Backstory: Designer rebuilds after loss of mother, battle with cancer

vbridges@newsobserver.comNovember 18, 2013 

Claire Doyle Ragin, 56, owner of Red Beret Design, rebuilt her business after losing her mother and battling breast cancer.


  • Advice from Claire Doyle Ragin

    •  Don’t use clip art in a logo on a homemade brochure. It’s like going to a meeting in a jumpsuit with spinach in your teeth.

    • Think of your website as an employee, and decide what you want it to accomplish before you start to build it.

— For seven years, Claire Doyle Ragin focused on sharpening her business model and building her graphic and web design company Red Beret Design. She attended networking events, clocked her hours and projects, and sought to maximize her pricing and efficiency.

Ragin, now 56, opened her company in an office in downtown Durham in 2004. It took about five years for the business to gain momentum. In 2009 it experienced a 30 percent increase in billing – despite the declining economy.

But that was before her mother died and Ragin was diagnosed with cancer.

In October 2010, Ragin’s mother was rushed to the hospital. After months of doctor trips and treatments, her mother, 90, died in March 2011. Two months later, Ragin learned she had stage 1 breast cancer.

Ragin had two surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments. She was frustrated in the following months as her energy came back in fits and stops.

Now, however, Ragin is feeling consistently better, she said. And she is rebuilding her business under a new plan that incorporates a healthy work-life balance.

When Ragin moved to Durham in 2000, she had 18 years of experience in broadcast design, video postproduction, and art direction with television Internet companies and startups in California. Ragin cashed in her Microsoft shares – acquired after the company bought a startup she had worked for in California – and enrolled in what was then Peace College in Raleigh to finish her college degree.

She graduated in 2003 and opened Red Beret Design in 2004.

Ragin launched a website, joined associations and set a goal to attend networking events once a week.

“I just got out there physically meeting a lot of people,” she said.

At first, she planned to open for a year, build a reputation and take an art director position at an advertising agency. But she changed her mind – in part, after an established firm asked her to step in for a senior art director, who was on vacation. The job involved minor copy edits and adding trademarks.

“It was really not challenging – not creative, not even interesting,” Ragin said. Meanwhile, she was meeting with clients and designing logos, brochures and websites at Red Beret.

Red Beret was profitable from the start, Ragin said, but revenue growth was slow. In 2009, when she marked the first year of significant gains, Ragin moved her office into her home and continued to rely on a virtual team in which she partnered with other professionals when she needed their expertise on a job.

After Ragin was diagnosed with breast cancer, she reduced her hours to part time. She avoided spending time on tasks that weren’t billable and on jobs with tight deadlines. Ragin only worked with people with whom she felt comfortable sharing her challenges. She also relied on her husband’s income, personal savings and a business line of credit.

In 2013, Ragin worked on a new website and design packages aimed at startups. Ragin also did two pro bono projects for cancer-related nonprofit organizations, and started joining networks and re-establishing connections with her old contacts.

While her focus is back on her business, she also wants to make time to enjoy the life she has.

“After two years of really horrible problems to deal with, my biggest personal challenge is I have all these wonderful things in my life,” she said. “How do I balance them?”

Bridges: 919-829-8917; Twitter: @virginiabridges

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