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calligraphy paper pen business

Today, I’m excited to bring you a new, first-of-its-kind interview here on The Fioneers. Our original interview series, Slow FI, helped people to think differently about their paths to financial independence. They don’t necessarily need to reach full financial independence before making a transition. 

This new type of interview takes this concept a step further. One important component of building a Slow FI lifestyle is finding work that you truly love. 

Finding work that you love can allow you to transition earlier to living your ideal life. You could take a Coast FI approach and only cover your actual costs of living for the second portion of your FI journey. Or, you could semi-retire and cover a portion of your expenses with your portfolio and another portion with active income. 

Some of you might be reading this and thinking, “UGH. But I never want to work again.” 

I get it. When I first learned about financial independence, I felt the same way. I was incredibly burned out. I worked (more than) full-time in a toxic work environment. Work was not enjoyable in any way. And, I spent all of my free time recovering from the stress of work. 

I couldn’t imagine people having work that they actually enjoyed. 

As I started recovering from burnout, I started to see work in a different light. If I was doing the right things (in the right amount and the right setting), work might actually be enjoyable or fulfilling. I’d just need to figure out what that work and structure could be for me.  

So, I started to expand my network. I wanted to meet new people and learn how they were making money doing things they truly love. In 2020, I came up with a new name for this kind of endeavor – a passion hustle. 

Passion hustles are when you can generate income doing something that you truly love. It’s something that you’d want to do after reaching financial independence anyways, so it could allow you to transition away from work you don’t love much earlier. 

I’m excited to bring you the very first “Passion Hustle Interview” with Marie Coleman-Johns.  

I originally met Marie in the Slow FI Enthusiasts Facebook group. A few years ago, she started a calligraphy business. Her work is incredibly beautiful. Just look at the cards I bought from her earlier this year.  

calligraphy cards

When I decided to start this interview series, I knew I wanted to feature Marie. She was doing something she loved and generating income doing it. I am incredibly excited to share her insights with you.  

Let’s get into the interview! 

1. Tell me a little bit about you. 

My name is Marie Coleman-Johns. I’m 38 years old, and I’ve been married for 4.5 years to my wonderful husband Jeff. I’ve lived in Delaware for the past 7 years but lived in Maryland/DC most of my life. 

By day, I work as a social media strategist for a financial services company, and by all other times, I work on my two side hustles: Maiden September — my calligraphy business, and Winenance — a personal finance blog and podcast I run with my sister. 

I’m also a fur mom to three cats and two dogs. I love spending time outdoors – riding bikes, kayaking, going for hikes and walks with our pups, and once the pandemic is over, resuming travel. 

2. What kind of work do you do that you truly love?

I absolutely love being a calligrapher! I am drawn to the tactile nature of this particular art form, and I love how accessible it is. I mostly specialize in pointed pen calligraphy. I love that I can create amazing shapes and letters with my hands using insane-looking tools. 

Specifically, in my business, I love that I get to turn my clients’ most cherished words into works of art. 

Calligraphy is such a versatile art form and can be created using a variety of tools (digital, pen and ink, pencil, paint, and brush, etc.). 

calligraphy sign

It’s also used everywhere — in logos and branding, for weddings and special events, for personalizing gifts, for murals and window art — calligraphy is present during our most memorable moments and in all of our favorite spaces.

3. How did you get started with calligraphy?

I discovered calligraphy in the late 90s when my mom bought me my first calligraphy set for Christmas in 7th or 8th grade. Like many 13-year-old girls, I was obsessed with my handwriting. My mom noticed that and thought I might enjoy learning calligraphy. 

I practiced calligraphy off and on throughout the years, including addressing the envelopes for my sister’s wedding invitations in 2008. 

But, it wasn’t until the beginning of 2017 that I decided to properly learn modern calligraphy. I bought an introductory hand-lettering book on Amazon by artist and author Peggy Dean and began practicing daily after work. 

It was a creative outlet during a tumultuous time — the political direction of the country at the time caused me a lot of stress and I needed a healthy distraction. Calligraphy became the thing I most looked forward to each day. 

4, How did you discover that you loved doing calligraphy? 

After practicing modern calligraphy for about a year, I felt ready to take on paid projects in 2018. 

So, I created an Etsy shop and made a listing for envelope addressing. I received my first order shortly after. Admittedly, I panicked when I first started working on the order. I was terrified of ruining my client’s beautiful envelopes. But, they turned out great, and more importantly, my client absolutely loved them. 

wedding vows calligraphy

Realizing I played a role in making the most important day in her life that much more special and memorable gave me such a buzz. Immediately following, I wanted to do more projects like that and soon found myself googling how to become a ‘solopreneur.’ 

5. How is your calligraphy business different from your 9-to-5 work?

The work I do in my calligraphy business is very different from the work I’ve done in my career. 

As a social media and communications professional, I get to be very creative and work on some cool campaigns. However, a lot of the “fun” aspects are overshadowed by bureaucracy. 

You would be shocked to learn the level of approvals that go into a single brand tweet or Instagram post! Sometimes the end result is nothing like what I initially envisioned. That can feel somewhat demoralizing, especially to us right-brained folks. 

In my calligraphy business, I call the shots. I work on client work that inspires me, and I get to dig deeper into my creativity. The buck stops with me which is both scary, but also thrilling. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to do something really exciting. 

I provided the calligraphy for a Bridgerton themed “style shoot” (a style shoot is a photoshoot where vendors come together to stage a wedding or event so we can each have professional photos for our websites and portfolios). This was the most fulfilling creative experience I’ve had in a long time. 

calligraphy wedding placecards

I really got to flex my creative muscles and find fun ways to bring the spirit of the show into my calligraphy. I ended up going to antique stores to buy frames that I would use for my seating chart and welcome signs. This also speaks to my environmental values. I used handmade cotton paper for my place cards and added wax seals to them. I even wrote a letter from father to son! 

While being on-site for the shoot, I got to connect with other vendors in the wedding and event industry, which was great for networking! I’m an ENFP and Enneagram 7, so connecting with other talented creative entrepreneurs is as much fun as doing the actual work.

Naturally, in my day job, I spend most of my days at a desk in front of a computer. The older I get, the more I crave spending time outdoors or in different environments. Working from home this past year has been wonderful in terms of flexibility. I have no desire to return to cubicle life! 

woman calligraphy desk write

In my calligraphy business, I’m working away from my screen (unless I’m doing administrative work), in a creative environment that feels good to me, and I’m using completely different tools. There’s something so satisfying about working with my hands. I also get to meet many of my clients in person, and they genuinely admire and appreciate the art of calligraphy. 

6. How do you actually generate income from calligraphy?

As a member of the FI community, diversifying my income and finding ways to create passive income is important to me. However, I had no idea how to do this when I first started building my business. 

Early on, I was operating under the assumption that calligraphy = weddings. I also assumed that client work was the only way you can make money. 

Three years in, I now know that’s a short-sighted perspective. Today, my primary income stream comes from client work, but I’m also expanding into digital products. 

At the end of April, I’ll be launching a services and pricing template specifically for calligraphers. It’s a tool other calligraphers can use to market their services to their clients while also helping them create transparency in their prices. 

Having my own list of services and prices has been a game-changer in my business. It’s helped me save time when quoting a client job, helps deter “hagglers” who want to negotiate on pricing (a customer would never haggle the barista at Starbucks!), and it helps me attract my ideal clients — the people who value the services I provide. 

While it’s a lot of work on the backend to create and launch a digital product, my hope is that it will become a regular stream of passive income for me. I’m already ideating on tools and resources I can create for calligraphers to help them streamline their businesses. 

Later this year, one of my goals is to focus on teaching calligraphy workshops — especially coming out of the pandemic. People are starved for social interactions and are ready to do fun activities outside of the home. I have relationships with local venues and vendors, so the workshops are going to be a great way to expand my network and support other local business owners. 

I’m also expanding my focus into brand work and on-site lettering. I’m excited to partner with local businesses to calligraph on their storefront windows, as well as to provide “luxury lettering” in stores. Imagine walking into a store, purchasing a new wallet or another item, and having it personalized right in front of your eyes! This is why I love calligraphy so much — its utility is endless. 

These expanded offerings will help create more diversity in my income streams and will keep my skills and interests fresh. Plus, as we learned in 2020, weddings are not always a sure thing! 

7. Do you envision getting to a place where you quit your 9-to-5 to focus on your calligraphy business?

It’s scary to admit this “out loud” for a number of reasons, but yes, that is my ultimate goal. 

I used to think I had to replace my current full-time salary through my business which felt daunting and darn near impossible. That would amount to A LOT of orders for place cards and envelopes! That pressure caused me a lot of paralysis because I couldn’t figure out how I was going to do it. 

But, thanks to your blog and the recent surge in Coast FI content, I’m realizing that there are more options. I can actually earn less money in favor of being more fulfilled on a daily basis and still achieve my FI goals. 

Frankly, it now feels like a far greater sacrifice to work 40+ hours/week on something I’m not fully passionate about just so I can make a big salary or have a fancy title. Eventually, I’d rather intentionally earn less but thoroughly love how I’m earning a living. 

Funny enough, adopting this mindset has actually helped me see the various ways I can generate income doing calligraphy. I don’t have to have a steady stream of clients in order to make money. With the internet, the options are truly endless! 

I have a date in mind that I’m not quite ready to share my timeline for making the switch from corporate life to full-time creative entrepreneurship, but seeing how things work out with my digital products this year and also venturing into “out of home” calligraphy (i.e. workshops, storefront lettering, and on-site event calligraphy) will help me assess my timeline to ensure I’m tracking towards my target date. 

Additionally, I’ll likely start working with a business coach this year — because I don’t want this to just be “a dream;” I want to set myself up for success and I know I’m going to need all of the help I can get to accomplish this milestone. 

The great news is that I’m probably a month or two away from reaching Coast FI — I am astounded at how much growth I’ve had in my 401K this year alone! Because I have my portfolio to lean on, I don’t have to be quite so aggressive with my savings rate. To me, there’s no point in achieving FI if I’m going to burn myself out doing it for the next ten years. The whole point of Financial Independence is to stop spinning and get off the hamster wheel. With every fiber in my being, I need to find ways to live my post-FI life today — which being Coast FI would allow me to do. 

8. Why and when do you think someone might consider starting/finding their own “passion hustle?” 

People might want to consider a passion hustle for no other reason than it brings them joy. Doing something more for the love of it and less for the money is a freeing experience. 

Isn’t that why we’re all pursuing FI anyways – for the freedom it brings to our lives? 

We shouldn’t offset that freedom today in pursuit of that magical net worth number. We should find ways to integrate FI into our lives right now. I can’t think of a better way to do that than to create a hustle out of something you love doing. 

Who knows? It may end up becoming your path to Financial Independence. That’s certainly my intention!

9. What advice do you have for someone who is just getting started on their own passion hustle?  

Start slow. Try not to compare yourself to others who are more established in their businesses. 

Beware of the pressure to build this into something that will immediately replace your 9-5 income. Can it be done? Of course. But we all know once you hit a destination or a milestone, you’re just going to look towards the next one. 

So, focus on the journey — enjoy learning. 

Also, you don’t need to create a website right away (unless our hustle is to create a blog). I have spent WAY too much time designing websites for my businesses, so I can vouch: your time is best spent doing the work you love. 

There are so many ways to sell online and process payments (Instagram basically lets you do that!), so just focus on doing the work and taking small, manageable steps. 

Thank you so much, Marie, for sharing your story with us! 

There are so many things that Marie shared in this interview that resonated with me, but I want to focus on two things:

  1. How to figure out what you’d truly love to do.
  2. The benefits of not putting too much pressure on yourself to generate a full-time income right away.  

When I started on my FI path, as I mentioned above, I was completely burned out. I had gotten so out of touch with myself that I had no idea what I even enjoyed doing anymore.  

One piece of advice that I got during this time was to think about the kinds of things that I enjoyed doing when I was a kid (when I was more carefree and had more free time). 

I love seeing that this is one of the ways that Marie decided to jump back into calligraphy in her 30s!  

When I asked myself this same question, I realized that there were a number of things that I LOVED doing when I was a kid, including: 

  • Fantasizing about traveling the world. While I didn’t actually leave the US for the first time until I was 16 (besides Canada), I spent hours upon hours pouring over our encyclopedias reading about different countries. I had a binder full of hand-drawn maps traced from its pages of all the places I wanted to go.  
  • Reading and writing.  I was an avid reader. I also loved to write. I “self-published” many books during my elementary school days. By self-publishing, I mean writing a book and then binding it in the “publishing center” at my school. 😊  One year, I was even invited to “young authors day” at the local college. When I started traveling, I wrote blogs all about my travels and the things I was learning.  
  • Softball coaching. When I was in middle school and high school, I played softball. To be honest, I don’t look back and remember loving my time actually playing softball. It definitely had its moments, but what I really enjoyed was helping with the pitching and hitting clinics for younger kids through community education.  

Given these insights, it’s no surprise what I’ve figured out that I enjoy doing in adulthood:

  • Traveling, including my desire to be location independent. 
  • Writing, including my blog and maybe, in the future, writing a book. 
  • Coaching, including helping people learn the things that I’ve learned. 

If you are struggling to figure out what you’d really enjoy doing, I’d encourage you to think about what activities you enjoyed when you were a kid. Are there adult-equivalent activities that you could try out today?

Second, I want to talk more about the benefit of not pressuring yourself to generate so much income super quickly (if you have the privilege to do so). 

I love how Marie talked about starting her business slowly and not putting too much pressure on herself to grow it to replace her full-time income quickly (or ever). If we want to start a passion-based business that stays fun over time, it’s important to grow at a pace that doesn’t feel overwhelming.

Marie mentioned that she thought about how to make this into a full-time income. And, the thought of doing so many wedding invitations was quite stressful. It would have been a TON of work.  

However, because she took it slow, she figured out additional ways to generate income from this passion. She is now helping other calligraphers by creating tools and resources to help them run their businesses. She’s also preparing to do calligraphy workshops once the pandemic has passed!  

Knowing about Coast FI and other paths to FI helped her to not put too much pressure on herself to grow quickly. That allowed her to generate other ideas that will eventually help her business grow and continue to be fun in the long term! 

I definitely identify with this. I’m so happy that I built up my business on the side as I was working part-time. It allowed me to focus more time and effort on the things that I enjoy more (creating programs and interacting with people) and less time on marketing. Because I wasn’t pushing so quickly to make a full-time income, I was able to limit the number of clients, so that I could focus on long-term systems and generating new content and programs.  

I hope you learned as much from this inaugural Passion Hustle Interview as I did!

If you’d like to follow Marie’s journey and check out her beautiful products, you can find her in the following places: 

woman desk write
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