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Episode 71: Lessons from the university of life

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

A huge pop culture junkie who credits passion and perseverance as the keys to her success, this Jill of all trades slash serial creative launched her first company with zero business experience.

Today, as the founder and creative director of Singapore publishing and design consultancy agency The Press Room, Kelley Cheng’s providing inspiration and encouragement to design students through teaching and design competition judging.

Tune to Xero Gravity #71 for her chat with Elizabeth, where you’ll learn how Kelley’s turned mistakes into success. You’ll also hear what’s fueled The Press Room’s rise in the Singapore design scene, Kelley’s philosophy on spec work, her team’s success with the Centre of Contemporary Arts and the wild Facebook post that went viral, big time.

All that and why mentoring the younger generation might just be the most important thing of all, to Kelley.

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Episode transcript

Host: Elizabeth Ü [EÜ]

Guest: Kelley Cheng [KC]

EÜ Hi everyone, I'm Elizabeth Ü, and this is Xero Gravity.

Meet Kelley Cheng, founder and creative director at The Press Room. Today she is a true Jill-of-all-trades, despite getting very little encouragement early in life. A serial creative, Kelley admits she launched her first company with no prior business experience, but her unbounded passion, combined with a commitment to working hard, led her to the success she enjoys today.

KC: I was absolutely capable of doing anything without thinking of consequences. In thinking back, I think that was one of my strengths, because if I had to overthink it, I had to think too much, and I wouldn't do it, because everything was against me.

EÜ Kelley says her mistakes early on are what drove her to help others succeed. In fact, she now uses her career learning to educate students so they can get ahead in business.

KC: I kind of had to figure out everything myself. I have to make a lot of mistakes. I fall down a lot. I learn from, as people say, the university of life.

People are cruel. People are not, they are not super helpful, because in business it's competition. You just have to figure out your way. In fact, thinking back, and this is bit of one advice that I always tell a lot of young people who want to start their own business. I say, “You know what, if you meet an older, more experienced business person, or someone who you respect, just ask them to mentor you.”

I want to be that person for the younger generation. I want to be able to share my mistakes and what I learned. I don't want them to have to go through the same painful journey that I went through.

EÜ I'm really curious. What did you want to be when you grew up? Were you always a really creative person?

KC: Yes, I actually was. Actually, when I was growing up, I always wanted to be an artist, and of course that was the seventies, and in Singapore, in the seventies, we do not have an art scene or a design scene at all. It was non-existent. Growing up, stupidly, I always tell my parents that I want to be an artist, and always got a good scolding.

EÜ Uh oh.

KC: I never gave up. I begged my parents to send me for art classes, and I went. I wasn't enormously talented, but I just learned to draw.

The funny thing is, I have an elder brother who is four years older than me. He loves to draw, too. He is enormously talented. He is a really good artist, so growing up I had a really low self-esteem in my creatives abilities because I am constantly being told that...

EÜ Oh no.

KC: Yeah, I know, you know, my teacher and my parents always praised my brother and said, “Oh, this is so beautiful, this is so nice,” and my parents would frame his works up. My house is full of his paintings. Mine would be stashed in the storeroom, because you are not good enough, you still have to learn.

To be honest, it had an impact on me as a kid. The positive side is that I kept telling myself that I'm going to prove to them wrong, and I'm going to show them that I'm very creative.

Time flies and all that, and I happen to be academically quite brilliant, so my parents always had this hope that I would become a doctor or a lawyer. That didn't happen. Going abroad wasn't an option. My parents were like, “No, no, don't waste our money studying art or photography abroad.” I was left with the one and only choice, which is architecture, which they kind of mildly accepted because at least it's still a profession.

That's how I ended up in architecture, and thank god to that. I think I found a way to finally get around the fact that I'm not enormously talented with painting, because I realized that, hey, I can do technical drawings, and I can use the computer. That is another way. Yeah, it's using another medium to be very creative.

EÜ It seems like you've really taken that desire, your own desire for encouragement, and really turned that around. And now you're providing all of this inspiration and encouragement to the students who you've worked with, or the people who are in the design competitions that you are judging. Is that true?

KC: Oh yeah, absolutely, yeah. I think, for me, it's always that message of just persevere, and in fact, I tell a lot of young people. I say, if you don't have a passion, don't even do this, because it's going to be very, very hard, you know. Clients are very, very difficult. Working is very, very difficult. Being creative is very, very difficult. The main driver that keeps me going for twenty years is that, you know, every time that I come up with something beautiful, it still excites me. If you have no passion, I tell them that there will be so many occasions in your career that you will just give up.

EÜ On this topic of passion, I read a quote of yours recently where you said that if your ambition is to make a million dollars, then you don't have a dream.

KC: I think for a lot of, I believe a lot of creative people would agree with me. Going into the creative field, whether an artist, a fashion designer, a graphic designer, I don't think that you would go in with the kind of expectation that I'm going to make a lot of money, because if you're talking about salaries, you obviously get paid more being a lawyer, a banker, so on and so forth. The starting pay for most creative careers in Singapore, unfortunately is not very high, unless it's architecture.

If you become famous, people come searching for your services, then you can start to command a high fee, but other than that, you are going to spend years and years and decades just polishing up your skill.

EÜ How long did it take for you to work at this and practice before you were starting to command the type of fees that were actually covering your living expenses?

KC: I think I was quite lucky, because the idea of starting my own magazine was already brewing in my mind since I was in architecture school. After I quit architecture school, I interned myself at an architecture magazine for two years, because that's the only way I could learn the trade, since I can't learn it in school. After the two years I was kind of, you know, the fire that's burning inside me said, “You know you have got to start your own magazine right now, before you become too old or don’t have any energy to do it.”

EÜ I have to ask you. At this point, you did have some creative background, or at least creative ambition and obviously creative passion? But did you have any small business experience, or any passion about starting a small business other than that you mentioned this fire inside? It seems quite ambitious to take on an entire small business without any experience whatsoever.

KC: Unfortunately, the answer is no, not at all. I just went on like, I just said I'm just going to try it and just see where it takes me. When I was younger I was ... a lot of my friends, people who are close to me, remember me as a really, really hot-tempered and very impulsive, very, very temperamental person.

EÜ It probably has served you quite well in your career, I'll bet.

KC: Yes, absolutely. It was the very, very first design magazine in Singapore. Nobody even really believed in it. Nobody thought that it's going to work. Everybody asked me, where are you going to get advertisers. I kind of had to figure out everything myself.

I make so many mistakes in my younger life. I just wish that I had someone who I could go to and ask all these burning questions in me. Someone I could trust and someone who could really teach me and guide me.

EÜ Yeah, and you've held a number of different positions and worked across multiple fields simultaneously, and so, I was wondering, do you ever sleep?

KC: I used to not sleep a lot, because of the sheer amount of work that I have to do. I didn’t used to sleep a lot, but it's really okay when you're young, you have a lot of energy, you are just so restless all the time. I was a very restless young person. I just needed to do all these things. I probably suffer from anxiety so I just need to get things done. If I don't get them done, I can't sleep, so it works well for me.

I am older now. I am in my forties, and certainly your energy level does go down. You get tired easier and you need your sleep.

EÜ When I think about the creative projects that I've been involved with, it seems like there's always going to be people who want to make changes. I'm curious, especially as a smaller design firm, how do you protect yourself from the challenge of the ever-expanding project?

KC: Yeah, I know. Earlier this year I actually created viral news in Singapore for speaking out against unlimited changes, because to work with the government in Singapore, it's very transparent here. It's an open bidding system, so everybody can bid for it. The best person with the best price will win the job. Unfortunately it's come to a point where a lot of this briefs given by the government agencies have this clause that says it has to include unlimited changes.

After seeing it, you know, the first time I see it, I say, okay, it's just one-off, two times, three times, and it became very, very rampant, and so I posted something, like a strongly worded message on my Facebook page, and overnight it went viral.

I actually screen-captured some of these briefs that demanded that. So recently I noticed that the government has been asking for unlimited changes and all that, and, as a designer, I protest. This should not happen, and, be the change you want to be. If you want to see a change, repost this, and it went viral.

EÜ Wow.

KC: Yeah, absolutely. I am very, very happy, because it benefits the whole design industry.

EÜ Yeah, well, I think that's great and I hope that the listeners to this show today are going to take that to heart and possibly build in, if they are not already, limited number of rounds of changes into your contracts with your clients.

KC: Yeah. Absolutely. In this world, you want anything, you fight for yourself. You have to speak up, because if you are going to sit one corner and you sulk and you complain and you are bitter about it, nothing is ever going to happen. Sure, people who speak up are always taking a risk. In the beginning I got so many emails from the design community that said, “You are really brave to speak up and all that, because you might just be, people might take it the wrong way and people might be antagonized and you might not ever get a job from the government.” Of course, I don't think that would happen because I trust in the goodness of people, but of course there is a risk of antagonizing people.

EÜ In your role as a teacher, I imagine that you're working with a lot of people who are early on in their creative careers. I know that there's always this tension between taking jobs at really low rates or even for free to build your resume, versus insisting that you always get paid because you don't want to undervalue this creative work. What is your philosophy on taking free jobs?

KC: I think this is actually a very complex question, because when you first start out, surely you need to build up a portfolio. Unfortunately, nobody is going to give you a really big job with no portfolio, so you have to beg for the opportunity to even just to prove yourself and to work and to build up a portfolio.

This is, in fact, how I started. I just say, you know, my philosophy when I first started The Press Room is that I will not say no to any job, paid or unpaid, so that I am given the opportunity to build up a portfolio in the shortest time possible, hopefully in two years, and I can have a very strong portfolio of work. Then I can start to sell ourselves better.

However, I was very, very idealistic and I started actually actively, when I started The Press Room, to offer my services to a lot of non-profit organizations.

It was very painful, so I learned my lesson again. They were not paying you, or paying you very, very little. They were extremely demanding.

EÜ Oh no.

KC: Yes, even more so than people who are paying me properly. I really encountered some of these people where I was thinking of myself, my god, how did this bitch end up in a non-profit organization.

EÜ You know, it's funny, I've actually heard similar stories from other people who have done pro bono work or have worked at reduced rates for non-profit organizations and they've had the exact same experience. They got treated really poorly. It ended up being the ever-expanding project again that went way beyond scope.

I just want to ask you, what is an an example — or can you tell me about the project that you felt was just perfect in terms of, they paid you well — where you got to use your staff in a way that was really taking advantage of their skills. You got to do the kind of work you want to do, and maybe it was something that was meaningful to you in your personal life as well.

KC: There are a few, but one I'm currently still working on is with them is a sort of non-profit art gallery slash institution in Singapore called CCA, which is the Centre of Contemporary Arts. They basically promote intelligent art, intellectual art in a more academic way. We had the privilege of working with them to do most of their campaigns and marketing materials and working with them on a little bit of exhibition graphics and all that. Incidentally, it was a predominately female team.

I was very, very appreciative because they are very supportive of what we do. Sure, they are demanding like a lot of other clients, but when we do something, they really show their appreciation and they are very, very thankful. And they always allow us the room to be very creative. In fact, they push us to do things that are different and all that. The results are often pretty amazing and satisfactory. That is kind of like an ideal situation for me, because they are non-profit. I feel that I am giving back, and at the same time they give me the space to work and they are great people to work with. They are polite, they are nice.

EÜ Yeah. This has been a really great conversation, Kelley, and it really shows that there's two sides of the coin here of being a creative. You may not always make as much money as you want, especially not at the beginning, but if you work hard and if you really decide what types of people you want to be working with, and over time, building up your resume, you can really succeed, as you have, with your own design firm.

KC: Yes.

EÜ Thanks again for sharing those stories.

KC: Thanks so much, Elizabeth.

EÜ All right, so we are going to finish up with our question countdown, which is five quick questions and five quick answers. Are you ready?

KC: Mm-hmm. Yep. Let's go.

EÜ What business book or idea has made the biggest impact on your life and why?

KC: It's a book called Jack. It's by Jack Welch. He promoted this idea that in a good company, you always take the top ten percent, kick out the bottom ten percent, and then you have the middle eighty percent. You need them there to drive the machine, but they are not critical in your failure or success. Your success is dependent on your top ten percent and you should pay them whatever they ask for. If they want women, give them women. If they want money, give them money. If they want a car, give them a car, because they are the pillars of a company, so do whatever you can to keep them.

EÜ Next up, what's the one thing you can't live without?

KC: Passion. I think if my passion burns out one day, I will just, I can't go on. I will just stop doing this. I will go sell chicken rice or something.

EÜ Let's hope that you don't get there. Next. What's the most useful app on your phone right now?

KC: Okay, don't laugh at me, but it's Carousell. It's an app that allows you to sell your stuff. I am in a stage in my life where I am decluttering my life to get to a more zen pugilist level.

EÜ All right. In one sentence, what's the greatest lesson you've learned throughout your small business journey?

KC: Being there. Or rather, Woody Allen would say, just showing up. I think in the small business, you are the spiritual, not just the physical driver of the business, you are the spiritual leader. When you're not there, your team just falls apart, because you are not talking about having a company of a hundred people. You have ten people working for you and if you are not there, things tend to fall apart.

EÜ Finally, what skill do you want to enhance this year?

KC: Right, so teaching, actually. I figure that that's the best way for me to give back to the society. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I could be a better teacher. I've been teaching for almost a decade, and I'm just slowly starting to have some enlightenment about it, and this is also Malcolm Gladwell's rule of life. Ten thousand hours. I think I've served my ten thousand hours and I feel I'm having some new enlightenment about teaching. I really want to do a better job.

EÜ Thanks so much for teaching us all of these different things that we've covered over the course of this interview. This has been really fun.

KC: Thanks for having me. Thank you.

EÜ That was Kelley Cheng, founder and creative director at The Press Room. Make sure you tune in next time when we'll be talking with Tom Fishburne, a cartoonist who is pioneering the way for artists in the marketing space. It's going to be a great episode, so be sure to check it out

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