Community Over Competition with Natalie Franke

On The DMV Wedding Pros Podcast this week, I got to chat with Natalie Franke. Natalie is best known as a creative, entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. She is the Co-Founder of The Rising Tide Society and Head of Community at Honeybook. All of her projects and features can be found on her website.

We talked about The Rising Tide Society, and how Natalie sparked #CommunityOverCompetition. We talked all things community and connection, showing up for yourself and your business, being transparent online, and so much more.

Hey Natalie! I'm so excited you could join us today. Give yourself an introduction.

I am Natalie Franke. I am a wedding photographer by trade, turned community builder by choice. I created a community of small business owners called The Rising Tide Society alongside some really incredible co-founders five years ago in Annapolis. It has grown and evolved into this really extraordinary group of people that champion a mindset of community over competition in over 400 cities now around the world. Over 77,000 members. My day to day work looks like supporting our community, and building resources that help small business owners to thrive and beat the statistics, as we like to say, and to support one another as we rise together.

That's awesome. As a fellow Annapolitan and as someone in the wedding industry, I'm really excited to chat with you and bring listeners into this conversation. I'd love to just chat about how this spark started with this philosophy of community over competition, which I'm assuming started with your wedding photography business. So if you could share that with us.

Absolutely. I started photographing weddings toward the end of high school, prior to going to college. I mention that because for a number of years throughout my time at Penn and while I was studying at school, I was building my business. I was trying to figure out if this was something I could take full time. If this was just a dream, just a naive hope that I had that I could be a full time photographer, or if this was a sustainable livelihood that I could step into and that I could grow into. So for years and years and years I hustled incredibly hard to build my business, and when I finally graduated I had booked up more than enough weddings in order to step in and be completely full time, and not have to go and look for a full time job, which to me was winning, adulting on all cylinders. It was the dream, and the goal.

What I didn't quite realize in taking that step and jumping in full time was that entrepreneurship can be incredibly lonely. It can be so unbelievably isolating. It can be so difficult and stressful and overwhelming. It feels like there's no escape from that endless rat race of getting ahead, of working harder and faster than our competition. I experienced that first hand when I was building that photography business, especially when I leapt into the full time role and had bills to pay, and at that point student loans to pay, and a lot of responsibility on my shoulders.

Truthfully, I was just craving to be a part of something that was bigger than myself. To be a part of a community, to belong, to be welcomed, to be able to support others and be supported in return. I didn't know where to turn for that. I saw some groups that existed in a creative industry, but it was always industry specific. It was photographers sitting with photographer or designers sitting with designers, or it was veterans in business who had been doing this for ten years and they weren't open to newcomers coming in and shaking things up. I couldn't really find a place where I saw a real environment of welcoming others that I wanted to see, that invited all different industry types and people to sit at the table. Somewhere you really could sit next to an artist, or cinematographer, or consultant, or a strategist, or a maker, and have a conversation about small business ownership where everyone was open and giving and didn't feel like they needed to hide their secrets, and really wanted one another to win, really was rooting for everyone to make it.

And so, over a conversation with friends, we ultimately decided to try and build that community in Annapolis. That is where Rising Tide began. It was never meant to be this massive community or international movement or hashtag with four million posts on it for Community Over Competition. It was really a coffee meet up in Annapolis, Maryland, meant to change the way that small business owners connected and supported each other in our hometown. What ended up happening was, we started it, we started taking those steps, and we started getting people together at a coffee shop. And others noticed. They saw us doing this on social media, Instagram in particular, and within hours of our first meetup we had people reaching out to us saying, "Hey, I want this where I live. I want a group that gets together that supports each other. I've been looking for what you're creating. How do I build it, or how do I start a group here?"

From that moment on, I think we realized there really was a need for this. And a need for someone to facilitate it. For years I had looked around and said, "When is somebody going to fix this? When is somebody going to create this group?" and I realized nobody was going to create it but us. We adopted that mentality very much with Rising Tide, where whenever we got those messages we just said, "Hey, do you want to be the leader of this group? Would you like to start one in your area? Do you want to create a chapter? This is our mission, these are our core values, this is what we stand for. If this sounds like the type of world you want to live in too, then it's time for you to step up and lead."

We were blown away as different creatives and small business owners raised their hands to create their own groups, and Rising Tide has been growing for the past five years ever since.

That is amazing. What year was that first meeting held?

2015. We officially launched in June of 2015, but our first meeting was earlier that year, I want to say around April or March. At that moment it wasn't even called Rising Tide, I think the name was like Creative Cafe. I know, original name. But that's what it was. Five years was sort of the official launch, and it's been wild. I can't believe it's been half a decade. It feels both like a lifetime, and also like we just started.

For some reason I expected it to be longer. The amount of growth and community that has happened in the past five years is... that's so crazy to me. So cool. Do you remember the kind of coining of this #CommunityOverCompetition?

Yeah. It's funny. I had just attended a conference called Creative At Heart. At the time it was right amidst these conversations emerging where we wanted something better for our industry. The actual hashtag, and the coining of that phrase, started as an Instagram challenge, and it originated as me simply going on Instagram and saying today instead of posting about yourself or using your platform to talk about your business, what if we turn the tide and use this as an opportunity to talk about somebody else? What if you went on Instagram and used your platform to cheer for your competition, to actually lift them up, to support them? What if we created this world?

What was crazy is at first it was a hand full of just my closest friends that were doing it, and no one else was doing it. Suddenly other people saw them doing this and thought, "Oh my gosh, this is awesome. This is really different, and they did it, too." And before we knew it, it was dozens of people and then hundreds of people. We realized there was something to this, and the phrase itself felt like it fit with our core values and what we were really trying to accomplish in our industry. While we were simultaneously thinking about Rising Tide, this was all happening in parallel, we kind of brought it under the umbrella of Rising Tide and made it the mantra of the community. It stuck ever since.

For those who may not know exactly what Rising Tide's mission is, or what actually goes on at a Rising Tide meeting or in a Rising Tide group, how would you describe that to newcomers?

Rising Tide is on a mission to educate and empower creative entrepreneurs and small business owners to rise together doing what they love. And how we do that, in the day to day, looks like a hybrid model of in-person and online community support. The in-person component is the 400 meetups that I talked about. Those take place in cities all around the United States, Canada, and in some cities around the world. They're led by grassroots volunteer leaders - I always say the best of us, the best of humanity - just amazing business owners that care so much about changing the culture of their local communities, and reframing competition under this sort of putting people first mentality. The meetings themselves are held, for the most part, on the second Tuesday of every month. In a non-pandemic year, they are held in person, although for the safety of everyone in our community we've moved virtually for the time being. They don't look like a traditional networking meeting, so don't show up with business cards expecting to network in the traditional sense. We are about relationship building and about education sharing, so we have a topic every month that we cover that varies month to month. It has to do with business, for the most part, although there are things that we think connect to business that are critical to talk about, like mental health and mental wellness, philanthropy and giving back. Those sort of topics that aren't as tactical, but yet still incredibly important. Otherwise you can expect to show up, and have - like we've covered social media marketing, brand voice and copywriting, email marketing strategies, client experience, workflow systems, automations, like you name it, we've probably covered it. That's sort of the in-person component. We meet, we gather, we talk about an educational topic, we share information with one another, we ask questions. We have a safe space to share, to be heard, and to learn.

And then online we also have sort of the other half of Rising Tide, which is the online support. We have local groups that actually facilitate those in-person meetings that are online, and then we have a large Facebook group with about 70,000 people in it that really serves as a catch-all for question asking, and getting support, getting answers in different areas of your business where you might feel stuck, or if you just want to learn something new.

We also have a couple communities that are experience-based, so life experience-based and not necessarily geographically connected. That includes our military chapter, which is for small business owners that are either in the military or a part of a military family, as well as our Creatives and Chronically Ill chapter for creatives who have a chronic illness and navigate running a business with a chronic illness. That group alone has changed my own life, and I am a member of that group not a leader of that group. It has just been incredible to see the power of community unfold both in person and online.

I didn't even know that those existed!

Yeah, most people don't know. I think most people think we're just geographical groups, but that's sort of been an evolving understanding, that there are needs that our community has that transcend geography. And I'll say too, for both the military chapter and our creatives that are chronically ill, for many of them getting together in person in the same group in the same city every month just isn't possible. We really care deeply about accessibility, and that is something that we've been growing in as a community, working to improve across the board in all facets of our content. We believe as a core tenant in our values that a virtual community is incredibly important, critical, and necessary to the health of our world. We really do believe that. I know that social media gets a bad rep, but we really believe that when not used to consume but instead used to connect, social media gives us this gateway to really support one another and create accessible avenues for people to engage in connection, community, and friendship. For a lot of folks that isn't possible in person. It's so important to us to champion those groups, and just to continue building online community, too.

Definitely. Just personally in my own business, I've seen so much growth in the past two or so years because I was really investing time into building relationships in person, and now virtually. Just really pouring into people and having someone who you trust to brainstorm with and bounce ideas off of, it's so important. So it's no surprise to me that something like this really took off because before then there just wasn't a platform for people to do that.

Now, for an entrepreneur maybe just starting out, maybe looking for their own community and their own people, what are some things that you would say to them that they can get started with right now wherever they may be?

So I mean, look, the biggest thing that you can do outside of showing up to your next Tuesdays Together meeting, which you know I'm going to recommend because that is what I do, and I mean it - go to our website,, find your local group, get connected, get plugged in, show up - it leads me to a broader suggestion, which is show up. Show up in your potential opportunities to connect with others who do what you do. You might not be a brick and mortar, but if you are deeply connected to a local community, and even if you do something online as a digital entrepreneur, I still recommend digging in locally. Find other business owners that are in your area, that are getting started or growing and scaling, and reach out, connect. Follow them on Instagram, cheer for them on social media, slide into their DMs and start up a conversation just for the sake of it. Not to get anything out of it, but just to build a relationship. Show up to networking events, or Tuesdays Together meetups, or different types of community initiatives. I think the biggest advice I can give you if you're getting started and aren't really sure A) how to succeed beyond your craft and, B) to get plugged into your community, you just have to start showing up.

I can't tell you how many people join a thousand Facebook groups, but never once create content or leave a comment. I can't tell you how many people say that they want to make friends in their local community, but have never taken the first step to follow someone, to send the DM, to take the first step. And I know it's terrifying. I know, it's absolutely terrifying. I used to be someone who showed up to networking events when I was a young photographer - I had just gotten my license, really I was young, I was very very young - and I would drive up and I would pull up outside of these networking events and I would sit in my car. I would watch people walk in, and I remember thinking. "I don't fit in. I'm too this, I'm too that. I'm too young. I'm not going to be taken seriously. I'm too new. I don't know what I'm doing." And I would leave. I would get as far as pulling up to the front door, parking three spaces away, sitting in my car, and then I would just drive away.

I know what it feels like to be terrified to take that first step. All my introverts listening to this are like, "Wow, I feel personally attacked. No lies detected." I totally hear you. But I just want to encourage you that if you want to be successful in business, if you want to have a fulfilling experience as a business owner where you're deeply rooted in your relationships with others, you have to show up, and you have to take that first step regardless of how terrifying it is. And if the biggest thing you do is walk through the door at that next networking event when this pandemic is over, or you show up to your virtual meetup, or you send that DM and you reach out in generosity and in kindness to someone else, then that accomplishment is so much more than enough. So start there, start by showing up, and having the courage to just take that next step, whatever that looks like.

Definitely. I think that goes hand in hand with something that I preach often, which is to show up on social media. I think that's also something that's really difficult for introverts. Maybe especially for photo and video people who are used to being behind their camera, it's so hard to hop in front of the camera and get on your stories and get on your feed, but that's also something that you are really excellent at. Personally, I think that the more personal the better. People are getting to know you and that makes them want to work with only you. I would love to have you talk a little bit about all the things that you are really open about on your page, and how you make that work for you, just showing off who you are and your philosophies online.

I'll use Instagram as a primary platform because that really is where I spend most of my social media time. I've been on Instagram ever since it launched, probably about ten years-ish? Somewhere in that range. Let's just go with ten. For the first seven years of that experience, I didn't share anything personal. If you came to my feed you would know nothing more than I was a blonde-somewhat-brunette girl taking pictures with a camera who loved her job. That's all that you would know about me, and that was very much by intention. So what I'm about to say I want to preface with that because I think sometimes we can see those who are vulnerable or those who are sharing their personal story or who are being open and transparent and feel like it's so much easier for them. Or that they clearly have always been this way, that this has always been their nature. This is not my nature. I'm an enneagram 3, I am a recovering perfectionist, I am the chronic dotter of i's and crosser of t's, you know? At my best, I think I can move forward and be vulnerable, but at my worst I'm too afraid to be judged and criticized and torn down. So I spent a long part of my career not sharing anything personal, and being really afraid of what other people thought, and really nervous to be transparent and to share the journey.

For me, my life was really rocked when I turned right around 22, it was about two months after turning 22, when I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. That moment was just an earth-shattering experience in so many different aspects, but one of them pertinent to this conversation being that I was terrified of people finding out. I had this big diagnosis and part of what came with it was an understanding that I would be infertile without medical intervention, and also understanding that this tumor was sitting right behind where my optic nerves crossed in a part of the brain called the optic chiasm, just knowing that any day I could wake up with vision loss or blindness as an indicator as my tumor had grown and pressed on those nerves without warning, without notice. That's sort of like, unfortunately, a thing that happens with these pituitary tumors when they reach a certain size, and mine was macro from diagnosis.

I was terrified of anyone finding out that a wedding photographer could go blind at any moment. You know, it's not a great branding strategy. So I hid this diagnosis from the world for a number of years. I made adjustments in my business to account for it. I brought on an assistant and a second shooter at every wedding. I invested heavily in networking with other photographers so should anything ever happen to me I had a fallback plan. The irony is now in these Covid times photographers, cinematographers, wedding and event professionals at large all have these massive fallback plans and back then it's not something we really talked about, but now we understand that any of us could get sick, none of us are immune to Covid-19. Back then I did what I could on the business side, but I was so afraid to share.

I kept my diagnosis a secret for years, almost five years, until I found out from my new neurosurgery team after we moved to the West Coast that surgery, brain surgery, was really my best option to tackle this tumor once and for all, and have a really great quality of life in the long run. I found out just with weeks to spare that I would be going in for brain surgery. This was after launching Rising Tide, this was after moving to the West Coast to work more closely with Honeybook, who acquired Rising Tide shortly after our launch. So it was a huge moment of transition in my life and I was just confronted by this career and personal stop sign of, "Nope, you've got to put everything on hold and go in for major surgery. We're going to go into your brain and we don't know what the other side of this looks like." And so I realized I think in that moment that I had to make a decision. I either had to keep this information private, or I had to confront the fact that it was time to be transparent and to be open with my community and with my audience and how I present myself on social media.

I wish I could say to you that it was this brave decision. It wasn't. It was more of a moral and ethical decision. I felt very strongly that if something were to happen to me, or if the surgery was not to go as planned and I wasn't me on the other side of it, that I didn't want the last thing that I said to my community to be a lie. And I didn't want the last way that I showed up in the world to not be authentic, and to not be genuine when so many other aspects of my life and my brand were. This one diagnosis just terrified me from being real about it.

And so I did it, I shared with two weeks to go before my brain surgery. I opened up about my diagnosis and about my pending surgery. I'll tell you something - something changed in me. The minute I stopped trying to look perfect on the internet, and the minute I started embracing that I could show up as me, I could be a little more nerdy, and I could be a little bit more soft around the edges, and I could share that I had a benign brain tumor and that I was struggling with a chronic illness, the minute I took that first step, all of those fears around sharing who I really was and what I was really walking through just came crumbling down. From that surgery moment onward, I have been transparent. I've shared a little bit about that part of my journey. I've shared about fertility treatment that followed that that gave us our miracle toddler. And then I continued to share as we've tried unsuccessfully to have another child. Month over month, kind of facing t