I can still remember the stress of trying to find a designer for my website.
I had just quit my job and was working out my notice period in the UK, on the hunt for the perfect person to help me take the vision I had for This Renegade Love and turn it into a beautiful, functional website. After a bajillion unsuccessful Google searches and disheartening outreach to a few freelancers and design studios, I took to Pinterest, where I found a branding board that was everything I was looking for – clean, simple and well-designed. I clicked through to the Saffron Avenue website and knew that I needed this girl, whoever she was, to bring This Renegade Love to life.
Turns out that girl’s name was Angela, and she was a brand designer who worked from home in Wisconsin, a far cry from both the UK and Toronto, where I was heading back to live and launch my site. Luckily, Angela decided to take on my project (phew), and with the magic of Skype, we were able to chat through the process, which lasted three solid months. With each piece of the puzzle that came back – brand board, logo, website – I was blown away by how Angela was able to take my scattered ideas and turn them into exactly what I envisioned in my head. More than that, I was amazed to find out that she was juggling several other projects at the same time PLUS her own wedding, yet still managed to stick to a strict delivery timeline. Yep, this girl was a total renegade and a full-on bawse and did it all by her damn self.
Keep reading to find out how Angela built a successful design business from the ground up with a lot of hustle and no formal training, and how she went from designing business cards for $10 a pop to creating personal lifestyle brands for NBA All-Stars.
So you’ve built this incredible design brand from the ground up and have developed quite a signature style – where did you pick up your eye for design?
I actually didn’t go to school for design – like, ever. I went to school in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and took communications and a minor in psychology… and did not use it, obviously! I wanted to be a wedding planner since I was 13 – I was that crazy girl who bought all those wedding mags in high school, but at that time it wasn’t popular or anything. I actually started saving money for a one-way ticket to California so I could move out there after graduation and go to this specific school for wedding planning. Then I saw the prices of schools out-of-state in California and was like, ummm what? Instead, I got into a great school in Wisconsin and needed that piece of paper to get a job, so I ended up in those two fields.
That path sounds not too far off from many creatives! Did you drop the wedding planning dreams after college?
Not exactly – once I graduated I started working for a local wedding planner. I worked two jobs and at nights and weekends I would go into her office and would try to learn Illustrator and Photoshop on the side… then started to realize that I liked the design aspect of weddings rather than the planning. I was still saving because I knew I still wanted to move away, and one day I was just like, “Screw it – I’m just gonna drive to California or somewhere, anywhere, and just leave.” So I randomly decided on Wilmington, North Carolina – it was a small town, out of the state, and by the water. I gave two weeks notice, found a place on Craigslist and just hoped for the best. I packed up my car and drove the 17 hours to N.C. – I had two months of savings and not a lot of time to figure shit out.
That’s pretty ballsy!
I know. And I applied everywhere, but no one was hiring, so eventually I landed a job at a bakery making cakes. I was still technically in the wedding industry, so I didn’t see it as a step back – I was also still doing invites and stuff on the side with the intention to be a wedding planner.
This was also the time that I started my blog, Saffron Avenue, and promoted my design work online – I had no choice but to sit there and hustle because I was making $7.25 an hour at the bakery and needed that additional money for rent.
Well, survival is known for breeding innovation. How long did you hold out at the bakery?
During that time my landlord asked me if I wanted to go out for his wife’s 30th birthday. I met one of their friend’s and was chatting to him about how I wanted to be a designer and he put me in touch with a marketer who had just designed his firm’s logo. It was Sara, who now owns her own business called Salted Ink. She saw my work and wanted me to join them at the marketing firm, so I began working with them on a per-project basis. It was pretty corporate – legal stuff, real estate.
I still had the Saffron Avenue blog, and Sara and I also did some work on the side under the name Mint 102 – we branded weddings in the same way people were branding their businesses. It was a novel concept at the time and the marketing firm actually funded it – I was learning how to design and create websites, and then applying that to my own client work.
And when did you decide to do your own thing?
Well, even though I loved working for the marketing firm, I wasn’t into doing realtors logos – it was super masculine and just not at all my style. I found myself looking forward to going home and working even if I was so tired and overworked during the day. And I realized I could actually make more money doing the stuff I loved – I was making around $9.75 an hour at the firm but had been charging $250 per logo for my own stuff. I decided to make the jump in 2013… and it was frightening. But at the same time, I was so good at being broke and living frugally. I had no problem eating the same meal over and over again if it meant I could be doing what I love.
Starting your own business is by far one of the most terrifying leaps you can make – how did you manage the start-up costs of Saffron Avenue?
Well, besides rent, I didn’t really have any overhead costs – I did have to buy my Macbook Pro and Quickbooks, which were tough pills to swallow. I just cut back massively and made a lot of sacrifices when it came to going out or even going home for Christmas – but I knew it was worth it.
I also just rolled with the punches and looked for where I could cut costs. I can remember a client wanted calligraphy and it was a $70 font – at the time I was like, “God, I can’t afford this.” And so I just taught myself calligraphy. And that’s how I got along – if I couldn’t afford something or someone requested a feature that I’d have to pay someone else for, I’d just teach myself.
Now that you were on your own, how did you get word out about your brand?
Pinterest was a huge driver for me. There was one pin that did so well at the beginning – I basically had chosen four business card designs on Minted and posted them on my blog, asking my readers which one I should get. Well, it was pinned and then it just went viral. It wasn’t even my design, but it drove traffic to my blog, which had already been around for two years. And then people started seeing all of my work and asking if I did logos and invites and I got so much work from it. Pinterest wasn’t popular at the time, which helped me – you would only see my stuff and like, five other designers. I got lucky and just went with it.
I also had Etsy, which was another huge driver. I was charging $10 for business cards – so cheap! But you have to start somewhere and pricing is a tough thing to handle with when you’re young and just beginning.
As your work gets pinned and repinned, how have you dealt with the growth of the business?
I haven’t been that great with growth, because I still think I can do it all alone – ha! I think it’s the biggest thing that most small businesses struggle with. In order to grow, you eventually need to hire, but I’m so frightened of that. I tried a couple of times, and I haven’t found anyone that fits my aesthetic or quality of work.
When it comes to choosing clients, a lot of the time it depends on what they fill out on the enquiry. I don’t ask many questions, but when I ask them to explain their business in detail and they reply “I really like your logos, I like this one you did for someone else – can you do this for me?”, I’m just like….. sorry, no. I want to see that they’re passionate and excited to work with me so that in turn, I get excited to work with them. I also do a bit of research – I go through their Instagram or business reviews, just to make sure our styles align and that I’m partnering with brands who have a good reputation.
What’s the coolest project you’ve worked on?
Chris Bosh’s branding and website. I got a text from him today and it’s still just the weirdest thing ever to be texting with him. I never thought in a million years that an NBA player would be paying me to design his brand. I had actually worked on the branding for his wife Adrienne’s new business and it was so fun, which is how I was introduced to him – they’re such lovely people. She actually found me on Pinterest, which is pretty cool.
What’s been the hardest part of running your own business?
Managing time – you know, creating that work/life balance. When you run your own business, your brain NEVER stops. There’s never a break – always e-mails coming in and requests to answer. I have gotten much better at it, though. In the beginning, I would e-mail clients at 1 am and they would respond right away, so then I would reply, and it was an ongoing cycle. I’ve learned to limit that habit and set business hours during the weekdays. I mean, I’m likely still working on a Sunday, but I don’t communicate with clients – I use that time to focus.
And what’s been the most rewarding part?
Also time! The flexibility to create your own schedule is incredible. Like, I was just able to go to LA for four days and I didn’t need to request that time off from a boss or anything. When you’re your own boss, you can do whatever you want, and that’s also been super rewarding. I can try new things and not be scared to do it. If I launch a new product, there’s no saying it will do well, but if it does fail, at least I tried and then I can just move on. There’s no one reprimanding me for trying and failing.
Well Angela, you are the definition of a self-made woman and a total renegade. If you had one piece of advice for aspiring renegades what would it be?
Well, it’s actually two-fold. One: don’t be afraid to teach yourself something – I got to where I am today because I wanted to do it all myself. There are so many opportunities to learn through courses and workshops these days.
And two: be your own business. So often I stumble upon someone whose design is so similar to one of my portfolio designs. If you’re going to succeed, you need to stand out on your own. Do not copy people. Be true to yourself and your own identity. Show the world who you are – people respond to truth and authenticity.