Female Founder: (February) Lesley Warren

On the first Tuesday of every month, we’ll announce a new Female Founder, including a video interview of them sharing their business story. Want to be featured as a Female Founder? Contact Heather Hutchings for more details. The Female Founders Program would not be possible without our Title Sponsor, Scotiabank.

To learn a little more about the Scotiabank Women Initiative, and why they’ve chosen to sponsor this program, see the video below.

The next Female Founder we’re featuring is Lesley Warren, CEO & Creative Director of W. Design Co,. 

Lesley is a passionate creative who has dedicated her life’s work to bringing brands to life. With over 25 years of industry experience from Graphic Designer, and Creative Director to Founder and CEO, Lesley has honed her craft in all facets of the design world. Her passion and integrity continue to foster growing and meaningful client relationships, while also making her a respected voice and trusted agency partner. Her pursuit to build and transform brands of any size in any industry has been the cornerstone of helping business and not-for-profit communities alike find success together, even in times of uncertainty. 

Lesley won the 2015 Young Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Greater Kitchener Chamber of Commerce and has been nominated for others, including the 2017 Small Business of the Year Award. She is an active member of the Greater Kitchener Chamber of Commerce Women’s Leadership Committee, and the International Women’s Forum Waterloo Chapter. 

To learn more about Leslie and her journey as a Female Founder, watch the interview below (or read the written format).

Tell us a little bit about your business.

W Design Co., is a full-service marketing and design agency dedicated to building brands and growing businesses. We support a range of clients across various Industries, we support clients with sales and marketing, collateral brochures, logo development. We’re getting heavy into the digital space these days so we’re doing a lot of web development, we’re doing video motion graphics, all kinds of cool stuff really. But we are traditionally a marketing agency.

How big is your team?

Currently we’re about eight full-time on our core staff, all of whom are trained with post-secondary education in the fields of marketing or graphic design, but we also have a really strong partner network so anything that we can’t offer in-house we have strategic partners in place to support like heavy backend coding, video production that requires a film crew. I mean we can do it all, but we’ll outsource various pieces as the demands of the project require.

What does your clientele look like?

We have a range of clients from startups that are looking for brand development from strategy straight through to their logo development and implementation. We have clients that are kind of midsize corporate accounts primarily B2B, but we also have some really large corporate accounts even U.S based, corporate accounts that are quite large in scale that we would support on kind of more of a day-to-day basis with sort of all of their sales and marketing support – we’d be kind of like an extension to their team we’d be their agency of record.

Tell us about your company’s history.

We’ve been around a while, it’s hard to believe that we’re on our 17th year. So, 17 years ago I started Leslie Warren Design. Initially it was just to have some flexibility in my schedule I was looking to raise a family, and was kind of tired of the big city crazy and I just wanted to create kind of an environment that was more sustainable for my growing family so that’s kind of how it came to be.

Why marketing?

So I’ve always been creative, I remember sitting in a guidance office in high school and kind of asking what am I going to do? The only thing I’m good at is art. I was an honor student in art, I took art all the way through high school I’m like what am I going to do with this? And it was a guidance counselor that that introduced me to graphic design and you know it was a practical application for an artistic skill-set and I think having been raised by a single mother you know I was raised to be practical so the idea of just being a fine artist – potentially starving artist that didn’t seem practical to me. So the combination of applying my artistic ability and a practical application like graphic design that seemed like a good idea to me so when I started college it was it was a natural fit.

I think at the end of the day you’re the only one that you can truly count on you. I was abandoned by my father so I think that also contributes to that fiercely independent – you know I will stand on my own two feet, and I don’t need anyone to help me.

I want people in my life, I want to share my life with people along the way, but to know that I don’t need them was important to me.

Which school did you attend?

I graduated Durham College in Oshawa. I graduated in 97’ from graphic design and from there I got into an agency right away in Toronto. I was really passionate about package design so I started at an agency one of the more reputable agencies downtown I focused on package design and brand development so I did that for about six years, and then it was kind of I was at a crossroads where I could stay in package design but it’s a very niche, very small market or I could diversify so I chose the latter and I got into a corporate job so I was working at a tech firm here locally that’s kind of what brought me to this area. I was working on the marketing team as their lead creative. Not really my vibe you know I stayed there a little bit, but an agency is kind of what I’m built for; I like the challenge, I like the speed, I like the diversity, you know I held a few design roles in various you know firms I guess from junior through to senior roles before I ventured out on my own in 2007.

What are some of the lessons you learned working in different agencies?

I learned a lot about what I don’t want to do. Agency is typically and I don’t want to generalize but my experience in agency it was very competitive, very – I don’t want say cutthroat but a little bit of it was high stress, high pressure, and I didn’t want that. I really, I felt that if I was ever in a leadership position, I would do things a little differently you know and I think that’s why our team is so collaborative. I don’t have walls and offices it’s open concept because I want people sharing ideas, I don’t want them working in a silo and hiding their work because they’re afraid to share their ideas because someone might steal their ideas. I want you to share and it’s not a competition we all work together, and I think that’s how we create magic.

What sets you apart from other marketing agencies?

That’s a really good question because I’m pretty modest and I struggle to kind of it’s not bragging but you know what I mean like I struggle with so how are we different? I think in general like a lot of the traditional marketing firms we offer a lot of the same services I mean quite honestly so how are we different? I think that we have a very strategy process I really believe that great strategy equals great design. I believe in purposeful design you know it’s not good enough just to create a pretty picture, why are we doing this piece in the first place? Who’s it for? How’s it going to be used?

I think it’s important to understand and have answers to all of those questions before you start a project and maybe that’s all of my years in as a train package designer that you know maybe I’m trained to think differently. I don’t know, it’s not to say that designers aren’t strategic in general, I’m just based on my observation some are some aren’t, but we have a very strategy led process we lead with strategy. I challenge my creative team you know why did you choose that color? Why did you choose that image?

I need them to rationalize and be able to stand behind their design and tie it back to the strategy so when we’re given objectives from a client and we’re given a project brief and we’re given their brand strategy, I need them to be able to ground that design with kind of concrete rationale for their choices.

What does the client experience look like?

I’m going to come back to that collaboration piece because while we’re extremely collaborative internally I would say we’re also very collaborative with our clients. So we work kind of like an extension to their team and I think as a boutique firm what maybe makes us a little bit different is our flexibility, and our willingness to kind of adapt to what the client needs do they need us to be fully involved and hold their hand through the process? We can do that, but maybe they don’t maybe they have a marketing role on their on their payroll and we can collaborate with their marketing team, and you know maybe we’re playing more of a support role. So I think we’re flexible in our approach.

Tell us about your volunteer experience on the Women’s Committee?

So, one of the first things I did when I went into business was, I joined the Chamber because I thought it would be a good way to build my network and connect with other professionals, peers I was looking at that support and mentorship and just looking to build my network I had to start somewhere. Through the Chamber there were great opportunities to get involved in, I joined a CEO Peer Group which has been amazing for again that support that mentorship it’s been great.

I got involved in the Women’s Leadership Committee, which again I’m very passionate about women in business, female professionals, I love to inspire or support in any way I can in that space. So being a part of the Women’s Leadership Committee has been amazing it’s been amazing to be surrounded by you know a room full of strong independent and tremendously inspiring women, so it’s been great personally I’ve made a lot of friends through these peer groups, but I’ve also again that inspiration and that mentorship and that support has really helped me on my journey.  I’m also part of IWF which is International Women’s Forum.

I’m part of Growth Academy, which is another women’s professional group, so I’m quite involved in the community with a focus on women’s leadership.

What do you enjoy the most about owning your business?

Being an entrepreneur has definitely allowed me to have flexibility in my schedule, which again that’s what I set out to achieve in the first place and I have two boys, they have hectic schedules they’re hockey players they’re skiers, snowboards I mean life is busy so having that flexibility to be there for them when they need me has been amazing, but it’s also been really rewarding to kind of sit back and you know. I built this, I created this, and there’s just something very rewarding about that. Such a sense of pride and satisfaction. It’s fulfilling to know that I’ve created something and that I’m contributing to other people’s lives you know. I have a team who are employed, and that impact feels good.

What are some of the challenges that you faced?

I know I’m not alone in that navigating a small business through those Covid years it was something else you know as a small business specifically in the marketing space. Marketing budgets are typically the first budgets to get cut we’re B2B service-based company, so I had to shift my focus immediately to operational efficiencies. How can we cut cost so that we can weather this storm and ensure the viability of the business long term? That was my immediate focus and was my focus for probably a solid year until we came out of this and things were starting to look a little brighter, but it was tough some of the decisions I had to make and I didn’t win the popular vote, but that’s what needed to be done and it’s my job to ensure the integrity of the business, but I wouldn’t do anything differently we made it through and we’re thriving and things are great.

But I guess falling right on the heels of Covid my partner was suddenly and unexpectedly diagnosed with advanced stage cancer, he was only 46 so it came as quite a shock to us both and I had to shift my focus immediately to prioritizing his needs. So between you know countless appointments chemo radiation, multiple surgeries, and countless doctors appointments. I also had two kids at home that still needed me so trying to maintain some sort of normalcy for them and navigate their schedules and then there’s the business I can’t just take a sabbatical, I can’t just you know call in sick… The business must go on, so I had to figure out and prioritize on a daily basis just to try to maintain business as usual.

What inspires you?

My kids are an inspiration I just want to make them proud, and I want to set a good example for them. I have two boys, so you know I want them to grow up with a strong independent female role model. My team are such a source of inspiration to me they are such an incredibly talented group of creatives and their commitment to their craft and their passion and enthusiasm it’s contagious. I learn from them every single day and I love it and I love seeing them succeed so seeing them kind of happy and proud of the work that they’re producing and feeling that I have in some way maybe contributed to that or helped them to get their work to that point that they’re really excited about it. I find that really rewarding.

How do you recruit talent?

We’ve recruited a lot of young talent from Conestoga College, and it’s been a direct result of those portfolio assessments, the work term placements, so we’ve got a lot of exposure to young talent that way, and that definitely increases our talent pool for young talent.

When it comes to more seasoned talent I find that talent much more difficult to find and ultimately for me it comes down to fit. We’re a small agency, a small team, we’re a very collaborative team we’re very much a team that’s a family so it has to feel. We are a professional industry so there are prerequisites you must have graduated from an accredited post-secondary education with a Graphic Design Diploma or Bachelor of Graphic Design that’s a non-negotiable and then I’m looking at where/what your experience looks like and then I’m looking at your portfolio. Portfolios are subjective, very subjective, art is subjective, and I have very high standards so I can filter through applicants pretty quick that way.

Once we get to a meeting stage then we’re getting down to fit, I’m looking for that right culture fit I’m looking for that person that you know – our values are kind of aligned that you know they’re open to feedback and I don’t want to say coachable, but you know I think it is important that they can take feedback and learn and grow from it.

What are some of the highlights of your entrepreneurial journey?

Considering we started in the basement of my house it was a big highlight and accomplishment to move into the Bright Up Block.  We were one of the first three tenants into the bright up we had a custom-built studio on the second floor and it really legitimized the business, it was it was a really big step – really scary step, but a really big step. In 2016, I purchased commercial real estate which is where our office is now in Waterloo. My grandfather he was an entrepreneur and he always encouraged me to own my own space, he would say as a small business you know that’s your second largest cost center, so if you can get into space you know it’s just better for managing operation overhead and you’re building equity, and you know all that business speak he would tell me. But that was a big accomplishment to be in a position that we could buy that I could buy commercial real estate. Then I guess in 2015, I won the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award so that was that was definitely a highlight. It’s always rewarding when as much as I don’t like being in front of a camera or getting up on a stage or you know I don’t like the spotlight, but it is nice when the agency – when we get recognized for our work  and we’ve had clients that have put work you know design work that we’ve done through to various award competitions so that’s always exciting.

I guess most recently though we rebranded just in the Fall so we were we rebranded from Leslie Warren Design Group to W Design Co. It was something I’ve always I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and initially like I said I set out to do some freelance and raise a family it wasn’t really my initial vision to create a group and own an agency so I think that like our brand just it no longer aligned, the name no longer represented who we are where we’re going as a firm and as I look to the future and I look at succession, it made sense and it needed to be done, and I’m really excited that that we made it through the process.

Knowing what you know now, is there something you would do differently?

Not really, I’m a pretty methodical planner. I take calculated risks, I make informed decisions, I surround myself with trusted advisors, so I don’t know that there’s anything I would do differently. I know I’ve made mistakes along way, there’s no question about that, but you know I think my perspective on mistakes is as long as you’re learning from them and it was obviously probably a lesson, I needed to learn then it’s not really a mistake, it was a learning opportunity.

I’ve had a lot of learning opportunities and that’s contributed to my growth, but I wouldn’t change anything.

How do you define success?

Well very simply success to me it comes down to are my team happy? Are my clients happy in getting what they need? I think it’s important to keep an eye on financial performance – well that’s not everything, I think it’s a good metric that kind of quantifies that you’re doing the other two right so you know my team are so important to me and we’ve talked about culture and just ensuring that environment for them, but yeah if my team are happy and doing work that fulfills them that they’re feeling fulfilled and excited about what they’re doing and if I can support them on their journey and contribute to their growth that to me is success.

What are some of the benefits of establishing your business in the Waterloo Region?

I think Waterloo Region has such a great business community. It has a diverse business Community there’s lots of opportunity to get involved, there’s lots of events, and groups and there’s just so much going on that it’s just a great community to be involved with. A very welcoming community and supportive and that’s my experience anyways.

What audacious goals do you have currently?

I think as a small service-based company it’s not uncommon for me to be very owner-centric. The business is very dependent on me currently so what I aspire to is to have an agency, to build a legacy. I aspire to build a legacy – that will continue to thrive well beyond me.

Where can we find out more about your business or connect with you directly?

You can reach out to me personally at lesley@wdesignco.ca or you can check out our website at wdesignco.ca

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.