We recently spoke to Stephan Johnstone about his experience as a Bermudian entrepreneur and what it’s like to work in a technologically evolving industry.
Questions and photographs by Oliver Tucker of TheHouseBermuda.com
(Oliver Tucker) Could you give us some background on how SJDWorld got started?
(Stephan Johnstone) In 2003 I had moved to Toronto to study Graphic Design at George Brown College school of design. In December 2003 a good friend of mines had started his own website and said he would help me register my first domain. I originally had tried to register sjd.com (sjd stands for Stephan Johnstone Designs) but it was unavailable so I added in the “World” and kept it moving.
Once I got the domain I began experimenting with Web Design and teaching myself to build my own site. By February 2004 I had the first version of sjdworld.com up and running. I then began monthly and weekly features. Over the next 3 years the site and company was like an online magazine where I featured artists, photographers, poets, illustrators, pretty much anyone that was creative. Also at the same time I was working on my own portfolio, building my client base, working on projects like my spoken word albums, a Cup Match T-shirt line and constantly changing and evolving the website. By 2005/2006 I had expanded my team to include an editor and the site was Nominated for a Webby Award. We didn’t win but it was a great honour just to be mentioned.
By June of 2006 I had finished Design School and began to look for a job. Within a few months I landed a job with a Toronto print and design company called Copycat Inc / Outcome Designs where I went on to work for the next three years. As things constantly began to change and grow in 2008 we stopped featuring creatives on the site and began to focus more on the business of Creative Services and the development of our own products.
In 2009 I left my very first design job and began freelancing around the city and really focusing on my Bermudian client base. In September of 2010 I moved back to Bermuda with 2 bags, a broken laptop, no money and began building the company full time from the basement of my parents home.
Between 2010 and 2011 I met Graphic Designer Anna Dill (Formally Terceira) who has now become my number two and right hand in all things design. We then met website programmer Prasanth Govindankutty who is now our lead programmer and go-to guy for all things web. Both Anna and Prasanth are still with me today 8 years later and are a major part of this company.
In 2012 I had saved up enough money to buy new equipment and move the business out of the basement and in to an empty apartment in my Grandmother’s house. This was the first time I had a separation of home and work life. I remained in this location for the next 2 years before moving in to our current location in the Somers building at 15 Front street.
Today we are a team of 3 in the office plus Prasanth who lives overseas in India.
We service a range of clients both small and large. We have released 5 Books, 3 Spoken Word Albums, 2 Cup Match T-shirt lines. We have also won Best Local Graphic Designers by The Bermudian Magazine in 2014, 2015 and 2017 and our client base and product line continues to grow.
(OT) What are the main types of printing and design you do?
(SJ) We design a range of different items from branding and stationary (logos, business cards etc.) to flyers, brochures, packaging, books, magazines, advertisements, small to medium size websites, signage, banners, just to name a few.
We don’t print in-house but work with local and overseas printers depending on our clients timeline, location and budget. Overseas we have print vendors in China, Canada and the USA.
(OT) How do you streamline all your creative interests like poetry, art and writing and make that a part of your day to day business?
(SJ) I tend to go in cycles and focus on different creative interests at different points. I went through a 7 year period between 2004 – 2011 where I had written the 3 Poetry Albums, Broken Thoughts 2006, The Script Keeper 2009 and Librago 2011. Working on these albums and performing them I was able to use both parts of my brain as I not only wrote the albums but did all of the cover art for them which was the most amazing experience to exercise those two creative muscles at the same time. I like to think of it like this: If SJD World was a plant the poetry albums are the flower and the fruit. It is not something that we produce all the time but when in season, it is beautiful!
Since the release of the last album my main focus has been building the foundation of the company and creating more memories to write about in the future.
(OT) What are the biggest hurdles in having a printing store in Bermuda and how has working in a creative industry in Bermuda been challenging? What have you done to overcome those obstacles?
(SJ) We are not a print house but the biggest hurdle for any business in Bermuda is the cost, especially for a creative company, as we are definitely not your normal Bermudian business.
One of our ways to keep the company streamlined and costs low is by using a lot of freelancers. There are 2 – 3 of us in the office most of the time but we work with 3-5 Freelancers at any given time. This allows us to bring people on as we need them on a contract basis and not have to use them when they are not needed. During slower periods we can trim the team right down to 2 people or even just me if there is a day that is slow. This allows us to be extremely fluid while keeping the cost low.
(OT) How do you see the role of technology changing the industry?
(SJ) The industry has changed very drastically over the past 10 years. When I was interning here in Bermuda back in 2003 – 2005 most of the work was print based, when today with the rise of the internet and social media half of our design work is for online. We also have to stay on top of all the new advances in software and online technology as it evolves at a faster rate every day and this directly impacts how we do business.
(OT) How has having a store front on Front street impacted your business?
(SJ) When we moved in to our front street location I noticed 2 major shifts in the business.
The first is that people now started to believe that we are a legitimate business and trust us more. When I was working out of the previous locations outside of town I felt people didn’t take me as seriously. Now when they walk into our space their whole perspective changes about what we do and how we do it, when really we have been doing the same thing all along. I guess now it is just easier for people to see.
The second thing that has happened is we now get walk-in traffic. The ultimate goal of the business is to provide design services and to sell our own products. The current space we have is perfect for where we are in the evolution of the business but not big enough to support both a design studio and a store front. When we first moved in we promoted our location and had clients walk in to buy some of our products and stop by unannounced for impromptu meetings but overtime this became tricky as the traffic increased it became a little disruptive to our work day. We had to find a balance with this specific space as the walk-in traffic became both a blessing and a curse.
(OT) You mention you mentor youth in graphic design, have you been impressed with the level in Bermuda and what are the biggest rewards in running this kind of mentorship program?
(SJ) From time to time we will take on interns but we don’t have a mentorship programme as such.
We have had kids come in with some knowledge of our software and it has been great and we both benefit! Then on the other hand we have had kids come with no knowledge at all and it has been a bit difficult as I would have to spend more time with them which ultimately takes me away from running the business and slows everything down while they are here.
The biggest reward in taking on interns is knowing that I can help them in their career in this industry. When I was first starting out there weren’t many people I could ask for help and get a detailed response so I always told myself that if any student needed advice I would be as helpful as possible.
Lastly, yes, I have been impressed by some of the level of talent here. We also get a lot of students just dropping by to ask us questions and looking for feed back on their portfolio and some of the work is great!
(OT) How has the gallery exhibition at the Bermuda Society of Arts been received?
(SJ) The Graphic Design Showcase doesn’t start until July 27th 2018 and runs until August 21st but so far we have received a lot of positive feed back from other designers and students about putting on this kind of show as it doesn’t happen very often here in Bermuda. I look forward to seeing who submits and the level of work that comes out of it.
(OT) If you had one piece of advice for young entrepreneurs and business owners in Bermuda, what would it be?
(SJ) Running your own business is not an easy thing and requires a lot of time, patience and persistence. You will make mistakes and that is inevitable and necessary but its always good to not think of them as mistakes but as lessons. If you can learn from those lessons the first time they manifest themselves on your journey, then you will be unstoppable!
(OT) When you’re not working, what can people find you doing?
(SJ) People won’t find me! Outside of the business I am a son, a brother, a husband and a friend. My love is to create and design and when I’m not doing that I’m with my wife and my family!