Small Business Spotlight: Kate Hansen of Blue Sun Designs
Updated: Apr 23
In a month plagued with coronavirus uncertainty, we could all use a ray of sunshine, right? Well, we're bringing you some from Kate at Blue Sun Designs, who has a very relatable journey. You may not be a former-police-officer-turned-business-owner, but many of you entrepreneurs are doing something completely different than what you started out doing. Kate's story is a great reminder that changing course can bring the greatest blessings. Here's what Kate has to say about it.
Kate, tell us about you! Where are you from and what is your background?
Absolutely! My name is Kate Hansen. I’m originally from the suburbs of Chicago, but now I live in Mankato, Minnesota. In high school, I LOVED art. I took every class our school offered, and I just loved using the creative part of my brain. I also found English and writing to come really easily for me. Looking back now, I could have taken those gifts and run with them….
Instead, I went off to college at Murray State University in Kentucky, then transferred to Minnesota State University, Mankato my junior year. I majored in law enforcement, and even graduated and went on to be a police officer back in the Chicago area. I knew fairly quickly that law enforcement wasn’t for me, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. It was all I had my sights set on since I was a kid. (Law enforcement runs in my family, and I felt a strong pull to make my dad proud and keep the tradition.) I moved back to Minnesota, and became a security officer back at Minnesota State while I figured out my next move. I was hired as an admissions representative for the University, then moved into a position assisting first-year students with their transition to college. I earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership and worked with college students for over 10 years, and I *still* had this feeling I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.
I took some graduate level courses in technical communication, where my love of organizing stuff, English, and design all came into one place. There was a flash of “is THIS it?!” but then, life happened. My twins were 2, my husband worked in middle/high school education so he was gone a lot of nights, and I was just overwhelmed. I quit the program before I finished the degree, but something about it stuck with me.
My husband became a high school principal, so was gone even more in the evenings, and my job working with college kids required me to be gone in the evenings too. Our kids were getting older and busier, so we decided it was time for me to step back in my career to be there for them more. I started working part-time for a local non-profit, where I researched and implemented a CRM/donor management software program. I was there for about a year and a half before I was offered a position at a small local company to research and implement an inventory management software system. (Remember how much I love organizing information!?) I dove right in and basically did the same thing I did at the non-profit, but for a $10M company.
What inspired you to start Blue Sun Designs?
Shortly after I started at the company, our graphic designer took another position and left. Since I had a little background in design and the software, I said I could hold us over until we figured out if we wanted to hire someone full time or contract it out. Well, that was it. Doing a little bit of design work started a fire in a place that I didn’t even realize was smoldering. They kept asking me “Can you do this?” and “Can you make that?” and I’d say “Sure – give me a little bit of time” and I’d Google it and figure it out.
The inventory management software implementation was wrapping up, and I was worried I’d software myself out of a job! The software was able to do about 90% of the things I
had been hired to do… so I doubled down on learning the design software and even thought about going back to school. My growing design knowledge paired with my strength in writing and editing, made me our main communications person. I took over our social media, email campaigns, website, as well as product photos and designing catalogs and other promotional materials. I thought if our little company needed a person like me, that can write and edit the content for the designs I was creating, other small companies need it too. Maybe they can’t afford to (and probably don’t need to) hire two full-time positions – a writer/editor AND a designer, but they could contract with a person who can do both when they need it.
So, I started doing the same work on the side and Blue Sun Designs was born in January 2018. I did it as a side-gig for about 22 months, then quit my day job in October 2019, and here I am! I have never been happier nor more sure of what I’m doing. Since the very beginning when I started the company, I just *knew* that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s a feeling I’ve never had before: I had always felt like I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up… even when I was 35! It is not at ALL in my nature to be a risk-taker, but something about walking this path has felt absolutely, 100% right – even when I am feeling scared.
Your document design services sound really neat. If someone asked you why document design is important, what would you tell them?
Document design is all about organizing information to make it engaging and user-friendly. If you have ever:
filled out a poorly designed form,
looked at a bunch of text and thought “I’m not reading all this”, or
felt you couldn’t find what you were looking for in a document,
…and felt frustrated, THAT’S why document design is important.
Often, organizations type up forms or handouts in basic word processing software without any thought to formatting, spacing, font choice, colors, etc. Sometimes that’s just fine – internal documents and things you use infrequently don’t always need to have a professional touch. But if your customers and employees are using these documents or forms on a regular basis, you want them to be easy to use.
For one thing, it makes customers happy. They may not say, “Wow, this is a well-designed form!” but if they’re working with a document that has poor spacing, tiny font, too much content, or other design issues, they will definitely notice and probably have negative feelings of frustration or irritation. (People don’t really notice good design, but they sure notice bad design.) It’s a part of making it easy for customers to work with you.
Secondly, it saves you time. If your brochures, manuals, documents are hard to use, then confused customers will contact you for help. Of course you don’t mind helping them, but wouldn’t it be great if your documents helped your customers FOR you?
Plus, I help my clients focus, pare down, edit, and rewrite the content too. That’s an important part of what I do because sometimes we get so excited we want to tell our customers EVERYTHING so they will be just as excited as we are. But that can actually have the opposite effect: if there’s too much content, it’s overwhelming and they won’t dip their toe in. Or if the message isn’t focused on your audience, they won’t engage.
Finally, aligning your documents with your company branding is important. Using a consistent font, colors, images, and “vibe” contribute to a customer’s recognition, familiarity, and comfort with you. People tend to choose things they recognize and know over things they don’t. Plus, as one of my professors always said, “Consistency is next to godliness.” :D
What's one thing you're learning at this stage in your business?
I’m learning to connect with others who do what I do and to not be scared to reach out. They know things I don’t, and I know things they don’t, so we share and help each other - it’s mutually beneficial! Even though it feels like they’re the competition, really, everyone has their niche. We obviously overlap some, but we each have the thing (or things) we really love to do and things we prefer less. So, for me, I LOVE designing documents and organizing information; logos and other projects like that are fun too, but that’s not what I’m passionate about. One of my friends makes her business doing logos – she loves it. Another friend does signs. Another does vehicle wraps. All of them probably CAN do documents, but it’s not what they’re passionate about. So I learn from them and even sometimes refer clients to them.
Another is valuing my time and my work. I struggle with what a lot of women do, which is not feeling bad about charging money and charging what I’m worth. Again, connecting with other designers has helped with that a lot. But mostly just reminding myself that the gifts I have are valuable. I think sometimes I think the fact that I love doing it somehow reduces its value – that because it’s easy and fun for me must mean it’s easy and fun for everyone. But I have to remember not everyone can look at a bunch of text and discern a user-friendly and engaging way to present it (or maybe they don’t want to spend the time on it), so they are willing to pay for it. Just like I’m willing to pay people for things I don’t want to do or that I recognize they can do better with less effort than I can.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting their own business?
The BIGGEST thing is to push through and do it. If I would have waited until I was “ready” – I would probably still be waiting. Even though I definitely didn’t feel ready in any way, I decided that the best way to learn more would be through experience… to actually DO it. I did it even though I was terrified, felt like I wasn’t good enough, and was asking myself, “who am I, with no formal training, no degree in this, to go out and start a business?” I have made mistakes, had to offer apologies when I messed something up, and have doubted myself many times. BUT then I remember that in 2015 I didn’t really know how to use a Mac computer, now it’s all I use. I think about specific things I didn’t know how to do in 2018 (after I started the business!) and laugh to myself because now I do them almost daily. I think about where I started and look at where I am now, and I remind myself if I hadn’t started, I’d still be waaaay back there.
Who was I to start a business, not knowing all the things I didn’t know?! I was ME. I wouldn’t have learned many of those skills staying safe in the harbor of the company I worked for; I had to build the skills doing new and different things for other people. I figured each thing out, and there’s plenty more that lies ahead… and when each thing comes, I’ll figure that out too!
Thanks, Kate, for sharing your story!