For the last few years, Maria Mena and Kevin Vasquez have nurtured small business ideas to turn a photography gig and an urban clothing line into a fully-fledged venture that utilizes their creative abilities.
Diehappy, a clothing brand, was born out of Vasquez's love for streetwear and edgy fashion while Milknoise photography was created from the couple's passion for storytelling through photographs. For years, the two have sold custom-made items out of their home in Goodyear all while growing their photography gig simultaneously.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that slammed small businesses across the country, Mena said Milknoise was “at its peak.” This didn't stop the momentum of Diehappy, which opened in 2020, and the couple says they haven’t looked back since.
“Milknoise had just started to shoot concerts and festivals consistently...before the pandemic. It was a motivating and progressive time for us. Once the pandemic happened, that put a big pause on everything,” said Vasquez, Diehappy owner, and Milknoise co-owner.
The pandemic may have put the brakes on Milknoise, but not Diehappy.
Loss of work forced Vasquez to go on unemployment, but those three months gave him the space he needed to launch Diehappy.
“I had this idea for the brand and was in the process to get it ready to launch, then quarantine happened...but that gave me all the time I needed to press the gas and launch the brand even sooner,” Vasquez said.
By partnering up, and putting their photography skills to work, the couple has taken on these business ventures as a dynamic duo.
"Kevin and I both have different years of experience in photography and did it separately for some time, but one day we were just talking about it and we were like, ‘what if we just did this together, as a duo?’” said Mena, Milknoise co-owner.
Their Instagram page @milknoise is a peek at their photography portfolio. Milknoise also serves as a major promotion strategy for Diehappy products. A win-win.
"I think our unique style (with Milknoise) definitely plays a huge factor in the marketing strategy for Diehappy because we are able to be as creative as we would with the brand and the shoots and work together to create something that stands out,” Mena said.
When last year’s lockdowns spurred small businesses to close up shop, many shifted online. In addition to helping them find more customers and weather the pandemic, they also had a new challenge: managing a digital presence, something these two knew a thing or two about.
Many businesses have since utilized the power of social media during the shift of the pandemic. For Diehappy and Milknoise, social media was the lifeline for their customers during COVID-19. Not only did they keep the dialogue going in real-time, but reimagined the way they engaged with existing and potential customers for a more unique experience and better brand recognition.
"Social media plays a huge role in both businesses. Everything nowadays is digital and everyone lives on the internet," Vasquez said. "We put our all into the way we shoot the product and the concepts of the drops. We use the visual aspect of it to take you into the world of the next drop. The way we upload the visuals and market the whole drop plays a big role in bringing in more eyes and plays a big part in sales."
Upon creating their businesses, Mena and Vasquez found they were opposites but that only worked in their favor and now their work ranges wider from apparel shoots, concerts, music videos, lifestyle photos, horror concepts, and more.
In a market that increasingly values personal connection, couple-owned businesses cultivate homegrown passion projects.
“I feel like Maria and I have very different styles but the way they complement each other is massive and gives our brand a very unique image to the point where you can tell our work apart from others,” Vasquez said.
Working as creatives gave the duo a grounding sense during quarantine and a stressful time was turned into an artistic outlet that is now shared with the rest of the world.
“Diehappy has been the biggest creative outlet by far. I get to go so deep into my brain and all the ideas and inspiration flourish. I get to create my own world where no one can tell me what I can and can’t do,” Vasquez said.
30% of millennials who participated in 2020 study conducted by GoDaddy stated that they have a small business or side hustle and 19% stated it was their main source of income. With self-employment on the rise for young people, a traditional 9 to 5 job may become a relic of the past.
“Everyone is told to follow this path and get a ‘regular job’ but not everyone is comfortable with that idea. So small businesses give people a chance to do something they love whether it be photography, designing, baking, art, etc, and just be able to share what they love to do with everyone else. When you support a small business you are supporting a dream,” Mena said.
In the coming months, the couple plan to prepare for a Diehappy drop in January 2022 and get Milknoise back on its feet full-time.
“In 2022, we are going to go harder than ever,” Mena said.
Ariana Gonzalez is a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.
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