Emerging leaders

She draws her plans and makes it happen

When Klaudia Tolman, a visual storyteller and founder of ExplainVisually.co decided to quit a corporation in 2012 to work as a freelancer, she did not have savings and, instead, she got herself into debt. But she had plans and ideas that she drew on a wall in her room. After several months of struggling to make ends meet, she received a call from the first big client and her dreams started happening. This is how she started a company that produces multimedia content in the form of whiteboard animation movies for large international corporations, such as Orange, Credit Agricole and Pratt & Whittney.

Joanna Socha, editor-in-chief of W Insight: According to your blog, before starting ExplainVisually, you were doing 30 jobs: from a cleaner to the auditor of operational processes in a corporation. Why, after having so many different roles and experience did you decide to start your own company?

Klaudia Tolman: Setting up ExplainVisually.co resulted from looking for my own career path. I have always loved to draw, think with my hands and put my thoughts on paper. I couldn’t make use of this passion in those jobs. I was tired of working for corporations, constantly multitasking and never doing anything from start to finish. I felt sick in the morning at the mere thought of going to work. I felt worse every day – I felt drained. My whole body was telling me to quit. One day, I read an incredible book by Dan Roam entitled “The Back of the Napkin”. It struck me that what I always did was using visual thinking in my life and this is something I could make money on. When I read this book, I was an internal trainer in my company and I could use visual thinking, but it was definitely not enough. If you are in an organization that enables you to do only part of what you’d like to do and, on top of that, you do things you can’t stand – the choice is very simple but very difficult.

Were you prepared to set up your own business, e.g. did you have initial capital?

Instead of capital I had huge debts. When I decided to quit, my credit card was approximately 5000 USD in the red. It may appear careless but, at that point, leaving my job and starting my own company was exactly what I needed. I didn’t have money but I knew I wouldn’t die of starvation if everything went awry. Even though I couldn’t count on my parents to support me, I knew my friends would be there for me. My coach advised me to make a list of people to whom I could turn for money – just a backup plan. Looking back, it was the best decision ever. In October 2012 I handed in my resignation and I became a freelancer – or actually jobless (laugh).

How was it when you gave up your regular salary?

December was OK as I lived on November pay and I got money for some freelancing training. January wasn’t bad either, but February was very difficult. Banks started calling me to say my credit card was not paid off and it was not enjoyable at all.

Did you regret your decision then?

Absolutely not! I knew the decision was good but I realized that freelancing is far more complex than I envisioned. I was stressed and was thinking whether it was a moment to use my back up list or not. At this point, a friend asked me if I’d be interested in giving a speech at the TEDx conference in Wroclaw with the theme: It’s half done when you’ve drawn it. It was just perfect! I have always believed that visualizing your dreams helps making them reality. I was a living example of it. In my room there was a black wall where I drew a dream map. Taking part in the TEDx conference was one of them, in the section with bold plans. I posted in online and that is how my friend, Karolina, knew I wanted to do it so much. So when she met a TEDxWrocław organizer, she recommended me as a speaker, which I became few months later!

It was a breakthrough. No longer than 2 or 3 weeks after TEDx, in May 2013 I got a message from a woman working at Google in Wroclaw. She asked if I’d be interested in doing a training on visual thinking for their management team. It was when I felt that finally something started moving. After that, there came more offers, for instance from the Carlsberg company – with a request to do a video of my drawing hand. This is how the ExplainVisually brand and a business that I soon set up with my fiancé was created.

You finally started making money…

Very good money! First time in my life. To my surprise, I am still making a living and my credit card is paid off regularly. Now I know it is worth listening to intuition. When I quit my job, I had no strategy nor plan, but I had a feeling that I had to take my life in my hands. I do not want to sound as if my life after this decision was freestyle, after all, we work with 16 people. But in the vast majority of cases, I trusted my intuition.

In the past few years, you’ve managed to build a well-recognized brand in visual arts and visual thinking. Your Facebook page has tens of thousands followers. How did you make it? 

First and foremost, do not try to be someone you are not. Pages like Visual Thinking (edit. Myślenie Wizulane), ExplainVisually.co and Klaudia Tolman – Ryślicielka  – the ones I manage – show 100% of Klaudia. My friends sometimes tell me that I tend to be “too honest” or “too straightforward”. They think that saying things out loud all the time can harm my business. I acknowledge that, but I don’t plan on changing my approach. People like it. Dishonesty is easily detectable. Also, I think I learn from my mistakes quickly and I like to share that. I share with my readers both successes and challenges. I am transparent and honest – if I feel bad about something, I say it. When Michał Trochimczyk, my fiancé and my business partner died in a glider crash – I felt an urge to speak about it, especially that in the first month I was unable to work. I had to explain what happened.

What helped you make it through such a difficult time?

Writing it down day by day and sharing my pain. I doubt it is a universal recipe. Everyone deals with trauma and mourns in their own individual way but for me it was really important. When Michał died, I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to stay at home or throw my phone away. I wanted to be with people all the time. Even if we did not speak a word or cried most of time, I really needed someone. When the closest person you’ve ever had dies, it changes everything. He is just gone and he will never be back. It hurts terribly. However, it does not mean that life is not worth living anymore. I had and still have my family and friends. Friendship is for me very close to love. Between Michal’s death and his funeral, it was as if I were in a relay race – handed from one person to another – always with someone watching guard. It helped me a lot. I meditated a lot. Hadn’t it been for all this, I wouldn’t have recovered that quickly. On top of that, I decided to focus on myself. I knew the company was important and that it couldn’t go bust, but the most important thing was my health. I gave up on training and graphic recording for one month; I found a substitute. After some time I realized I had to keep moving. I was determined to fight. I wanted ExplainVisually to make it through. But if it wasn’t for my team and their great help and determination, I don’t know what would have happened to the company. Maciek Budkowski, who had previously had the role of a sales and marketing person, took over from Michal and started managing the company. It required from him a lot of courage and…balls. Like me, he had not only lost his boss, but also his good friend. So we couldn’t let something that we had started go down. And we’re still doing it!

Edited by: Aga Kopec, Phyllis Budka

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