Skye Saylor and Thomas Marnin make Pastry Pets, handmade toys borne from an imaginary world and sold at Seattle’s world-famous Pike Place Market. Their dream: A brick and mortar storefront of their own, chock full of a diverse assortment Pastry Pet products.
“Some people just don’t get it,” says Saylor. At face value, the toys are quiet odd without context. They are small plushies in the shapes of pastries. But they’re cats. It all started when Saylor posted a photo of her first Donut Cat creation on Facebook. Comments of “I want one!!” flooded in. Eventually, she teamed up with Marnin to build a booth and try their hands at selling some of their toys at a craft fair in Seattle in September of 2013. Almost a year later, the duo went full time as “MarninSaylor”.
“The magic of toys is built from the experience attached to it,” says Marnin. “Like, think about how kids won’t hesitate to buy a ‘Frozen’ doll or coloring book. The difference with our toys is that we have to build that experience from scratch.” This experience is their booth at Pike Place Market. Dressed vintage soda-fountain attire, the team stays in character for full retail theater implemented within eight square feet.
I can’t help but ask “Why Pastry Pets?” and Saylor’s response: why not? “We’re selling a piece of a world that we want you to be a part of.” This world, as it turns out, runs deep. Marnin & Saylor gave me a tour of their manufacturing studio in SoDo, and I saw firsthand that they make a LOT of stuff. From tote bags to keychains to limited edition Pizza Cat plushies, their product selection paired with their idea lists and prototypes make for a dizzying collection of toys.
Though the world is whimsical, painfully cute, and magical, the realities of making and selling Donut Cats can often be brutal. “I think the biggest mistake that creators can make is thinking that success comes easy,” says Marnin. “Every day is a huge challenge, and we have to work very hard to make sure the business doesn’t fail.” Working hard means taking two days off a month and spending the rest of the time manufacturing in their studio in order to make sure they’re stocked for Pike Place Market. In such a fast-paced and bustling environment, many new retailers in the Market can’t keep up with the heavy foot traffic of this Seattle landmark.
But, Marnin & Saylor have high hopes for the future of their business. “We probably have 300 core fans, plus a rotating fanbase of about 1,000,” says Saylor. The customer feedback on their products is overwhelmingly positive, and there is clearly demand for the company’s story and brand. The team has been eyeing locations for their brick and mortar store, but it is becoming a game of timing and numbers. “Something is going to have to change in the business in the next year,” says Marnin. Exactly what kind of change is still unclear. But until then, MarninSaylor is bringing a surplus of enthusiasm, creativity, and cuteness to the Market.
[Welcome to Beyond The Workweek, a series of interviews with young folks looking to break free from traditional 9-5. Erin Miller is an entrepreneur, an advertising specialist, and artist who makes her home all across the states. She also happens to be my younger sister, even though she tells everyone that she’s the older sibling. For the most part she works for herself on video and advertising projects, and so I asked her a little bit about how she works and how others can do the same.]
CM: So, you may have been reading my “Beyond The Workweek” posts. What’s your workweek like?
EM: Thankfully my workweek is self defined. I can work whenever I want, as long as I accomplish my goals that I have established the week before with my boss. I only work 20 hours part time for the university. In all my other time I try and pick up freelancing gigs.
CM: Can you tell me more about this? What is your “main gig”?
EM: My side gig right now is working at Syracuse University as a recruiter for entrepreneurship classes through the information technology school aka the iSchool. I’m an alumni of the program and the administrators kept in touch with me so much that they hired me to get people hyped about technology and business.
So part of the time I get people to sign up for classes in the Information Technology, Design and Startups Minor (aka IDS).
And the other part is getting students from all over campus to participate in iSchool programming, most specifically Immersion Experiences, where students go through an application process to visit technology hubs around the world. Those places include Chicago, Silicon Valley and San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York City, and now Dublin, Ireland.
I’ve seen a lot of success through this side gig so it’s kind of becoming my main gig. Also there’s been a lot of traction so the iSchool’s been asking me to do more and more.
Which is totally fine because I’m backing off a little on the gas pedal from Out There because I want to do bigger budget gigs less frequently with my team there.
CM: Nice. So you are a connector by profession.
EM: Correcto. I am paid to connect cool people with cool experiences. It is an honor.
CM: I am thrilled to hear how you are working a job you can do anywhere, on your own hours. What do you think is the best way for people to get jobs like this?
EM: If people want to work from anywhere, they need to shake things up wherever they go. They need to make a lot of noise. They need people to be like, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of them,” in the industry that you’re in / want to be in.
Once you establish that you have traction on and offline, then people will be asking for you for your energy to grow whatever they’re building. You always have to be building, making progress, and making noise. Then people will know you’re worth it.
CM: How do you build, make progress, and make noise? You specifically, Erin Miller.
EM: For me specifically, I do experiments. I find something I want to do and I do it. I get a lot of press and support for it. Then I complete and exit the project. Then I do another one. Here are examples of my past 2 projects.
I realized I wanted to bring my production company around the country for a year. So I raised $15k and bought a school bus, renovated it to be a production studio, and brought my team along. I didn’t know how long it would work so I set a time limit that it’d be a year. I went on the trip, got on the news like 3 or 4 times, put together a wild portfolio, and landed back in Syracuse. The bus is broken down and I probably won’t go on the road again, but I followed through and did what I said I’d do, and people respect that.
I produced a short film called “No Nuts”. I want to lift up people with stories and talents with my talent: doing business and raising money. So I raised $20k to make a short film with a crew of 40 professionals who were paid the industry standard rate. The film is almost done and we plan on premiering it this summer. We got a shit ton of local press and got a lot of local businesses to contribute to the success.
Who knows what my next project will be? I don’t. Maybe something in Austin. But I have credibility. I tell people that I look up to what I’m doing. A lot of them say, “Aw that’s cute,” and don’t really care until it’s done. That’s when they say, “Well, shit. You did it.” That’s when you establish value for yourself. When you finish things.
CM: That’s really impressive. You seem to be very good at crowdfunding. What do you think are the biggest challenges with raising money for your projects?
EM: I think the biggest challenge with raising money is momentum. You just keep getting checks and people are throwing you cash through crowdfunding platforms but once you stop asking for money, once your platform ends, once you stop getting money for like a week, the high runs out and you sorta fizzle out.
Raising money requires endurance. You gotta stay focused and constantly stoked about your project because even through you pitched it 20 times, the next person you pitch do will have heard your idea a total of 0 times. So you have to be fresh and new EVERY SINGLE TIME you talk to someone because you don’t know if they’ll give you a dollar or a thousand dollars.
CM: Wow. Sounds like a lot of work but in the end totally worth it.
EM: Fuck yeah. Some bigger businesses say that crowdfunding is a loss because they spend so much time and energy running a campaign, but if you’re smol (sp) and growing a crowdfunding campaign will give you positive PR and show you as a resilient team/company.
CM: Very cool.
EM: People think I’m like the queen of crowdfunding and they’re like “tell me ur secrets” and my only secret is that I’m stronger and smarter than everyone.
CM: A lot of the people I talk to are creators /makers who are trying to turn their side-hustle into their main hustle. Do you think it is possible for everyone to become self-employed?
EM: I don’t think everyone wants to be self employed and idk if they can because they need structure and a boss n stuff.
CM: That’s fair. I think I’m phrasing this question wrong.
EM: I think it’s possible that people who WANT to be self employed can be self employed if they think like a fucking life-hacker and work smart.
Does that answer the question?
CM: We’re getting close to the answers I’m looking for. Basically I am wondering what is the best foot-in-the-door for becoming self-employed?
EM: Best foot in the door is make your first sale. Entrepreneurial ideas are bullshit unless they make money. People can have the dopest ideas ever but if you can’t close a fucking sale then what’s the point. You can’t pay your loans with ideas. No one gives a shit.
It’s just like I said before. Once you follow through, you are legit. So once you make that first sale, you will gain momentum. That is how you get your foot in the door. After your first sale you’ll get high af and you gotta channel that energy into your next sale, and next and next.
CM: Nice. Well you’ve given me a lot to work with and I definitely have a clearer picture of how you work. If I’m gonna take your advice, I should write another book.
Betty has known for a long time that she wanted to work with animals, though it wasn’t always clear that she’d end up working with dead ones. “Ever since I was five years old, I wanted to be a vet,” she tells me over coffee. Originally from Bradford Pennsylvania, Betty was surrounded by people who loved to hunt. “I was sort of the odd one out.”
Her career path was extremely focused and her goals were clear. She worked with animals as much as possible through internships and job shadowing. In Washington, she worked on a goat farm and is a current volunteer in the ornithology department of the Burke Museum. “I had always been around taxidermy but had never thought about the process. Like I always saw them at wildlife exhibits and was always intrigued by it.”
For Betty, getting on Instagram was a turning point. While she was doing active research in her field, she slowly realized that Instagram held valuable information for her journey. There, she saw other women working in taxidermy, and through further research she was able to see all the prep and the schooling that went into it. “There are ladies in Los Angeles and New York doing this kind of thing,” she tells me, referring to city-based taxidermy. “If they can do it, I can totally do it.”
Next, she placed a deposit a year in advance for a taxidermy school she found in Montana. Betty looked at a number of schools within driving distance of Washington, and this particular one met all her criteria. “It worked for my time frame, they taught what I wanted to learn, and I didn’t have to bring anything with me.”
Today, she is fully educated, licensed, and ready to work. During our interview, she pulls out two books, “Tax Savvy for Small Business” and “The Breakthrough Business Management Manual”. She picks up the latter and laughs. “This one is incredible because it’s specifically for taxidermy.” I flip through the book and sure enough it is. From marketing to budgeting to time frames, the author outlines the ins and outs of this incredibly niche industry.
“It’s definitely a risk doing this in the city. If it fails, I’ll move it somewhere else,” she tells me. Betty finds herself interested in both the craft and the science of taxidermy. She shows me the work of Allis Markham, which reads a little more glamorous than the kind of work she’d be doing. Her clientele would mainly be hunters, and she plans to visit sporting clubs in the Seattle area once she’s established to network and promote her services.
Currently, she is preparing her workshop, a small studio space located behind an interior design storefront. She shows me her logos and tells me that she has a “low-key business plan”. Funding is one of her primary obstacles, but she believes that she can find investors that she has personal relationships with to get roughly $5,000 for initial expenses.
Betty asks me about other people I’ve interviewed, and I tell her about the other young business folks in my network. The difference between Betty and most of the others I’ve spoken with is that she has really honed in her skill and her niche before marketing. With other entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed a common trend of excellent and tremendous marketing with little to no business plan backing it. I believe there are benefits to both approaches, but Betty definitely sits on an advantage – she provides a clear service with proper legal backing to a specific audience. For her, marketing will be a clear path.
Her advice to other small business owners: stay positive. “One of my mentors told me that if you can’t get your mind right, you’re not going to produce any good work. It’s hard and you will have ‘oh fuck’ days, but the key is to let that day happen and not let it turn into an ‘oh fuck’ week.”