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Michael Kelar and Michael Richardson: “Make sure you pay yourself”

Make sure you pay yourself: For a very long time, we neglected our own personal incomes in order to make sure the business was healthy and our staff were happy. We needed to learn that if we weren’t taken care of and happy as leaders, then really the business isn’t healthy. Unless everyone is taken […]

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Make sure you pay yourself: For a very long time, we neglected our own personal incomes in order to make sure the business was healthy and our staff were happy. We needed to learn that if we weren’t taken care of and happy as leaders, then really the business isn’t healthy. Unless everyone is taken care of properly, there will be issues.


As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Kelar (Mike) and Michael Richardson (Mikey), Co-Founders and Executive Creative Directors of Jacknife, a refreshing new multi-tooled design agency. Jacknife’s mission is to create brands and bring them to life by telling their stories through engaging creativity across the communication ecosystem.

Kelar is a product of the Ontario College of Art & Design’s respected graphic design program and has over 25 years years of experience in the design industry. An advocate of designing with purpose, Kelar often shares his thinking on the need for design with integrity; he believes that good design is the meaningful bridge between functionality and human experience, intuition with inarguable reason.

Richardson is a Certified Graphic Designer with the Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario and has served as an advisor to the board of directors. He has also worked as a design and illustration educator at OCAD University. Richardson was selected as one of the 50 top emerging artists in Toronto and featured in the BlogTO/Microsoft Artist Gallery as well as had his personal work exhibited at the Institute for Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

We both came to design along different paths, but there are certainly similarities. We both grew up as kids that were drawn to creativity early on — actively drawing, making up stories, inventing new products, playing music, etc. We were both heavily interested in the intersection of art, music, movies, magazines, fashion, books and active lifestyle sports like skateboarding and snowboarding. Having both grown up in working-class families, we had minimal exposure to the “art scene” outside of what we learned in high school classes and always had this notion of “what kind of a job is this leading to?” in the back of our minds. As teenagers, we were heavily influenced by magazines, album covers, streetwear and board graphics — all things that lead us down a path to design, illustration and other forms of commercial art. We both decided to pursue our passion for creativity and enrolled in the Ontario College of Art in 1992. Kelar specializing in Graphic Design and Richardson in illustration. As students, we honed our conceptual and creative problem-solving skills alongside refining our craft. We became friends and started collaborating on projects outside of class, which ultimately lead to us forming our first design studio in 1996.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

We started our first design studio right out of art school. We had both done some freelance work in the industry but didn’t have any serious “real-time” experience. We were hustling our work through our combined school portfolio. We didn’t have any financial backing or any previous connections from past jobs that we would have taken along with us. We shared one very slow Apple computer and an old school drafting table that a previous tenant had left behind in our first rented studio, but what we did have was a tonne of confidence, talent (so we were told) and a driven work ethic. For the first couple years of getting the business rolling, we took out minimal cash and worked part-time jobs holding the belief that eventually our vision would become a reality.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When we started our first design studio, the idea of failure wasn’t an option or something we ever really spoke about. We were so focused on “making a mark” that we just kept our head down and got to work. Everyday. Every weekend — what seemed like every waking hour. We both didn’t have any safety nets or other decent jobs waiting in the wings. The road to failure wasn’t even on the map. Perhaps it was just a pure lack of experience and youthful ignorance but we understood at a very early stage in our career that talent alone wasn’t going to be enough to “make it” — we would need to harness our brains, attitude and skill to play on the big stage.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success? Things are going really well for us. We’ve got a great team, we’re doing exciting work and despite COVID, our business is healthy. Like a fine wine, it seems that every year we get better with age. Part of this is probably just our dedicated work ethic and perhaps a deeper, untapped fear of failure. At the core, I think it is our restlessness and curious nature that keeps us relevant and driven today. Having been in business for 25 years now, we’ve seen massive economic, social and cultural swings. We’ve ridden out some tough times on multiple occasions and each time our grittiness and resilience is further reinforced. You start to become more at ease with uncertainty and stress.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The early years of our business were full of mistakes. It’s all part of learning. Many of those mistakes only become funny with time. We like to laugh a bit now about how we renovated our first studio space once business was rolling along a little more comfortably. We had a massive old warehouse space and decided to create an environment that at the time was on the cutting edge of office environments. We had a meditation room with a trickling water feature, a media room with multiple video game platforms, beanbag chairs throughout, and a monolithic two-sided wall structure that diagonally dissected the entire open studio that we called “The Joker” — one side was creative, the other was all business. The studio was amazing and definitely helped build the cache of our company, but in retrospect, it probably represents an over-investment.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think what makes us stand out from other companies is the unique experience of working with us. We’ve been able to produce a high standard of well crafted and thoughtful work while maintaining a very honest and down to earth attitude. Even though we take our work very seriously, we make sure that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’ve never bought into the elitist design scene or bragged about our accomplishments… maybe we are too Canadian in that sense, but in today’s world and more than ever we continue to apply the golden rule of honesty and respect to our work, our people and the clients we work with. We want to do good work for good people. It’s that simple. In the end, that simple philosophy produces a better working environment which produces better work which eventually leads to success. It can be a bit of a long game but it’s really the only real sustainable one in town.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Balance is key. We learned that the hard way, for the longest time we thought that hard work and pushing upstream is the only route to success. Working smarter not harder should be the goal. Your time is valuable and limited. Especially if you have other commitments outside of work like family and other interests (which is not a bad thing). Give yourself time to breathe and recharge. Most of us are so connected to our work both physically and mentally that we struggle to find time to simmer, our minds and bodies need that time to percolate. Go for a walk, a drive, explore a new location, sit and daydream; this will give you some space to see the bigger picture, to reflect and plan from higher ground. Work hard and play hard while enjoying the journey, not just the destination.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

We all have individuals in our personal lives that have provided inspiration and helped us along the way. As far as from a business perspective, we had a helping hand in the early stages of starting our business — our first landlord. Before we really had any solid clients or prospects, we made the decision to find a studio space. We felt it was an important step in legitimizing our company — having a place to go to every day to collaboratively work together in a focused way. Also, as recent grads, we needed something to help us be perceived as a “real” studio vs some friends trying out some projects together. The landlord of our first studio took a liking to us and our enthusiasm and gave us a break on the studio costs to help us get started. Every little bit helps in the early stages of building a business.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? 
We feel that we’ve brought goodness into the world through some little things as well as big things. We’re proud to have built a business that we feel creates a great place for our team to work and sets an example for our industry. We help our clients’ businesses succeed with the work we do every day. In a bigger way, we often work with not-for-profit and charitable groups as well, using our abilities to help strengthen organizations that don’t always have the resources to effectively achieve their goals. Recently, we’ve been doing some seminar-style work with customers to help them grow as creative individuals in both their professional and personal lives. We feel that everyone’s lives can be made better through creativity.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) This is going to take some long term commitment: You don’t start a business on a whim. You need to think through what this is going to mean to your life in the short, medium and long term. When we started out, we were very young (21) and weren’t exactly adept at planning for life down the road.

2) Don’t over-invest in non-essential things early on: It’s up to each individual to decide what an appropriate investment might be, but I think we could have made some stronger decisions in the early years. For example an expensive and maybe unnecessary office renovation.

3) Get used to managing people: We started out as creative folks with a passion for solving problems and making stuff. Nobody prepared us for a life of managing people. We’ve had to learn through trial and error, and it’s always something that you need to improve on. As a huge aspect of running a successful business, you need to pretty quickly get comfortable with being a manager.

4) Make sure you pay yourself: For a very long time, we neglected our own personal incomes in order to make sure the business was healthy and our staff were happy. We needed to learn that if we weren’t taken care of and happy as leaders, then really the business isn’t healthy. Unless everyone is taken care of properly, there will be issues.

5) This is going to be a 24–7 gig forever. When we were younger, single and without kids and full of energy, working non-stop wasn’t much of an issue. It starts to get a lot harder when your life and relationships become more complex. It would’ve been great to have some perspective on this in the early days, at least to understand what we were headed for. I think a lot of early entrepreneurs think that after a couple of tough years they’re going to be able to kick back and put their feet up a little more than is realistic.

You are people of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The Creative Living Movement. We really believe that absolutely everyone can increase their happiness through creativity and self-expression. Additionally, the techniques we use in our company for creative problem solving each and every day could and should be applied to so many things in our world. Unfortunately, things like “the creative process” aren’t really taught in school, at least not with the same importance as “the scientific method.” I think that most people have in their core an instinct and desire to create. Somehow that is crushed as we grow older and it’s really kind of sad.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: @jacknifedesign

Pinterest: @Jacknife

LinkedIn: Jacknife

Facebook : @Jacknifedesign

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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