I’m Ulas Uygun, founder and head designer at WOO. 5 years ago, I quit my 9 - 5 to start my own business. Today I run a creative studio in Amsterdam, and here’s how it all happened.
Creative in the making
Everybody wants be a coder these days or at least, to have a decent understanding of it in order to stay on top of their data game. Well, not me. At least not my 20-something self. Contrary to what one might imagine, having majored in software and holding an M.B.A. degree did not bring instant bliss to my career. As soon as I graduated, I wanted to be done with coding (hence, my M.B.A) so I chose to be a marketeer.
I started as a brand associate at a multinational and worked my way up two promotions. But just like many others, I didn’t find my role fulfilling. Sure, gobbling up sushi while supervising a TV ad shoot was pretty neat. Yet I still yearned for more creative freedom. As a brand manager, I was a client to a creative agency but I would always catch myself admiring the nature of the work they did. The way color, typography and graphics worked in harmony to tell a story mesmerised me. Long story short, I was a creative waiting to happen.
Unusual Route #1: From Brand Manager to Brand Creator
If years of water cooler talk taught me one thing, it’s this: The office bunch does not like horizontal change. Meaning a manager can only become a senior manager, a senior manager can only become a director and so on and so forth. In my case, however, it did not happen like so. Deep down, I knew I’d be much happier in a creative position, but I had no idea what that creative position would be.
One Saturday morning, it all changed for the better. Inspiration has found its way on my WhatsApp notifications in the form of an animated story a friend sent me. Watching the life story of a beloved public figure in an animated format reminded me of the joy and the sense of fulfilment I used to get as a child from telling stories on my own. After I was done with watching the video, I knew something had just clicked. I signed up for a visual storytelling course that very same day. And just like that, my new journey began.
It took me 2 years of evening classes in which I learned graphic design to finally get to a point where I could quit my job and make a living off my new profession. That’s when I founded WOO Branding. I had finally done it. I had taken the unusual route from being a brand manager to becoming a brand creator.
Unusual Route #2: From Big Business to Small Business
I started small, designing logos and other creative material for local businesses that wanted to make a difference: contemporary jewellers, sustainable camping sites, all female social enterprises and many more. I was doing regular client work, just like any other freelancer would do, devoid of any strategic agenda.
As my happy clients proliferated, so did the number of WOO’s business inquiries. I now had to pick certain clients over others which meant that I had to sit down and decide whether I wanted to scale my business or not. If yes, how would I go about doing that? There were two methods that stood out. I could either build a team and go for bigger clients or keep it small and come up with a set of principles to pick certain clients over others.
That’s when I decided to reaffirm my unique selling proposition. I reached out to the clients I had worked with by then, and asked them what quality of my work made the biggest impact for them, encouraging them to keep it as specific as possible. As I had expected, a pattern has emerged from the responses I got: Almost all of them defined the aesthetic quality of the work I delivered much more in-depth from the usual creative work they got for the same price. I have to be clear here: They all phrased this differently, each in their own way, but when asked further, almost all alluded to a similar phenomenon: They thought the visuals I created for them responded to their needs in a very detailed, structured and to-the-point manner. This aspect stood out to them as the most valuable because it was something that other freelancers lacked. It was through this depth in visual design that they could get to know their own brands better which meant that they could be much clearer in their communication to their consumers. They believed it reflected well on their numbers too.
Details will make a brand: Illustrated map WOO designed for PatPat Oil
This is it, I told to myself. This is the problem WOO should set out to solve. There are small businesses all around the world that fail to realize their full potential due to the pitfalls in their communication. They can’t address these pitfalls since they don’t have access to value-added visual design and communication services. They mostly rely on affordable options such as subscription based online platforms that provide one-size-fit-all design solutions.
I knew there was a market. But there was also a catch. ‘’There’s a reason why platforms like Canva or Freepik appeal to SMEs’’, I told to myself. “They contain thousands of royalty-free design items, so a lot to choose from and they harness the labor of hundreds of their employees to keep the designs coming”. If I were to convince an SME owner to pay 10 times more for the creative work that they’re used to get for 10 EUR a month, I needed to do 3 things:
- deliver very well thought-out, bespoke output that rises above the predictability of the all-fits-one solutions
- create a workflow that uses automation to the fullest to compete with the efficiency of the big guys
- build a unique team of like-minded creators that can think in layers and produce creative that has depth
Fulfilling number 1 and number 3 was no biggie. But I needed to recall a disgraced friend from my past to fulfill number 2 on my list: my software background.
Unusual Direction #3: Software Makes a Comeback
In a matter of 2 years, I brushed up on my coding skills, catching up with every little Photoshop script that automates time-consuming tasks. I put together a directory of little bits of code, each automating a different task in a different Adobe Creative Suite software.
I didn’t stop there. I did the same for the way I kept, backed-up, exported and retrieved my client files, reached out to clients and handled the bureaucratic aspects of the business. It was a demanding job in which I had to master over 50 software and write little bits of code for each (Thank you for saving my life, GitHub!), but I did it.
Hours on GitHub: The first office where Ulas worked on optimizing WOO’s workflow
And the fruits of all the hard work? WOO can now deliver a quite detailed, agency quality Brand Book suitable for small businesses for the fraction of the agency price. A very remarkable phenomenon that can transform local businesses all around the world.
With the power of this flexibility in its toolbox, WOO is now getting ready for the next chapter. We now offer fully customizable, agency quality, pre-made brands targeted at empowering anyone willing to start a small business. While we plan to continue on the custom creative work for bigger clients, we’d like to focus on empowering entrepreneurs, small businesses and anyone else who is out there ready to transform their communities through their hard work and labor.
With sustainable, LGBTQI+ owned, all-female and inclusive-first businesses in focus, we’d like to empower those with vision but insufficient resources to commission great design to match.
We have a long journey ahead. But we are hopeful as we are on a mission to democratize visual design.