Disney Diehard Turned Web Designer During Covid
The pandemic forced a lot of things.
Forced us six feet apart.
Forced companies to reevaluate what an office really means.
Forced families to face how fragile life can be.
And for many, it forced them out of their careers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that nearly 50-million Americans reported being out of work due to COVID-related closures in May of 2020; a point in the pandemic when I think we were all optimistic that we would ‘flatten the curve’ by the end of summer and everything would go back to normal.
Few industries felt the impacts the way the tourism and hospitality sector did, which happens to be the largest employment base in Florida- and particularly where I live, in Orlando.
During the early weeks and months of the pandemic, we ran countless stories on the number of people filing unemployment claims and waiting months for answers from the Department of Economic Opportunity, all while sidelined by closures at Disney, Universal and Seaworld… and the trickle-down impact the closures had on our hotels, restaurants… just about every aspect of business.
This also forced another phenomenon- somewhat the basis of this blog- a burst in entrepreneurship as everyone scrambled to figure out how to pay their bills and not add housing behind a steady paycheck on the list of things the pandemic stole away.
Though she had started to dip her toe in the small business waters just before COVID would close down and eliminate her dream job at Disney, Kristin Wyza always wanted her mobile spray tanning side gig to stay just that- a side hustle.
“I fully expected to retire with the Disney company,” Wyza said of her job of more than 18 years. Working in Disney Vacation Club’s quality assurance allowed her to travel 10 to 12 times per year, and allowed her to see the world.
“I love traveling,” Wyza said. “I’ve been to over 30 countries at this point. It was a dream job, for sure. That’s where I was once the pandemic hit.”
When the first lockdown happened in March of 2020, her entire department was first furloughed. She used the time to launch a mobile tanning business; something she thought would be just for fun—something she could do on the side once the world reopened.
A week later, she got the call that her longtime, dream position, wasn’t coming back.
“I had anticipated that once the pandemic was over, initially thinking it was only going to be a couple of weeks, that I was just going to go back to the traveling, and go back to the office, and everything would go back to the status quo. And that surely wasn't how it happened,” Wyza said. “It really forced me to figure out how things were going to go after. Once I got that phone call, saying I’m no longer going to be with the company, I thought, I'm going to have to do this. You know, I just going to have to make it work.”
Most who work for the mouse will tell you it’s more than just a job. Wyza moved herself from Pennsylvania to Florida in January of 2002, with nothing lined up, and the sole goal of working at Disney. She had participated in Disney’s College Program between her sophomore and junior years and couldn’t let go of the magic, despite interviewing the summer before and not getting chosen for a position.
“I packed up everything I could fit in my car, my best friend came with me, and drove to Florida,” Wyza said. “I had no job, but I felt that if I lived there, Disney would hire me.”
Side note- what she had in her car, wasn’t much… an air mattress, two plastic patio chairs, and a television. The things we do in our twenties!
“I would never move 1500 miles away and not have a job lined up, but I was determined,” Wyza said. “I can’t explain it other than, you know, that gut feeling, following my heart, all the cliches and a bit of being naive because I was in my early twenties, I just knew it was something I wanted to do and I felt that I was a good fit for working at Disney.”
And so it would be for nearly two decades, working her way up and traveling the world on Disney’s dime.
“I didn't think that anything else would happen, in terms of in working for another company,” Wyza said. “I did always have in the back of my mind that I would love to have my own business, but the thoughts around that was it would be something on the side that would just sort of just happen in my spare time. Ironically, I had very little of that with all the traveling that I was doing.”
Of all the things the pandemic took from us, spare time is one it gave back. Wyza found she actually enjoyed the downtime and growing her spray tanning clientele, which included creating her own website to help promote the business.
“I love the beauty industry, spend plenty of money within it myself,” Wyza said. “Having so much time to myself, I decided to build my own website. I had never actually touched building a website, anything like that in my life, but felt that I could figure it out.”
“I really took my time with it, and that’s where the twist came for my story.”
Wyza was part of an online community, launched during COVID to connect former Disney cast members with new opportunities, called Ear For Each Other. It has grown to more than a quarter-million members since then, and is still active. When she made a post offering her services, her inquiries included more than just requests for a spray tan.
“My tanning business launched about three weeks later, I had somebody who knew me, who had started his own business, ask me to design his website,” Wyza said. “He had seen mine, and he thought, you know, could you do this for me?”
With plenty of free time, courtesy of that pesky pandemic, Wyza agreed. One website led to another, and before she knew it, the tanning business was once again a side hustle.
“It was very frustrating at times, because I had no tech department to go to, I had to figure it out myself,” Wyza said of web design. “At the same time, I was enjoying seeing it come to life, seeing it evolve from where it started, to what it would end up being. That's where I got the bug.”
Business was immediately steady, but soon it was almost too busy.
“I pretty much couldn’t keep up with the inquiries, that’s where things sort of broke loose,” Wyza said. “It then evolved into, toward the end, I started feeling like every time I had a spray tanning appointment, it stressed me out, because it would take out time of my day away from the website building.”
It’s a good problem to have, being so busy at something she had never done before. Eventually she knew, she would have to choose.
“I decided to close the spray tanning business and boy, that was not an easy decision because it was like, you know, my little business,” Wyza said. “But it really did lift a burden off my shoulders because it was taking time away from what I was like, really, really enjoying.”
Forced entrepreneurship doesn’t come with a guidebook, or even a pricing sheet. Wyza knew part of the reason she had so many inquiries is because, at first, she wasn’t charging enough; not only because she didn’t know what the going rate for web design was, but because she worried about charging more.
“I didn’t feel worthy of charging what normal web designers charge, because I had no schooling, I had no background in it,” Wyza said. “So I just offered my services, at a very, very reasonable rate at the beginning.”
Purely anecdotal here, but I find this concern about overpricing yourself to be unique to women entrepreneurs, and it almost always backfires in this way. Wouldn’t you rather have 10 clients willing to pay $5,000 compared to 50 clients willing to pay $1000?
“It’s not something that easily goes away,” Wyza said of imposter syndrome. “It has taken clients who have flat out said, for what you have done for me, you haven’t charged enough, which is kind of wild to hear.”
She cracked the code to use her imposter syndrome as fuel to be better, even without professional training.
“What I mean by that is, because I have that imposter syndrome, which is essentially an insecurity of not feeling like I should be where I am, it makes me want to prove myself.”
The Disney roots also meant that guest service satisfaction is extremely important to Wyza, and in addition to having an eye for web design, she’s figured out ways to navigate branding, too.
“You can’t read people’s minds. A lot of times, people know what they want in their mind, but they don’t know how to express what they want,” Wyza said. “I learned over time what questions to ask of the client to figure out what they wanted.”
Wyza’s success in forced entrepreneurship may seem like a Cinderella story written by Walt Disney himself, but after what she’s faced, a layoff is nothing.
When she was in her early years at Disney- her early years in life, really- she was diagnosed with colon cancer—a much more serious obstacle than a blip in her job history.
“I had just taken a promotion into what was my last role there at Disney. About two weeks after starting that role, I had gone to the doctor and found out that I had cancer,” Wyza said. “Not only the shock of having cancer, I was young, I had just started this new job, and I thought, oh my goodness, how am I going to go on? How am I going to handle this?”
She says within days of her diagnosis, she made up her mind that everything was going to be okay- that she was going to beat it.
It wasn’t easy. A grueling year of treatments- chemotherapy radiation, and surgery after surgery- and now she’s almost 12 years cancer-free.
“As much as that was really, really awful news, and a terrible thing to go through, it also was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Wyza said. “I would never wish it on someone else, ever, but it taught me how to appreciate life where you are, appreciate those around you.”
She applied those same lessons to her layoff.
“I just thought, I would figure it out,” Wyza said. “It was almost the same emotions came up… I was shocked, and surprised, and sad. I had this whole little rollercoaster of emotions. And within a couple of days, I thought, it's going to work out. I'm going to figure something out. And it's exactly what happened.”
She’s still figuring it out, day by day. Things became so overwhelming this past year, Wyza had to shut down her design pipeline and stop taking new projects, slowing down her own income in the process. It gave her time to go through her own rebrand, using the same process she does when designing for others. Her new site is about to re-launch, and she’s offering more services—and charging more, too.
“There’s still going to be an option for somebody that's on a very, very tight budget, because there are a lot of start ups that people are just trying to make ends meet and I'd still like to work with them or help them,” Wyza said.
Pricing remains one of the hardest areas for Wyza to navigate, along with being her own IT department. But the freedom and fulfilment of being her own boss, and helping others boss up, is priceless.
“It’s exciting,” Wyza said. “I want to see them succeed, even if there is nothing they need from me anymore. I cheer them on, and try to support them the best way that I can.”
Being constantly surrounded by others who are just trying to figure.things.out. has taught her lessons through osmosis, too.
“Hearing things that other business owners have dealt with or learned,” Wyza said. “This little domino effect, it’s huge.”
When you work on something as immersive as web design for a small business, you become part of that business’ framework; you’re a part of their success or failure. Wyza feels that responsibility deeply.
“I don't see it as, they come in, I do a website, and then they're gone. My hope is that we continue a partnership, and I get to sit right there on the sidelines and watch their business grow and work together on other things that help support their business, like social media, or newsletters, or blogs and things like that.”
That has organically expanded her support system, which she says is a vital part of her success.
“Surrounding myself with people who had more knowledge than me, who had experience starting their own business… and they're cheerleaders for me,” Wyza said. She found a mentor who designs the same types of sites she does; someone willing to help her instead of seeing her as competition.
“I think there is enough to go around… one person's network is different than my network of people,” Wyza said. “There are different artists, and they all have different styles. My websites probably look different than someone else's website, just by looking at it.”
That networking has helped her work improve, and it’s also helped her self-confidence.
“There are times where you feel like you’re alone, like you’re on this island by yourself,” Wyza said. “And when you listen to others that have very similar experiences, you realize you’re not alone.”
Her forced entrepreneurship came after a forced time without a paycheck, but slowing her own pay when things got too busy is something Wyza admits not everyone has the ability to do. She credits a severance from Disney and a lifetime of squirreling away money for her having the option and freedom to take a step back.
“It’s so easy from the outside, I know I’m guilty of this, seeing other entrepreneurs and thinking it just happens,” Wyza said. You know, you wake up one day, you decide you want to start your business, you put in a little elbow grease, and poof, you’re successful. And it actually doesn’t work that way.”
It’s something she has to remind herself in the realm of social media comparisons and that ever-present imposter syndrome she’s still working to overcome.
“The image in my mind is of an iceberg,” Wyza said. “People see what's above the water. They do not see that massive piece of ice under the water that consists of all the hard work, all the hours, all the sacrifices. It's just there's a lot that's behind the scenes or, you know, like not shown on social media that that really goes into it.”
And with something as personal and tailored as web design, it’s tough not to take feedback personally; but Wyza says that’s something she’s grateful for.
“I’d rather a client tell me straight up what is good or bad than to be sort of wishy washy about it, because I want them to be happy. I want referrals from them. It’s important that they are satisfied and happy,” Wyza said of clients who don’t like their initial sites. “It keeps you humble.”
I work in an industry that requires a very thick skin. People have opinions about just about everything when it comes to television news broadcasters; the way we look, the way we sound, the outfits we wear, the color of our hair… none of that bothers me. But the work, the journalism, that’s tough to take critiques on. So how does Wyza handle it?
“I probably do take it personally, if I am being very transparent,” Wyza said. “I’m proud of what I do. At the same time, it’s very quick, that my mind clicks and I realize this isn’t personal. This is about what they see, what they thought, and again, I’m not a mind reader.”
If you haven’t read The Four Agreements, I highly recommend it, but one of the four key principles to a happy life is not taking anything personally. It’s something I strive for in my own life, and it’s something Wyza has used to help her business.
She’s also relentlessly positive, despite all she’s been through; an attribute she credits to the cancer she beat nearly 12 years ago.
“Having appositive mindset is one of the most important things you can possibly do [during a battle with cancer], and we really could take that to other parts of our life, not just when someone’s sick,” Wyza said. “We have to also remember that there are times that we aren’t so positive and feeling so on top of the world, but you can’t get stuck in that downward spiral.”
“A positive outlook is huge. Just knowing it’s going to work out, and believing it. That’s the key.”