Do you have a nagging desire to start a business but feel the time isn't right to quit your full-time job? I can relate. Do you have an idea (or 10) bouncing around in your mind in any given week but can't seem to find the time to get started? I can relate to that, too.
Entrepreneurial dreams and real-life obligations were on my mind when I met Stefanie MacDonald, the founder of Halifax Paper Hearts. When I first came across her site, I immediately fell for the smart and sweet line of greeting cards that she designs and sells online. Her eight-month-old business has sold over 8,000 "heart-made," hand-packaged note cards and is growing month over month. Not bad at all.
I had a bunch of questions for Stefanie on how she got started and, perhaps as vexing, how she sustains this busy "part-time hustle" while keeping her career on track at her 9-to-5 job. Here are the highlights from our conversation.
Had you been looking to start a side business when you came up with the idea for Halifax Paper Hearts?
"I have always been opportunistic. I started my first company (in real estate) when I was in university, and worked that for a few years. Then last year, I started feeling like I wanted to start a creative business that gave me the opportunity to express myself and connect with others. I initially thought it would just be a hobby that I could then sell at our local farmer's market to break up the long winter months. I toyed with a number of different ideas, and it wasn't until I made a card for my aunt's wedding that the idea hit me. I had been making handmade cards for my friends and family for years, I just had never thought of it as viable business until I saw how it resonated with my aunties in a really authentic way."
You describe Halifax Paper Hearts as a "side hustle." How do manage your time to do this and hold down another job?
"I arrive at my day job 30 minutes to an hour early every day, get caught up on design work and emails and go to the post office to mail the previous day's orders. I book any sales calls or client deliveries on my lunch breaks, and I often stay half an hour late to prepare for the next day.
"I am very fortunate in that my boss, Bill MacAvoy, is a thought leader in promoting youth entrepreneurship, and he continues to be very supportive and patient with me as I build my business. That being said, I must continue to provide exceptional value and service in my current full-time role, it's just that he gives me the flexibility and autonomy to build my own schedule throughout the week."
How much research of comparable businesses did you do in advance of starting Halifax Paper Hearts?
"I probably didn't do as much as I should have. This started as a passion project. I didn't imagine that it'd become as big as it has (especially so fast). I was originally looking for an outlet to express myself, be creative, and give back. When I first got the idea to make it a card business, I Googled "How to start a greeting card business," and found a 10-step checklist by Pink Olive School. I hung the checklist on my wall and worked my way through the 10 steps, asking for mentorship and advice along the way. Once we shared the story behind why we started, people started to really gravitate to our brand and messaging. It wasn't until I had to teach a class at Dalhousie University on "How to Turn Your Hobby into a Business" that I actually researched the metrics behind the North American greeting card industry.
"I have also found that social media is a particularly handy tool in conducting this type of market research. There are so many creative businesses on Instagram that we have been inspired by, and we connect with paperies all over the world through the relationships we build on social media."
Who is your ideal customer?
"While I understand the importance of knowing your market, I don't target a specific demographic. I have always thought that categorizing people based on things like their age, location, or gender is problematic. It is not fair to my customers for me to make assumptions about their values or interests based on stereotypes.
"I do not buy the things I like because of my age, race, gender, or location; I buy them because of the way they make me feel, which is based on things like my affinities, values, and interests.
"When I am creating targeted advertising campaigns, I always refrain from selecting age, gender, or location boxes. Instead, I market to those that are already engaged with my platform, and their connections. You see the thing is, their connections will share their values, interests, and affinities--and that results in targeted organic (profitable) growth.
"All of that being said, because I am designing based on my own experience and preferences, I have made the observation that many of my customers are 'like me'--Millennial women who are attracted to authentic messages, contemporary graphics, vintage elements, and watercolor floral designs. However, I've learned that different product lines appeal to various consumer groups in very noticeable ways. Since our launch, I have been paying particular attention to the types of responses and conversion rates that different products generate. I then adjust my advertising strategy based on the feedback and conversion rates that I create."
What are your aspirations for the future?
"My biggest goals right now are to attend the Cangift retail trade show in Toronto in January, and possibly the National Stationery Show in 2018. We would love to grow our number of retail partnerships to 100 heart-centered boutiques by the end of 2016."
As an entrepreneur, what are your key lessons learned from the experience of starting Halifax Paper Hearts?
"Even with a rigid 9-to-5 schedule, it is still possible to run a successful side hustle. You just may have to grow it at a slower pace. I read an interesting article by a remarkable content marketer and friend of mine, Ross Simmonds, recently about what you do with your extra eight hours in each day. He suggested that you sleep for eight hours, work for eight hours, and then have another eight hours that you can do whatever you want with. I make time for design work and post office runs before work every morning, I am deliberate with my time and am not afraid to say no to opportunities that are not the highest and best use of my time (and that don't bring me joy)."
Indeed. My takeaway from this interview is that one challenge aspiring entrepreneurs face is the internal belief that there is a choice to be made between full-time employment or full-time entrepreneur. The reality is that you can have both. Being deliberate with your time, patient with your growth, and creative with the resources available is the way.