Kelly Kolar: Evolving the Value Proposition in Design Practice
Kelly Kolar has grown her company from a solopreneur design studio to an international, multi-million dollar company providing strategy as well as design service offerings. Always looking to the future and evolving her firm, Kelly will be a featured speaker at the SEGD Business of Design Summit February 19 in Denver. Join her and learn about raising your design offering to a strategic level!
Kelly spoke with us recently just as she and her 18 co-workers celebrated Kolar Design’s 25th anniversary.
First, how did you get your start in EGD?
What launched my career was winning a design competition for Cincinnati’s bicentennial celebration. I was part of a student team at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP) that entered the competition along with professional designers. My team’s concept won, and when the city advertised for a design director for the bicentennial commission, I applied and got the job.
Was the bicentennial a good foundation for building your career in EGD?
Yes, definitely. The bicentennial celebration was like a mini-Olympics. It was a major brand experience project: creating a four-day-long festival with 1.5 million visitors coming to Cincinnati’s riverfront. It included not just EGD, but signage and wayfinding, events and theater, and tickets and all other print materials. It was an opportunity to showcase our city and build civic pride.
Let’s go back to 1990 for a minute. Why did you start your own company, and did you have a specific idea about what you wanted to create?
I always knew I wanted to have my own company. My father owned a manufacturing company and I grew up inside a multi-generational entrepreneurial family.
The bicentennial commission disbanded in 1989 and I spent 1990 figuring out what to do next. I considered grad school and began freelancing. Then another Cincinnati festival commission, Tall Stacks, called and asked if I would be design director for their event, but as a contractor. That was when I saw my window of opportunity. I wasn’t ready and didn’t feel like I had any idea what I was doing, but sometimes you just have to do it even if you don’t know what will happen.
And what happened next?
It’s funny. I see the evolution of Kolar Design as a series of chapters. Chapter One, in the early years I was a solopreneur, sharing office space and overhead with another designer. Chapter Two began the multidisciplinary nature of our studio, including my husband's industrial design prototype shop in the basement of a gorgeous old Victorian house at the edge of a beautiful park in Cincinnati. We used the shop to build models to communicate our designs since we had architects, artists, and all disciplines of designers on staff. We were close to a mom-and-pop design shop for about 10 years.
Then in 2004, I started doing work for P&G [headquartered in Cincinnati]. They were retooling their brand completely and figuring out how to present themselves as one brand, versus the seven business units that had been represented in the past. We became part of a creative team hired to help them execute the new brand in the global workplace. Kolar’s specific role was to help them translate the brand into the built environment.
It was another window of opportunity to jump through, and we did. Quickly we were working globally with other global teams to envision how their innovation centers and workplace environments would look through the brand lens. P&G taught us so much about business and innovation. We discovered together how to leverage the built environment as a platform for the brand.
What did you learn from the experience?
It definitely inspired a lot of soul-searching and we realized we needed to intentionally and consciously plan the next steps for the business as well as for our lives. We needed to think about the business beyond my leadership. We needed to plan our business such that we wouldn’t be so vulnerable in an economic downturn, managing cash and resources globally.
We applied for and received a one-year Athena PowerLink fellowship that guides woman-owned businesses in defining and achieving tangible goals by providing them with access to a panel of business advisors. As a result of the Athena award, we put an aggressive strategic plan in place. Working with me, my leadership team is now leading the evolution of our practice. We’re in the process of defining and mapping our “secret sauce,” the combination of expertise, experience, and perspective that is the way we do things at Kolar. That is a powerful exercise in planning for the future, the ability to translate a singular vision to making projects successful.
Have you changed your business model, then? What is unique now about how Kolar works?
I learned something very important while doing the P&G work. When we started on their brand team, we were in the back of the bus, so to speak, compared with the firms tied more closely to the creation of the brand. But both P&G and I discovered that beyond the actual execution of design elements, Kolar’s real value lay in our ability to envision and strategize how a space would play out in the context of the brand.
I began to realize that this strategy piece was where we wanted to be in the value chain, not in design execution. So I began turning down some design execution projects and moving toward a strategy role as often as possible.
So what is Chapter 4 of Kolar Design’s story? What’s next?
Optimizing the business to create a legacy company. Getting the management structure in place that will allow us to be sustainable and grow. I’ve shifted my role to not spend 100% of my time on running projects. We focus on strategy and design thinking through a focus on people and what they need from the experiences we’re creating. Our model relies heavily on empathy for the ultimate users of what we design. Focusing our efforts on those things has helped us double the business in the past few years.
Our newest tool is OGSP (Objectives/Goals/Strategies/Plans) and we’re working on that through a rolling 3-5 year lens. We’re constantly planning, constantly evolving the road map. We’ve learned that the design of the business is just as important as the design of our projects. We are brand builders.
We’re also innovating our service offerings, thinking about them in new ways. We are a strategic brand experience firm, and that’s how we present ourselves. Our goals are to create brand experiences that are meaningful, memorable, and measurable. For our healthcare clients like Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, we have the opportunity to measure the power of design in real, tangible ways. We’re very excited and energized by the opportunity to make a real difference with our work.
Do you turn projects down now?
Yes, it happens. When we look at a potential client or project, we evaluate every client as a partner within the context of the “4 P’s.”
• People (Are our people qualified and experienced to complete the project successfully? Will our people enjoy the work?)
• PR/Portfolio (Does it build our credibility in a service area or add new skills to our toolkit?)
• Process (Do we have the right process in place to deliver the project with excellence?)
• Profitability (Can we do it profitably? This is very important!)
Our work for the Cincinnati streetcar project, for example, comes with a very modest fee. But if we look at it through the lens of the 4 P’s, it’s perfect. It becomes an investment in our future and allows us to continue to work positively toward the future of our city’s infrastructure.
If you could give just one piece of advice to someone starting a design business, or any business, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your network is your net worth, truly. I’ve created an amazing mentor network over the years and I’m never afraid to ask questions and reveal that I don’t know everything! I’ve always surrounded myself with people I could ask for advice. Now I mentor other people and I tell them, Don’t call me when things are going great. You don’t need me then. Call me when you’re scared and you don’t know the next step.
Looking back on 25 years in practice, what do you see?
The only grand plan I ever had was passion. I knew I wanted to use creativity as a tool in my community. You can bring a community together through creativity. That’s powerful. Design is powerful and I’m out to prove it.