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Sunday
Feb262017

Scaling up from one-person freelancer

What does it take to build a creative agency, wonders Oon Yeoh


MALAYSIANS are entrepreneurially-minded. Many people say they’d someday like to start their own business or at least become self-employed. Many who become successful freelancers generally don’t regret leaving the 9-to-5 office life behind.

But after a few years of freelancing, it’s not uncommon for them to wonder whether they can build something bigger than themselves.

Becoming a successful freelancer is in itself already a tough undertaking. Building a company with employees takes it to another level — and this is something not everyone can pull off. It requires a mind-set shift to evolve from being a free agent to being an employer.

One person who’s managed to do this with aplomb is Bernie Quah, who pretty much kick-started the graphic recording industry in Malaysia.

Graphic recording is where a live artist (or team of artists) visually record down the key points of a talk or seminar by sketching what is being said.

Bernie started off as a one-person show but as demand for her services grew, she had to grow the capacity for her business to take on more work.

Today she has a small team that helps her with assignments in three countries — Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. She talks to Savvy about what it takes to build

a creative agency with talented and loyal staff.

HOW DID YOU GET STARTED WITH GRAPHIC RECORDING?

I was an interior architecture student and I realised that making visual sketches of notes was the most effective way for me to learn things.

I found my drawing skills to be most useful when I attended conferences and began illustrating those talks. It allowed me to instantly capture key points and interesting quotes which I might otherwise forget about.

I didn’t know it was called graphic recording at the time. When I discovered that there were people actually doing this as a profession, I thought it was so cool and began following the work of famous graphic recorders from around the world.

WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO TAKE THIS UP AS A PROFESSION?

I spent some time in San Francisco and the city really inspired me. It taught me that age doesn’t matter when it comes to creating new ways of doing things and building businesses around new ideas. I met many young people who were starting companies and after a while, I decided I should give it a try too.

HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?

I actually began working as a graphic recorder in Singapore because the market there was more familiar with this concept. So, it was more viable for me to offer my services there. In time, the trend of engaging graphic recorders for seminars spread to Malaysia and I was able to get work here too.

WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO TAKE ON STAFF?

When requests from Hong Kong started to flow in, I knew I had to grow the company. But being that graphic recording was a new industry, there wasn’t exactly a ready group of experienced graphic recorders to hire. There were, however, skilled artists who could be taught the craft. And I was prepared to do that.

WEREN’T YOU AFRAID SOME OF YOUR STAFF MIGHT LEARN THE SKILLSETS AND START THEIR OWN BUSINESSES?

This is always possible but I believe in the saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” Hiring other illustrators was a big move for me but from the moment I started my company I knew that it would someday have to be something bigger than just me.

HOW IS DOING BUSINESS DIFFERENT IN SINGAPORE, MALAYSIA AND HONG KONG?

There are a lot of similarities between Singapore and Hong Kong, in terms of

the pace of city life. Malaysia is a little

bit more relaxed. I tend to spend more

time in Malaysia now that I have staff that can help me out in Singapore and Hong Kong.

SPEAKING OF STAFF, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN HIRING?

Graphic recording is a very niche skillset. I usually look for people who either already have done something similar or have the potential to develop those skills. If they like sitting in airplanes for a couple of hours every week, that’s a big plus point!

WHAT TECH GADGETS DO YOU USE FOR WORK BESIDES A LAPTOP AND A MOBILE PHONE?

Nothing. Those two things are basically all I need to run the business. In terms of services, Internet access is crucial for communicating with my staff since we are in three different countries but also easily 90 per cent of our business enquiries come through our website (www.sketchpost.com).

YOU WEREN’T A BUSINESS STUDENT. WHERE DID YOU GET YOUR BUSINESS SENSIBILITIES FROM?

I read as much as I can but I wouldn’t say all my decisions are based on what I learn from business books. I’m often inspired by what graphic recorders in the US and Europe are doing as the industry is more advance there. So, I try to keep up to date with what’s going on there and see if those things are applicable in this part of the world.

WHAT ARE THREE TIPS YOU CAN OFFER FREELANCERS WHO WANT TO GROW SOMETHING BIGGER THAN THEMSELVES?

First, your aim should be to build something greater than the sum of its parts. Building a business isn’t about outsourcing additional work but creating something that’s not just bigger but better.

Secondly, be prepared to make educated guesses and take calculated risks — and learn from what didn’t work.

Thirdly, remember that you have to weather the hard times to get to the good times. Tough times don’t last but tough people do.

WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THIS YEAR?

This year, we’re going to focus on spreading our own spin on design thinking through workshops! We’re currently working

on refining a syllabus that lets people become a little more confident in

their innate creativity while having fun

doing it.

WHAT ABOUT THE NEXT THREE YEARS?

I’d like to get to where my company can run autonomously enough that I can take

a holiday without having to check my e-mails!

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