Betsy Thompson of Portland puts on one of her handmade polymer clay earrings. Thompson has been able to focus more on her side business, Baublebee Handmade, since she was laid off due to the pandemic this summer. (Courtesy Betsy Thompson)
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In the midst of a pandemic that has caused millions to lose their jobs, Michelle Rech came up with a new career vision that has captured the interest of nearly 10,000 followers on Instagram. 

Thirty-year-old Rech has been a florist for five years and is the founder of Electric Flora, a Portland business that is blossoming online.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Rech was working for a local florist and running Electric Flora on the side. But as it did for many others, the virus changed her perspective.

Portland resident Michelle Rech runs the floral business Electric Flora, which has flourished during the pandemic and now has nearly 10,000 followers on Instagram. (Courtesy Michelle Rech)

She now makes her own neon-colored flower arrangements full time, often adorning them with fun accents like feathers and staging them on sparkly backdrops for Instagram photos, which routinely attract more than 300 likes each. 

Rech last week said the pandemic made her wonder why she was putting in so much time working for other people, and what she could do to “refocus and make (her) dreams happen.”

“It wasn’t until the pandemic where I had this moment where I was like, ‘what am I even doing?'” she said. “What do I want my life to look like?”

It’s a sentiment shared by many other millennials, who were more likely to have a side hustle and made more money from them than Baby Boomers or Gen Xers even before the pandemic, according to a 2019 survey by SunTrust Banks.

The survey found millennials reported making 20 percent more in income from their side hustles when compared with their older counterparts. It also found 81 percent of respondents who had side hustles were interested in making them their full-time jobs.

Serendipity strikes

Like Rech, the pandemic was enough to push Portland resident Ryan Cathcart to take that leap. Cathcart is co-founder of Orion Woodshop, which he and business partner Reece Teixeira founded last spring.

Before the pandemic, Cathcart was working for a dental office. But when his hours were cut, he began doing carpentry on the side with Teixeira. His grandfather was a woodworker, and Cathcart had dabbled in it, but did not think it would become his career.

Ryan Cathcart and Reece Teixeira founded Orion Woodshop last spring, and eventually quit their full-time jobs due to its success. They progressed from making cutting boards and coasters to coffee tables like the one pictured. (Courtesy Orion Woodshop)

Orion Woodshop began with Cathcart and Teixeira making coasters and cutting boards, and soon expanded into building large pieces of furniture.

After the business began picking up, Cathcart and Teixeira coincidentally both decided to quit their full-time jobs on the same day. 

“It was serendipitous,” Cathcart said.

Cathcart’s fiancee, Betsy Thompson, who lives with him in Portland, was working remotely as an art director when she was furloughed in March, and eventually laid off in July.

Unlike many, Thompson, 27, was already working from home when the pandemic hit. She and Cathcart moved to Portland in fall 2019 from Denver, Colorado, and she was still working for her Colorado employer.

She had also recently picked up a hobby of making earrings of polymer clay. Thompson began selling the earrings on Etsy under the name Baublebee Handmade in January, but said last week that the pandemic gave her the time “to sell more, to market more, and have more time to try new things.”

Thompson started viewing running Baublebee as a part-time job and began working on earrings for roughly 20 hours per week.

Like Rech, Thompson has found her Instagram account, which now has more than 1,000 followers, helpful in growing her business.

Social media helps

She was initially nervous, since people like her who had recently lost their jobs would not be able to buy her earrings, but found in the early months of the pandemic there was “a lot of awareness growing” on Instagram about supporting small businesses.

The social media hype helped her make some sales, and her business and Cathcart’s each received a boost when a joint fundraiser they held in May received local TV news coverage.

Betsy Thompson creates earrings from baked polymer clay and sells her work on Etsy. (Courtesy Betsy Thompson)

Cathcart and Thompson collaborated to make wooden bookmarks adorned with clay pendants and ultimately donated $1,750 in proceeds to the Preble Street Maine Hunger Initiative. 

After the story aired, Cathcart said, Orion’s business tripled “overnight.” The story was also picked up by several news outlets around the country the following week, and resulted in inquiries from people as far away as California. 

“Our business just hasn’t slowed down,” he said. “Every big project we’ve done has led to one to three more. It’s been just grabbing on to the rocket ship and holding on.”

Thompson is still searching for a part-time graphic design job in the Portland area but said in the meantime she is grateful to have Baublebee.

For Rech, in addition to success, she has also found new fulfillment in her work through Electric Flora. The weddings she has created arrangements for this summer, she said, were “more pared-down” due to the pandemic and led to people “thinking outside the box” and making decisions for themselves, which she enjoyed.

Getting out of ‘jail’

A major part of Electric Flora’s success, she said, has been the supportive community of artists in Portland. One person Rech said she considers “a collaborative partner in art,” is her graphic designer Allie Norman, who started Girl That Designs two years ago.

Norman was 25 when she made the decision to leave her desk job as an in-house graphic designer in Portland and work for herself. She said she felt like she was in a “creative jail” in her former position, and like a “cog in the machine.”

With a few freelance clients lined up, Norman felt like making the change in 2018 was a “now-or-never” situation; she knew she would only have more bills to pay as she got older, and still had eight months before she was kicked off her parent’s health insurance if her entrepreneurship did not work out.

She started out by cold-calling clients she wanted to work for, building her portfolio, and setting long term goals for herself, like eventually having one of her designs featured on a craft beer can. Having what she called “rookie confidence” was helpful. 

Two years into her endeavor, Norman has accomplished several of her goals, and worked on a number of diverse projects. She said she is “so incredibly thankful” that people feel inspired by her work and want to collaborate with her.

“I still have to pinch myself sometimes,” she said last week. “I try to set six-month goals of two or three things that I definitely want to accomplish. The first was the beer can, and I did 10 this year.”

Norman echoed Rech in talking about Portland’s friendly atmosphere when it comes to artists helping each other, and said it is a city that thrives on “people living their truth and really going for their dreams.”

She said she thinks social media and being able to see people around the world’s success in non-traditional careers inspires millennials to pursue their dreams. Less adherence to traditional timelines for marriage and having children also help, she noted.

“Obviously if you have someone else that is relying on you that makes your decisions much more weighted,” Norman said. “I think our generation has taken a step back from that and is maybe thinking about things a little differently.”