We talked to Annelies Vlasblom, founder of Zeppa, about using creativity to improve society, and this is what she said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Annelies Vlasblom: My family is doing well. Of course, life is a bit boring, but we are healthy and still have work. Our daughters, who are 20 and 17, are experiencing the lockdown much harder, though. The long absence of no classes and social activities are taking their toll. They really long for society to open up a bit.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Zeppa.
Annelies Vlasblom: I am 49 years old and the founder, owner, and creative director of Zeppa, a creative studio in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. My career was no smooth path up. When I finished high school, I got the chance to study in the USA for a year as an exchange student. I got placed in Arlington, Texas, and studied for one year at UTA (the University of Texas at Arlington). It was wonderful, and I could choose whatever subjects I liked and chose most subjects in Art school. After that year, I wanted to continue in Art classes and got accepted at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. But the education was so different from what I experienced at UTA, less free, more a back-to-high school feeling, that I dropped out disappointed after one year.
I started working at a silkscreen shop and switched to a printing shop later on. There I found out that graphic design would really fit me. I saw the designers coming in with their designs and wanted to do the same. I just started designing, and it turned out I had a very good feeling for it. After quitting at the printing shop, I went back to evening school to study graphic design. During the daytime, I worked part-time at a non-profit organization promoting barter systems (a system of exchange where participants in a transaction directly exchange goods or services for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money.) After graduating, I started my own studio. I worked alone for the first ten years, which was very flexible and easy to combine with raising small children, but after a while, I needed a new challenge, and that’s when I founded Zeppa. Zeppa now exists for six years.
How does Zeppa innovate?
Annelies Vlasblom: Graphic design is a trend-sensitive profession. To be able to stay in business, you have to keep up with the trends. So we evolved from a traditional graphic design studio into a flexible studio with a small core team and a circle of freelancers from varying disciplines around it. We are now able to accept a broad range of services, like communication- or campaign strategy, website development, information design, spatial design, animation, motion graphics, and graphic design, of course. Next to these innovations, we are looking into a project management tool to be able to have a better insight into our hours, work, quotes, bills, etc. There are so many new tools out, which can save us a lot of time and energy.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Annelies Vlasblom: Especially when schools have to close because of a lockdown, we feel the impact on the amount of work coming in. We immediately see that our clients have trouble combining homeschooling and working. Projects come in slower or not at all. So we earn less, unfortunately. It is also hard to acquisition because you know a lot of possible clients are overloaded already.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Annelies Vlasblom: Fortunately, we had some team challenges in the year before COVID-19. Some people left, and we replaced them with freelancers. We already felt the team was too static in case of a crisis. So we were just in time to change it. We now have a very flexible team which suits us very well.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Annelies Vlasblom: We are a small design studio, so the amount of customers is oversee-able. However, for the new project management tool, we are also looking into the CRM part. Right now, I am the only one who has an insight into these relations, and I would like to make it more visible/clear for other people as well. We did not choose a tool yet, so I am sorry I cannot share the name with you. It will be a Dutch party, though.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Annelies Vlasblom: We received NOW (the Dutch government grant to support wages) in the first months of the pandemic but had to pay it back because we earned enough, luckily. The government also offered to postpone paying the various taxes, which we did for a while, but paid them later in the year. It really helped that the government gave us these possibilities. Especially in the first months of the pandemic, everything was unsure. It really gave us some room.
Your final thoughts?
Annelies Vlasblom: It has been a challenging year, but we are not there yet. I am very curious about what will happen when society will open up, and the government is going to ask to pay back the provided grants. Besides that, the pandemic seems to stay in the poorer countries that don’t get access to vaccines. The road will stay bumpy for a while.
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