As a solopreneur, your company is your career and passion. Your business truly is what you make of it. It can be very personal, and it can be extremely empowering. Running your own business can even be a healing experience. It is also what you spend the most of your time with. You probably spend more time working on your business than you do on any other thing in your life at that time. And the face of you business is its brand. It represents your products and services and reflects how you do business. That’s why you want to get it right. And you want it to be authentic.
I’ve worked in branding for more than 14 years. I’ve worked in small and large branding agencies. I’ve worked in in-house studios and in large enterprise teams. I’ve worked directly building the brand with clients, and indirectly maintaining corporate branding through products I’ve designed. Below I’ve shared four things I’ve found super important for building a successful brand.
1. Know your audience
This is the single most powerful ingredient of building a successful brand. You need to know what your audience wants to see and hear from you. You need to understand how to talk to them and where to connect with them. What appeals to your audience and how do they see the world? If you are already intimately aware of these things, the difficult part of your job is done. All this information will be used when you start defining your brand’s personality.
2. Define your relationship to your brand
While you are building the brand for your target audience, you still want it to reflect your values and be something you can feel proud of. Some entrepreneurs choose to build a personal brand. For service based solopreneurs, this is highly recommended, but not required. People want to buy services from people, not from a faceless company. And they want to see the person behind the services. And they want to build a personal connection. Whether you build a personal brand or not, you represent your business every day. Therefore, you want to build something you can stand behind and agree with. You want it to be something you feel excited about every day. And something you won’t be bored with easily.
3. Define the future of your business
Only you have the vision of where your business is going, and where you want it to be a year, five years, ten years, or twenty years from now. You might be thinking: “What does it matter what happens in twenty years from now? I need to build this brand today!” Well, it matters for one important reason: scalability. If your plan is to sell the company one day, you want to consider that right from the start.
The super successful entrepreneur, angel investor, and analytics expert Neil Patel says he now, in retrospect, regrets building his business empire around his name and personal brand because it makes selling the business much harder as “[–] without me, many companies wouldn’t come on board as clients. If I changed the name of the company it also probably wouldn’t do as well because my personal brand is influential within the digital marketing world.”
If you never plan on selling your company, then you have more leeway to create exactly the kind of brand you want. If you’re building your business for yourself and for the passion you have in your industry, you’re in a better position for getting hands on in the branding process and making it look like you. Passion and empowerment do not exclude success. You not planning to sell your business does not mean it won’t grow and be hugely profitable one day. It just means you have a different level of commitment to it than some one who is planning their exit from day one.
4. Make sure you will be hands on in the process
If you know your audience and you’re an expert in your industry, then you are the best person to build your brand. Even if you feel like you don’t know how to do it, you actually have all the knowledge at hand. All you need is a process and a system to guide you through it.
Too many times I’ve witnessed an agency pushing hard on a client to steer them towards the solution the agency thinks is best. And I’ve sat around the table knowing that the option is not the best for them — or their audience. But the agency needed to make a sale. Or they wanted to win a contest. And I’ve seen too many creative projects left unused by the client (after they were already paid for!!!), because the agency did not care to (or couldn’t for other reasons) dive deep enough to the client’s industry to understand the challenges, the audience, and the requirements. But you are the expert in your industry: you know these things already. That is why you need to be hands on in the process. That is why, with the right process and system in place, you can do it yourself.
Branding is not easy, but it is something you can absolutely do if you want to. The closer you are to your business and the more meaningful it is to you, the more hands on role you should have in the process.
In the 14 years of my career, I’ve had 7 employers and equally many managers — some of whom I still think of with respect and others with less so. For example, one manager tried to damage my career by lying about my work behind my back, and outright broke the law by reading my emails. Another one, in a different company, used me as a psychological crutch running through all his reasons for each business decision with me during phone calls that sometimes lasted for hours. The same guy — also the owner of the company — sabotaged the payroll so much that in the end I lost 3 months’ worth of pay checks (my advice to all young designers: keep your eyes open when you’re considering a job at a new and unknown startup). I also had one or two managers who were great people, but had little creative direction to give or were more or less disengaged. And then, of course, there were couple that were absolute gems.
Managers are important to employees wellbeing. According to Brigette Hyacinth, the author of The Future of Leadership: Rise of Automation, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, “A Gallup poll of more [than] 1 million employed U.S. workers concluded that the No. 1 reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor.” This means your immediate supervisor or manager has the biggest influence on whether you resign or stay. On the company level, this has major effect on employee retention (ability of an organization to retain its employees).
And any company should be concerned about employee retention: in 2016, the employee turnover cost US companies $160 billion a year. For an individual company, the cost of replacing an employee might range between tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5-2x annual salary. And the most valuable players are the quickest to leave: only about half of high performing employees are satisfied with their job and one in five intends to leave their current companies within six months (Harvard Business Review, November 18, 2014). Sometimes, there are company policies at play and managers can’t easily affect them. But many other things they could. While competitive compensation still ranks as the most valuable aspect of a workplace, things like supplemental training, flexible working location, and flexible schedule are all in top ten (Harvard Business Review, November 18, 2014). And these, among others on the list, are things a good manager might be able to arrange.
All companies want to attract top talent. While design is team work, key individuals can make an entire team thrive. The right talent challenges everyone to raise their bar. Having top talent in the team can also be motivating simply because their choice to join the team makes everyone feel a bit more worthy: we are good — someone amazing chose to be one of us. Often times, top performers have perfected their design process and they can help a team to do the same thing to their shared process. And of course, top talent will lead by example, and it can be inspiring just to watch them work. But top performers also know their value. They might leave a company very quickly if they are not happy, because they can. They will always find a new opportunity.
There is a lot of research out there on how to retain top talent, as I already referred to in the beginning. But it is not just about filling someone’s calendar with training, allowing them to work home when their kid gets sick, or letting them decide whether they want to come to the office by 8 am or by 9 am. Keeping any designer happy is about figuring out who they are, what drives them, and how you can help them thrive — both professionally and personally. Below you can find my thoughts on what would’ve made me stay in some positions I left due to not feeling supported.
Maybe the single most important thing manager can do for a designer is to care about their wellbeing. Are they working too much? Are they having to juggle too many projects? How is the work-life balance? Have your one-on-one meetings and ask how they are doing. Signal that you want them to stay home when they’re sick or when they’re kid is sick. Let them know, you are ok with a mental health day, if needed. Think: what can you do to make their life easier so your top talent can focus on work instead of the stresses of life. Remind them that family comes first and that you are aware of it.
Respect their time and input. Don’t invite your top talent to meetings that do not require their attendance. Or alternatively you can give them the autonomy to decline any meeting invitations they don’t see necessary.
Respect their expertise. Unless you have comparable background and have extensive experience in design work, don’t force poor design decisions on them with your authority. Nothing is more frustrating than having to take orders from someone who has zero understanding on what they are talking about.
Human decency and respect is undervalued. Please, treat anyone and everyone you hire with general respect, and maintain professional composure at all times. This means no yelling, no throwing things, no petty behavior, and no retaliation. (Yes, I’ve had managers who showed these behaviors, unfortunately. How did they ever get to be managers?)
3. Supplemental training
Top performers are curious life-long learners who are constantly looking to improve themselves. But it is critical that they feel this supplemental training is in service of their projects, current role, or future opportunities. Supplemental training does not serve as a benefit or perk if it is useless waste of time. Talk with your top talent, find out what they want to learn. What skills are essential to their role and would benefit them in future, as well?
Flexibility for name sake is not helpful. Trust your team, and let them decide where to work and when. Together you can come up with rules, such as certain meetings you do in person or times when everyone should be available. But if your take on flexibility is measured in one or two hours, that is hardly flexible. Flexibility goes hand in hand with wellbeing because it allows employees to take care of their health and that of their family.
No one likes a hovering manager, and your top performer the least. This doesn’t mean that as a manager you can’t check in with your team to see what they are working on or that are not accountable for you. But it does mean you drop micro managing their every move. You chose to hire a high performing top talent, now let them do their magic.
Unless your top talent is also the owner or a partner in the company, it is likely this is not a position they are planning to stay in for life. And that is ok. The job market is changing, people rarely spend their entire career in one company anymore. And it is actually advised to change jobs every three to five years these days. Don’t worry, three years is enough to transform your design team to a thriving unit with the help of highly performing designer(s). The reputation of your team will attract new top talent when one leaves.
What does this have to do with motivation? Signal your top talent that you understand the current market and you are not expecting them to stay forever. Instead, find out what their career goals are. Then make a plan together on how you, your team and company, and their new position can help them move closer to their career goals. When a top performer sees their position as a milestone on the way to where they want to be, they will put 120% effort in making their project, themselves, the team, and you successful.
Managing designers can be challenging, but it helps if you have a design background. If you worked as a designer, you were in the receiving end of design review and feedback sessions. And you have first hand experience on what the design process is like. Having design background, you’ve probably also worked with all kinds of designers and know that there are as many personalities as there are designers.
Some time ago, I was working for an amazing creative director who not only was a great people manager but had just the right combination of hands on design guidance and “throw you in the fire” attitude. She could identify her team members’ strengths and weaknesses, and knew how to push us to the right direction so we could grow and become better designers. She was also always professional and had a solid process she drove forward. After leaving that kind of supportive and inspiring leadership, I’ve found myself wondering if I’ll ever get a manager like her again.
Design is a team sport: designers work together and interact with customers, colleagues, teams, and stakeholders. Collaboration doesn’t always come easy. Interpersonal skills can be measured not only by the success of the project but also by the happiness of the design team. And a happy team is a productive team. Indeed, at times I feel like being a designer is being a therapist, an interpreter, and a detective — all at once.
For businesses, design is a productive effort that aims to return profit. This means more pressure on collaboration between business people, engineering teams, legal teams, and creatives. Sometimes industry jargons can clash like different languages — or cultures. In that moment, design can be the flexible matter that brings everyone working together by visualizing the shared goals and vision. But at the same time, designers can get caught in the crossfire of conflicting interests and feel unvalued or even attacked.
For two years, the tech giant Google researched what makes a team at Google successful. One of the top three most important factors they identified was “psychological safety.” This means that the team members feel safe sharing their ideas and work with each other, that they can expect to be treated with respect, and feel comfortable about being vulnerable in front of each other. As a result, team members know they can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. Critiquing sessions with multiple rounds of feedback — and even failing in front of others — are a big part of designers’ work. In addition to their immediate team, designers often showcase their work for larger groups of stakeholders or clients revealing their thinking and designs that sometimes are in very early, uncultivated stages. On top of that, designers sometimes feel personally attached to the work we do and criticism can feel difficult to take in.
Naturally, if we are afraid of being ridiculed or judged harshly we’ll easily default in not taking risks in our work, but want to play it safe to protect ourselves and to make sure we get treated well. And it might happen entirely unconsciously. At Google, they realized that taking risks is an important part of innovating, so they wanted to make sure their employees felt comfortable exploring uncharted territories and taking the necessary risks to do that. So, they declared psychological safety as one of the key elements of their corporate culture.
“Psychological safety” sounds fancy and complicated. But really it just means that we are nice to each other. Unfortunately, “being nice” has a bad rap in our culture that embraces competition and associates niceness to soft, more feminine or submissive values. It’s time to start appreciating niceness as what it really is: a part of successful leadership and an enabler of innovation.
What does it mean to be nice?
It can be difficult to shake off the “pushover” label of being nice. Little girls are told to be nice, so it possibly can’t be an important skill of a successful professional. This is how we are used to thinking about niceness. After battling for over a decade of professional experience with the label of a “nice designer” I am elated to read about Google’s research, and I agree with it. To help others adopt what it means to be nice, I put together the new rules of being nice:
1. Being nice is vital for productive design critique
Being nice doesn’t mean I won’t tell you what I think. And it certainly doesn’t mean I won’t give you honest feedback on your work. In fact, being nice means I want to help you be successful, and if I see you’ve created something that doesn’t work I will point that out. And it makes a big difference how I do that. Being nice and thoughtful in that situation can make the critiquing session feel like we are both sincerely invested in the outcome. And it will make us work together and truly collaborate. Giving thoughtful feedback takes a little practice, but the results are worth it.
2. Being nice doesn’t mean shying away from conflict
Being nice doesn’t mean I’m a pushover. I am still fully capable of disagreeing and standing my ground. When I disagree with you, I can do it in a calm confident manner without making you feel defensive. Being nice in a conflict means we both understand that issues disagree, not necessarily people. It means I am willing to take the time to have a conversation about the conflicting point of views, I am willing to make the effort of trying to understand where you are coming from. And I expect you do the same.
3. Being nice is a part of design leadership
Bullies don’t make good design leaders. Nor do dictators. A good design leader is respectful and empathetic. Being a nice leader doesn’t mean you don’t have high expectations for your team, or that you don’t hold your team members accountable. It means you’re able to understand where they’re coming from, direct them graciously, and lead by example. A nice creative leader is ready to get their hands dirty, when need be, and work alongside her team to help them be successful.
4. Being nice is not about maintaining the status quo
Nice people won’t rock the boat, right? Wrong. As we’ve already learnt, you can disagree, stand your ground, give constructive critique, and be a powerful design leader while being nice. You can be an agent of change while you’re also a nice person. In fact, creating a lasting, sustainable change requires a loyal following for the things you are advocating. An ability to get people to listen to you is invaluable. And more importantly, to have people not just to follow you, but to help you create and innovate that change requires that you exhibit the psychological safety that enables people to step outside their comfort zone and come up with creative ways the solve the same problems you are trying to solve. Remember, psychological safety fosters innovation.
5. Being nice gets shit done
Working across teams, business units, industries, and geographical areas requires communication skills like no other. It’s clear we need cultural sensitivity and understanding of different ways of working to be successful. And if we, on top of all that, can create a psychological safety zone by being honest, respectful, direct, empathetic, and open to hear others, we can become more efficient in the ways we work, and more successful with the outcomes.
6. Being nice is a design skill
Empathy is a core element of human centered design. It enables us to understand what our customers need, and how might we creatively solve their problems. In human centered design, research unlocks empathy: talking with the customers, listening to their feedback, and trying to understand their goals and pain points ignites the process in which we begin to step into someone else’s shoes. Empathy is also an innate motivator to be nice to others. And the more we practice empathy, the more prone we are to champion psychological safety. It’s a beautiful cycle of people being nice, efficient and creating great designs. Who doesn’t want that?
Leadership can be intimidating, especially if you have just started your career. It is perfectly normal to feel uncomfortable or unsure when you realize it is expected of you. In fact, little nervousness or stress can be a good thing: it ensures we stay aware of our own performance and prepare better for the situations we feel nervous for. But if nervousness and persistent insecurity becomes a blocker for taking leadership roles, it’s time to try and work on getting rid of those feelings.
As a young designer, just starting my career, I felt nervous about speaking up in meetings or hesitated asking clarifying questions. I didn’t want to be seen as arrogant. Still today, after having worked as a the lead designer for years, I sometimes catch myself feeling nervous. But with time, I have become comfortable with leading the design process — even in situations where I don’t have all the answers.
If you have feelings of inadequacy, I recommend you start working on getting rid of it because they can hinder moving forward on your career. The good news is that you don’t have to jump to the top with one giant leap. Instead you can start by taking baby steps that feel less intimidating and quickly become like a second nature. After taking many enough baby steps, you soon realize you’re running the show.
Six easy baby steps that helped me become the lead designer
1. Start paying attention.
And I mean, pay attention beyond your own desk. Design projects exist in a context, and to be taken seriously you need to understand this context. Who all are working on the project? Who are the internal/external stakeholders? What connections and ties does the project have to other projects? What is the meaning of this project to the company? What kind of long term strategy is there for the success of this project? Leaders see the big picture and can make decisions with long term goals in mind. While you’re not expected to make this kind of decisions yet, it is good to start seeing the context.
2. Ask questions
This is always my “go to” when I am nervous about a big upcoming design review, etc. As a designer, you already know that design reviews are critical and you need to solicit feedback either from your clients, peers, or design manager/director. But what if the feedback is something to the effect “this is utter horsesh*it.” That’s not helpful to you and frankly it’s rude. A good leadership move is to lead the person to add more detail because you need useful feedback not incoherent rant. You could say something like “could you tell more what it is you don’t like about it?” Don’t start defending your design decisions before you get more specific feedback. This tactic also shows you as a calm person who is interested in learning more about what is not working rather than getting triggered by an insult.
3. Justify your designs through research
Your design decisions should always be based on your audience’s/user’s validated needs. But sometimes we designers forget to emphasize that when we present our work. When you can argument that you have designed something that you tested (or know based on previous research) and that it resonates with the audience, you come out as an expert. After you gain some confidence in acting as an advocate for the audience/user, you can start reminding others in the room that feedback should not be based on any one individual’s personal preference (e.g. “I don’t like yellow”) unless they directly represent the audience.
4. Save all design exploration and sketches
There will be time when all the designs you chose to present miss the mark. Discussion will follow on what should be done differently, what needs to be explored more. It can be helpful in those moments, if you can quickly pull out our sketches and exploration to show you have tried other options. It is not unusual that design review will turn into a co-design session. Any work you’ve produced will serve as a starting point and your thinking may come through clearer when all your sketches are on the table. Often times, I have an appendix section on my presentation decks where I add all or most of the sketches I’ve produced for the projects. We may never look at them, but any time I’ve had to pull those it has greatly helped the situation.
5. Behave professionally in meetings
Show up on time, or a little early. Prepare beforehand by going through the meeting agenda, so you’ll know what the topic will be. Bring something you can take notes with (laptop, pen & paper, etc.). Keep your phone silent, and don’t play with it or even glance at it unless you absolutely have to. Learn a quick intro so if you are asked to introduce yourself to a new client or co-workers/stakeholders you can confidently tell few of the following things: your name, role, what you’re currently working on, who do you report to, your business organization, etc.
6. Dress professionally — especially if you are presenting to an audience
And I don’t mean you need to necessarily wear a suit and a tie. But be mindful of how you dress. If your team is presenting to a CEO of a large corporation, then wear more business like attire than if you’re having a design review with peers. Know that how you dress affects how you feel. Whenever I need to feel more confident, I dress up a bit. And how you dress affects how people see you. It is a good thing to have a personal and unique style, so never feel like you have to completely change who you are. Just make sure you’re clothes are not dirty, wrinkled, or too revealing.