Good Life

An artist at heart, former IBM account executive designs new career

Terrell Graham, a 2009 Penn State Smeal College of Business graduate, worked as an account executive for IBM, the Phoenix Suns and Temple University before starting his own web and graphic design firm.
Terrell Graham, a 2009 Penn State Smeal College of Business graduate, worked as an account executive for IBM, the Phoenix Suns and Temple University before starting his own web and graphic design firm.

Terrell Graham always loved to draw. In grade school, doodles and sketches filled his notebooks. In college, he designed the marketing materials for his fraternity’s events. Being an artist suited him, even as he donned suits and practiced pitches while studying supply chain and information systems in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

So after graduating in 2009, he sprinted into adulthood and the world of big names and big numbers. He began a career in sales, eventually working for the Philadelphia Eagles, Temple University, the Phoenix Suns and IBM. On the side, he’d do design projects here and there for friends who were starting their own ventures. Juggling both was hectic, but not uncommon among his generation.

“Before I knew it, I had a side-job or ‘side-hustle,’ ” he said.

Yet his “side-hustle” was his main passion. So in July he left his account executive job with IBM, choosing a path that more of his peers are opting for: A life where the steering wheel — or in Graham’s case, a sketchbook — is in their hands. According to a 2013 Millennial Branding report, nearly 60 percent of millennials consider themselves entrepreneurs and 71 percent at “regular” jobs would prefer to leave and go it solo. Workplaces known for their progressive attitudes toward work itself, such as Google and Facebook, ranked high in a National Society of High School Scholars survey on where young people would like to work.

“It became more and more difficult to juggle both being a full-time salesperson and serving my clients,” Graham, 29, said. “So I decided to leave my job and what had become a security blanket for me and take a big risk and pursue my passion full time.”

Since then, the web and graphic designer has worked with other entrepreneurs, helping them brand and market their startups with a few strokes from his brush. In 2017, the brush is digital, of course, but the creativity comes from a more timeless place: doodles from his youth.

Now they’re sharper and more grown-up, seen on everything from Philadelphia clothing lines and moving companies to Texas health care companies to commercial cleaners in New York. One of his latest projects is in the town of his alma mater — the forthcoming Envy Nightclub in State College.

For Graham, autonomy is an artist’s raison d’être. So is authenticity.

“Working as an independent designer gives me the autonomy, flexibility and freedom that I could’ve never imagined as an employee,” he said. “Whether I decide to stay in and work from home, set up in a local coffee shop or work on the road and travel, no day for me is the same.

“I’m passionate about the work I do, so it never feels quite like ‘work’ to me.”

Q: What’s the biggest challenge for you as a young entrepreneur?

A: To be completely transparent, I had never truly intended to start this business. I had always loved to sketch as kid and art was always an interest of mine.

So far, one the biggest challenges I face, especially coming from a background of working for large corporations, is no longer having that organizational structure that comes along with working in those companies. I’m now completely responsible for holding myself accountable for everything that’s related to my business. If I don’t provide the best service possible or I miss a deadline I set with a client, I can easily lose that customer or might not get the referrals that I rely on.

Q: How do most of your clients hear about you?

A: Most of my clients currently came to me from my current network of friends, family and former colleagues. That network has continued to provide me with referrals, which I rely on as my best source of new business. Also people have found me through my personal and business social media presence (@terrellgrahamco) and my website. After working professionally as a salesperson for seven years, I still use lot of those skills that I learned such as traditional cold calling and business networking events.

Q: What are your near- and long-term goals?

A: My near-term goals are for me to continue to develop and improve upon my graphic and web design abilities. I also have roadmapped in the short term to add more services at my disposal for my clients such as app development and motion graphics. Simply put, I plan on being able to offer my current clients more.

Long-term, my goal is to grow my business in a significant way and really expand my client base. My goal is to become a leader in the design industry. I want to be someone that younger independent designers will look to for guidance and inspiration. In the future, I plan on offering tutorials and resources for up-and-coming independent designers so that they can improve their craft and expand their business.

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy