Maria Rapetskaya - Founder and Creative Director of Undefined Creative

Reassess what you think you believe. That means everything, from the way you market your company to the way you operate to the work you’re going after to what you think will make you happy.

Maria Rapetskaya is the creative leader and architect of Undefined Creative, a boutique motion graphics agency that works with household names like NHL, NBC Universal, The Maury Show, Better Homes & Gardens and United Nations. She built the company’s reputation on good old-fashioned customer service and consistent execution on brand, on time and on budget. She stubbornly remains hands-on in both design and production, doing what she truly loves on a daily basis.

Blessed with nearly 20 years of success, Maria is a serious pay-it-forward give-backer – through teaching, mentoring, writing and public speaking. She’s taught at NYU, NYU Continuing Education and University of the Arts. She regularly contributes her thoughts on entrepreneurship and creativity to the likes of 99U, Fast Company, Entrepreneur and Fortune, as well as professional organizations such as AIGA and PromaxBDA. Together with her studio, Maria donates 300+ hours a year in pro bono work and mentorships.

Define Your Path, her new mentoring platform, helps creatives at all levels to develop careers and companies that accurately express their personalities and goals.

A near-native New Yorker, Maria lives in Brooklyn, but gets out often — with 60 countries on six continents under her belt, and counting.

Where did the idea for Undefined Creative come from?

For nearly six years, I was an art director at a small post-production facility. I was “Employee #3” and we grew to eight by the time I left. I was very emotionally vested in the company, but as a mere employee, I couldn’t steer the ship. It was frustrating, because (at my wise old age of 25 when I resigned!) I was convinced I could run it better.

One day, I thought, well, why DON’T I just do this for myself? My significant other was also in the business, so we started a partnership in 2005. It was my first experiment in business, and it dissolved together with our relationship, five years later.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to try this again, but going back into the workforce didn’t suit my personality. As I ruminated over my next steps, the universe decided for me – a former client reached out with a long-term project. That’s when Undefined Creative was born.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I wake up around 7, have breakfast, meditate and take my 15-second commute to the desk. That gives me 30-40 minutes to deal with email, personal to-do lists, or any pressing tasks. My executive producer and I do a quick check-in call at 9, to go over the status of current jobs. If needed, we do another call with rest of the staff working that day, or just check in over Slack. From there, everyone is on their own, getting through their own task lists. That’s what I think makes for great productivity here: minimal oversight, minimal time wasted talking about doing, minimal distractions throughout the day. We have a “911” mode that anyone can invoke if they need to focus. That means not responding to Slack, and requesting others stop pinging with anything that’s not vital.

I eat lunch quickly and at the desk, and instead I break for the 3pm slump, when I’m pretty useless. I’ll go for a run, a workout, or even a stroll to get coffee and run errands. If we’re busy, that can mean an hour. If there’s nothing pressing, that can mean two. I schedule calls and meetings towards the end of the day as well, since that’s when I actually want to chat and socialize.

In the evenings, I generally don’t mind working right up until dinner if the workload demands it. It’s easier to work late when I don’t have a commute home. I can even multi-task and cook while I wrap things up. After dinner however, it has to be a true emergency. There’s no TV in my home, and we have a no-screens policy in the bedroom. Those 2-3 hours “off” are really key to my everyday sanity.

The only difference when we’re extremely busy is my wakeup time – 6 a.m. or, on a rare occasion, 5 a.m. My morning hours are my most productive, so I take advantage when extra effort is needed.

Obviously, it’s not always possible, but I try to arrange my schedule around my personality and lifestyle preferences.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Hard work, diligence, patience. That’s the truth. Everyone has ideas. There are people all around me who are far more creative and original than me, but I’m the one running a creative business. That’s only because, from the start, I was willing to put in the effort… from going to art school, to putting in years working for others, to sucking it up when things got overwhelming and stressful. That goes for everything, from bringing my business ideas to life, to bringing to life the ideas for our clients.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

More and more entrepreneurs are breaking traditional ideas of how a company should be run. I see so many individual, unique approaches, especially with respect to remote teams. I no longer feel like some oddball out, but feel instead like one of the trailblazers, who renounced office space before that was the “It Thing” to do.

That joke aside, I was in this wilderness alone for so long, glossing over the cornerstone of my company philosophy with smoke and mirrors. Now, I can come out of my professional closet, in full support of this idea of aligning how you run a company with how you want to live and work. The one-size-fits-all business model is outdated and I’m happy to see it go.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I have a habit of not procrastinating. It helped me develop an ability to just put my head down and get on with whatever needs to get done. If anything, I’m more likely to tackle the tasks I don’t want to do first, and leave the pleasant stuff as a treat for later. And that’s really helped me in business, especially in the early days. There were so many realities of running a company I underestimated or didn’t even anticipate, like having to be my own bookkeeper and office manager. Thankfully, I’m a terrible procrastinator, so I took care of these operations needs before they got out of control.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

My first “real” job out of college was a disaster. It was a small design studio run by an egomaniac. He was the creative director, but unfortunately lacked all that’s necessary to be a good one. Being a novice, however, I couldn’t tell the difference between what were my own shortcomings and inexperience and what was the result of being led by someone unfit for the role. We often worked around the clock, making up for twenty wrong directions at the final hour. It wasn’t uncommon to leave the office at 4 a.m., and be expected back in at 11 the next day – even if a Saturday. The company culture, whatever little there was of it, was mostly exhaustion and frustration. We were paid overtime, but at the owner’s discretion. There wasn’t a clear cut system for how that was calculated. Frankly, I hardly had the time to spend it with those hours!

I quit after just nine months, but what I learned was invaluable: a creative job, in my field, doing what I really want to do, is still a job. Prior to this, I had a bit of a rainbows-and-unicorns image of what it would be like as a professional creative, and I got a good dose of reality. No other job since was that miserable, but the lesson served me well, especially once I got into a position of leading others. I’m always sensitive to how I give direction, how explicit I am about what’s a must and what’s open to interpretation, why I’m making specific requests. I won’t shy away from saying, “I’m sorry, I admit this is exactly what I asked for, but now I see it’s the wrong direction for this job, so can we try x, y, z…” I respect my employees’ time, and I never take it for granted when someone puts in an extra hour or two, or goes out of their way to be available.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

If I could go back to 2005, I wouldn’t start a company so soon. I’d spend more time working for others, learning, networking. I would especially spend more time building my connections and experience, because those became the foundations of my business. And, even once I started, I would get out there sooner to network and promote.

I wouldn’t partner with someone just because it seems to be an obvious choice.

I’d put a lot more thought into a real business plan, as opposed to flying by the seat of my pants.

I’d take a few months off before I jumped into starting a business. Just to get that out of my system.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Reassess what you think you believe. That means everything, from the way you market your company to the way you operate to the work you’re going after to what you think will make you happy. We fall into patterns and habits so quickly! Some are useful and positive, but others become crutches and excuses. You have to question yourself out of your comfort zone. Few are blessed with friends or mentors who can do that for us. So the next best thing is learning how to be our own devil’s advocate and bullshit detector.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Turning limitations into advantages.

I started Undefined Creative with zero in the bank. Instead of lamenting lack of capital, I was frugal and wise about spending every dime. The situation changed quickly, but because I made a decision to not take on business debt, or accept partners/investors, I had to be cautious. The financial limitations guided all future decision making, but they in turn created the company I set out to create: nimble, flexible, with low-overhead and good margins.

When we hit frighteningly slow patches, we turned those into opportunities to do pro bono projects, some of which went on to win awards and get additional exposure for the studio. When we hit some really big bumps, we cut our overhead by sharing resources with another production company, which led to gains in other aspects of our business.

We don’t have anyone dedicated to sales or marketing. Instead those tasks are divided between the core team members. Some would see that as disadvantage, but it gives us the ability to shift our messaging and strategy frequently, and chance to interact with our clients/potential clients directly, more openly.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Not taking the sales process/cycle seriously. Or considering it at all, frankly, when I first started. I had this idea that talent and hard work alone would build my company, and of course, anyone who knows anything about business would’ve told me that’s a myth.

I also hated sales, anything to do with “selling,” really. I think it was a throwback to my days as an art-school kid, and these naive ideas about commercial art and selling out. I knew it was unavoidable, but I soft-stepped around it for a long time. I believe it’s the reason my first company was really just two freelancers working together. There was no real system or regular sales agenda.

When I started Undefined Creative, and hired my first employee, she and I talked a lot about sales and our discomfort with the idea. My first step was to sign up both of us for a sales course. That led to doing more networking events, and defining our own comfort zones. She was much more comfortable on the phone, which meant I had no choice but to be the forward-facing person and put myself out there at every opportunity.

I overcame this finally when we lost two big clients within a month due to circumstances beyond our control and foresight. That’s when it hit me – either I have to sell or hire someone to do it. I hired someone. A year later, I realized that no one will promote or speak for my business better than I can.

I won’t lie. It took time before I grew to be OK with this. The big change came from a simple mind shift. I was intimidated by “selling,” but I’m very social and comfortable with new situations, so I stopped thinking about it as “sales” and really made it about just meeting people, and having conversations about what they do and about what I do. I started to attend more conferences and local events. Then I started speaking at conferences, then writing and now doing guest podcasts. These are all things I very much enjoy doing, and believe in. They allow me to meet and interact with people in a less “agenda-driven” way than what I imagined sales-focused networking to be.

On the other hand, Cathy, my second in command, wanted to contribute to the sales cycle her own way. We worked together to figure out what that is. We hired an outside consultant to examine our sales process and advise us on options. The result is she now has a system in place that’s very effective and suits her personality.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Wow. That’s hard. I don’t have an idea per se, but I can offer a way to perhaps arrive at your own idea. When I look around, the majority of the startups I see are all dedicated to what I call glamorous first-world problems. It’s “cool” to be an entrepreneur now, and that’s influencing the kinds of companies that are in vogue: the disruptors that change the way we live in some profound way. But, in reality, a lot of companies I see produce nothing. They aggregate, essentially becoming middle-men, taking their cut of someone else’s work.

A simple hands-on service-oriented company that you’d enjoy running, one that can generate enough income for your needs and perhaps fairly employ a couple of others – THAT TOO is a business. Somehow our current culture treats this as low-hanging fruit. Few are looking at what I’d call “unsexy” problems and the populations/demographics that deal with them. And we don’t all have to be disruptors, or makers, or future changers. There are plenty of business ideas in your own neighborhood, in your own community – if you pay attention.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Another really hard one! I’m going to go with Thursday Suppers at the Farm on Kent in Williamsburg. It was exactly $100, which is steep for dinner for one, even at New York City prices. But, an acquaintance I really like invited me, and she was going with a close friend. A lot of my girlfriends have moved on to having a family and our social circle doesn’t gather like we used to. So, I thought, why not take this opportunity to get to know someone?

And it worked out splendidly! It was a beautiful outdoor garden setting, right at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. The weather was great, the food was excellent – as was the wine. Sarah and her friend Katie were great company, and we all made another new friend (she and her boyfriend shared the table with us). We now have plans for another dinner night in late October.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Dropbox, Slack, Google Docs and Adobe’s Creative Cloud. Thanks to first three, this company can both remain true to its core philosophy and run smoothly. As for Adobe, my entire career, from my first paid design gig in 1996 through this moment, has been built around these tools.

Dropbox frees us from having to share a physical space in order to access project files and collaborate. It also ensures that there’s built in backup system, both robust and simple to deploy by anyone on the team. Traditionally, these were things done by dedicated IT people or, if that was financially out of reach, each employee would be responsible for some share of data backup. For a small company like ours, it completely eliminates this problem.

Slack is equally our project management center and our virtual water cooler. We even have clients who invite us to their channels on projects we’re involved in. For me, it’s a wonderful way to stay involved even if I’m running around or traveling. I can keep an eye on progress, chime in when I have something of importance to contribute, or review and comment without opening five different apps.

Google Docs is what we settled on for all of our day-to-day management. We used Daylite for a couple of years, but it began to get expensive with constant upgrades, we couldn’t customize it to our specific needs. Overall, it was overkill for what we really needed. So, we went back to Google and haven’t looked back.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns The Future? – I feel that as part of the digital creative community, we must understand the future we’re contributing to building. Particularly, we have to be conscious what we’re doing when giving away free work, in any form. And, because, as digital creators for hire, we become part of the advertising/marketing machine, we have to consider the long-term effects of allowing big business to monetize personal information. Whether the solution he posits is achievable or even possible, the problem is real and growing. The idea of each person being a creator of data, and that they ought to be compensated for it, I feel is of particular value for creatives. All of us are creators of content, and we’ve all given away work online in exchange for opportunity or exposure. Few of us consider that each time we give away our work, it takes away an earnings opportunity from someone else.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I’m an old-school book reader, so that’s where I find ideas and inspiration. So, I’m giving you more books.

Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, had a profound effect on me. At the time, I was very confused about the course of my life, and it helped ease the pressure I was putting on myself.

Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath, is about change, on every level, from the personal to the institutional. So, it was influential in my own life, but also helped better understand client behavior.

Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, is another good one, although I was very turned off by the title at first.

Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now stayed with me for a long time.

I have a strong pull towards Buddhism, so on my list are both more mainstream titles, like The Quantum and the Lotus, by Matthieu Ricard, as well as some more esoteric ones that belong to a particular tradition.

As for websites, I’m a huge fan of Disclosure: I have written for them, but precisely because of how much I appreciate the site. Their content is geared towards the creative professionals, but what sets it apart for me is the quality of the ideas and the writing. Listicles go in one ear and out the other, but when I get advice in the context of someone else’s personal journey, it sinks in.

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