The Freelance Creative

How Getting Arrested on Assignment Inspired This Journalist’s New Business

Canadian journalist Jeff Davis was completing a fellowship in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2011 when he was arrested by secret police and accused of being an American spy. Davis, a freelancer based in Saskatchewan, went to jail but managed to verify his identity and secure his release using a homemade leather money belt holding a scan of his passport.

That experience motivated Davis to launch StashBelt, a business selling belts with storage compartments that are produced by Kenyan leather workers. Davis and his co-founders also appeared on Dragon’s Den (the Canadian version of Shark Tank) and closed a $50,000 investment with David Chilton (author of The Wealthy Barber) in exchange for a third of the company.

I caught up with Davis by phone to find out about the origins of his belt, why journalists make good entrepreneurs, and how he juggles freelance assignments with running a business.

Tell me about getting arrested in Kenya.

I got assigned that morning at the desk to go cover a youth protest. When I arrived that day—wearing a three-piece suit because I thought I’d be covering parliament—the presidential guard was occupying the square, but there were thousands of protesters, young people in slum alleyways around there.

As soon as I arrived, this secret policeman pulls me aside. He’s like, “Get out of here or we’re going to arrest you.” I called back to the desk, and they told me not to worry. “You’ve got proper credentials.” So I just went on with it.

At one point, there was a member of parliament (MP) who was a champion of youth. I was just a couple paces behind him, and I had a little pocket camera. I follow the MP with a bunch of the others into the middle of the square, and the fucking secret police actually tear-gassed the MP. As the gas goes down, I’m backing away, and I’m just snapping a big series of pictures.

Then the presidential guards started to charge the crowd, so I run away, and I’m running through the slums. I ended up doubling back into where the clouds of tear gas were going and I got tear-gassed pretty badly. Then there was this same secret policeman who saw me that morning. He drags me off to the presidential guards and they’re like, “Get in the truck.” I was like, “No, no, I’m a reporter, freedom of the press and all that.”

Does that argument work in Kenya?

No, it doesn’t work. They take me to jail. They took my camera and my voice recorder, and they deleted those photos. Then I got back to the office a number of hours later, and the photo desker clearly had encountered this before. She did a data recovery technique to actually get the pictures back, and it was published in the front page of the Swahili edition of The Nation the next morning.

How did this inspire StashBelt?

I’m being interrogated by the station’s police and they actually accused me of being a U.S. spy, which is so surreal. Firstly, I’m not a spy. Secondly, I’m not even American. They’re like, “I want you to substantiate your identity.”

Of course you don’t carry your passport when you’re going into the slums. Then I realized that I was actually wearing a money belt that my father had made years before. It was just a simple little belt that had a zipper off of a pants-fly sewn in the back.

He had given that to me a decade earlier when I started traveling around the world. I kept a scan of my passport, emergency contact information, and a bunch of emergency cash. My dad told me it was kind of like an insurance policy. You can still get robbed, but as long as you got this stuff, you can get yourself out of a pinch.

I pull out a photocopy of my passport, and I show that to the cops. A couple hours later, I was released. So that was really the aha moment for StashBelt, to see how this tool could really save your ass in times like this.

How do you balance your freelance assignments with running StashBelt?

I’m a big believer in building business systems. I think you’d consider a business mature when it can run itself without your daily involvement. Really, my goal with StashBelt was to make a fully automated online business, one where people could buy the product online and then also that it could be shipped without my actually physically handling the product. It took us about three years to get there, but that’s where we are now.

The product is made in Kenya, and it’s shipped to Nova Scotia, which is where the StashBelt shipping hub is. I really believe in creating business systems that basically run themselves. Once it gets set up, it can just run and run without you necessarily working on it each day, and that frees up your time to do other things, such as write.

Are there lessons from freelancing or journalism in general that have helped you with entrepreneurship?

One nice thing about journalism is you really learn how to learn. You’re the interpreter for the public at large, and one thing that gives you is the skill to absorb and synthesize information quickly. That’s important because in entrepreneurship, you have to learn all sorts of weird little things that you never really would’ve expected to learn. In the course of running StashBelt, I really have become an expert on leather. I’ve also learned a lot about the factory management and how to set up production lines.

In a lot of ways, journalism prepares you for a whole broad range of tasks. If you look at history, a lot of great men and women throughout history have had journalism as a first career. A towering example would be Winston Churchill. He was a war correspondent before doing anything else. There are lots of people who start a career in journalism, and then we really see that those skill sets will help them later through all sorts of different things.

Any thing else you’d like to add?

I’m a huge believer in learning how to sell. I think that’s a huge, huge skill that’s going to help you in your freelance career because when we think about pitching, we’re looking at sales. Maybe about 30 percent of the work is the writing. The real hard work is actually getting a contract. I would highly recommend to any freelancer that they go and really study the classic literature of sales, people like Zig Ziglar and Brian Tracy.

What I found works really well is to go for recurring contracts. There are tons of trade publications, industry publications, and a lot of times, once you get locked into that, you can do that indefinitely.

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