Client Spotlight: Kelly McElroy, Star Castle Studio
Meet Kelly McElroy of Star Castle Studio. Kelly has a special relationship with branding and uses her expertise and bite-sized branding process to uncover the core personality of her clients’ brands. Find out what her journey to her own brand was, what she learned in the process and how she helps her clients based on that experience.
How did you name your business Star Castle Studio?
It was definitely hard. When I first started freelancing as a designer, I always worked under the name KSmith Designs. That was my name. It made sense. It was my name in college. Eventually, I got married and outgrew it. I was wondering where to go from there. My old logo was KS which were no longer my initials, so none of it made sense anymore. I thought about the name “Keystone” or another word that still worked for KS so I could keep the design.
Finally, I asked myself what I was trying to create. At the time, I was working for a marketing agency, designing lots of soulless brands and doing it their way. I didn’t like anything about it. As I built this new entity, I imagined all of us outsiders or creatives coming to a safe haven space where we can be ourselves and do things a little differently. Actually, in one of my meditations, I went to the place; it was sort of a magical castle in the sky.
I talked to my dad about it, and he loved this band in the 70s called Starcastle. He gifted me one of their records for Christmas that has a castle in the clouds. It came full circle from there. I knew that’s what it had to be—this magical entity Star Castle Studio. The doors are always open, and it’s a place to make your magical dreams happen.
What was your first job like?
When I was in college, I did an unpaid internship as a designer at Element SkateBoards. While living in LA, I tapped into the scene and found some interesting connections. Honestly, it was like a dream that I landed that as my internship. I thought there was no way they would want to keep me, so I tried to suck all the greatness out of the opportunity that I could. And, it turned out that they couldn’t live without me.
At the end of the internship, they asked if I could continue helping them. It was just me and one other designer doing all of it—from the catalogs to the product images to everything. They definitely needed the extra help. It was a good fit because the other designer was a guy. He liked working on the skateboards and the men’s catalogs, whereas I really wanted to focus on the women’s brand. It really worked out. We tackled the tasks together in that way. It was interesting.
Element had a half-pipe in the parking lot, so if you had a break, you could go. The big-name skateboarders would come and hang out with us. It was a really interesting environment. I saw a lot of people who were older than me finding success, doing well for themselves, and still very happy. They weren’t just in cubicles and wearing the same thing. They were all different and embraced what made them different. Even though I’m a terrible skateboarder, I loved that way of viewing the world, that it doesn’t all have to be the same. It taught me a lot.
Why did you start your own business? What was that experience like?
I was always freelancing on the side when I was working one-on-one for a brand in-house. I would have one-off projects for friends I’d happened upon or someone who knew I was good at design. I was always kind of doing that, but it was more for fun. Then, when I had my little one, I realized I could probably grow that business, focus on it more, and then spend more time with her. It was the perfect situation.
At that time, we had just moved to Florida from Los Angeles. There’s less opportunity here, but in the world of the internet, you don’t have to be where things are going on. It was like a perfect storm. I wanted to spend more time with my little one, and I realized I was already doing pretty well for myself without my full-time job. Once I redirected my energy and just put my heart into it, it happened naturally.
Is there anything you wish you had known at the beginning?
Yes. I think the biggest thing is that no one has the right answer for you. At my last job at a corporate digital marketing agency, I would research online during my breaks about how to make my own business and find out if it was possible. As I was going about it, I was downloading freebies and eBooks on how to do it and signing up for courses.
Now looking back, none of that was helpful. Every single course I took or piece of advice I heard about “you have to do this” was not true in my experience. I really needed to embrace that there is no right answer. Yes, tricks might have worked for other people. Maybe growing an email list was the key to their success, but it’s probably not the key to yours.
Getting clear on that and throwing away the “shoulds” of the whole process—was a big turning point for me. It’s hard when everyone is saying that you have to do things one way. You figure they must know better, but they don’t for your situation.
How do you provide advice to your clients?
It’s interesting. I’m normally the black sheep—maybe pink sheep. I know the ins and outs of the corporate design world. I’ve worked with big-name, successful brands, and I can bring that talent to the table. But my suggestions might not always be the right answer for you. Maybe this isn’t the way your brand wants to show up. Getting very clear about that and then implementing it—that’s what really creates an unforgettable experience for people and makes your brand stick out.
It’s been very rewarding reminding people that their dreams are super powerful. When they’re clear on their dreams, nobody can provide exactly what you’re providing. If we’re going to tap into that and celebrate that, your people will come—versus you trying to put on the facade of whatever you think you should be. People are going to feel that dishonesty and not be as drawn to it.
Creating a persona out of a business comes with an element of spirituality for you. How did you find that for yourself so that you can then give it as a gift to others?
For me, it goes back to wandering into Star Castle Studio, the entity. I asked, “What am I looking to build here?” For me, separating myself and my business was a big stepping stone. Even though I am the face of my business, my business is its own entity. It can take care of people. It can welcome people in. It can do whatever it wants.
As a spiritual entrepreneur, I can meditate or use different spiritual tools to tap into what my business wants to be. For example, I painted the actual entity of my business, and I have that in my office to see and remember. I can ask my business an oracle card question. I will pull a card and ask, “Do you want to show up this way?” or “What do I need to give you this week?”. The answers are directly connected to the essence of my brand.
I help other people erase all of the shoulds and tap into what they are trying to build. Maybe it’s trying to build itself. It’s not so complicated that you have to come up with all the answers. It might already be there, and you just need to make the space for it to speak. When I get people to that space and thinking in that way, it all starts coming naturally. It’s like matchmaking people with their abilities.
How do you apply that to different clients?
I feel out the person. Many of my clients tend to be more “woo,” so they’re excited. I always pull a crystal for every client project. For my really “woo” people, I’ll send a picture and say, “This is your crystal.” If we do a lot of work together, I’ll send the crystal to them. They like knowing that those extra layers are there.
I feel it out, and maybe that’s not their thing. Then, I still do these practices, so that I can embody their brand and step into it, but I may not share with them as part of the process. These practices help me create the best work and tap into the essence of what we’re creating—whether or not that person is in tune with that.
How did your bite-sized branding process come to be?
I had a lot of clients that wanted to do things like be on social or have a new website, but they never did the behind-the-scenes work to figure out their brand. My first question would be: “Great, I want to make these graphics for you. What fonts do you use? What colors do you use?” They couldn’t answer those questions.
If you’re a rough-and-tumble designer, you might just do the project, but I wanted to do it right. I had to back people up to step one. Once we get clear on their brand, then step five will be really easy because we’ve already done that work. It was hard for a lot of my clients because they already wanted to be at step five. Why would they spend time building a brand when they wanted their website done a month ago?
This got me thinking that there are parts of brand design and establishing a new brand that newer people really don’t need. When I was starting out, I was sending printed style guides to all my clients. I sent them a framed mood board and every single logo iteration. It was a month-and-a-half process. That was well and good, but a lot of businesses don’t need that when they are just starting out.
I took some time to reflect on the core pieces people really need to just hit the ground running. I whittled my brand design process to just those. I created an accelerated, bite-sized process. We start on Tuesday, we wrap up on Thursday, and you have a completely custom brand made. I was helping a lot of these people who would otherwise go on Fiverr or Etsy and buy a pre-done logo—which is just so unfair to your brand and what you’re trying to create. The whole process was born of maintaining a totally custom, unique design, but doing it quickly.
That’s how the bite-sized process was born. It was trial and error with the first couple of clients. There was definitely still a buffer. If we did need more time, I’d do that. That’s number one—the client being happy with what we create. If we need to push it to Monday or Friday, there’s space for that. With such an ambitious timeline, a lot of magical brands have surfaced. It’s a fun challenge for me as well because I’m an overachiever.
The next step is with Magical Maintenance clients. They’ll book a certain number of hours, and they can send any design project my way. They’re doing this awesome thing, and I get to show up and support them in the best way. It’s not that I’m making X number of social graphics a month. I get to support them in a new opportunity where they might need a handout or a slideshow. I meet my clients exactly where we are, and they don’t have to be a huge business. Maybe it’s five hours a month, but all of a sudden they have a designer on their team. That’s a game-changer. It’s been really fun to be that missing piece for my clients.
What do you love about what you do?
My favorite part about the work I do is seeing the capabilities of people. It’s always really interesting for me whenever I get a new lead or somebody reaching out. I tend to get these really interesting people now. I’ve kind of hit my stride where the right people are finding and connecting with me. A few clients have blown my mind—like entity work, an end-of-life doula, things that I’ve never even thought of.
In this day and age, you can literally be whatever you want. I use an underwater basket weaver as an example. We have the internet, and you can connect with other people who are into what you’re doing, or think it’s cool, or may even pay for it. There’s just no limit to it, and I always feel reaffirmed with the people that show up and step into that.
These entrepreneurs are unsure about whether their dream is possible. They’ll say, “I feel like it is, but I don’t know how to actually sell it without being icky and feeling strange.” I help them navigate those waters and tune back into what feels really good so they can promote and market from an aligned space. I’m always the middleman, but your audience is going to be so excited that you spoke and created this business. You never know who you’re going to inspire to stand up and show their “weird” thing. It’s been a really fun tumbleweed of excitement.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself
I grew up in a very haunted old Victorian house that used to be a hotel. Growing up, I was always very in tune with the spiritual side because I was face-to-face with it all the time. I think that was very important to my formative years. Now, looking back, I don’t know why my parents lived there. I never would have. That was just my reality as a kid. I think it taught me a lot of things and helped me to see the world differently.
What do you find challenging in your work?
I think a big one is people’s personal prejudices towards what they think they should be creating or how they should be showing up. As a tangible example, I had one client whose personal preferences were very different from what she wanted to create and market to her clients, which is fine. You are not necessarily your business; they can be separate. It was hard for me because I could see them as two totally separate things.
I needed to walk her through it. I said, “OK, I get that you don’t love this color, but it’s what your business wants to be.” That way I eased her into it. I actually made these two mood boards at the very beginning. I said, “OK, here’s the one that’s the essence of you. It’s awesome; I love it. But here’s how I see your business should be showing up and how it will be the most powerful it can be.” She responded, “I get this now. I see the one that I want to print and hang it in my bedroom. That’s me. But this is where I’m going with the business I’m hoping to create.” Visually putting it in a tangible way helped her see that they are separate. She felt heard, but I showed her what she was stepping into.
It’s not always easy with people. They’ll have a preconceived notion. They’ll think, “I have to be this way.” or “People in my field always do it this way, and they’ve been successful.” I have to walk the tightrope and say, “I hear you, but this is the way we should probably go.” Or maybe I might not have the right answer either. I’m always open to it.
When you tap into the essence of what they’re building, those answers are going to be the right answers. It’s how the business wants to manifest. It’s not my preference or their preference. It’s what it wants to be. I need to tell them, “Yes, I hear you; I know you want bright orange, but that might not be the best solution.” It helps to have the visual. That’s what they would choose if we were just listening to what you think you want rather than the business. Honestly, that’s what they would get if they hired someone on Fiverr for a $15 job, but that’s not necessarily the best for your business. Yes, I help people with that reality and tightrope walking.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?
Throw away the “shoulds.” Step into what you feel most aligned doing and how you feel most aligned showing up. Inevitably people are going to be drawn to that; it’s the law of the universe.
As a concrete example, my dad is a CPA. When I was first starting, I went to him because he owns his own business. I asked, “How did you do this, and where did you start?” His answers were not how mine would ever be. I needed to ask myself if I don’t do it that way, can I still be successful. I needed to figure out my footing with that. Especially because he’s my dad. You think your parents will have the answers, and they do for their field and experience. Maybe not so much for my people.
Now that I have hit my stride, my dad looks at it like a different language. He understands it’s working, but he doesn’t know how or why. We all have our places. By embodying that, I think success will come. That’s how the universe works, and you get rewarded for showing up and working in your pure alignment.
Do you have any advice for someone who’s thinking about starting a business but is afraid to?
Yes. My optimistic side is thinking: “Just do it! Whoo hoo, yes!” But the reality side of my brain says, “Test the waters.”
I did freelance at the same time as doing all these jobs that I wasn’t super happy with. I was getting my footing on how to invoice people and how to run my business, so it didn’t all hit me at once. I had a few things figured out before I dropped my full-time job, and I knew exactly what I was going to do with the extra time.
I created a lot of my own boundaries. In the beginning, I scheduled some sort of meeting every day. I would shower and get ready because I had to trick myself into it. This is still a job, and I’ve got to show up and do the work for the success to come. Now it’s just become a habit.
Test it out. Figure it out as much as you can while you’re still doing something that you don’t love. That way, when you can take the first step, you feel really confident and you have something to land on. I had some clients that I knew would pay me to help get me through the beginning. That made everything a lot easier. I wasn’t in panic mode.
How is working with VaVa?
It’s been really helpful. I’m a creative, and I’m not very good at the backend stuff. I never have been. Honestly, in a perfect world, I would hire someone to just completely run things, and I’d show up and do the design work. That’s not how the real world works, so I had to find a happy medium.
I remember the first Virtual Assistant I was paired with wasn’t a great match. I met with the Account Success Manager, and she worked her magic to find the VA I’m working with now. I think we’ve been working together for a year and a half or so. She’s been really helpful in handling the things that I could but don’t necessarily want to do as well as the tasks that aren’t my expertise. It may take her five minutes to do something that would take me two hours. Then in those two hours, I can go and help X number of clients and potentially make more money. It’s really a win-win.
I’ve now worked with that same VA for so long, that I can reach her whenever. I can just send her a quick voice note, and she knows what I’m talking about. That’s been really helpful.
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