From Freelancer to Founder, From Student to Startup
The following is an interview about my entrepreneurial experience. It was conducted in March of 2016.
Who are you? Share a little insight into what ACCESS and Now Creative Group is about?
I’m an entrepreneur from Brampton, currently living in Toronto where I run a studio called Now Creative Group. I also run a non-profit called ACCESS, taking place primarily in Peel Region, where we mentor a variety of youth-led groups.
Now Creative Group is a studio I started about a year after graduating from OCAD University University. We focus on building brands and sharing stories through Design, Digital, Marketing and Media. Our clients include many startups and non-profits, in addition to larger corporate clients.
Through both, we help make ideas happen, turning intentions into action.
Rewinding to when you were about to graduate, did you have any idea on what you were going to pursue after finishing high school or university?
As a student in the Graphic Design program (Bachelor of Design degree), I definitely knew I didn’t want to become a standard 9–5 Graphic Designer. Already, I had been freelancing and experiencing multifaceted projects, so although I applied for a couple of positions in Graphic Design, it wasn’t my goal.
Because I had freelancing clients and had been needing more time to run ACCESS (the non-profit, we had just received funding for programs and an office), I ended up choosing not to pursue full-time job applications. I had planned to open my own design studio one day, but had no idea it would happen within a year of graduation.
If you had to pick three most valuable traits you possess, what would they be?
Empathy, Drive/Determination, Making Connections (Creativity)
Many universities also have resources/programs for startups. Staring ACCESS while in high school, how did you build up your organization?
There were not any easy accessible incubators or small business centres available at the time, especially for youth. As a high school student I had to try several options and inquire at various places to find out if anyone could help. Taking some advice from highs school business teachers and a couple of other community members, I registered as a non-profit through a site called Corporation Centre where they took care of the government registration and such. I also relied on my local Church to initial collect funds and issue Charitable Tax Receipts to the first big set of donors. Much of it was through online research myself, and then asking contacts from my school and church community to help connect the dots. The process still isn’t easy as a student (at the time I had just turned 16).
You started as a freelancer doing creative design out of school. There is a lot of uncertainty perceived with being a freelancer, were you ever worried about that?
Because I was open to experimenting and trying out a few different lifestyles/routines, and had moved back home with my family in Brampton, I wasn’t super concerned about the uncertainty. In fact, that’s what drove me to attend hundreds of events, talks, networking, joining organizations etc. where I learned more both on the Non-Profit side and the Business side, 2 worlds that seemed very separate (and sometimes still are, for the most part).
Following various other entrepreneurs, freelancers on social media and listening to podcasts was a great way to stay motivated and connected when starting out.
I wasn’t worried about what others thought either, and my parents were flexible since I was getting clients still and the non-profit had funding (though of course, they would’ve preferred if I found a stable income from the beginning, everything went smoothly).
“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.” — Lemony Snicket
How was the switch from being a sole proprietorship as a freelancer to creating Now Creative Group?
It was very interesting and was a big turning point for me. It got me out a grind of going to dozens of coffee shops/restaurants per week for meetings and work out of, spending some time at the ACCESS office and slowly losing business focus — registering as a Corporation (incorporating Now Creative Group) and moving to my first co-working space in Toronto was a game changer.
- Listen to this podcast episode where I talk a lot about the transition: movingmillennials.com/daniel
- I also talk about the freelancer side on Learning the Ropes here back in 2013.
Were there any sort of criteria or checklist of skills that you had when choosing the team that you have?
Self-Motivated, Creative, Loyal, Innovative Ideas, Caring for Clients & Team
Being an entrepreneur for a long time, was that the driving factor on focusing on providing services/opportunities for startups? Give us your take on why the digital content is so valuable to start ups?
Digital content is key because it’s the first way people discover you. People don’t find you in a phone book or a brochure, they discover you through Social Media or search these days. Even when someone recommends/refers a client, they do so via social media and send them your website link. That’s the first touchpoint and it has to be super strong.
You also have to be active on social media and provide value, otherwise 1) nobody will follow, and 2) you look dead/inactive to newcomers.
Working with Startups and youth-led non-profits is where I find the most energy and passion. That’s why even though it’s more profitable to work for very large clients, we promote our Startup Package (StartupSuccess.ca) and the free ACCESS Innovation program accessinnovation.ca).
If you had to pick the biggest “light bulb” moment in your career, what would it be and why? Were there also any huge roadblocks that might have derailed your path?
Probably the moment I switched from Freelancer to Agency model. I was very empowered/excited and it opened me up to so many great collaborators and clients. The roadblocks came with the certain new type of client that attracted, definitely a couple of client situations I could’ve been more prepared to deal with (or not, but could’ve been able to identify them before starting).
With ACCESS, there were numerous roadblocks in regards to Funding (needing a charitable number or trustee), Facilities (not having venues ‘trust’ you as youth), and a handful of others.
You write on various blogs, was that something you always enjoyed?
I’ve always enjoyed blogging. I went from Blogger to free WordPress.com to here on DesignCharityLife.com (my main personal site) and now have expanded here to Medium, which includes a different type of platform engaging with a community.
Some students might not be prepared for the amount of hard work, focus, and dedication it takes to create a venture, so lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
This advice is now posted right here.
Interview questions by Wayne Tran.