How to run a creative business while having a day job: Julie Romano from Sweet Sparrow Yarns
Hello and welcome to the last instalment of my latest Creative Boss Interview series! I'm so excited to be talking to other creative business owners again - and this topic is super special! It's something I know a lot of you are interested in, but where I can't really speak from experience so I decided to ask people who are doing a damn good job at it: How to run a creative business while having a day job.
Check out the first interviews in this series here:
The last interview is something special! I wanted to include one creative business owner that recently took the leap from a day job to working full-time on their business. Meet Julie, the lovely soul behind NYC-based Sweet Sparrow Yarns - and make sure to read until the very end because Julie has two amazing tips for everyone who runs a creative business.
Here's Julie: "Hi there, I'm Julie Rose Romano. You can find my shop at http://sweetsparrowyarns.etsy.com, and you can find my podcast, Sweet Sparrow Knits, on Youtube. I'm on Instagram and Ravelry as SweetSparrowKnits. I'd love to hear from you!"
Tell us a little bit about yourself! What is your creative business and what was your day job?
Hi there! My name is Julie Rose Romano, and I’m the dyer behind Sweet Sparrow Yarns! I hand-dye yarn inspired by nature, literature, and pop culture, and I also sew project bags. Up until March of 2017, I also worked as a fashion designer for a department store chain.
You recently transitioned from working a day job to dyeing full-time. Why did you make that change?
The first reason I decided to start dyeing full-time is a purely practical one — time. There just weren’t enough hours in a day to have a day job with a long commute while also growing Sweet Sparrow Yarns, and I couldn’t fit everything I wanted to do for my shop into the two days of each weekend.
On a deeper level, though, I also realized that working in the world of mass-market fashion wasn’t lining up with my values. I didn’t feel comfortable knowing that I was working in an industry that tells people, and particularly women, that what they have isn’t good enough, and in order to be truly happy, they constantly need to be buying more, more, more!
I also wanted to be in a field where I was able to interact directly with my customers, rather than just seeing sales numbers on a spreadsheet. I love that when people purchase my yarn, they are purchasing not only a skein of yarn, but hours of enjoyment of knitting with it and then wearing the finished object. Every time someone tags me in a photo of something they're making with my yarn, it makes me so excited and happy!
If you compare how your days and weeks were before and now after the transition, how did a typical week look like when you were still working a day job vs. now?
Oh my goodness, those two schedules couldn’t be more different! When I was working a day job as well as dyeing, I would usually wake up around 5 in the morning to pack orders before leaving for work at 7:30. I would get home at 7:30 in the evening, then dye yarn until 10 or so, and then go to bed. On weekends, I would dye from morning until night, usually with a goal of around 50 skeins per day.
Since going full time, I’m still working on finding my work/life balance, but it’s much, much more reasonable than it was before. I still wake up around 5, but without an alarm. I snuggle my cats, have some tea and breakfast, do a bit of knitting, finish packing any outstanding orders, and head to the gym. I’m home by 10:30 or so, and then I dive into dyeing, sewing, and photographing. I’m trying to establish a 7pm cut-off time for myself, but I do get very absorbed in whatever I’m working on, so sometimes I go past that if I’m feeling particularly inspired.
I’m also working on giving myself weekends off — sometimes it’s more relaxing to me to be able to check things off my list, so I do sometimes still get some work done on the weekends, but for the most part, my weekends are spent knitting, spending time with friends and my boyfriend, and enjoying having free time!
I’d love to dive a little bit deeper into the nitty-gritty: How exactly did the change process look like? Did you do a lot of preparation work over a few months or was it more from one day to the next?
When I first began dyeing yarn, it was something I was doing just for fun. I’ve always been an avid reader, and I had a number of color way ideas based on my favorite book characters. When I decided to open an Etsy shop, I thought that it would mostly just be a self-sustaining hobby.
As time went on, though, I realized how creatively fulfilling I found dyeing, and since my Etsy shop was doing very well for how newly established it was, I started thinking about whether this was something I could do full-time and make a living at it. I began planning to go full-time about eight months before I actually made the transition, having weekly updates and making larger quantities of yarn available.
I began to focus on my product photography, making sure that I had an easily identifiable photography style that matched well with my overall branding. I also started to look at the financial end, figuring out what additional expenses I would have when I went full time, such as health insurance and quarterly business taxes. Figuring out what I needed as average weekly income from my shop in order to cover everything that was currently being covered by income from my day job gave me a goal, and I began looking at what I would need to do to achieve that goal. Marketing and social media became a much bigger part of my daily routine. I also started being more vigilant about saving money, since I knew I wanted to have a bit of a cushion in place before I left my day job.
When I was ready to leave my day job, I gave six week’s notice at my employer’s request, so that I would be able to train a replacement (which didn’t end up happening, but that was the idea at the time). During those six weeks, I worked on building up stock, designing new colorways, and planning out special shop events for the future.
Looking back at the transition process, were there any things that you wish you had known before making the change or you wish you had done differently?
While my transition into being a full time dyer was quite smooth, there are things I wish I had handled differently, particularly regarding my day job. After giving my notice, my workload at my day job increased dramatically as my supervisor wanted me to get as many things finished before I left as possible. This was a major disadvantage of giving six weeks of notice instead of the usual two weeks - during that time, I was continuing to work late several nights a week to accomplish unrealistic amounts of work, which wasn’t great for my physical or mental health or my dyeing schedule. In retrospect, I wish I had been more firm in my boundaries, particularly during that six weeks of notice.
Let’s talk advantages and challenges! If you compare working a day job in addition to running a business and solely focusing on the business - what would you say are the main advantages and challenges in both situations?
The main advantage for me when I was working a day job in addition to running Sweet Sparrow Yarns was a financial one. My day job was able to finance getting my business up and running, which allowed me to keep my shop well-stocked in each week’s update while I worked on establishing a customer base and a social media presence. The main challenge was definitely time. I also wasn’t particularly happy in my day job in the last several months I was there, so it was sometimes challenging to put that stress aside to allow myself to be creative while I was working on Sweet Sparrow Yarns during that time.
As for the advantages of being a full time small business owner, it frees up a lot more time and brain-space to be creative. I have more time to create new color ways, go out into the world to get inspired (I’m very inspired by nature and art, so spending time in botanical gardens and museums is important to my creative process), and collaborate on special projects with other small business owners.
Having the freedom to create my own schedule has allowed me to take much better care of my body and mind, too. Having time to go to the gym four times a week has been great for both my physical and mental health. It’s also really important to take time to recharge, and working at home with a flexible schedule has made that so much easier because there isn’t the constant feeling of running out of time to work. I’ve been very fortunate in that I haven’t had many challenges as a full time dyer - since dyeing yarn is what I absolutely love to do, I rarely have to push myself to get motivated. Lists are vitally important to me, though, because as a one-person business owner, I have a lot of different tasks to take care of and I need a way to make sure I’m remembering everything and checking it off as it’s completed.
If you were to give advice to someone who’s starting out their own creative business while working a day job, but wants to transition out of it, what would your number 1 tip be?
Oh wow, it’s hard to choose just one! Can I give one practical tip and one creative tip? Is that cheating? I’m going to live on the wild side and go for it.
My ‘practical’ tip is to look at averages - a creative business is going to have natural ebbs and flows, so it’s important to see how those trends occur over time. If you have a great week, obviously that’s amazing and you should be really proud of yourself, but don’t bank on every week being like that. Conversely, if you have a slower week, don’t stress too much about it. Slow weeks happen. Consider slower weeks an opportunity to spend time working on your branding, social media presence, or just to go get inspired. It’s all about the long-term averages.
My creative tip is not to compare yourself to others. We have constant exposure to what other people are doing and achieving through social media, and it’s easy to think “There’s no room for me, there are already all these other successful people!” There is room, because nobody else does exactly what you do. When your product is a reflection of you, and your aesthetic, and your personality, people can feel that it’s genuine, and that’s a very attractive quality.