The Side Hustle and Flow Interview Series is designed to inspire hard-working corporate employees to either start a side hustle if they are interested in eventually starting a business, or to keep going with their existing side hustle through the inevitable challenge of limited time and energy.
For some reason, I stopped doing these interviews, not because of lack of interest (I love the stories, and people love reading them), but just because of competing priorities. I am delighted to bring the series back to life, and make it a regular feature of EFCN.
Today’s interview is with artist and print entrepreneur Eleanor Mayrhofer.
1. What was your former day job?
I worked at a US based global marketing and digital consultancy. I joined their start up office in Munich, Germany when there were about 1500 people total at the company, and when I left in 2010 there were around 10,000. I started as a web designer but over the years moved into user experience, project management and when I left I was designing and managing the company’s creative methodology.
2. What was your side hustle?
My side hustle was e.m.papers , a download-and-print stationery and paper goods business. When I was trying to get out of my day job, I did a lot of soul searching about what I actually liked doing, wanted to do, and how I could either find or create work that felt right. There was no ‘one big thing’ I liked doing; I really enjoy doing graphic design (but I wanted to design what I liked, not what clients wanted), I love working with the internet, I like writing, I’m methodical, structured and organized and interested in business. I also value keeping my own schedule. I enjoy designing but not production so selling designs appealed to me and seemed like a good business model. Of course, it took several years for all of this to percolate in my unconscious before I got the ‘flash’ for the idea.
3. When did you start working on it?
In the last quarter of 2007. I started out with a Yahoo! store selling holiday and birthday card templates. I worked on it on nights and weekends. Ironically, working at a big internet company and being involved with enterprise level eCommerce initiatives sort of ‘un-prepared’ me for how much was work was involved for a micro, one-woman eCommerce site. In a corporate setting you get so used to throwing really huge numbers around. I had to adjust to thinking on a waaaay smaller scale. It took several months to truly understand how much work goes into building an audience and driving traffic to a site. The first time I got a product on a popular site and got more than 50 hits I thought I had died and gone to heaven! It’s a marathon not a sprint.
4. Did you tell your employer you were working on a side project? Why or why not?
Yes, for a few reasons. It was in my contract, I liked my boss, I’m really bad at keeping secrets, and I knew no one would care. At consulting companies they are concerned about you going to competitors and taking client information with you. When I told my boss or colleagues that I was selling printable stationery on the internet I got either a blank stare or a ‘good for you for having such a charming hobby’ kind of comment. I had (and continue to have) good relationships with my former supervisors and they knew they could count on me to deliver my work. Of course, I didn’t present it as ‘Hey, this is my plan to get the hell out of here!’ but rather as a fun little side business that I started for a creative outlet (which was also true.)
5. How did you know when it was time to quit your day job?
It was a process. Oprah talks about ‘aha moments’, well I have ‘Screw this!’ moments. There were several along the way but the big one came when I was in Miami for a business trip, and had been ignoring what I thought was a bad cold. It turns out I had a horrible freak infection around my heart and lungs and had to have an emergency heart surgery. I was only 36 years old. This was the end of 2006 and I still hadn’t come up with my side-hustle (that came a little less than a year later), but that was it. I had been unhappy at my job for years, and this was a wake up call to figure out how to live a different life.
Soon after the idea for e.m.papers had crystallized and I started working on it on the side. I changed to a role that involved less travel, and after about another year was able to negotiate a 9 month leave of absence. The ‘official’ reason was because I was getting married and my husband and I had planned a big multi-country trip afterwards. All true, but the real plan was also to work as close to full time as I could on e.m.papers.
I also have ‘Hallelujah!’ moments. During the course of our leave (and while designing all the stationery for our wedding) I started experimenting with a product idea for a printable wedding kit . I launched one for free as a proof-of-concept. It went viral. Then I launched another wedding kit based on the design I created for our own wedding invitations. Poetically, it sold like hot-cakes, and I had a real revenue breakthrough after two years of plugging away. That’s when I knew that e.m.papers was going to work.
I still was on the fence about taking the leap though. When the leave was coming to a close I met with a supervisor about crafting a new role for my return. ‘What are you passionate about?’ he asked, the only answer in my head was ‘getting out of here’. I sent my resignation letter the next week.
6. What scared you about that decision?
I felt guilty about it. That’s why Escape From Cubicle Nation helped me so much. The major hurdle for me was feeling…spoiled. Who was I to be unhappy? I had a well paying job in a hot industry, was I fool to quit?I was also worried about money, even though we did a lot of number crunching and financial planning. It’s just hard to make the switch from having money ‘automatically’ rolling in every month to deliberately putting an end to it.
7. How did it turn out?
It’s incredible. Of course there are highs and lows, but the main thing is that I’m firing on all four cylinders and doing something meaningful. So many days in my corporate job I would sit on calls or put together PowerPoints and think ‘what a waste of time’ ‘what a waste of my life’ ‘why am I doing this?’,’Who cares about any of this?’ or worst of all ‘I’ll never know how much I can truly accomplish in life, on my own terms if I stay here’. I felt like a hamster on a wheel, pushing a lever to get my paycheck pellet every month.
Now I am either totally jazzed, completely freaked out, super optimistic or in a funk because of a sales slump, but I never question what I am doing with my time, or my life. It’s a wild ride, but I have never felt so alive and on the right path as I do right now.
8. What are you doing now?
I am running e.m.papers full time. I also created a side-hustle to my side-hustle; Steal This Process: What I Learned Working For The Man And How You Can Apply It To Your Indie Business, a blog, course and kit where I share creative project management expertise I learned in the corporate world with indie business owners.
9. What advice would you give for others who are working on a side hustle now that you have a bit of distance?
Be realistic about money and the amount of time it takes to get your hustle off the ground and objectively assess if it has a chance of succeeding. I tinkered around with e.m.papers for about two years before I made any money. It wasn’t until I was able to dedicate long focused amounts of time to the business and product creation before it started to show promise.
Have a back up plan. I’m still learning the ins and outs of running a business. Last year I made a lot of investments without understanding cash-flow projections through the rest of the year. I had to suit up and freelance for a few months to get back on solid financial footing. This was always the fall back plan, as much as I didn’t want to do it, I was glad that I could.
Like many businesses the early years are about investment and sweat equity. I am able to cover my business costs, pay myself a very modest salary, including health insurance and retirement savings, and make (for now) a small profit, but without my husband’s salary we’d be living a very different life.
I share this because I think it’s important not to give the impression that it’s easy and you should just ‘go for it!’ without carefully thinking through your real world obligations and responsibilities.I also don’t want people who aren’t in position to quit their jobs to feel like losers for not doing so. It’s hard. Money often comes in fits and starts and it can be scary, even if you’ve planned and saved as much as you can.
10. How can people find you, or hire you?
If they’re looking for printable stationery they can find me at e.m.papers
Small creative businesses may find my Steal This Process blog useful. A video of my Hello Etsy! Berlin workshop (with downloadable exercises) provides the gist of what I’m doing with this project. I’ve also got a kit available for download and I’m also launching a course in September.
Thanks so much for sharing your story with us Eleanor! We love to feature global escapee stories.