Lauren McKenzie bid farewell to her identity as an employee and the year 2017 at the exact same time. On Jan. 1, 2018, the Southern California native started her own design and marketing agency, REN Creativ, with a single client.

It’s been more than a year since McKenzie left the nest of a local web design agency, and she recently celebrated her first anniversary as a business owner by walking away with a Silver and three Gold ADDY awards from the American Advertising Federation in Colorado Springs. One Gold, Best Consumer Website, was awarded for work she did for Distillery 291. She received two Gold ADDYs for logo designs created for Mauka Massage and Cardo’s Cocina, as well as a Silver ADDY for packaging design for a Blue Spruce Brewing Company beer label.

Prior to moving to Colorado Springs, McKenzie attended high school in Arizona and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Mary Harden-Baylor near Waco, Texas. The 28-year-old held several positions before striking out on her own: She designed packaging and other marketing material for a specialty ink company; worked in local media; and was employed at both a public relations and web design agency.

She’d also taken a gig pouring beer a couple times a week at FH Beerworks, formerly Fieldhouse Brewing Company, which was walking distance from her home. The side hustle was a way to get to know people and to save a little extra money to launch an agency of her own. And it was while serving up suds that she got her first big break.

So what does REN Creativ do?

We specialize in graphic design, branding, brand photography, web design and social media management.

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What kind of work did you do before starting your own business?

I started applying for jobs fresh out of undergrad and within three weeks of moving here, I got my first job as an in-house designer for a specialty inks company. …

I was there three years and got my feet wet as an in-house designer, which was completely new to me having just gotten out of school. …

When I left, I accepted a job at [the Colorado Springs Independent] and was a graphic designer there for a year. …To go into print — I thought I understood design, but I had to be a different kind of designer now. It made me well-rounded because I was able to learn the relationship between writers and photographers and the ‘millions’ of people who go into making a publication happen. …

I felt like I’ve learned a lot working in different industries. I don’t know if everybody else is like this: You feel like you’re on top of the world when you finish school and you get thrust into the real world and you’re like, ‘Never mind, I don’t know anything.’

When I moved to the Springs, it took me two years of not knowing anyone and really having to establish myself and start making friends and connections and networks. It was so hard to leave Texas because I’d spent four years there building those up. When I came here I thought, ‘Maybe I should go back.’

But after two years, I hit the ground running. I was trying to meet people wherever I went — bars, restaurants, outdoor places. I was trying so hard — ‘Hi, nice to meet you. Want to be friends? Let’s be friends!’

What led you to start your own business?

A couple years ago I was taking side graphic design work and I started pouring beer two nights a week at Fieldhouse Brewing Company. … The beer-pouring thing was to make a little extra money to put towards investing in my business, but also to get to do a brainless job and get to be around people. … Oh my gosh! The amount of people I met — my regulars were so amazing, so supportive.

It was the end of 2017 and the owners of Fieldhouse Brewing Company pulled me aside and they said, ‘Hey, we’ve had this big plan to expand and rebrand the last few years and we’re trying to put the pieces together. We like to work with people who have come from the inside and we want you to be the person to rebrand.’

I was completely honored and floored. That was my first big client and my first taste of, ‘OK, what am I waiting for?’ … But I was hustling. There were no margins in my life. It was work, work, work and constantly educating myself.

That was the other thing. Having been out of school so long, I felt like I needed to go back. But I had 60K in student loan debt. I can’t go back to school.

I started taking classes at the [Small Business Development Center] and started with the Business Bootcamp. It was really informative. I took a bookkeeping class and a how-to-hire-your-first-employee class. … I was piecing together information and Googling everything you possibly could like, ‘how do you do your own books?’ and ‘what do taxes look like?’ or ‘what if I quit my job and don’t have health benefits anymore?’

Then what happened?

I realized that after seven years I’d learned how to be a totally different designer than when I graduated school. I learned how to be a packaging designer, which grew my beer industry network. I learned how to be a publication designer, which grew my network with publications in the Springs. I have the PR side. Now I know how to write press releases and do event management and event coordination and be an account manager and write proposals and contracts. The same with the web agency. I also learned to be a web designer. I felt like ‘OK, I’m ready. I have my tool belt ready to go. I just need clients.’

So you quit your job?

I gave my notice to the web design agency in December [2017] that Jan. 1, [2018] I was going full-time self-employed. … So Jan. 1 came around and I hit the ground running, hungry, almost panicked and terrified — but invigorated. It was an odd amount of energy. I’m a fairly energetic person but this level of energy was something I’d never experienced in myself before.

Any advice for others thinking about following a similar path?

I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘How’d you do it? When did you know to do it?’

My only answer is, I was making $17 an hour with a degree and on my fourth job in the industry. That’s not much. I had to work two jobs. Basically what I told myself was, ‘OK, if we do this, all you have to do is make $17 an hour.’ That’s it. What’s to lose?

How do you set your company apart?

Good design and good marketing should be affordable. It shouldn’t just be available to Fortune 500 businesses. … We should allow small businesses to have good marketing. That doesn’t mean I cheapen my work and don’t charge what it’s worth, but at the same time I offer flexible payments because I understand cash flow. I know they may not be able to afford it all at once, but they can over a six-month contract.

Maybe that means they’ll choose good marketing versus something they paid $20 for online because they were desperate and needed something.

If a huge business came to me and wanted me to work with them, I wouldn’t turn them away. But what brings me joy is working with people who, at the end of it, are so thrilled and proud of their own business that they feel like they can go off and be successful.

That’s why I do it every day.

How are you helping aspiring professionals?

I’ve had a lot of people through social media, UCCS students and Pikes Peak Community College students, reaching out to me through Instagram asking if I’m hiring or have internship positions and that they want to come learn from me. I don’t know what to do with these kids. I spoke with Laura Eurich, a marketing professor at UCCS. She said if you have interns and they’re getting school credit, you can’t have them doing client work — they can only do stuff for the business. But if you pay the interns, you can do whatever the heck you want with them. So now I have four interns.

Maybe it’s my upbringing and constant lifelong hustle, but I don’t believe in people working for free, even if it’s for school credit. So my interns always get paid. … Your time is always worth something — even if you’re learning.

Disclosure: The Colorado Springs Independent is a sister publication of the Colorado Springs Business Journal.