Side Hustles: everyone seems to have one nowadays, but what exactly is it? In the birth of our social media rich world, programs like Instagram, Etsy - and all those in between - seem to have created this movement towards monetizing our hobbies; and these apps almost make it too easy to ignore. Some people cash in on opportunities to make extra income (hey, who doesn’t like a little more cash flow?) and others may just feel the pressure, or even the ease, to do so because it can be as simple as creating an Instagram page and an Esty shop and, boom! you're up and running. And that is what a Side Hustle is: something that lies in the middle ground between hobby and full-time employment. But what happens if you want to take your side hustle and turn it into a certifiable stand-alone business? Where do you draw the line between a craft - for the pure joy of creating something - and a viable product that will sustain your career? I had the opportunity to talk with Victoria Venturi, CEO and Creative Director of Paper Epiphanies, a greeting card and stationery line created in her LA apartment 7 years ago, and today, a company she grew to 6 employees and over 2 million cards sold.
“Why do you want to start a business? You have to know your “why”. You need a damn good reason “why” you want this path and you have to remind yourself of that reason multiple times a day.”
This was something she told me at the end of our conversation, but remains the most important part of what we talked about; one that separates the monetization of hobbies and full blow career choices. But to understand this point, we need to start from the beginning. Victoria first moved to LA, like many youngsters right out of college, to pursue a career in acting and comedy, “I have always loved making people laugh.”. She double majored in Political Science and Theater so this was destined to be an adventure. While navigating the cutthroat reality of Hollywood, Victoria was instead able to establish herself as an executive in Publicity and Marketing, working with big brands like FOX, American Idol and Hilton Hotels. However, she still wanted to follow through with her initial mission to make people laugh and she discovered that writing was the perfect medium and where her true passion lay, and thus focused on Public Relations.
One might think she was content at this point in her career but we all have dreams of doing something bigger and brighter and for Victoria that was creating a greeting card line; one that made people laugh, and more specifically, one that spoke to women in a way that allowed us to be understood.
“I always loved greeting cards but even more so, I loved writing. I loved making people laugh. I had a secret (or not so secret) dream of one day having a card company...I envisioned a small line of cards that really made women feel seen and heard. ”
And for many of us, the idea of taking on new things is often frightening; stepping into the unknown is the hardest part of entrepreneurship but you can’t go forward until you take that leap. In 2013, Victoria was faced with a tragedy that ultimately became the catalyst for her to embark on a new journey and overlook apprehension because she was confronted with something greater than fear.
“My father died in early 2013 after just a 60-day battle with Leukemia. That was the impetus for starting Paper Epiphanies. He had a bucket list a mile long – write a screenplay, travel, etc. I knew that I wanted to give this card idea a shot. Failure is less scary to me than dying with regret. So, on June 13th I just woke up and started doing it. Little steps every day.”
In the midst of tragedy, we often see moments of clarity, and this epiphany made it very black and white for Victoria, thus giving her the jump to get going. Once she decided to take on this new venture, she had to find the time to do it outside of her regular full-time employment.
“I worked full-time as a Marketing and PR Executive for the first 18 months. The days were long. I went to an office every day for my full-time job. I would work on Paper Epiphanies on my lunch break and when I would come home, I would work another 6 hours every evening from about 6pm to midnight. I used my vacation days to work trade shows. It was a juggle and eventually a struggle in every sense of the word.”
And this is where Paper Epiphanies hovered for 18 months - as a side hustle, nurtured in those stolen moments of solitude, separate from her regular corporate employment. However, unlike a side project to supplement her income, Victoria wanted more for Paper Epiphanies than to remain an amalgam wading in limbo between passion project and a desire to grow it into something bigger. But what was going to be the precipice from which she would leap out of the comfort zone of her stable employment? It wasn’t until 2015 when she went to a greeting card and stationery trade show where Paper Epiphanies found it’s opportunity to break free from the middle-zone and transition to a full blown indemand brand. She won her first “Louie Award” in the “Rising Star” category (think “Best New Artist” at the Grammys of the stationery and greeting card world) and along with reveling in the gratification of being so highly recognized, also came the realization that her business literally blew up overnight; and how was she going to handle it?
“Our business exploded. I was using vacation days for that show and had so many orders afterwards that I was pulling all-nighters. I was coming home from work and staying up until 3 or 4 am every night and it got to the point where it was no longer sustainable.”
This was the “cut the cord” moment. The decision where to take Paper Epiphanies had come and Victoria had to face it full on: keep it as it is, or take the biggest risk by leaving the comfort and stability of the corporate world and venture into full-on brand entrepreneurship. Luckily, Victoria was not completely alone in this decision. Through all of this she had a wonderfully loving and completely supportive partner, her husband Pete, who was rooting her on the entire way.
“While proof of concept was there and clearly there was a demand for our product, I still wasn’t paying myself a proper salary. When I made that initial leap, my husband’s income covered the gap. It’s important to say that because often, we don’t give entrepreneurs, especially women, the full story. If it was not for that additional income, it would have taken me at least another 8-10 months to make the leap successfully.”
Once she decided to go for it, the reality set in about what the scenario looked like: no more camaraderie of an office environment, no boss to report to so the accountability relied solely on her; and having to make tough decisions that ultimately affected the course of her entire life. As Paper Epiphanies grew, she ended up moving her family to Portland, OR because it provided a much more cost efficient environment, since the price of renting office space and business taxes in and around LA were going to impede the business’s growth. This definitely wasn’t something she was considering while she was starting out. But with everything, these were merely growing pains and everyday since turning Paper Epiphanies from side hustle to her career has been a learning experience; and as they say with raising children: “little kids, little problems; big kids, problems” the same goes for a proprietorship:
“I used to cry everyday about everything I did, from sourcing the least expensive supplies, to shipping something to China for the first time, but here we are, years later and now I’ve learned to be content…. As we have grown over the years, I have learned to let go more. What used to keep me up at night were: filling orders, prompt shipping and everything in between. Now it’s my personnel because I am ultimately responsible for 6 other people who work with me. It’s funny how your perspective changes that way as you grow.”
We concluded our full circle conversation with me asking her “what advice do you wish you knew before turning your company into the entity that it is now?”, to which she told me:
“Why do you want to start this business? You have to know your “why”. You need a damn good reason why you want this path and you have to remind yourself of that reason multiple times a day. Our “why” at Paper Epiphanies is to empower women. To tell their stories. To make them laugh. That is why I started this company. And that’s why we have sold over 2 million cards. I lead with our “why”, always.”
So, to those of us who are contemplating taking your side hustle full-time, ask yourself this: if you want to create art because it brings you joy, do it - there is nothing wrong with just keeping it as a hobby; if you want to turn it into a side hustle to supplement your income, do it, just as long as you don’t become solely caught up in the idea that monetizing your craft has to be your breadwinner. If you have the drive and passion to do so, then full-steam ahead but always remember to lead with your “why” because that will be your true driving force taking you from side hustler to CEO.
(Since the conception of Paper Epiphanies, Victoria has been featured in Forbes, The Washington Post, People and NPR, just to name a few. She also continues her mission to empower women through her acclaimed “4th trimester” line for new moms and the “Kiss My Pumps” office line, which donates a percentage of sales to the “Girl Up Foundation”. For more information about Victoria and Paper Epiphanies visit www.paperepiphanies.com ).