5 Amazing Designers That Started Their Careers As Side-Hustles

See how passion projects can become careers.

Courtesy of Mud Australia; Courtesy of Croft House; Courtesy of Olli Ella.

Have you ever considered starting your own side-hustle? If it means tapping into something you're passionate about, it can actually pay off. A side-hustle definitely involves putting in extra hours and lots of hard work, yet it can be such a satisfying experience to take full control over your life and create something you love.

In fact, some of our favorite design businesses started while its founders were pursuing completely different careers. Many recognized a desire to do something creative that they could own and put in that hustle to make their dream job a possibility.

Currently looking into making your hobby profitable and need a little motivation to push yourself further? A success story (or five) might be just what you need. We reached out to the founders of a few incredible businesses that all started as side gigs to share what it was like to transitions their passions into a career. Read ahead to hear their unique and inspiring stories.

5 Amazing Designers That Started Their Careers As Side-Hustles
Courtesy of Croft House.

Alex Segal and Riley Rea of Croft House

Croft House is a L.A.-based furniture manufacturer that creates made-to-order and custom statement pieces. This designer favorite was co-founded by friends Alex Segal and Riley Rea.

What was your career path like before you started Croft House?

Alex Segal & Riley Rea: Riley was working as an executive assistant at a production company, and Alex was waiting tables and working a pair of production internships. Riley was just looking to make his way up the ladder in business, while Alex was still trying to figure out what he wanted next. 

How did you both realize that design was a passion of yours?

AS & RR: Riley really found joy in how he was able to transform his own space. He was buying things off Craigslist and refinishing them how he felt they would look best, and seeing the difference this made sparked the passion.

For Alex, it was a bit like a puzzle. He knew what he liked and what he didn't, but it never occurred to him to look at the details of why he felt that way. Design is in the details and deconstructing that became an interesting puzzle. 

How did you balance furniture design with your jobs in entertainment?

AS & RR: Just nights and weekends at first!  It was like any hobby or interest, you do it in your free time. It’s not work because it is on your own time and what you want to be doing. 

What was your tipping point when you decided that you needed to solely pursue Croft House?

AS & RR: When we realized that we could do this, and actually make enough to live on (we were 23 and 25, so this didn't have to be much!), we jumped in. 

How have your lives changed since pursuing design full-time?

AS & RR: The biggest changes to our lives have come from taking on the task of running a business — which just so happens to be a major side effect of pursuing design. Otherwise, the way we look at other spaces and pieces has taken on a whole new appreciation. The difficulties of what goes into bringing a design to life can be overlooked if you're not intimately familiar with the trials of the process. 

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to create their own creative side-hustle?

AS & RR: Do the thing you want to do, even if it doesn't feel like it has a natural path to something bigger. Side-hustles are impossible to find the energy for if you're not looking forward to the nitty gritty of the hustle itself. The rest will work itself out, but if you're not able to jump all the way in to the project, it won't go far!

5 Amazing Designers That Started Their Careers As Side-Hustles
Courtesy of Mud Australia.

Shelley Simpson of Mud Australia

Mud Australia is an iconic 25-year-old ceramic brand specializing in tablewares. Founder Shelley Simpson created the company after discovering a love for pottery.

Can you describe your career journey before you came across ceramics?

SS: Before starting Mud, I was playing in bands, acting, and unwittingly waitressing and managing restaurants. I didn’t feel as though I had much direction career-wise until I discovered ceramics and started my own business.

However, my experience in the hospitality industry proved to be extremely helpful in my next career. It led me to form a deep understanding of all the aspects that surround restaurants and serving ware — from food prep to plating. I learned the rigors that a plate goes through, and what it needed to survive.

How did you realize design was a passion of yours?

SS: After school I worked in a variety of creative jobs when I discovered my passion for pottery. My roommate at the time had a kick wheel and I taught myself how to throw a pot, finding I had an instinctive feel for it. Making a pot felt (and still feels) a lot like mediation to me — you have to be centered and give the process your total concentration. I’ve always thought of myself as a ceramic artist more so than a designer, my identity as a designer has evolved over the 25 years. I guess if people say something to you enough it sticks.

What made you decide to transition your career fully to ceramic design?

SS: Pottery developed as a hobby while I worked full time in hospitality. I applied for a promotion at the State Theatre and wasn’t successful. I was really disheartened as I truly believed I was the best fit for the role. At that point, I was already making my own ceramics and decided that I’d work for myself. I thought that it would be really easy (it wasn’t). I had assistance from a local government small business program — an educational initiative that helped me learn about starting a business, where I had to write a clear business plan. During this time, I took on a role as a nanny to support myself while I got the business started.

What steps did you take to grow Mud Australia?

SS: The early years were a very different aesthetic; we were using earthenware and more decorative painted finishes. I developed my first range and started selling at Bondi Beach markets. However, I wanted to evolve into something different. It was during this time that I worked closely with local chefs like Donna Hay to refine the designs and create tableware that allowed the food to be the star. Much of our growth and refinement in the early years was rooted in this type of feedback — both from industry professionals and customers.

Opening up retail stores and taking Mud to the other side of the world — both figuratively and literally — obviously provided a lot of growth for the brand in that it now would reach an international audience. I had to figure out how to introduce my product to new markets, while also figuring out how to physically transport my wares without them breaking. I still have the giant trunk I used to cart around the US while knocking on doors trying to get my products into the market! Listening and implementing feedback from our peers & customers, taking chances and making mistakes, of course, has allowed us to grow into the brand we are today.

How have your life changed since discovering your love for ceramics?

SS: It’s changed completely. I love coming in first thing in the morning and opening the kilns. To me, there’s nothing more fulfilling than making beautiful products that enhance people’s lives. Through Mud I now have a huge extended family – from our staff, to our wholesale accounts, I’ve created a wonderful network of friends around the world. Because of my business, I have been able to travel and connect with so many people. Since finding the career path that I really wanted to do, I have a huge amount of energy to do it. A lot of the time, it doesn’t feel like work – it’s just what I do. It has become an intrinsic part of who I am.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to create their own creative side-hustle?

SS: The journey is always hard, but if you love something and believe in what you are doing, you will always be rewarded if you take a chance on yourself. It’s important to be believe in what you’re doing and commit to that path, rather than being distracted by a short-term reward. I’ve found so much energy and drive within myself since finding ceramics, so I truly believe that in order to be successful, you have to be authentically passionate about what you do. 

5 Amazing Designers That Started Their Careers As Side-Hustles
Courtesy of Olli Ella.

Chloe and Olivia Brookman of Olli Ella

Olli Ella began as a kids' decor brand and has expanded into a global lifestyle hub. Sisters Chloe and Olivia Brookman started up the business while also running a London art gallery.

Can each of you share what your career paths were like in the art and PR worlds?

Olivia Brookman:  I started working in a small independent art gallery right out of high school. The gallery specialized in mid-century works on paper. Through this job, I learned all aspects of the business, with a special focus on sourcing rare works for clients. This led me to starting my own art collection, and eventually, at age 24, opening Broad Gallery in London with my sisters. 

Chloe Brookman: I worked in a boutique design PR agency following several years working in television production at Comedy Central and then Jimmy Kimmel Live. I loved working in public relations; namely because I loved writing copy, and learning the ins and outs of so many different creative businesses and brands.

What was your first experience with product design?

CB: My first experience with product design was with Olli Ella when we designed our first piece of furniture. It was an entirely new experience and completely thrilling. Olivia has a natural knack for it and that has been apparent from day one, so nowadays she does the lions share of the homewares and children’s products design.

OB: Together, it was the first nursing chair we designed when Chloe was pregnant with her first child. But it was really once having children of my own that I found my voice as a designer. I was fed up with the lack of simple, timeless, and aesthetically pleasing toys, and so started focusing on designing children’s toys and decor. The Luggy basket was the first product I designed after my daughter was born and is probably, if I had to choose, the item I am most proud of.

When did you decide to translate this new passion into a business?

CB & OB: Once we saw the reaction from friends and family to our first nursing chair, we knew there was a huge demand for this type of product.

Did you both continue to work in art while growing Olli Ella?

CB & OB: For the first four years, Olli Ella was more of a hobby/side project and our art gallery was our main business. That shifted, but we continued running the gallery until December 2018, when we finally closed it after 12 years.

What is it like running your own business in design together?

CB & OB: It’s a truly amazing partnership. We know each other so well and have a completely honest relationship. We often approach things differently, but having each other’s unique perspective really helps to balance things out. 

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to create their own creative side-hustle?

CB: That’s exactly what it is — a hustle! It hasn’t always been easy and I think that’s the important thing to stress. A lot of times it seems like brands have this overnight success, but it really is the result of a lot of hard work, time, not getting paid, problem solving — you name it. But my goodness is it rewarding! If you go into it knowing that it’s not going to be easy, and are prepared to make a lot of mistakes and learn a lot, then you’ll never have a more rewarding experience.

As Lonny's Editor, you can find me writing about interior tips, scouting out the coolest new spots, and rallying behind amazing female entrepreneurs. You can reach me at shelby.wax@livingly.com or on Instagram @shelbywax.