Sarah Williams is 25-years-old and the founder of two Canadian start-ups, Rebel Office, a branding and marketing firm, and Truest Co., an online retail store for women. Sarah reached out to A Quarter Young to share her story, one that is about beating to her own drum and working to create her own definition of the word “success,” despite what traditional trends and pre-set targets might suggest.
After graduating from university in her early 20s, Sarah started working at a consulting firm before she realized something wasn’t right. Before long, Sarah would take that feeling as an opportunity to step back and re-evaluate
Read our interview with Sarah below to learn more about her journey:
- When you were in your early 20s, you were working at a consulting firm in Ottawa. What lead you to seek a job in consulting after completing a degree in International Business and Mathematics?
If I’m being honest, I applied everywhere I could that that resembled a “big girl” or “real world” job, but working at a consulting firm seemed pretty ideal. In school, especially in my business courses, consulting was glorified and applying to the job definitely made me feel like I was on the right path to a “successful new grad” life.
- When did you realize that this job was not for you?
Realizing the job wasn’t a great fit happened over a period of time and a series of different events. Ultimately, I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously and that I was often in situations I wasn’t comfortable with. A defining moment, I remember, was being thrown under the bus by my boss in front of a client and I finally realized that I was living a life that I thought everyone else considered ideal, not one that I actually thought was or even agreed with.
- Was it a tough decision to say goodbye to a traditional, good gig? Why or why not?
Tricky question. It always felt right to do my own thing. It wasn’t a tough decision to leave and to start my own entrepreneurial journey. That said, security sure is nice and I miss it sometimes. Self-doubt and worry kicks in every now and again but the reality is that I love being an entrepreneur and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
- After quitting your first “real word” job at 22, what were your next steps and why?
My first step was to move home with my parents because I couldn’t afford to live in Ottawa anymore. That made me feel like a bit of a failure, but at the same time, I was excited to explore what I wanted to do with my life. So – obviously – I booked a trip to South America for two months. I travelled for the first month with some friends from university, including living in a van for 10 days and driving up the coast of Chile (I highly recommend it!), then landed in Peru for a month of volunteering. While living in the volunteer house for a month, we had a bunch of free time and I’m not one to just sit there – so I started to plan and build my first business.
- While exploring, travelling and volunteering, what were some of the lessons you learned and what significance do these lessons have, today?
I’m very fortunate to have travelled a lot already, and every time I do, I’m reminded that my way of life and what I’m used to is far from being the “right way” to live. Learning new cultures and seeing new, beautiful places reminds me that everyone is doing their best to get by and everyone has their own experiences and adventures. No one-way is the right or wrong way. I try to live every day of my life with this reminder, and it’s ultimately helped me stay more positive, give more love and help anytime I’m able to. It’s also helped me stay grounded when something doesn’t go as planned in my business or life!
- The word “success” carries so much anxiety, especially when we are taught to focus on the objectivity of that word. What did those first few months as a new grad teach you about your own definition of “success?”
My first few months as a new grad landed me in Ottawa surrounded by people that… well… could have treated me better. I may not have noticed it at the time, but looking back now, those first few months have taught me about self-respect and being 100 per cent true to my gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not right. Screw what everyone else thinks is successful.
- What lead you to create your first online business, Rebel Office while volunteering in Lima, Peru?
I had been thinking about it for a while. Especially while working at the consulting firm and working with my own clients on the side doing graphic design. I knew I could make a real “thing” out of it. It just so happened that while I was travelling and volunteering, I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do next with my life. And that was be my own boss and help businesses build some bada$$ brands.
- How old were you when you launched Rebel Office, and are you a one-woman army or do you have a team of employees?
I was 23 when I launched Rebel Office officially. Which is crazy when I think back on it now and how nervous I was to launch it and announce it to my friends and family. I’m a one-woman army, but I’ve also been fortunate to be able to find help when I needed it.
- What has been the best part of being an entrepreneur and business owner, so far?
There’s definitely a lot of perks. Working my own hours has been great. So has staying in my pyjamas on days that I don’t have meetings with people in real life. That said, the best part has been that it’s allowed me to buy a house with my boyfriend and live in beautiful cottage country on a lake in the middle of nowhere and still run my businesses. Sure, the satellite Internet can be a bit spotty, but I’m able to work from wherever. Being an entrepreneur has let me build my businesses to suit the lifestyle that I want to live right now, which is a luxury that I’m very, very grateful for.
- In addition to creating a business model, you’ve also had to teach yourself graphic design and unique marketing strategies. For our readers looking to do something similar, what resources did you use to get ahead and acquire such skills?
The best way to learn is to read. I read so much stuff online, from blogs to watching video tutorials to taking online courses (some free and some not). As for graphic design, or anything really, the best way to get started is to experiment and play around with the software. Try new ideas. You’ll probably fail more than once, but that’s how you learn. That’s how I learned! I’ve listened to what my clients like and don’t like, what gets more or less positive feedback, etc. I don’t think you ever stop learning, so be open to it and just soak it all up.
- You’ve said, “Being an entrepreneur has been the real education – more so than my university degree.” What are your thoughts on the expectation to pursue academia after high school?
I don’t think formal education is a bad thing. I obviously learned things at university, but the biggest thing I probably learned there was how to network and socialize. So go for it, if that’s where you want to be. If you don’t, and you feel like you have a different calling, then do that. I think there’s so much pressure to go, but if your heart isn’t in it, don’t sink your money into it. The same applies to business.
- What messaging do we as a society need to work on telling teens and young adults, waiting to embark on the undergraduate journey?
I think we as a society need to be very clear when talking with teens and young adults about education and that getting an undergraduate degree is not the only form. I think we need to emphasize that education is important, as learning is crucial to becoming an open-minded, functioning member of society. But, what if you can’t afford it and it doesn’t lead you to where you ultimately want to be? Read a book every night. Follow online magazines. Hang out at the library. Volunteer. Just experience new things and keep moving forward. And remember that if university or college is where you want to be, there’s a lot more to learn there than just what’s in your textbooks.
- When starting any project, there are always initial visions and hopes, and then come the unexpected bumps and hiccups along the road that twist initial plans, entirely. What’s one thing you’ve had to change about Rebel Office since you opened your doors?
My expectations about what the client wants. I look at things from a graphic design and marketing standpoint, and of course what I’m designing is what I think is best for them. But they’re not going to pay for something they don’t like. If they don’t like it, I have to go against what I think is best to give them what they want, regardless of my efforts to explain my design choices. That’s definitely been the biggest curve ball. Through all of that, I think we both learn from each other and I’ve learned to build processes in my business to make this mutual realization a bit smoother (and less awkward).
- In addition to Rebel Office, you also own a second online business called Truest Co. Tell us a little bit more about it!
Truest Co. is an online shop that sells all Canadian-made, ethically sourced products for Canadian women. So: natural, organic, cruelty-free, fair wages – all that good stuff. We’re lucky that Canada has so many small businesses and artisans doing the right thing. Truest Co. tries to make it easy for Canadian women to find these businesses and adjust their buying habits to align with their own values.
- Why were you inspired to create and lead a second company?
I was actually playing around with the platform Shopify for Rebel Office when I started to build a test site. At the time, I was also second guessing if Rebel Office was aligned with my values and making a big enough impact in the world, so when I started to create this test site, Truest Co. just kind of… came alive. I shared it with my friends and family and they LOVED the idea, which was exactly the motivation I needed to convince myself I could run both. I like to think they both come together to represent me as a person. Both my businesses help me achieve and live different and fulfilling values of my life.
- This entrepreneurial journey started two years ago and in the process, you and your partner have bought a home in the Haliburton Highlands, on a beautiful lake, as you’ve mentioned. You’re not working in a traditional office setting, and get most of the job done at home (in what sounds like a beautiful spot!). With all that said, though, what is the hardest part about working from home?
Isolation, for sure. I need to force myself to get out of the house just to be around other people. But I think there’s a trade-off with eve rything and this is what I’ve chosen to trade. It’s so easy, working from home, to get settled into your comfort zone. So while it’s the hardest part, it’s also challenging me to push past it and join some local networking groups.
- How do you stay motivated and focused to tackle the to-dos of two web companies?
Staying motivated has become easier since getting my office space all set up. We’re down a guest bedroom, but I have a space that I can focus and stay inspired. I also stick to a pretty strict morning routine, which helps me feel like I’ve already started to accomplish things before I even start work. It’s basic – drink a cup of green tea, do 15 minutes of yoga, have a shower, but it gets me up and ready to start my day. Really, I’ve just worked hard at building schedules and processes to be able to tackle my to-dos, like blocking off time throughout the week to focus on different parts of both businesses.
- What advice do you have for other young professionals or new grads thinking about taking a dive into entrepreneurship?
If you’re thinking about making the leap to entrepreneurship, do it. Whether you think you’ll succeed or not, it’ll be worth the risk. Even if you happen to fail, your life won’t end and you will have learned a ton in the process (so who says you failed?). Try something new, go back to a 9-to-5, go live in a cabin in the woods and live off the grid. Opportunities are endless no matter what you do. While being an entrepreneur is extremely difficult, it’s even more rewarding. And when you do make that jump? The people around you may not get it. In fact, they probably won’t. But if you see a gap in your life and a need for something you can offer, there’s someone else out there that sees a gap too and isn’t willing to put in the work to offer it. So go sell to them.
- What do you hope the next year of entrepreneurship and creativity has in store, for you?
I’m open for whatever comes at me. I’m hoping to streamline and grow my businesses, build a more steady income and start to grow my own brand as the face of Truest Co. and Rebel Office. I’d really like to become a strong advocate for entrepreneurship and supporting small businesses. My one real hope is and has always been that I’m never in the same place a year from now. Onward and upward to bigger and better things!
- Do you have anything else to add?
I guess after all of this, I want the biggest takeaway to be that: no, my businesses aren’t perfect and I see a lot more growth and hard work in the future, but I still feel like I’ve won the jackpot at 25. My definition of success is the same as my definition for happiness; and that may change over time, but I’m happy where I’m at and I’m happy where I’m headed. And that’s what I hope for your readers – that they find their own definition of success and happiness, and that they’re one in the same.
To learn more about Rebel Office, visit http://rebeloffice.ca to browse business and branding tools, templates and resources. Truest Co. is live at https://shoptruest.ca and the brand is also active on Instagram and Facebook at @truestcompany and facebook.com/truestcompany.
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Sarah! We can’t wait to see what’s in store for Rebel Office and Truest Co.