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Alison Scheel is the founder and creative director of yellobee studio, a design firm that tackles “gnarly visual communication challenges with both skill and gusto.”
That includes her approach to hiring, which she admits is a bit of a “leap of faith,” an approach rooted in finding employees who are the best cultural fit rather than those who just possess the most impressive work portfolios. In the process, she’s found value in doing something that might sound foreign to many entrepreneurs … doing less.
That strategy has served yellobee well, as the studio has transitioned from serving small business clients to larger corporate accounts like UPS.
Learn more below about the yellobee story — and the meaning behind the name — as well as Scheel’s assessment of the landscape for women small business owners.
Longitudes: Take us back to the early days of your business. What was it like?
Scheel: Design and fine arts have always been a passion of mine. So, when I decided to start my own design and promotional communications firm 20 years ago, I had to put first things first — my branding.
It’s why I do what I do, so the name and logo needed to reflect my personality and the type of work I wanted to create. Instead of using my last name, as so many designers do, I wanted something abstract.
I started putting a bunch of things together and came up with yellobee. The name felt colorful, like us — lighthearted, but professional, very colorful and visual. We like fun, promotional communication.
Yellow is not my favorite color, but it helps brand us; we painted two of the walls yellow. Some of my longtime clients even developed the phrase “yellobee-ize” as a way to say they want things jazzed up visually. Our logo contains a little stinger, but we will never do a picture of a bee buzzing. No “cute bee stuff” for us.
For the first 10 years, the business survived by referrals only. To grow, we started actively reaching out to large corporations and competing for contracts against some of the industry’s most recognized and respected shops. In 2011, UPS became one of the first large brands to give us a chance. More than 400 UPS projects later, we’re proud to continue our design partnership.
Longitudes: Which growing pains most stand out to you?
Scheel: I’m a natural risk taker, workaholic and entrepreneur, so launching a business came easier to me than it might have for others. I was fortunate to share space with another company so I didn’t have those typical, big startup expenses.
Our biggest growing pain was transitioning from small business clients to larger corporate accounts like UPS. At first, I was unfamiliar with the culture, language and acronyms that everyone takes for granted in the corporate environment. Now it’s become second nature to me.
Also, running your own company doesn’t always lend itself to work-life balance. Through employee growth and streamlined project management, I also learned how to stop working at 6 p.m.
This doesn’t mean I’m not guilty of sneaking a peak at my inbox after dinner. I took a leap of faith and hired more employees, so instead of two people working late, you hire more people and spread the workload. Now I have more time to design and be creative.
Hiring the right employee is key, and I am good a pinpointing great talent and personalities that will fit my culture. I don’t conduct interviews or evaluate with performance reviews. I do very little by the book. For example, one woman walked into my studio cold calling about work. Instead of interviewing her, I invited her to freelance. After a few days of observing her work, I brought her on our team. Portfolios are easy to fake, but a good fit is not!
Longitudes: Why is your business successful?
Scheel: Companies really respond to our work. Most of our clients have been with us for 10 years or more. That’s in large part because we recognize, hire and nurture employees who are incredibly talented and take ownership of every job.
You need professional, loyal and strong talent around you. We’re the firm you hire when you need thinkers and problem solvers, and that separates us from just production. Sometimes quick means average; we’re great at doing strong work quickly.
We are not a traditional design agency: no executive accounts or cumbersome layers of management. We’re all willing to roll up our sleeves with a personable, hands-on approach to client services.
Clients say they like the way we solve their creative problems and get it right without requiring much back and forth. I’ve also really enjoyed developing expertise in subjects like forestry management, premium truffle oils, international logistics and air quality.
Longitudes: Which industry trends are you monitoring? And how are you responding to them?
Scheel: Like the rest of the world, we’re going digital. Everyone in the company is learning new software and techniques that make communications more fluid between websites, e-books, social media platforms and other digital environments. There’s more advanced animation like 3D.
Some of our clients are brand new to the digital environment. I think everyone is feeling a bit overwhelmed with the speed of technological change. We try to help our clients navigate through the transition and show them the benefits of adapting to new communication channels.
For example, we design websites with automated features, create infographics with social media animation posts and enhance device-responsive e-books with fancy scrolling effects, video inserts and more.
We are addressing trends such as Environmental Social and Governance (ESG), digital transformation and the business impact of younger generations. We’re designing webinars and other digital communications around these topics.
Longitudes: Any logistics advice for other small business owners?
Scheel: We do not have a supply chain to manage, but reliable delivery and shipping visibility are very important in our business. UPS Express Shipping has been a life saver for getting trade show materials delivered on time, props to an out-of-state photo shoot or newly designed catalogs to a conference.
It reflects on your company if materials arrive damaged or not on time. It’s always reassuring to send a UPS tracking number to the client so they know when to expect the delivery.
Longitudes: Give us your top tips for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Scheel: Have a business and marketing plan that spells out where you want to go as a company. Be prepared to build your client base over time. It doesn’t happen immediately after publishing a website or creating a product.
Know your strengths and leverage them. Do not be afraid to ask for advice from the experts around you. And, the infamous saying, you have to spend money to make money, is absolutely true.
Longitudes: How would you assess the landscape for women small business owners?
Scheel: I’m proud to run my own business and give people work. A really small percentage of women own design firms.
I aspire to help more women get into business. We should help each other and do more to help women in the design field. And I’m not talking about symbolic victories where companies do things just to check a box or because they think it makes them look good.
I’d consider myself an activist, but like most women I know, I want to get a job because of my talent. That’s the type of world we should all strive to create.
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