From Freelancer to Award-Winning Design Agency

Interview by Eugene Cheng with Jiahui Tan

1. What’s your story?

I don’t have any cool origin story. After freelancing for a couple of years, a client called in the middle of the night out of the blue and yelled at me over the phone, threatening to sue me if I did not deliver 5 design pieces within 4 hours (8 am the next day).

In his words: “You’re a freelancer, not a company or a real business”. I whipped out my computer and registered my company on the spot. That was how it started.

2. What were you doing before you decided to start your business?

I was reading a program in school. The faculty was very encouraging, but formal education left much to be desired. I found that faculty staff dispensed praises very loosely and that did not spur accelerated growth.

People say I’m a pretty ‘thick-skinned’ person because I’d prefer harsh criticism rather than sugar-coated words. That is the best way to grow, in my opinion.

3. How did you get into your current line of work/ why did you decide to do it?

I was not model student in school, I feel most people in the creative industry never were. It could be because I always felt out of place during academic classes.

I found out about design through reading creative magazines. In my younger days when design websites and blogs were not so prevalent, I used to head to Kinokuniya after school to browse all the design magazines.

It was through these instances that I discovered a whole world outside the confines of my educational institution. Once you open yourself up and explore, you’ll find that outside your own little bubble there’s a ton that you don’t know.

4. What would you say was your greatest difficulty getting into it? Did you have to make any sacrifices?

I guess if I had to choose one, it would be picking up design software. It’s not that the software was particularly difficult to pick up, but I was juggling my National Service commitments at the same time.

Back then, we didn’t have the luxury of numerous YouTube tutorials that we have today. I had to register myself for Adobe software courses taught by a company at the OG complex.

The courses came at a hefty price – the cost was close to twice my monthly National Service allowance for a 2-day course! This fact also made freelancing a necessity otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford the course fees.

When I stepped into class on the first day, it was a hilarious sight. Close to 20 course-mates that were present were all either from marketing communications or business teams. I was the only botak (bald-headed) enlisted in attendance.

Having that said, I enjoyed every minute of the course and I made sure to be extra attentive to avoid squandering my hard-earned cash. I only had two days to pick up all the skills from my investment and I made extra effort to do just that.

I strongly believe that in the early stages, it might be a little painful, but the best investment is in yourself. Learn a new skill that will add value to your clients, pick up some books to enrich your thinking.

5. How are you marketing your business/getting, clients?

A large percentage of our business comes from either repeat business or referrals. I never try to hard-sell clients but always to build strong relationships.

Thankfully over the years, many clients have stayed with me as their businesses grew larger or even when they move to other companies.

When people come to you once, they are trying you out. When they come back again, it’s an affirmation that you did something right. Find out what that is and include it in your pitch.

I’ve also found that having less, not more on our website has helped us convert clients. We don’t put everything we have, but only the best work that we want to showcase.

When they request for more info after we meet in person, explaining the process of how we do work also helps them feel that the transaction is not as risky.

Another thing is to show them that you understand the brief. Accolades help to secure bigger projects, but fundamentally you need to fulfill the requirements. If clients get a hint that you don’t understand what they’re after, you won’t get the job. You can create work that can potentially win awards, but if they don’t fulfill client objectives, you have let your client down and they likely won’t use you again.

6. What would you say has been the greatest lesson so far since you started the business?

Believe in yourself and your vision. The society and generation we live in today are full of naysayers who will doubt you and undermine your efforts. That’s okay.

If you are someone that doesn’t take shortcuts and you’re unafraid to learn from failing, I don’t see why you won’t be attracting the right people to lift you up and not drag you down.

There will be challenging times where you will be tested on your principles and mettle, don’t give in to what’s easy because that will be the defining point of whether you make it or break it as a freelancer or business owner.

7. What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Talent is a subset of hard work. I’ve met so many designers that were so talented – I’d dare to say more gifted than myself. The difference is that when you put in the work consistently day-in and day out, your clients will see the difference.

They aren’t just paying for your work, they are buying someone they can trust to take care of their needs. Be the hard working provider, not the lazy talent.

8. If you had to offer a piece of advice to someone that had zero experience or connections getting into the business, what would you say?

Here’s a wake-up call in case you think that starting your own freelance career or business is a convenient way to escape your 9-5 job or avoid seeing a boss you hate:

It’s 10 times more difficult. When employed, you’ll get managed. Once you run your own thing, you need to manage yourself. If you’re not someone with self-discipline, it’s going to be an uphill battle.

At any one time, you’ll have 50 things to handle, whether it’s delivering work or working on your business. Just be prepared for the grind.

Having a business idea and executing it are two very different things.

9. What have you started trying this year that has been working well for your business?

The roles we have in our company have become more silo-ed. My partner handles client relations and runs most of the business. My focus has dramatically shifted to mainly the creative work.

My partner is much better than me in numerous aspects, so it’s only fit she transition into that role. I’ve found that if you let someone focus on their strengths entirely, you’ll get a much better system and output, especially when working in a team.

It has sped up processes and as a company, we are a lot more enthused to come to work every day.

10. What have you just learned recently that just blew you away?

I met some arctic fox hunters when we went to Iceland recently. They were hunting for the foxes (which I thought were endangered) and selling their tails. Each tail costs about $18.

This really surprised me because I thought they were worth much more. It just goes to show that you need to define the value that customers are willing to pay, otherwise you’ll just be leaving money on the table.

11. What is one book you would recommend that every new business owner or freelancer be reading?

Start With Why by Simon Sinek. It really opened my eyes into the ethos of how great leaders run their companies and how the reason or purpose is critical.

12. What are 3-4 tools (digital or offline) that you feel everyone should know about?

I always keep a notebook and pen for ideas.

At our company we use these tools every day:

Slack – We send messages, files and collaborate on this platform mainly. It’s much better than using Whatsapp to talk about work stuff.

Trello – We use this to manage our tasks and timelines, really helps keep everyone in sync at any one point in time.

(update 2018 – we have transitioned to Google Calendar instead)

Read original article here.