Ask Sydney Oh what she does for a living and the answer isn’t so straightforward.
On Linkedin, Oh is all business: the 34-year-old Brooklynite is a senior director at IHPR Agency, a public relations firm. On any given day, she might be called on to set up interviews, arrange showroom appointments or produce an event for clients, which include Cuyana and Mikoh.
But Oh is also an artist. For the last six years, she has sold flared-lip vases, wood-fired teapots and dozens of other ceramic creations via her company, Milk + Clay. Her minimalist “egg vase,” which retails for $250, is currently sold out online.
Oh spends about 20 hours a week on her ceramics shop, making it more than a hobby but less than a full-time job. She said she hopes someday to devote herself solely to Milk + Clay.
“Working in fashion PR, you are always running to plan ahead … so pottery became a therapeutic way to ground myself and slow down,” Oh said.
More than half of Americans have some sort of side gig, a 2019 Bankrate survey found. Their motivations were split about evenly between earning disposable income for vacations and other expenditures, covering basic living expenses and building up savings. Fashion, with its nebulous job titles and reliance on creative-minded freelancers, has long attracted multi-hyphenates.
The pandemic brought another explosion of side hustles. Suddenly, everyone from unemployed photographers to bored executives was selling tie-dye sets or baked goods on Instagram.
“I had so much time in the evenings because I wasn’t travelling for work, so I found a fun outlet that’s something I love and doesn’t require any long-term obligations,” said Sarah Leff, co-founder and chief executive of the fashion label Jonathan Cohen, who sells cookies on Instagram for about $28 per dozen. “I think everyone is leaning into their hobbies right now.”
Oh’s company allows employees to run side businesses, so long as they don’t conflict or interfere with day jobs. While some ban side hustles outright, many look the other way and have grown more lenient as the pandemic blurred the lines between work and personal time.
Once Covid restrictions are lifted, employers might find it difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. Companies want to nurture young talent and give their staff a creative outlet. But they don’t want to help fledgeling businesses that might someday become rivals.
“You want to create an environment where employees are engaged and enthused so that you get the most out of them,” said Leonardo Lawson, chief executive of development firm Bond Creative MGMT. “People have career dreams and those dreams are what make them succeed. Instead of trying to squash someone’s success in fear of competition, find a way to make it beneficial for everyone.”
Out in the Open
With any side hustle, transparency is key.
Jen Dalton, Oh’s manager at IPHR, said she appreciated that Oh brought up her ceramics business during her interview. She said she supports Milk + Clay — so long as it doesn’t interfere with work.
You want to create an environment where employees are engaged and enthused.
John Jannuzzi, the senior director of brand and editorial at menswear company Bonobos has been baking and selling cookies since 2018, shipping out about 60 batches a week. He said he’s been honest with his bosses about his ambitions — he’s been in talks with wholesalers — instead of trying to hide his side business. Bonobos declined to comment.
“They know it’s important to me and that I want to continue to grow,” he said. “I’m open about it.”
Jannuzzi, Leff and Oh say they keep their jobs and side hustles separate. Jannuzzi puts in 16 hours a week for his cookie business, mostly on weekends.
“In my role managing a team, I have to set an example,” Jannuzzi said. “I can’t say I’m missing a meeting because I have to go do a chocolate run with a distributor in Queens.”
Liana Satenstein, a senior fashion writer at American Vogue, takes a different approach with her closet cleanout business, Schmatta Shrink. She said she sometimes gets story ideas from consulting sessions, like when she helped a Depop seller from Texas clean out her closet and ended up profiling her for Vogue.
“Sometimes Vogue and Schmatta Shrink intersect, and that’s the beauty of it,” she said.
Employees need to think about more than time management, however.
Many employment contracts give companies legal ownership over anything their employees create. Disclosing a side project early can avoid trouble later if a business takes off, said Staci Riordan, a partner at Fox Rothschild and professor at Loyola Law School. A few states, including California, allow employees to own their side businesses, as long as they are disclosed.
“Being transparent with a company promotes goodwill,” Riordan said. “People don’t like to have difficult conversations, but it’s better to have them before you put yourself at risk of losing something you worked hard on.”
Many employers draw the line when side gigs threaten to become a conflict of interest. Dalton said IHPR allows employees to work side hustles that aren’t directly competing with them. Condé Nast told BoF that the company is “supportive of employees who wish to conduct outside work, provided there is no conflict of interest and the work does not impede their ability to fulfil their job requirements.”
Lawson of Bond Creative MGMT said the nature of fashion means employees will inevitably build side hustles that will one day turn into competition. The industry tends to give staff a wide berth when it comes to their own businesses; at the highest level, large brands routinely hire designers, from Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton to Gabriela Hearst at Chloé, who continue to operate their own labels.
“It’s how the industry moves forward,” Lawson said. “Brands should want to have employees who are out, doing things and being curious and creative. They might move on, and build something new, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Competition is good for everyone.”
Still, Lawson said companies must draw up contracts that clearly outline how they will protect their resources and how they expect employees to act.
“Companies should be setting up clear guidelines, like how employees can’t use company resources, steal proprietary information or valuable data,” Lawson said. “But if you are encouraging of your employees, they will act ethically because they feel supported.”
If you are encouraging of your employees, they will act ethically because they feel supported.
Dalton of IHPR said her company sees employee side hustles as an opportunity. Oh has created ceramics with her team and has also taken editors to pottery studios while discussing potential stories.
Lawson said brands should strive to be known as the place that fostered young talent — not as the villain that tried to stop them.
“These days, we know that people don’t stay at a company for ten years,” he said. “They will move on, and if an employee finds success, it reflects back to you. It’s a win for both sides.”