How I Learned Graphic Design In 6 Months And Built A Profitable Branding Company [From Netherlands]

Published: May 13th, 2022
Ulas Uygun
Founder, WOO Branding
WOO Branding
from Amsterdam, Netherlands
started January 2019
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hello, my name is Ulas Uygun and I’m the founder of WOO Branding. We provide logo designs and ready-to-launch brands for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and other creators.

In the 1st half of its 1st year as a B2C service, WOO Branding brings in 4,000 USD monthly revenue. WOO Branding used to bring in an additional 7,000 – 9,000 USD from its B2B services, however, we’ve been shifting the strategic focus of the company to B2C as of 2022.

Two unique characteristics make our case stand out as a realistic business venture for literally anyone:

  1. A profit margin of over 90 %.
  2. A business that anyone can launch on their own with almost no monetary investment.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

In 2015, I was in my 3rd year working at a 9-5. Looking back, it seemed like a good job: decent pay, a relaxed environment, and a relatively good extent of creative freedom. But I still felt that something was missing.

A fun moment from 2014 of me and my colleagues of my 9-5 job at the time

Nobody is born creative. Given the accessibility of design technology and education today, anyone can get to a professional level of design within a short time frame. All it takes is dedication and time.

It all changed on a Saturday morning when a friend texted me a viral video. It was an animated short story. While watching it, I remember picturing myself making a living by creating similar work.

I immediately signed up for a graphic design course that very same day. Looking back, I now realize that I followed my gut. And just like that, my new journey began.

Before I move on here, I feel compelled to challenge one ungrounded belief that everyone seems to take for granted: nobody is born a creative. Given the accessibility of design technology and education today, anyone can get to a professional level of design within a short time frame. All it takes is dedication and time.

In my case, it took 6 months to land a client.

Some of the early works I shared over Instagram helped me gain traction online

Some of the early works I shared over Instagram helped me gain traction online

In terms of experience, I had none neither in graphic design nor in starting a business. But the online classes I took on Lynda (now LinkedIn) for 6 months paid off the following year during which I designed more than 50 commissions for friends and family. I knew my little hobby was becoming a business with true potential thanks to the number of requests I kept receiving. Then came the referral clients: In 2 years, I had gone from a hobbyist to a professional designer providing services to corporations.

The online courses I took got me from zero knowledge to a professional with paying clients pretty quickly. So I’d like to share a few tips and tricks here with anyone out there who’d like to start a graphic design from scratch:

  • Start small. There are so many options in the market that it’s easy to overwhelm yourself.

  • Start with the type of course you like. As with any other field, there are 2 types of courses in graphic design: theoretical and practical. In bachelor-level design programs, always start with the theoretical courses to lay the foundation. But if you’re the type of person who keeps motivated by seeing the outcome quickly, start with the practical courses. You learn at your own pace anyway. So it’ll be a smarter move in the long run.

  • Take comprehensive courses by established instructors. I took courses on Lynda, but that was before Lynda was acquired and incorporated into LinkedIn. Today online courses at SkillShare are far superior as they’re tailored more to self-learners. Here are some courses you can start with.

  • For complete beginners who’d like to use Adobe Illustrator I’d recommend this course. For intermediate to advanced users this, this and this course will work better. For beginner and advanced users who’d like to master Adobe Photoshop, I’d recommend this comprehensive course. To learn how to use color, form, and typography to solve a design problem, I’d strongly recommend taking this free theoretical course.

As for financials, I knew I could rely on the savings I did during those 2 years. So, I pulled a leap of faith: I quit my job to start WOO Branding. Knowing that I had to pay clients at the time was relief enough for me to be able to scale my business.

That was it! I started my own company at the age of 30 with an initial investment that almost anyone can afford: a solid computer, and 6 months of Lynda membership (try Skillshare today) and time. Well, lots of it.

This photo captures all the initial investments I did: a computer and a quiet space for lots of learning and practice

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and launching your first product.

Today, WOO Branding sells ready-to-launch brands targeted at individuals. This was not the case in the beginning. WOO Branding was born just like any other creative agency: by creating custom graphic design work for corporate clients.

Here is what this essentially entailed:

First, I would send a brief document to the client in which I would ask questions to better understand their needs. We’d then have at least one meeting or call during which we’d discuss the details of the project.

Finally, I’d start creating the visuals based on the insight I gathered. Technically, all I needed for this stage was an Adobe Creative Cloud membership and plenty of time. This was why I didn’t spend much time optimizing the website in the early days. I created the first website on Shopify, using one of the free themes. Because there were no e-commerce features on the website, I was able to build it within a week.

One more thing to note is the early interface of the website: the brand positioning of WOO Branding was quite different from today and the early interfaces of the website reflected that: I kept the prices below the industry average to keep the influx of demands coming in.

However, I did make sure that the quality of our designs was not compromised: In a nutshell, we created equally beautiful visuals at more reasonable rates. It also featured a portfolio section that contained select brands we worked with for social proof.

The costs of the launch can be summarized as follows: a Shopify, Adobe Creative Cloud, GoDaddy and Lyndasubscription totaling less than 2,400 USD per year.

Describe the process of launching the business.

I planned WOO’s launch long before the website was even published. I established 50 as the number of commissions I had to reach and 5 as the number of permanent clients I had to have before quitting my job to focus exclusively on WOO Branding. When WOO hit the numbers, I began working on the website.

I initially financed the business by continuing to work at my 9-5 for 2 more years. Every evening, I would come back from work and quickly have dinner only to get to work on WOO. I would focus on two tasks during these evenings: finding new clients, and completing the commissions from existing ones. I didn’t want to go for a loan as I wanted to make sure that my idea was validated by a solid number of clients before risking any financials. So, I chose to work overtime to test the waters a bit more.

I landed my first commission during my 5th month in the business. It was a colleague who commissioned an invitation design for her wedding. She decided to make an offer after seeing my designs on Instagram.

Initially, I did not have a marketing plan in place. But landing a commission through Instagram was an eye-opening experience for me. Up until that date, I was casually sharing my progress. I did not view Instagram as a viable marketing platform. After getting my first commission there, I started sharing daily and interacting with real people through Instagram. In a few years, I hit 10K followers which produced 15-20 annual commissions alone. I must also mention here that all these commissions were profitable from the very beginning since the main cost of my services was merely time.

It took me 3 years to land a business client, however. This client too came through Instagram. By that time I had started using cold outreach as a secondary means of reaching out to prospects. To this day, I use, Ahrefs, and buzzstream to pitch my services to prospects and I land a considerable portion of my commissions through these platforms. One tip I must share is the importance of trial and error. Whenever I do a client outreach using these platforms, I come up with at least two types of value proposals to test them on different prospect groups. This allows me to see the better performing value proposal which I continue to use and improve over the next line of my reach-out campaigns.

start meditating first thing in the morning, even 5 minutes is sufficient. Find a hobby that helps you distress even if you can only spare 20 minutes of your day.

Biggest lesson I learned during the process was to have hands-on experience in every aspect of the business. Be it sales, marketing, or even hardware problems, it equips you with firsthand insight into how things work. This is useful especially for later stages of the company once you start hiring or working with freelancers. You end up with the heuristics that’ll give you bargaining power over the price for any work to be done.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Referrals made the most impact on our numbers. One downside of referrals is that it is not as easily quantifiable as alternatives such as social media advertisement or organic traffic.

Over-reliance on referrals also means that your chances of mining your customer data are minimal to none. Customer acquisition is strictly tied to personal networking and client relations which can still be annoyingly manual in an age of automated reach outs and optimized mailing lists.

Another observation we made firsthand is that mainstream platforms work great to achieve short-term gains. Say, we start a new line of designs and we want to test the waters. We can easily run a Google Search ad to see the reaction of our audience.

Building your platform, however, is the way to go, if you’re in it for the long run.

Referrals will not give you much data to crunch but will surely lead to public exposure: Select WOO Branding designs makes an appearance in an Amsterdam exhibition in 2021

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

WOO Branding started as a B2B creative agency. So up until 2022, we mainly relied on referrals, personal outreach, and networking for client acquisition. So, our online presence was a simple website showcasing our portfolio. We never really relied on it as a tool to attract leads.

In early 2022, we relaunched the service as a B2C model, offering logos and ready-to-launch brands for entrepreneurs. Going forward we’d like the platform to become the leading one-stop-shop for everything related to branding from getting logos, taglines, and color palettes to creating custom brand identities for entrepreneurs, small business owners, and anyone with a business idea.

We’re off to a great start too. We witnessed a spike of 108 % YOY increase in traffic with an impressive 38 % bounce rate, our lowest ever.

Overwork will only harm you in the long run. Instead, focus on creating realistic goals that sit well within a long-term strategy.

We have recently redesigned our whole sitemap based on our 3-year plan. The goal is to increase organic traffic 100 % before year-end by focusing on producing strategic content on our blogs and relating that content to our ever-growing catalog.

In line with this goal, we’ll start running ad campaigns on Google in a few months based on the outcomes of which we’ll devise a plan to optimize our conversions that underperform at the moment.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Honest feedback: get your hands on real feedback. There are online resources (Reddit roasts anyone?) and also paid services that’ll help you receive honest feedback about your services. Also, never solely rely on your friends and family for feedback. There’s a reason why it’s called a social circle: people tend to spend time with their like-minded peers. Go out of your circle to get authentic feedback, and get ready to pay if necessary.

A freemium business model: Yes, it is not for everyone. But some industries really benefit from freemium models be it in actual leads, brand awareness or both. This is something we’re working on too.

Failures: Pay great attention to anything that fails. A product, a transaction, a platform, anything about your brand. For instance, WOO Branding lost a B2B client over one task a while ago and that task ended up redefining our whole business model as the client's reaction was eventually turned out to be a revelation in terms of the perceived value of our design work to that particular client and the group of potential customers they represented.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I created WOO Branding on Shopify. I’ve used Wix and Squarespace previously but I eventually decided to stay on Shopify mainly due to its much superior SEO infrastructure. If your strategy involves attracting organic traffic through search engines, I’d recommend sticking with either Shopify and WordPress. My go-to theme is Streamline by Archetype due to its mobile first design and great loading speed. My go-to apps on Shopify are Product Options by Bold and Shogun.

I use Google Analytics to gain insight into my audience and website. It’s free and it seamlessly connects with Google’s advertising options if you were to promote your listings through Google. There’s a learning curve to the platform, but you can simply take the online courses created by Google to get the hang of it.

I use Ahrefs to boost my website’s search engine visibility, to get inspiration for my content strategy and to identify, monitor and learn from the online platforms of my direct competition. Ahrefs is on the pricier side, however, when used with a good cold outreach platform and a content mindset it truly works wonders. Ahrefs too has a learning curve to master. However, just like Google Analytics, the platform offers a plethora of online learning opportunities free of charge.

I use Buzzstream for client outreach. Truth be told, Buzzstream’s interface does not match the other tools I mention here, however, it is the strongest one-stop-shop solution to streamline your reach-out process. It integrates with Ahrefs which is a plus. Similarly, it comes with its own online learning material that makes it easy for anyone to jump in. Buzzstream too is on the pricier side, however, it produces great results for those who’d like to quickly create a solid online presence and those who lead a B2B business model.

I use Miro for team collaboration. I find it the most flexible amongst its peers. Its free version is also pretty impressive.

Finally, let me address the elephant in the room: Instagram. I started my personal Instagram account way back in 2015 and reached 13K followers in a few years. This was simply me sharing my design work with the world in a simpler time when the timeline was chronological. However, I know it is still doable today. It’s just a different gameplay. I would advise two things here: Start with a personal account. It may feel counterintuitive but it’ll humanize your business. You can keep two accounts, one being for your business, and tell the story of your journey through both. A personal touch goes a long way and you’ll see that you’ll make real-life connections that’ll prove fruitful in the long run. I use Planoly to organize, schedule, and strategize my Instagram feed. I like Planoly because you can manage multiple platforms across multiple team accounts and it still falls under the affordable services when it comes to pricing.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I guess I follow TechCrunch and Product Hunt religiously, just to stay in the know on the startup scene. I try not to miss print issues of Fast Company as it provides great insight into business trends in general. I sometimes grab an issue of Entrepreneur too.

I catch up on economy, politics and current events on print editions of Monocle. I listen to Monocle 24 and Unexplainable by VOX podcasts for the same purpose.

I find it perplexing that very few people mention this aspect of entrepreneurial life: your mental health. To keep your mental health in check, the best thing to do is to learn how your brain works. I listen to the Huberman Lab podcast every day. I genuinely believe that it is a far superior resource than anything that you’d pay for. Granted, it can be a bit challenging to follow at times, it’s 100 % free and reliable. In addition to this, I try to meditate and go on a brief walk every day.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I guess the biggest lesson learned for me was the importance of optimizing the product. Almost every entrepreneur I’ve met has started by following an assumption they made about their target market.

You know, it goes something like this: I THINK XXX PEOPLE WOULD BUY YYY PRODUCTS FOR THE ZZZ PRICE.

Most of the time, these assumptions end up proven wrong by the target market itself. I’ve seen it happen with my business too. It took me almost 3 years to find out what particular product delivered the most value to my clients.

My advice to you would be to spend considerable time trying to find that specific product/value. When you do, just start capitalizing on that. Optimize each step of the way (product > marketing > sales) and then automate the process as much as possible. Keep in mind that this could mean spending several years looking for that particular value, but trust me it’ll be worth it.

One thing I’ve witnessed other entrepreneurs struggle with is having a solid financial strategy and plan in place.

After I launched my business, I preferred to keep my day job for 2 years to be able to have room for mistakes in the beginning. Yes, this meant that I had to work 2 jobs simultaneously for a while and it was painfully exhausting. But it also meant that I had time to come up with a 5-year strategy and financial plan while staying within my comfort zone.

I saved the most important tip for the last. Ironically, it is also the one that almost nobody talks about: your mental health.

Everybody struggles with some form of mental issue at some point in their lives and entrepreneurs are not different. Whether it is the risk of not being able to pay for your rental office or the anxiety of pitching your business idea to hundreds of potential investors within 5 minutes, you will find yourself under pressure. When that time comes you must be equipped with the knowledge and practices that’ll help you cope. Some actionable tips that’ll help: start meditating first thing in the morning, even 5 minutes is sufficient.

Find a hobby that helps you distress even if you can only spare 20 minutes of your day. And the most significant of all: do not detach yourself from friends and family for the sake of starting on the tasks of the following day.

Overwork will only harm you in the long run. Instead, focus on creating realistic goals that sit well within a long-term strategy.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re always on the lookout for graphic designers with an eye for a contemporary design to partner with us on expanding WOO’s catalog of logo designs and ready-to-launch brands. Portfolios can be sent to [email protected] along with a resume.

Where can we go to learn more?