For many creatives and artists, turning a hobby into their livelihood is the ultimate dream. Whether you’re a painter, illustrator, musician, poet, writer, or some other beautifully creative soul, what would it mean to make your passion your career? What if your work could go on to inspire, motivate, and educate others? Now that is something spectacular, and it’s something that Danielle Coke has experienced first-hand.
Danielle Coke is a designer turned illustrator, social justice advocate, and entrepreneur. She’s the founder of Oh Happy Dani, a lifestyle brand and online store that uses artwork and resources to encourage hope, inspire justice, and make complex ideas more accessible.
I’m so excited to chat with Danielle all about the major turning point in her career that thrust her work in front of an even bigger audience, opening up new opportunities for someone who had always stayed true to her creative style and passion. Danielle shares what hurdles and wins came when she turned her art into her business, why she decided to close down her shop, and what’s next in her entrepreneurial journey.
From Event Planner to Designer
Danielle shared an experience with me from art class as a kid when her teacher kept giving her low grades because she assumed that Dani was tracing and not drawing freehand… It wasn’t true, Dani was just that good as a good that her art looked as if it had been traced! But that experience led Dani away from pursuing art as her career. Instead, she went into event planning.
While working in the event planning industry, she had the opportunity to do some graphic design and creative work. Dani started to build up clients on the side, but was realizing that in the event planning space she ran into numerous issues as a Black woman in a white space. She approached the owner of the company and asked if he would consider investing in some DEI training. He told her that it just wasn’t something he was passionate about and he didn’t think his small business needed that kind of education.
That conversation spurred Dani into action and she decided to create her own creative agency based in justice focused business and entrepreneurship. She launched Oh Happy Social in 2019 to support positive mission based brands and organizations with their social media content. Dani got to work with incredible organizations like NAACP and Be the Bridge.
The Image That Changed Everything
Dani told me about the illustration she posted on Instagram that changed everything for her business and career. “On Martin Luther King Jr. Day of 2020, I posted my first justice-related illustration on Instagram, purely for fun,” she continued, “But I had like 700 followers at the time and did not care about my own Instagram at all, and just posted it. And it was the first illustration to be shared by people I didn’t know.”
That sparked an idea for Dani. She explained, “I started an experiment and I said, I wonder if people would be more inclined to talk about the difficult things related to race and justice if the content was aesthetically pleasing and easy to look at. And so for Black History Month, I decided to test that theory. And oh boy, I was 100% correct because at the end of February I gained maybe 10,000 followers and I was like, oh, this is wild. I did not foresee that for myself.”
Press play on this episode to hear the full story about how Dani’s social media platform grew exponentially as her art went viral in mid-2020 amidst the racial revolution and global pandemic.
As Dani navigated the unique benefits, opportunities, but also challenges of going viral and having so many eyes on her work, she decided to create prints of her pieces and sell them online. She started with 200 copies of three different prints and announced a presale of the posters. To her surprise, the “presale” sold out in less than 10 minutes. Dani was blown away, and faced with the new challenge of packaging the posters, ordering more inventory, and selling more products.
The process became unsustainable, though, as she hired friends and family to help her pack posters in her dining room. Dani said, “I’m supposed to be drawing right now, like we’re in the middle of a racial reckoning and I can’t be sitting here packing these prints.”
Closing Up Shop
Dani opened a more formal shop in November of 2020 and hired a small team to help her run the business. It was wildly successful… But Dani ultimately decided to close the shop, “And I don’t regret it one bit.”
Dani explained, “I loved the journey that it took me on, but I will say once we got into 2021 and I looked up and realized that I had hired people and this was a thing. Now I’m running a business with employees who are affected by my decisions, and I quickly realized how much of a bottleneck it was.”
She continued, “Injustice never took a break. And I’m here trying to conceptualize and speak to the very difficult things happening in the news and in the world. And at the same time, I have all this technical business owner CEO-type stuff to attend to and to deal with. And at the same time, I’m doing brand deal after brand deal, speaking engagement after speaking engagement. And then business stuff would get really hard.”
Dani shared that the shop was doing 5-figures every launch and was an annual 6-figure business, but everytime she was presented an opportunity to scale, she refused it. The shop was big enough and she was burning out. The other parts of her life were sliding as her business claimed her best energy. “I quickly knew that I needed to choose myself,” she shared.
More from Danielle Coke
Press play to hear the rest of Dani’s journey of stepping away from her business. Danielle Coke’s transparent reflections of this side of entrepreneurship are so valuable to hear, and I hope it’s an encouraging message to anyone who has reached a fork in the road with their own business.