How making face masks became a full-time job for Bitter Sports founder Kate Bolzonello

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Bitter Sports founder Kate Bolzonello. Source: supplied.

Melbourne business Bitter Sports was created in the quest to find the perfect on-the-go bag in the perfect combination of colours. Today, it continues this mission with the addition of reusable face masks, and the orders are coming in “thick and fast”, according to founder Kate Bolzonello.

When Bolzonello moved back to Melbourne from London three years ago, she wanted to create the perfect bum bag in the colours that she had chosen for herself, but little did she know, the idea to create bags would later lead to a full-time business making reusable face masks.

Bolzonello tells SmartCompany it was a “very organic process”; she began to sell face masks in April after she had the idea to make her own face mask, in the same way that she had made her own perfected bag.

What was once a side hustle is now Bolzonello’s full-time job.

“As of two weeks ago, it’s my full-time gig. Because of COVID, my contract ended sooner than it was supposed to, but now I am working on the face masks at full capacity and I have hired two people to help me meet demand.”

Bolzonello says sales for Bitter Sports have also been accelerated thanks to the support of other small businesses, including Pinkys, a boutique store in Preston that stocks Bitter Sports bags and masks. Pinkys is owned and operated by local artist Emily Green and stylist Beckie Littler.

I think the new exposure by being stocked by Pinkys and other small businesses have grown my interest. I now have a social media reach that can be hard for small businesses to reach.”

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Bitter Sports founder Kate Bolzonello. Source: supplied.

“It’s been overwhelming because it’s gone from zero to a thousand really soon. My current goal is to meet the demands of masks while also making sure the bags have a future,” says Bolzonello.

A number of small businesses have taken to adding reusable face masks to their portfolio, and given that there is nothing to say masks won’t become mandatory in other states and countries as they have in Melbourne, Bolzonello says her team predicts they will be making masks for the next six months, if not longer. 

Making masks

When it came to the idea to start making masks alongside the Bitter Sports bags, Bolzonello says the seed of the idea came from knowing that she would eventually need a face mask for herself.

“The textiles (for the bags) fit the same needs as the face masks. I wanted to follow the DHHS guidelines. All of the masks have a waterproof outer fabric. I used the same process of investigating styles and shapes as I did with the bags by modelling them on myself.”

“Previously Bitter Sports was a small business hobby with good enough sales but alongside full-time jobs. Sales in the last two weeks have been the highest I have ever seen them.”

On the question of price versus demand, Bolzonello says she needed to adjust prices when it became clear she needed to hire people. 

The masks started at $20 but I increased the price to $28 because I did have to hire help. I put out an Instagram and received good feedback from everyone. I think people are understanding,” she says.

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Bitter Sports face masks are priced at $28. Source: supplied.

As the wearing of masks becomes the new normal, the public are looking for sustainable, long-term options. At Bitter Sports, sustainability is essential.

“Sustainability is important to me,” says Bolzonello.

“I make a product that you can keep until it disintegrates; my original bag has been going for two years.

“Masks will have a more finite lifestyle — it’s not something that you can keep washing again and again. However, as people have to start wearing masks more often, they will want a more sustainable option.”

“Health is coming ahead of sustainability and rightly so.”

Bolzonello says she is currently working to full capacity and it’s clear she’s not the only one.

I went to get more lining fabric for my masks and there was a queue of 50 people outside — everyone is trying their best to make something. Creative people have done tutorials with a shirt sleeve or a sock. There’s something everyone can do.”

Alongside adequate coverage for health and sustainability comes style.

If it becomes part of our daily life, as humans we want to look good. It will start to become a fashion statement and show who you are,” says Bolzonello. 

“I smile at a lot of people but it’s harder to express yourself with a mask, so I have created one for myself that reflects my personality and makes me feel who I am.”

For Bolzonello, COVID-19 has brought somewhat of a success story. What was once a side hustle has now turned into a full-time job. The business owner says that for now she “can’t see past the face masks”, but she feels on track to follow her dream of being able to grow her accessory line, and “manage her own business in the future”.

NOW READ: Ten small businesses selling reusable face masks in Australia

NOW READ: A day in the life of an online retailer: Verge Girl

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