If you displayed a gift made by entrepreneur Lori Phegan in the workplace, you’d raise an eyebrow or two.
In fact some of her “inappropriate gifts” might even get you into trouble with HR .
But Phegan herself was an HR manager for 20 years and the frustration of dealing with people on a daily basis gave her a business idea that would help her escape her HR career.
“I'd be at work, and all the times I'd be smiling at people saying, ‘I understand’. And then I'd go home and somehow have to get some of this frustration out. So I'd put it on a mug,” she said.
Mostly, it functioned as a creative outlet that helped her let off steam. “I wanted to do something that I found fun. I'd lost the fun in life.”
The irony wasn’t lost on Phegan. “I'd spend all my day being in the office telling people how to act appropriately,” she toldYahoo FinanceEditor-in-Chief Sarah O’Carroll on theNew Investorseries.
“[But] my alter ego was the inappropriate HR manager.”
It was that alter ego that led Phegan to use 20 years of material gathered in HR and turn it into an “inappropriate gift” business.
After setting up a basic website to sell the mugs emblazoned with funny phrases, it was mostly a hobby – until one of them went viral, racking up 10 million views.
“‘I’m not feeling very talky today. Off you f*ck,’was the message on the mug,” explained Phegan.
Virtually overnight, Phegan went from handling two or three orders a day – each with a personalised note – to two hundred orders a day for a week.
“I had to turn the website off,” she recalls.
“I thought to myself, this has actually got legs. This business has got legs, so let's close that website, let's do this properly, and structure ourselves so that we can actually fulfill those orders.”
At the tail end of 2016, Phegan set up an Instagram account, a Facebook page for the brand, and a Facebook group that she called ‘Inappropriate Mums’. It would come to be both a place for her to laugh and relate to other mothers, as well as the birthplace of many ideas and successful products yet to come.
“[It’s] mums like me that have an inappropriate sense of humor. We want to share memes, or memes, and stories, but we don't want to put it on our Facebook page because we don't want the other moms judging our inappropriate humor,” she explained.
Phegan’s company, The Inappropriate Gift Co, now has a wide selection of products with messages on them that range in profanity.
Some of them – like “I survived another meeting that should have been an email”, “You can't cure stupid, but you can sedate it” or a mousepad that declares "If idiots could fly, this place would be an airport” would be met with a good chuckle in most workplaces.
Many others feature profane words that might not be so well-received.
But while she’s comfortable using the C word in the right context, true to her HR background, some areas are a no-go.
“Where I draw the line as an HR manager is around ethics and morals,” she toldYahoo Finance.
“You know, it's fine to take the mickey out of ourselves and anyone else, but I stay away from religion and disability and things like that. That's just not funny. But certainly, swear words? Yep, not a problem.”
Her Facebook group – which has grown to 14,000 highly engaged members in a relatively short space of two years – would become indispensable as a testing ground for her products.
“You can test anything, and you can really tell from the response and the engagement that you get whether it's then worth going ahead and producing a product,” she said.
She replaced her closed website, built on Wix, with the more commerce-friendly platform Shopify. It seemed to bring about a turnaround in her business.
“Then I resigned from my HR role to do this full-time,” she said.
Phegan’s products are all made and manufactured in Australia. But in order to serve a growing global customer base, who wouldn’t want to pay for shipping from Australia, she’s replicated her Australian operations in the UK, with her sights set on the US next.
By her own admission, Phegan has “big hairy audacious” goals for the company: to turn over $20 million by 2020.
But ultimately, that’s not what drives her; rather, it’s her sense that her heart is in it.
“I think the most difficult thing is actually finding something that you really want to do. Once you've found that, the rest is easy, I think.”
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