Yesterday, Sophia Pierro turned down a chance to work with Matt Damon.
The calls keep coming in from her old life, like the ghost of resume past – she’s still sought after in her industry. But the answer is no.
Before she started her own business, rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite was just another day on the job. But so were really long days, stressed-out coworkers, and a nagging sense that she wanted something more. Sophia spent the past 10 years as a set decorator in the film industry, chasing success up the ladder and scoring gigs on network shows and big-budget films.
She managed people. She was raking in a good living. She was at the top of her game.
Portrait of an Entrepreneur: photo by Adam King, shot on film with a Hasselblad 500c
Plot twist: none of it made her happy.
So often we think about entrepreneurship as an option for the under-employed, a chance to level up, to make more money, to build an empire. But what if the protagonist's struggle is not with wealth or status? Sophia’s story is about the quest for happiness and balance.
“I'm turning down $3000-$4000 per week jobs, now” Sophia tells me from her shared studio space in Toronto’s west end, where she now runs her own small business.
Present Day Gifts – curated gift boxes featuring products from local, handmade, and small-batch brands – is just 6 months young, and has been gaining traction steadily since its launch. She’s paying herself a salary now – a fraction of what she’d be making in the film industry – and is happy just to be in the black.
Header and “Day in the Life” photos by Matthew Wiebe
Does she regret giving it up? Nope. She explains by telling me about her first gig as a set decorator:
“They said, ‘Here's $70,000. Here's a bunch of stuff you don't know. You have 3 weeks to do this, and it's a month before your wedding.’ I was working 22 hours a day for like 8 days in a row. My arms stopped working, because I was shoveling and sweeping in the cold. I thought it was carpal tunnel, but it was actually stress-induced spasms. Then my mom called and said my grandmother had just died. Everything was happening all at once, and things just kept going wrong. After that experience, I realized I could pretty much do anything. This business honestly didn’t seem like much of a risk after that”
The move away from a career that she’d worked so hard to build, was one that she hoped would impact her current work-life balance, but also afford the opportunity to grow her family in the future.
This business honestly didn't seem like much of a risk.
In film, her standard workday would be 13 hours long, often longer. And now? I decided to follow Sophia for a whole day, immerse myself in her daily tasks, and live in her new shoes as a small business owner.
Follow along on our journey:
A Day in the Life of Sophia Pierro, Entrepreneur
In her old life, Sophia’s phone alarm would be ringing hours earlier, but she prefers her new self-appointed wake-up call.
“I used to have to get up at 5:30 in the morning. I am not a morning person and it was hell. The industry was killing me. I was sleeping only three or four hours a day.”
Today, she eases herself into the workday by doing her social rounds from bed, checking Instagram and Facebook for new fans, engaging with comments, and tackling any questions.
Since most of her customers order towards the end of the day, she’s adjusted her rough working hours ahead to accommodate her busy periods, designating mornings for household business.
The quieter period is also her time to plan the day. Her Outlook iOS App doubles as her to do list – she knocks off personal and non-essential email first, and uses the app to schedule important tasks for later in the day. Flagged emails, and reminders sent to herself become her daily plan.
Sophia loads the car with any necessary supplies – her home’s spare bedroom has become overflow storage for the business.
“I had a choice: pay for a storage space and work from home or pay for a studio and use my home as storage. I chose the studio – it’s only a little more per month, and my spare bedroom is full of boxes but it’s so much better. I’m happy there”
After a short zigzag through the west end, Sophia arrives at work. Assembly is the name of the collective studio that Sophia shares with two other entrepreneurs – Gillian of Hawkly and Robyn of Nightshift Ceramics. The space is divided in two: the back acts as production studio, decorated with jewellery fixings, dried flowers, and spools of ribbon, while the front is an airy and polished showroom.
Sharing the studio not only cuts costs, it also combats isolation, and allows her to collaborate with like-minded creatives.
“I was working with a bunch of older men, 45-plus, in my old job – it was a very male driven section of the industry. Everyone was grumpy and stressed (and I really don’t care about Steely Dan). They're wonderful lovely people and they're all my friends, but I just wanted to be in a different space, mentally. I didn't really meet anyone like me in film. Now, everyone I'm working with is somewhat similar – these women all have the same ambitions and they're excited about their day-to-day. I love the community aspect of this life.”
On arrival, she checks into her Shopify admin and her daily task list.
I love the community aspect of this life.
As a solopreneur, she’s simultaneously doing six things at any given moment. While she likes to spend the first part of the morning preparing orders and assembling gift boxes, she is often called away to a call about a custom order, or to greet a customer for a pick-up.
This morning, she’s also her own handyperson, fixing a shelf in the front room that will hold prepared gift boxes, putting her business’ mark on the space.
Back in the production area, she finishes the finer details of the order – the hand-written note, sprigs of dried flowers, and handsome striped ribbon. “I’m allergic to this wood filling,” she says, “But I love it so much.”
While the three companies all run independently, Sophia and her studio mates are united on all space-related matters. They spend their lunch hour reconnecting and planning.
“We'll all start talking about our lives, but then the conversation eventually cycles back to what needs to happen in the studio.”
The women have plans to evolve the space, under the separate brand Assembly, into a community-friendly meeting spot, a place to host classes and events, and a hub to connect entrepreneurs and creatives. They hope to also offer retail hours, eventually, inviting local customers into the space to interact with the products and consult on custom work.
Today, Sophia and I catch up over lunch to talk about her business. While Present Day is still in its infancy, the idea dates back to 2009.
I thought ‘This would be a cool job when I'm older, once I've accomplished all my career goals.’ Then I did accomplish my career goals.
Sophia carves out time in the afternoon to tackle the administrative aspects – checking inventory, ordering more supplies – and willing herself to do outreach to media and potential corporate clients:
“For a while, I would force myself to cold-contact 15 people every day. One day, it was concierges, another time it was hotel front-of-house staff. I’ve called real estate agents, insurance companies, law firms, businesses that do a lot of corporate gifts. They say for every 100 people you contact, 10 might open the email and one might retain it, right?”
And the work has paid off.
“I contacted a bunch of media for Father's Day, and heard nothing. One day, I was looking at my Shopify admin and saw 70 people on my website and it was only 1 PM. I looked at the referral traffic and there were 30 people from Toronto Life. That's how I found out that (the magazine) picked one of my boxes for Father's Day. Sometimes they don’t even tell you.”
She also takes care of her own finances – a deliberate decision, that she recommends to others.
“In your first year, do your own bookkeeping. You can manage it and it helps keep you connected to what’s going in and out.”
After lunch, more orders come in and she’s bouncing back and forth over email with a customer looking to create a custom thank you box.
The customizations have picked up, she tells me, encouraging her to shift her business in that direction. To eliminate inventory control issues, she’ll be setting up each product on its own product page. The build-your-own model will allow customers to create custom gifts directly through her Shopify store, and cut down on the hour or more she spends on guiding customers through manual changes.
We pop out for a coffee, and she wrestles between the neighbourhood staple, and the new café that offers a less guilty half-decaf option.
“It's more about getting out, really. It's important for my mind to look at other things, to be in a different space, and to breathe fresh air. Sometimes I get a lot of ideas on those walks, and a bit more clarity about things I want to work on in the future.”
It's important for my mind to look at other things, to be in a different space, and to breathe fresh air.
Sophia posts a candid snap of our visit to Present Day’s Instagram account, and admits that while she tried to stick to a strict calendar for posting, she found she prefers a flexible plan, balanced with spontaneous content.
“I usually have a general plan for the week for social media. I base it on what my week looks like – what I'm putting together and delivering, if there's a holiday or event coming up that I want to push, or if anything interesting happened that week. I typically think of what I'm going to generally post for the week on Sunday or Monday and then implement it on the days that work.”
Because 90% of the products in Present Day’s gift boxes have been intentionally curated from Toronto or Canadian producers, she finds that many of her customers are also local. Another of her small business hats: Delivery Driver. She spends the later part of the day on runs to the post office or darting around the city to make in-person deliveries and pick up supplies and vendor orders.
The city traffic doesn’t bother her – a holdover from her previous life, hunting down props – and she uses the idle time to think or catch up on “reading”.
“I tend to listen to an audiobook, or podcasts while I drive. I'm in the process of listening to Zero to One right now. I used to stick to only non-fiction, because I liked the learning, but I think that it's better for me to be listening to fiction, so my brain isn't working so hard, for at least that part of the day.”
The post office closes at 7:00 today, providing a clear marker for the end of her physical workday. She returns home to make and eat dinner with her husband.
Sophia’s self-made schedule allows a little more flexibility in her social life. Tonight, she heads out to one of her two book clubs.
“I’m in a book club of like-minded, artistic, self-employed ladies who all own their own businesses (and one male friend from the film industry). My two studio mates are also in this club, which is how we became friends. I read the latest book – Bernard Malamud's The Assistant – on audio-tape while filling and prepping boxes and making deliveries throughout the last few weeks. I love this club because it’s so nice to be with women that are in similar situations. Watching them do well with their individual businesses has helped me stick with mine and push myself to keep at it.”
The evening winds down by catching Colbert and The Daily Show with her husband, but she’s still dialled into what’s happening in the business.
“It's really funny dealing with all these other small businesses and entrepreneurs – when I email them at 11:30 at night, they respond right away, because that's when they're doing their emails and ordering and everything else, too. It's kind of fun. You sort of get inducted into this little world.”
Reaffirming her night-owl status, Sophia finally gets to bed.
But the business doesn’t stop. In typical entrepreneur fashion, she lives and breathes (and even dreams) her business long after the lights are out.
“My husband snores and sometimes I can't sleep very well. If I’m up at 3:30 in the morning, I’m going to do something work related, because that's what I care about.”
Portrait of an Entrepreneur: photo by Adam King, shot on film with a Hasselblad 500c
Quick math: I notice that she’s not logging that much more sleep than she was in her previous career, and hasn’t really shaved a ton of time from her workday. It’s a technicality – the obvious impact is on the quality of the work, not the quantity.
These days, too, Sophia is paying herself less than a third of the income she’d be making in film, and she’s not likely to work with Matt Damon any time soon.
“I don't need external things to make me happy now, because I'm just happy in my everyday. For that, I'm willing to make a little sacrifice.”