One night in October 2014, Jonathan Luiten’s wife put a typewriter in front of him. As Luiten tells it, she said, “you know what, you need to do something with your time. You’re sitting around moping, and I’m not going to enable you, so why don’t you sit down and write about it.”
Luiten, 40, founder of Valiant Insurance Brokers Inc., was recovering from an alcohol addiction. He calls that moment, “the typewriter incident,” which not only helped him become sober, but turned him into a published poet.
For years, he had stopped writing poetry and playing guitar, both creative endeavors he had been practicing since he was a child. “It was therapeutic to hit the keys,” said Luiten, when we talked on the phone recently. I started to find my voice again, because I had stopped writing music - everything went away while I was chasing the mighty dollar, so I could get a promotion or ownership in the company. I got wrapped up in drinking and socializing...”
His wife, also a writer, was a creative motivation, “she started this poetry account, and I was inspired by what she was doing and posting. I started meeting people on Instagram, who were going through what I was and offered me help and advice. By listening to people, I found the will to stay sober. I’m three-and-a-half years sober now.”
That moment changed the direction of Luiten’s life and gave him a new purpose and focus. His beginnings with Instagram aligned during a time when poetry was experiencing a surge in popularity, thanks to the social media platform. His Instagram handle, The Poetry Bandit, has nearly 150,000 followers. Fellow Canadian poet Rupi Kaur was also experiencing an increase in followers and attention to her work.
Luiten kept hitting the keys of the typewriter for a year and compiled enough work to self-publish a book in 2016 called, Sober Little Moon. Luiten says his collection of poems were written before or after a relapse, “It’s an emotional book and an emotional journey. I enjoy sharing it with people, because it gives them hope or if someone in their life is going through the same difficult time, that they might find a way as well.”
An unexpected moment came a year later: one of the largest publishers in the world Macmillan came knocking about writing a second book, “they [Macmillan] said, ‘we want to dip our toes into this poetry thing, and we’d like to sign you as one of our first three poets from Instagram to write a book with us.'”
Luiten’s first book with the publisher - he’s now onto this second - is called, You Only Love Me When I’m Suffering. His inspiration for the title and focus came from a single observation, “people only really liked my posts when I was sharing the deepest, darkest problems I was having, and everything that was rosey and fun, no one was interested in liking.” The book has sold more than 3,000 copies in the U.S.
While poetry got Luiten back on his feet, it soon became his night time routine, because he was busy running a new business, Valiant Insurance Inc., which he founded less than a year ago with his wife. Luiten dedicated his working career of more than 20 years to insurance, but after working for companies, was yearning to do things “his own way,” including how he could better build relationships with prospects.
In returning to insurance, Luiten says his biggest lesson from poetry and Instagram is how he builds relationships with his clients and prospects, “one of the things I did through my Poetry Bandit website was write custom poems for people. They’d pay me $15 and I’d write a long poem about whatever they want. So, I’d get to know them. I started to look at creating relationships with people in business the same way.”
He says he could see people as humans with needs rather than a dollar sign. He brought more empathy to the role, “without the cloud of alcoholism and this madness of trying to find the reason to take them [prospects] to lunch and drink wine all afternoon, I was able to focus on what these people needed. I started to care for them more. I was able to bring a more human aspect to the broker approach, than being some guy in a nice suit, driving up and delivering a policy each year and taking their money. I hit three quarters of my annual goal in my first three months of business.”
While Luiten was able to startup with 50 per cent of his client base being existing relationships, he says his interactions with clients through poetry taught him an important approach to prospecting, “when I cold call I always ask people if they have time. I don’t automatically launch into anything. Simply asking a person, ‘do you have time to talk today or should I call you back at a time that works well for you?’, usually opens the door.’ He says they’ll often respond, “yeah, you know I’m just stepping into a meeting, why don’t you call me back at this number.”
While Luiten is balancing two businesses, he knows it wouldn’t have been possible if he didn’t get his affairs in order first. It’s his advice to entrepreneurs, who want to pursue a creative endeavor, “I could never have gotten this far...if I wouldn’t have been able to take care of what was holding me back. I’ve talked to other business owners, who have failed businesses simply because they didn’t take care of a divorce or an addiction, or whatever was holding them back. Know what your weaknesses are, address them and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Luiten is working on his second book with Macmillan and his third publication: Encyclopedia of a Broken Heart will publish in October 2019, “without writing, I don’t know if I would have gotten sober on my own. I don’t know if my passion for writing or sharing stories would have ever found an outlet. Waking up with a clear head every morning and knowing exactly what I want to do for the day, who I want to call, and how I want to do things, is the best gift I could give myself and my company.”