If there was ever someone suited for teaching a small business management course, it’s Sophia Chang. The illustrator and designer runs not one but three entrepreneurial endeavors: a creative agency called We Ascend, a wellness publication called Undo-Ordinary and the brand design efforts she takes on as a freelancer. Chang also manages a strong social media presence and practices what she preaches when it comes to healthy and mindful living (think: sleeping, hydrating and exercising).
Chang’s energy, tech-savvy, and belief that there is no one-size-fits all approach to living well (or working smart) has been inspirational to both budding entrepreneurs and the most seasoned of professionals. Since December 2015, when she published her first Skillshare class, more than 22,000 students have watched Chang discuss how to craft a more authentic digital presence (and have left rave reviews about her advice). Now she’s returned to Skillshare to teach a new class on how creative small business owners can manage their workflow to reach new levels of professional and personal capability. We took the opportunity to chat with Chang about how she approaches her own work, passions, and why “loving what you do” only takes you so far.
Your new class, Creative Small Business Essentials, just launched. Congratulations! What are you hoping to achieve with it?
Yeah it’s super exciting!
Over the course of a decade plus of working on multiple businesses, I’ve thought a lot about different ways I can streamline my thinking and work in an efficient way. I’ve had opportunities to work with small businesses and corporate clients to develop infrastructures. Classic situations of looking under the hood and being like, “You guys are a complete mess and it makes sense why things aren’t working in a way that maximizes everyone’s time!”
This new class is built for anyone who is running their own small business or working as a project manager in a way that isn’t intimidating. We carry so much weight on our minds when we run our own business. So, instead of keeping that anxiety and stress inside, what are ways that we can organize our thinking? There are so many tools out there that can really help champion and empower people. That’s really what this new course is, to help people get clarity.
It sounds like, the more organized you can be as an entrepreneur or creative, the more time you can actually spend doing the creative thinking and the work?
Yeah, exactly. Some creatives are really good at switching gears, some people need a buffer period. Every minute, every second is so valuable when you run your own business.
There are a lot of classes about Trello or Airtable, but I’m really combining all of that knowledge to set up a crash course that covers all the stuff we have to do anyway... whether you’re a nail artist or you’re handling the PR for a company, how can we use all the tools out there to really build whatever the hell we want?
It’s creating a paradigm shift for the audience... that running your own business can be fun and exciting and there’s a big sigh of relief after you brain dump everything onto the apps where you think “Oh my god, I get it, I feel so much lighter.”
That ties in so well to your passion for wellness and taking care of yourself. How do you balance all of your work streams with also prioritizing self care?
I was listening to this podcast recently and they used the phrase “mental hygiene” and it was this explosive moment for me. Obviously mental health is trending and, in the same way, there’s also business hygiene. How organized are you? How do you manage everything? How are you not driving yourself nuts?
What led to founding Undo-Ordinary was similar to what led to my Skillshare class and wanting to share what I was learning. I realized I was hunched over a computer all of the time and I had shooting pains up my traps and wrists from working all day and that my sleep was affected by staring at a computer all day with blue light.
When you love what you do, you’re pushing yourself way more. You’re holding in your pee because you’re thinking “I just have to finish this email!” and you do it multiple times a day, multiple times a week. But think about the long term effects of doing that to your body.
I know I’m not the only person doing this, so I’ve translated that and put it in a place where people can find that information because it’s applicable to everyone. You don’t realize that, if you want to continue doing what you’re doing as a creative ten or twenty years down the line, I need to understand this machine that is my body...that only helps me work better.
How do you prioritize your work and what takes up the most of your time these days?
Every Sunday, if I’m being good, I review my week ahead of time. I basically scatter everything I need to do across a spectrum. And I know my moods–I know what Mondays are like for me and I know what Fridays are like for me and I’m a little burnt out. So I schedule things according to where I’ll be at mentally.
You’ve said that throughout your career people have told you to focus on one thing but you resisted being put in a box. How did you combat that advice ?
For me, there was never an actual combat. It was more like “I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing and what feels organic to me.”
If I were to pick just one thing and just do one thing, I would go nuts because clearly I have a lot of energy. Having a general plan but also being open to going with the flow adapt and embrace the changes that come along has helped me for the most part.
It’s mostly about just sticking to you if you were to cut out all of the noise.
How do you make time to make art or let inspiration come to you these days?
Ironically, I feel like making art is a luxury which I don’t have right now in my life because I have so much work going on.
I do have fun ideas where I really want to draw something, but I don’t have the mental energy just yet. Every single day, every week, every month, I try to think of ways I can be more efficient to make more space for creativity while also being extremely mindful of my boundaries.
They say that successful people never sleep, they wake up at 5 am every morning or something. I can’t do that. And I've had this stigma my whole life of thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t be as great or as productive as these other people because I can't wake up at 5 am”.
If I wake up at 5 am, I am a complete zombie for the whole day. I work like I'm hungover. However, if I wake up at 9, I hit the ground running super speed. I just figured out what works for me and stopped comparing myself to others.
I recently learned about chronotypes and there are actually different hereditary, biological, hormonal sleep profiles that we all have. Some people are your early-bird-5-am types who are ready to go, some people who are night owls, and there are two more sleep profiles between the two and it’s all based on your hormones. When we understand our bodies, we know the best time for going to the gym, having sex, doing your emails, do your calls, or asking your boss for a raise. Often we work against our bodies when we could work in a much more efficient way.
There’s not one set of rules that matches everyone because everyone is different. Being able to understand from trial and error what works for you is really important.
Something you’ve said is that you can’t create unless your health is in order, which is incredibly valuable advice. What do you to just chill out? Do you schedule time for Netflix?
Honestly, there are 24 hours in a day. You sleep for 8, work for 8, you’ve got a whole other 8 to do a bunch of other stuff, if you just think about it that way. I love walking with my dog, I’m reading more, I’m doing meditation because people say it’s good for you so I’m trying it. Being organized makes me committed and it gives me headspace to relax.
Your first Skillshare class was all about creating a brand through social media. Was there a specific moment that led you to realize how powerful social media could be for you?
YES! In 2013 I was invited to attend a Nike Running event via a friend who is an ultra-marathoner. We ended up running 7 miles throughout downtown New York into Brooklyn at night with headlamps. Back and forth across bridges. Mind you, at that time in my life I barely did any cardio. The most cardio I had ever done was in PE in high school. They had cameras capturing content, most of the attendees were runners, I just went with the flow trying not to die.
Years later, UNDO-Ordinary was hosting a “shake-up” run before the New York City marathon. People from all around the world came to join. Someone came up to me and said they followed me and were so inspired by my posts from the Nike event. I was like “Oh my god that was a horrific experience for me, I had no idea.” Blah, blah I was kinda complaining. She was shocked and said she was so inspired that she started an evening run crew called the Night Terror Runners and they are hundreds of folks deep in Toronto.
I looked at her, jaw dropped in awe. That was the moment I realized everything I post has an impact and there’s a way to really craft our stories to impact our communities. I began to integrate this thinking and messaging into many of my posts on social with intention.
Have you changed your approach to social media at all since your last class, as it pertains to wellness (or anything really!)?
The need to post photos of yourself and the constant changing of the algorithms definitely don’t work in my favor. But I still use my platform as a place for me to do what I set out to do since Day One. That is to share my work, and highlight people/places/things that I care about. Regardless of the new features or changes, my storyline will always remain the same...it’s just an extension of myself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about Sophia Chang, her career, and the classes she teaches on Skillshare, visit her teacher profile here.
Cover image: still from Sophia Chang's Skillshare class, Creative Small Business Essentials: Ways to Streamline Your Workflow.