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My sustainable side hustle brought in nearly $500,000 last year: Here's my best advice

"Like many business owners, my side hustle started with a problem I wanted to solve."

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Elle Wang is the founder, CEO, and creative director of the maternity clothing brand Emilia George.
Courtesy Elle Wang

Like many business owners, my side hustle started with a problem I wanted to solve. 

When I was pregnant with my first kid, I was deeply frustrated with the maternity clothes I was finding. I did not want to buy one more expensive, unflattering, sweat-inducing polyester dress. And I knew I wasn't alone. 

I had no fashion or retail experience and no industry connections I could network with. But I had tested research skills at my disposal. I used the analytical approach that served me well while I was earning my Ph.D. in public policy, and in my job as a partnerships advisor at the United Nations, and got to work building my case. 

I did a deep dive on the biggest maternity brands, studied fabrics, read customer reviews, conducted surveys in mom groups on Facebook, and interviewed my other mom friends. It was clear to me that there was a big gap in the market for high-quality, sustainable, and professional looking maternity wear, and I was going to fill it.  

I started working on my brand Emilia George in March 2019, when I was pregnant with my first child. We officially launched the company in December 2019. Three months later, the pandemic hit.

It was tough, but I was determined to roll with whatever the year threw at me, especially when my mission was so important to me. And my side hustle brought in nearly $500,000 in 2020.

Here are some of the biggest lessons I learned about building a successful side hustle in a brand new industry. 

Don't be afraid to ask for help

The first thing I did was meet with a financial planner to figure out my limit for how much I would be able to invest into the company. I was a one-woman show in the very beginning, and I definitely couldn't afford digital marketing or professional branding services, let alone an internal team.  

So my next order of business was to reach out to as many people as I could who knew the industry, and could help me grow the brand. I went on LinkedIn and found anyone who worked as a buyer at major department stores, and a handful of Instagram influencers as well.

For several months I didn't get any responses, but I kept at it, following up every 3 to 4 weeks. After about four months, my persistence paid off, and I connected with buyers at Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom. Our clothes are sold at all three of those stores today. 

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During the early days, I fulfilled packages, delivered fabrics to my factory in Manhattan, answered all customers' emails, did my own branding, social media posts, and anything else I could possibly do on my own. But going solo did affect me. For those first few months I was sleeping for about 3 to 4 hours each night and I definitely felt the stress and pressure. 

In the summer of 2020, I suffered a miscarriage. I couldn't say for sure, but I often wondered if my work hours had been a contributing factor. So when I got pregnant with my second child, I made the decision to bring on more help to share the workload. I hired the first member of my team in October of 2020.

Be flexible and ready to pivot 

On top of all the difficulties of bootstrapping a new business, I had only been in business for three months when the pandemic hit. We had to account for delayed shipping and production times, and many big wholesale retailers stopped bringing on new brands. But we were able to adapt and pivot the business in creative ways that led to incredible opportunities and growth. 

With the shortage of face masks in the spring, we moved quickly to produce tens of thousands of masks to meet customers' needs and to donate to child-care centers open to essential workers around the nation. We won a federal contract to provide over 120,000 customized masks for the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Anthony Fauci was even spotted wearing one at a Senate hearing.

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Cutting costs also meant that I had to rethink our marketing and publicity efforts. Instead of going a more traditional and expensive route, we decided to focus more on building relationships with our customers. We began hosting interactive webinars to get to know our audience and provide a space for moms who were expecting during this uncertain time to get advice, share resources, and build connections. 

This initiative gave me a chance to share the inner workings of our business with our customers, and a year later, we still receive orders from customers who participated in that first webinar. This community has become more valuable than any sponsored post.

Lead with your values and customers will follow 

Truth be told, I overspent producing our first collection in every single way, but I went through it because I was new to the industry and had no alternative at the time. 

I had to rely on friends' recommendations and online research to decide on my initial suppliers and vendors, and manufacturers. My initial order amount on my materials was so little, and I was grateful any of them even wanted to work with me at all. But I learned fast and I never stopped scouting new manufacturing options and visiting all the factories in person.

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By the time we produced the second collection, I knew a lot more about the industry and had found potential options in New York and overseas. As a rule, I always interview all the partners I work with about the sustainability of their operations and how well they are paying their employees. 

After producing some new items in the fall and the spring, right now we are working on our third full collection, which is set to launch in September. One of my biggest priorities is to make Emilia George as environmentally friendly as possible. And I know that my customers care a great deal about the sustainability of our supply chain, as much as the aesthetic of the clothes we make. 

Your personal experience is more valuable than you think 

Early on, I got a lot of advice about where our money should go: digital ads, public relations, participating in trunk shows, gifting clothes to influencers in our space. And the conventional wisdom about a start-up is that it will take a few years to become profitable, and that can push you to spend beyond your means. 

Spending upwards of seven figures to get the company off the ground, which was the kind of advice I was getting, simply wasn't in the cards for me. But I knew that what set our brand apart was that I was the ideal customer I wanted to reach, and that was valuable too. 

I knew that what set our brand apart was that I was the ideal customer I wanted to reach, and that was valuable too. 

I started Emilia George when I was pregnant with my first kid, and I had my second this spring, so I have worn every single item of clothing in our collections. That personal experience has helped me improve on our products. 

In lieu of spending a lot on digital marketing, I put a small portion of our budget towards Google, Facebook, and Instagram ads. I wrote about my experiences with motherhood and entrepreneurship to get the word out about the company. And at every opportunity, we participated in community events and engaged with neighborhood and local media.

This strategy was a big part of why we were able to hit six figures in revenue and become profitable in our first year. 

Use your platform to pay it forward 

I have found that what I want to accomplish with Emilia George goes beyond our clothing. I want to do more for our community through mentoring, investing, and overall making moms' voices heard. I also want to provide some support for other women entrepreneurs. 

With that in mind, at the end of 2020, I started an investment fund called Mother Funder. In November 2020, we closed our first investment deal with Markid, a baby products buy/sell platform, which was started by a couple of fellow parents.

While I am not yet at the place where I want to leave my day job to run Emilia George full time, helping others launch their businesses has given me a blueprint for the future.  

For anyone who is looking to grow their side hustle right now, I would be discerning about the fundraising opportunities that come your way. Ask yourself, "Will this investment provide lasting value or just a couple of months worth of a cash runway?" Think long term.

Ultimately, my best advice is to trust yourself, especially when you are doing something that is brand new to you. You know more than you think you do. I didn't have any fashion industry experience, but I knew how to seek out great partners who believed in my goal and how to pivot and adapt to new challenges. You may well have great instincts, so listen to them. They will serve you well in the long run. 

A New Yorker with a doctorate in public policy, Elle Wang is the founder, CEO, and creative director of Emilia George, a new line of sustainable, high-end maternity workwear for professional women. Elle is also an angel investor and advisor to start-ups. She is a UN advisor and strategist with a passion for creating impact. She has led negotiations and successfully forged global partnerships in global innovation, women's empowerment, and sustainable development in some of the most challenging parts of the world. Elle currently lives in New York City with her husband and two sons. 

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