Entrepreneurship can take many forms, one of the fastest growing fields is the field of design. We decided to approach one of our more successful and entrepreneurial subscribers Kendall Ludwig, the president and founder of CurlyRed, a Baltimore-based firm and ask her to share her thoughts about what it takes to build a successful design business. Kendall, who often speaks to groups of aspiring designers, and is actively involved in an innovative, supportive community for women in the design field in the Baltimore region called B’more Creatives, had the following to share.
Hi, I’m Kendall Ludwig. I am the president and principal designer of CurlyRed, a Baltimore-based firm I began 7 years ago.
I’m a huge Project Runway fan…it’s the only reality show that I watch faithfully. I still dream about venturing into some aspect of fashion one day, and I haven’t ruled it out just yet. Tim Gunn is such an important part of that show. He offers this wise and thoughtful mentorship which is sometimes heeded (and sometimes stupidly ignored altogether) but is almost always spot-on. There is something so remarkable about how much he genuinely wants to help every designer do his or her best work.
This is the first in a two part series I’m doing with the goal to help anyone looking to start their professional design business, do so successfully. The following is a combination of some of Tim’s best known catch phrases, many of which have resonated with me, and my personal interpretation of how to apply them to build a successful design business. Here goes…
4 Tips to help get your Design business off to the right start
1. Talk to me.
Get to know other successful designers, ask them questions – Learn from them. NETWORK!
If you’re like me, or me 10 years ago, you’re going to school for design. That’s what you know, what you understand. Maybe you have thought about what kind of job you’d like to land when you graduate. Or what your career path will look like, or the kind of business you’d love to start. Maybe you’re only focused on finishing that Typography assignment by the end of the week. Either way, you need to expand your network and you need to learn what the industry is looking for now.
10 years ago, I was scared. I believed I had talent and that my portfolio was diverse and strong. I even had an internship at a now-defunct publication doing ad design, where I felt I had learned quite a bit. But I was also facing the reality of a super competitive field, …and the trend I saw – that every job posted… called for designers with 3-5 years of design experience. At the time, it felt like “entry-level” was a dirty word. I could see myself going around Baltimore, begging for a job. I had one cousin who used to do graphic design, before she had kids. But that was it. I had no other contacts in the industry at the time. As a result, I had to go where I could. This didn’t deter me…but looking back, had I networked more – I might have had an easier time starting off my career.
My first job after graduation was as a “graphic designer/production assistant”, unfortunately I was let go four months into it and had to find another position.
The next 9 months were rough on a professional level. On the personal side, things were looking good. I was planning my wedding to my now husband, and pouring every drop of creative energy I had into the little details. But I couldn’t find a design job anywhere. I applied to literally to close to 100 in-house marketing departments, design firms and ad agencies, hoping someone would recognize my brilliance and overlook my lack of professional experience. Quick piece of advice: it can’t hurt to apply everywhere. Expect lots of “no”es before hearing any “yes”es, even to interviews. And try not to get discouraged by that. Finally, I got a job at Polk Audio…where I worked for four years.
2.Can I be frank?
When you start to feel the entrepreneurial pull, it’s time to get real.
I worked hard for Polk Audio for 4 years, first as a paid intern, then as a full-fledged graphic designer, reporting directly to the Creative Director on a variety of projects. I was part of a great team, and a great company, even if my work wasn’t always the most exciting.
About 2 1/2 years in, I felt this pull. A few friends had begun asking me to do some design projects on the side: postcards, programs, simple logo work, like that. As I worked on more and more of those projects (with my Creative Director’s blessing of course), the pull grew stronger. My time at Polk had been great, but it lacked 2 things: 1) being an in-house marketing department job, I didn’t feel like I was able to work on a large variety of projects and 2) I wanted to develop a stronger relationship with the client, something that was hard to do in the “in-house” world.
So I had to have one of the most difficult conversations of my life. I had to be “frank” with my Creative Director. She is not only an incredibly sweet, intelligent woman who had become a friend and artistic mentor, but she made it clear that she didn’t ever want me to leave. But in 2006, I started CurlyRed in January and by summer, I had the volume of work and guts to try going out on my own full time. And while she was surprised and disappointed to see me go, I could tell she was truly happy for me.
3. Go, go go!
You have to start somewhere – so start at the beginning.
All of the sudden, I was on my own with NO IDEA about what I was doing. I took a 4-Saturday “How to Start Your Own Small Business” class at CCBC—and that was the extent of my business knowledge. And in that class I learned that most new businesses die in the first 3 years—not the most comforting news. I had two clients, the large project for one of those was quickly coming to a close. A few things that helped me start well…
A) A supportive partner – Support when you go out on your own is critical, and I was lucky to have great support from my husband.
B) Friends and Family investment – My start up costs were graciously gifted to me by my generous mother.
C) I was willing to work hard, and I wasn’t above any assignment. In the beginning its about making a name for yourself and getting the bills paid.
D) I was disciplined and I stayed away from distractions.
E) I wasn’t afraid to ask for help.
F) I learned to NETWORK, can’t say enough about this.
4. Defend it on the runway.
I can tell you that in the 6 years I’ve been in business, nothing has really gone the way I thought it would. When I started CurlyRed, I honestly had no idea if I’d still be in business in a year. But I think part of me thought that I’d either immediately fail or immediately be successful. The truth was something in-between. I’ve had mostly great experiences, but a few nightmare client situations too.
The tough ones made me a better business person because they taught me one of the most important rules of business – that you teach people how to treat you. From the beginning, you need to learn to stick to your guns, stand up for yourself and teach people how to treat you. You have to be willing to speak up and make sure you’re clearly managing a client’s expectations and working under conditions you can live with.
As hard as it was, I am incredibly grateful to have gone through challenging situations. As much as I always want to think the best of people, I know now that there are both individuals and companies out there that you do not want to work with or for. And I should have trusted my gut—in the handful of times I’ve had the dis-pleasure to work with jerks, I saw those “red flags” early on and ignored them anyway. Whenever possible seek out to work with people who mirror your ethics, values and beliefs. The work will be more rewarding, communication will be easier and you’ll enjoy the experience more.
Part II of this article will appear in February
About Kendall Ludwig
M. Kendall Ludwig, president and principal designer of CurlyRed, believes in good design for everyone. She began her company, CurlyRed, in Baltimore in 2007 with the desire to create art. Usable art. Over the past 7 years, Kendall has provided creative and timeless branding, print and web solutions for companies and non-profits across the country. Before that, Kendall worked as a graphic designer for the high-end loudspeaker company, Polk Audio, where her duties included everything from package design to designing wakeboards and ads for Rolling Stone and Spin. A Baltimore native, Kendall currently resides in Reisterstown with her husband Mark, and two daughters, Margot and Juliette. In addition to being an active leader at New Hope Community Church in Pikesville, she also serves on the board of B’More Creatives, a free and open networking group for female creatives living and working in the Baltimore area. To learn more about Kendall and her work, click here.