Keren Lerner of Top Left Design
Keren Lerner, managing director of Top Left Design, charts her career so far and explains why it is important to make and keep people happy.
What is it the company does?
We are experts at bringing out the best in our clients. Our core work as a design company is to create brands, designs and websites which show off how great our clients are. We clarify their message, position them on a higher level and make them feel proud of how they appear to the outside world.
What does your role involve?
As the founder and director of TLD, I make and keep people happy! I ensure this happens through a number of ways: 1. I aim to be a great leader for my team, consistently understanding, encouraging and helpful, while giving useful feedback. 2. I ensure quality control on the work we produce. 3. I conduct essential business activities such as networking and marketing. 4. I build and maintain friendships and relationships with existing clients and suppliers. 5. I help us out of the occasional difficult situation 6. Lastly, as this is my business, it’s a part of who I am – I check in that we are moving in the right direction when it comes to our goals.
How has your career panned out so far?
My career started when I won first prize with a “Virtual World” 3D rendering project in the Royal Society of Arts Student Design competition whilst I was studying graphic design at university. The prize was work experience with Pearson Entertainment.
Through this, I worked at a variety of leading brands including the Financial Times, Penguin Books, Future Publishing, and Cannes Film Festival, where I was able to put my design and newly acquired website coding skills to good use. For example, at Penguin Books I designed and built websites for books and with the Cannes Film Festival, I designed and put together the layout for a daily film magazine.
Due to this unusually extensive work experience, I got a full time job very quickly after my graduation from university. I sent my CV to a small website company and I got a call straight away. I went to an interview and I was offered a job there and then.
After 6 months I was “headhunted” to another company, called “Cega” run by Christina Ayer, who I had done some freelance work for during my time at university. Over 3 years, we grew to 70 people and then floated on the stock exchange. However, it all unravelled quite quickly when the “dot com bubble burst” and the company ceased to be. By then I had worked with some bigger companies doing design and project management for the likes of Motorola, Colt Telecom, and St Mary’s Hospital.
Following this, Top Left Design was founded in 2002 when I began my freelance career. My services were website design and coding, logo design and design for print. However, in order to build a client base, I had to learn a new set of skills. And this is how Top Left Design became a “proper business”, and not just me freelancing!
In order to gain these new skills, I started attending networking events, and joined Toastmasters too improve my public speaking. I learned how to pitch, sell, write proposals, price projects, and manage incoming/outgoing expenses. I hired my first employee after four years working on my own and continued to build the business organically.
My priority was and still is to do a great job, exceed expectations and keep a clear line of communication. Over time, more and more people would recommend me and Top Left Design, and we started to incorporate social media advice and consultancy in 2008, as well as other offerings like email marketing and exhibition design.
TLD has six full time employees from around the world – two coders in Lithuania (Tom and Domas), one designer in South Africa (Amy) and three in London, Tamlyn (designer) Charlotte (project manager) and Elisa (operations/finance/HR).
We still offer bespoke designed websites – however, we now specialise in WordPress based websites which are always responsive. We also offer social media and ongoing marketing support to all our clients.
Our unique offerings are bespoke design and knowledge share – we’re constantly learning and teaching our clients (and each other) how things work, how to set digital tools and marketing processes up, and what’s new in the technology world.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
A great leader is someone who understands that we are all on the same side and we’re meant to work together for a common goal.
So, being open about what that goal is, even if you’re figuring it out, involving your team in that process. It’s a good idea to give people a heads up on any changes in the business that will affect them, and then listen to their views (after all the employees of the company know the business almost as well as you do).
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
I guess it’s being aware of ALL the parts of the business, and what everyone is doing, while keeping focused on my own responsibilities.
Finding the right balance between jumping in to help or letting the team figure it out for themselves. And the other big challenge is to keep up business development activity, when I have so many other roles and responsibilities.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
Being open, talking to people, not keeping things bottled up. I am naturally an open person and I like to talk things through and learn from the experiences of others.
If there is an issue with a client or a team member, its best to face it head on. Open communication and showing you care usually takes away most tense situations.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was really little I wanted to be a vet, but then I read James Harriot books and there were parts that made me a bit squeamish.
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
It doesn’t happen at my company but I hate it when people don’t take responsibility for what they have to do – when they blame others for their ineffectiveness, mistakes or for missing deadlines.
If something happened, fair enough, but understand that you can always learn and improve if you ask yourself “How can I make sure this problem doesn’t happen again?”
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
We’ll grow a little but not much – perhaps 15 people internationally, and we will be attracting bigger clients while still working with our smaller business owner managers.
We’ll have a lot more regular retainer clients from our TLD Loyalty Club and from continuing to do digital marketing & social media for clients.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Keep organised, make lists, power through them, get things done, and review what you’ve done and learned. This will enhance your learning speed.
Here are some of my practical tips:
Look at tools like Dropbox, Slack and Trello – they really help you manage things and free you up to work from anywhere.
Identify who your ideal client is – describe them in terms of size, industry, type and most importantly, attitude. Once you know what you’re looking for you can spot them easily.
Don’t hesitate to hire people to help you do the bits you’re not loving or not that good at – it will free you to do your best work. Hire people who match your values – figure out what they are and consider each potential employee carefully before taking them on.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
I am happy with the journey I have had, and some of the things I use now weren’t even invented back then - but if I was to have something handed to me on a plate back at the beginning, I’ve put things into my proposals which clarify what is included in the project - to us undercharging for projects and realising too late.
I wish I would have learned to be a bit stricter (in the nicest possible way) with clients sooner, it would have sped up the growth of the company. Overall, though, I wouldn’t change much! Every experience has helped us become who we are today!