Interviewed on Martha Stewart Dreamers into Doers

Martha's Stewart's Dreamers into Doers interviewed me as "Doer of the Week" about how I started, how I connect my multicultural background to my designs, my inspiration. Full piece:

When did you start your business, and what were you doing, careerwise, at the time?
I started in 2002, after getting requests for freelance graphic design while working at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). Although I was often told I should branch out to allow myself fuller creative range, I had no idea it would grow into a full-time independent graphic-design business. The apparel side of the business developed when I was researching T-shirts and promotional products for one of my clients.


What inspired you to do this?
It wasn't so much inspiration as being thrown into deep water! I was laid off from UCLA. Several of the centers at the university asked if they could continue working with me. I realized that jobs were getting scarcer, so I kept on working for myself. Eventually I stopped using the word “freelancer” and started seeing myself as a sole proprietor of a graphic design studio. I now call myself a graphic designer and idea alchemist because I do much more than simply design for my clients. I apply my knowledge of public relations, marketing, writing, copyediting, technology, and social media to accommodate my clients' needs in a streamlined and cost-effective manner. 


What was your start-up cost? How did you get the money, and what did you use it for?
Since I started providing mostly digital services and already had a full range of hardware and software at home, my initial costs were minimal -- primarily registering with the state and city, marketing materials, Chamber of Commerce fees, and business or professional books and magazines.


How did you maintain your confidence when doors were closed in your face, when people didn’t get it or said “no”?
It can be discouraging, but I try to take another look at my approach and product to improve on it, as well as consider whom I approached. Am I not a fit? Was my presentation not professional? Or, are they simply not my target? I long ago dropped my Chamber of Commerce membership, for example, because I found that the old-school male-dominated hard-sell business-network model was not for me. Instead of feeling like chopped liver, I engage with the social media-based creative communities that do get me, and want me there.


What’s the hardest part of what you do?
I find evaluating investment versus risk rather daunting. Knowing how far to go to grow one’s business without detrimentally overreaching.


What's the most fun part of what you do?
Seeing a design come together. With my cross-cultural background, I'm drawn thematically to elements of global cultures. Stylistically, for the most part, I love space and the use of typography in my design approach, and simple, clean lines – influences from both my background in Japanese and my work with architects.


Where do you work from? Do you have employees?
I work in my home studio, and while am sole proprietor I do, however, get unsolicited input from my cat.


How have you been using social media to grow your business?

Absolutely. I joined Facebook when it first opened to nonstudents. Before Facebook and Twitter, I participated in forums for the entrepreneurial and craft communities, blogs, Yahoo groups, Ning, etc.


Do you have entrepreneurial role models? What’s so inspiring about them?
My role models may not be anyone you have heard of, although some are in the Dreamers into Doers group. They are people who love what they do and what they create, and they find a way to do it. Now, that sounds simple and maybe even obvious, but sometimes just seeing the possibility -- I mean envisioning it in a very real sense -- is the thing that makes all the difference. It was in New York at the Dreamers into Doers event that I grasped this nugget in a way I had never before, and of course, isn't that what Dreamers into Doers is all about?


How did you learn and acquire the skills you use to make your business successful?
I started exploring computer graphics many years ago while working at a software company in Tel Aviv, where I lived for eight years. When I returned to the U.S., I started working at local architecture and design firms. That’s when I started learning layout, graphics, and the principles of design and space. I also have a marketing and editorial background.


As for business skills, I learned many new things through books and some amazing online communities for creative entrepreneurs.


How do you continue to grow and learn?

For me, being connected is the best way to network and find resources, tutorials, tech developments, business ideas, PR opportunities, new colleagues and friends, and, of course, inspiration! I try to suss out the ones that are a fit for me and pursue those opportunities, or get to know some of those amazing people.


What's the best piece of business advice you ever received?
Be passionate about what you do.


If you had it to do over again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
I don't worry about hindsight, because I did what was right at the time. That being said, had I known I was going to be self-employed long-term, I might have been more serious about putting together a business plan in the beginning.


What advice would you give to Dreamers who haven’t become Doers yet?
Know your unique strengths and use them. Plenty of people are doing what we do, but no one will do it exactly the same. Do you make jewelry and also happen to know French? Why not add a line that is French-inspired? Create a niche that is all yours.


You have an interesting background, having studied Japanese language and culture. How have you used that knowledge in your business?

People often ask me how I went from being a specialist in Japanese language and culture (I have a Masters in that field) to designer and editor. My Japanese skills landed me my first marketing job in a Japanese audio-electronics firm and later in the public information and cultural affairs section of the Japanese consulate general in L.A.

But another answer is that the distance between marketing and communicating through design and my earlier career path is not that great. The characters used in both Chinese and Japanese that always fascinated me are the “ultimate typography.” Each character holds dynamic kernels of its own meaning in its strokes, all within a tiny grid. To me, they move and speak.

This is what design and communications should produce -- words that evoke images, and images that convey ideas and emotions. When I started to seriously pursue graphic design it was as if a light bulb went on in my head. All of it -- the media, marketing, intercultural experience, concepts of space and balance -- has come full circle for me and makes its own special sense.