Meet the female founder making, and creating, a new way of working with in-house design.
Emma is founder of Make Your Words Work, a graphic design agency that not only works on projects but also helps to enhance in-house design teams. With over 17 years of industry experience, I was slightly overwhelmed with all the questions I wanted to ask. Not only that but she is a Director of SheSays, a now Global community which helps women further their career in the digital, and creative, industries. So as you can imagine it's a great read!
If you have any questions that I've not covered then feel free to drop Emma a tweet @EmmaSexton to find out more!
- MYWW - The Journey
- University vs Life Experience
- Managing Freelancers
- SheSays - A Global Network
- Women in Leadership
- Resources & Tools
- Advice & Final Thoughts
Hi Emma, Thanks for your time today! Can you tell me a bit about your background? What did you do before Make Your Words Work (MYWW)?
I always wanted to do graphic design from a young age and I'd done this one year foundation course at the local college just as a bit of a taster. Alongside that, my Dad had forced me to get work experience in the summer holidays. I was then able to get one of my early junior design roles because I had done work experience there. I said “Can you look at my portfolio, I’m looking for a new job and I need a critique.” I made an excuse to get back in there in case they had some work for me, and they did! So I started as a junior designer at an ad agency then moved down to London as soon as I could. I worked at this events company but only stayed there 10 months because it was horrendous! Eventually I went to another design agency, I wanted to work somewhere that would teach me the right way because I felt I was self taught for everything.
I looked at my future and I thought “god, where am I going to be in 5 years time?” I never got a degree, or anything, so I went and did an MA in Design Management. That's what helped me to understand business and it made me a better designer because I understood what my client wanted. That’s where my business is now; it’s kind of the conduit between design and business. I can talk the language of both, almost like an interpreter.
Did you always know you wanted to start a business?
Yeah, I think always. Nowadays, it is so easy to set up your own business, all it really needs is your time and effort. 10 - 15 years ago, when I wanted to start, it was much more difficult I think there is just not the barriers now. Also, I just didn’t feel ready but I think I knew that everything I was doing was working towards this.
Did you ever think you might go off on a tangent to do a completely different business outside of your industry?
Do you know what, I didn’t, because it’s true that you get yourself a career and then you are constantly working to get yourself up to that next level. So for me it was the obvious thing to do. I did do a bit of a curveball by not wanting to do just another design agency.
With the freedom of entrepreneurship now there is a bit of me that is starting to think of other businesses that I might set up that are not design related.
MYWW - The Journey
Tell me how your career so far led you to MYWW.
I’ve always been a graphic designer. I used to work in design agencies then I took a role in-house at a big PR company where I turned their team into a stand-alone agency, which was my first experience of being an entrepreneur. When I moved roles to the next company I was under a different remit - "How do you take the in house team that is being used at the end of the process and make them the catalyst for a more creative culture?" It was interesting because I could see the same sort of problems with the in-house design team that I had seen before, there were commonalities here. Then I moved to MindGym, they were growing really fast but again had the same challenges in the in-house team.
All three businesses were spending an awful lot of money on design resource but they have no idea how to get the best out of design and how to get the best of their design team. From there I just felt I don’t want to go out and just do another design agency, there was enough of those. What I really enjoyed was the transformation, especially with the designers, that I worked with who were not particularly happy and not doing work that they liked. They were unable to show the business what untapped talent they had.
What has the journey with MYWW been like so far?
It’s been a real life journey because you spend so long working, you get so conditioned and when you work for other people, as much as I went out and I represented that agency it still wasn’t really me. I knew my idea was a little bit out-there and I knew there was a need for it but no one was really doing anything with in-house design teams. Last year was a big “test the water” and I actually gave myself six months grace to just go out there. I had got everything set up, so from day one I could start selling. I was setting up my business on the side for about a year before I did it and last year was about proving things to myself.
1) Did I have something interesting that people wanted to buy?
2) How did I feel about having my own business? Did I want to go back to full time employment?
I didn't know whether I would like the fact that I didn’t know where money was coming from, and all those things, when you’re usually used to having a safety net. I went out thinking I might not earn anything but as long as I can earn £20,000 to put my savings back then that’s fine. I think about half way through the year I realised things were going well!
This year it’s about taking everything I learned last year; what are the projects that I really enjoyed, what are the projects that didn’t work so well, or perhaps weren’t playing to the strengths of the business, and being a bit more focused.
What is the thing you are most proud of that you've achieved in the last 18 months?
I think I’m most proud of the fact that I still have a business, that is making money, 18 months on. I’m proud that I’ve not got any debt and I set up the business without any loans.
So what would you say was your biggest challenge so far?
The biggest challenge is doing everything! My to-do list gets absolutely overwhelming and then sometimes the smallest things, you just can’t be bothered to do. I have an assistant now and she has been just brilliant so that’s helped enormously. Now there is a whole load of stuff that I can just put more effort and energy into which is making my business better and making what I do better.
You're very different to a traditional design agency by helping to improve the in house design team, how has the response been to your business since you started?
There has been a lot of stigma about in-house design teams which is something that I have been challenging. There are more stories about really strong in-house design teams, like Facebook, Google or Starbucks, so I think some businesses are really starting to get it. Some of them still don’t, and I think there is still a lot of work to do. We’re at the beginning of a shift where in-house design is no longer seen as this uncreative, difficult resource in your organisation but a powerful resource.
University vs Life Experience
There is talk now about how University not being as valuable as it should be, especially in some career paths. Do you think having some work experience prior to having a degree is a good alternative choice?
I think it can be. School didn’t motivate me at all but as soon as I was out to work I was a different person and motivated completely differently. So going back, as a mature student, I was committed and made the most out of it. For me, it was money well spent and a good use of my time. To be honest, I would never worry if someone at 16 or 17 said “I’m not going to go to University”, as long as they were doing other things such as; getting work experience, setting up their own business and not just waiting around for something to happen.
When I was doing my degree I didn’t come out with any debt. Degrees may be necessary if you want to be a doctor or lawyer, those sorts of professions, but in the creative industries I don’t think you need it.
I think you can break the rules, stay true to you, do what you want to do and don’t worry about it too much. People worry about these early career decisions and I think it’s all bullshit because actually once you get out there you can prove to yourself that things change.
You work with a co-operative of freelancers, how is that structured and are all those freelancers from your previous networks?
I have a black book of contacts that I have worked with before, or friends have recommended. They’re people that I know and I know what work they can deliver. What I have always found about freelancers is that a lot of them get brought in to do shit jobs and they don’t get looked after. Whenever I have had freelancers, in previous jobs, I always included them in team efforts. People want to be freelance because they don’t necessarily want to work 9-5. They want that choice but, at the same time, they're never really a part of anything so that’s why I created a cooperative.
1) I wanted the freelancers to prioritise my work
2) I wanted to attract freelancers who were interested in helping me grow my business because they know that I am going to financially reward them at the end of the year.
People apply to be on my cooperative then I’ll have a coffee with them and test some projects and we go from there. It can be tricky because people change, sometimes they are freelancing and sometime they are not, sometimes they get a six month gig. It’s brilliant in terms of keeping my business lean because at the start of the year I don’t have a load of salaries to pay and I can pull in the right people for the projects.
A lot of my freelancers are stay at home mums. They want to work but they can't do a typical 9-5 job because their babies are young and they want to be able to take them to their classes. I don’t pay them per hour I pay them per project so I roughly work out how much time it should be and say here's the job it’s a X project fee it needs to be done by X. If they do that earlier it doesn't matter, I’m not going to care if it took them four hours and it was meant to be eight. But that works quite well in reverse because if a project runs over they are willing to work with me for longer as they won on other jobs.
Have you had any big challenges with managing them or has it been smooth sailing?
Sometimes it is tricky. Everyone is working remotely so I really had to master the art of communication. Working remotely is fine but you have to realise how much more specific you need to be about your instructions.
Would that be a top tip for someone who wanted to manage a remote team?
Communication is important, that’s something I learnt last year. I was so used to having my team in the building and people pick stuff up as you work. It’s that knowledge that is in your head that people pick up because they are in that room with you. My designers aren’t hearing that because they are working all over the country. It’s not any harder its just a different way of communicating.
Do your clients know they are working with freelancers?
They all know. I am very open and transparent about the way my business is but they know I’m the quality control. Some people are like "well I can just use a Freelancer?". Yes, you could but actually there’s a lot of steering and direction I give my freelancers, I have seventeen years worth of experience. My day rate isn’t as high as an agency, but I’m more expensive than a freelancer, so actually what you’re getting is a really good deal. You’re getting design agency consultation but from a lean business.
If you didn’t have a black book of freelancers how would you go about finding freelancers?
There are a couple of good platforms that have popped up now that have freelancers. UnoJuno is one that they are calling a VIP freelance directory. Another one is called the Back Scratchers.
The problem with those is you haven’t got that person who is going to filter them. You know you are going to get a pretty good freelancer but at the same time you’re still working directly with them so it can still be hit and miss about what you want. When you’re working with me, I will make sure that job gets delivered, if I’m working with a freelancer who isn’t delivering I can shift that job or tweak it myself to make sure that it is nailed for you.
SheSays - A Global Network
You're a Director of SheSays, how did you start working with them?
They did the first event and a friend of mine said I should go and I loved it. At the time it was such a new way of doing things. There are lots of events like this now but seven years ago there were none. A lot of networking events you had to pay for, this one is free. It has some really inspiring women, who are all senior MD’s of businesses talking about their experiences.
After the event they said this is the first thing that we have done and could do with some help. I was the only person who offered to help! It just shows what opportunities can do, it was probably the best thing that I did. It’s given me amazing opportunities but equally, it has allowed me to give opportunities to other women.
For the first three years I was basically the girl in the background doing all the emails and making sure the events happened. I was quite intimidated by it all to be honest. It was about advertising and I wasn’t really in advertising, everyone knew everybody, I used to go to the events and feel a bit shy but then I made a decision. I told myself you’ve got a real opportunity here why are you being such a wallflower about it. From then on I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. After Laura got really busy, I started hosting events and then it just went from there.
How has SheSays grown in the last 7 years?
We’re global and that’s purely because we’ve allowed people to take the brand and do what they want with it locally. We have stuck to some of our principles such as; having all women speakers and women only events. When you have men in the room, or majority of men in the room, women don’t talk. We wanted our events to be where women can discuss things they’re struggling with and have an opportunity to talk freely without feeling intimidated or conscious.
So you’ve just had your awards, tell me a bit about that.
We always had the Golden Stiletto Awards. Often a lot of the creative directors are male and would take credit for projects. We created the Golden Stiletto Awards to allow women who have worked on creative teams to submit projects they have worked on and get recognised, as a way of showcasing woman in the industry.
Recently we had a new team of volunteers and one of the new volunteers, Dani, said 'I really want to make the awards bigger, I feel like they could evolve and I really want to pitch this to my company’. It was her vision and she helped to make it happen. Isobar [Dani's employer] invested some money in the competition and helped us to put it all together. It was such a change for the awards, it was great to see one of the team go 'I think these could be better, I’ve got a vision for them’ and really pull it off.
What's in the future pipeline for SheSays?
There has never been a great vision other than the values of putting on free events so they are accessible to everybody, events that are relevant to the industry and putting forward more role models. I think SheSays evolves according to who’s volunteering. We’ve got a really good London team now and they’ve got some good ideas.
Women in Leadership
Have you seen any difficulties with women in leadership in the creative industries?
Personally from my perspective from being involved with SheSays for so long now I think what I’m seeing is there is an awful lot of talk around women being the problem. No one is really saying they’re the problem but they are hinting it. "Women have to change the way they work, women have to lean in, women have to do this, women have to fall out of their careers when they have children and think differently about what sort of roles they have after they have kids."
Whenever I had my team I always created a little culture bubble that was different from the rest of the business and I was often at odds with the culture of the business. So what I’m realising is business and industries have all been created for men by men so they are very heavy on male values, which women are trying to fit into. Women aren’t succeeding because they are not men, and they’re different from men, and the women who are succeeding are the ones that are more alpha females.
In the past few months, I’ve been talking about women and looking at a thing that I’m calling Hetero-culture.
Hetero-culture is when we stop talking about gender and start talking about values. Businesses have all been created around male values so it is competitive, about money, success and working hard at the expense of everything you are doing. How do you take those male and female values and work out what is the best combination for business?
What do you think are more feminine values in business?
I think the way that I do business is very feminine and I’m meeting more and more women who are the same. I’m more collaborative, focussed on the success of my business but not measuring it financially. Yes, I need to make money, yes I’d like to make more money than I could earn but its about the projects that I’m doing and the people I work with, like these stay at home Mum’s. I'm not forcing them to fit into a 9-5, you can work this however you want to work. I just need these deadlines hit and I don’t care where you are in the world doing that work.
Myself and a group of female founders have organised our own business trip to New York in November. We're all very collaborative, I’m sharing my knowledge with somebody and they're sharing their knowledge with me. Women like to create utopia so if you win then I win, and I think the male value of that is I want to win, that’s it. I think both of those extremes are not very healthy. I think being very single minded isn’t good but being a bit competitive is. Again, creating Utopia is great but if you’re creating utopia at the expense of doing what you want to do then that is not. I’d like to look at the values more and see what the healthy feminine values, what are the healthy male values and what does it look like when they are tipping into the unhealthy.
I worked for one company who had a joint MD role, they had a man and a woman doing that role and that’s what gave me the idea for the hetero-culture. That to me was such a successful partnership, he was very much financials, hit targets, we need to do this, this and this. He was utterly shit at the nurturing, the culture stuff, where the woman was amazing. So what you had was a lovely culture and work environment, where everybody felt cared for and relationships with clients were good, yet you also felt motivated. That looked to me like a brilliant balance of the two values.
Other than the culture, and values, what else do you think needs to be done to encourage the next generation of women in leadership?
I think we need to acknowledge that they are trying to fit into a very archaic way of working and push for business to work differently. Personally I think we need more men on-board. I think we need more men who are going say they want to be able to spend more time with their kids. What I've been talking about recently is that work is keeping women out but then men are being stuck in work.
I’ve heard stories about women taking off their engagement rings when they’ve gone to a job interview to stop people thinking ‘oh she’s going to get married and have kids’ . I think guys need to be the same liability so when he goes for a job interview, and when he says he has just got engaged, he needs to be the one who might be out of the business for a year afterwards. At the moment you’ve got that imbalance.
How do you prioritise your to-do list?
Live projects always take priority. But I’m also very influenced by my mood and how I’m feeling, I try to listen to that. If I’m not in the mood for doing that now but it can wait until this afternoon then I will, and I’ll know that I’ll still get it done.
Do you feel that freedom has been given to you by having your own business or by knowing how you work best?
I think for me it’s knowing, and learning, about how you’re most productive and making the most of that. Learning how can I be most productive and really make shit happen otherwise stuff just doesn’t. I’m trying to hack myself!
I got into a really bad habit last year, I was so conditioned being in work 9 to 5, that I would sit my desk just doing nothing. Maybe tweeting or reading something but not really doing anything. Then I would think, Why are you here? You’re tired, you’re not being productive, there’s not anything urgent to do, shut down your computer, chill out and come back later.
In relation to productivity, I read an article recently that 9am-5pm is not the most productive way to work. What are your thoughts?
There is massive mistrust, if you’re not at your desk then you’re not doing any work.
Jason Fried from 37signals, and his team, are all based on objectives rather than hours worked. Why could you not pay someone almost like a sales person? So this is your base salary and you have to hit these objectives. Then every 3 months you get an extra bonus for your salary and just let people get on with it. I think you’d find people would actually work harder for you because being able to work anywhere, at any time, as long as you are delivering on your objectives.
I agree, that's part of the flexibility that inspired me to be an entrepreneur.
Yeah, my sister lives in Australia so I’m flying to Australia for a few weeks to go and hang out with her, and my niece and nephew. During the day I hang out with her and in the evening I’m going to be online.
Resources & Tools
What are the three tools/resources you couldn't live without?
Advice & Final Thoughts
You were featured in Ian Warton’s book and spoke about mentorship. Any advice for finding a good mentor?
Ask for it. I find it fascinating that people don’t ask people to be their mentor, I think it is that whole fear of rejection thing again. I had an email from someone I used to work the other day and she said 'I’ve been plucking up the courage to email you for some time' and I’m like What?! We used to work together, we used to get drunk on a Friday night down the pub and you’re nervous about emailing me saying "Can I be your mentor?'"Of course, I’d love to lets have a coffee!
It is almost like people are waiting for people to say I’m going to mentor you because you are amazing. That’s just not going to happen, people are busy! Most people are open to it and are really flattered to be asked to be a mentor. You should just ask people, get a bit more boldness and bravery going on. We need more warriors!
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in graphic design?
It is hard. Think of yourself as a brand. I think that is what people don’t necessarily do, I think they bung a CV over. If you’re a graphic designer you have to think about your audience so you’ve got to think about that when you are applying for jobs.
Secondly, start networking. Networking is the most valuable thing you can do, it keeps you in touch. When you were saying about resources I was thinking my other resource is my network. My people who I talk to my people and who I have regular catch ups with. They are some of the best resources, human beings.
What advice would you give to someone starting their business?
Don’t make any excuses, your brain will come up with an awful lot of reasons not to do stuff so you’ve got to trick your brain. Don’t think about the bigger picture just focus on what you need to get started. Have a vision but don’t focus to much on all the shit, just focus on what you have to do this week and get that done.
Final thought, what do you think the future holds for you?
Ive been struggling with the vision because I always had a vision when I was employed but I’ve let that go now. I feel like I’m on this big adventure. The freedom has given me the opportunity to experiment with all these different things that are coming my way.
My vision is make enough money to buy cocktails on a Friday night, keep growing, pushing my boundaries and seeing what happens next. So actually I don’t have a vision, maybe I will next year. Last year was quite hard because I didn’t know what was going to happen and this year I tried to get a bit more focused.
I’m on an adventure ask me again in 6 months!
Interviewee - Emma Sexton @EmmaSexton
Interviewer - Lauren Hine @HineLC