Tuesday, May 28, 2024

College Friends’ ‘Fun’ Side Hustle Gets Them on ‘Shark Tank’

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This Side Hustle Spotlight Q&A features college best friends turned small business owners Jess Blakely and Willow Sprague. Blakely and Sprague founded BarBees, a women-owned business “offering connective and celebratory cocktail classes for any occasion, in any location,” in 2019.

Image Credit: Courtesy of BarBees. Jess Blakely, left; Willow Sprague, right.

What was your day job when you started your side hustle?
I (Willow) had just graduated from Belmont University, and Jess had two semesters left there when we started BarBees. I had no idea what to do with myself, so I simultaneously started an internship with an executive coaching firm, where I ended up working for the first four years of building BarBees. Jess maintained several jobs throughout the first few years in business and even attended law school for three semesters. Our goal was always to build BarBees into a much bigger thing than a side hustle. We believed in our mission from the start and wanted to create as much connection and community through our cocktail classes as possible.

Related: The Sweet Side Hustle She Started in an Old CVS Made $800,000 in One Year. Now She’s Repeating the Success With Her Daughter — and They’ve Already Exceeded 8 Figures.

When did you start your side hustle, and where did you find the inspiration for it?
We started the business as one, an excuse to hang out more and two, a way to facilitate that kind of friendship and connectivity for others! We attended bartending school together on a total whim, which is where the idea for BarBees began (including the name!). We initially launched as an event bartending service focused on the wedding and event industry in Nashville. Through Covid, we started offering virtual cocktail classes, which turned into in-person cocktail classes as the world came back to life. We found that this model was more in line with the mission we had for our business from the start and more replicable. Since then, we’ve expanded to 11 regions nationwide and now have a team of more than 35 class instructors.

What were some of the first steps you took to get your side hustle off the ground?
Our first steps to getting BarBees off the ground were verbal and Instagram outreach to people in the events industry of Nashville. We had to build connections and learn the industry. Then, once we were on people’s radars (and they knew we would charge far less than any other competitors), they started inquiring about small parties, music events and eventually weddings (and also, yes, a lot of free promo opportunities). We said yes to everything. Like most people who jump into a fun business idea on a whim, [we didn’t] really know what we were getting ourselves into! We certainly didn’t realize that we’d signed up for carrying 100-pound mobile bars and wrestling bags of ice for hours on our feet — we quickly found that mobile bartending didn’t quite scratch the itch of creating a connection as we’d thought.

Related: He Started a Luxury Side Hustle at Age 13 — Now the Business Earns More Than $10 Million a Year: ‘People Want to Help You When You’re Young’

Then, when we pivoted into teaching cocktail classes, it was a start-from-scratch, brand-new marketing model. We changed our verbiage, social content and, most importantly, our booking process. The customer relationship management platform HoneyBook was a huge part of that shift because it had all the tools we needed to completely restructure our company.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while building your side hustle, and how did you navigate them?
The pandemic was the biggest hurdle we faced in our first year and a half of business. When the world shut down, and our entire calendar of events was wiped out, we began offering virtual cocktail classes to stay afloat, which ignited our brand new model — a cocktail class company. This unavoidable pressure to adapt gave us the chance to dial in what we wanted to do with BarBees. It also gave us the chance to basically invent a new industry. Various restaurants and brick-and-mortar locations offer cocktail classes around the country. However, no one was doing what we do in as many places as we do it — bringing the classes right into your own space. We give a lot of credit to that massive challenge that pushed us to build a company we’re proud to represent today. It allowed us to become a company that could pitch on Shark Tank.

Image Credit: Courtesy of BarBees

How long did it take you to see consistent monthly revenue?
After our first year of business, we were just approaching consistent monthly revenue when the pandemic hit, forcing us to completely restructure. It wasn’t until the end of 2021, when we were fully in the groove of our new model (in-person cocktail classes), that we saw our revenue become truly consistent. We pushed through the challenges because we believed in what BarBees was providing for people — connection and community.

Related: He Started a Salty Backyard Side Hustle That Out-Earned His Full-Time Job and Now Makes Over $1 Million a Year: ‘Take the Leap’

Is the business a full-time venture now, or do you still consider it a side hustle?
While preparing for Shark Tank, we both took the leap to go full-time with BarBees. We wanted to ensure we gave the business and this insane opportunity our full hearts and souls. It certainly paid off, and we were able to walk out of the Tank knowing we were as prepared as humanly possible. Since our episode aired in January, we’ve gotten into a great rhythm with our operations team and class instructors. This has given Jess and me more time to pour into brand-new initiatives within the business and explore other outside passion projects that light us up as well.

What does growth and/or revenue look like now?
Since airing on Shark Tank, more than 40,000 people have engaged with us on our site and socials, a 220% increase from this time last year.

What do you enjoy most about this business?
We started BarBees as an excuse to spend more time together — and it has certainly given us that! Building something alongside your best friend is exhilarating, and it adds such a unique level of connectedness that’s different from any other friendship. In addition to that, we are both so honored to have attracted such fabulous people to our team. We love the idea of providing them with their own side hustle where they get to put on a show and connect with others. Our classes are such a fun way for spirited, vibrant people to celebrate people’s biggest moments (and do it through craft cocktails and conversation).

Related: When This Entrepreneur Couldn’t Decide What to Name His Business, He Started a $2,000-a-Month Side Hustle to Help — Now It Earns Over $10 Million a Year

What’s your advice for others hoping to start successful side hustles of their own?
Start saying yes! It doesn’t matter if you don’t have everything together, a perfect booking process or even the full picture of what you want it to become. You will learn and create all of those things as you go because, no matter what, your venture will end up looking different than you ever expected. That’s a good thing! Be willing to say “yes” to new opportunities and requests outside your typical scope. That’s exactly how we started offering classes — people asked for them. Saying “yes” to what people are asking for, rather than white-knuckling your original design, will help you craft your venture into what people actually want. And what they will pay for. “Yes” is the most powerful word in those first few years of building your dream.

This article is part of our ongoing Women Entrepreneur® series highlighting the stories, challenges and triumphs of running a business as a woman.



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