It’s our 25 year anniversary! To celebrate, we’re highlighting some of our past and present clients to showcase how their businesses have evolved over the years. We’re honored and grateful to have been a part of so many of our clients’ journeys these past 25 years and look forward to continuing to build business success in Alberta.
Yellow Pencil is a digital agency that works with public sector clients, helping them modernize and digitize the way they offer their services. Since their foundation in 1996, they’ve experienced many milestones and seen plenty of growth over the years. We had the opportunity to chat with Paul Bellows, President of Yellow Pencil, to ask him a few questions about his entrepreneurial journey and see where they are now.
I first came to Business Link in 2000 (…) We knew Business Link was up the road so we decided to head over and see what they were offering. I still remember walking in and realizing it was this resource library with a gold mine of people and information in it! Business Link was there to help move me from a beginner to an intermediate business owner, it was great to have someone there to teach me Business 101.
1. Tell us about yourself. What is your background?
My name is Paul Bellows, and I am currently the President of Yellow Pencil. Originally, I was an English grad and a singer/songwriter, however, after realizing I couldn’t make a lot of money in that industry I started at a digital agency. Now I design and build digital things with my team.
2. Tell us about your business and what it does.
Yellow Pencil is a digital agency that works with public sector clients to help them modernize and digitalize the way they deliver information. Not only do we design websites, but also things like talking robots that can answer questions for our clients. A large part of what we do is rethink the way we take an offline service and move it to a digital space – not just taking something as is and writing code but rethinking entirely what it is and how it works. Our work is very evolutionary, we typically work with our clients for 5-10 years and during that time help move them along their journey to modernization and digitalization.
3. When did you launch your business?
September 1, 1996 – This year we’re also celebrating our 25th anniversary!
4. What motivated you to start your own business?
I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial tendency – as a kid I built a lemonade stand, in high school, I inherited a tennis racquet restringing machine and would go around to schools and fix their tennis racquets at a lower cost. When I started playing music I didn’t want to have to be recording and touring all the time to make money, so I started to learn how to code websites. That’s how Yellow Pencil was born.
5. What are you most proud of? What is your biggest success?
I would say I’m most proud of the people at Yellow Pencil. We’re now up to 45 employees and we have a group of the most intelligent, caring, thoughtful humans. They invest themselves in our clients and the problems they have with a focus on quality and accessible and value-driven work. We have an incredible group of people that have stayed with us for a long time and some incredible new minds that have joined us, there isn’t anything that is more important to us and it is our biggest success.
6. What challenges has your business had to overcome?
Growth is a challenge in itself. You start a company with a small group of people with a goal not to fail, then you grow and you need systems, processes, HR, and financial services to continue growing. Typically, what happens is you learn what you need the moment after you actually need it. As a new business owner, when you haven’t gone through growth before, there’s a lot of surprises. It’s important to understand your strategy through the process of growth – you have to get into your customers’ minds and see how they view the world rather than how you do as the service provider.
7. When did you first come to Business Link? Why?
I first came to Business Link in 2000, our company moved our business to 104th street and Business Link was right up the road from us. We were at a point where we had just hired our first employees and we were asking ‘grown-up’ questions like “how do we pay taxes” and “how do we do payroll.” We knew Business Link was up the road so we decided to head over and see what they were offering. I still remember walking in and realizing it was this resource library with a gold mine of people and information in it. It was a place I could go that I could ask questions and be as foolish as I actually was and there was somebody there to answer these obvious questions that I’m not sure how I got that far without knowing the answers to. Business Link was there to help move me from a beginner to an intermediate business owner, it was great to have someone there to teach me Business 101.
8. How has Business Link helped you over the years? What kind of support did you receive?
Business Link was a place I could go with all my ignorance and be pointed in the right direction. The strategists prevented me from making some big mistakes that could have been fatal for the business – things like income tax, GST collection, etc. It could have dug us into a hole that we couldn’t get out of and Business Link was there to prevent that from happening.
9. What advice would you share with others who want to start or grow their own business?
It’s essential to ask yourself two things – the first is what do you value? When you’re building a business, what you value is what becomes the culture of your business. If you’re going to design a business, it needs to be good for you as a human being. The more you know yourself and what’s important to you – the more you’re going to succeed in creating a group of people that share those values.
The second is – understanding what you want to be different in the world. What is that thing that you can do and add unique value? There are so many obstacles to entrepreneurship, so if you’re doing something that you don’t care about – you’ll quit.
10. What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your business?
The term I like to use is ‘recipes’ – If you’re a restaurant that wants to grow and scale you must have good recipes. As a business owner, your recipe is the core of what you do as a business and ensuring you’re producing consistent results. So what are your recipes? The way you do what you do is what will help your business to scale, especially when you start to add people you need to have these recipes & processes really clearly defined you discover that your product is very inconsistent. You might sell something that you’re not proud of, your people don’t understand what’s expected of them and what good performance looks like. You need to clearly define these processes and ‘recipes’ to have a truly successful business.
11. Is there anything else you would like to share?
Edmonton is an amazing city to start a business in. I don’t know of a more entrepreneurial city in the entire country. There’s not only a lot of entrepreneurs here but the people in the city truly accept and welcome entrepreneurs and new businesses. Business Link celebrating 25 years is a truly incredible victory for the city and the entire province of Alberta.
Where you can find Yellow Pencil:
Yellow Pencil on Facebook
Yellow Pencil on Instagram
Yellow Pencil on LinkedIn