As a young girl growing up in Venezuela, Jennifer Dopazo had no idea that art could be a career — a truth shared by many people working in creative industries — but despite her odds, she has worked hard to build an award-winning multimedia design studio in New York. Today, she’s a two-time American Graphic Design Award winner and an international speaker, but in spite of her success (or maybe because of it), Jennifer got lost in the maze of “shoulds.” She found herself following someone else’s blueprint and losing touch with the passion that ignited her once — along with developing an inability to create as she once could. That staleness was Jennifer’s impetus to reignite her business by interviewing creative entrepreneurs involved in everything from chocolate-making to selling books. Inspired, she developed a web series called The Fabricant Way as a side project on top of her already busy life in NYC design. Nine months ago, she joined us to share her tips for pulling off a stress-free collaboration, and today, she’s excited to share more about her background, the path that led her to where she is today, and how passion is more important than accomplishing your to-do list. –Sabrina
Portrait photography by Tahiti Huetter
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
Entrepreneurship runs in the family. It’s really not uncommon in Venezuela, where I come from, since there’s a big group of immigrants that arrived to the country with nothing, and all they knew how to do was work hard every day.
After I finished design school, I had the opportunity to attend Parsons The New School for Design and pursue a Master’s degree in Design and Technology. By the second year, I started meeting people needing a designer to work with (at that time it was all pro-bono or credit-based, because of my international student status), and once I graduated I started getting referrals for new clients. I graduated in May of 2009, not the best moment financially to go out and find a job, and I was working with amazing people that had put in so much love to their businesses that I decided to move that direction and work with them. I’ve always dreamed of being there for my clients and having the time and energy to work on projects that I absolutely love and be surrounded by people that inspire me. With time, I’ve joined the corporate world as a consultant and it has become the best balanced life I’ve experienced.
Image above: Photo by Medialab Prado, Madrid, at Wearable Workshop.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
For undergrad, I was originally enrolled in business school, but I dropped out after the second year. I couldn’t imagine wearing a suit and sitting in a financial office every day. That’s when I started to paint again. My painting mentor asked if I’d ever considered pursuing design or illustration as a career. I didn’t know that was possible; I thought art could only be a hobby. At that same time, my brother (who is the person that originally suggested business school to me!) introduced me to a fan illustrator, who offered to share info with me on what the career is like and to look at my work. I packed up all my paintings and drawings and met her. This turned out to be the catalyst for the business I run now — a graphic design agency.
My brother’s contact gave me great feedback and suggested I visit ProDiseño, the school where she was currently teaching: a visual communication school where I’d be able to learn Graphic Design and Illustration as well as Industrial Design, New Media and history on design and art.
It all went pretty fast. After meeting the director of the school, I got accepted and enrolled in the second semester with classes from the first to catch up with the group. Three and a half years later, I was working with a former professor in his boutique design studio.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
My drawing professor told me, “Don’t forget where are you coming from and your journey. It will keep you grounded and will allow you to celebrate every single achievement and success that comes your way. Small or large.”
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
I moved to the United States from Venezuela to attend Parson’s. Being in a new country with a portfolio of work that was not familiar to the people interviewing me, I had to show them why I was the best person to work with and share with them my experience as a designer. I made the same mistake anyone starting makes: I didn’t charge enough (my first consulting gig was $10/hour just out of grad school), and even though I knew it was not the average salary for a designer, it took me too long to be bold and decide to raise my rates by showing them that design is not a commodity, and how much value I’d bring to their business.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Trust in your instincts, and beware of shiny objects. Last year, I convinced myself I needed to move my business online. I’d built a successful consulting business, but I was attracted to the idea that you can travel more with online work, because I often take off a few months at a time to do passion projects with Medialab Prado.
It wasn’t long before I lost myself in books and blueprints on how to run an online business. I was checking all the right boxes, but the people coming my way weren’t the right fit for my work, and I lost a bit of the essence of what I want Candelita to be. It was very lonely and frustrating to interact online, so I went out and started knocking on the doors of artists and creative entrepreneurs whose work I love, and asked them about their stories. I was fascinated and a bit obsessed with it, and I wanted others to be as obsessed as I was — or at least be inspired to take risks by hearing these amazing stories. After chats with friends and brainstorming on what to do with it, I decided that I wanted to help them tell their own stories, and bring their studios and shops to people’s screens. I’ve never been a fan of video, but I knew this was worth it and I put on my big girl pants and went for it.
I got a lot of rejections, but I ended up with an amazing group of six fabricants, and we created a 5 episode season that makes me proud. In the process, I was able to see how my season 1 fabricants were not always doing the “right” thing, according to many business coaches, but that they were doing work they loved and making a living as they built a thriving community that was just as passionate about their work as the artists were.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
Nearly the entire time I’ve run Candelita, I’ve lived a double life: I would work in consulting in New York and plan my schedule around new media art events in other countries to take off and participate in their residencies. I somehow convinced myself that I could just keep balancing my need for collaborative work with other artists and creatives in my escapades to Europe and South America, and come back home and wear the consultant hat.
That’s why I told myself I needed to leave my consulting clients, move my business online, and be another brand that lived online and launched everything and anything on cyberspace. It was a lot of work and hustling and it didn’t feel right. It felt very sales-y and not too legit. I started burning out to a point where I didn’t feel the same passion and enthusiasm I felt the previous years as a non-online player.
I took a step back and looked closely at what I tried. I’m still figuring out how to make it my way — a way that sends the right message to the right people and makes me proud.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Get my hands dirty with crafts and painting.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Spending less time with my family. Traveling to Venezuela can be very expensive, so I’d have to really think when to take the trip to spend some time with my family and friends back home.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
Mentoring/teaching other artists and makers in residencies in wonderful places like Madrid, Sao Paulo, Lima, and creating a series that has become my labor of love.
Image above: Jennifer in conversation with Matt Nelson, Co-Founder of Mellow Pages Library (Bushwick, Brooklyn)
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Books: Zag: The Number One Strategy of High-Performance Brands, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, Kern and Burn: Conversations With Design Entrepreneurs
Has failing at something or quitting ever lead to success for you? Walk us through that.
Absolutely. Failing in my attempt to become another online businesses led me to create The Fabricant Way.
Getting back to in-person interactions with other business owners has opened my eyes to the possibilities and potential of mixing my consulting experience with the corporate world and serving business owners in a more genuine way with growth as the main goal.
It helped me take a step back and assess what I’ve done so far, adjust my goals and vision for my business, and find a way to balance out consulting and agency work.
And even though I still hang out online, my true inspiration comes from my local community and extends to any limit in the world.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
- Surround yourself with people that are going through the same process. Your friends will support you, but it will be hard for them to see beyond the idea of a glamorous life of being your own boss.
- Find a mentor: someone you truly admire, who has something to share with you about their journey.
- Be patient and kind to yourself. There will be days when you’ll want to shut down the shop and go find a full-time job.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Feedly! It keeps me informed with my favorite news source outlets and blogs, while gathering inspiration pieces to share during the day or read with my coffee.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Systems: How to identify them, develop them and apply them to your daily practice. Once you find that sweet spot your life will be easier.