The Leap: Talking team growth with creative entrepreneur Yelle Belle

Once a month, Wethos CEO Rachel Renock hosts an IG Live series highlighting the stories of creative entrepreneurs who took the leap toward working independently or starting their own project. For this episode, Rachel sat down with Yelle Belle, creative director and founder of In Creative Company. They discussed Yelle’s leap toward kickstarting a creative agency and freelance collective.

Note: The following interview has been edited for clarity.

RR: Thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it. So we have Yelle Belle with us. She’s the founder of In Creative Company, a digital platform for creatives to connect with and support each other. It’s also a creative agency. I’d love to just kick off and kind of hear a little bit about your background, your story in your own words, if you don’t mind.

YB: It all really started in college when I went to Japan and I got an architecture degree with an art history and photo minor. So that sounds like I was a really artsy person but I also really got into school for athletics and I played field hockey and I let that define me for all of my college career. It wasn’t even until I got out that I was able to define myself. I ended up working in a really corporate company. I didn’t know that you could be an entrepreneur. I ended up working in an environment where I had to dress a certain way. I was on a marketing team and I was working for one of the top real estate companies. But they were suits and ties. I was on a three person team and just was not allowed to be myself. So I kind of had an outside life outside of that and four years later I left to go out on my own. So that’s how I got into freelancing. From there, I ended up building the creative agency.

RR: I also was on the school-to-corporate pipeline, went right into a giant ad agency. Entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily encouraged in college. But I was in college selling hotdogs to drunk people, so I think I wish there had been, you know, more of an inkling of that. I’m curious, did you feel like your creativity was also really stifled in those environments? What was the process of figuring out what you wanted to do and what really spoke to you? 

YB: Yeah, I wasn’t allowed to express myself with all of these colors, or I wasn’t allowing myself to. I didn’t know I was inspired by people who looked like me. I did not have that around me. So externally, yes, I was stifled. But internally, I was allowed to create all of these different projects even while working in a corporate setting. We launched the world’s largest billboard in Times Square, which happened to be like the first LED billboard. But it was just like the external figure that I was putting out in the world. Towards the end of my working in corporate, I actually got into really extreme costuming. And so I would go on weekends and would just sit and craft all weekend from a theme.

RR: What was the moment when you decided, like, “All right, it’s time. I need to go and do my thing and be able to be my full self.”

YB: Yeah, fortunately and unfortunately, it was not my doing. I came back to work with, like, a few colorful things in my hair after I went to Burning Man and my boss actually made me put my Instagram on private. I got sent home for wearing white jeans one day. It was that strict. So I was hinting at things that I wanted to do a little differently. But it wasn’t until later that year when I got in an argument with my boss and she was like, you don’t look like you fit here anymore. And it was so strange to me because it wasn’t something that I was thinking about at all. It was something that she was projecting on me. But it was the biggest blessing in disguise. I got to leave without a job. 

I ended up interviewing with three companies that I was really interested in. Two out of the three didn’t end up hiring me and I went traveling for a month and the third one ended up offering me a job. But I realized that I was actually looking at it like a beautiful hotel pool party. And I get this call from the company saying, “Hey, we’re offering you a job.” I said, “What would happen if I freelanced for you? And we could work on that basis?” This is after interviewing with the executives and four people in their company, but she let me freelance for that company. It was another really big real estate company. And they’ve been my longest client in the past five years and we’ve done so much together. So I’m so thankful that I was able to say, “Yes, I’m taking this leap and freelancing.”

RR: First off, to that other place that wouldn’t let you wear white jeans: What the f*ck. F*ck that. But really awesome in terms of the eventual outcome and starting your own business. Talk me through it a little bit. What’s the journey been like?

YB: I’m so excited to be speaking about this to you because you only get so many encounters with someone who inspired something in your life. So thank you. The way that this all worked out was that I was freelancing for four years after working in-house for four years, and at the end a few things happened. This was at the very beginning of the pandemic. One of them is that the company that offered me the job ended up piling work on me in the beginning of the pandemic. And it was so overwhelming that I ended up hiring or contracting five others. I realized that I was definitely running a small business. 

At that point, I still didn’t even know the words “solo-preneur.” I thought I was still freelancing. And the odd thing was when I was telling my clients what I was doing, they thought it was all just me being the superwoman. But the models that we’ve built are super collaborative and we’re very open about who is working on what project. In Creative Company is a creative agency to our clients, but internally it’s a collective. So we have no employees. It’s pretty unique and cool and it really just keeps us flexible. 

Whenever I said I told a client that I had an expert who could do something, they were like, “How much do they cost?” They didn’t want to pay them. But the only way we’re going to scale a client’s business and not make me burn out is for the client to trust this person I’m bringing on.

RR: Yeah, when you look at most marketing director job descriptions, it’s like five jobs at once. It has to be a conversation.

YB: You see that in your scope libraries when you’re looking through there and you pull a whole project and it’s like these are the different people to pull on for that project. And it’s so inspiring. And just something that we as creative directors, as project leaders know that we need this whole execution team. But it’s something that the clients do not think about so often. They come to me to design a logo and they don’t think that there’s a whole branch of strategy behind that. A lot of it is client education and your product does such a great job of that. 

RR: Thank you. Oh, that’s really nice to hear. That whole library started as a spreadsheet. It was a spreadsheet that Claire and I basically built out over years and figuring out how to basically make a structure that makes it easy to negotiate with the client, but also create a budget at the same time and not have to have all this back and forth that slows the whole process down. That’s one of the hardest things about running this kind of business. But we always felt that there were so many things that could be done to just speed it up and bring clarity to it.

So I’m curious, what are you thinking about for the future as you’re moving forward and as you’re growing and, to your point, forming these collectives or collaboratives and little teams? Where are you thinking about going from here? 

YB: Yeah, we’re on our third iteration of In Creative Company since our launch in June 2020. You just have to adapt with what’s happening. What we’re doing now is that creatives have to apply for a certain position. And it’s not that they’re getting a job right away. They go through a big application and interview process and then we personally walk them through onboarding. 

But looking at the future, I found an article recently about how ad agencies are moving more towards this collective model. I don’t know if we want to be or can be as big as the creative agencies out there. But I think that if we do end up getting there and we have this collaborative work structure, it just kind of proves to the world that this is a model that could really work both for clients and freelancers just to give everyone more.

RR: Yeah. I think you are ahead of the curve. I mean, agencies have been dipping from the same pool of people for a long time. Some people I’ve worked with at agencies, I didn’t even realize they were freelance, but they were. So listen, for anybody who’s thinking about taking the leap, I’d love to just leave them with a parting, parting advice from you. What do you think? What should people know if they’re thinking about it or maybe they just took the leap by choice or not by choice? 

YB: Going solo is absolutely amazing for a lot of people. I don’t think it’s for everyone. I think that you really need to be self-motivated. If you need a boss figure, a parent figure, someone else pushing you to do something, maybe a coach, a coach could probably get you there. But it’s really on you to be able to be a great freelancer, a great creative agency owner. And second to that, I think, is a delegation. It’s very hard to do everything on your own. And you need to know, like when you’re maxed out and you need to hire someone or contract someone so I highly, highly recommend making a pros and cons list before you make a giant decision.

RR: It was so awesome to meet you. I really appreciate you taking the time and giving people your kind words and wisdom. I’m super excited to see what you’ll do in the upcoming year. Thank you again. Really appreciate it. 

YB: Thank you so much for the stage.

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