Updated: Jan 12, 2019
Photo credits: Rae Images, Ebony Stubbs
Two decades ago an ambitious art student sat in a computer lab day-dreaming of owning her own business and brainstorming company names. Today, that art student is CEO and owner of a bi-coastal, full-service creative agency that works with dozens of clients to help them create and amplify their personal and company-wide brand identities. Through economic downturns, entrepreneurial challenges and big life decisions, Cheale Villa has remained a steadfast beacon of positivity, with a trademark laugh, who not only creates great brands but helps business rally their own motivation and vision for over fifteen years. Though her business has grown and evolved, her passion has stayed the same. So has the name that she doodled years ago in art class— “Visual Caffeine.” Read on for more great insight into the entrepreneurial world and a heavy dose of inspiration from Cheale herself.
So, how did you know so early that you wanted to own your own business?
I just knew that I wanted to have control over my own life, be able to dictate my schedule in a way that allowed me to really embrace my creative passions and be able to truly work closely with clients. My father was also a big influence on my decision; he was an entrepreneur and who worked hard to create the life he wanted. I knew, quickly, entrepreneurship was more of a fit for me.
What did you father own?
A restaurant! At the time he opened it in Detroit, there weren’t a lot of family-focused, inviting dining options. He saw the opportunity for a niche and built his business idea from that point. It was warm, homey atmosphere with quality, affordable food—no alcohol was served. And, it was incredibly successful for four decades.
That’s really cool and a testament to knowing how to find and master a niche! So, back to your business. I’m curious--who was your first client?
My first client was an Italian ceramics business called “TuttoBene.” I loved her business so much that I started trading my services for work; my home is full of her pieces! I still keep in touch with her.
What was it like being fresh out of college and starting a business?
It was scary but, I’ve always been someone who is good at being afraid. In my opinion, when you’re comfortable, you’re in trouble. I believe God wants us to grow and take on new challenges; I always want to be ready to accept those challenges. As I move forward, I grow strong enough to handle the next one. I never hesitate to do something that scares me. I might be a stress-case initially, but I’m still going to do it! I think it’s scarier to be complacent and comfortable.
That leads to the next question! You’ve now been in business 20 years and you now have an office in Charlotte and Seattle. What was the scariest moment in that last 20 years?
The recession caused a lot of anxiety and many of my clients lost their businesses. I’ve always taken my clients’ businesses to heart. I become a part of their family and I want to see them do well. It was so difficult to see so many business owners lose their dream. Moving was also incredibly scary!
I knew that taking Visual Caffeine bi-coastal, would mean I’d be traveling back and forth a lot, leaving my family several times a year and being out of my comfort zone. Initially, my husband moved to Seattle ahead of my daughter and me. I had to embrace all of these new challenges and really trust God in the process. Embracing the fear of solo travel and seeing it as a growth opportunity for Visual Caffeine and for myself as an entrepreneur was hard. I’m still learning to embrace it. As I do embrace it, I find that I become bolder. That keeps me motivated to continue to push myself.
What brought you to Charlotte initially?
My husband works for Bank of America and was offered a great career opportunity here. Visual Caffeine was established in Detroit, but my clients were in several areas of the country. The branding industry was becoming more and more virtual, so I knew the fluidity was there. I also saw Charlotte as a wonderful city in which to grow my business.
What made you stay in Charlotte?
I fell in love with the people! I made so many wonderful relationships and my family grew here in these communities. Over the course of ten years, my friend-base really become family. It wasn’t easy to leave.
Since you become so invested in their businesses, do you have a process through which you choose your clients?
Most of my clients come to me because they know I’m so passionate about their success. When I’m evaluating whether we’re a good fit, I ask myself, do I feel connected to this person and, can I be connected with their vision of what they are trying to do? It’s important for me to be able to work creatively with each client.
That means they need to be ready to come to the table with an open mind and a willingness to go through the process. If I sense that willing vibe from them, I know it’s going to be a productive relationship. It’s important to be discerning from the beginning so I can ensure I’m giving them the best service for their individual brand’s success.
What has life as a business owner taught you?
The key parts of my business philosophy are due to the influence of my father. He was all about customer service. He was always willing to sacrifice financial gain in exchange for customer satisfaction. He wanted his clientele to be pleased and for his employees be, and feel, cared for. It can be challenging to find that delicate balance and take care of the individuals on both sides of a business, but I believe he had the right idea. Employees are a business owner’s best and worst ambassadors. If the boss is great, employees will talk. If the boss isn’t great, employees will talk.
Truth! So, what are you working on right now?
I have so much going on; it’s insane! Apart from continuous client projects, my main focus is nurturing the growth the business is experiencing in Seattle, while maintaining continued growth and client relationships in Charlotte, NC. That’s why I’m traveling several times a year!
Why is it important for you to grow on the West Coast?
I really believe God opens a lot of doors in our lives. He wants to give us opportunities. The move was an opportunity for me, and for my family; I am foremost a mother and a wife, and my most valued responsibility is taking care of them. I kept thinking, what is God trying to help me do, when it came to the opportunity of expanding to the West Coast. I do know that I am learning so much in Seattle and am able to apply that learning to my business and my clients’ businesses. Plus, now I’m a conduit in allowing my clients and friends to grow their audience on the west coast!
What’s your favorite thing about Seattle?
The city’s culture is so in line with what I am and offers so much of what I value—community, compassion, collaboration, and environmental awareness. People in Seattle go beyond what is expected. It’s also a very dog-friendly city. I can go into any restaurant with my dog! My husband says that if God built a city for me, it would be Seattle.
What do you miss most about Charlotte?
The people. The community in Charlotte is incredible; to me, the people are the city.
Any other words of wisdom you’d like to impart on our readers?
No matter how successful you are, no matter what good or bad comes, if you remain humble and grateful, you will continue to be blessed. Never get wrapped up in your own ego. I try to remember, every day, that everything that is given to me is given to me by God. I have to surrender my life to Him and His will. And then I need to pay attention and listen!
Alright, it’s time for some standard questions that give our readers a deeper look at who you are. So, what’s your favorite…
Restaurant: Luna’s Living Kitchen
Sports team: N/A. I’m an artist who doesn’t follow sports.
TV show: American Horror Story
Book: Kintsugi Wellness by Candice Kumai
Place to work out: Be Yoga
New thing in CLT: Jeni’s Ice Cream
Old thing in CLT: No matter how big Charlotte becomes, it maintains its small-town feel. I love that.
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