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Sophie Karaer - The journey from Graphic Designer to starting a company.

7th February 2020
I graduated in 2010 with a 1st Degree in Graphic Design and Advertising. From there I moved on to professional placements, had a year’s stint as an in-house graphic designer for a property company, and then picked up my first job as a Junior Graphic Designer at a Lincoln-based agency. I worked in this role for a couple of years before being employed as a mid-weight Graphic Designer for an agency in Nottingham. This led to work as a Senior Graphic Designer for another agency in Lincoln!
 
I combined the role of Senior Graphic Designer with a variety of freelance projects, completed outside of regular working hours. I was then offered a three-month contract as a part-time Design Consultant for a local educational company. After much deliberation, I decided to see this as my opportunity. I left my full-time job to embark on the three-month role, using all of the time I had outside of my contracted hours to build on my client base. The freelance work proved successful and I managed to build relationships with a number of local and national clients. I began collaborating with Matthew, a friend of mine who had also recently taken the leap of faith into freelancing as a website developer. With our combined skill set, I was able to provide my clients with a wider range of services. Mathew is now a key member of the SOKA agency team.
 
The professional development continued and my freelance success began to snowball. I was able to build the agency, hiring additional staff members, switching over from sole-trader to a Limited Company, and then becoming VAT registered. As the owner and Creative Director of SOKA, I now rely on the support of an expert team providing design, web and marketing services of the highest quality.
 
My typical day starts with an essential 5-minute meditation, 10-min yoga exercise, 5 minutes of journaling, breakfast, and a shower which I try to end on cold! (proven to be good for mental resilience) I drive across to the SOKA office. The office work begins with the checking and editing of the project management system we use. I then do a check through the progress of live design projects and answer any emails that have come in from the day before. The working day usually continues with a morning Skype team meeting to check on project progress. I will then have a brief review of invoicing with my administrative assistant. There are often client meetings scheduled during the working day.
 
 
I always give myself time to review the design work of my team and direct on the creative output, it’s this work that I love. I also spend a good portion of my day working on design projects myself, however, I am finding that I have less time for this due to the other requirements of heading up the agency. The design work has become more collaborative as I draw upon my multi-talented team. I act as the Creative Director, providing guidance and setting the vision for client satisfaction. I give myself at least 30 minutes lunch, where I incorporate at least a 5-minute meditation, followed by a mindful walk outdoors. I have experienced extreme burnout, stress and anxiety in the past, by not giving myself real breaks, so this mid-day time out is really important for me. My lunch break is typically followed up with client meetings, and general agency management tasks. I take pride in ensuring that every project is the best and effectively managing client expectations. My working day now ends when I leave the office at 5.30 pm. I used to take work with me and would be checking and replying to emails on my phone through the weekend and into the evenings. I’ve since learned that this is not good for mental wellbeing, and so for me, work now ends as soon as I leave the office building, and this has served me wonders!
 
I have always had a natural inclination towards art and design. From sixth form age and onwards I would spend a lot of my time drawing and working on various creative projects. I also had a big interest in psychology and had to decide whether to pursue this or the design-based career path. I made the choice to dedicate myself to design and continue my studies at University. I consider myself quite fortunate to have discovered my natural passion at such an early age.
 

Overcoming challenges

 
I have faced a variety of challenges within the creative industry since graduating from University. The initial challenge was in gaining the first job for the practical application of my design skills. While the University course provided a firm grasp of design fundamentals it was essential to prove myself in the professional world and get that real-life working experience.
 
The quick and effective completion of design projects, whilst retaining originality and creativity is an ongoing challenge, especially in today’s world where a lot of people seem to want things done yesterday. Maintaining a work/life balance has been a huge challenge for me in the past, and I still have to work very hard to slow myself down and switch off. However, this is something I’ve had to learn the hard way. In the first 3 years of running the business, I put everything into it, to the point where I didn’t even realise how much I was sacrificing my mental health. It took a complete burnout, and the onset of an Anxiety Disorder to realise that slowing down was essential. One of my biggest learning curves was the realisation that the business won’t just burst into flames and fail because I’m not performing at 100% all of the time. In fact, when I do slow things down and am more mindful of the work we do, it benefits the business a lot more.
 
 
The challenges of general business management have also had to meet as I grew my business. I have had to learn how to juggle the roles of a project manager, boss/employer, professional designer, customer services, and marketing. I had no experience of any of these apart from being a graphic designer when I began, so it has been a huge learning curve, that required a lot of investment of my time to learn.
 
I am among those people to have entered the corporate world with no prior understanding of business management principles, or any idea really how to run a business at all. However, I have continued to dedicate myself to the learning process, taking courses, asking for help and taking opportunities to be mentored by those with more experience. I have proven my skills and dedication to building the SOKA agency from scratch. However, there has been a challenge in delegating responsibilities and placing trust in my fellow professionals. As you build up your business, it’s a cliche, but it sort of becomes your baby, with the associated sense of attachment and need for protection.
 
At first, I found letting go and delegating to other people a real challenge. I had quite a lot of control issues with allowing others to do the work I had done in the past. But, through trusting in people, and taking that leap of faith, I’ve now learned that I can’t do everything by myself and that actually, my team has far better knowledge and skills than me in some areas.
When I first started out, I thought I could do my own accounts (I mostly thought this because I didn’t want to pay accountancy fees). But, I soon realised I had no real clue what I was doing, no experience in accountancy, and it was an investment worth making. I’ve had the same accountant now for four years, and their advice, encouragement and support has been invaluable. It has been an investment on my part, however, it has also saved a great amount of time and stress. It means that I am able to dedicate myself to tasks which make the best use of my skills and are most beneficial to the business.
 

Drive and determination

I feel passionate about ensuring that everybody, whether it be clients, or staff, or suppliers, have the best possible experience when engaging with SOKA. It is my hope that every single person who interacts with my agency feels motivated to give us five stars for their experience in working with us. I’m also really passionate about running a business that puts the mental wellbeing of its staff as a very high priority. Having lived with mental health problems myself, I know how much of a difference it can make to have a job where you feel that you can have an open dialogue about mental health. Our team works remotely, so they can be wherever they feel most comfortable to work, and if they need it, then I am more than happy for them to work outside of typical 9–5 hours. I think flexibility, empathy, and an understanding of individuality is as important as someone who employs others.
 
I have had to succeed. The switch to self-employment was made at great risk. At that point I had no money (In the pits of my overdraft with around another £10k in debts), I had no car, I rented a tiny maisonette by myself in a rough area with a neighbour who would stand about naked in his back garden (no joke lol), and I was working on an old, slow laptop. The safer choice would have potentially been to stay in my full-time job role. But I wanted things to change, and nothing was going to change by standing still. I was driven to take the risk, with absolute belief in my ability to create exceptional design and marketing work.
 

Women in business

 
There are times when being female lends itself to work with particular clients. As an example, I have worked on projects for clients specialising in beauty and cosmetics. However, SOKA also provides design services to businesses in the construction and technology industries (typically male-dominated, but this is certainly changing!) . I don’t believe that being a woman gives me an inherent advantage when it comes to professional design. Gender is quite irrelevant to my success and satisfaction.
 
My biggest achievement has been the realisation of financial stability as a result of my professional success. 5 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it if someone told me I would have been able to pay off all my debts, save for a house, and buy it all on my own.
The single greatest lesson that I have learned is that it’s alright to say no. There are inevitably some clients that aren’t right for your business. I have come to the point where I am able to tell these clients of our specialisms and recommend them to more suitable professionals. In taking this approach the SOKA agency is able to focus on the projects we love and want to work on.
 
There were definite challenges when I was working for the design agencies. It was obvious to me that there was a significant difference in the levels of payment for men and women in comparable roles. However, I don't think the blame necessarily always lies with the directors of companies. With friends and past colleagues who were female, I’ve noticed a far greater reluctance/nervousness surrounding asking for pay raises and being rewarded for the value they possess. I think personally, this is a generational problem, and it is my hope for the future that more women will feel just as comfortable as men have been for centuries to speak up and get what they deserve.
 

Life mantras and tips for young females starting their careers.

 
I am a firm believer in the power of attraction. With visualisation, focus, determination and action, I believe that most people can have anything they set their heart on.
I have a general love of nature and the great outdoors. There is a great appeal in being out in nature, taking walks and connecting with nature. Being in an office for the majority of my life, means I appreciate the time I have in nature, away from a phone or a screen so much, I believe that making time to be in nature at least once a week really is essential for mental wellbeing.
 
It is important to be humble and not expect that you will have a complete understanding of a role when starting out. Developing friendships and working relationships with a mixture of different people in the workplace goes a long way. Keep your horizons as wide as possible, engaging with people of different ages, classes, and cultures. Set goals. It’s really helpful to set achievable and measurable goals that you can review over time. I think that the setting of concrete goals increases the chances of success. A belief in yourself is so important. Find a way to enjoy and love your own company. Outside of work, find an activity which gives you a deep sense of personal satisfaction. This could be anything from creative activity, to exercise or even just travelling by yourself to somewhere new, exploring. Time spent enjoying such activities alone will give your mind the opportunity to unwind, relax, and it will give you a personal sense of inner strength. This then translates hugely into your career.
 
The best advice I have ever been given is trust in the abilities of others. There are some tasks which others will be able to do as well or even better than you. I take a lot of inspiration from singer/songwriter Martha Wainwright has been an absolute inspiration for me. She comes from a family of musicians and although is incredibly talented, she has never really achieved super-stardom. Industry moguls advised her to be more poppy and pursue commercial success. However, she has stuck firmly to her personal values and beliefs. This has given her an immense amount of personal happiness and satisfaction.
 
I fully relate to Martha Wainwright in terms of my personal motivations and expectations. There has been a definite scope to expand my business, thereby increasing the amount of personal pressure. However, I’ve realised that you don’t always have to be striving to get to the next level. It’s alright to sit back and reflect on what you have achieved; enjoying your happy place. Martha Wainwright embodies this perfectly.
 

Motivation

 
I enjoy the satisfaction of delivering design services that make a measurable difference to the businesses and lives of SOKA agency clients. It is an absolute pleasure seeing our hard work pay off in the realisation of client goals. Financial independence is another key motivator, achieved through ownership and creative direction of my business. I take pride in the development of roles and professional environments which allow creativity to flourish.
If you feel that something isn’t right and that you can do something better then don’t be afraid to make your voice heard. Confidence can be taken from all aspects of life; understanding your abilities and being comfortable in your own skin. Be prepared to take charge and make your own personal statement to the world. It’s important that you embrace opportunities to learn and develop yourself. There is always scope for learning from other people’s experiences. It’s always worth asking about mentorship and involving yourself in professional communities. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and reassurance as most people are more than happy to give.
 
As a leader, it’s important that you recognise and understand the strengths and weaknesses of others. This applies both to direct team members and those professionals who you outsource work to. It’s worth taking the time to learn about the preferences and interests of everybody you connect within the business world. I’ve also come to accept my own personal fallibility and the support which I require from others. Honesty and openness are key.
Don’t let the bastards get you down (one for fans of the Handmaid’s Tale). Other people will bring their own set of problems and issues. However, it is important not to let them impact you or have a negative bearing on your professional development. Don’t let their judgment or behaviour stop you from achieving what is wholly realistic. It is the SOKA mission to create and nurture beautiful brand experiences. We create everything from stand-out logos to promotional graphics and websites. Find SOKA here!
 
If you enjoyed this blog make sure to check out other inspirational stories like Sophie’s here.
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