Welcome to The Leap! For this IG Live series, Wethos CEO Rachel Renock sits down with entrepreneurs who took the leap toward working independently or starting their own project.
In this episode, Rachel sat down with Lola Adewuya, the founder of The Brand Doula, a brand development studio that works to support visionary women-owned startups by creating one-of-a-kind brands and customer experiences.
Watch the full interview here or read below to learn more about Lola’s journey into brand design, the importance of customer experience, and the steps she took to build her solo business into a collaborative team.
Note: The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
RR: Lola, thanks so much for joining us today. I’d love to start by learning a little bit more about your journey to starting your own business and how that’s evolved over time.
LA: My story is a bit of a funny one. I started as a freelancer in college and I kind of fell into the world of brand design by accident. I was a sophomore in college and sophomore year is usually when you have to start looking for internships and getting some career experience. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was majoring in cognitive science, which if you don’t know, is basically a major for people who don’t know what they want to do.
At that time, I was living my best college blogger life. I was doing a little bit of content creation, and I was looking at what jobs there are like brand partnerships and editorial, then I kept seeing brand design. And I was like, “What is that?”
I looked into it a little bit more and simultaneously, while I was blogging, I kept coming across Squarespace templates and these studios who were creating visual identities and websites. So all of these things came together for me to realize that I really wanted to kind of bridge this idea of connecting with people on a mental and emotional level using great aesthetics and visuals and stuff like that. It was kind of the bridging of two worlds with cognitive science and my world as a content creator and lifestyle blogger.
I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to do a brand design internship, let’s look at all the design agencies.” And they’re like, “Submit your application and your portfolio.” I was like, “My what?” I had never actually designed that deeply or anything beyond messing around my own website. I was like, “All right, you’re not going to get an internship this year.” So I decided I was going to create my own internship.
I basically planned out my own three month internship where I would learn brand design and I just did a lot of YouTube. I’m a self-taught designer completely — YouTube, Adobe Lives, anywhere I could get information. I would buy Squarespace templates and break them down and figure out how to recreate them.
I spent that entire summer becoming a brand designer. Then at that point, I was like, “It’s time to start practicing on some real brands.” So I worked with friends and family. I tapped into my blogger community and I was like, “Hey, do you want social media templates? I can create them for you.” In that process, I loved working with clients. Specifically, I loved working with black women who make up most of my community.
Since then, I had never even thought of applying for a design agency job. I was like, “I’m going to run my own studio. I want to work specifically with women of color, black women. I just want to keep doing this.” So I did for the rest of my college career, and now I’ve been pursuing this career of growing my own studio and working with women who really inspire me.
RR: One thing that I think is really interesting and that there are a lot of misconceptions around in terms of brand is that people think that it’s about the visual brand — logos, colors, palettes, fonts, things like that. When you’re talking to clients and over the years of learning and growing your business, how do you dispel that kind of a misconception around, it’s just about the look and feel, and help people see the value of a deeper strategic branding exercise?
LA: I think the best way to think about it is through this idea of experiences that you’re creating. One thing that I always like to ask my clients is to name a couple of their favorite brands and tell me why. Rarely ever will they say, “Because I love their logo,” or, “Their color palette is so beautiful.” Most often it’ll be like, “Amazing quality in their products,” “Super great customer service,” “Their website was so easy to shop,” “I felt so connected to the content that they were putting out.” All of these things are experiences and interactions that you have with the business and that’s what has helped build this brand in your head.
So I tell my clients, “Your brand is not just your visual identity — that’s a way that somebody can point you out on a shelf — but your brand is actually your reputation.” If I was to ask somebody about Wethos, what would they say? That’s your brand.
When I explain it that way, it starts to click for them and then they start to think, “Okay, is my entire customer journey there? Am I creating these good interactions all throughout the customer journey that are going to not only lead them to purchase, but also lead them to be loyal customers who have really great perceptions of my brand and will ultimately become advocates?” Which I say is our ultimate goal.
RR: I was browsing around on your website and I noticed that you have an amazing team that you’re working with. I’d love to understand a little bit more about how the business operates and if you’re leveraging collaborators that are full time or project-based? How do you think about the packaging and pricing involving more than one person? We talk to a lot of people who are independent or solo right now who are starting to scale up or thinking about scaling up, but they’re not really sure how to start or where to start. Can you tell us a little bit more about how the business went from a solo shop to having an amazing team?
LA: I love this topic because oftentimes, we think that teams come out of nowhere like one day you’re solo and then another day we have a team of six. That’s not exactly how that happened at all.
I spent the first three years just doing it solo, freelance. My first outsourcing journey was with a VA and that was the moment I was confronted with, it’s not just, you hire someone and they can just pick stuff up. You have to prepare lots of onboarding documents. You have to gain managerial skills, which is something that people often skip right over. But if you want to build a team, it’s so much more than you just doing your job in your business.
So, yeah, I had a VA and then I had two junior designers and then I have since advanced to having more senior level designers and copywriters. The journey was definitely incremental.
The way my business is structured, especially now that we’ve launched The Breakout Brand Package, in every client experience, we now have our experience designer who works on the broader touch points and building that out.
I serve as the brand strategist. So I come in at the very beginning and actually detail out what’s the vision, what’s the standard we’re trying to set across all these experiences? Then we have our identity designer who focuses on that visual identity piece, which then gets expressed through our touchpoints.
Then we have our messaging strategists, our copywriters, who help get down the narrative portion of things. That’s our core team. We also have developers and external partners that we work with on a case by case basis. So we have Shopify, Squarespace developers, Webflow developers, illustrators, all of those things that are kind of go-to people. These are all contractors. I’m the only full-time employee in my company and then the remaining are contractors.
I also would be remiss to not mention Christine who is kind of our community manager. She mostly focuses on our course that we also have, which is called Brandland.
RR: I love the packaging functionality that you have built into your website. How did you work through those packages and then the pricing side of things when you’re putting together a bigger scope of work like that?
LA: I love this question because pricing is the biggest conversation in the freelance world. I have to admit the single thing that completely changed my view on pricing is when I grew my team, because I did not realize just how much I was doing and how much I was underpaid for it because I was just one person. I thought I couldn’t charge that much, even though I was fulfilling the role of six. When I was a freelancer, I was doing the exact same amount of work that I currently offer with a team, but charging probably more than 50% less than I charge currently.
With the contractors that I work with, they actually come with their own set rates. We kind of have internal packages or quotes that they give me, so I know exactly how much brand strategy messaging costs, I know how much a visual identity costs, and I’ve been able to work out with them kind of a fixed rate. That then allows me to offer a fixed rate to my clients. So when we have this fixed scope, like The Breakout Brand Package, where everything aligns to a quote that my contractors have already given to me, then there’s not that much movement that has to happen with each quote that we give with our clients.
That has been the most convenient thing, but it absolutely made my prices go far more up than when I was working solo. I think it’s also helped me build just a greater perspective of how much it really takes to pull off an entire brand development process.
RR: I want to talk a little bit about transparency because I think the way that you’ve laid out the process on your website is amazing. And I think there is this old school belief where you want to keep things sort of shrouded in mystery. But I was curious, can you help us understand how transparency may have helped you grow your business? If so, have you ever been sort of worried about revealing the secret sauce? How did you overcome that if that were the case?
LA: I have probably changed my strategy around, do I post my pricing or do I not post my pricing so many times? And I finally arrived at just putting it all out there based on audience insights. So when I was building this package, I was reflecting on a lot of the consultation calls that I’ve had in the past. The number one thing that potential clients were looking for was like, “How much do you freaking cost?” As a business owner, I am here to make good financial decisions and I think we have kind of set up this sort of punked situation where we’re like, “We want you to be a smart business owner, but at the same time, we’re going to make it as hard as possible to do so by never telling you the price until the absolute last minute.”
I was like, that doesn’t make any sense, that’s not a good customer experience. If you are going to make a big financial investment, you want to know how much it is so that you can assess like, “Do I have the budget? If I don’t have the budget, what do I need to do to get the budget?” et cetera. So I was like, “You know what? Enough with these mind games and all of these different schools of thought. I’m just going to post my pricing like you would see in any product-based experience.”
I also post the entire scope that you’re getting because I want there to be absolute clarity on, how does this translate to such a big ticket cost? The other thing that people want to know is like, “Okay, if something costs this much, what is the value that I’m getting out of it?” So I write out the scope very clearly and yeah, this was all based on what would be the best customer experience, what would be the most intuitive for them.
It’s absolutely a vulnerable decision in my opinion. I know that there are people who are coming to my website and they’re like, “Ooh, I can’t afford that,” and they’re leaving. I think that’s okay because I have a particular niche and I have priced according to that niche and what’s going to be affordable to them.
On the flip side, what gives me encouragement is that we’re kind of creating this more intuitive and clear customer journey where those who don’t fit in it already know that they don’t fit in it and they’re not going to spend extra time in a place that they don’t belong or that it’s not going to be fitting for them.
RR: Any advice for folks who are looking to take the leap to start that freelance business?
LA: My biggest piece of advice that I’ve learned is, you don’t always have to scale. I think capitalism orients us towards thinking that the only way to successfully do business is to constantly scale and grow. Sometimes that’s unsustainable and it’s not manageable according to the lifestyle you want to live. It’s absolutely okay to be solo, you will have a thriving business with that too.
The second thing I would give you advice for is to focus more on the client and the customer experience than what you’re seeing around you. Don’t get distracted by those vanity metrics, people touting high prices and certain clientele. It’s most important that you are really crafting a service and amazing experience for the people that you are serving. Your competitors are not your customers. Focus on what’s going to be that product market fit idea, focus on creating that service and refining your journey and making the best possible service that you can for the niche that you’ve decided to be in.