Sergio Aragon and Jesus Gutierrez started selling t-shirts and hoodies at Gay Pride events in 2019. It was a nice little side hustle until everything shut down. They thought they were sunk. But the pandemic paved a far more profitable path for these creatives.

GayPrideApparel, which racked up about $6,000 in sales in 2019, is now a $600,000 in sales enterprise. And the lesson Aragon and Gutierrez learned is worth sharing. Opportunities lie in every market, no matter how seemingly miserable. You just have to look for them. And they may not be in the places that you’d expect.

Indeed, where creative passions may feed the soul, they were historically poor profit-makers. After all, the term “starving artist” became cliche because it was so often true. However, the pandemic paved a profitable path for many types of creatives, such as artists, designers and cooks. 

The reasons are as varied as the enterprises that popped up and profited: A vast and sudden need for unfamiliar products, like face masks. An abundance of free time due to unemployment. A common experience. A need for diversions. And, perhaps, artistic endeavors resonated with consumers for the same reason that they speak to artists — they provide balm for troubled souls.

Profitable path for creatives

Whatever the reason, many people who pulled out anything from sewing machines to cookie cutters in an effort to make money over the past year were met with unexpected success. Hundreds of budding entrepreneurs started selling homemade face masks on Etsy, for example. Others found a market for artisan foods — from fancy cookies to charcuterie boards. Yarn sales took off. Custom aprons, puzzles, and coloring books were all in high demand. 

Of course, success is never automatic. Here’s how some artists capitalized on the pandemic’s profitable path for creatives.

Familiar but unique

Between Netflix and Zoom calls, the pandemic gave Sandra Blaschke, 28, an abundance of screen time. Seeking diversion without electronics, she turned to a childhood pastime — puzzles. The problem? Most of the puzzles she found were pretty pedestrian. They were the same old landscapes and animal pictures that she’d put together as a child.

“My immediate thought was there are so many talented artists out there, why aren’t their artworks being used to create beautiful puzzles?” Blaschke started reaching out to female artists with the pitch of collaborating to provide artwork on puzzle boards, which she would mail out in sustainable muslin bags.

Prints in Pieces was born. While the fledgling company is still small, it’s profitable. And it couldn’t have launched at a better time. Sales of jigsaw puzzles soared during the pandemic and are expected to remain strong through the next five years.

Find new connections 

Stay-at-home orders were a challenge for GayPrideApparel primarily because the company based its marketing on selling at in-person events. But they turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“Covid made us focus on selling through our social channels,” says Gutierrez. “We had no other choice.”

The pair started posting more frequently on Facebook and Instagram. Instead of directly pitching their products, their posts were largely personal comments on news and events that impacted the LGBTQ community. Within a year, GayPrideApparel’s social media following quadrupled and their rainbow-themed clothing and accessories starting flying off the virtual shelves.

“It’s a community approach,” says Gutierrez. “We speak about things that we think our community would appreciate.”

Have a sense of humor

Something about twisting well-known names and phrases to poke fun at the pandemic tickled Carlos Ugalde’s fancy. That turned out to be a great idea. 

House of Chingasos, his Latino-themed apparel company, started selling t-shirts with sayings like “No Kids on the Block,” and “Miley Virus.” And his fledgling clothing company, launched only a year earlier, started raking in the cash.

During the past year, Ugalde estimates House of Chingasos sold $2 million in merchandise.

“I started out making cat shirts,” he says. “The pandemic really helped us.”

Tap existing resources

One of the reasons these creatives were able to profit when the pandemic hit is because they didn’t need to start from scratch and invest in inventory or e-commerce. Online platforms that provide everything from print-on-demand services to marketing have become ubiquitous in the past few years. They can be tapped at a moment’s notice. 

For instance, House of Chingasos and GayPrideApparel use Printful to fulfill their orders. Printful is a print-on-demand operation that allows creatives to upload art and offer it  on more than 200 different products, ranging from t-shirts and bathing suits to furniture.

Printful handles the manufacturing, emblazons products with the artist’s designs, and ships them out to customers, using the artist’s branded mailing labels. There’s no need to hold inventory; stress about manufacturing or administration. The artist’s only job is to create and market his or her designs.

And Printful is only one of dozens of such sites. Other well-regarded print-on-demand sites include Society6, RedBubble, and FineArtAmerica.

When the creative products are handmade, like foods or custom jewelry, online portals such as ChefsFeed and Etsy can handle marketing and collecting payment, rather than the production. Once again, that frees artists to do what they do best — create.

“If you want to start a business, you can buy your own machinery, carry inventory and hire people, or you can use a company that’s already doing that,” says Ugalde. “That allows me to focus on design and marketing and not worry about the inventory.”

3/23/2021