When Jodi Kostelnik was growing up in small town Pennsylvania, she never dreamed of starting her own business. As a kid she was always interested in numbers and art, drawing caricatures during the summers at a local amusement park . When it came time to apply for college and choose an academic path to follow, Jodi melded her two interests to pursue a degree in graphic design.
Jodi spent the first two years of her studies with pen to paper, literally. The program she enrolled in required her to create all of her designs by hand, which is where she learned the importance of getting the small details done right.
After college she moved to New York City, where her caricature skills kept her afloat for a few months until she landed her first job. She began working for a small boutique advertising agency, but little did she know, the job was also training her to become a business owner. Not only was she putting her graphic design skills to work, but Jody was also responsible for client communication, meetings, and bookkeeping as well.
As one can imagine, Jodi was quickly overwhelmed, juggling multiple roles and working long days that often didn’t end until after midnight. She eventually left for a larger pharmaceutical ad agency with greater compensation and a more defined role, but she quickly learned that this move came at a cost. She was stuck adhering to design requirements for big brands and clients, and she no longer had the independence and artistic freedom she had grown accustomed to in her previous job.
At home Jodi’s roommate was also overwhelmed with work, and sensing Jodi’s need to flex her creative muscles, she offered her a few of her own freelancing gigs. This gave Jodi an outlet for her own creative expression, and it quickly led to a growing list of clients whose work helped make graphic design fun again.
As her side business grew, Jodi was burning the candle at both ends and knew something had to give. One day she opened up to her boss about her overflowing freelance work, and her boss encouraged her to take the leap to see where this career path could lead. Jodi quit her full-time job in 2006, and she hasn’t had a “real desk job” since.
When Jodi started off on her own, she referred to herself as a freelancer. She did zero marketing, relying on word of mouth to spread her business and build her clientele. She put her head down for the next eight years and worked her butt off. While she did earn a good deal of success in those early years, the combination of taking on too much and never saying no caused her to burn out.
“I realized that something had to change. I was going crazy. It became a feast or famine type of thing. I had no work/life balance. It was just work, work, work.”
Jodi put this mindset into action and flew to San Francisco to attend a design conference for freelancers, something that had been on her to-do list for years. It was here that she was introduced to something that would change the direction of her company: “finding a niche” as a freelancer.
“It was scary to consider a niche as a freelancer, but this is when the seed was really planted for me, and I was introduced to freelance as a community, where I was no longer head down, alone in my art. It led to connections, networking, communication, community, and a new path for my career.”
So, how did Jodi find her niche? She simply turned to the work that gave her the most joy: the designs she created for holiday packaging projects. These designs all had one thing in common: food.
“When I slowly began to transition my design company to a food focus, I was worried it would limit me as a designer, but it did the opposite. It made me the expert in that niche area. People started coming to me for a specific type of design job. Immediately I felt confident, confident enough to turn down jobs I didn’t want to do. It became easy to say, ‘This is my style,’ ‘This is what I do,’ and it also became easier for people to identify me, my work, and my style, so they knew what to come to me for.”
Jodi returned to the freelance design conference a second time, and again it was a pivotal experience. She met a business coach who encouraged her to drop her self-given title, the one that had proclaimed her freedom from the corporate world, because it was actually hurting, rather than helping, her business.
“I had to have a serious chat with myself, and I said, ‘Stop calling yourself a freelancer. Make it a design company, and people will start taking you more seriously as a designer.’ And they did.”
Her business coach also helped her break up with her old clients and follow her passion to food clients. The catch-22 was that she needed experience in this industry to get hired, but she couldn’t get hired without experience. So she began making her own food-themed illustrations for her site, showcasing designs next to recipes she shared online, and an idea popped into her head to also put the recipe and the design on a hand towel for holiday gifts for friends and family.
In order to bring her new idea to life, Jodi signed up for a screen-printing workshop to learn the ins and outs of printing, and the weekend workshop turned into a semester of courses. She created a special design for a friend on her birthday, which led to requests from other friends, and it snowballed from there.
“During the first year, I was still learning how to screen print, and I attended two craft shows with these new products I created and designed—the pictures are so funny, but it was a start.”
When she was brainstorming for a name for her new side gig, she didn’t have to look far.
“I asked myself, ‘Who are my products for? What do I want to embody?’ In Brooklyn I knew all of my neighbors and their dogs, and I knew the owner of the shop around the corner. I loved the neighborhood connection. I was creating gifts for everyday life—things for yourself, things you need, like dish towels, etc.”
Thus The Neighborgoods was born.
“I tried to take the knowledge and experience from my design company with me when creating The Neighborgoods. The connection was still food; whether it’s a design on onesies, kitchen towels, etc., food brings people together. When you bring cookies to a friend, you bring happiness. When you put an ice cream design on a towel, people associate that with joy and fun, and they can connect with it. Identifying that connection gave me the knowledge I needed to know who to target and where I could find potential customers.”
Each year Jodi added a layer to her side business, starting with an Etsy account, and then a separate website for her screen-printed products. She worked at night and on weekends, continuing to run her design company full time but with an even greater focus on food-related clients.
“I felt like I was doing so much, but I didn’t have much time to grow my side hustle. Neighborgoods paid for itself, and it had no debt, but it had to make its own money to become its own thing, so I held onto the design business until it could get to that point.”
In 2015 Jodi relocated to Washington, DC, which turned into a time of transition for her and her business. She decided it was time to outsource her screen printing and start the wholesale process. Two years later she hired an assistant, and in 2018 she stopped taking design clients and went full time with Neighborgoods.
“I needed to do this to give it a chance to grow. It’s been a long transition, but I have really enjoyed it. I know where it needs to go. I’m no longer just on a computer designing at a desk. I’m part of a community now.”
Today Jodi is surrounded by boxes of inventory in her office, overflowing with products ready to be shipped out to her ever growing list of retailers in brick and mortar stores in twenty-eight states and three countries, as well as six online shops.
“Looking back I grew so, so much over time. This journey has taught me to celebrate all the small victories, take it one day at a time, and always take those leaps. Whatever you’re dreaming about, try it out. You’ll never be ready, so just give it a try. Once you do you’ll know where you stand, and you can adjust from there.”
Jodi in Ten
- Side Hustle: Every good Side Hustle Heroine is already working on a new side hustle. Check out her illustrations at The Neighborgoods Studio.
- Mr. Rogers: Jodi literally grew up in Mr Rogers’s neighborhood. They share the same hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
- Cookies: What was in the holiday food packaging she sent out to clients that inspired her to find her “niche” in the freelance design world.
- Alma Mater: Kent State University.
- Pickle: The featured food of her first kitchen towel for a friend.
- Shark Tank: It’s on her resume. A couple of her old designs appeared on the show.
- 13: The number of years it’s been since Jodi has had a “real desk job.”
- Frankie: Her weiner dog.
- 10 Hours: The average amount of time she spends on each new design.
- Farmers Market: Where she feels most inspired.