Drawing was always a hobby for Elena Gatti, who started sketching animals at age 5. She certainly never intended to monetize the skill.
Yet today, the 24-year-old brings in five figures per month — on top of her income as an art director at a public relations agency — designing merchandise for musicians and bands like Harry Styles and Mt. Joy. Her Chicago-based side hustle, Fiorenza Art, netted nearly $32,000 in sales in November 2021 alone, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
It all started on Instagram, where Gatti posted drawings to stay creative while studying advertising, art and design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her art, influenced by vintage Italian advertisements, had a distinct and bold style. A couple of months and a handful of Instagram ads later, it caught traction on the platform's explore page. The business was up and running.
Today, Gatti still posts her art to Instagram — but her side hustle's real money comes from selling prints on her website and landing lucrative client deals, some of which cash out at $10,000 apiece.
When Gatti was 7, she learned that she was dyslexic. Quickly, art became more than just a creative outlet: She relied on drawing to build confidence and make friends through grade school.
"People could see me how I wanted to be seen through art," she says.
After graduating from college in 2019, Gatti started interning at Zeno, a global PR firm where she now serves as an art director. That July, Fiorenza — Gatti's middle name, and a tribute to her Italian heritage — made its first sale.
It wasn't until the Covid-19 pandemic hit that she decided to invest in "building out" a brand. But after a couple of weeks of trying to grow Fiorenza strategically, investing in a handful of Instagram ads at roughly $50 each, her art was receiving little-to-no attention.
So, she made a commitment to herself: to only draw what made her happy, rather than what other people expected. Within months, that authenticity paid off. Casetify, a Hong Kong-based phone case brand, reached out, and she launched her first collection in February 2021.
Gatti was riding on a high. Designing a collection was a dream, she had a day job where she could work creatively and her Instagram following had ballooned to roughly 30,000 users.
Then, in June 2021, something even more unlikely happened: A member of Styles' team sent her a direct message on Instagram, asking her to help design merchandise for his upcoming tour.
"They found my art on the Instagram explore page and liked the style, particularly my bunnies," Gatti says. "They told me if I was interested, this is the direction they wanted to go in. It all happened very fast."
Styles' team laid out her work on sweatshirts, tote bags, beanies and more. Gatti's design of twisted bunnies layered on checkerboards became a featured image of Styles' tour, which kicked off in September 2021 and was attended by more than 700,000 fans, according to Billboard Music. A couple weeks later, John Mayer — apparently a Styles fan — wore the bunnies t-shirt at his own concert at Chicago's Wrigley Field.
Gatti says it took about eight weeks for people to realize she was responsible for the art, inspired by her childhood pet. The corresponding sales bump led to her side hustle's best month yet: In November 2021, Fiorenza brought in $31,800 through a combination of new client deals and web sales.
Since November, sales have leveled off, but the side hustle remains relatively lucrative. Fiorenza has brought in roughly $15,000 in web sales alone so far in 2022, selling art, clothing, bags and even blankets.
And Gatti's popularity in the industry is growing. In December 2021, she designed merchandise – featuring bears and blue leopards – for Mt. Joy, her favorite band. She didn't reach out to them. Rather, the band found her work on Instagram.
"The power that Instagram has for artists and creatives is unreal," Gatti says, adding that she's since become friends with the band members. "You don't really realize until you're in the space how it can just spread like wildfire."
By February 2022, Gatti had sold her thousandth print and reached 100,000 followers on Instagram. Still, only two-and-a-half years into her business, she says she has a lot to learn.
"It's learning by trial and error," Gatti says. "Sometimes, I find a supplier or printer I like to make a sweatshirt. I'll bite the bullet and spend thousands of dollars on merch, and they won't come out exactly the way I want them to. Those tough business decisions still feel scary."
Gatti says she's had to learn how to negotiate with clients, sometimes turning down deals with brands if she feels an offer doesn't reflect her work's worth. She also occasionally feels stunted creatively, and the only solution she's found so far is committing to drawing something every single day. After wrapping up her day job at 5 p.m., she says, she draws until 9 or 10 p.m. nightly.
But the work has paid off: Fiorenza is profitable, Gatti says. And while she hopes it can one day become her full-time gig, she has no intentions of leaving her day job. After all, she says, being an art director in a big city was her high school and college dream.
"If I can wake up and draw, it's a great day, because I know I'm doing something that makes me feel fulfilled," Gatti says. "In your mid-20s, you're always trying to figure out the next step, your purpose, and doing something I love has taken the pressure off needing answers. For now, I'm happy just taking it one day at time."