On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
It can be daunting to figure out how to make a side-gig work. Finding customers, setting prices and balancing the workload of your 9-to-5 with a passion project can require building new skills. And you may face more abstract concerns, too: Will monetizing your passion make it less meaningful or fun? Should some hobbies stay hobbies?
Kojo sits down with three Washingtonians to talk about turning their passions into a side gig, and the joys and challenges they found along the way.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Have you ever thought about turning your hobby into a side business? Maybe you draw, knit or bake in your spare time, and friends and family are always telling you, hey, you should sell that? Starting a side gig can be a little more complex than just throwing together an Etsy page, and you may be worried that putting a price tag on your passion projects could make it a little less fun.
KOJO NNAMDIJoining me to discuss the joys and challenges of turning your passion into a side business is Ruth Tam, cohost of WAMU's "Dish City" podcast and a former producer on this broadcast. She's also a freelance writer, artist and podcast host. Ruth, good to talk to you.
RUTH TAMKojo. Thanks so much for having me.
NNAMDIRuth, we know you best as the host of "Dish City," but you hosted another show recently, an episode of NPR's "Life Ki,t" on the topic of turning your hobbies into a side hustle. Tell us, what is NPR's "Life Kit?"
TAMNPR's "Life Kit" is a podcast from NPR. They explore common topics and questions that, you know, listeners might have about life, anything from how to navigate a long-distance relationship or how to save money, strategically. It seems to start out -- you know, the show started to -- you know, it relied a lot on the expertise of NPR journalists and reporters. But since, it's branched out to include voices outside the network, too. And that helps kind of explore different topics that you might not necessarily associate with public radio.
NNAMDIYou can find a link to Ruth's "Life Kit" episode on our website, kojoshow.org. Ruth, why did you want to produce a show on this topic?
TAMIt's very near and dear to my heart. I am still trying to navigate what it means to be a freelance writer and illustrator. I've had to pick up new skills while doing this, you know, budgeting, negotiating, managing a supply chain. You know, I would've loved to have a conversation like this when I first got started. I always tried to, like, reach out for help and ask people about how they manage their small businesses, how do they deal with time management and all these different little things when it comes to basically running a company by yourself. And, yeah, I've had to do this, and I was certain that other people had to navigate these questions, too. So, just wanted to make that beginning step easier for more people.
NNAMDIWhat type of freelance work do you do?
TAMI have been an illustrator and a writer for a long time, in addition to my fulltime work as podcast host and producer. And still trying to figure out how to do it, how to fit it into my work. But that's kind of the two main things that I do. I draw, and I write.
NNAMDIThe first big take away from this episode is that if you're going to start a side business, ask yourself why. So, allow me to ask you that question. Why did you first start freelancing, and how long have you been doing it?
TAMI guess I've been freelancing since, maybe, for the past 10 years. And I don't know if it was really a conscious decision to be, like, okay, I'm going to be a freelancer. I would like to have a second job on the side. It mostly came from a place of, like, of not knowing quite what I wanted to do in life and not being able to focus on, you know, just one thing. And I'm sure a lot of people can relate to the idea that, you know, what they do for their fulltime job isn't necessarily everything that they're capable of doing or necessarily all the things that they want to do.
TAMSo, freelancing, for me, was a way to give myself space and room and time to explore all the things that I'm passionate about, you know, to build new skills in the fields that I'm interested in, just outside of my job. And not associating -- making money and not associating my, you know, my job with that. So, you know, that just was kind of how I wanted to approach it.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Meghan Cassidy, the creator of Meghan Bakes. Meghan Cassidy, thank you for joining us.
MEGHAN CASSIDYThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIYou are a data scientist by day, but in your spare time, you run Meghan Bakes. Tell us, what do you do with Meghan Bakes, and why you first started it.
CASSIDYMeghan Bakes is an Instagram account that I have that I started when I was teaching, actually, high school, at the time, and I just really needed a creative outlet. And so, I decided to post pictures of the cookies that was making and decorating online. And this wonderful woman, Stacey Price at Shop Made in D.C. invited me to do a popup at her shop, with cookies. And once I did that, I started getting all of these orders for cookies.
CASSIDYAnd it was really exciting. I was so flattered that someone would want to buy something that I made. And so, I kept just saying yes to everything that came my way, and it quickly sort of took over my life for a year. I was making cookies in every spare hour that I had, but it opened a lot of really interesting doors, and also challenges along the way.
NNAMDIJoining us also is Julie Zauzmer, D.C. government reporter for The Washington Post. When she's not at the Post, you can find her working as a balloon twister under the name Balloons by Zippy. Julie Zauzmer, thank you for joining us.
JULIE ZAUZMERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIMost of our listeners know you as a reporter for the Washington Post who's been on this broadcast at least a couple of times before. And, by the way, I hear congratulations are in order. Even though you've been covering D.C. politics for months, it looks like you'll be on the beat permanently. So, congratulations.
ZAUZMERThank you. I'm so glad I get to keep doing this for good.
NNAMDIYeah, well, how do you first get into balloon twisting?
ZAUZMERI've been making balloons a lot longer than I've been a reporter. (laugh) I started when I was about eight years old, and started working at parties in high school and college. And once I moved to D.C. was when I really committed to making it a business. And before the pandemic, it was something that I was really enjoying, working at parties every weekend, selling lots of big sculptures. The pandemic has definitely constrained my business, but I still make a lot of balloons for delivery.
NNAMDIYeah, the pandemic is constraining a lot of people's businesses. But before the pandemic, what type of balloon art did you do for clients around the D.C. area?
ZAUZMERAll sorts of things. And some of my favorites are the really big projects. Sometimes I'll get together with other balloon twisters, and we'll build something gigantic. One of my favorite memories from the last couple of months of people being together in person, we did something out in Tyson's Corner with a whole bunch of us, built a two-or three-story tall house entirely out of balloons that you could walk inside. It was great. But most of what I do for my balloon work is birthday parties and carnivals and things like that, where kids will line up, and I'll make them whatever they ask me to make them.
NNAMDII've seen that website. Some of those structures are amazing. Here is Cindy in Reston, Virginia. Cindy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CINDYI actually followed my dreams to start a business during the pandemic. (unintelligible) that I actually just closed (sounds like) this last week, because the hours got a little crazy (unintelligible) and working 16 to 18 hour days in my home. I was running a home-based, gluten-free bakery that specialized in donuts and soft pretzels.
NNAMDIBut you're saying that the work just got to be too much for you, 16, 17 hours a day?
CINDYYes. I was running it out of my home. I was certified in Virginia to do it. And the orders were just too much for me to do on my own, and I didn't want to bring somebody into my home during the pandemic. So, I kind of decided, for my mental health, to just step back for a little bit and decided to close the business.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, because you experienced something similar, too, Meghan Cassidy. How do you control your business when it seems to be getting out of hand, which is what seemed to happen with Cindy?
CASSIDYYeah, there's a lot of reflection (laugh) that has to go into it and a lot of difficult choices. I started saying no more, which is a full sentence and hard for me to say, a lot of times. And I really reflected on what I wanted to get out of it, as well. For me, I was very lucky that I was able to pivot careers from teaching to data science and to also, through cookie money, have paid off my student loans. And so, once I had that more financial independence, I was able to really say what do I want to get out of this for myself. And, for me, it was teaching decorating classes.
CASSIDYAnd so, I really wanted to pivot my business to teaching other people how to decorate cookies and to share that joy with them. But then the pandemic hit, and so doing in-person gatherings and classes is clearly not an option right now. But that's something that I would like to get back to in the future. But it took me a long while to get to that place, to be able to say no and take ownership of it myself.
NNAMDICindy, when you get a little rested, is this something that you will think about restarting again?
CINDYI'm not sure. For now, I'm going to kind of take a step back and follow another passion of mine into gardening. I'm starting part time at a local Montessori school teaching children how to plant their own vegetables and, you know, learn how to live a more farm-to-table life, which is something that I kind of strive to do in my own life.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much, and good luck to you in the future, Cindy. Get yourself some rest. Here is Cecile in Alexandria, Virginia. Cecile, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CECILEHi. Thanks, Kojo, for taking my call. My mom taught me how to sew when I was seven, and she was an avid quilter for the local church groups, and she taught me quite young. And, during the pandemic, I was working full-time, but my husband and I decided to start our own business providing quilting services for other quilters. So, we take the tops that other people sew, and make a quilt. You use the top, a batting in the middle and then a backing. That's the part that lays against you when you're under it. And it's been a terrific thing for the two of us to do, even though we were working full-time during the pandemic.
NNAMDIAnd how has it been, business-wise, for you, so far?
CECILEWell, we've gotten a lot of feedback from people on Facebook. My husband decided to name the business when I asked him if he wanted to -- you know, when I was telling him about this process. I mean, he's known that I've quilted forever, and he asked me why I didn't do it. And I said, well, it's very computer-oriented. It's a very expensive machine. The machine costs more than my Miata. (laugh)
CECILEAnd it's computer-assisted design. And so, he said, oh, I could do that. And so, he named it Drunkards Path Quilting, because he was having a few beers when he was...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Yeah, but how are you handling the business side of it?
CECILEOh, it's going well. We've gotten customers. We've put up a website, and right now, it's word-of-mouth. And then people look us up on Google for Drunkards Path Quilting.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Ruth Tam, that's one of the biggest hurdles in making your own (word?), and that is figuring out the business side. What should people starting a side gig keep in mind about the finances and things like setting their own prices?
TAMThis is, like, (laugh) the most uncomfortable part, I think, about freelancing and making something that you love into basically a commodity. And it's a really difficult and unique question. And I just want to say that if you're struggling with it, like, you're absolutely not alone. But I think the framing that really helped me think about the value of the things that I do and the products I create early on was this idea of, okay, who is -- you know, if I'm making an illustration or I'm writing an essay, or whatever it is, like, who is this for, how many people are going to be seeing it, how is it going to be used, and who benefits from my work.
TAMI think there's a huge, you know, disparity between if you're doing, like, a commissioned portrait for, you know, a family and, you know, a portrait is going to be hanging up in their living room and it's kind of for private consumption, and, you know, the difference between that and making an illustration that's, like, part of, like, a company brand or a logo that's part of making money for them, you know. There's a difference in those two things, and you would price for those two things differently.
TAMEven if the labor going into it is the exact same and the time that you're putting in it is the same and the materials that you're putting into it is the same, you know, the audiences are different. And so, you should price differently for those two scenarios. And that's not something that I think I would've learned about if I hadn't read about freelance artists and their relationship with work and money before I started getting into it.
NNAMDIJulie Zauzmer, how do you approach pricing the different projects you do?
ZAUZMERYeah, I think Ruth's advice is fantastic, and I would add that knowing other people in the business that you're in is very, very helpful, to have conversations about those hard situations that you get into where you think something is worth something, a client thinks it's worth something else.
ZAUZMERHow can you get to a point where you can make people happy? Which is what, I think, all of us with cookies and art and balloons, we're all in the business of making products and art that people delight in. How can you, you know, keep that delight for yourself and the client without feeling like, you know, you're undervaluing your work? And it's really, really helpful to have peers and colleagues who you can discuss those situations with.
NNAMDIMeghan Cassidy, how did you go about setting prices for your work?
CASSIDYOh, I heart-plus-one everything everyone just said. I had a lot of trouble with this in the beginning. I was definitely not charging enough for my labor because I was like, this is my hobby. It makes me really happy. It give me joy. Why would I make someone pay for this part that's fun for me?
CASSIDYAnd so, I definitely -- I asked my peers. I would literally hold up cookies and say, how much would you pay for this, to friends. I also looked at other cookie makers in urban areas and saw what they were charging for different types of client work, and also one-on-one work with clients to see kind of what their budget was and what was possible.
NNAMDIHere now is Nassua in Reston, Virginia. Nassua, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NASSUAHi, Kojo. Love your show. My name is Nassua, and I have an entrepreneurial business called The Cultured Blossom. And I have always had a passion for flowers. And as far as I got over the last two years, I made a business card through Vista Print, and that felt scary. And then I had a kind of a website-light. And based on that and my providing some unique arrangements for neighbors, the business has picked up little bit by word of mouth.
NASSUAI echo everything these people have been saying about pricing. By the time I procure the flowers, make a little trip, do the delivery, I have trouble holding myself back from the vision I have for each of the arrangements. And I have my own kind of sustainability model, where people can use my gorgeous eclectic containers, which I've collected over the years, or they can use a container for keeps. So, people have a choice. It's a very different kind of business then going online or going into a shop. And pricing is the most challenging part, for sure.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. That's exactly what we were talking about. Ruth Tam, making extra income also means paying taxes, Ruth. What's your advice on navigating that side of things?
TAMYou should pay them. (laugh) I saw a joke tweet today that said, oh, the best thing about freelancing is that you don't have to pay taxes. Of course, you have to pay taxes.
NNAMDI(overlapping) They'll find you (laugh) .
TAM(laugh) Yeah, and you pay them. And in order to pay them, you're going to need to keep track of, you know, all the money coming in and all the money going out dedicated to your business. One of the tips that, you know, I learned from a finance expert when I was doing the "Life Kit" show was, you know, it really helps to have a separate, you know, credit or debit card, separate bank accounts for your business.
TAMAnd you may not think, you know, oh, I don't need this, because this is not a big deal yet. You know, I can understand that. I don't think I've ever -- I haven't thought about that myself because, like, oh, I haven't reached this threshold where I'm, like, making so much money that I need to, like, put it aside in a separate account. But it's not really -- it's mostly about the keeping and knowing where your money is, so that when you have to fill out your forms for taxes, that it's all in one place. You don't have to go scoop it out of your personal finances. So, yeah, pay your taxes, keep track of your finances. That will get you a long way.
NNAMDIHere is Jesse in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Jesse, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JESSEHi. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Jesse.
JESSEHi. I just love to create things and to share them with everyone that I can. And I started about 10 years ago, having my own business. And I started an Etsy page, and I'm able to sell some of my creations in shops here in Shepherdstown.
NNAMDIAnd how is that working out for you?
JESSEIt helps provide me with some extra income to fund my creative outlet. It's not enough to, you know, survive on, but it helps fund the hobby.
NNAMDIHas it changed during the course of the pandemic? Are you doing more or less?
JESSEIt has. When the pandemic first started, I organized a mask effort in my county. Well, actually in the eastern panhandle. And I was coordinating volunteers and distributing masks to local healthcare facilities and things that needed them. And once that died down, then I was able to start making masks and selling them locally.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. A lot of people have been doing that since the pandemic. That's people who can sew, they're making and selling masks. Julie Zauzmer, we talked about there being a community of balloon twisters, but there was one particularly special project you worked on. Tell us about Deborah Fellman from Richmond, Virginia and the project you did with her.
ZAUZMEROh, thank you for asking. Debs was a friend of mine in the balloon community who died of cancer a couple years ago. And she wanted to have one last balloon build, and she had an absolutely beautiful build that she hosted in Richmond for her balloon friends from all over the country. People came from near and far.
ZAUZMERAnd we got together, and we spent a couple of days with Debs, and we built a huge balloon garden in the atrium of a mall in Richmond, so the public could come visit. And it was just gorgeous. It was filled with flowers and animals and it was a really, really special tribute to her.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Jen, who said: I find it hard to create my craft items, paper crafts and decorated apparel for people I don't know. When I know who it's for, I think of that person, what they like, their favorite colors. When I don't know I just can't envision it as well. Is that something you experience, Ruth Tam?
TAMI do a lot of commissions, so, you know, I actually don't do a ton of work that's just, like, for the general public in terms of, you know, art. So...
TAM...you know, I don't have that problem, but that's something that I can understand is complicated. So, I either make it for myself or I make it for a specific person. And, hopefully, the things I make for myself, like other people respond to that, too. But, yeah, I can understand why that's difficult.
NNAMDIHere's Dawn in D.C. Dawn, your turn.
DAWNHello. Thank you for having me on the show, Kojo. So, I used to volunteer, teaching financial literacy some time ago. And I loved it so much, and especially teaching it in low-income communities, given my background, I felt like I need to give back in that area coming from a low-income family myself. And I turned my passion project into a fulltime business. I contract with nonprofits teaching financial literacy. I got certification. And I'm also a fulltime financial planner with my own registered financial planning firm in Washington, D.C. called Mavery Consulting (sounds like).
NNAMDIWhen did you go from volunteering to actually making this a business?
DAWNSo, I think about -- in the financial literacy space, I got my first paying contract in the financial literacy space about two years ago. And it's a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. that works with women who are in transition in terms of finding housing.
NNAMDIHas anything changed for you since the pandemic?
NNAMDINot really, huh?
DAWN...no. No, not really. I'm still doing the work. Thankfully, there are more services that the women need, given the pandemic.
DAWNBut for me, personally, no. But for my clients, yes.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're almost out of time. But Meghan Cassidy, just quickly, baking and selling food made at home seems a bit tricky. Usually there are specific regulations that restaurants or food manufacturing facilities have to follow. What rules do you have to keep in mind when you're selling cookies or cookie-making kits that you create in your house?
CASSIDYYeah, there's a lot of rules, and they vary state-to-state. So, you want to make sure you check out what the cottage food guidelines are in your state. And it varies across the country. It usually involves also labeling your food and every ingredient that's in there. If you're a home cook, it involves getting your home kitchen certified, as well, or cooking out of a certified kitchen. So, with food products there's an extra layer there than just putting it up on Etsy.
NNAMDIGot it. Meghan Cassidy, Julie Zauzmer, Ruth Tam, thank you all for joining us. Today's segment with CNN's Abby Phillip was produced by Kurt Gardinier. And our segment on side-gigs was produced by Cydney Grannan. Coming up tomorrow, in 2014 writer Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic cover story "The Case for Reparations" started a national conversation and was named the top work of journalism of the decade.
NNAMDIThe award-winning author of "Between the World and Me," "The Beautiful Struggle" and "The Water Dancer" joins us tomorrow. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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