Ryan McGuire is an unusual artist and businessman, well known in Ithaca for driving around town in a Mazda Miata that’s decked out to look like a rocket ship, for proposing to his fiancée with the help of flash mob in the center of town, and for working as a DJ on Cornell’s WVBR radio. He’s what would be called by suited executives on Mad Men, with some befuddlement and awe, “an idea man.”
Ryan’s other efforts have included launching a web site to get members of his community involved in helping each other with day-to-day tasks, a business that provides marketing and branding advice to local businesses and an innovative advertising concept involving hanging “visual puzzles” with a marketing message in the waiting rooms of local doctors’ offices.
Ryan serves as an inspiring example of how each of us might more effectively use our imagination, our energy and our desire to get involved with our communities.
GoodInKind: You’re clearly a guy who isn’t afraid to try new ideas and get the public involved. You shot a short film that involved getting as many people as possible in Ithaca to wear clown noses, launched an online service to match people who need help with people who can offer help, and even proposed to your girlfriend using a flash mob and then posting it on YouTube. How do you get people in your community involved in your projects?
Ryan McGuire: Primarily, I just like people and like giving them opportunity and attention. I wear bells on my ankles because it opens people up and gets them talking to me. I’ve learned over multiple community projects that if I put in extra energy myself and am willing to really minimize the commitment I’m asking of people, and just be active and responsive, then they’re actually interested in participating and meeting the people around them. Initially, people are wary of putting in extra effort themselves, or they aren’t comfortable with doing things with strangers, or they’re unsure if the idea is going to work and what the possible outcome might be.
But if I cover all those bases and provide them with a mechanism and opportunity to be creative and meet new people and to be engaged in a community-wide project. I always see massive participation. I think it’s just because I listen to people and listen to what their reasons are for being involved. Everyone kind of wants to be an artist, wants to be included in things and paid attention to, and I give everyone that extra attention because I am sincerely interested in them. I think that this sincerity is what sets me apart from people who try to do other large scale projects.
GIK: Ithaca is a pretty progressive community, with two major academic institutions, something like 500 not-for-profit organizations and a history of trying innovations like Ithaca Hours. Do you think Ithaca can be seen as a sort of incubator for creative ideas for social change that might work elsewhere?
RM: I do. I think the colleges definitely provide this diverse pool of individuals, from different backgrounds and different political views. Every semester brings in new people and new ideas. When you have communities that don’t have that kind of change in population, things can become very standardized. The internet is helping with that though, helping people become more open minded and allowing them to hear more views than just those of their specific community. The internet is bringing that college town mentality to everyone, because you can read news from all over the world, chat with people anywhere with Skype, connect with friends around the globe on Facebook.
You have to have an open mind in a college town, because new people here don’t even know what “here” is yet. They’re excited and activity trying to get involved in the community because it’s new. When you live in the same place for a long time, you’ve already experienced everything and the excitement of exploring and getting involved is reduced. That’s what makes Ithaca unique, and why I love college towns.
GIK: You are known not only for your artistic endeavors, like your rocket car, your public art projects, and wearing bells on your ankles, but also for your more business-oriented work in branding and marketing, as with your company Wait Connect. How do reconcile your art and your business sides?
RM: I think my artistic side actually enhances my business side. I’m always professional, even though my art seems a little quirky. And I think that’s what makes me successful, because I don’t put on a double face. I wear the bells when I wear my suit, and if people don’t accept me because of the bells, then I decide not to do business with them. I’m very selective about whom I work with, but normally it doesn’t come down to a selection process. I’ve worked with Fortune 500 companies, with clients in Germany and Switzerland and with businesses in almost every industry.
I think people respect me because they see me as blunt and sincere, and my quirkiness in fact makes people comfortable. And I have good eye and brain for business and always try to advance my knowledge. Every day I do at least three hours of training to increase my skills, primarily in the tools I use for graphic and web design, just to keep my brain moving and to always keep learning. But the goal for me is to always be best – or at least to understand what the other people who are better than me are doing so I can catch them!
So both sides work together – I’m not one who splits the wheel and says “I’m going to be business man today and artist tomorrow.” When you meet me, you’re going to get the whole personality, and I think that’s what makes me successful as both a businessman and as an artist.
GIK: And then there’s this third aspect of what you do, which is getting the community involved, not only with what you do in your quirky art projects, but with socially positive endeavors. How do you see businesses getting involved in the social good?
I think it’s a necessity. People who start small businesses have some type of desire to reach out to the community – even if it’s mainly a financial reach, they still have a stronger desire to actually engage the community than most. And if we could tap into that, and show them the power of giving and the power of positive community interaction, it would create a much more giving and supporting environment. Small businesses are already halfway there, and finding a happy middle ground between the purely financial and the public good is what we need to do.
I’m willing to give more into my community than I might need to, and I know sometimes people think “why would you do this?” And it’s because we actually have a lot of time. Even though people always say “life is short,” life is actually really long, so you might as well try to engage everyone you can and help as many people as you can.
I think small businesses can really adopt that approach, especially if they have the right mechanism, like GoodInKind, which will allow them to give back to the community. And it becomes addictive. As soon as you start to help people and they start to respond to you – with just a smile even – you’re going to want to give more. I think that’s why I keep doing it – because it feels so good to help other people.
GIK: and do you see a lot of that in Ithaca? Of businesses understanding the value of doing things for the public good?
RM: I think a lot of them do in their own way. I don’t think a lot of local business start their own initiatives, but they’re more than willing – and actually eager – to help the not-for-profit community. They’re always right there to help when someone is down and needs help. We had somebody in town recently who was diagnosed with cancer, and there were so many fund raising events that everywhere you went it felt like businesses were donating their profits to that person. The Ithaca community is very supportive of its members. It’s kind of a hub of positivity when it needs to be. And then of course the not-for-profit community provides the extra push. Whereas you can’t of course support them ALL, you constantly see businesses supporting their favorite local not-for-profits. It’s not your normal community where it’s just a few people, maybe the local banks, always supporting the same organization. The small businesses really try to pitch in as much as they can, even when times are tough.
GIK: What’s next for you, what projects do you have in the pipeline?
RM : The next big project is going to be Umbrella Share. It’s a unique idea that doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s such a simple concept, but if you understand the weather in Ithaca, you’ll know that it does rain a lot. My fiancée and I have been giving away umbrellas for many years now, so I’ve had this idea for a long time.
You know what it’s like when you’re walking down the street or waiting for the bus and it starts to rain, and you’re all dressed up for an interview or going out for the day. Getting soaked can ruin your day, which then hurts that positiveness that we’re trying to spread – trying to make people happy, help them do good. So the Umbrella Share concept is to have free umbrellas available at every single business, and to have “ambassadors” have umbrellas available to give out when it rains. So when it rains, you can go into any location within our community and just take an umbrella. You don’t need to sign it out, you don’t need to tell anyone that you’re taking it. If it’s an Umbrella Share umbrella, you can just take it. You can later return it, or drop it off at any other business you see that has the Umbrella Share logo. And we’ll be asking some local artists to create designs for the tops of the umbrellas, so we can also involve the local art community and support them as well.
Ultimately what it’s going to do is turn Ithaca into a kind of community support hub, so when you come to here and walk around, you think “Wow! There are car shares, and umbrella shares, and people doing GoodInKind!” You end up with this really supportive community that ultimately is just going to spread around the country.
But it’s about starting simple. Of course I could do something elaborate and crazy, but if you take something very simple that people take for granted it will catch on.
In addition to that, I do my normal business and engage as many people as I can. I do a lot of free websites for people who can’t afford them, and have a few of those in the pipeline right now as well. I’m trying to figure out how to provide free website for not-for-profits, if I can make it cost effective. I’m almost there. For informational websites that are professionally designed, I think I’ll be able to do it sometime this year. Any not-for-profit that just wants an internet presence that looks professional, I’m going to give them essentially a $5,000 website for free so that they can at least present their business well. I’ll have a few different templates that they can choose from. If they don’t have a logo, I’ll design their logo. And all they’ll have to do is fill out a page with all their information, it’ll be very standardized. It’ll give them a more professional image – you need to be more professional online now, but it can be too overwhelming a task and expense for people who are new at it. And the more of these I do, the better I get at it.
Again, there’s lots of hours in the day to do things like this…as long as I make enough money to eat I’ll be fine.