Karen McKenzie is both the Co-Founder and Creative Director at Rhyme & Reason Design – an Atlanta-based design shop that specializes in building brand champions through beautiful designs and smart ideas.
When she’s not designing she can be found walking the Beltline with her husband Ben and daughter Charlotte, eating cupcakes or donning a wig from her extensive collection. On a really good day, you might find her doing all three at once.
Shantel: Hey, everyone. We are here with Karen. Karen, welcome to the show.
Karen: Thank you! I'm so happy to be here.
Shantel: Yeah, we're excited to hear a little bit more about what makes you imagine more and your journey. If you could kick everyone off with a little bit about you, that would be great.
Karen: Yeah, absolutely. My name is Karen. I am the co-founder and creative director at Rhyme & Reason Design. We're an Atlanta-based design shop that specializes in really building brand champions through beautiful designs and smart ideas. I'm a graduate of the University of Florida. I've been a designer for 10 years. I have an awesome team, and I'm just excited to be here on the podcast.
Shantel: That's great. Just a little back story about Karen and I, we are a part of the entrepreneurs organization together, and she's a fellow friend. Although I'm a Florida State graduate, we are still friends, so that's promising for everyone listening.
Karen: We manage to play nice. I don't think either of us cared that much about football, right?
Shantel: No. I think we just liked being there and cheering and having some fun with friends, I'm sure.
Karen: And then finding air conditioning at halftime. That was always my goal.
| THE GATOR CHOMP |
Shantel: Yeah, that is a good plan. Can you tell everyone a little bit about ... Did you study graphic design in college? Or did you always know you wanted to have a design firm?
Karen: Oh man, no. I went into school studying interior design. I think I always knew I wanted to do something somewhat artistic or creative. I also had just getting a job pretty high on the list. Kind of when approaching all that, I was trying to think about what would be the most practical profession that still let me be creative. I lasted about a semester in architecture/interior design. I decided that that was not for me, and pretty quickly transitioned over to the art department. I joined and applied to the graphic design program, which was a two-year program at the University of Florida. From there, I moved to Atlanta, got a job at a small design shop and kind of learned the ropes and learned a lot they did not teach me in school. After about two years, just got a little bit antsy and thought, "Hey, I think I can do this on my own and have more freedom and have kind of the ability to pick more creative clients and possibly get paid more," so spun off after a couple years.
Shantel: Nice. In addition to being antsy, was there a pivot moment for you, or a day you woke up and you're like, "Yes. I'm going to do this on my own"? Or was it a gradual pump up of, "Okay, I can do this," kind of scenario?
| QUARTER LIFE CRISIS |
Karen: I lasted about 10 months when I had my first quarter life crisis. I think the moment it hit me, I was sitting ... We have this tiny little lunchroom, where we would all sort of convene over the lunch hour, eat our lunches, drink a soda, and I realized maybe six months in, seven months in, that if I was still eating in that tiny little lunchroom in five years, that I would lose my mind. It really was that lunchroom. It's just like it was an epiphany, and I thought, like this isn't it for me. I actually left. I lasted 10 months, as I mentioned. I put in my notice and went and traveled through Europe and hiked the Camino de Santiago across Spain. Then actually my boss, my creative director, was kind enough to say, "If you promise you're going to come back from Europe, I'll save your job." I left. I had my little crisis moment, I'd had some adventures, and then I came back and worked for another year kind of in that same agency before then spinning off entirely.
Shantel: Tell us about your lunchroom and your office now. It must be quite a bit larger.
Karen: You know, we don't even have a lunchroom. I just eliminated that problem altogether.
Shantel: That's amazing. When you were going through that transition and starting your own thing, were there non competes in place? Did it end okay with the firm that you were working with before?
| THE TRANSITION |
Karen: It did, yeah. I think I left on really good terms, as far as I'm concerned. I'm still pretty close with my creative director from that agency. I think he understood that I had other things in mind. I also kind of eased that transition. I volunteered for a little bit, kind of right after that job before starting Rhyme & Reason, and it's hard to look at somebody and say, "No, you can't go volunteer with orphans in China. You need to stay here and work."I kind of built in some transition time to go do something philanthropic and then come back and start Rhyme & Reason. The timing worked out.
Shantel: Will you tell our listeners a little bit about the industries you serve and what type of projects you really do love taking on?
Karen: Yeah, absolutely. We're really about integrative campaigns. Often we work on a project basis with our clients, but what we really love to do is get in on the ground floor and handle kind of branding all the way through, comprehensive campaigns, which might be your traditional ad campaign, might be swag, might be brochures, might be a website, might be social media or digital planning, really getting our fingers on all of those things and building that comprehensive brand that touches everything. We work in a couple industries. We work largely in travel and tourism, so we'll work with convention and visitors, bureaus, in particular, a city that's kind of outside of metro areas. We work with a lot of cities outside of metro Atlanta, outside of metro Austin, and then we also work with cities as well, so economic development, community engagement. That's kind of one vertical that we're in. On the other side, we work with Greek organizations. We're international and foundation level. We've really worked with both of those industries for almost 10 years and love them. They're great clients. They want to have fun. They want to push the envelope. They want to really engage their constituents, and they make for really awesome partners.
Shantel: That's great. Did you fall into those industries and categories just by trial and error when you first got started? Or were those always segments you knew you wanted to target?
Karen: Greeks, I kind of fell into through a previous internship when I was in college. I worked for a company that did technology for Greek organizations. Through them, I did a lot of Greek-oriented graphic design, and so I had that in my book. They were not a design shop. When we started Rhyme & Reason, they were awesome and would kick us RFPs or projects that came to them that really weren't in their wheelhouse and they didn't want. That was our foot in the door with the Greek organizations. The cities and the tourism was a different animal. We, back when we started, didn't have a ton of work. We had some time on our hands as many small businesses do, so we would kind of scour the Internet and look for RFPs. A lot of cities have to post their RFPs, it's a request for proposal. They have to post those publicly often, so we stumbled across this RFP from Georgetown, Texas. We decided, "Hey, what do we have to lose?" We submitted. They asked for creative, and we did it, and they just fell in love with the design we sent them and hired us right there. They've been fantastic partners actually ever since. We still work with them. That was sort of our first step into tourism, and we realized how wonderful they were, and we decided, "Hey, let's go after more cities." They were wonderful to refer us out to neighboring cities. We just kind of worked hard to be involved in that community, go to the conferences, and things like that. It's really grown since.
Shantel: Would you say, and I love what you have. You have the three buckets, and it's very easy to digest and understand. Would you say that that's a pivot moment for you guys or a defining piece in your sales and prospecting funnel because you now know who you're trying to target, who you're talking to? Has that helped having those three buckets?
| TARGETED AUDIENCES AND MESSAGING |
Karen: Yeah, absolutely. I didn't really mentioned the third one, because it's sort of a hodge-podge of small to mid-sized businesses but, yes, absolutely. Having a targeted audience in mind means that we can really shape our messaging towards those groups. When we do email campaigns, those are segmented, so we're not sending the Greek and nonprofit organizations things about destination marketing and vice versa. We really try to speak to our clients in a way that's relevant to them, and having those targets in mind has really changed the way we market so, yeah, absolutely.
Shantel: That's neat, and that's certainly something that I took away from you when we first met, is having that clear defined niche in industry. We've taken that into our company, and I think that that's been such a monumental shift for us, in just describing that perfect partner and that perfect client and exactly in that marketing and everything like that. That's great. Can you tell me a little bit about the team? Did you start alone? Did you start with a partner? What did that team dynamic look like for you?
Karen: Yes. I started with a partner back in 2008. She was one of my roommates in college. When I was having this sort of quarter life crisis, kind of out of my first job, she was in town visiting. Over beers, we were talking about it, and I was like, "I think I can do this on my own." There's this gap kind of in the web world between, this was the full, but it was back when Flash was cool. Flash is no longer really now. Our conversation was that there were a lot of pretty websites and there were a lot of functional websites, but there wasn't like this in between, where it was both functional and pretty. I was like, "My only hurdle is I understand the design side, the user interface, but I don't know how to develop," She was like, "Oh. I know how to develop a website." I was like, "Alright, well let's do this." Without a ton of thought, we decided that it seems like a good idea at the beginning of the recession to spin off and start a business, but we did it, because that's what you do when you're 24. Yeah, so we kicked things off very quickly. Scarlett was an associate of mine at my original design agency that I was working at, and she had also left and was hanging out in Orlando, and I gave her a call and said, "Hey, we need some help, finding new business, managing some of our projects," so we went from two to three pretty quickly. Then we spent a couple years really figuring out what it meant to have a business, run a business, the ups, the downs. I considered that my education. I didn't go back to business school or anything. Then in 2011, actually Scarlett and my current business partner bought out my original business partner, and that was when we really started acting like an agency or a small shop. We hired our first employee. We got office space. We started investing in some marketing. 2011 was really a turning point when we and just like, "Hey, we're learning. This is a crash course in owning a business," and actually started acting like one.
Shantel: Nice. Were you surrounded when you started it with your friend by other entrepreneurs? Did you grow up in an entrepreneurial family?
| ORGANIC GROWTH |
Karen: I did not. I think I'm still an enigma to my mother, probably my dad too, and they're like, "Where did this come from?" I don't think I ever thought I would start a business, it just kind of happened. Now we've surrounded ourselves with just a really wonderful team. We have eight here in the office. It's grown organically and slowly, but every time we add somebody, they become irreplaceable. It's just been an interesting sort of way to see it grow. I'm now surrounded by entrepreneurs through Accelerator, which you mentioned earlier, which has been a huge help. I joined probably five years ago, and I think that really aligns with that 2011 transition of acting like a business, understanding kind of what other companies are going through and how it applies to hiring, firing, managing employees, managing workflow and finances. That was all stuff that I didn't get in school that having that network of entrepreneurs really helped with.
Shantel: During that crash course or something that you maybe learned from the Accelerator program, is there something that really stands out like, "Oh man, I wish I would've known this when I first started the company," or what was like maybe the biggest lesson you've learned in that crash course period?
| "HIRE A BOOKKEEPER" |
Karen: Hire a bookkeeper. I wish that we had done that on Day One. Numbers were never my thing, finances, so having somebody who can help on that front and really take that, that feels like a burden. Having that off of our shoulders, I wish somebody had mentioned doing much, much earlier.
Shantel: How do you divvy up the roles between you and now your business partner?
Karen: Since Scarlett and I have very different talents, I think we complement each other really, really well. I have kind of formal training in design. I head up our design team. I act as creative director. I get my hands in there. I get to design often. She's more on the operations side. She does have some creative senses as well. She does a lot of our copyrighting and headlining and all that, and brainstorming. She's certainly involved in the creative process, but she also has more of the like details and operational background, so she manages our account team and makes sure that everything is really flowing through the shop on time and on schedule. Having those two sort of that operations and the creative side come together has been really helpful. I think it makes our business much, much stronger to have those two aspects.
Shantel: Yes. Certainly. Where is the new business coming from?
Karen: A lot of it comes from conferences. We do have a new business developer on staff. She's fantastic. She came from the tourism realm here in Georgia. With that, came a lot of connections, and she has just continued to build those while she's been here with us. We try to stay invested in those industries that I mentioned earlier. We also really go out of our way to build solid sort of relationships with our clients. We don't want people just to come in and out, we want these long-term relationships. We do funny things. We send funny tattoos and make ridiculous and tee shirts and send postcards and really try to make our clients feel loved, because we feel like they're part of the family, and that's actually led to a lot of our new business, because we continue to work with the same people, and then they also feel comfortable referring us to other like-minded people, which has helped our business really grow. I think one thing you talked about kind of industries and protocols and how that focus can help. One thing I'll comment on is sometimes it is industry specific, but I think it can also be sort of mindset specific, as well. Like with our small to mid-sized businesses, we get referrals within that kind of circuit, and their businesses might not be the same, but their approach or how they want their designs to be, is the same, and it kind of ties them together, so I feel like we appeal to people who want a whimsy design that's colorful and bright, engaging. When you can find one of those clients, they often connect you to more. That's been really helpful, too.
Shantel: I love what you say about the relationship piece, and I think we've seen that in our business, too. Those small touches that don't require a heavy lift, but they're meaningful. It's a hand-written card, or those tattoos you mentioned. They make a difference, and I do feel that people want to work with people they like. Those things show that you're genuine.
Karen: Absolutely. Yeah. And they're fun. Who doesn't want a tattoo of an eagle dressed as a Statue of Liberty riding a unicorn?
Shantel: Karen, where do you even get things like that?
Karen: I don't know. They just come out, but that is what we did for the Fourth of July, and it is phenomenal.
Shantel: I love that. I'm excited to hear about more of these tattoo endeavors you guys send out.
Karen: We'll start a line.
Shantel: You could sell them on the website. That's a great idea.
Karen: We could, and we may. We have quite a bit of swag that we've accumulated. We often just give it away, but we might sell it one day.
| PERSONAL BALANCE |
Shantel: Let's shift gears a little bit to personal life right now and how you're balancing, and I know just from being a friend that you have an adorable sweet baby girl, and I would love to talk a little bit about how your roles have shifted in that progression and how you're feeling about everything now, and what that looks like, your day-to-day?
Karen: Well, every day is different. I do think having a baby makes you appreciate time, and time's one of the only things that you have a very limited amount of. I think one thing it helped me realize was priority and doing important things versus doing things that just fill time, because those little nitpicky things that you do that just fill time, I would rather be spending with my daughter, so it helps me actually delegate some of those things and prioritize and not just kind of work for the sake of working. I would say that's one thing that I've learned from having a baby, but I mean every day is different, every day's kind of chaos.
Shantel: Yeah. That high performance kind of activities or the things that actually move the needle, sometimes it's hard when you don't have something that is a bigger priority to prioritize those things and walk through, "Okay, do I actually need to be sending this type of email right now? Or doing this task?" I think that's great. It also sounds like you have a wonderful team and support system that is eager to help you with a lot of the tasks.
Karen: Yeah, absolutely. I feel very fortunate to have such a wonderful team here at Rhyme & Reason, and also a wonderful spouse who also does more than his fair share of handling the baby and making sure stuff around the house gets done. Yeah, that teamwork is huge, and delegation and just sort of ... Right, understanding priorities and really focusing on what's important and not the minutia all the time.
Shantel: When you're, if ever feeling kind of drained, or when you need to recharge just day-to-day, what do you turn to?
Karen: Exercise. I'm a big proponent of running, walking, getting out. I think playing, I still play soccer at 33. I know that's pushing it, but just being out on the soccer field can change sort of my mentality in 30 minutes. Same with a run. Just breaking a sweat is really how I can focus and reenergize. Yeah, you may see me out on the line or running around the Highlands. I'm out there.
Shantel: Do you actually unplug when you're running? Or is it your time to think and think of new ideas?
Karen: I'm completely unplugged. I don't listen to music, I don't listen to podcasts. Everybody tells me I'm weird, but I just sort of am, and sometimes it's a really great space for me to think, and sometimes it's more of a space for me just to quiet my mind. Then when I circle back to what I was working on during the day, or a problem I might have, it's almost like sleeping on it. Like the ideas and the solutions just come a little bit easier, and I think my mindset is more positive after a run than before.
Shantel: Yeah, I don't think that's weird. I don't think it's weird that you don't listen to anything.
Karen: Some people are like, "How do you not listen to music?" I'm like, "I don't know. I just go."
Shantel: No, I think that's certainly fair, and everyone kind of unplugs and recharges differently.
Karen: Yeah, very true.
Shantel: Are there any tools or techniques or software programs that you use to stay organized on a day-to-day basis?
| TO DO LISTS |
Karen: I'm pretty old school. I do a lot of lists. Often they're on pad and paper, or paper and pen. We use a lot of, like Google products of g-mail and Google docs. We share a lot sort of internally on the business front that way to keep track of things. We have a workflow that we follow religiously in the office. I think if it's not on the workflow, it doesn't exist. That's kind of a nice way to keep track of all the little things that happen over the course of the day, making sure that your priorities get knocked out. I just keep a running list. I know that's so old school.
Shantel: No. There's something gratifying about being able to cross something off at the end of the day, or highlight, or, yes, I used to be in a bad habit of putting things on a list that I knew I had completed. That is the crazy thing.
Karen: Like the easy thing to do is check off. I've done that before, too.
Shantel: I think it's something I'm learning about my personality. I have to feel like I've accomplished something, or, yeah, it just feels like a wasted day.
Karen: Have you done StrengthFinders before?
Shantel: I have.
Karen: Are you an achiever?
Shantel: I am.
Karen: So am I. I feel your pain.
Shantel: I'm glad, because we relate on that.
Karen: Yep. Yeah, when I took that last time, it was like, it was definitely a, "Yeah, that's me. That's me."
Shantel: Yeah, there were a few strengths, though, that I really wanted and I was so bummed that I didn't have them.
Karen: Which ones did you want that you didn't have?
Shantel: I really would like communication. I know that that's not a strength of mine, but I feel like as a leader, something that I should do better, just in describing the vision but, yeah, maybe one day that will be a number six or seven for me, something I need to keep working on.
Karen: Yeah, take it again. They change. We've done it twice, not here in the office, a couple years apart, and they certainly change over time.
Shantel: That's the thing, too. I almost feel like can I cheat the system? Like what kind of answer are they hoping? Kind of analyze each question like, if I want to be a communicator, this is what they're looking for. Yeah, I'll have to give it some years, I'm sure. A couple more questions to wrap it up, Karen. Favorite book, podcast, resource, what is that one top thing for you that comes to mind?
| 1 THING - 30 DAYS |
Karen: Probably TED talks. Those are my favorite podcasts. I don't listen to a ton, but I feel like every time I listen to one, I have some sort of take-away. Like we recently did a road trip and they had one, I can't even remember what the theme, but this guy was talking about doing something for 30 days, like picking one thing, and he went vegan for 30 days. He did two workouts a day for 30 days. He did all these things, and my husband and I decided that would be fun to do. We've got like 10 minutes of Italian for a month, because we're going to Italy, and certain workout goals. We're going to try something new, so things like that. I feel like TED talks just have a nice way of opening up these ideas and inspiring you.
Shantel: I love that. So you spend 10 minutes each week kind of focusing and honing in on Italy for 30-day kind of challenge?
Karen: Well, you do something every day. It could be 10 minutes of Italian, but it could also be going vegan for a month, just to kind of put yourself in a new mindset and understand something. There's I think some accountability, if you have a calendar and you mark it off every single day that you've accomplished it, which was something that we actually printed out a calendar. We mark it off, and it's really gratifying to do that. Back to my lists, right?
Shantel: Well, I'm excited to hear what the next 30-day focus will be when we meet and chat again. Is there a person or piece of advice or with the exception of the bookkeeper note that you think has been the most influential factor in your growth and success so far?
| THE IDEA OF LIMITING BELIEFS |
Karen: You know, I feel like I've been surrounded by a lot of wonderful people. My husband is also entrepreneurial minded, and one thing that I think has been really valuable to me over the years is that he constantly reminds me is to not have a limiting belief. Sometimes I'll say things like, "Scarlett and I can't both be gone on vacation at the same time." He's like, "You totally can. That's a limiting belief." I think that's been a really good reminder for me, especially as a creative, like I should be thinking creatively not just when I'm on my computer designing a brand or add a new website, that you can have a creative approach to life, and there are these things that pop up and it may seem like you can't do it, or it's impossible to get around, but you can. That's a limiting belief and just the reminder of that I think has helped me push through some hurdles along the way that we might've gotten stuck on.
Shantel: That's such a great quote and something to kind of keep as a mantra day-to-day, or mantra day-to-day. It's tough to sometimes not ... Especially when being an entrepreneur is sometimes lonely, and when you're going through things it's like, "Oh, I can't do this," or "Should I do this?" It's scary, and the risk of things, and I love stepping outside of those boundaries and parameters and just remembering it's not always what you think, and you can't figure it out if you aren't limited by it. I think that's awesome. It's a good one.
Karen: I'll shout out to Ben.
Shantel: Well, thanks for sharing that piece of information. What is next on the horizon for you? Any fun projects that you're working on?
Karen: Oh man, we are finally in like a little bit of breath, at the office. It's nice. We just kicked out a lot of conference work over the summer. A lot of our Greek clients have their conferences and conventions over the summer, so it's a lot of very deadline-driven things. We worked on our first kind of magazine front to back, 60 pages, for one of our clients. Right now we're sort of recharging. We're focusing a little bit more on internal stuff. We have purchased a URL for the magical unicorn society. There are going to be some cool things popping up there shortly. I think that's one of the more fun things on the horizon for us.
Shantel: Please keep us updated, and when you have more unicorn tattoos and swag, I want to be in the club.
Shantel: Okay, thanks. If I'm allowed. I don't know if it's like a secret society.
Karen: You're absolutely allowed. I think you even have one of the unicorn club cards, don't you?
Shantel: I do.
Karen: Already a member.
Shantel: Well, that's great. Karen, if people want to get in touch with you and learn more about what makes you imagine more, how can they reach you, or learn more about Rhyme & Reason?
Karen: Probably the best place is on our website, rhyme&reasondesign.com. I know that's a long one. Don't forget the design and reasondesign.com is really the best place to find us.
Shantel: Perfect. I'll be sure to include those links, and thank you so much for joining us today.
Karen: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much for having me.
Shantel: Of course.