Today, we are in conversation with Brent Thelen from Michigan, who believes that art wouldn’t exist without the ability to communicate.
From a hard-working boy who worked in the restaurant industry, to starting his very own design agency, Brent has come a long way. He speaks about web designing and development as a career and why he emphasizes nurturing relationships with both the colleagues and the clients. Brent prefers working with quality freelancers and contractors and researches his clients thoroughly to understand their needs best. With an optimistic outlook on his business, his mantra is ‘never to stop learning.
Brent’s website: https://brentthelendesign.com/
Katie Brinkley 0:02
Hey there. This is Katie Brinkley and you’re listening to Rocky Mountain marketing. This podcast is all about helping Colorado based small business owners, entrepreneurs and professionals discover the strategies and systems that take their marketing to all new heights. Let’s dive into today’s episode
Welcome back to the podcast. My guest today is Brett Thielen. Brett is a Denver based creative director, designer, developer and strategist whose mission to elevate brands with solution based creative. Brent spent the past decade in both the production and leadership ends of the Creative Studios. In 2018, Brent took his passion to co found Thielen Williams, a boutique agency aiming to elevate the delight factor and their clients brands. With an organizational pivot and enhanced client roster. Brent and his crew provide full modern advertising and marketing services under Brett Thielen design, from branding and custom WordPress website design and development to running successful campaigns with specialty and video and photo content. Brent Thielen design defines an exercises that which sparks joy while providing deeper, more profitable brand experiences. Brent, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
Brent Thelen 1:14
Thanks for having me, Katie.
Katie Brinkley 1:16
So let’s just start a little bit about your background. Tell us where you grew up and what your life was like growing up.
Brent Thelen 1:22
Sure. So from a very young age, we were a very mobile family kind of moving around the United States and spend some time in Germany before coming back to Michigan, which my family primarily resides, Lansing area to be exact, but spend some time in Detroit, Lansing, Northern Michigan before finally, kind of in later Middle School, settling down ish in middle Michigan in the Saginaw area. And there I went to high school went to a public university there, I was going to go to an art school in Grand Rapids, but really wanted to keep my options a little more open from a communication perspective. And from a business perspective, as I thought, you know, if I want to make some money in this industry, I need a little more diversity as far as my education is concerned. So I ended up going to college in Saginaw, and there kind of learned the basics of design, but the real learning was post college. So once I graduated double majored in graphic design and communication and had an opportunity to go to New York for a design internship. But having spent time both in New York and in Colorado, when I was younger, I really liked the vibe that Colorado gave off from very young age from, you know, outdoor activities to just kind of open creative mindset, that type of environment. So it just made more sense to choose Denver, but I graduated from college at the end of 2008. So it was pretty tough to get a job especially designing Yes, yeah, yeah. So since I was 14, I was working in the restaurant industry and working primarily in fine dining restaurants. So thankfully, I had the opportunity to work at some restaurants out here while still kind of trying to dip my toes in the agency culture out here and seeing what was going on with, you know, design and how the creative community was structured because you know, Denver, these 12 years ago now was a much smaller town. So thankfully, I had the opportunity to take you continuing ed classes once I got out here at Art Institute, just trying to network through the associations that I did have prior and post moving out here and was able to land some internships and yeah, I guess the rest is kind of history just bouncing around at agencies and finally starting my own.
Katie Brinkley 3:46
Awesome. Yeah. And I have family actually that lives in the Michigan area, Royal Oak and and Lavonia area. So Michigan holds a very special place in my heart to Oh, yes, I you know, and it’s great to because a number of my guests that have come on the podcast, have all spent time at the Art Institute, and it’s really too bad that school shut down. I know that everyone says it really helped them and really gave them a lot of insight to their now profession that they typically wouldn’t have gotten at a major university.
Brent Thelen 4:20
Definitely. I think I chose a public university just primarily to get a broader kind of exposure to my options, but at the same time, I didn’t realize how much I needed to really devote to the craft as far as from a learning perspective and that literally probably 90% of it relied on me in the end so coming you know, fresh out of school to moving to Denver and having all these kind of big ideas like yeah, if you know, I know what what happens in big cities and I have a somewhat of an understanding what happens with agencies. Little did I know that I really needed to hustle like 24 hours a day to really to put myself out there and finally kind of break into the industry.
Katie Brinkley 5:03
Absolutely. And I mean, that brings up my next question, take us through your your career journey with the agencies and design and deciding to go your own entrepreneurial starting your own agency.
Brent Thelen 5:14
Sure. So like I said, when I first moved out, I was working part time at a fine dining restaurant and no longer exists, or IPPS, through one simultaneously going to the Art Institute to learn more about web development, and specifically web design, I think that was what I understood to be more of a selling point, at least in a really tough economy, to get a design job is to have at least some familiarity with web development. And to design for web specifically,
Katie Brinkley 5:46
Brent Thelen 6:05
I don’t think I would still be in this field, if it wasn’t for that, to be completely honest. I think once I got those certifications at the Art Institute, I was able to get an internship at an agency and then I bounced around at three or four different other smaller agencies that some of which still exist, others don’t, before finally, really allowing my expertise and knowledge to really grow and shine, once I got to work creative is a small agency located right across from Union Station. And with that, it was a nice combination of both web design and development. And again, another Blap in the face realization that I really didn’t know too much. So in order to kind of grow there and maintain a job there to be completely honest, I really needed to learn a lot. So thankfully, there was a really good mentor, who I still keep in contact with today and hang out with pretty regularly that kind of showed me the ropes as far as how to build kind of custom WordPress websites, and also kind of translating design fluidly to development. So I think in that role, having a good 5050 combination of both design and development allowed me to really see things from a front end back end perspective, which ultimately allowed me to be where I am now with the clients that I have now and starting initially failing Williams, which is basically what I’m doing under breath down design right now.
Katie Brinkley 7:29
Awesome. And you know, a lot of people might not really understand a lot of what you’re doing with the having the knowledge of web development and a designer, a lot of people are now actually have the title of UX designer, which I feel is a lot of what you probably are at the forefront.
Brent Thelen 7:47
Sure. Yeah, that terminology didn’t really exist at the beginning, I kind of laugh every once in a while when I hear it, but there is some some validity in that title. And the fact that you know, every digital design piece you do even even print for that matter is is an experience for someone you need to kind of guide the user to, to both portray your message and give them something to act upon in the end. So yeah, kind of maybe patting myself on the back as humblebrag, so to speak. But yeah, UX, certainly term that didn’t necessarily exist in his popularity as it is today, but certainly allowed me to grow in the field for sure.
Katie Brinkley 8:26
What do you think that the one of the biggest mistakes that business owners make when they’re trying to grow and sustain a successful businesses?
Brent Thelen 8:33
Well, I mean, just having been in the agency game for, you know, most of my career, one thing I have noticed is, and it’s very common is just the scaling aspect agencies are reliant on the clients that they have. And if those clients no longer exist, then neither to their employees. So I think at least for me, I’ve been smart in the fact that I’ve seen this happen so many times, just where said agency has tried to scale to the extent of the work that they have. And you know, all work is not permanent. And once that contract ends, unfortunately, we’ll have to let people go. So I think just being a little more nimble, having a kind of smaller footprint and rely more so on contractors and freelancers versus full time employees is something that I’ve always made sure to do with the help that I hire.
Katie Brinkley 9:28
Now, how have you been able to find good employees find those good freelancers find those good contractors. It’s the what they say is true. It’s so hard to find good help, and how have you been able to find quality contractors and freelancers to work for you?
Brent Thelen 9:43
It’s a constant work in progress. And it still actually is But thankfully, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some super super smart people and some really talented designers, developers, videographers, copywriters that I still keep in close with internship with today and always have a person for the job. So there’s not always a design job that designer A is going to be the best. So maybe I’ll choose designer, B, C, D. So yeah, just keeping these people close and kind of nurturing those relationships and just really showing that you appreciate the work that they do, as long as it does reflect your larger vision. I think the designers, developers, etc, that I keep in contact with are very representative of both my kind of brand aesthetic and but also just kind of morals as well. And I think that’s a huge thing. In regards to the client work, I do choose to take on,
Katie Brinkley 10:39
what does your model look like for finding and engaging and selling to your ideal clients these days,
Brent Thelen 10:44
thankfully, most of my businesses been referral. So I don’t have too many complaints in that regard. However, when I do seek out a new client, I do a lot of back work, I do a lot of investigation. Thankfully, we have social media. So we can really creep on people if we’re really interested in seeing, you know, what this person is comprised of what they’re all about. And I think the clients that I have pursued, sometimes having a warm lead from sometimes just completely cold reaching out to, but I do have a pretty good idea as who they are as people what their kind of business approach is, what type of employees they keep around. And I think that’s very important. As far as having a longer term relationship with said, client, my goal with any client that I take on is to not just do a one and done project, but to have a healthy, longer standing relationship that we can kind of build and grow upon my previous business partner, who we still work with often, one of his statements was like, would this client attend your funeral. And I think that’s a super powerful statement when both thinking about that as far as client potential, but also making it an important aspect in your relationship with that client to you know, always do what’s best for them and kind of keep a bigger picture in mind, with your plan for them. And with,
Katie Brinkley 12:07
you know, and I think it’s a really valid point that you research your clients as much as you do, there’s so many small businesses and entrepreneurs that will just work with anyone, and you have to ensure that you have a good relationship with that client, because otherwise, it’s just gonna end up being a lot more work, and you’re gonna be miserable doing the work for them. So totally researching your client, the way that you do is a very valid point, what when did you start researching your clients and making sure that they were the right fit for you, and not the other way around?
Brent Thelen 12:37
I think it definitely took a few burns, I’ve always kind of practiced at least a little bit of back research to kind of understand who they are as both a person and a brand. But really, I think I devised a onboarding process of some pretty in depth and existential kind of questionnaires and trying to kind of really understand what they perceive their brand to be, who their audience they anticipate being and avenues in which they can flourish with their product or service or what have you. So I think just the combination of taking on clients in the past that haven’t necessarily aligned with with my personal brand and brand aesthetic in combination of kind of putting them through the wringer so to speak in the onboarding process to see if you know, they might be a longer term fit. Because I think that initial onboarding is very foretelling of what we can create together and it how successful a relationship might be able to be in the longer run. Now, you
Katie Brinkley 13:41
came from a couple of agencies before you decided to start around. One passion that so many business owners and entrepreneurs have is to build a business around their lifestyle, was that one of the driving forces for you to go and start your own agency and leave kind of the corporate world behind?
Brent Thelen 13:59
I’ve always felt it very important with any client. I mean, I’ve had freelance clients pretty much the entire duration of my career. And all of this freelance clients, well, for the most part, have aligned very closely with my personal brand. Like, I think one of the big things is like would you purchase a product or service from this client if you weren’t affiliated with them? So I think that’s definitely one thing as far as basing business around my lifestyle, so a lot of my clients definitely are very closely aligned with what I support what I believe in, and ultimately who I would give my money to, even if there wasn’t a contract involved.
Katie Brinkley 14:40
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received and how has it impacted your business?
Brent Thelen 14:45
I think this pieces of advice comes from both reading it in self help books and career books, but also really living it and that is just to never stop learning. I think especially you In a primarily digital marketing space that that I live, it’s super important to be in touch with, you know, current trends, current technologies, and just realizing that whatever process that you’ve established or whatever applications that you’re used to using, maybe in six months, there might be something better, there might be something at the very least, to learn from these new technologies that are emerging. So I think with that, there’s gonna be a lot of late nights, maybe little to no sleep. But I, I, at least for myself, I’m not saying that this applies to everyone. But I think really spending a half day once a week and sitting down and seeing what’s going on out there seeing what other people are doing, seeing, you know, if, if there’s any little hacks that you can kind of apply to your own practice that that is super, super important. So yeah, never stop learning.
Katie Brinkley 15:53
That’s fantastic advice. And I think that when you continue to always try and strive to continue learning, you’re only going to one be the best candidate for you know, new clients, but you’re going to go into all of your current projects, and be able to give it that like you said, you have all of your clients are basically referral, probably for a reason you by staying on top of your game and continuing to learn and practice the best practices.
Brent Thelen 16:21
Katie Brinkley 16:22
Now, you guys do a lot of different tasks at at your agency, what is the thing that you like the best? And the thing that you struggle with the most?
Brent Thelen 16:32
Definitely, I think the creative inside of me is certainly most full and whole and energized and excited when I just get to freely Ida, like, what could this project be? You know, how many different kinds of mediums can we apply this to? Like how on a larger scale? Like, what could we do with this, you know, even if it’s a website project, or just social media campaign or something like that, there’s always an opportunity to really hit it on a variety of touch points. And I think just ideating and kind of putting all the little puzzle pieces together as far as how broad we can kind of spread this but with the right audience, of course, audiences rather, I think that’s always the most exciting for me is just kind of just mapping what we’re going to do. And the least exciting, obviously, I’m the sole proprietor, my first and last name is my business. So definitely doing the logistic stuff. Well, you know, I might have a couple designers doing the fun stuff. I’m, you know, writing a proposal or statement of work, or just the back and forth, you know, emails and client communications, if I don’t have a project manager on it, so yep, not that I completely dislike that. But it’s definitely a bit of a challenge sometimes to kind of have my hands and all of the the working pieces as they come about.
Katie Brinkley 17:53
Now, you said that you still have a very solid relationship with your mentor that helped you back when you first started? How do you think that having a mentor in the business world is beneficial?
Brent Thelen 18:05
I think it’s super beneficial. I think Austin Kleon, in his books always speaks of if you don’t have a mentor to like, find them, even if they don’t know, even if they don’t know that they’re your mentor, if they’re kind of bestowing this, this wisdom vicariously to you that it’s very important to just kind of seek these people out that inspire you that encourage you to kind of grow in your craft. And I think that, even if they don’t know, is absolutely important to have those types of figures around for sure.
Katie Brinkley 18:39
Now, before we finish up, is there anything I didn’t ask about during today’s discussion that you think is important to share?
Brent Thelen 18:45
I would say in the current world landscape, that more so now than ever, it’s super important to choose your clients wisely to choose your clients based on your personal morals to choose your clients based on how beneficial they are to the world as a whole, as a greater good, so to speak. And I think there will always be an agency or a freelancer or something that’s going to take on these whoever clients they may or may or may not exist years down the line. But at least for me, it’s imperative to align kind of my personal morals and just inclusion of just awareness of the world as a whole. Any new clients that I do take on and I just hope more agencies and more designers and freelancers kind of keep that in mind with any new clients.
Katie Brinkley 19:33
Absolutely. It’s so important to not only let your clients choose you, but you choose your clients. Brent, this has been such a great conversation, where can we find out more about you and your business online?
Brent Thelen 19:44
So I am at Brent Phelan design th e l e n, that’s the last name also I’m on Instagram. It’s my kind of personal photo account, but just Brent Phelan and yeah, email address Brent at Brent Hill and designed.com as well.
Katie Brinkley 20:02
Wonderful. Thank you again so much for coming on the show today. Great. Thank you so much, Katie. And if you’re ready to take your social media to the next level for your small business, head over to my website and check out my free video training the three biggest mistakes small businesses make with social media and how to avoid them. Discover how to make your social media marketing stand out from the crowd online. Thanks so much for listening to this episode of Rocky Mountain marketing. As always, I’d love to hear from you. You can visit my website at www.nextstepsocialcommunications.com or connect with me on LinkedIn. Just look for Katie Brinkley. Let’s keep taking your marketing to new heights.