Brittany Wong is the owner and creative director of Happyland Creative, a creative studio that believes small businesses deserve big brands. Happyland Creative exists to remind business owners of the big dreams they had as a kid and that business can be both professional *and* fun.
Although there are often similarities, every business origin story is unique—from starting a nights-and-weekends side hustle that grows slowly but surely, to the diving-in-full-time-with-both-feet startup approach. What is the origin story for Happyland?
BRITTANY WONG: I had been working for a while at a company that was starting to shift in a direction I didn’t really want to go in. I applied for tons of other jobs but never could even get an email response, let alone an interview. I was starting to feel really discouraged and began considering jobs outside my field of expertise just to be able to move on. Then, one day I was visiting a friend in New York City and as we were coming up out of a subway station I had a completely out-of-the-blue vision.
It was like a flash of lightning in my mind—I saw that I was going to open my own business, I saw that it was going to be called Happyland Creative (which came from the title of a story that I wrote as a kid), I saw what the logo would look like, I saw what kind of clients I would have and the type of projects I would work on. I saw it all at once as if it had already happened. I’ve never experienced such a moment of clarity like that before and it brought a lot of peace and comfort following that path even though it was really scary.
How & when did you realize you could, you know, run a business? Did you have a notable example, blueprint, or inspiration that sparked things?
BW: After I had this vision of my business, I started pursuing the idea more seriously. I talked with people I knew who had their own businesses, I talked with people who knew me well to see if they thought I could even do it and I listened to a looooooooooot of podcasts. I didn’t have kids at the time so after I was done with work (I worked remotely) I would go to my kitchen, put on a business podcast, and listen to it while I worked on jigsaw puzzles.
One of the podcasts (I wish I could remember what podcast this was and who said it so I could credit them properly) said how you actually have more job security when you work for yourself. I almost laughed out loud but their explanation made so much sense. They said when you have a job that is like your one client. All your eggs are in that basket. The client could let you go at any time, for reasons outside of your control, and you’ve just lost everything. But when you run your own business you have multiple clients. If you lose one client you still have other clients and you put systems in place to help you go out and get more clients. So just because you lose one client doesn’t mean you lose everything and have to start over from scratch.
When I heard that it made so much sense to me and was really the moment I went all in on this idea of working for myself.
I’ve gained some real gems—and heard things that belong in a joke book—when asking for business advice 😅 What’s the best or worst advice you got when starting your business?
BW: That's tough! There’s so much 😉 I know people are generally well-meaning but the whole “when you work for yourself you get to choose your hours—which 12 hours of the day you want to work” I just roll my eyes. I actually work less than I did when I was employed full time. I designed it that way so I can be flexible for my son.
Do I think of my business a lot “outside of work hours”? Yes. But I love it. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t think of work outside of work hours? At least now when it’s keeping me up at night it’s for something that’s going to grow my business and my dream of what I’m building instead of someone else’s.
There’s also a lot of advice out there about manifesting things. I don’t want to tread on something that other people may hold very dear, but for me, it was really easy to fall into the crowd of people who were following some of the “coach-y” kind of leaders out there. Those people just served up platitudes and empty, cheap advice. None of it was really meaningful because they don’t know your story.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t think you should buy into the “hustle” culture that people will try to sell you, but also be careful with the “manifest” culture that people try to sell you. Really, what it comes down to is knowing what you want to do and going after it. Nothing is going to just come to you.
If you could go back in time to tell your “just starting Happyland” self one thing, what would that be?
BRITTANY WONG: I’d say “Oh Mama. Take your time.” I just heard something on a podcast this morning… the host shared a story about a time that he ran the Walt Disney World Marathon and there was a woman running the race who yelled out to someone else in the race, “Your race, your pace!” I think that’s really good advice for business too!
When I started my business, there was a bucket load of life circumstances going on that made it extremely difficult. One of those reasons was I was a brand new mom with a newborn baby. It was so overwhelming to hear these business leaders telling me to work harder, wake up earlier, and do more, when really I was doing the best that I could.
I also think it’s important to keep your eyes on your own paper. Everyone’s life and circumstances are unique and honestly, you don’t need to make a million dollars to be successful. I’ve tried taking advice from others to grow my business bigger or “better” but it doesn’t really fit. I actually am happier keeping things a bit smaller.
Happyland Creative believes every small business deserves a brand that looks like it belongs on the shelves of Target (love that belief!) How did you establish a focus for Happyland? Has this focus changed or refined over time?
BW: DEFINITELY something that has evolved over time and is honestly still a work in progress. Again, I think it came back to following advice that wasn’t right for me. And I don’t think there’s an easy way to nail it perfectly on the first try. You probably will have to try on a few ideas and follow a few wrong paths before you figure out the right one. I loved product-based businesses and designing packaging but I thought product businesses had too much overhead to hire me.
One day someone told me if I wanted to work with product based businesses, why was I not doing that? It seemed so simple, but I was like “You’re right!” So I dove in headfirst. I learned Shopify so I could better serve ecommerce businesses and I just shifted my entire focus and everything I talked about towards that audience. And it just felt right. I love to wander the aisles of Target so now I could merge my weird love of retail with my business. It just made everything easier to talk about.
If there’s one thing you’d recommend that’s a MUST HAVE (or MUST DO) for small-to-midsize businesses when it comes to branding & marketing, what would that be?
BRITTANY WONG: That’s so hard! Ok, I think it’s different for different types of businesses. For product-based businesses I would suggest investing in a professional website. There’s SO MUCH value in having professional eyes on your website, navigation structure and overall optimization to streamline your customers’ experience and drive more sales. But if you’re a service provider I’d recommend investing in a professionally designed visual brand. As a service provider you’re selling yourself, or an experience, and having a really well-done visual brand is going to help you better connect with your audience.
I would also say don’t underestimate the power of great copywriting. Copywriting can have a huge impact on your conversion and connection and I think people think they can do it themselves. But there’s a difference between being able to type out of some words and craft succinct phrases and words that will connect with your audience and compel them to purchase from you.
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I'm curious to learn more about what it looks like when you start work with a new client. Is that process templatized/package-based, completely custom, or something in between? Any must-have tools or critical steps that make it work?
BRITTANY WONG: We have a process, for sure, which keeps things organized for me and hopefully enhances the client experience. They just invested a lot of money in my expertise and I want them to feel well taken care of. But as far as the solution I offer to the client, it really depends. Most of my services are packages because it’s easier for me to scope out and easier for the client to wrap their head around. However, if there's something that is unique or unusual and falls outside of a defined package, I will create something custom for the client rather than trying to shoehorn them into a package that wouldn’t suit their needs.
I think it’s important to have a process to follow and a foundational understanding of how to create a brand, what needs to go into it, the strategy behind it, etc. Or for websites, you need to have a strong grasp on the principles of user experience. But *how* those things are applied to the project is different for each client.
As far as must-have tools, I’d highly recommend a CRM to help you automate your onboarding and invoicing process (we use Dubsado) and then an internal project management tool to help you keep the project on track (we use ClickUp).
Let’s talk team. How do you work with staff/employees/subcontractors - what does “team” mean at Happyland? What have you learned in that process?
BW: This has been my biggest learning curve in running my business. I honestly don’t have any advice because I’m still figuring it out myself. Right now, my business is myself and my project manager who is a contractor. She runs her own business and works for other designers as well. She only works a few hours a week for me, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like she is my right hand. I created an email address for her and we have a slack channel so it honestly feels like she’s so integrated in my day-to-day work.
I’ve had a few other people come and go. Some developers I call in for certain projects, a junior designer I brought on retainer for a period of time, and a social media engagement specialist who kept my Instagram account alive when I was overwhelmed. I don’t think I ever see myself with employees...that just opens up a whole new game I don’t really want to play. I’m happy sticking with contractors. I think what I’ve learned is to start small, (like VERY small) and make sure you are CRYSTAL CLEAR on what you need help with and what you want them to do. And be sure to talk about those expectations up front. I think over communication is your friend in this area.
Creativity is often holistic for many people, so whatever you need to do to take care of yourself and fill up your soul will help fuel your creativity.
Any tips for others in the industry, or adjacent creative professionals, for delivering consistently high-quality, creative work without getting depleted? What do you do to stay creative?
BRITTANY WONG: A major thing for me was moving away from hourly work (and, honestly, full-time employment). It’s really exhausting to feel chained to your desk. I think oftentimes creatives don’t find work-life balance in typical ways, but in more integrated ways.
I get ideas when I’m doing mundane things like the dishes or driving. I find it really refreshing when I can let my mind go into auto-pilot mode sometimes. That’s when my mind will naturally start to wander and I won’t feel so pressured to come up with a creative idea on the spot.
I think also cutting yourself a break. If you’re in a season of not feeling creative it can be really discouraging, but try to remember that it’s just a season. Be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to slow down for a bit. You might find inspiration somewhere you aren’t looking for it. Maybe a trip into the city, or trying out a new hobby, or reading a book. Creativity is often holistic for many people, so whatever you need to do to take care of yourself and fill up your soul will help fuel your creativity.
How often do you get new ideas?
coming up with new ideas is a challenge
my brain is always overflowing with new ideas
How hard is it for you to follow through on your ideas and make them happen?
I have to force myself to follow through on things
I love carrying out tasks and completing things
What does your work-life balance look like right now?
I live at work!
I NEVER WORK
I struggle to sit down and get work done.
What’s the #1 thing you recommend outsourcing so that you can focus on the parts of your business that really light you up?
Outsourcing is something that I’m still trying to figure out so don’t take my advice, but the most helpful things I’ve outsourced is my project management. My project manager is my right hand. She helps keep the projects on track and getting clients onboarded, offboarded, and everything in between. She’s also willing to “be the bad guy” if we ever have to send a difficult email and I’m feeling awkward or uncomfortable. She’s helped me hold many boundaries with clients. So, for me, having that extra person on my side to carry the load has been the most valuable and definitely helped my business grow and take on more than I could without her.
What’s your favorite non-work thing right now?
Nail polish has become a pretty serious obsession for me this year. I’ve always loved doing my nails but for whatever reason this year it’s just grown to another level. I’ve probably doubled my collection and even set up a little 3-tiered cart with all my supplies. It’s so fun and relaxing to do my nails while watching TV at night.
CLOSING: Any other thoughts or tips you’d like to share with fellow business owners & entrepreneurs?
I just want everyone to know that if I can do it, you can definitely do it. It can feel really hard to find clients, especially in the beginning, but stick with it and it will just continue to grow and snowball. Sometimes (often) you need to put on your extrovert pants and talk to strangers, but it gets easier and easier each time you do it.
I always think to myself “Oh, I wish I was good at [fill in the blank]. I better get started now.” It’s awkward and embarrassing to fumble or start something new but the sooner you can get through the beginning stages the closer you’ll be to feeling more confident.
Thank you, Brittany, for being generous with your time and sharing your perspective and advice!
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