In stark contrast to sentiments about a global recession, there seems to be another renaissance lurking on the edges. Best known to some as the financial renaissance (Instagram Trend Report 2023), this describes a new generational mindset shift pertaining to how we make money.
Prior to recent years, the majority of fresh college graduates pined for a job at a reputable company or firm. Nowadays, the scene is ravaged by the idea of flexible and remote working, “influencing”, as well as self-care and “healing”. The stereotype that Gen Zs don’t want to work is untrue; they simply prefer to opt out of the traditional 9-5 work ladder.
With social media platforms like Tiktok and Instagram surpassing 1.7 billion users, anyone can become a “content creator” if they so do wish. According to Instagram’s annual industry report, two-thirds of Gen Zs plan to monetize a project using social media. You can find any business under the sun on either of these platforms, and platforms like Instagram are primed from a UI aspect to help people shop to their heart’s content.
Social media is not the only way people are making money. According to a survey done by Zapier in 2022, nearly 40% of Americans have a side hustle—which is up a whopping 34% since December 2021. Experts are coining 2023 as the “year of the side hustle.” And it seems that automation plays a key role in the side hustle game. Due to the success of software tools, two-thirds of Americans who have a side hustle, use automation for their business.
We spoke to Kaylee Astle, founder, and CEO of Blanka, about her thoughts on side hustle culture and emerging values amongst consumers regarding product sourcing. Blanka is an automated tech platform that allows side hustlers to personally brand high-quality, North American-sourced beauty products and sell them directly on their Shopify stores. The best part? There are no order minimums and Blanka handles all the shipping directly to the end consumer.
Interviewer: Can you tell us about your journey into entrepreneurship? How did your background or past affect your present career?
Kaylee: I’ll give you a little bit of background about my story. I went to UBC and was enrolled in their business program. At that time, I thought I was going to go into accounting because I loved numbers, and learning about the nuts and bolts of how businesses were run.
I essentially did that as my undergrad and ended up doing an internship at KPMG but later realized that maybe it wasn’t the right fit for me. I searched around and ended up landing at Deloitte in their management consulting practice. I worked largely in their technology transformation department, where we were in charge of many large-scale technology implementations of different types of businesses.
That’s when I fell in love with the way that technology can change an organization and you can automate, build, and design all these tools that can change the way an organization functions. I did that for a few years, loved my teams, and was consumed with solving these really cool projects. However, in the back of my mind, I always considered myself very entrepreneurial, so the corporate structure was challenging for me at times.
After a few years at Deloitte, I started looking for a change. I had friends who were working at startups and that sounded super interesting to me. After a number of conversations, I landed at a Vancouver marketplace startup, where I oversaw strategy and operations. I was so excited to work at a startup in a snazzy coworking space; like the ones with brick walls, coffee dispensaries, and all those things you see on TV. I wanted to wear jeans to work. The startup was great, but it didn’t have the growth trajectory I was looking for, so about a year and a half later I moved to Calgary to join the founding team of MobSquad, a tech-talent company. We were building teams of Canadian developers for U.S. companies. At the time, nearshoring remote teams was a unique concept. We ended up being on the cover of the Washington Post, and there’s now a Harvard Business Review case written about the company. It’s gone on to do well, and many companies have come after that replicate that model.
A few years later, I moved back to Vancouver and joined a really fast-growing marketplace e-commerce company, and that’s how I started to fall in love with e-commerce. It’s also where I got the experience of what a scaling company looks like.
Looking back on these three big pivotal career experiences, I saw what it was like to join a failing company, then be part of a founding team, and finally be a part of a scaling team as an executive. So when it came time to build Blanka, I felt as though I have an adequate toolbox of experiences and knew what it took to build a company. That’s when I started working on the concept of Blanka, which was in early 2021.
During Covid-19, I explored my deep passion for e-commerce and spent a lot of time doing global procurement. Right before Covid-19 hit, I was actually in China, helping to develop a partnership with Alibaba and that’s where I saw what procurement overseas looked like. At the same time, I tried to start my D2C brand, which failed miserably because creating a product line is so difficult. That was the light bulb moment for me when I realized sourcing suppliers was super hard, then you have to order inventory and figure out how to store it, and deal with fulfillment. So I thought, what if we built a platform that removed all of those obstacles and made it super easy for an entrepreneur to launch their own branded product line? That’s how Blanka was born, 20 months ago.
Interviewer: What are your thoughts on how influencer marketing has on the e-commerce marketplace?
Kaylee: I do think that there is a fundamental shift in e-commerce and it’s becoming more democratized where your Instagram influencer who maybe only has 5,000 followers, is able to build their own brand and sell it to their following. Now with certain platforms such as Blanka, they can do that extremely seamlessly. I think that the challenge is once you’ve overcome product sourcing, inventory, and fulfillment, that’s when you focus on marketing and branding. That is definitely an area we want to develop more in 2023.
The challenge is always helping entrepreneur scale their businesses.
An important distinction to make here is that although I see that influencer marketing is promising, that’s not at all the full picture of the type of businesses we support. The side hustler market in the US alone is about $2.58 trillion. In that, about 13% of side hustlers are running their own e-commerce stores. There’s a massive market out there of just entrepreneur side hustlers, and not necessarily creators or influencers who are building their businesses online.
I think that we’ve hit timeliness in the market because things are changing; we’re seeing this democratization, but we’re also seeing a potential recession where people are more interested in starting side hustles.
The last piece with Blanka is we’re enabling people to start their own beauty cosmetics and wellness brands. It’s very niche focused and we use super high quality, North America-sourced products. There’s this thing called the lipstick effect that traditionally in times of downturn, people will spend more money on luxury items such as cosmetics and lipstick.
Interviewer: Explain a little bit about how you’re able to transition from tech to the creative aspect of building beauty products.
Kaylee: To be fully transparent, I’m an operational nerd. I like creating processes, finding efficiencies, and getting things done. I’m an executor and I like to see things come to fruition but when it comes to the branding and the beautifying of things, I’d say that comes down to our CMO and his vision. Blanka is fundamentally a supply chain and operational business. We’re lucky to be in a sexy business where people get to brand products that are beautiful and high quality. Branding and personalization really come down to every entrepreneur.
Let me walk you through the process of starting a brand with Blanka: first, an entrepreneur would create an account with us, and instantly when they log in, they have access to the hundreds and hundreds of products that we’ve curated and pre-vetted.
All the products on our platform are sourced from North America. We’re not going overseas for products. They’re all super high quality, built with excellent processes, and we’re working with some of the same suppliers as Saks Fifth Avenue.
The merchant would upload their logo which would instantly render all the products with our tech and so they immediately see what these products look like with their branding on them. Then through the click of a button, they publish it to their Shopify store and start selling. When they get an order for a product, we prepare all of the printing and ship it to the end consumer. We deal with all that backend fulfillment and the entrepreneurs get to focus on the fun stuff: the sales and marketing of their online store.
Interviewer: If you were handed $1 million today, what would be your first initiative?
Kaylee: The next big challenge we want to tackle in 2023 is building out more resources and assets to help our entrepreneurs become successful in their sales and marketing. The next step would be building out an academy and creating training templates that help entrepreneurs build their marketing identity or design their logo from ground zero if they don’t have one. It’s about eventually building a platform that supports an entrepreneur’s journey from end to end. We’re slowly working toward that and that’s where additional resources and funding would go.
Interviewer: What do you think is the key to success in your industry?
Kaylee: Primarily, it’s been my amazing support system of people who cheer me on through the highs and the lows. The second is having a level of humility and being receptive to feedback and understanding what you’ve done really well, yet there’s still a lot of progress to be made. I genuinely try and treat my whole team with as much compassion and care as possible.
Then the basics are getting enough sleep, exercising, and taking care of myself is crucial. Those three elements have been paramount for me. I’m not the person who’s going to stay up until 3 AM and wake up at 6 AM just to do it all over again.
Side hustles have long existed, but technology has accelerated and democratised the ability to make money leveraging existing systems. During periods of economic instability, research has shown that people turn to buying smaller luxury items such as makeup and high-end lipstick, hence, coining the term “the lipstick effect.” Normally, the beauty industry is a $532+ billion market every year, and we might even see this number tick up in 2023. Most consumers are aware of the lofty price tag that comes with high-quality formulations and products, but it’s far less costly than technology, cars, or luxury handbags. The proof is in the pudding—and in this case, Blanka simply makes sourcing, shipping, branding, and procurement less of a headache for the aspiring side hustler or entrepreneur. In tandem with a brilliant strategy, Blanka is positioned to be a real game changer for aspiring beauty side hustlers.