Startup Lessons From 22-Year Old Designer, Art Viljoen
22-year-old Art Viljoen doesn't want to build an empire; he's using entrepreneurship as a means to follow his dream and become a world-renowned designer.
- Player: Art Viljoen
- Company: RolfArt Design Studio
- What they do: Logo design, branding, corporate identity, store and interior design.
- Clients: Spar, MacDonald’s, Jomo Cosmos FC, Vuyo’s, Feitoria Boutique Hotel
- Launched: 2012
- Visit: www.rolfart.co.za
Here’s the beautiful thing about entrepreneurship: It can be whatever you want it to be. For some, it’s a high-growth, high-impact organisation. For others, it’s a way to change the world. For Art Viljoen, it’s the vehicle that he’s using to become a world-class designer, and create a brand that others will hopefully one day study.
Your entrepreneurial dream is what you make of it. There are no rules or expectations — just you and your vision.
Art has never been afraid to take a leap of faith. Basketball is far from a mainstream sport in South Africa, but as a tall, lanky youth, it suited him perfectly. He was so good at it that a US basketball scout saw him play and offered him a scholarship to a school in New York.
Barely into his teens, Art made the decision to leave his family and move to the States, where he planned to follow his dream of becoming a professional basketball player. And like so many dreams, he soon discovered that the reality wasn’t what he’d expected.
“I didn’t love it as much as I thought I would,” he says. Instead, he started enjoying working on designs his father sent him more than he did playing his chosen sport.
Willem Viljoen was the founder of Double W Studio, a Joburg-based design studio, and to maintain contact with his son he sent him design briefs. It soon became apparent that the young Art had a flair for design.
“When I was younger, I was determined not to be a designer,” he says. “I didn’t want anyone to think I’d only gotten somewhere because of my dad. Except the more I designed, the more I realised how much I loved it.”
What does love look like? It’s simple. If you’re willing to learn everything you can about a discipline; if the best in your field fascinate you, and you read everything you can about them and by them to understand their mindset; and if you’re disciplined enough to practise your art relentlessly, then you have the passion necessary to be a real success.
For Art, it was an awakening. “My dad was sending briefs to me and other contractors, and his clients were choosing my designs. I was a kid who still had a lot to learn, but I was starting to realise that this was where my heart lay. I knew I could make a business of it.”
And so, before he graduated high school, Art took his second leap of faith — he returned to South Africa to pursue a career in design.
Choosing to go into business
And this is where entrepreneurship comes into play. Art didn’t decide to study design, he chose to go into business. Why? Because he believed he already had the skills to get started, and because he didn’t want to be an employee — he wanted to build his own brand, and the sooner he got started, the sooner he could begin developing the foundations he needed.
In the interim, Willem had sold his stake in Double W Studios and opened a small design firm, RolfArt Designs.
“My dad’s business had grown too big. He was managing people instead of designing, and he wanted to get back to what he loved.”
RolfArt was a name Willem had registered years earlier. The combination of his two sons’ names, Rolf and Art, it was a deeply personal brand name, and one he wanted to hand over to his son.
“I got home in 2013, and my dad had been running RolfArt for a year. His long-time client, Spar, offered him the opportunity to head up design and development at Spar.” Willem made the decision to take the position and hand over RolfArt to his son.
“It was this incredible, deeply personal opportunity. “The name meant so much; it was exactly how I wanted to start building my brand.” And so the 19-year-old had a business.
Building a client base
Finding clients wasn’t a problem. Art had already done work with his dad’s clients, and they knew his capabilities. One client lead to two, then three, as word of mouth did its job.
“Understand your clients, their vision, create awesome designs, be reliable, and understand the business and its objectives — and the result is word-of-mouth growth. I’ve never had to go out and find clients. My work has spoken for itself.”
Over the past three years Art has also maintained his focus on understanding the best his industry has to offer. “I haven’t had formal training, but I keep up-to-date with developments, trends, international best practice and where design is heading,” he says.
As RolfArt has grown, Art has received offers to join big agencies, but his only interest is in building RolfArt.
“I haven’t hired a team. I do have an accountant who does my books and financials but otherwise my focus is to stay small and niche. The designer I admire most, Stefan Sagmeister, is a team of two, and he’s world-renowned. Big designers don’t have big corporate agencies — they tend to be singular entities.
“That’s where I want to be — my own boss, my own designs, and my vision coming through. My personal touch. I want my designs to be distinctive, that’s my main focus. I know what I want to achieve, and a personal touch is everything.
“I want to change the world by making it beautiful and find a way to bring my style to it.”