leads spinning classes in fall and winter at the Jewish Community Center). But it’s also entirely selfish. I want to stay in shape. But what I found I like best about spinning is that it has opened me up to music in a whole new way…I don't have a great ear. I’ll hear a million songs and not know the words. But spinning led me to listen and hear the words. It brought all this music into my head.”
What is Creativity
Long pause…."It's the zone where you make connections that result in new stuff. I’m a big believer in inspiration. I’m lucky enough to have a mini muse and be able to be inspired to write. I’ve literally had that feeling of words and ideas coming from an outside source. Call it negative capability – when you’re in a blank slate state of mind you can produce really good work.
The other part aspect of creativity is collaboration; I think inspiration tends to be personal, solitary; collaboration is the flip. It’s been a more typical experience working in advertising. Lot of fun. Nothing like the synergy of working with someone else who has a different way of looking at things, and that can lead to great new things.
I've also learned to trust the brainstorming process. Having done it so many times it’s really common to strike out; hit fouls; but if you do it enough and have faith in the process you will get a hit. Nothing is as satisfying as that. What keeps it going is the satisfaction of coming up with ideas that in a sense are reinvigorating and fun and of value to the people you are trying to put them to use for.
I always feel like ideas are out there waiting to be found. You just have to be in the right place at the right time. You have to look off or look away. You can’t look directly at them – you have to look peripherally to find them, the idea is there. When you find it you say, ‘Oh, how simple is that?!!’ The idea has its own life and answers its own questions.”
Tony - Art answers questions that haven't been asked.
The Pencil Idea that got Flynn & Friends started…
Got the idea for the pencil on a flight to Florida 1985. I was thinking about going out on my own. I must have seen something that made me think of a teaser campaign. I sent out pencils to 500 people over a period of a month; anonymously from a PO box. Then I started getting return mail; it ranged from intrigued to annoyed to amused. Then I sent a reveal piece. I got about 40-50 phone calls the first week of being in business. Then referrals. It won best of show from the ad group, which led to publicity and notoriety and I got business from that over the next 2 years.
Mitch's Idea Architecture.2017 version
Two years ago I was honored on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Ride with a sculpture on the Roswell Park campus titled “Pathways to Hope” by artist Ellen Steinfeld, who is a friend of mine. I’ve been processing that ever since. I thought about all the dozens and dozens of people who have done a huge amount of work on the event, and then approached the Ride manager a couple of months ago with the idea that we could capitalize on the sculpture and space around it. From a distance, you wouldn’t know what the sculpture’s all about. So I said, how about naming the space and recognizing the Ride’s top volunteers and fundraisers. They went for it. I’m excited. The name for the park is now “Pathways Park” and it will be dedicated June 9th. About 125 people will be honored with their names inscribed in bricks surrounding the sculpture – yearly 10 top fundraisers; all-time top fundraisers of $100,000 and more; top youth fundraisers; top volunteers; and all the 21 years of co-chairs; …of course Flynn & Friends will design the invite and program book – for no money (some things never change!! Ed.). It brings to completion the idea I had two years ago.
Tony: To put a bow on this – you looked humbled and uncomfortable at the original dedication. Much ado about just one guy. This new wrinkle says much about you as a doer and a giver.
Mitch: I love my adoring public. I know that’s at least 1 or 2 people....