Emily Smart and Tiffany Haendel of Toast Design Studio are this week’s featured guests for our weekly installment of Ask Me Anything.
Toast Design Studio is a branding, print, and web design service focusing on startup companies and boutique-style businesses. The co-owners, Emily and Tiffany are passionate about helping entrepreneurs succeed in realizing their vision because their client’s success is also their own.
This power duo talked to our Slack community about the side hustle balancing act, what makes their business work, what they’re passionate about, and even their favorite wine varietals.
Ask Me Anything is a weekly forum on our #ama Slack channel that gives the OKC creative community the opportunity to ask the featured guest questions about their creative and business-minded processes. From working with clients, their inspiration, favorite projects, and tricks of the trade, no question is off limits.
Read below for a recap and don’t miss our next #ama for your chance to ask questions in real time.
Hi, everyone! We’re @the_tiffanylea and @emilysmart and together we’re Toast Design Studio. Toast is our freelance, side-hustle business, where we work with entrepreneurs, small businesses, and local organizations to establish their brand and identity.
Our dream goal is to transition Toast to our full-time gig, but we’ve been steadily working to grow the business for the past three years to establish a strong foundation that will support us when we make the jump.
In addition to Toast, we both work full-time day jobs that challenge us beyond our creative skills. Tiffany is the Associate Director of Communication for OU Admissions & Recruitment, and Emily directs Creative Development at the Firehouse Art Center, a visual arts non-profit in Norman.
We’re both long-time Norman residents and are passionate about our community and developing the creative scene in the metro-area and across the state. We met during undergrad in the Visual Communications program at the University of Oklahoma, and the rest is history!
Things we can talk about:
- Making a side-hustle profitable
- How to stay creative and motivated after the 9-5
- Work-work-life balance
- Getting and managing clients
- How we get involved with the creative community and why
- Anything related to our day jobs (higher education, non-profits, doing in-house design, doing a lot of things that aren’t design-related, etc).
- Working as a team
- Anything wine related
Where did you start with Toast? Where did the first client come from and how did your partnership on freelance projects start to form?
We paired up on a project in class, and realized we worked really well together. Our strengths and weaknesses complemented each other. We stayed friends after college. Our first freelance client was a friend of a friend who wanted a brand and website, but website is not my wheelhouse, so I pulled Emily in. And then things just started rolling and we realized we prefer working together than apart, so Toast was born.
We don’t even break our work up by “I do branding” and “she does websites.” We just both do everything, but with strengths in different areas.
What was the moment where the Spark was ignited? (That need to venture into entrepreneurship)
Honestly, it came together very slowly. We were freelancing together for about a year before Toast was actually formed as an LLC. I had a brief 6-month stint in Texas where I was working remotely with Tiff, but after I moved back we realized we had started building enough of a portfolio together and had clients consistently approaching us that it just made sense for our partnership to go further, and thus Toast came to exist.
In terms of entrepreneurship specifically, I come from a family of self-made entrepreneurs and have always loved the idea of starting something that was my own. Tiff is much more cautious, so I definitely had to work at getting her to come around to the idea ?
Still true. Every day Emily is like, “let’s do it full-time!” And to this day I’m not confident I can ever make that leap. She totally will, but I might always side hustle.
Just gotta keep at it and long for the day that the scale shifts in balance and you are making more in the hustle than you do at the day gig. ?
How are you going to tag-team this #ama. Is there a process you’ve worked out? Do you both answer questions equally? Are you the same person, or do you have different view points ever?
We planned our day job lunches around this, so we could be together in person. I brought Old School Bagel to her office ahaha.
It’s so funny because we are SO much the same, and SO different at the same time.
That’s actually how the logo was born. It’s intended as a venn diagram situation where the blush represents me and the navy represents Emily, and the gold is us as a team.
Emily is super methodical, and I’m very impatient. But somehow she’s also more of a risk taker and more impulsive, and I”m not. I’m always ten to fifteen minutes early and she’s usually 30 minutes to an hour late.
Also she is a strict dog person, and I love both but am a cat lady at heart. This causes most of our disagreements lol.
http://www.toastoklahoma.com/blog/why-toast < name and logo description
How does your client meeting dynamic typically go?
We both talk to and interact with and meet with clients, but I’m generally the primary client rep. I just have more of an interest and passion for it, and there are web things that Emily can do that I can’t, so I have to take on other stuff so she has time for that.
We adjust a little bit to our clients and what we anticipate they are looking for, but we’re generally pretty casual but professional with our clients. I’m more thoughtful with my client interactions, and Emily is more authentic. Which isn’t to say that she isn’t thoughtful and I’m not authentic, but I give a more controlled response and she gives a more off the cuff response.
Is your full time job a 9-5? If so, how do you find the time and energy to fulfill that side hustle and keep clients happy?
Yes, we both work full time jobs and are both integral to our organizations.
I work 8 to 5 for OU Admissions and Recruitment, and I handle big picture communication plan brainstorming and execution, all the print design, our texting strategy, and whatever else needs to happen at the time.
Emily is typing her own answer ,but for me, the partnership is really important to the success of the side hustle. Sometimes I’m not motivated, and Emily picks me up, or vice versa. We challenge each other and that helps us keep this vision alive.
Plus, when things get really crazy for one of us, the other picks up the slack so that our clients never notice a lapse in service.
And then we also limit the number of clients we take if we need to. Since this is our side hustle, we aren’t trying to put food on the table with this so we can be very picky and cautious about what work we commit to.
Yep! By day I work on graphic design, educational programming, and grant writing for a non-profit art center in Norman. Our full-time operational staff is only 4 people, so any time I’m gone a whole quarter of the team is missing.
It can definitely get stressful doing both the full time job and maintaining client work with Toast, especially during the spring and fall when I’m working a lot of extra community events on the weekend.
But I think because there’s so much variety in the type of work we do on the daily, Toast is honestly our primary creative outlet. While our business skills serve us there, we’re also get a lot more creative freedom and variety from working with clients.
Also prioritization is a HUGE factor in being able to do both jobs and live a normal social life. Like, I want my free time and energy to go to this. If all you want to do after work is melt into the couch and watch netflix, then having a side-hustle isn’t for you. That’s not to say I don’t have evenings where I nap and veg out, but those are not the average night.
What is your specialty?
Branding and identity development for small businesses and local organizations, primarily. We’ve worked with a lot of entrepreneurs and side hustlers like us, and that makes us really happy.
We’re very committed to people’s success in business, so while yes we’re doing branding, we also share our experiences about business development and accounting and tax and legal stuff to try to help our clients navigate the journey.
What are the differences you see between the clients at your day jobs (non-profits and higher ed), and the clients that you work with at Toast? What differences do you see between being free agents at Toast vs. in-house at your regular jobs?
Our answers are going to be totally different because of her non profit day job life and my higher ed life, so I’ll let her answer her part.
But I’ll say that for me, my day job at OU is such a huge machine. My immediate communication team is only about six people, but we’re in a greater team of around 60, and then within a department of several hundred, and then within the university as a whole that has thousands of staff.
And then at Toast, it’s me and Emily and that’s it.
So the ability to get things done is totally different between day job and Toast. In some ways it’s easier at my day job because there are money and resources available, but sometimes it’s harder because I’m not the final decision maker, and sometimes my boss isn’t, and neither is my boss’s boss, etc.
I also really love having the balance of in house design and agency work that I get by working both jobs. Sometimes my day job gets old because it’s so cyclical and I do so many projects that already existed but are being tweaked rather than starting from scratch. But I also get to perfect things over YEARS and I love having that longterm commitment to something.
“Client” in our day job would just be our organizations, since we’re both on in-house design. I feel like the main difference between my design work at the Firehouse and my client work for Toast would be the level of specialization that goes into Firehouse needs. A lot of clients we work with have the same basic needs as far as branding and identity go, but at the Firehouse I could be working on designing and installing graphic elements for our gallery exhibitions one day, producing and designing our class schedule the next, and building visual elements for community events the next. Or all in the same day really ?
VERY much agree with Tiff about the repetition of the in-house stuff though. I worked at the Firehouse part-time through undergrad and have been full-time for about 4 years, so I’m coming up on a decade of working there. There’s absolutely certain projects that feel stale to me after 10 years or that I’ll feel like I’ve tapped myself out of as a “problem solver” for the project. But that said, it can be really fun to see how my skills have evolved over the years.
How do you approach clients you’re interested in or get the word out that you’re seeking work (if you are)? Do you guys have like a specialty you like doing (graphic design wise) and specific kind of clients that you like working for (nonprofits/restaurants/local/etc) ?
We have been _incredibly_ blessed so far in that we’ve never needed to seek out client work. It’s come to us pretty naturally through word of mouth. We can’t stress enough the importance of networking, building connections, and maintaining authentic, positive relationships.
Our very first client (before we were officially Toast) probably led to about 5 other clients, in large part because we underpriced and overdelivered on what we promised.
One benefit to keeping Toast as a side-hustle is that we’ve been able to be more selective about who we work with and how many people we’re working with at a time, without feeling like we need to meet a certain quota of clients to keep food on the table. As we look to transitioning to full-time I’m sure we’ll be doing more in terms of seeking out clients, but we’re also looking at ways to develop passive income so that we can continue working with individuals and organizations whose beliefs and integrity align with ours.
Specialty-wise, we look for branding and identity development projects. I think part of what we offer that sets us apart is that we’re not just designing visual components, but helping brands with developing their identity through their mission, voice, and presentation.
To that extent, we like working with other small businesses, entrepreneurs, and local organizations that are passionate about developing Oklahoma or serving our community with their skills and services.
We’ve had a weird amount of variety in our clients’ fields too. Like, an entertainment agency and a law firm and a farmer and a museum, etc. But even with all that variety, we somehow haven’t ever gotten a retail or a restaurant client! I would LOVE to do a food place especially. And a boutique shop.
^^ Well, I say that, and then I remember we did do a logo for one restaurant in Norman. But they literally only wanted the logo and nothing else, so it barely counts because I didn’t get to really develop the visual identity and brand the way we wanted to.
How do you manage communicating with clients when you might not be able to work with them during normal business hours? How do you get them to respect your time that way? Are you transparent about it?
Yes, we try to hit the right balance of transparency. We don’t want to sell ourselves short by announcing all the time “we’re just doing this part-time, though!” so our website is a little vague. But we also make a point of letting our potential clients know that we have full-time jobs before they sign a contract because it does affect a bit about our communication and we don’t want any surprises or disappointment. My job is a little more flexible in time off, so if a client needs to meet during the day, I can generally always do that. I take time off work to handle those situations. But our first preference is meetings after hours so that Emily can be there too, and we’ve been lucky to have clients who are extraordinarily understanding. Some of them have also been side hustlers, so that works for their schedule too, but some of them aren’t and they take time out of their evening to meet with us, and we make sure to buy them drinks to make it worth their while haha.
We just recently lost one job that did a 180 once they knew we were part time, and that was disappointing. They didn’t say that was why they didn’t sign the contract, but at minimum it was a big factor for them. And I understand their hesitation, but it’s of course frustrating for us. Emily took it harder than I did since she’s more invested in making this a full-time gig.
Thanks for so honestly sharing that. Ive had that challenge before myself, so I can relate.
Still so depressed about it ?
Yea, it could have been a big client. Like, a game changer. So that’s the hardest part. Knowing that it could have been the client that took us into full-time work, and we didn’t get the chance. But, it is what it is, and we have other clients and other work and if they were that freaked about our part time situation, then it probably wouldn’t have been a great fit.
Do you have a master plan? Do you hope to move to working on Toast full-time? How far out do you think that is? 1yr, 5yr, 10yr plan?
I think we’re coming up on our first major shift as a business since we started Toast. Even though there’s just the two of us, we do “annual reviews” at the end of each year to assess what we’ve accomplished, our successes and challenges, and where we’d like to go in the coming year.
We’ve finally hit the stage where we’re making enough profit and committing enough time to Toast that it’s starting to feel more like a full-time thing. I will definitely be looking at transitioning to full-time Toast in about 10-12 months. Tiffany will probably hold out until I’ve proven full-time viability though. ?
Thats awesome! Super impressed by being organized enough to have “annual reviews” even when its just yourselves and not some boss to answer to. Wish I was at that level. lol. And wish you both all the BEST on achieving that path! ?
Haha, it’s kind of nerdy honestly. We both fill out these self-evaluations and then have a formal sit down with each other (over food and wine because duh) and go through them point by point. I honestly look forward to it because we always get a lot of clarity on our plans and vision, and we both leave it feeling SUPER motivated. We sometimes struggle with fitting it into the schedule, but we always make it work eventually. We were supposed to have our review a month ago, but then things were crazy with clients, and now it’s scheduled for tomorrow. But then we had a client meting pop up for tomorrow ? So, tentatively scheduled for after the client meeting.
How do you fight burn-out?
It’s a daily struggle honestly. It’s hard to do the day job and the side hustle because sometimes I’ll start the day really excited to work on some Toast projects that are on my schedule for that evening, but then by the time I’m done at work, I’ve spent all my energy and creativity and I have to figure out how to recharge. I’ve really gotten into podcasts lately, though, and that helps. Some of them are creative entrepreneur podcasts (namely Being Boss), but one I’ve been into lately is called On Being and it’s sort of a spirituality / soulful podcast just about community and people and love and the world. I try to let that soothe my soul and give me a moment of “brain rest” so I can kick back into gear.
And then I feel like I say it too much, but seriously having a business partner is huge for me. I have to work because she’s depending on me to get something done, so it’s just not an option.
Yeah, having someone else who’s in it with you is major. We definitely pick each other up when the exhaustion taking its toll.
Honestly though… I rarely feel burned out by Toast. I might be tired af when I get home at the end of the day and not want to work on anything and just have a glass of wine and hang with my dog, but it’s not that kind of emotional or spiritual burnout feeling.
My dayjob on the other hand can leave me feeling veeerrrryyy burned out. There’s a phrase I’ve heard in the arts/non-profit community called “compassion fatigue” and it is REAL. With politics at the national and community level weighing on us every day, budget cuts for the arts happening everywhere, the state of education in Oklahoma, and even just day to day interactions with the negativity and selfishness of people within the community, working a non-profit arts job is NOT for everyone.
So to that extent, Toast is probably how I fight a lot of the burnout in my life ?
Gotta take you up on the “anything wine related”…what are your top three favorite varietals?
I know it’s basic, but we both love chardonnay. That’s the one we can both always agree on, so that’s what we usually get when we’re together.
I’ve been on more of a white wine kick in general later, but have been exploring lots of different wines and varietals. I just went to Napa Valley for the first time, so I’m trying to put my newfound wine knowledge to work haha, but I’m definitely not educated enough to be a wine snob. I do love sparkling wines, though, and am on a big prosecco kick right now. Napa also sparked a renewed interest in rosé for me. Napa Valley rosé had a totally different complexity to it than rosé off the shelf at Cellar. I can’t find anything here that has the same quality, but I’m still looking haha.
I also like ordering Gewürztraminer at a restaurant because it’s fun to say. ? And I eat a lot of steak, so I had an amazing bottle of red at, well, Red a few months ago. It was from a winery in Napa, but not one I’d been to, and I think it was from their 2015 collection. I can’t remember what it was though. @Matt Magill, do you remember?
Solid choices! I love that you order Gewürztraminer just so you get to say it. haha!
I don’t love sweet things, but prefer cold drinks, so Chardonnays that have a more mineral-y or buttery taste are what I go for on the reg, but my future in-laws love Malbecs and have really gotten me into them over the past few years ?
Favorite affordable wine: Robert Modavi Private Select Chardonnay. You can get a magnum bottle for like $12 ?
The great wine that we had at Red PrimeSteak was a 2013 Louis Martini Cab Sauv: a pretty affordable red that was just perfezionare. ?
Ok same. How many glasses does it take to reach peak creative mode.
Two or three for me haha.
Like. half a bottle. hahaha
What do you think your brand message is that sets you apart from similar companies? And how do you get involved in the creative community?
I think the biggest thing that sets Toast apart is just our focus on small businesses. We do project pricing because we know the struggle of trying to make money and being scared of how many hours something could turn into and if you can afford it. The websites we build are Squarespace modified sites, and that’s largely because our clients want something that they can make text edits to and maintain as much as possible without always coming back to us at every turn. Our mantra is that every client should leave feeling like they got way more than they paid for, so we work extra hard to ensure their happiness. Because that’s what we want from the lawyer and accountant and whoever else that we have to hire, too.
Emily is super involved in the arts scene in Norman, so I’ll let her expand on that, but I am a total cat lady. I foster for the Norman animal shelter when they need help, and I primarily invest my time and money in animal welfare causes.
@jennclo I work at an arts non-profit during the day, and I’ve been involved with the visual arts for years, so being a part of the creative community has come pretty naturally. I would say the arts and creative scenes are definitely happening right now in the OKC / greater metro area from art walks, to festivals, to meet ups.
I think just showing up has soooo much value. Being seen as a regular, and identifying other regulars who are always around, can really help get you involved. Also, as a general networking rule, I rarely show up to sell myself in a “professional” sense. I would rather have a normal conversation and genuinely make friends than be there as a “creative” or whatever. Like, everyone is creative in some capacity, if you’re showing up you obviously want to give back or be involved in some way. I’m much more interested in what motivates and inspires people than what their resume says.
^ Love that about showing up. That is huge and has made a big difference for me personally and as a member of Toast. It’s all about authenticity though. I hate going to “networking” events where everyone is just exchanging business cards. I’d rather have a drink with you.
How do you respond to friends and family who want you to work for free?
I feel like we actually don’t encounter this as much as other people have said they do and I don’t know why that is. Maybe partly because so many of our friends are creatives too, so they’re not asking us for free work because they respect that boundary.
Honestly, ew pretty much just do free work for family. But we’re both really close to our families, so it’s not a frustrating thing. We enjoy it.
Mostly the only free work I do for friends and family is typically for personal use or projects and a lot of times serve as gifts. I photograph a friend’s family photos every couple of years, and usually that’s my Christmas gift to her. I’ve designed invitations as wedding presents before.
That said, I think it’s straightforward and fair to tell friends and family that are pressuring you that you are suuuuppper busy and on a tight time/money budget and can’t fit in projects that aren’t paid right now.
Sometimes we will pass people on to other designers that we know have the time and resources to help someone out on the cheap.
I did have to set a boundary once with my sister, but it was really a situation I got myself into. She has two daughters whose birthdays are six months apart, and I was so excited to do their baby shower designs and birthday invitations and then eventually realized that meant I was doing these every six months and I just lost interest really fast at that point lol. But that was me having to accept that my nieces’ third birthday party invitations are not going to be a work of art and my sister is going to buy cards from Target, and I have to be okay with that. I always do her family photography ever year and I really enjoy that because I don’t practice photography enough, so it gives me a chance to stretch.
Do your current employers know about your side hustle? Or know you’re looking to someday quit and pursue Toast full time? Does that ever pose a problem?
Yes, they both do. I don’t think we could do this if we didn’t have incredibly supportive full-time jobs. My bosses at OU have always taken the perspective that as long as I’m doing my job well, they support me in my side hustle passion. I think they all genuinely want me to achieve whatever I decide I want to, so if and when the day comes to leave my day job for Toast, they will be happy for me. I think it works so well because I love my day job so much that I’m never phoning it in. I am truly passionate about what I do there so they never have reason to doubt my commitment.
And since I do love my job so much and because I’m a more cautious person than Emily, I’ve never been 100% confident that I won’t still be working at OU in the future. So i can honestly tell them that I am invested in growth opportunities at work because I am.
Yeah, the Executive Director at the Firehouse knows and supports us, for sure. He’s honestly been a mentor to me for a long time, so his support is very meaningful. That said, there are definitely boundaries in terms of crossover between side-hustle and day-job, and I wouldn’t say he necessarily looks forward to the day I’ll leave ?
@the_tiffanylea @emilysmart For someone wanting to start their own side-hustle. What are 5 actionable steps to make that happen? From doing nothing after 5pm to full time hustle?
Hmm. We may have to think on this for a minute. We’ll post an answer soon. As part of the side hustle life, we’ve gotta get back to the day jobs. ? We’ll post an answer to this later today.
We gave a bonus sixth step, too. ? http://www.toastoklahoma.com/blog/five-steps-to-launching-a-side-hustle
@the_tiffanylea @emilysmart I just read your five steps and I have a question, do you think it’s necessary to do an LLC for anyone who is doing some freelancing on the side? Why did you feel the need to set one up?
I’ve been getting conflicting info on whether or not I should set one up and I was just wondering your take on it.
Honestly when I was freelancing on the side under my name instead of Toast, I didn’t have an LLC. Once it became a regular occurrence though, I put it under Toast and we got the LLC. I have friends though who would never do a freelance project unless it went through their personal LLC. If you’re doing one project every eight months, it’s probably fine not to. But if you’re doing regular work, I would. Because it’s so easy and cheap to do that it’s more like “why not?” Are you probably going to get sued? Nah. But IF you did, is it worth the risk when it would have taken you half an hour and $50 (or something. I don’t remember how much it is but it’s not crazy) to just get the LLC? I also think that having the LLC shows your clients that you are legitimate and serious. My two cents!
@emilysmart what do you think? Do you agree/disagree?
Yeah, if you’re regularly freelancing at all (instead of just a single small one-off project) I would def opt for the LLC. It’s 100% not worth any chance for someone to come for your personal assets. You don’t need a special business name even. And we’re not exaggerating about how easy it is to set up; when it’s that easy, you might as well take the effort to protect yourself and give yourself more credibility as a business ?
@the_tiffanylea @emilysmart thanks ladies! I appreciate the insight. Better safe than sorry.
Thanks everyone for the awesome questions! We will be reviewing them again later today in case we have additional thoughts. Follow us on Instagram at @toastoklahoma and check out our website at toastoklahoma.com. We’d love for you to reach out if you have any other questions. We recently joined the leadership team at DSN DEV OKC so we will be around here if you need anything. ?
Thanks @emilysmart & @the_tiffanylea for spending your lunch hour with us ? Good answers!
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