Not everyone starts their business at full power right from the beginning. Plenty of things keep us from committing our whole selves. Paying the bills is one of the biggest. But there’s no reason your side hustle can’t become your full-time gig.
Rilee Acrey of Balloon Works knows. Just a few months ago, she was doing the 9-to-5 thing with a career in sales and marketing. “I always knew I had a creative side. In high school, I was the captain of the cheer squad and I rhinestoned all the girls’ shoes,” she recalls. Why didn’t she follow a more right-brained path? “As you get older, you need to afford rent,” she says.
But her creativity couldn’t be stifled. When a friend said she wanted a balloon display for her baby shower, Acrey got to work. She shared the results on Instagram, and followers were impressed. With that, Acrey had all the assurance she needed to start reaching out to party planners she thought might be able to connect her with other baby showers, maybe corporate events. And in the eight months or so since that first installation, she has done plenty of those. But her path has gone far beyond the everyday.
One of those cold emails led to an opportunity no one could have expected. The planner told Acrey they had an event for her, but initially didn’t share any other details besides the work order. Two days before the event, the planner disclosed that the party was for Paris Hilton. This led to a firestorm of social media coverage (Kim Kardashian was among the people who posted Acrey’s work), which, well, ballooned into press, including a photo in The Daily Mail.
Acrey admits that she wasn’t prepared. "I had nothing,” she says. “I literally just had an Instagram. I didn’t have a full-blown business yet.” She started putting the pieces into place quickly, from building her social profile to getting a website up and running. But then something even more unexpected happened. A rival balloon artist came calling, jealous that Acrey had worked for her former client, Hilton. In her ire, she told Acrey that she hoped she had a license to do business. Acrey wasn’t just surprised to learn that the competition was so fierce, but the fact that she needed a license was news to her. She immediately took the steps to incorporate as an LLC.
And the work kept on coming. There were more parties for Hilton, as well as for her aunt, Kyle Richards. There are more baby showers, yes, but also the big corporate events Acrey was hoping to score. One of the secrets to Balloon Works’s success is that its profit margins are almost laughably low. For a purchase of about $20 in inflatables, Acrey makes around $600.
Initially, she collected her fees via Venmo, but she realized that she had to professionalize the whole operation. Part of that was quitting her day job, just a few months after that first baby shower. “I woke up and realized that God has a bigger calling for me… I just took a leap of faith,” she says. She admits she didn’t have significant savings and still is living without health insurance, but she knew that she had to make the commitment to the path she believes God set out for her.
She’s no longer a “disposable” cog in a big wheel. In fact, she’s a new employer herself. Though she says 90% of the work still falls to her, one of her goals is to find reliable help. In fact, more than one person who has come in to lend a hand thus far have used the knowledge they gained to go off and start their own balloon design companies.
There’s been much to learn (Acrey admits she didn’t know what an LLC was or how to run a credit card until she started doing research for her own business), but it’s been happening quickly. Her next goal is to find the help she needs to be able to do at least three installations in a day (right now, she limits herself to no more than 10 each week). Down the line, her goal is to have a storefront or studio where she can begin building out her designs before delivering them to their destinations.
Eventually, she imagines Balloon Works locations in cities around the country. But she’s not getting ahead of herself. She knows she’s lucky to have turned her side hustle into a full-time business. “If you have the drive and the hustle, you can do it,” she says. And before long, a Balloon Works may be popping up somewhere near you.