This KC Design Duo Leveraged a Pandemic Pivot to Focus Their New Business

Photos by Ann Millington Photography

Working with a business partner can be heaven or hell. But for graphic designers Chris Meier and Sam Yates, something just clicked early on.

Their partnership has taken them from school projects to navigating the COVID-19 pandemic to serving national clients – and maybe meeting Michelle Obama. Here’s how their side hustle has evolved into a real business with the help of a real pandemic pivot.

Starting a business with a partner

When Chris was in high school, he stumbled onto his career path. He and a buddy found screen-printing equipment at the resale shop where they worked.

“We were like, ‘Do you wanna make some shirts?’” Chris says.

What started as making band shirts evolved into graphic design and studying at Kansas City Art Institute. While there, Chris met Sam.

“We were both in the design program,” Sam says. “We had worked on projects together in school, and it just seemed to work out.”

After graduation, both worked as designers in Kansas City. But they also directed their creative energies to their passion project, Yup Yup Design.

“It started with just screen printing – family reunion shirts, Corporate Challenge shirts,” Sam says. “But we realized that being a commercial print shop is a lot of manual labor – second shift, those late nights. We started getting into more design-oriented projects.”

As Yup Yup shifted its focus, COVID started shifting everything.

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Pivoting a new business in a new world

Chris left his agency job in December to focus on freelance work and Yup Yup. Sam continued to work at the agency she loves. They were working on how they wanted Yup Yup to evolve, and then the pandemic made some choices for them.

“COVID was a blessing in disguise,” Sam says. “I hate saying that because it’s such a serious topic.”

Chris says, “It did streamline a lot of our work and force us to adapt.”

Due to the pandemic, Sam began working from home. And although Yup Yup had already started to pivot away from screenprinting to more design, the shift became more pronounced.

“Honestly, the pivot was focusing more on us internally and what our vision was,” Sam says. “We didn’t feel pressure to put anything out so we could develop our business plan.”

She and Chris turned to the Missouri Small Business Development Center at UMKC. There, they learned about the ELEVATIONLAB™ New Venture class – and the Urban Business Growth Initiative scholarship that made the class accessible, thanks to a huge 88% discount.

Although Sam was the one in the New Venture class, reworking and fine-tuning the business was definitely a group effort.

“It turned into us workshopping what we want this to be,” she says. “And it looks like it’s working out.”

Yup Yup Design, Sam Yates and Chris Meier

Help for small businesses

Each member of a startup team brings unique strengths to the table. And a little self-awareness helps, too.

“We are two halves of a whole for sure,” Chris says. “Sam’s definitely more organized – a lot of things, it’s just better if she does it. I’m happy to do whatever she tells me, but I need some guidance.”

On the other hand, Sam started the New Venture class with a checklist already in hand. She knew about establishing an LLC and opening bank accounts. But the class opened her eyes to many things she’d never considered.

“One of the things we talked about was diversifying our streams of revenue,” Sam says. “That really resonated with me. We can screen print, so why wouldn’t we do that? That could be part of the support of Yup Yup. That could pay our rent. If we want to sell our own merch, our own Yup Yup branded things that we do for fun, that’s another stream. Then, we have design, which is our bread and butter, and that’s what we want to be our primary. We can still do all these things – they can all contribute to our success.”

The structure of the class helped make business concepts less random and more real – and actionable.

“There are all those things that I’ve had in my head, but now they’re on paper and talked through,” Chris says. “We have specifics – what’s our goal for the month? Where’s our revenue coming from? How do we want to talk about it? They are things you kind of know, but now that we’ve dug a couple layers deeper, it’s super helpful.”

“A lot of those things float around in your brain,” Sam says. “But when you right them down, you think, ‘Oh! This is legit!’”

Support for KC art-preneurs

Along with in-class epiphanies, Chris and Sam also benefited from talking to other artists and entrepreneurs in the Kansas City community.

“The class encouraged us to do interviews with people that are in the same boat as us,” Sam says. “Luckily, the Kansas City arts community has been so generous to us. People are so nice!”

“They’re so willing to help,” Chris says. “They are willing to show you everything – ‘Here’s my spreadsheet, here’s how we did it. Here’s our accountant’s name, here’s a good realtor if you’re looking for a space. I know someone who is looking for some branding – here’s a job.’”

This isn’t to say that Sam and Chris aren’t talented artists. But they say the community support has made a huge difference. And the knowledge and know-how meant Yup Yup was ready when opportunity came knocking.

Making a difference with design

Serendipitously, after Sam finished the New Venture course, she and Chris were contacted by a friend of a friend. He had started Mix4Change, an online voter registration program. DJs from around the country spin sets online and give information about registering to vote.

“It’s the millennial version of Rock the Vote, for millennials,” Sam says.

The initiative needed help with branding – and Sam and Chris were delighted to help with a complete brand design for the program.

“We started Yup Yup to do design we’re interested in and that we really support, so this is a great project for us creatively,” Chris says. “It’s something we feel strongly about, and it’s going to do good for the world, which is the main prompt for designers everywhere. We should be putting good design out into the world for positive change. This is the first project that we feel hits on all those marks. And we can use this to get more projects like this.”

It doesn’t hurt that Mix4Change came to the attention of When We All Vote, Michelle Obama’s initiative. No word yet on whether Sam and Chris will be invited to the Obama’s, but that would be gravy, anyway.

“These projects are the best creative outlets for us,” Sam says. “We do the late nights, but it doesn’t feel like work because we’re so interested in it.”

Yup Yup Design, Sam Yates and Chris Meier outside

Advice for other KC entrepreneurs

Yup Yup Design is at the beginning of its business journey. But Chris and Sam have already learned so much talking to other small business owners and taking advantage of the resources available through the SBDC.

One question posed in the New Venture course hit particularly close to home.

“They asked, ‘When does your hobby become a business and when is your business a hobby?’ It was a dagger to the heart!” Sam says. “But then we talked about revenue streams, and I thought, ‘No, no, we can make this happen.’”

The final assignment was a three-year sales projection. The two co-founders say just assigning numbers to goals has made a difference outside of class.

“It was a lot easier than I thought,” Sam says. “It seemed so scary to put a number to a month, but if you put good energy into the world, you make it happen.”

Both Sam and Chris recommend the class for budding entrepreneurs.

“New Venture was really our first business class,” Sam says. “It was adapted from the Kauffman FastTrac program, which has an online learning tool you can walk through. It’s essentially an even more in-depth version of what we did in the class … it is not messing around. It asks very specific questions and makes you really look at, ‘Can we really do this?’”

Those resources also provided much-needed perspective.

“You see companies that you think are running a well-oiled machine,” Sam says, “but they all started in the same place. They all started as somebody’s vision.”

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