Memphian to Meet: Tim Nicholson

Posted on January 25, 2014


by Kendra Lyons

img_6861I showed up to Minglewood Hall at 11:00 AM and walked through the concert hall, a sort of haunting place when it’s empty- I thought about all of the shows Minglewood had seen- the crowds of people listening to their favorite bands in the quintessential Midtown home to music. Seeing it completely open and quiet was odd. I headed upstairs when I noticed the “Bigfish” sign in a psychedelic font to the side. When I pushed open the door to their second floor office space, I felt like a little kid. My eyes darted all over the room, and I wanted to touch everything and ask questions about how they made their workspace so…cool. Blonde hardwood floors, offices with glass walls so everyone can see into each other’s workspace, the “Wish You Well Wall, “a Bigfish initiative including colorful post-its covering a small wallspace displayed on to the side, brick walls, bright lights, a cowskin rug and leather sofas comprising the waiting room, like I said- the definition of cool.

As soon as I walked in, Tim Nicholson got up from his desk and asked me if he could have five minutes to wrap up a phone call. After offering me a coffee and a seat in the waiting area, he casually added, “feel free to put on a record!”

I grinned. This place was the definition of “trendy,” a word I’ve found myself using a lot lately- so ironically modern yet old-school at the same time, so casual and open for an office setting.

I opted out of operating the record player- I imagined myself breaking it or setting in on fire, a first impression I thought was best to avoid altogether, for my own sake and the future of theGRIND.

Tim finished up his phone call and stepped out in an outfit that complimented the casual, low key, and creative feel of his office- grey slacks, a crisp white button down, and a denim jacket cuffed at the sleeves.

Before asking any questions, Tim pointed to my issue of Rolling Stone with Paul McCartney on the cover and said, “No way! You’ve read this?” I nodded and offered for him to borrow it. We got into a chat about Paul- why we are drawn to him, why he fascinates us, what we admire about his music.

I went to get to know what Tim Nicholson does at Bigfish Creative but I got so much more- his input on history, culture, music, and business, all what Nicholson feels contributes to the soul of Memphis.

“There are two things that I think Memphis doesn’t appreciate about itself. They revolve around the idea of onlyness. It’s a term I borrow from a woman named Nilofer Merchant who uses as sort of shorthand to express that part of our personal journey, our life experience, and how we bring those things to what you do that differentiates us from others and creates our unique identity. Memphis doesn’t appreciate its onlyness. One onlyness thing is its heritage as the birthplace of rock ‘n roll as attached to the King of Rock ‘n Roll. The onlyness element begins with music but extends to celebrating our being the birthplace of ideas, innovation, and positive change. Memphis is a place where that can happen. We’re doing little or nothing with that mantle. For example, why is Austin the live music capital of the World? Because there are a lot of places to freakin’ play or hear live music. Those places don’t exist here. We’ve giving away our birthright and in doing so have lost it in other economically viable areas related to the birth of other ideas.” Nicholson would like to see a dozen roots music residencies established in off-Beale venues.

Tim’s face turned serious as he moved onto the second aspect of Memphis’ identity that our city needs to face- “The second onlyness element is the notion that Memphis killed Martin Luther King. No, Memphis did not kill Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis.” was surprised by this turn in the conversation, but eager to hear more. Tim cleared his throat and continued, “It’s a tragic deal. Smarter people than I can talk about its implications, but the lost opportunity is not doing anything with what we as a community did or still can learn from that. How did we leverage that moment to say, here’s how people overcome problems together. Here’s how we deal with a tragedy. Here’s how we reconnect people who were thrown into conflict. Our ancestors were thrown into conflict several years ago when we brought men and women here against their will. But years later black and white Memphians worked side by side to overcome the Yellow Fever Epidemic a joining together of the races that is memorialized in the Martyr’s Monument on the river’s edge.

Later, black and white artists made music together at Stax. We appeared to be making progress. Then, the tragic assassination of a great leader. We’ve yet to truly overcome that as a city. Perhaps in time we will. But we’ll have to be intentional if we want to be known as the city that gets that relations between races is a real deal and works to overcome that. Only we can do that. I want to be part of that. Nicholson wants to learn more and to the end would love to see the creation of a togetherness forum that feeds ideas into schools and businesses.”

img_6857I shrugged my shoulders, sort of speechless by Tim’s profound thoughts. Without waiting for a response he continued, “It’s a horrible event. We can’t change what happened. What we can change is what are we doing with the tragedy. So, anyway what about Memphis? What makes Memphis unique? It’s us and what we choose to do with those things.”

Tim Nicholson is the President of Bigfish Creative, but instead, goes by “The Vision Guy.” Bigfish is an agency he explains, that “works for organizations whose work matters to somebody.” Nicholson and his team are all about helping organizations bring their ideas to life, and making a statement as often as possible in the process.

From the ‘Wish You Well Wall’ in Overton Square which Bigfish organized this fall, which was a wall full of colorful post-it notes that passerby could use to share positive ideas on and take one to keep, to a “toothbrushing circle,” where his team broke the World Record for largest circle of people brushing their teeth at a time, with the help of sixty other Memphians, Bigfish gets people talking and makes ideas interesting with innovation, creativity, and testing out “out there” ideas one at a time.

Nicholson’s vision for Bigfish coincides strongly with his personal goals. “The Vision Guy” seeks to complete each project deliberately, thoughtfully, and with purpose. In his own life and when working with clients and his team, Nicholson explains on his website, “I look for people with stories – shop owners, local artists, regular Joes, the barista in an urban coffee shop – any one of which offer a perspective you can’t find living inside your own head. Why? Because you can’t do something that matters with your eyes closed and you can’t do it alone.”

I asked Nicholson to give me an example of a character he has met in Memphis that offered him this ‘new perspective’ he searches for, and after a few seconds of brainstorming shared a moment he had with a trolley driver named Jafar.

“He’s not from Memphis…he’s probably 60 years old I would guess. Since we moved downtown we enjoy making the trolley a part of our transportation so my wife and oldest son and I get on the trolley and we were the only ones on it. Well, he makes a stop and turns around and says hey would you like to have a piece of cake? (laughs) You know, the natural human answer to that question is “That’s ok! We’re fine!” But for some reason it was, you know what? We’re going to do this differently.”

“So the three of us go to the front of the trolley with him and we take the cake and we learn about his family, about how he got here, what he loves about the city. He gave me a sheet of paper that had a list of twenty interesting things about downtown that he’s learned since he’s been here and worked on the trolley. There are people that are passionate about this place. Passionate enough that even if they weren’t born here, they embrace it, they could just drive their trolley, right? But instead, he’s saying here are some things that I learned; add some things that you know.”

Nicholson exudes passion about each project he commits to. He proudly wears “The Vision Guy” hat at Bigfish, but he is more than that. He is a family man who adores his sons and wife who he called, “Q” and “best friend.” He feels music and history as vital passions to his existence- eager to discuss Paul McCartney, Elvis Presley, and the Civil Rights Movement right off the bat, and insistent on getting his acoustic guitar in his picture because it is such a large part of who he is to the core.

I questioned Nicholson on why he would start a digital business in Memphis. “Wow, that’s a fair question.” He smiled and replied as if it were the most obvious thing in the world:

“There are people with soul in Memphis and I think you need a certain amount of soul to approach business in the way that we are approaching it. Everyone who works at Bigfish would like to make some money but when you’re working for a company this size, you’re not here because you’re making a bunch of money. You’re here because you think you can affect change somewhere.”

Posted in: Memphian to Meet