No experience? No problem!
The unlikely entrepreneur and the tiny creative agency that could.
No experience? No problem!
The unlikely entrepreneur and the tiny creative agency that could.
The creative industry is a unique one. It’s a business filled with characters, talented ones, with laser focused skills working on communications that call people to action. On any given day creative professionals are entrenched in problem solving, innovating, making people feel something, spend money or simply create awareness. It’s an exciting profession with many facets.
In one corner of an agency you may have an account director coordinating client communications for the agency’s latest account. Adjacent you may find a project manager sweating bullets trying to ensure that the agency meets a deadline. Next door a copywriter could be putting together headlines for a campaign, while in a central common area a graphic designer, web designer and web developer might stay busy working on creating media-everyone working as a team to get a client's message across to the right audience.
In 2007, after years of working in different creative capacities within half a dozen organizations I was ready to pursue a position in creative. As a marketing and creative “generalist”, I possessed broad understanding of many disciplines, but with no claim as a specialist, with any deep roots in one area of marketing or creative services, that translated into ‘no experience’ in the marketplace.
Like countless others setting out to pursue a new opportunity, I faced the challenge of having a goal but was vastly under qualified to fulfill it. Or so I thought. I’d like to share with you how I overcame my own challenge and ended up running my own small creative shop, having never set foot in any other agency except my own.
How to overcome inexperience? Get to work.
Any form of accomplishment comes as a direct result of effort put forth. Whether that effort involves education, trial and error or careful planning and execution, you have to try to have a chance at success. If you don't play the game, you'll never have a shot at winning. Same principle. In my case, I wanted to write ads, design websites, to build things. I wanted to make a creative dent in the world. So, to achieve that goal, I could see that I needed to learn new skills and sharpen my existing skill set. Maybe I couldn't make that dent on my original timeline, but I could start with a small door ding and follow through with strategic steps designed to get me there.
Being a generalist wasn't appealing to agency folks I encountered, but to me it was golden. As Luke Sullivan writes in his famous book, ‘Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!’, “The new creative person is T shaped". The modern world of creative requires not just one specialty, but a deeper skill set spanning many facets of this business. The ability to conceive an idea and bring it to life across media, wherever that media exists- or creating the medium itself in the process. This description made me realize that ‘strengths across the board’ is possible, that I could come up with an idea, write it, draw it, design it for digital, code it, and let it fly. I was that new breed of creative staring right back at myself in the mirror. Thanks, Luke!
So I got to work, the ‘generalist’ chasing down projects and the ‘specialist’ practicing and developing individual skills for what felt like every other spare moment. Cold emails, cold calls, spec work and anything I could do to have a shot at work. Experience piled up fast, no matter how small the task. I lived through some failures and successes, learned from my peers-I got better, a lot better. There were minuscule roadblocks and setbacks along the way, but setbacks and successes all add up to gained experience. I got into the work, and the work got into me. I became a professional. I developed a deep passion and I became a one-man creative agency.
If I worked at an agency would I be able to do what I do right now?
The thought crossed my mind every few weeks as I was obtaining small level business as the jack of all trades. I was doing it on my own on sheer size or lack thereof. An email campaign here. A website design there. A print layout, competitive analysis, strategy, product photography, all in a week's work. Still I couldn't shake it. Why wasn't I good enough for even a small shop then? Is the thought of doing many things well instead of just one, foreign? Would it actually be a step back to land a job because I would have to let go of tasks that I enjoy? Would I be let down?
Whatever the reason, I simply could not even land an interview. I chocked it up to a bad economy, but my gut told me that I still just didn't fit in, and that intimidated me. I sought validation on my work despite the positive returns I was made aware of by my clients. At the same time I desired to understand agency culture. What was inside these mystical-designer-appointed-espresso-machine-filled-foosball-adorned-elegant-conference-roomed-temples-staffed-with-casually-dressed-sophisticated-creatives-out-of-a-J.Crew-catalog?
I ended up with questions like, “Why do they charge clients so often?” “Why do they always resemble a grown up version of fantasy land disguised as a work space?” In an attempt to understand this business I did what any naive person would do, I watched Mad Men. All that did was left me wanting a drink, and five minutes in a bar with Roger Sterling to experience his one-liners first hand.
Making the switch. Agency life on my own terms.
In late 2010 things started to become clear to me. I went from having not enough experience in one area to having even more experience across the board. I ended up in a broader niche but that's an understatement. I was essentially in over my head but just dove into every project, even if I had to figure it out along the way. The simple truth is that I needed the money so badly that I could hardly afford to turn anything down or shy away because I didn't know how to do the job. That was not acceptable. I simply learned and what I couldn't do well, I brought on talented peers to work alongside me. I saw this as an opportunity to direct creative and learn to operate the rudder from the captain's seat.
So what would be the outcome of the all the chaotic, semi-amateur to Carey-Grant-polished-handsome work over the past few years? Was I to become a career freelancer or was it time to step out into the unknown and start my own shop? I had no clue if I was doing this whole creative thing right anyways. I just bought the ticket and took the ride.
I've always approached fear in my life with this simple belief; stepping out in the unknown is a lot easier if you just suck it up and jump. Either way you'll be terrified but at least you faced the fear, pass or fail. In early August as the door began to gently swing shut on twenty-ten, I founded Aybar Creative at the ripe old age of twenty-six; having never stepped foot in an agency, and now I embarked on the journey of creating my own. Once again, it was time to get to work.
The unlikely entrepreneur and the agency that could.
“Ladies and gentleman, could I have your attention for a minute, my name is Onur Aybar of Aybar Creative. We are a small creative consultancy offering affordable design, digital, advertising and direct marketing services to small businesses like yours.”
I repeated this opening to my sales presentation a dozen or so times and I don’t think that I ever got good at it. The process of building a company was new to me and I had to take a deep breath every now and then. I learned two very different things about presenting your own abilities versus creating an image for a company.
Individuality is something that we all develop as we grow. You become who you are and continue to grow through experiences. Being yourself is a natural occurrence. Building a company is drastically different in that you are creating a personality and culture unique to your desired vision for success.
I didn’t know where to start. Was Aybar Creative the rebel agency run by a guy who knew nothing about agency life? The anti-agency? How about the agency that isn’t really an agency but an overnight birth of a creative liberation. I simply didn’t know. I had to find out and the only way that I knew how was to get to work.
The first step was to assemble a team, and that came pretty naturally, thankfully. You see, part of web design, development or any digital task in this modern age is being online. No one person is capable of having all answers to all questions, it's a group effort. Open source projects, forums, online magazines, blogs, articles, Reddit; communities exist all over the world. I'd pull in a developer here, a designer there, a copywriter there, and what I came to find was that these were all people like me. Some actually worked at agencies, some had jobs as far away from creative as fathomable. In fact for some it was a hobby and even something to help them relax and earn a little money. That in and of itself inspired me, all these unique individuals spread out across the country working together. Virtual existence became our greatest strength and our unique selling point with low overhead and true flexibility.
That shy sales pitch became a laser beam right at the heart of solving a major global problem, helping businesses pick up the pieces after economic collapse. Did clients really need that hundred thousand dollar website or could fifteen grand get the job done? Did they really need us to fly cross country to meet or was virtual better? Was there a market for us, you bet.
We've had the pleasure of taking on a special project for Choice Hotels International, helped a few start ups find their feet, small businesses grow and compete, and my work here has led me into other businesses including California North Skincare, where we make eco-friendly, health-conscious, unique skincare and fragrances for men and women. Most rewarding is that everyone I've worked with has remained a dear friend to this day.
In Closing. Get to work, get to work, and get to work.
The beauty of the world we are living in is that there truly are no limits, just as my classmate Alexis Ohanian professed in his book, "Without Their Permission". I believe the key is to quite literally roll with it. Let one idea flow into another, go for the ride. Meet people, have ideas that you believe in and then see about bringing them to life. That's the secret sauce. Just getting to work with full conviction in your ideas. The rest is in the details that will try to knock you down again and again. Be resilient and incredibly flexible. Work the problems and the solutions. Don’t stop, evolve, and keep evolving.
I may never build a big agency or even a small one, and that's the beauty of this business, and even life itself. That an unlikely entrepreneur and a team of rogue creatives can do great things without any barriers, permission or fear. That anyone can be creative and put that creative to use. It's your birthright, to be creative. Everything usable in this world was discovered and/or developed by creativity. It can solve any problem. You just have to get to work.
Hi, I'm Onur Aybar, Founder & Creative Director at AYBAR. Originally written in 2013, updated and republished 3/2017.
Thanks to Dave Heneberry for editing my endless maze of thoughts into something cohesive.