Turning a Passion Into a Side Hustle

Kate Kennedy is a pop culture commentator and host of the popular millennial-focused podcast Be There in Five. One In a Millennial is an exploration of pop culture, nostalgia, the millennial zeitgeist, and the life lessons learned (for better and for worse) from coming of age as a member of a much-maligned generation. Read an excerpt below.

Like most inspiring entrepreneurial stories, my journey started following a disagreement with my boyfriend. He had just read somewhere that Splenda caused cancer in rats when administered in high doses.

He was being sweet (genuinely, not artificially) and brought it up out of curiosity/concern; he didn’t want me to get cancer since I was eating copious amounts of Splenda and the article was pretty convincing and inflammatory. He didn’t know that for me, this wasn’t my first does-Splenda-cause-cancer rabbit-hole rodeo and I had long ago concluded that I don’t consume as much as the rats were administered. Honestly, I had been playing fast and loose with the highs and Sweet’n Lows of artificial sweeteners for decades, and some women aren’t meant to be Aspartamed. I, for some reason, was very irritated by this. I could do my own research. We’d just moved in together and I wanted to be clear that I’m an independent woman and can poison myself if I want. Like most tiffs, it’s never about what it’s about. He thought this information would create a whole new world of how I approached my coffee and smoothies, but I already knew about it and carried on in my own world; shining, shimmering, Splenda. 

It was a disagreement that maybe lasted a couple hours, but I don’t do well with tension and needed to take the edge off. You may think I went and smoked a cigarette, but I don’t smoke because those gross lung photos really bothered me in my youth, so I learned to take the edge off the old-fashioned way: arts ’n’ crafts. I always loved an arts-’n’-craft station because you don’t have to chitchat; it’s a perfect introvert’s corner where you can celebrate friendship in silence through the bracelet or bead lizard you’re making and no one can see through the smile you’re faking.

You’ve probably picked up on the fact that pop culture is incredibly influential for me, and an undeniable touchstone for my sister and me is the show Friends. One harrowing plotline I never forgot was when Rachel’s hair straightener caught Phoebe’s apartment on fire. I don’t know about other nineties kids, but the only other trilogy I knew more than Father/Son/Holy Ghost or shake for breakfast/shake for lunch/sensible dinner was stop/drop/roll. I am on high alert for fire hazards. So I’m sure I thought, I’ll show him what an independent woman I am, I don’t need his input to dictate my Splenda consumption. I shall smash the glass ceiling by getting into… flooring?

I decided to play around with an idea I had, wondering if it could be my passion-turned-side-hustle that would give me an outlet. It felt right to prevent homes from burning down  while battling burnout at my job. I started painting “Turn off your curling iron” along with other fire safety or general reminders on doormats, later dubbed “remindoormats,” so type-B gals like me who are time-optimists (and tend to text their friends “be there in five”) would have reminders staring them in the face when they walked out the door. I loved the idea of remindoor-mats; I felt like an “industry disruptor” innovating on a stale category: the welcome mat. They welcomed guests in, but I was the one who lived there! I wanted the doormat to see me on my way out, helping me not agonize over if I burned down my apartment.

I put the mats on Etsy, pinned them to Pinterest with a million keywords, and within a couple of months, they went viral when an Australian radio station made one of the photos into a meme on Facebook and Instagram, and my TURN OFF YOUR STRAIGHTENER mat had two hundred thousand plus likes and thousands of comments in a night. I couldn’t believe people liked my idea; the market researcher in me knew it was the free focus group of a lifetime, and I needed to capitalize. From there, I spent the next five years building up (and then scaling down) a doormat business, working backward from the demand I got from this post, which was based on a photo, not an existing, viable business model.

The spray-painted doormats I made for the prototype didn’t look very good in person, and I needed to fulfill the demand, so I took my mats to every screen printer I could in Chicago. Quickly, I was met with no flexibility, no interest, and was just told no. To get what I wanted to be manufactured at the price point I could afford, I would’ve had to get them premade in China, but the minimum order quantities would have put me under, having to put all my capital in inventory, not even knowing what SKUs would sell through and not having a warehouse or logistics system to take on that kind of volume. I wanted them to be pretty and decorative area rugs, not traditional coir doormats, but found out that wasn’t realistic. One manufacturer said painting each letter myself was my best bet for producing a decent SKU mixture without holding inventory, and I think he meant this jokingly. After all, who paints on an indoor pile area rug? It’s not exactly an ideal canvas. 

But you know who would take the time to figure out how to letter phrases on a new canvas? A gal who used to spend hours on end practicing lettering in her spare time, trying to find her place in the world with a fresh set of pens and a dream. I’ll be there in a five-star five-pocket! I was pretty good at any type of lettering at this point, and once again, despite my talents being few and far between, this untalented and ungifted gal kept finding herself in comically cosmic circumstances, stringing together motifs that I would have never thought to connect myself.

I didn’t know anything about sourcing or screen printing or dye sublimation or floor mats and the importance of their backing material and pile height. But the orders kept coming and coming, and in order not to get in a financially compromising position, I decided to set up the infrastructure to just be a handmade shop over the course of a couple years, first hiring my mom, who single-handedly kept me afloat for a year, then contracting the part-time help of some local students who were lovely and flexible and willing to roll with the punches of my obscure passion project. This business model allowed me to charge a premium and capture the margin I wanted while I took time to vet manufacturing solutions to find a sustainable one, all while not losing the momentum from the viral post. I knew better than to wait for that to happen again, and it never did; but trust me when I say just one post can change your life that much.

Nothing surprises me more in hindsight than that I even had the audacity to start a company; it was an exhilarating but brutal process trying to navigate how to start a business from scratch and do it on the side of my nine-to-five, completely bootstrapped.  I met sides of myself that I didn’t know existed; in this context, I was a person who was much more strong-willed, confident, and resourceful, and my existing verbal and client-facing skills made me get a lot of media opportunities since people were salivating for a girl-boss story. I got to speak at a global Etsy conference on two panels, I was in every mainstream publication I’ve ever dreamed of, I sold thousands and thousands of units, and started a wholesale division that was distributed at Wayfair and in Nordstrom stores. And I’m not even attempting to oversimplify here; it happened fast. That’s the nature of virality, something that was new to me at the time. When lightning strikes, you shoot your shot. It was an interesting story, and on paper, it sounded pretty damn good.

Copyright © 2024 by Kate Kennedy

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Kate Kennedy is a Chicago-based millennial multi-hyphenate, author, entrepreneur and pop culture commentator, best known for hosting her weekly pop culture podcast Be There in Five. Be There in Five has led her to sold-out live shows across the country. Kate's career and commentary have been featured in People, HuffPost, New York Times, BuzzFeed, and The Washington Post.

Photo Credit: Nicolette Nunez

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