Courtlyn Jones of The Design Database on being a creative entrepreneur, and how she is helping freelancers create the career of their dreams
Describe your business in a few words?
The Design Database is an online platform and community designed to be a support system for Creatives, helping them find jobs.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
I was hired as a graphic designer at my “dream company,” 10 years after I set that as my 10-year goal and I was super excited to have achieved that milestone. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a nightmare and I abruptly quit after only 5 months without a plan, which is shocking for me because I’ve stayed at my last job for almost 9 years now so I am not a quitter. After quitting, I realized that I couldn’t work under anyone anymore. So, I decided to continue on as a freelance designer because I always love how much freedom and happiness that gives me. That plan quickly changed when I realized I just wanted to design for myself and help others, so instead of working as a freelancer, I decided I would start my own company and help OTHER freelance Creatives find work and succeed in the creative industry. I want to give others the support I never had and have always wanted since Creatives are always deemed as “less important” than other jobs and that’s unfair.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I am a graphic designer and visual artist. I have mostly worked in corporate, but have moonlighted as a freelancer for over 10 years. I actually started out working in Production for many years, waiting for my chance to be a designer at the company that I had worked at for 7+ years. I graduated with my degree in Graphic Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC and always believed I was meant to be an artist or designer and that was always my goal. I’ve been creating art since I was a child. But after getting a job at my “dream company,” and hating it, I realized that I’m meant to do way more. I’m meant to help others and bring people together. Someone once told me I have a gift of bringing people together, so I decided to make that into my company. When Creatives come together, that’s when true magic happens!
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Nope. I always knew I was meant to be a Creative. I just didn’t realize that I was meant to be a Creative Entrepreneur. During a job interview, someone once asked me what my dream job was. He asked me “What are you truly passionate about? What sets your soul on fire?” I told him that I truly love art and design. I love working on people’s passion projects and bringing their visions to life. I always thought I would end up as a Creative Director one day, although I hated the idea that I would be working as a director and not designing. That never felt like something I wanted to do. To me, my ideal dream job would be to work as a designer with full creative control and freedom, but also be super hands-on with the conception process. I wanted to do everything from concept to execution. Now, I see that working as a creative entrepreneur and building The Design Database is exactly what I have been preparing for my entire life. Learning the ins and outs of Production, managing interns, studying art and design, working as a freelancer, and going through the pain points and struggles. This is what I am meant to be doing.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
My business is very new. We have just launched on July 26, 2021. Everything happened very quickly. I threw out the idea for The Design Database onto a message board on Linkedin a few days after quitting my job, just to get some “feelers” out there and start a conversation about starting a community for Creatives. Within 30 minutes of that post, my inbox was FLOODED. Most of my first subscribers came from Linkedin, so I’ve continued to promote on there as part of my marketing strategy. Then of course I moved over to Instagram and Facebook. I was able to get my first 100 subscribers in less than a week, and it’s grown rapidly since then. Creatives understand the struggles of not feeling supported, so when they hear that someone, especially a fellow Creative, is creating something to help resolve these issues, word was able to spread around pretty easily. So I’ve been blessed. I’ve been featured on a podcast to speak to students and recent graduates from art universities, so that was a great opportunity. I have also partnered up with two other companies who also have the same mission as me to help and support Creatives, so that has been another great promotional opportunity as well. And lastly, being promoted by NYCxDesign and the Creative Women Community has been a huge help and very successful for me.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
I think the biggest mistake would be thinking that I could do it on my own. That was stupid and completely impossible. I applaud myself for trying as long as I did though! But, absolutely not. The Design Database is an online GLOBAL platform and it’s essentially a marketplace. I don’t know how in the world I thought I was going to be able to build that myself and still do ALL of the marketing, design, and literally everything else. Luckily I was blessed to have a professional web developer reach out to me to offer his services. I am extremely grateful to have found my team. But yes, that was dumb.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
Honestly, everything is an accomplishment to me. Every day that I get a new subscriber, even if it is just one, I feel so proud. Proud that people are interested in my company and believe in my mission. I know that I have many competitors out there, but I’m not looking to compete with anyone. Having MULTIPLE freelance platforms for Creatives is wonderful because there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Creatives in this world who truly need these platforms and this support. I’m not trying to be better than others. I’m simply trying to offer a new, unique solution that can add even more support to the creative industry. So every day that I don’t give up on that goal, despite my fears or negative thinking, that is my biggest accomplishment.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
I don’t really think I’ve asked my employees many questions before hiring them. The people on my team actually reached out to me. They had a real passion for my mission and were truly interested in what I was doing and wanted to be a part of it. They believe in me and The Design Database and that was that. I hire people based on passion. When people care about what they’re doing, they’ll work hard to succeed. When they are excited about a project, they’ll have fun doing it, and I trust that it will be done well. I haven’t been let down yet.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
“The Great Resignation,” has arrived because of this pandemic. People, especially Millennials like myself, are quitting their 9-5 jobs in order to work for themselves as freelancers. That was another huge reason why I knew that if I was going to do this, now would be the time. Aside from the fact that a lot of people do not want to go back to working in the office, after being home for so long, people are also just tired of working under people and want to have more freedom. I have always loved working as a freelancer, so I’m definitely biased, but I believe that we will continue to see more employees switching over to the freelance world and that will successfully impact my business because those are the people that The Design Database is designed to support.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
I have big plans for The Design Database! I will definitely be partnering up with more companies. Currently, we have partnered up with two other companies, and I will definitely be looking to connect with more. I believe that The Design Database will not only be a community for Creatives, but also a community of companies supporting Creatives. The Design Database is currently an online platform for Creatives to host their work, sell their work, apply to jobs, connect with clients, and connect with other Creatives to gain mentorships, friendships, form collaborations, and more. We are partnering up with a drop-shipping company that will allow our Creatives to print and sell their work and set up their own unique shops. Our second partnership is a business management company that provides Creatives the business resources (invoices, time-trackers, etc) that they need to set themselves up as freelancers or small business owners. I intend to build upon this community and also have live and virtual events to bring everyone together. I’ll be creating our own little shop as well with our own merchandise, such as laptop bags, sketchbooks, planners, and more. I’m very excited for the future of The Design Database!
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
This year and last has been pretty difficult. I have grown so much and have become more connected to myself through this experience. Being isolated in quarantine, especially, gave me a chance to really learn about myself. I learned to take care of myself more and to always put myself first. I have also learned to love myself unconditionally, which is something that I have struggled with and I know a lot of people do too. I was laid off from my job last year due to the pandemic, then was lucky to have been hired at my “dream company” less than three months later, and when that job was hurting my mental health, I walked away. That took a lot of strength and that’s not something I would have been able to do ever before. So, I would say that learning to love myself and being able to let go of things that aren’t serving me (even when you want them to) has really been a great foundation for me.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
I believe that the Universe is benevolent and always has my back. Even when things were extremely difficult and it can feel like everything was falling apart and I wanted to quit, I know now that it’s all a part of the journey. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it was, everyone would do it. It takes a lot of patience, bravery, tough skin, and self-confidence to start your own business. It’s easy to quit, but you have to keep going.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
I have been spending a lot of time alone over the last year and a half. I have been really taking the time to focus on my health. I was dealing with a lot of health issues this past year (not COVID, thankfully). So, I’ve kept myself pretty isolated. I’ve mostly just been hanging out with my mom and sisters. I spend my days working out (yoga, boxing, strength-training) and I’ve started to meditate twice a day, which has been a huge game-changer. I think we have all been dealing with a lot of anxiety, so meditation has been extremely helpful for me. Spending time alone and focusing on my goals has been very empowering and during this time, I have managed to heal myself physically, emotionally, and mentally. I definitely feel at my best right now so I clearly needed the alone time to rest and reset!
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
I do. I think that working from home makes it more difficult since I’m working right next to my bed, which always looks so lovely and appealing. I usually have to move away from it or turn my back to it when I’m working. I do have a desk, but it’s not as comfortable to work there as my couch is, which can be a con for some people. Some people can’t work when they’re too comfortable, whereas I can’t work when I’m uncomfortable so it works for me. Do whatever feels right for you. My main tips would be to use the Pomodoro method. I have a timer on my phone that has me work for 25 mins straight, then take a 5 min break, and it repeats until you take a longer break later. That method helps me to stay focused on one task at a time and also lets me take breaks and reminds me to hydrate, walk around, and eat. I find that to be helpful for me to have balance.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
Maybe that I love boxing? I’m very into fitness, which is not something that I would have ever said four years ago. When people look at me, they always think I’m so “skinny” and “frail.” Which I am! But boxing is something that I fell in love with and has been a huge part of my growth. It has given me so much more confidence and strength that I carry with me every day. I definitely would say that boxing has changed my life and I probably wouldn’t have the bravery to even build this company if it wasn’t for the transformation that happened when I started boxing and exercising regularly.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
I always try to plan one week ahead to avoid stressing myself out too much. So, I plan out my social media content and emails on the weekend to prep for the full week ahead. Another tip is that when I feel myself burning out, I have to stop myself and go outside to take a walk in nature. When I worked in corporate, I always felt chained to my desk and now I make sure to take breaks and protect my energy. I’m not going to be productive if I don’t rest when needed. Lastly, I like to connect with my community and my team pretty regularly because it keeps me motivated and inspired when I stay connected to the reasons why I’m doing this.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
To me, being an Entreprenista means being a part of an amazing support group of strong, successful, brave women who have formed an incredible community! Women helping women is always a wonderful blessing and I love being a part of something where I am being lifted up. Starting your own business is hard for everyone, but especially for women. As you can tell, I’m all about community and support, so I am proud to be an Entreprenista and I hope that I can help and inspire other women the same way that the founders and other members of the Entreprenista League have done for me.