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Work / Life Balance

When Your Non-design Hobby Becomes Your Hustle

Every designer has a side project, but there’s a huge, yawning chasm between the vast empire of Swiss Miss and that Etsy shop you abandoned back in 2012. Meet a few designers turning their hobbies into full-blown businesses.


Justin Fuller has spent plenty of mornings fly fishing for trout on Boulder Creek before heading into the offices of his Colorado design firm, Good Apples. In 2013, he gave his co-founder Dan Storch a minimalist tenkara rod for Christmas, and pretty soon, the two had hatched an idea for their second venture.  

“With fly fishing, you’ve got all this equipment you’ve gotta lug around with you—it’s almost like golf, but without a caddy,” says Fuller. “So much depends on the species of fish, the time of year, and how long you’ll be out there—you don’t want to end up without the equipment that you need.” To hold all that gear, anglers generally choose between a cheap plastic storage bin and a $400 bag with dozens of straps, pockets, and zippers.

Fuller and Storch decided to fill the gap with an $89 bag made from remnant wader material they’d discovered in Japan, forming Yakoda Supply in the process. The company’s first product offers storage and durability at a reasonable price, but it also solves one more problem: the pricy Neoprene waders required for fly fishing are so delicate that anglers can’t set foot on a gravel trail or asphalt parking lot; most jump out of their trucks and change on a garbage bag, floormat, or an old piece of carpet. Each Yakoda bag includes a removable foam pad to class things up a little. The two are now designing their second product—a $10 pocket-sized tin with foam and magnetic storage for flies, which splits the difference between the typical jury-rigged container made from an Altoid tin and a $20 box made of molded plastic and silicone.

“We’re looking at all of those small but meaningful elements that have been over-engineered, to put a few products in your quiver without breaking the bank,” says Storch. “The idea is that you can buy some of our stuff then have enough money left over to put gas in your car and go fishing.”

Their design background helped them understand market niches and positioning, and they quickly recognized that Instagram is the perfect place for fly-fishing nature porn. Living in Colorado, they’ve also found inspiration and guidance from friends who once worked at Mountain Hardwear and Black Diamond.

The entire experience has piqued Fuller’s interest in all things entrepreneurial. In conversation, he references Shoe Dog (the biography of Nike founder Phil Knight), NPR’s How I Built This podcast, and idols like Yeti and Howler Brothers who have built powerful brands focused on the outdoors. Until they reach those heights, they plan to spend their days focused on clients, and their evenings and weekends selling fly-fishing gear bound for a river hundreds or thousands of miles away.  

design-side-hustles, yakoda, fishing-gear

Fishing gear from Yakoda Supply.

When UX designer Brian Marchand and his family left Toronto for a suburban home with more elbow room, he built a small workshop in his backyard so he could devote more time to his favorite hobby: woodworking and carpentry. And after selling his own small digital firm to another company and serving out his three-year contractual obligation, he was handed the perfect opportunity; the CEO of Filament, a friend since childhood, asked if he’d like to work as a senior designer four days a week, with the goal of gradually devoting more time to woodworking if things took off. A no-brainer.

Some new employees bring a dozen donuts to the office early on, but Marchand did even better. After noticing that nearly every one of his Filament colleagues propped their computer monitors on stacks of books or empty boxes, he created monitor stands out of walnut, cherry, and ash, complete with storage compartments for pens and sticky notes.

When Made By Marsh was ready for paying clients, Marchand got referrals from his mother-in-law, who owns a Toronto home and garden store. Custom night tables, speaker cabinets, and shelves eventually led to walnut dressers, kitchen islands, and built-in benches. For now, his biggest expense is equipment: a mitre saw, drill press, and dust-collector set him back $700 each, and he’s got a long wish list with bigger and better toys, including a $4,200 cabinet saw and a $2,300 edge sander.

Although the tools in his workshop are nothing like the tools on his desktop, Marchand says woodworking has a surprising amount in common with web design. “I’ve always enjoyed building things that may actually solve a customer’s frustration or problem,” he says.

“It’s much like UX in that I’m asking questions like: Who is my audience? What do they need? What can I do to create a better solution?” 

He’s growing his social media following slowly and organically, and he’s constantly learning new things, like how to budget for projects that grow in complexity long after he’s quoted a price (once again, see web development). And he’s been surprisingly happy with his new role at Filament, which means he’s in no rush to abandon Sketch and Slack for the tablesaw just yet.

Custom wood sound system, by Marchand

Nashville graphic designer Matt Lehman and some friends had been kicking around ideas for a small business when one of the more enviro-friendly members of the group suggested making stylish home goods from recycled materials.

“We’d all talked about the fact that the recycled space is full of products that mean well, but [often come down to] bowls made out of candy wrappers—no one in the Crate & Barrel realm is really using repurposed materials in a meaningful way.”

There’s a reason for that. It’s expensive and time-consuming to source recycled materials at scale, which meant Lehman and friends had a long journey ahead of them. They looked to Europe, where small companies have been creating recycled products simply because they lack America’s wide-open spaces (a.k.a. future landfills). During a family vacation to Spain, one of the founders took the RV on a detour to check out a small shop outside Valencia, where everything is fully recycled and hand-blown. Lehman’s company, dubbed Newly, now offers wine glasses, whiskey tumblers, and pitchers manufactured in that small Spanish village.

Newly’s founders have learned a lot since opening for business a year ago. Hiring a local company to fulfill orders is worth every penny, and no amount of work is likely to pay off in January and February, whereas a healthy holiday season can make an entire year. The last of these reasons was the impetus for a series of photos created in October. Newly used a guerilla-style approach, renting out a hip Airbnb as a set and employing family and friends as models. Lehman’s wife is a fashion stylist for Nashville recording artists, so she’s been persuaded to lend her eye to photo shoots and video productions, too.

For now, Newly is close to break-even, with minimal debt beyond the founders’ initial investments. Like the founders of Yakoda, they know they’ve still got a long way to go. “Anyone who’s starting their own business thinking that they’re gonna be writing themselves a paycheck a few weeks after they start selling their product is crazy,” says Fuller.

“Even if this thing is more successful than we can imagine, we’re years away from it being our day job.”

Fortunately, all of these entrepreneurs are more than happy mixing business with pleasure. “We’ve realized we’re only one or two degrees of separation from someone we might want to talk to,” says Fuller. “And the best way to connect with those people is to take ’em fishing.”

design-side-hustles, newly, glasses, sustainable

Glasses, by Newly

Scott Kirkwood

Scott Kirkwood is a freelance copywriter and creative director in Denver, with a focus on nonprofits and “do gooder” brands. His editorial work has appeared in Communication Arts, Eye on Design, HOW, and Modern in Denver.


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