How to Transform Your Past into a Successful Future - An Interview with Amy Oughton, CEO of Dream in Color
Many clients have asked me about how I got started doing what I do now. What motivates me to pursue great technology for worthy causes? How do I avoid burnout? These are important questions for every entrepreneur. I’m going to open my heart up today with this Q&A post and answer five questions about why I got into helping others through technology in the first place. Here’s my story on how to transform your past into a successful future.
What Drives Me To Build This Company Every Day? | How to Transform Your Past into a Successful Future
At the start, it was to provide for my family. I remember when we landed our first big $600 project with a barbershop. At that time, Dream In Color (DIC) was an end-to-end brand agency. We soon discovered that our clients were more focused on websites, applications, and software, not on logos and interior design. I had to learn something different, and fast. The first challenge was to figure out what my customers really wanted. I had to learn to listen to my clients, identify their needs and desires, and understand what challenges they were facing. Importantly, I had to do the same things for my client’s clients. That quickly led me away from designing rooms, to designing digital experiences.
I learned from Chris, my husband and now my CTO, about how to design for my stakeholders, users, and developers. I had to reteach myself how to design for digital spaces and deal with the ever-changing nature of technology.
Fortunately, my interior design degree did help with some things like conceptualization and creating digital spaces for the needs of others, but there was a lot to learn. Over time, Chris and I developed our Ideal User Behavior Methodology. This is the methodology that we now use to serve our clients and their end users. This process really focuses on granting users the clarity they need to discover, understand, and take action within a digital interface. It came out of all this early effort to listen to what our client’s true needs were and how to fulfill them best. But now it’s much more than providing income for my family. So much more. Now there are three things that drive me. The first is to change lives for the better. I want to help others avoid many of the experiences I had growing up. I’ll be talking all about that in the next question. The second was to prove to others I could do it. As I said earlier, my family was skeptical about my decision to run a business with my husband. And there were plenty of challenges along the way. My pregnancy and my gender made it much harder to network than I thought it would. And there were all the typical learning curves of starting a business and being a stay at home mother. (phew) I made a lot of mistakes as a first-time business owner and mother. I’ll share three of them here. The first was spending money on equipment we didn’t need. I overcame that challenge by learning how to ignore the hype around a new technology and weighing the pros and cons of each purchase. I had to see how a new piece of equipment would further our goals. That kept us from spending too much. The second was when I learned to prioritize and systemize. At first, I was doing everything - wearing too many hats. I had to learn that’s its okay to need help, and asking for help doesn’t make you weaker. What it does is make you a stronger leader.
Lastly, as a first-time mother, I was forced to understand (from my mother and Chris), that…
…it’s okay to be overwhelmed and take my time to work through the many waves of postpartum depression, fatigue, and emotional burnout. I had to manage my own exceptions and ambitions as a mother. I had to put a stop to everyone “SHOULDING” and “EXPECTING” on my life. I had to find what worked for me.
I had a lot of down days, but I had to believe that I could do it. And I have! I now have a growing business that supports my family. From one perspective, it’s just sheer gumption that drives me to do it! But if it wasn’t for the positive impact I was making in tech, I would probably be interior designing shelters or healthcare facilities. Seriously!
Why Did I Start Dream In Color? | How to Transform Your Past into a Successful Future
As a child, I’d talk to my friends about starting a business, but I didn’t have any clue what kind it would be. We had all sorts of crazy ideas. First I wanted to open a rec-center for the community. Then I wanted to make a salon to stretch my artistic side. Then I went full-on into that part of myself and planned an entire art studio out. These weren’t the only ideas, but these were the good ones! Eventually, I went to college and studied interior design as my major. Along the way, I fell in love with my now-husband Chris. Unlike a lot of college relationships, we both had goals and understood each other’s desires for the future. We had to learn how to accept these ambitions and learn how to rely on each other for mutual support.
That acceptance grew our love, and TADA, I got pregnant with my first son toward the end of my college career. I was seven months pregnant at graduation and feeling so embarrassed.
We were grateful for the blessing, but it really complicated our lives. We needed money fast. Chris graduated a few months before I did and got a job as a junior developer, but that wasn’t enough money to raise a new family, still, pursue my career goals as an interior designer, and don’t let me get started with childcare. See, interior design requires certifications after graduation to land the big jobs. Internships were out as well. I tried hard to land a job in that field before I graduated, but even though they loved my portfolio they didn’t want to hire me because I was about to give birth. My pregnancy held me back.
Furthermore, I had personal insecurities, like shame, for being the only student walking across the stage pregnant and being pregnant so young in the first place.
My grandmother and my mother had also given birth as young adults. I saw the struggles of my mother trying to raise me and my brothers as a young woman and heard the stories from my grandmother about the same. Although I didn’t break the cycle, I learned from my grandmother and mother that hard work always prevails.
So I had to act fast and started laying down the foundations for Dream In Color. My need to support my family and my soon-to-be-born son was the reason I started. My family was quite supportive of my decision to have a child, but it took them a while to accept my desire to create a business at the same time. They wanted me to take the safer option of finding a job. Luckily, and with a lot of hard work, things turned out for the best!
What About Your Past Fueled Your Desire To Make DIC The Way It Is Today? | How to Transform Your Past into a Successful Future
My past is directly responsible for how I run DIC today, and I’m not talking anything spiritual here. This is hard for me to say, but I grew up in poverty. I grew up in a single-parent household. My two siblings and I were supported by my mother, a nurse, who had to work awful hours for low pay.
I experienced a lot of the problems that people in poverty have, like hunger, homelessness, and a lack of electricity.
I’m not going to post the diary entries I made as a girl here, but reading them now is heartbreaking. On top of that, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 10, which meant a lot of our extra money had to go to my health care. Later in life, I learned I was also dyslexic. There was a lot I had to overcome with a learning disability in grade school and college. I don’t say these things to get sympathy, but to show you how traumas can break a young girl, but also ignite her ambition for change. As my husband and I started growing the business, we realized that we could put our skills toward helping organizations who were helping people suffering the same things I went through.
I impact my client’s bottom line by providing the perspective of their end user because, in actuality, I am their user.
Our services are often geared towards education and social issues. The problems I experienced through poverty taught me how important it was to have good financial tools to empower folks with financial illiteracy. Later in life, I learned how even people with comfortable jobs can still deal with the same paycheck-to-paycheck living I experienced after college. This stuff isn’t taught in school, and if you don’t have an example of good financial habits growing up you might never learn them!
We also focus on healthcare.
I grew up with type 1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease and requires a lot of money to manage. There’s also a lot to learn about how insulin, testing, symptoms, and educating others about it.
Without the help of my doctors, I wouldn’t be alive today, so I give back to them through my skills and using my experience to make improvements within the industry. Besides my doctors, my family also received help from non-profits who support families like mine with programs and events that kept us enlightened and motivated. Everything from school lunches to medical assistance, if we could use it we did. We never received assistance from the government, my mother was strong-willed, but my grandmother believed in the power of voting. So I’m proud to work with the government to improve the way technology impacts citizens lives daily. It was a domino effect. And now, thanks to hard work and the efforts of my team, DIC focuses our work in these areas. It is my way of giving back to everyone who helped me and my family overcome while also helping other people in the same circumstances. I want to build and design tools that help people break their own cycles that are so easy to become trapped in.
How Have Your Past Clients Shaped How You Run Your Business? | How to Transform Your Past into a Successful Future
This might surprise you, but it’s the negative experiences I’ve had that shaped me the most here. Those experiences taught me what not to do for myself and what not to do to my workplace relationships. First and foremost,…
…I do my best to run my company with empathy, kindness, and respect. I have been on the wrong side of workplaces that didn’t have these qualities.
For instance, I suffered a panic attack while pregnancy due to impossible deadlines and got a lot of flack for taking a day off. It only got worse when I tried to quit. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t treat my own workers that way. I believe it’s possible to lead with these qualities and still win in business. As my brand evolved, I’ve had to make tough decisions. I had a client who pulled me aside to tell me one of my project managers was too forceful and didn’t align with my brand. They were right, and it hurt to hear that, but I took action and changed my brand guidelines and workplace culture. This was one of the lessons of listening to my clients and understanding their needs. One of the ways that a business can fail is because they are so inflexible with their clients. If you can give what clients demand, within reason, you really can differentiate yourself. Just listening to their needs and following up on them shows you care about them and not just the money they bring in. I’ve learned that my clients love efficiency and innovation packaged in their solutions, and that’s what I try to do.
I’ve had experiences that have broken me and helped me become a stronger person. Some have brought me to the edge of quitting - but instead, I choose to make a change within myself, be stronger, kinder, more caring, release my pride, and exchange it for lessons learned so that I can focus on growth.
The positive clients I’ve had reassured me I’m on the right track and push me to give my all. They’ve also believed in me, my experience, growth, and perspective.
I now have the confidence to say, “Yes! I am the best at what I do. I am one of the top 3% of design specialists in the world.”
So I thank them, and those positive experiences have far outnumbered the negative ones. I’ve found that for me kindness goes far further than being prideful, uncompromising, or intimidating.
What Are The Best And Worst Parts Of Your Workday? | How to Transform Your Past into a Successful Future
The worst is easy. Burnout! If I feel like I’m not getting anywhere and I’m lost in the drudgery, it can get pretty bad. Every entrepreneur will feel it at some point. It’s part of the game.
But, thankfully, I found what pulls me out is reconnecting with people. If I can feel a connection with my staff and my clients, that’s the best thing. Even just little emails asking how a project is going or what’s happened in their lives can snap me back to a happy place. Here’s just one example. After the launch and conference for a project we completed for PRB/AstraZeneca, we had a follow-up meeting. I was so excited when we got feedback - I was smiling so hard I couldn’t contain it. My client said that the Public Data Tool we built was a huge hit. The project converted survey information about non-communicable diseases all over the world into an easy to understand filterable dashboard. Some reps from other organizations have volunteered to help to promote awareness and a senator has also expressed his excitement in the project.
And then the cherry on top was bringing them a gift bag with custom t-shirts, hats, water bottles, and more.
Things like this are why I love what I do. Not just the kudos, but also knowing that the Dream In Color team built technology that brings us together, brings us awareness and finds a better way for humanity.
DIC may have started because I needed to desperately support my family, but it has transformed into something much more. I now get to pay it forward to others who helped me and my family growing up, while also helping others who were in situations like mine get the help they need. It’s one of the best feelings.