An American in Paris

How does a Taiwanese-born woman, end up living in New York, and operating her own graphic design business from Paris?

With family in Canada and the USA, Katherine Levasseur’s parents had plans for her to live with her grandma and study in Montréal. But as she couldn’t bear the harsh winter, and didn’t want to learn French, Katherine had other ideas. She moved to New York City instead.

After Katherine completed her Bachelor in Business Administration (with a major in Advertising and a minor in Graphic Design), she joined a Chelsea start-up as a junior web designer just at the time when AOL dial-up (You’ve Got Mail!) became available. And as web design and HTML classes didn’t exist, Katherine spent endless nights online trying to figure it all out.

This all came to an abrupt end on 9/11/2001. Her company closed and Katherine started working for herself.

I asked Katherine about her career journey and experience as a solopreneur:

What have been the critical milestones or turning points in your career?

There are two major turning points in my career, and both have to do with the last decade’s economic crisis.

The first milestone would be 9/11, when the whole dot-com era pretty much came to an end.  Like most Americans, I was still in a state of shock the week following 9/11. As the parent company closed the business, I lost my “dream job” where I had the luxury of experiencing the “dot-com” bubble before it burst along with my 12,000 shares of stock options. I spent the next year taking consulting gigs at start-ups and non-profits around the city.

Eventually I took an opportunity to work from home as a contractor for the company that took over the client base from my first job. Within months I realized I could continue to work for myself and find more work online.

Startup

 

Just like that I was self-employed for the next 10 years, working out of my apartment on the Upper East Side Manhattan. It was never planned, but the way it turned out, it worked great for me.

In 2010 I considered going back for a salary job as the freelance as I’d know it was no longer sustainable after the global financial crisis. However after working for myself for almost 10 years, everything was kind of new and unfamiliar to me. In fact a recruiter in midtown Manhattan told me that I didn’t have the “experience” to sell myself at the rate I was asking at the time, as I didn’t have the kind of “big names” companies on my resume – times were tough now so I should expect less. I was not discouraged, and within two weeks, I proved her wrong when I was hired at almost twice the rate!

I was taken on by BarnesandNoble.com, (the largest bookseller/chain in the US), to help launch their self-publishing platform called pubit! It was the beginning of the e-reader/mobile/tablet apps era, and I was there at the center of it all, with the right skill sets, and working with a fantastic team, who introduced me to a whole new world of e-publishing and mobile development.

In spring 2011, I joined the mobile team at The Wall Street Journal Digital Network (News Corp.) as a consultant to help convert the WSJ iOS App onto the new Android platform. After I joined them full-time, I worked across various WSJDN web and mobile products and some large-scale projects such as the transformation of the WSJ international editions, which was a fantastic experience for me.

Who have been the most powerful influences in your life?

The most powerful influences in my life came from two decades of living and becoming an adult in NYC in my twenties. Growing up in Asia where conformability is considered a great virtue, I’ve always felt rebellious. I learned that I could do anything and study what I was interested in – and there was so much freedom in the American way of learning, compared to what I knew back home.

Going to college and living in New York City exposed me to a global village where I was surrounded by people from all walks of life and every corner of the planet. The spirit of NYC (if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere), and the diversity of culture and people in NYC greatly influenced me, and I believe made me the person I am today in every way.

I am forever grateful to all the people I have met and those who have helped and encouraged me, my teachers, my friends and my family who supported me during those years.

What were the biggest learnings during your first 12 months of self-employment?

One of the first things that many would find difficult to overcome in self-employment is the ability to do everything on your own. You have to be accountant, salesperson, secretary, there’s no water fountain or coffee station to hang out, and no one to blame when you screw up.

While I was equipped with design, technology, even business skills, I had great fears when it came time to face the clients. As many of my clients were scattered across the country, I didn’t “meet” many of them in person. However, it did take me time to learn how to negotiate rates and contract terms, and present and discuss design requirements.

Another challenge was finding a balance between work and life, and managing my time as well as setting expectations for my clients. Because I worked with clients from all over the place, I didn’t have set “office hours”.

I’d go to the museums in the morning, spend my afternoon in the bookstores, and work at night after a day of brain-storming.

One of the most important things I am glad I did was to take classes at local art school to improve my art skills, and eventually went back to college as a full-time student studying fine art, something I always wanted to do.

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Initially I didn’t have the confidence to defend HOW and WHEN I worked, and I worried about work when I was at class, and vice versa. It took some time to let go and enjoy the freedom self-employment offers.

Keeping a balance between life and work, and working the way you choose to work as, is critical to an entrepreneur’s success. It took me years to fully embrace it.

What personal attributes helped you to establish & develop your business?

I think independence and self-reliance are probably my greatest strengths. They’ve helped me a great deal in both developing my business and my career in general.

Most people think working for yourself from home is quite a lonely venture; however to me, it’s the best way to work! I enjoy working independently (both mentally and physically), and when I work alone I have the best concentration that my work requires.

Working independently also makes you a stronger candidate in your chosen field because you have to learn new things constantly to keep growing, and keep your skill set up to date.

Thanks to a decade of self-employment, keeping both design and programming skills has allowed me to continue working for myself, and it helped me get hired when I came out to work full-time, and the main reason I was recruited by BN.com in 2010.

Is there anything you would’ve done differently along the way?

If anything, I wish I had learned French the first time I lived in Montreal! Sometimes I thought if I had stayed and studied in Montreal I would be fluent in French today, but then I probably would not have met my husband who went to NYC to work in 2010 and met me. Life is very strange. I often find that things I resist doing in my life have always found a way back, and it’s very true what you don’t want the most is something that’s always stuck with you!

 What is your proudest career achievement to date?

I think I am mostly proud to have been able to adapt career-wise to work wherever and however I could – either from self-employed to corporate, or vice versa.

What’s your advice to anyone leaving corporate life to start a business?

I believe you can do anything in today’s world and go anywhere you want, there is really very little that you can’t do if you work hard and do things the old-fashion way, do it right!

To start your own business, I think it takes several things:

  1. You should really KNOW what you like to do, very very well. A lot of research, a lot of studying and observing to know what people do in the same business, what it takes, and if, it’s the right choice for you. There is no set rules for any business but I always believe knowing is better than not knowing. Know as much as you possibly can.
  2. Be prepared. People who prepare themselves have much better chance of succeeding. Hope for the best, but think of the worst that could happen, and what you would do when it sinks, when it sucks and when you just can’t take it anymore. Be honest with yourself, how much are you willing to give in order to make it?
  3. Be flexible and open to new things. The beauty of self-employment is that you are your own boss, you set the rules and you make the deals. If you are flexible, you will be able to adjust along the way. Things may not always happen as you wish, and you might have a surprise somewhere someday. When it’s a good surprise, will you be open enough to take on the opportunity or will you be stuck in your own “rules”? When it’s a bad surprise, will you be able to step back and re-assess or just give it all up?
  4. Finally, this is the advice I would give to my younger self 15 years ago. Be social. To work alone does not mean you have to be alone all the time. Networking with other entrepreneurs and people who might need your service or products one day, make friends. The more the merrier!

What do you hope to be doing career-wise within 2 years, 5 years?

I will continue to work for myself, running my own design studio, in the next 2-5 years. I also see myself working more in the traditional “graphic design” (which is a good surprise to me) while still keeping the web design side of my business. Thanks to Etsy I am able to reach a global audience and I have also learned a great deal on packaging my design services. It’s a very exciting time for me, re-starting my business after over 3 years in corporate America and I feel I am much more prepared than the first time!

 

You can find and contact Katherine as follows:

Etsy store https://www.etsy.com/shop/madamelevasseur
Website http://madamelevasseur.com/
Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest @ madamelevasseur
Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/katelevasseur

 

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