Growing up I doodled on everything.
Be it a star or a swirl, a flower or the sunshine, my folders in school and any notepad in my vicinity would be covered in what I like to think were sheer, thirteen year old girl masterpieces..! Be it I was bored in physics or had lost focus in Spanish, so long as I had a pen and paper in hand, drawing randomly made me happy.
When I came across Natalia Talkowska, the 31 year old Queen of Doodles behind both Natalka Design – a visual storytelling company that translates ideas and information into visual messages that stakeholders can understand and buy into and Doodleledo – a public social event for anyone who says: “I can’t draw!”; the teenager in me that used to find calm in drawing, knew in an instant that I had to convince her to talk!
Over lattes in London on a cold, December evening, the two of us sat down for what felt like catch ups; as I quizzed her on how she transformed a hobby like doodling into a fully-fledged business that has taken the world by storm…
With not just one but four TED talks to her name, a client list that includes – quite literally – the biggest companies in the world and a project on the side that started over a glass of wine three years ago and now takes place in over twenty countries; this woman has some serious stories to tell and has crammed a whole lot into her six years of being self-employed…
Natalia Talkowska. See I want to ask you questions! I’m so curious!! We’ll need to get another coffee!
She can. She did. We will indeed but today is about you! You’ve got a few projects on the go so let’s start with the big one!
NT. I call it “The mothership!”
SC.SD. The mothership it is! Where did the idea for Natalka Design come from?
NT. So the main idea came about six years ago. It was a mix of the right moment, the right time, the wrong job and the right tweet… but I knew there’s something out there more ME that I can do!
SC.SD. What did the ‘wrong job’ involve?
Having spent nearly three years teaching art to special needs children – a job that Natalia loved but found emotionally draining – she moved to a start-up that failed to provide the creativity she was seeking.
NT. I was an ‘online community manager’… It was a lot of being on the computer taking care of angry people that were upset at the company. There was so much sitting in front of the computer… not that I don’t do that now!
SC.SD. But it’s different when you actually like what you’re doing on the computer?
NT. Exactly! And it was really hard to be stable in London earning what I was earning. It was just long, non-inspiring hours…
SC.SD. Going from that to making a living out of visual storytelling is quite a big step! What prompted the realisation that it could become a business? Had you always drawn on things growing up for instance?
NT. Yes! When people ask me whether I’ve studied art, I shouldn’t say it but no, I haven’t, so technically you shouldn’t hire me! But I call drawing the longest internship in my life because I’ve done it since I was a kid and grown that skill ever since.
In terms of turning it into a business, six years ago I met a very interesting guy called Darren Robson. You can totally link this guy because he’s an amazing business man and friend and he decided to kick my arse and help me realise my potential…
SC.SD. How did you meet him?
NT. I tweeted him! So that was my weird moment. I thought he’s a really interesting person and I sometimes do that to people that I find interesting and he just replied saying “meet me tomorrow at 7am for breakfast”. I was like, “err… what?!”
SC.SD. What did your tweet say?!
NT. I’d just said “I love what you do; I’d love to meet for coffee…” The usual thing you send that no one ever replies to! We had a mutual friend though so I guess he thought there must be a normal person behind the screen!
Anyway he said: “You’re talented, leave the job. I’ll help you somehow… I don’t know how yet but go and set up a website, work out how you’re going to do this and then call me.” When you hear something like that at 7am on a cold morning when there’s not much in your bank account and you still have bills to pay, you’re like “huh?!” And you call your Mum and all she can say is, “Who is this man?!”
Anyway my first gigs were just joining him for big internal events and he’d say: “Natalia is going to visualise all our key insights” and I’d be standing there like “…..ok!”
SC.SD. “Am I?!”
NT. And everyone would be like “errrr….!” There was no trust, no one knew what I was going to do, I had two marker pens with me, some random paper- it was super old school! I had no clue what I was doing and when I look back at those pieces of work I’m like what the hell!? But slowly, slowly…
SC.SD. People started to get it?
NT. Yes! I was doing all sorts of projects and meeting all sorts of people and then suddenly my visuals ended up on a charity book for Tusk Trust and I was at Christie’s in a dress just thinking ‘what is my life right now?’ Weird things like that started happening so I knew there was something to it!
There’s nothing deep behind the name though, although I probably shouldn’t say that! Six years ago my bank manager asked me “what’s the name of your business miss?” and I was like “errrr…Natalka Design!” In Poland, Natalka is just the cute version of saying my name…
SC.SD. Like Fi and Fiona?
NT. There you go! And ‘Design’ is purely for Google to find me easily!
SC.SD. People can spend months uh-ming and ah-ing about naming their business. Are you quite decisive by nature?
NT. Yes! I was tempted to change my logo at one point but my Mum just said: “no! I like your logo, keep it. It’s original!” and I was like: “Ok Mum! You’re my adviser from Poland, I’ll keep it!”
SC.SD. Mum’s know best!
NT. She was so strong about it! Anyway, the “mothership” essentially grew by me just waving at people, networking loads, going to every event that I can think of, doing loads of things for free, and just saying: “Hi guys! I draw! I draw well, I draw fast, I’ve got good ideas… does anyone need anything explaining or selling via visuals?”
SC.SD. Does putting yourself out there like that come naturally to you; especially on stage when no one understood your concept? Were there nerves? Were you excited?
NT. All of that! You just need to find that moment. Whether it’s a person you meet, or something just clicks in your mind. I need to do something now or it will be too late! I think if I did it now, I wouldn’t have the same energy. I’m way more comfortable and selective now because it’s working. I always try and meet people as much as I can but sometimes it’s not as easy. I just had some weird crazy energy back then, I don’t know from where…
SC.SD. But is that sustainable? I think it’s good that you’ve learnt to say “no”…
NT. Thank you, I needed to hear that! Back in the day, I just had no other worries other than putting everything into this. I didn’t like my job, I had barely any savings, Darren and I were constantly brain storming, “what’s next? What can I do better?” I had a lot of challenges to get through but it was just this invisible energy pushing me towards these people like “Hi, hi, hi!” It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, it doesn’t matter if it’s late, you just know you have to do something with your life…
SC.SD. When you say your idea out loud to someone just the once though, it’s out there isn’t it…
NT. Yes. You created it so you either sit down and pretend it’s happening or you actually get up and say “guys, I’m running a creative agency, we do this…” At the beginning I had no clue; I was just like “Hi I’m Natalia!”
SC.SD. And now?
NT. And now I can clearly – although I’m still weird – say what we do, how we help, why it’s worth your time and money and that our work sees clear results for companies. That’s why they come back.
With a list of clients including YouTube, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Disney and TedX to name but a few, Natalka Design has now established itself as a world leading visual communications agency.
SC.SD. Your client base includes some of the most powerful companies in the world… How long was it before you got paid?
NT. Quite soon actually! Definitely within the first year but the first gigs were low paid. If I earned £100 I was happy. I wasn’t selling myself to the point where I’d take £5 for my work but whatever came my way, I said yes. I was like Jim Carey in ‘Yes Man!’ Slowly I started to realise that maybe I can set a day rate and maybe I should start thinking about what this video would normally cost! Eventually I thought, ‘I’ll try and ask for this’ and then yay it worked!
SC.SD. Amazing! You’ve had returning customers from the outset so did you encounter any awkward conversations about why the price went up?
NT. Yes! It was never a question of “this year, we’ll do a conference for £1000 and next year it’ll be £2000” though. It’s more like how the tube prices go up every year. Every business costs more to run so it’s a subtle change which clients don’t mind because we tend to add much more to our offering for them. Plus if you gain that trust they want to work with you regardless.
SC.SD. It clearly works! Looking back, is there a stand out moment where it really dawned on you that you were on your own with this?
NT. Lots! I went into this not having a clue how to run a business. I just knew you need to talk to people, gather some emails, talk to them again, if they don’t reply, talk to them again! Be that annoying person until they say “please stop annoying me!”
No, in all seriousness, you just learn as you go. I’ve learnt to train my brain. For instance, at the beginning, I went to meet Darren and just said “Darren, I’m sending all these emails to all these people and nothing is coming my way.” I guess I wanted him to say, “ah poor you!” and I will never forget this… We were supposed to have a session, he closed his book, smiled at me, and just said “talk to me when you’re more positive” and left.
SC.SD. Oh my gosh!
NT. I felt like it was an invisible slap to the face. It was the best learning curve but at the time I was like “how dare you, that’s so rude!” I wanted to cry, no one was listening to my whining! But I won’t forget it. He’s always been that way with me; so caring but very direct. There will always be bad days but it’s up to you how you deal with them.
Since then, anything that comes my way, yes I was still be stressed but I don’t whine. What can I do when it’s quiet? Call more. What can I do when he didn’t respond? I’ll go to her. There’s always a way.
SC.SD. I trust that you were a tad more positive when you sat down with him next?!
NT. Yes! I just said “this bit is a bit quiet but I’ve done, this, this and this instead.” He just listened and smiled.
SC.SD. That’s such an incredible story!
NT. It was invisible mentoring I suppose. He always says “you did everything on your own” but if you meet someone like that, grab it while you can and do your best because often we need that metaphorical slap in the face to do something differently.
SC.SD. And six years later, he’s still your go-to guy?
NT. Yes! I’m seeing him soon! He’s like my guardian angel, friend, mentor, kick in the arse… I’ll always be grateful for him.
SC.SD. I love that. Have you had any moments in the past six years where you’ve thought ‘I’ve made it’?
NT. I don’t think you ever feel that and if you ever do, don’t! There are always dreams and challenges that you can fulfil and I never want that to stop. One of the most impressive for me personally though was going to 10 Downing Street and drawing a private talk by the then Prime Minister…
NT. Yes! It was a talk in his private garden with just a handful of very high CEO’s from the UK. That was a huge pinch me moment. To this day though, some of my proudest achievements are that we’ve created a brand, logo and all the visuals for an individual who is now running a really amazing business. I mean let’s face it, there’s still a lot of sitting at home doing emails behind a screen BUT every project is so different. I won’t ever feel like I’m done. That’s not how my brain works!
By Natalka Design’s third birthday, the company had gone global and there are now talks about opening a second base in Poland.
NT. There’s so much interest out there but it’s wherever the wind takes us. People find you through all sorts of ways. Referrals, LinkedIn… the more you get yourself out there, you never know who’s going to see you and suddenly the world becomes small. A lot of it can be done from London though so you don’t need to always travel.
SC.SD. London and the internet are good like that! Am I right in thinking you’ve done a TED talk?
NT. I’ve done four if I can be very honest about that…
SC.SD. You can be very honest about that! See, I know you don’t think you’ve made it but the minute you’re asked to do a TED talk, it speaks volumes…
NT. It’s super humbling! I organised TedX a few years ago in London and you become part of the family but I always wanted to give one, one day. I was terrified though!
SC.SD. How do you prepare for a TED talk!?
NT. It’s very strict and there are a lot of rules you can and can’t do. It’s recorded, it’s up to eighteen minutes, you can’t specifically mention the names of your business… Everyone prepares differently. You have people that prepped the day before; you have people that practice months in advance. I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m not a natural speaker so it’s never going to be perfect but the idea is about spreading your ideas right?
SC.SD. Absolutely. Do you have a favourite TED talk (other than your own!)?
NT. Oh my god, Ken Robinson’s on education! I think it’s one of the first ones but the way he looks at how when you’re in your element you work the best, behave the best, and thrive! It’s what got me into TED. I was like “Yes!” That’s me when I talk to people and draw! That’s not me when I’m forced to do Excel spread sheets! It taught me that when you’re not good at something, delegate it!
SC.SD. Let’s talk about that more. When did your team first come on board and what made you realise you needed one?
NT. It was a lack of time and not liking/being good at certain jobs. That’s my one bit of advice. “Don’t waste your time on doing things that would take someone else five minutes.” At the beginning I had interns. Amazing young people that wanted to be a part of it… Some of my best friends are the people that I worked with as interns and we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. We were printing stuff, talking to clients, going to events…
SC.SD. And you were quite willing to say, as the boss, “I don’t have a clue either and I’m making this up!”
NT. Yes! Some people won’t work with you when you say that and that’s ok but some people are like “YES! That’s my type of approach. I also have no clue. Let’s do something!” Of course to a point that’s acceptable, otherwise we’d be wasting everyone’s time but as I started to get bigger more regular projects, I could create more regular roles in time.
SC.SD. And your team now is how big?
NT. So I have four people now that I work very closely with. We don’t have an office purely because of how we work- I would never be there! We communicate, we see each other whenever we need to and we scale up or down depending on the job. If I need to find five people that can design, animate, film etc, I have it like that.
SC.SD. How do you find the role of manager?
NT. I know it sounds cliché but finding the right people is so important. I have worked with people that have excuse after excuse, even though they’re super talented. There’s been a lot of challenging moments where I’ve had to sit them down and say “you’re amazing but I can’t work with you.” Then there will be people who are just amazing where you have to tell them off because they’re doing over time! Our animator Lenia, loves working at night, it’s when she thrives and I have to say – and she’ll have this in writing now – “Just so you know Lenia, you don’t have to work so late!” She loves it though!
SC.SD. It’s been documented now so she will soon know!
NT. Good! We just have a team now that really care! I can’t work with people where I need to ask “are you working yet?”
SC.SD. You need to be able to trust them?
NT. Yes! It’s now a case of “ok we have some goals to deliver this week, if you need anything, talk to me, other than that are we good? Great! I’ll see you there.”
SC.SD. Love that! Given that your idea clearly works, has anyone tried replicating it and if so how does that feel?
NT. Yes, there’s quite a few talented people! But before I started, there were amazing companies doing similar things but we’re a huge fan of them and we believe in healthy competition and free market.
What I think people like about us though that makes them come back and the reason we end up working with blue-chip companies and government is that it’s not just pretty pictures. They see the results. They promote something better, they’ll sell something quicker, they engage with their team in a more meaningful way, they’ll win the bid… Yes it’s visually attractive design but it also works.
Often a client will just say “I need a video” and I say “ok, firstly what’s happening?” and they say “everyone’s on YouTube, that’s where I should be yes?” and I just have to say “wait!”
Sometimes they know what they want, they have a timeline they’re working to and we deliver it but if I can, I dig a little deeper and find out why they need it? What do you want to achieve? Who will look at it? How often do you want them to look at it? That’s when suddenly I say, “you don’t need a video.” Or I say, “you need a video and something else, or you need something completely different.”
SC.SD. Have you ever been given an intimidating brief?
NT. Oh yes! But I love those- that’s when you learn something right? Often if it’s something I don’t do, I need to find people to help so you get to work with people that have incredible talents and you have to trust them. Recently we’ve been working on a BBC children’s series – I can’t say much more – but basically we were asked to do lots of animations and I needed some help with the bits that we’d never done before but I was so excited doing that!
I always say “yes we’ll do it” and then we’ll figure it out!
At the same time as running Natalka Design, Natalia launched Doodleledo three years ago. Running for two hours in over twenty countries, guests play a number of interactive drawing games over drinks and nibbles that have been designed to help rewire their brain, unleash their inner creativity, and they make friends in the process.
NT. I had a random thought over wine with some friends where I just said: “guys do you want to draw for a bit? Bring some friends, bring some wine, let’s just sit down and draw!”
I literally sketched a logo in about three seconds and now it’s running in twenty something countries! I can’t remember the exact number but I decided to just let it flow. People started asking “when are you doing the next one?” and then suddenly someone from Ireland was like “hey, we heard about Doodleledo from a friend. Can we start it in Ireland?”
SC.SD. And in terms of the logistics, did you go out there and set it up?
NT. Of course! I didn’t plan it to be in twenty something countries though! We have so many exciting plans and ideas for it but at the moment it’s not possible because of the lack of time. I need a few copies of myself! We trademarked the name too which is good for the future plans.
SC.SD. Was that simple to do?
NT. When you try and trademark a name like Doodleledo, the government is like “what the hell!?” It’s an interesting process really because they find all of these company names that sound similar to it and you have to confirm what the meaning is but we don’t have a meaning! It just comes from doodle and kind of sounds right..!
SC.SD. It’s onomatopoeic!
NT. Exactly! At the moment we have people popping up in Atlanta saying they’d like to host one! There’s one being held on 9th December in Nairobi…!
SC.SD. Surely you can’t go to all of them?!
NT. No, no! I wish I could go to them all but it’s so easy to run! Sometimes people I have never met run them but we share that and tweet it. It’s a real community! It’s for anyone that says they can’t draw so there are loads of activities, people laugh a lot, organisers can print their own posters, they price it up… We just love the fact that it’s growing!
NT. Unless you carry on drawing in adulthood you just stop altogether and it’s a skill you lose so when people first come to Doddleledo, their body language is so closed. You can tell they’re just thinking ‘what the hell am I doing?’ but our games are timed so they don’t have time to think! They just do it and end up with three pages of doodles in ten minutes! Suddenly people open up and they’re laughing and it’s ok to be completely useless and silly and not worry.
SC.SD. Art is so subjective though so someone could look at a particular doodle and think ‘that’s a pile of crap’ whereas another could find it fascinating!
NT. Exactly! I always say “no judgement!” People laugh at stickmen and I’m like “guys, no judgement! Stickmen are amazing!” Whatever you do is great, just do it. The more you do it, things open up in your brain and suddenly your body language changes and that’s what fascinates me. It’s a simple thing to do but because we don’t do it often, it becomes something that only artists do and it shouldn’t be!
SC.SD. 100% Let’s move on to the serious stuff like you as a business woman…!
NT. That’s not serious at all, that’s the fun bit!
SC.SD. Haha! As you’ve become more successful as a business woman have any of your relationships changed?
NT. Oh yes! You know what I think, the people that really care for you and love you, no matter what – whether you’re annoying sometimes or amazing or you’re gone for a bit or your present – as long as you take care of the fact that they’re there for you and you bother to reach out and keep in touch too, they’ll be there.
I think in everyone’s lives, there are moments where things don’t go as well as you might think but it always show you who your best friends are. Just don’t be so hard on yourself and if you need a moment to breathe and recalculate your life for a second, slow freaking down and have a moment to yourself! It’s ok!
I kind of went through that process this year where I grew some balls, became stronger mentally, and realised what’s important to me and what’s not. If that means I was a bit more disconnected with certain people that’s ok as long as you let the people you care about know that you still want to be in their lives. Then when the storm passes, come back to their lives and be interested because their lives are just as important as yours.
SC.SD. I think it’s so important to voice that though because relationships do change and it’s making sure you know who your safety net are and looking after them.
NT. Definitely and I don’t want to sound too intense but apart from really close friends and your family, it’s ok if it doesn’t last forever. I feel like I’m the happiest and most content with myself right now. I know who I am and I know who I want in my life and I hope they want to be in my life too!
I love the question “how are you?” If they say “no your week was amazing let’s talk about that!” I’m like “no, tell me how you are! That can wait! Talk to me!” It doesn’t matter if you have a fancy job or you’re single or you’re married or you travel or you don’t, “how are you?”
SC.SD. In terms of being a business woman in the UK, what kind of support is there?
NT. I would say you get as much support as you seek. We’re quite independent in terms of how we get our clients and how we operate but throughout the years, I’ve gained some great friends in the industry doing completely different things but they’re amazing. They can refer you or introduce you but they’re also there when you need to say “hey, I’ve had a shit day, let’s chat.” I’m so grateful for that.
Outside of that, there are lot of Facebook groups or look at your new account… That’s interesting to me and I might reach out to some of the women because I think they’re amazing. Nowadays you can research what you need and find it but make sure that you can offer some help back.
SC.SD. Absolutely! How do you switch off?
NT. If I’m physically made to do something for an hour or two, the only thing I need to think about is how to move my arms and legs. Otherwise my brain would be constantly switched on.
That’s the beauty of it and the bad thing about it because let’s be honest, if you work for someone, you usually go home at 5 or 6 and you switch off. If you don’t, we need to talk because you should be! But, when you run your own thing, it’s hard. Let’s not lie. If I find myself working on something at 11pm but I enjoy it, is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? I don’t know! But if I still think about it, I’d rather do that than watch a series on Netflix, it’s up to you how you feel.
Switching off isn’t easy for me though I’ll be honest with you. But if I do something physically, travel, dance etc… it helps.
SC.SD. They’re all rather intense activities though… When are you at your most calm?
NT. I think if I’m by the sea, I’m the calmest I can be. Give me any water – as long as it’s bigger than a puddle – and I am relaxed. If I’m travelling anywhere where there is sea, I always add an extra day there. It’s how I try and balance my trips; deliver intensively and then spend a day just walking around appreciating it.
SC.SD. If I was ever flown to an exciting country in my old job, I’d always add a few days on to walk around and take it all in once the conference was over.
NT. Exactly! My friend said “we’re not busier, we’re just more overwhelmed”. It’s not a Friends episode where six friends can all be at the coffee shop at the same time and hang out every day…
SC.SD. I LOVE that you’re a Friends fan…!
NT. Sex and the City and Friends right?! But when you think about it, it’s not real life but why do we love it? Because they all hang out, have time for each other and all live nearby. You just have to train yourself to find time for you, whether that’s walking, dancing, yoga, music….
SC.SD. Find time to do it?
SC.SD. Do you have a favourite quote?
NT. “Shut up and deal with it!”
SC.SD. Has that come from your mentor?!
NT. No, I actually just found it somewhere! There’s so many I like but that one has been there for me every day since I moved to this country nine years ago! It’s one big slap in the face to just go and do it!
SC.SD. Absolutely! Last question… it’s going to be a big one!
NT. Go for it!
SC.SD. How do you see your business evolving and can you see yourself doing this forever?
NT. YES! I hope when I’m seventy we have this coffee again, we’re chilling by the sea somewhere, our lives are amazing, and I can say “see! I told you so!”
In one way or another I will still be doing it but I like how I’m evolving into consulting, and being asked to be in the initial conversation rather than just the delivery. I want Doodleledo in every country and for everyone to draw and have fun! We’re working on activity game books for it and all sorts so hopefully that works out next year!
There are a lot of different plans but one thing that helps me nowadays is knowing that everyone is busy, we’re all more visual, we communicate more and more through emojis so in that way, I think our work will be needed more and more because we need to grab people’s attention here and now and less is more.
Maybe I won’t be actively drawing on boards and iPads when I’m sixty but hopefully they’ll be amazing people working with me that can continue that for me! I don’t want to just sit down at sixty though. One day, I might set up a foundation for kids to draw more… there are always ideas but who knows what’s going to happen? That’s the beauty of it no?
Natalia is someone you can’t help but like.
Enthusiastic, naturally inquisitive and talented beyond belief, it’s no wonder to me why she’s so good at her job and why six years on her companies thrive.
The way she describes her energy in the first few months, perfectly depicts that start-up thrill; and the fact that it all started from one simple tweet goes to show the importance of reaching out to those you admire en route. Yes it can feel silly and yes they might not reply but finding the courage to put yourself out there and say “hi, let’s go for coffee” is sometimes (genuinely) all it does take.
Building a business can be a whirlwind, a blur and one mad journey but Natalia goes to show that you can emerge on the other side intact; and no matter how in-demand this woman becomes, I have no doubt that her feet will remain firmly fixed on the ground.
There’s a reason I’ve chosen this interview to be my last before Christmas.
The ultimate proof that your hobby can become your business, Natalia is the perfect example of why I started She can. She did.