Lesli Ferguson

Founder & Creative Director, Lesli Ink

In the tenth grade, Lesli Ferguson knew she wanted to be a graphic designer; but after entering the workforce she realized that specific career wasn’t her ultimate calling. Lesli reveals to The Prevail Project how she’s used graphic design as the vehicle to live her real passion each day, and how Lesli Ink – an award-winning design studio in Toronto – came to fruition.

Despite having an office

I often work out of coffee shops or anywhere else I fancy to change up my scenery!

To stay active

I walk and go to Barreworks once a week.

Spend your money on the things you use everyday

Things you use everyday should be chosen carefully and mindfully and are worth the investment.

I start each day

With a huge bowl of fruit and fresh ginger, with almond milk, flax oil and chia seeds. I eat it quietly with my husband while we both read.

I hate generic

I adore things that are personalized.

Right now I’m reading

“Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. My favourite book is “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I listen to Carla Bruni

To channel my inner French woman.

I feel most inspired

When walking through the streets of New York City.

I will forever check the kerning on billboards

And fall prey to beautifully designed thank you cards.

Essential Tools

My beautiful rose gold Macbook, and matching cell phone. I heart Apple.

Lesli, your heart was set on graphic design early on, so you took the York/Sheridan Program in Design and started working as a designer. How did you recognize that your strengths actually lay elsewhere and what was that like?

It was really self-discovery. I always wondered why I gravitated towards project management, meeting new clients and getting new business, and why I didn’t make as much time for design. I naturally became a team leader, and that was actually a big point of frustration for me; I wasn’t able to produce as fast as the other graphic designers because I was constantly supporting the team as well as clients.

I used the StrengthsFinder assessment tool and found out my top strengths all surround relationship building. From there, I was able to come to terms with the idea that not all graphic designers look the same; I can be a kick ass creative director, a kick ass entrepreneur, and also exercise my graphic design skills at the same time.

How did you start your design firm Lesli Ink and become a successful entrepreneur?

I totally fell into that by chance. I worked at another company for five years in a very entrepreneurial role; I just wasn’t actually the entrepreneur – it wasn’t my money up for risk.

I didn’t come into my own as an entrepreneur until I left that position. I had no job lined up, but my goal was to get a job in New York City. I said, “Okay. This is the year I’m just going to wing it and see what happens.” Within a few months, I had a lot of freelance work and decided, “Why would I work for someone else when I can work for myself? Let’s try this out for a while.” Within six months, I had to hire a full-time employee because it was so busy – and it kept going from there. Now, we’re up to seven people in three and a half years. I did not particularly plan it this way, but I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my career.

Could you tell us a bit more about Lesli Ink as it is today?

Lesli Ink is a highly skilled team that offers premium design services for small to medium sized businesses. I love supporting these businesses, mostly because I can relate to them. I want to help them grow the same way I saw us grow at Lesli Ink.

In terms of running my business, I see it like this absolutely beautiful sculpture that I’m building. It’s another artistic outlet for me because I get to mould this company in whatever way I want.

How do you split your time between graphic design and relationship building? How has it changed, and will it change more in the future?

The first year I was in business, 70% of my time was doing actual graphic design and 20% managing clients because I didn’t have that many. Now I don’t do any graphic design; I do creative direction, but I don’t actually get into files. It’s crazy how the thing that’s your craft changes because there’s so much else you have to do to run a business.

As an entrepreneur, the amount of time I’m spending on account management is dramatically higher than it should be, but that’s kind of what you have to do as entrepreneur.

In a couple of months I want my position to be 30% creative direction, 30% business development and the remaining 40% maintaining my current client relationships.

If someone were torn between the role of the craftsman and the entrepreneur, like you were a few years ago, what advice would you give?

They need to be really aware of what part they play in the business. Are they the entrepreneur, the manager or the craftsman? At first you’re going to be all three – the most effective way is to slowly become just one, then build a team around you to fill the other parts. I know through and through that I’m an entrepreneur.

I’ve found it’s important to understand that a graphic designer comes in many, many shapes and sizes. You may take the same course as someone else, but everyone that comes out of that course is going to approach things through their own personal lens.

I went the networking and relationship building route because that’s very authentic to who I am; it gives me great fulfillment. Someone who is more introverted or strategically minded would have a completely different approach – the most important thing is to know yourself.

What would it take to make the cut as an outstanding intern at Lesli Ink? Is formal graphic design training a prerequisite?

Graphic design is a very hands-on profession, so you cannot do it without skills training. As a business owner, I can’t pay to have someone learn how to be a graphic designer, and learn software such as Photoshop and Illustrator – that would be so expensive for me.

There are a lot of graphic design programs out there. Not all are created equal, but I’m completely biased towards a couple of the programs in the city [Toronto] that I think are the best – like the one I went to [YSDN]. Based on the interns I’ve had coming out of that program, they’re ready to work. They come in already knowing layout, typography, fonts, a little bit of business, critical thinking, problem solving, all of that. And they also have a network of friends or other graphic designers they’ve learned from, which is invaluable.

Could students get the same graphic design education and skills online?

Education is definitely changing in terms of it being available online rather than paying huge tuition to attend  a school. There’s validity in online learning, but it’s not just about the skills you attain; it’s the network you build. I approach everything from a relationship building angle – all of my business comes from someone I personally met.

When reviewing internship applications for Lesli Ink, what do you find really stands out?

My current intern had this beautifully written resume that was addressed to me personally. She described specifically what she liked about Lesli Ink as well as what skills she had and how she could apply them here with the company. It was very heartfelt, which matched the tone of what we’re about here at Lesli Ink. Our feel is definitely full of heart, approachable, friendly, personal – that’s another big thing: match the tone of your submissions to wherever you’re applying.

The second part was that her work was solid; if your tone is on but your work isn’t aesthetic or up to standard, I wouldn’t give you an interview. You’ve got to kick ass and over-deliver at every turn because it’s a very competitive industry.

What are your biggest application pet peeves?

Right now, I’m getting a bunch of internship cover letters and resumes addressed to “whom it may concern”, to “Lesli Ink”, and to “sir or madam”. First of all, the company’s name is my name and it’s a small company so it’s really not that difficult to figure out who to address this letter to. I feel like they’re already showing a kind of laziness and that they’re not proactive. If you haven’t even said hello properly on paper, it’s a fail. I’m only looking for all stars; if there’s a generic cover letter, I’m not even answering.

When your teacher advises you to research the place you’re applying to, that’s not just for fun! It’s because people are human beings, and they want to be flattered when you reach out to them; talk about how great they are. Talk about how your skills specifically solve problems they may have. What I’m really looking for is how you’ll make my day easier and how you’ll make my clients happy.

Have you ever had a mentor that significantly impacted your life or career?

I did personal coaching with Nancy Botkin, who is an incredible woman. Nancy does women’s events once a month. I went to one event and got a lot out of it, then went to a few more over the next year. I did a weekend coaching session with her that was insanely helpful. It changed a ton of stuff for me personally, which also affected how I approach my business.

I wanted her to be my mentor, so now she is! It’s not a formal relationship; it’s much like a friendship. We get together when she’s in town, and she’s just freaking wonderful!

You don't have a business partner; at what point did you make that decision? Do you go through phases where you think a partner could really benefit your business?

I wish more people talked about this actually. I have been approached for partnership situations seven, eight times now – no one told me this was going to happen. At first, I thought I was really special. Then I realized that, yes, I’m special. It means I’m doing something right and people are taking notice; but at the same time you have to consider that you‘d be giving up a lot.

What’s so attractive about partners when you’re a young entrepreneur is that they shoulder some of the responsibility and that makes your company a lot lighter on your psyche. That said, to find that partner to me is almost as difficult as finding your marriage or life partner. Just like dating, some are going to come really close and you think, “Yes, this could work.” Then they say something and you’re like, “Oh, god. This was a bad idea.”

I’ve never actually taken the plunge; I‘ve entertained it and I’ve gotten close and then at the end I’m like, “No, I actually know what’s best.” I don’t want to have to run every decision by someone that has an entirely other set of goals, values, aspirations, and way of doing things.

When you know what you want and where you’re going, if other people try to join the party, you’ll know if they’re the right fit or just a distraction. Most of the time, I think they’re a distraction, and you need to stay on course. You have to be careful how much time those type of discussions drain from your focus.

How do you maintain focus and keep a clear vision in your business and personal life?

I take a week off every quarter and do personal and business goal setting. I look at my progress: What did I say I want to accomplish last quarter, and what did I accomplish? What goals did I set that actually don’t matter anymore? I’m a very goal-oriented person, so this process works for me.

I also stay calibrated by having a life outside of work; my job doesn’t completely define who I am. I have my husband, my friends, my family and personal interests outside of design. All of that helps me stay human and not go insane. The first couple of years, all you’ll do is work; then eventually, you want to be at the point where you can turn off, because that’s when you feed the golden goose. You can’t just expect this goose to keep laying golden eggs and being successful if you don’t feed it–which means live your life!

Besides relationship building and design, is there another aspect to your approach that propels you in business and in life?

Number one without a doubt is positivity; it’s kind of my super power. It’s what everyone knows about me and can rely on when they’re down in the dumps. They can call me and without really trying I’ll make them feel better. It’s how I see the world; I always see a way out. It’s really a thread that’s continuous throughout my entire life and my business.

Some people just do not see the world that way, and I wouldn’t tell them to force it. I would suggest you figure out your own super power and roll with it. Ask your close friends and some acquaintances what they think of when they think of you. If all of them, like in my case, independently say ‘positivity‘, you can be pretty sure that’s it.

Running a business is incredibly demanding, especially when you’re trying to also make time for family and friends. What does balance look like for you?

I learned a lot about balance from my mentor, Nancy. She has this beautiful analogy of balance being a teeter-totter, and that you’re the fulcrum–the piece in the middle. As a kid, if you’re on a teeter-totter with a friend and you both sat there and did nothing but stayed completely balanced, it’s not a fun game! If one person is much heavier or lighter than the other and it just doesn’t move – it’s weighted too heavily on one side – that’s equally not fun.

Life is fun when you teeter-totter back and forth, as long you’re the one in the middle controlling how that looks, defining what success is, what your boundaries are, what your needs and wants are. If you’re doing all of that and keeping it in balance for yourself, that’s what true balance is; it’s not about keeping all things at an equal level at all times.

In terms of family, friends and business, you can’t always fire on all cylinders. Balance is when I choose to spend more time on my business because I know I’m in a growth stage. I can communicate what I’m doing and why I’m not as much around to my friends and family.

Then other times, say it’s a friend’s wedding or someone, god forbid, gets sick, all of a sudden business means a lot less. You spend time with your friends and family and your business just coasts for a little bit. It doesn’t grow but you’re investing in your family and friends.

Where is Lesli Ink headed in the next few years?

My focus right now is to continue building up the Lesli Ink design service and the team. I’m teaching myself about customer journey mapping so I can identify pain points for my clients, and identify opportunities to make those trouble spots smoother. It’s already pretty damn good, but I also know where my clients get frustrated or scared, so I’m trying to do a deep dive into figuring out how I can elevate the level of service to a really exceptional level.

The other side of the business I’ll be focusing on is developing products. We have all of the talent in-house to create kick ass products, whether it be stuff for the office, the home, or for life. I’m slowly working on what precisely that will look like.

Because there’s a lot higher risk in product development and more upfront cost, and I don’t want it to negatively impact the design business, I have to do it at the right time. In my beautiful dream world, the product side would surpass the design services and we’d end up being a global brand, like the next Kate Spade. If there’s a dream, that’s where it would go!