Liz Bertorelli really wanted a French bulldog. So, in 2013, she set a goal for herself: If she could somehow make an extra $5,000, she would get one. Though she had a full-time job at the time, she started an online print-on-demand T-shirt company to help her meet that goal more quickly. She exceeded it in a matter of months. Roughly five years, one dog, and a full rebrand later, Passionfruit—Liz’s LGBTQ+ apparel brand and online store is still kicking. And, her “Protect Trans Kids” T-shirt sales surged after one just like it starred on Saturday Night Live.
I sat down with Liz to talk Frenchies, snacks, and side hustles.
Hey, Liz, tell me about you.
I am an average nine-to-fiver who happens to run a side hustle from five to nine. I have so many things to do that I don’t even remember what I do.
So sometimes it’s nine to one or nine to two?
Yeah, it’s like finding your own schedule.
Why did you start Passionfruit?
When I personally came out, it was super hard. I wanted to create something that allowed you to show who you were without actually saying it out loud. There were a lot of bigger brands that were doing this, but I wanted to start something that would feel like there were people backing it: queers designing queer products.
But really, it was a dog that inspired this whole thing, right?
Yeah. Instead of setting out [to achieve] an actual number of orders or whatever, I wanted to make enough money to get a French bulldog. I ended up doing that, and it was like, “Shit. Let’s level this up. Let’s go to the next bracket.” I don’t like setting out to do something and not achieving it. Last night, I started a puzzle at 9 p.m. I was like, “Oh my God, we can’t go to bed unless we finish this thing.”
How do you balance Passionfruit on top of a full-time job and a life?
I use a fulfillment service called Printful. They’re amazing because you don’t have to put a lot of money into it upfront. I get an order on the store, they will print my design on a shirt and they’ll ship it out. I’d go insane if I had to ship everything myself.
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With so much happening, how do you set priorities?
I do care about Passionfruit, but I currently would never put it before my friend’s 30th birthday or, obviously, [my full-time] work [at Shopify]. It’s never going to take precedence. I schedule time to work on Passionfruit, and I do it twice a week. If the week goes by and I’m like, “Wow, you didn’t even put in four hours. Damn, you had this booked. You failed to accomplish it,” it makes me feel like shit, and then I just do it better next week.
What drives you to keep going?
We’ve gotten emails about people meeting their partners because of their shirt. As in they thought a shirt was funny, they started talking, ended up dating, and getting married. So beautiful. Or stories like, “Hey, thanks, I came out to my family because of this, because I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth, so I just wore this shirt to Thanksgiving.”
I’m sure the recent exposure on SNL doesn’t hurt either. Tell me about that.
I had a perma-smile all week after seeing Don Cheadle wearing that “Protect Trans Kids” shirt on Saturday Night Live. Although it wasn't specifically the version we currently sell, it's been an important message we've been printing on our T-shirts for years. It's amazing how powerful a T-shirt can be—I’m grateful he used his platform and audience to spread awareness.
Amazing. So, you’re saying “we,” but it’s just you, right?
Yeah, it’s just me. Printful does count as part of the business too. On social, sometimes the community will answer for me, so I think I say “we” because they all also support the business and want to help.
Like unofficial ambassadors?
When you started, you had a partner. How did that evolve?
Passionfruit was a rebrand of a brand that I had built with a partner five years ago. The reason for the rebrand is, well, never get into business with a [life] partner, which was a lesson I obviously had to learn. It was actually good because it felt like the old business was my first shot at this, and it was time for a fresh start, personally and business-wise.
What was the hardest part of that transition?
The year where neither of us was really working on it was difficult. Because you build up this amazing community, you have this little baby that you created, it’s out in the world. Then something happens with your personal life where you have to take a step back. It was upsetting because it was my personal creative outlet.
You’re pretty busy doing this all on your own now. When do you get “you time”?
I love spontaneous travel, like, “Ooh, should I really be going away this weekend? Will that stress me out going back into Monday?” No, I should totally just book a trip to Chicago and eat as much fucking pizza as I want, go to some art galleries, and fly back.
What’s always in your carry-on?
A locket of Olive’s dog hair. No, I’m kidding. My glasses. Yeah, if I don’t have my glasses, there’s no functioning. Headphones. Sometimes I won’t even have music on. I just put them on. And snacks. I love snacking because I’m Italian and get hungry every 15 minutes.
And your laptop, right? Because you run a print-on-demand business, can you do your job from wherever you travel?
Yeah, honestly, that’s the beauty of it. If I have my computer and an internet connection, I can manage the community. I can talk to Printful. I can upload new designs. I can literally do everything from anywhere.
Would you ever consider doing Passionfruit full-time?
If I ever did want to test out being an entrepreneur for real, it would change my lifestyle. If I don’t make enough sales in a week, then I don’t get a paycheck. Or would I suddenly feel unfulfilled because I’m not getting those same customer emails? There are so many factors that you would have to be OK with before jumping into it. I feel like I’m adaptable enough that I could make that work.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Feature image by Vuk Dragojevic