After graduating from The Maryland Institute College of Art in 2014, Hyla Frank got a job working as an assistant for an interior decorator. It was a solid, 9-to-5 gig, and Frank says she "loved the experience." Even so, the job didn't last long.
Frank studied fiber art — fine art made with fabric or yarn — in college, and had learned how to sew from her mom. While working as an assistant, she spent her free time on embroidery. She started selling her embroidery projects, gaining customers through word-of-mouth from friends and colleagues.
Soon, Frank was spending as much time embroidering at night as she was working during the day, and making about the same amount of money from her embroidery as she was from her day job. "My work hours and the income I was bringing in were equaling that of my assistant job, which is what gave me the confidence to make the jump," she says.
So, Frank, then 23, decided to quit her job and work on her embroidery business full time. It was scary, she tells CNBC Make It from her backyard studio in Los Angeles, Calif.
"When I quit my day job to start my own business, there was definitely a [big] part that was — I was going to say a 'little part' but it was definitely a big part — that was terrifying. I [already had] my embroidery stuff going on the side and so I knew that I had a basis to make that jump and to leave my full-time job, but there definitely was the mysterious aspect of, 'Oh you know, I could wake up one month and there could never be an order ever again,'" says Frank.
Fortunately, her fears were unfounded. Now in its third year, Frank's eponymous business, Hyla F., has grown significantly. Her signature style is black thread on a white background. She embroiders all kinds of products, including canvas tote and duffel bags (currently on sale for $45 and $95, respectively, on her website) and throw pillows (from $100 to $120 each on her website).
But the products that really put Frank and Hyla F. on the map are those she custom embroiders with people's pets. Frank will embroider the name and face of customers' pets on pillows, dog beds and blankets. Custom pet pillows range from $325 to $385, a custom dog bed is $385 and a custom-embroidered alpaca throw blanket is $675 on her website.
"I started off doing different palm tree and cactus and shark embroideries — which are all still a part of my business — but it really actually took off when I started doing the pet pillows," Frank says. "People know what they look like, people know my name based off of those." So far, Frank says she's sold 582 embroidered pillows.
One custom pet pillow takes between four and five hours to complete, though Frank usually has a handful going at once. Clients send Frank photos of their pet, then she makes sketches of the animal and transfers the final sketch to fabric. She hand embroiders the outline and completes the image of the pet with a sewing machine.
When Frank quit her job as an assistant in December 2015, she was pretty sure that if her business flopped, she would be able to get another job in her field. At the time she was making $24,000 a year. In 2016, the first year she worked on Hyla F. full-time, Frank brought in $35,000 in revenue. This year, she's on track to bring in $80,000. Frank tells CNBC Make It that her profits, after the cost of supplies, are about half of what she brings in.
Now 26, Frank has not had to return to a 9-to-5 job. Not only is she earning more money, she says she's got more freedom in her schedule. "I usually do work about eight hours a day. The difference between my schedule and let's say a 9-to-5 schedule is just that I can choose whatever hours I want that to be. So I will usually do a hike with my dogs in the morning, get to work around 9 a.m. and then take a little break in the middle of the day. Sometimes I'll go to the gym in the afternoon and then I'll usually do some work at night."
Hyla's F.'s success is due in part to the fact that celebrity dog-owners are among Frank's biggest fans on social media. Lauren Conrad, the 32-year-old reality television star, and Zoey Deutch, a 23-year-old actress, model and activist have both declared their love for Frank's custom pet pillows. In a 2015 Instagram post, Deutch claimed the pillow she ordered brought her to tears. "Only the best for queen Maybelle," Deutch writes. "No but actually I cried when I got this in the mail. @hyla_f you are a GENIUS, and this pillow is now my second most prized possession, first being the alive dog."
Model Chrissy Teigen's mother, Vilailuck, posted a photo on her Instagram account alongside three of Frank's pillows, with the caption, "Happy [Saturday!] Thank you so much @hyla_f."
Even Ellen DeGeneres has had work done by Frank. She's has also gained attention from print and online magazines. Her pillows were featured in a 2016 Vogue list of "uber-chic pet decor items." The October 2018 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine highlighted a partnership between Hyla F. and personalized knitwear company Le Lion on the "O List," the publication's monthly round-up of favorite products. Frank embroiders pet names and faces on merino wool sweaters from Le Lion. The custom sweaters cost $525.
"Being in a publication like Vogue or Oprah Magazine I think represents a milestone," says Frank. "It kind of shows me that I did make the right decision to start my own business and that that's reflected in, you know, what editors want to feature in their magazine and what people do want to see and what people are looking to see. So it, you know, it's a good feeling that people love their pets and I get to help them with that."
Frank's focus on pets is the result of a confluence of events in the summer of 2014. Two friends of hers were moving around the same time and each was unable to bring their dog with them. As housewarming gifts, Frank embroidered pillows with images of their dogs, so their pets could be present, at least figuratively, in their new homes. Those were the first two dog pillows Frank made.
That same summer, Frank got her first dog. She hadn't planned on getting one, but her brother was working at a dog rescue at the time and she stopped by to visit him at work.
"It was honestly that cliche movie moment of 'see each other, just [fall] in love,'" Frank tells CNBC Make It. "I always had friends that had dogs so, you know, I knew that I loved pets, I just never had that connection of having my own. I think getting Ollie as an adult and him being my actual dog and us just really connecting...created this bond."
Frank has since adopted a pal for Ollie, Zoey, and says having her own dog fed her desire to explore human relationships with pets creatively. She calls adopting Ollie around the time she was starting her business a "happy accident."
"I think had I not gotten my dog, making these pillows may have seemed less exciting or personal to me," Frank says.
As Hyla F. grows, Frank says she would consider adding a second set of hands, though she would be hesitant to give up doing the creative work herself. And though Frank's business is growing, she's committed to keeping her life outside of work a priority. She likes to cook, hike, rock climb and spend time with her dogs. Frank loves to camp and says she's taken embroidery projects with her to Yosemite.
"I'm not just fully out to make a bunch of money and that's my only goal," says Frank. "My financial goal is to...keep growing and keep being successful, but on...a realistic scale for my life."
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