I used TikTok to take my cotton-candy business online. I’ve made $165,000 in sales since March – here’s how.

Emily Harpel, 29, is a cotton candy maker based in Ohio and owner of Art of Sucre.
Emily Harpel founded her business, Art of Sucre, in 2016 after being inspired by Pinterest.

  • Emily Harpel, 29, is a cotton candy maker based in Ohio and owner of Art of Sucre.
  • After gaining over a million followers on her business’ TikTok, she launched an ecommerce shop and has made over 6 figures since March.
  • This is what her job is like, as told to freelance writer Judy Brumley.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Emily Harpel, a cotton candy maker and small business owner based in Ohio. It has been edited for length and clarity.

When I was planning my wedding, I saw cotton candy being used as favors on Pinterest. I thought it was a cute idea, but was disappointed in the options: pink or blue with no distinguishable flavor. Every other dessert, like cake pops and sugar cookies, had been given an Instagrammable upgrade, and I just couldn’t let cotton candy be left out.

I was planning to get my masters in clinical and mental health counseling, but since the program I applied to was full, my enrollment got deferred for a year. After my husband and I got married in March of 2016, I decided to withdraw my application and launched an LLC for Art of Sucre by May.

We chose the name during the 20-hour car ride home from our honeymoon. After a lot of Googling we landed on “sucre,” which means sugar in French.

I had zero experience and no equipment, so I bought a machine and taught myself by watching YouTube videos.

Emily Harpel Art of sucre cotton candy
Harpel says she taught herself to spin cotton candy by watching videos online.

Cotton candy is just flavored sugar. You pour the base into the hot center of a cotton candy machine where it melts into a liquid and spins. The spinning creates a centrifugal force, which pushes the sugar to the top. The sugar goes from a solid to a liquid then back to a solid, and you catch it on a cone during that in-between phase when it’s nice and fluffy.

Once I had the technique down, I started to create my own fun flavors.

For the first four years, I spun cotton candy at all kinds of events and celebrations.

I went to birthday parties and weddings, helped celebrate bat mitzvahs, and worked with professional sports teams, like the Cleveland Browns and Cavaliers. I even spun cotton candy for VIP ticket holders at Elton John, Ariana Grande, and Travis Scott concerts.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, I knew I needed to figure out how to make my business more COVID-friendly. I spent a lot of time consuming TikTok videos during quarantine and had nothing but time on my hands, so I created an account for Art of Sucre and started posting in July 2020. We hit one million followers in October, and that’s when I decided to transition from events to e-commerce.

Our biggest challenge with e-commerce was shipping and packaging logistics, because cotton candy is delicate.

Emily Harpel
Art of Sucre’s original flavors include champagne, orange bourbon, and piña colada.

We shipped prototypes to Australia, Canada, and Arizona to make sure they could survive any trip.

The online shop finally launched on March 15, 2021 with six original flavors (sugar cookie, bubble gum, piña colada, orange bourbon, champagne, and watermelon) and our best-selling shimmer glitter bombs. Our pre-spun pouches start at $12 each and the shimmer glitter bombs (puffs of cotton candy wrapped around glitter that floats when dropped into a liquid) sell for $22.

Since March, we’ve sold over $165,000 worth of cotton candy. That number doesn’t include sales from custom orders, which is my favorite thing we offer at Art of Sucre.

A father once asked if I could top mannequin heads with cotton candy hair for his daughter’s bat mitzvah. After I spent three hours spinning the hair, the mannequin heads – which had sunglasses on – were walked out on silver platters and devoured in seconds. We’ve also created custom shimmer glitter bombs using edible black glitter and silver stars for a galaxy-themed wedding, and pouches of pre-spun cotton candy that were half black and half white for a Cruella de Vil party. The possibilities are endless, and we’ll try anything the customer can imagine.

I used to have one person who would help with events – now I have a team of 15, including one full-time employee.

Emily Harpel
Harpel has a team of 15 to help produce and package cotton candy for the ecommerce site.

We keep our six core cotton candy flavors in stock and drop limited-edition releases throughout the year. We’re also working on some fun holiday treats and getting ready for the New York City Wine and Food Festival in October.

I still pop into the studio to spin cotton candy, but now most of my days are spent doing admin work. My full-time employee and I have a morning meeting around 10 a.m. before I take calls with suppliers, potential collaborators, and our design team. I create content for our TikTok, Instagram, and website in the afternoon and, after everyone else heads home, I test and develop new flavors.

Sometimes I feel guilty to have found such great success during a time that’s been so challenging for so many people, but as a small business owner and employer, I’m thankful for the growth we’ve experienced this year. It’s really special to see how something as simple as cotton candy can bring so much joy to people’s lives.

Judy Brumley is a freelance writer from Kentucky. She has written editorial and branded content stories across all verticals for brands like InStyle, Parents, PEOPLE, and Romper.

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I’m a 53-year-old ‘clean ambassador’ for Delta. I spend my day making sure the airport follows proper COVID-19 protocols – here’s what my job is like.

headshot of Jenero Burke in a yellow jacket
Jenero Burke.

  • Jenero Burke, a clean ambassador for Delta Air Lines in Atlanta, Georgia, started out in customer service.
  • His job is to check and update health and wellness standards in and around the airport.
  • Here’s what his day looks like, as told to freelancer Perri Ormont Blumberg.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Jenero Burke, a 53-year-old clean ambassador from Atlanta, Georgia, about his career. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I joined Delta in 2008 and have held a variety of positions, including customer-service agent and ticket and gate agent – and then prior to my current position, which I started in January, I was a safety auditor for one year.

As a clean ambassador for Delta, I’m part of a dedicated team within Delta’s Global Cleanliness organization, a division that launched in 2020 during the pandemic to oversee Delta’s promise to its customers and employees to commit to – and innovate on – health and wellness throughout the travel journey.

Clean ambassadors tend to have a background in airport or hospitality operations or vendor relations

There are about 17 of us, and we serve as cleanliness champions among Delta airport teams to ensure a consistently safe and sanitized experience across Delta’s facilities and aircraft.

We oversee a strict quality-assurance program, developed with input from Delta’s partners at Mayo Clinic, Emory University, and Reckitt, the makers of Lysol. This includes a regular audit of Delta’s cleaning processes and procedures with technology and tools such as ATP, adenosine triphosphate-testing devices that are used to swab surfaces in hospitals and restaurants and evaluate the effectiveness of cleaning processes by measuring actively growing microorganisms.

I start my day with a commute via train to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to arrive in time for my noon shift

While on the train, I check my email to determine what my day will look like. Depending on the day, I might oversee a cabin audit in Concourse A, conduct randomized cleanliness tests before planes depart, or do a lap around the airport to make sure everything is looking clean.

In addition to my on-the-ground work, I facilitate new-hire training for cabin-cleaning agents and oversee inventory at warehouses to make sure cleaning materials are fully stocked and warehouses are practicing safety measures, in addition to my administrative work.

It’s not unusual for my pedometer to exceed 10,000 steps

I’m constantly moving around the airport to conduct ATP tests, ensure the curb and concourse are looking clean, and examine the lobby and kiosks to confirm high-touch surfaces are being wiped down regularly.

After my shift, I carry some cleaning protocols used at work home with me, making sure to wipe down the seat and armrests on the train and avoid high-touch surfaces where I can.

I know about every shortcut in the airport, including outdoor paths to reach planes and concourses, which allows me to get places more quickly than maneuvering within the airport.

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I train puppies to sniff out truffles at a luxury resort and farm. They cost $8,500 and we only sell them to guests – here’s what my job is like.

Jim Sanford with one of his Lagotto Romagnolo truffle dogs   Blackberry Farm
Jim Sanford with one of his Lagotto Romagnolo truffle dogs.

  • Jim Sanford, 67, works as a Lagotto Romagnolo dog trainer at the Blackberry Farm resort in Tennessee.
  • He trains the Italian breed to hunt locally grown black Périgord truffles, which can sell for over $1,000 a pound.
  • This is what his job is like, as told to freelance writer Rebecca Treon.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Jim Sanford, a truffle-dog trainer in Tennessee. It has been edited for length and clarity.

When I was 25 years old in 1979, I met an elephant trainer at a dinner party and decided I wanted a career working with animals. Soon after, I got a job at a place called Lion Country Safari in Florida where I trained elephants for the next 20 years.

I got a degree in Exotic Animal Training and Management, and worked in zoos and animal parks all around North America and Thailand, and I spent two years in Western Australia.

At 33, I married a librarian, who never had much use for an elephant. When we returned to the states I came to Knoxville, Tennessee to put two African Elephants through charm school. By the end of that, my son was in school and I had to find something else to do, so I found Blackberry Farm, a 4,200-acre resort and hotel in the the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

Above all else, Blackberry Farm is about hospitality.

One of the properties and lakes on Blackberry Farm
One of the cottage properties overlooking a pond at Blackberry Farm.

I’d never worked at a place like the Farm before. I started doing groundskeeping there in 1999. I soon started a fly-fishing program, followed by a horse program, and then added sheep and chickens.

In 2007, Sam Beall, the owner, asked if I could teach a dog to find a truffle. I told him, “I can teach a dog to find anything.” We decided to start a Lagotto Romagnolo program and got our first dogs, Tom and Lussi; he was 5-years-old and she was a puppy. I started with both of them from square one and trained them to find truffles.

Training a dog to hunt truffles uses the same technique as any scent work, including search and rescue.

Blackberry Farm
The farm offers plenty of outdoor space for the puppies to grow and explore.

Truffles have a very particular odor when they are mature, and you imprint that scent to the dog and reward them for finding it. It’s quite simple and straightforward.

A truffle is a fungus that grows below ground. To reproduce, a truffle releases distinct odors and an animal coming by would think, “Oh, there’s something very interesting down there.” They dig it up, eat it, and pass the spores along.

We train our dogs to locate the truffle by scent but when they find it, we don’t want them to damage the truffle. The truffles grow several inches below the surface so once the dogs start digging, I immediately call them off, go to the spot, and carefully dig up the truffle. It works quite well.

Once we got Tom and Lussi trained, we harvested more than 200 pounds in just a few months.

Jim Sanford Blackberry Farm
The Lagotto Romagnolo dogs can range in color from brown and black to white and cream.

We harvested truffles from a farm about 100 miles from us that was cultivating the black Périgord truffle, which can go for more than $1,000 a pound. Besides here in Tennessee, there are truffles that grow in other parts of the US, such as Willamette Valley in Oregon and even California.

I get my dogs from one lagotto romagnolo breeder in Italy. Currently, we have two males and six females. We sell the puppies exclusively to guests of Blackberry Farm. We now have four litters a year with six to eight puppies per litter. We’ve had about 300 puppies born at Blackberry Farm. They’re a medium-sized, hypoallergenic dog. Most are pets, only about two of the dogs that have gone to guest families are used for truffle hunting.

Before any puppy leaves Blackberry Farm, I personally train it in basic house manners.

Blackberry Farm
One of the puppies at Blackberry Farm.

They learn recall, to sit, stay, not jump on people, potty train, and walk nicely on a leash. Because the breed itself is very intelligent, they can be challenging.

I made a decision to personally deliver each puppy to its new owner simply so I could get that owner and their puppy off to the best possible start.

On a typical day, I manage the dog kennel and lead a Farmstead Tasting Tour to show guests property.

Jim Sanford Blackberry Farm
Sanford spends most of his workday caring for the dogs.

Throughout any day, the kennel is the most visited part of the property, because everyone loves to see the dogs, so I interact with guests constantly. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job.

Another program I run is called Blackberry Abroad, where I take a small group of Blackberry Farm guests truffle hunting in Italy. We have contacts in Italy that have Italian white truffles growing on their property which, unlike the black Périgord truffle, cannot be cultivated. These truffles are only found in the wild, in northern Italy and in a small sliver of Croatia. The location is a pretty well-guarded secret, so it makes me happy to share the experience with Blackberry Farm guests.

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I’m a former Goldman Sachs analyst who raised over $8.5 million for my fashion startup. Here’s how I realized finance wasn’t for me.

Meg He ADAY credit: Bridget Badore
Meg He is the cofounder of fashion startup ADAY.

  • Meg He, 33, is the cofounder of ADAY, a fashion brand that creates sustainable professional workwear.
  • After leaving a career in finance and venture capitalism, He started ADAY with former Goldman Sachs coworker Nina Faulhaber.
  • This is what running her business is like, as told to freelance writer Claire Turrell.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and liked to set myself a challenge. At 15, I started selling vintage designer clothing on eBay. When I was applying to college, I applied to Merton College at Oxford University for economics and management as I was told it was the hardest course to get on to in terms of acceptance rate. But I did it. After graduation in 2008, I was hired as an analyst at Goldman Sachs.

At Goldman, I met my future ADAY cofounder Nina Faulhaber. We both have strong work ethics and hit it off immediately. After two years working at Goldman Sachs, we both started working for different venture capitalist companies, and I later worked for Poshmark before taking time off to return to the UK in 2014. Nina and I always stayed in touch and bounced business ideas off each other, and my move back home became the trigger for starting ADAY.

Even while working at Goldman Sachs, I knew finance wasn’t the right industry for me.

When I looked around the room at my fellow analysts, I could tell they enjoyed the job more, were more motivated, and were better at it than I was. I had an inner ecommerce geek that needed to get out – I thrived on marrying insights with consumer psychology and behavior and I also loved the way fashion could make people feel empowered.

As businesswomen who loved to work out, Nina and I had the idea of launching a workwear collection that was as comfortable as gym wear. We spent 12 months travelling to fabric mills in Italy, visiting sustainable factories in Portugal and Los Angeles, and holding focus groups in the UK. In January 2015 we launched our sustainable fashion brand ADAY with a capsule collection of leggings, shorts, and tops, all made with recycled UV-protected fabrics.

While we had big plans, we started small. I had quit my job and then Nina quit hers. From networking and telling people about our plans, we raised about $200,000 to launch the brand.

Our first meetings were held in coffee shops, and we even took an investor conference call in a parking lot.

ADAY founders Meg He and Nina Faulhaber. Credit: Bridget Badore
ADAY founders Meg He and Nina Faulhaber.

We had just three full-time members of staff (Nina, myself, and a junior designer), and the former head of womenswear for Everlane as a consultant.

While we always had faith in what we were doing, it was comforting when we started to see our plans pay off. After a pair of our leggings sold out, we decided to launch more items like swimwear and to work on new fabrics, like moisture-wicking linen and fabric made from recycled water bottles.

Raising money to expand globally was a slow but steady journey.

In November 2017, we were able to raise $2 million in funding. Two years later, we raised another $8.5 million. This gave us the chance to expand to the US, and in the fall of 2019, we opened a 3,000 square foot office in New York, a store in San Francisco, and launched a travel-inspired collection.

But when the pandemic struck in March 2020, we had to go back to the drawing board. Our team of close to 30 people started working from home, we sublet our New York office, closed the store, and pushed back our product launches to 2021 and 2022. However, as more people were looking for comfy clothes to wear for working from home, our sales were still up, which thankfully gave us time to launch Made Again, where we rework over-ordered stock into new pieces.

My work schedule is always changing – I’m often most productive between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.

I start each day by walking my dog around my neighborhood in New York. Then I have virtual meetings from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with investors, potential partners, and staff. I block out two hours each day for deep work, where I fixate on a goal for the business.

As I compete in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, I tend to keep my days flexible. I go to the BJJ academy five to six days a week and take strength and conditioning classes at the gym. At the moment I am training for the IBJJF World Master Championship in Las Vegas in November. My workouts change depending on how close I am to competing, so if I’m training for one to two hours in the afternoon, I’ll work more in the evening. I get a lot of my best work done between 8 p.m. and 1 a.m.

The key to being a successful entrepreneur is to be honest about what you’re good and bad at.

If it’s not your skillset, hire someone to do it and don’t waste time trying to do it yourself. It’s also important to have a supportive network of people around you who understand what you’re going through. And if you have an idea for a business, don’t tell it to everyone. It’s like announcing a baby name – everyone has a different opinion, and not everyone’s opinion should matter.

While investment banking wasn’t for me, it did teach me a lot. The meticulous attention to detail working at Goldman Sachs is something I’ve never seen anywhere else. That commitment to excellence is something I always think about. When Nina and I are faced with a challenge, we’ll put in the work to make it A+++ because that’s the training we were given.

When we thought about launching ADAY, we were just two women who knew nothing about fashion design. Our experience in finance and venture capitalism taught us to be audacious and embrace being a more antagonist start-up to improve the standards of the industry.

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I sell custom camper vans for up to $100,000 and business is booming since the pandemic

Vanlife Customs
Dave Walsh founded Vanlife Customs in 2016.

  • Dave Walsh, 39, is a USMC veteran and custom van builder based in Denver, Colorado.
  • Since starting his company in 2016, Walsh says he’s had more clients than ever during the last year as van travel grows in popularity.
  • This is what his job is like, as told to freelance writer Jenny Powers.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Dave Walsh, a 39-year-old van builder from Denver, Colorado It has been edited for length and clarity.

Like any small business owner, I’ve tackled my share of challenges, but nothing compares to when COVID-19 hit in March 2020.

Without knowing if it would be days, weeks, or months, our work at Vanlife Customs (VCL) came to a screeching halt when Colorado issued a statewide mandatory lockdown and we were forced to close up shop.

After being closed for four weeks, our team of 12 reopened with a split schedule to adhere to social distancing rules.

Despite the lockdown, more people seem interested in buying custom vans.

Vanlife Customs
The JOMO model van.

Just before quarantine, we quickly listed two pre-built vans we had in the shop for sale. Both were snapped up within a week. Compared to flying or staying in hotels, the idea of social distancing in a van started to look a lot more appealing to people. It wasn’t long before our inbox was inundated with emails from people looking for a van to travel, live, and work in. Since the pandemic, we’ve seen an uptick in people looking for prebuilt vans along with a 10% increase in our custom work.

Vanlife Customs
Walsh constructing the interior of a custom camper van.

Prior to VCL, I served in the Marine Corps from 2001 to 2005 and was deployed to Iraq twice. I went on to work as a network and systems administrator at a series of startups in the Boulder area. After getting laid off in 2014, I spent a year hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, where I became a certified instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and paid the bills by hustling in my one-man handyman business.

In 2016, I launched Vanlife Customs from my backyard. Since then, everyone from families to digital nomads have come to us for one-of-a-kind camper vans. Due to the pandemic and increased popularity of van travel, we’re currently booked a year in advance. It’s a good problem to have, but I’ve had to learn to politely say no to people, which isn’t always easy.

Each custom build takes approximately 10 weeks to build and we work on 4 to 5 vans at a time.

Vanlife Customs
The $95,000 McAwesome Van by Vanlife customs, a sleek build with ample floor space and a walnut finish interior.

While every van is unique in design, they are all built on one of three vehicles: Mercedes Sprinter, Ford Transit, or Ram Promaster.

Our base price for a camper van conversion is $75,000 not including the vehicle itself, which the customer is responsible for providing. To date, the most expensive job we’ve worked on cost $110,000 which included a huge battery system and a pop-up sleeping area. For many clients, this is the biggest purchase they’ve ever made.

Vanlife Customs Jenny Powers
Inside the McAwesome Van.

Many of our clients have planned for this their entire life, dreaming of escaping the rat race and getting off the grid. They know exactly what it is they want in a custom van when they come to us. Some even design 3D online models using Google Sketchup while others come armed with a general idea and Pinterest boards and Instagram images for inspiration.

Building a custom van is like building a new home, except it’s on wheels.

Vanlife Customs
Standing desk featured along with dining table that converts to desk.

On top of the practical and functional elements such as water, heating, cooling and electrical systems, we also want to create an environment that’s aesthetically pleasing and comfortable.

We love getting unique customization requests as long as they’re safe and practical. We’ve created a fly fishing rod rack, a pull-up bar that attaches to the van’s exterior, and even a cowboy hat rack.

Vanlife Customs Jenny Powers
An exterior custom pull-up bar for an outdoor workout.

One request we always get but have to turn down is installing a shower, because in addition to taking up a lot of room, showers introduce humidity into the van and can cause mold. Instead we recommend a basic rinse station or on-demand camp shower attachment.

Recently, with more people looking to work from the road, we’ve also built stand-up desks, dining tables that convert to workspaces, and ergonomic seating and have added cell phone and WiFi boosters. There’s a huge misconception that living in a van feels like you’re always on vacation, but that’s simply not true. You may be able to work from wherever you want, but there are still going to be times you may need to pull over on a highway to get reception and take a work call.

A lot goes into the process from building out a custom estimate, discussing design plans, ordering parts, and finally doing the actual build out, but my favorite part is the day we deliver the finished van to its owner. Seeing the look on someone’s face when they see their dream van go from an idea in their head to being right there in front of them can’t be beat. It’s a day full of laughs, hugs, and tears.

To keep up with demand and our growing team, this fall we plan to move from our 4,800 square foot space into a 15,000 square foot space. By the end of 2021, we’ll have custom built our 100th camper van.

As for me, much to my wife’s chagrin, we don’t own a van. We do use one every year for a two-week vacation, but then I wind up selling it. Maybe one day when I have more time on my hands we’ll get one, but from the looks of my inbox, it’s going to be a while until that happens.

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I’m a Yale grad who charges students up to $85,000 a year for college prep – here’s what it takes to get into the top schools

Christopher Rim. Credit Sophia Sinclair
Christopher Rim.

  • Christopher Rim, 26, is the founder of Command Education, a tutoring and college advisory company in New York.
  • Parents pay Rim’s business up to $85,000 a year for one-on-one college application prep for their kids.
  • This is what his job is like, as told to freelance writer Jenny Powers
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Christopher Rim, a 26-year-old college tutoring business owner. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I started a tutoring business from my college dorm room in 2015, after underclassmen from my high school began reaching out to ask me how I’d managed to be the only student from my class to get into Yale (and despite not having a 4.0 GPA).

These students were looking for someone to show them the ropes and guide them through the college application process, and based on that need, I launched Command Education.

My business provides one-on-one dedicated support to help students perfect their college applications, for a price of $85,000 per year.

For this fee, each of our students is enrolled in the Premier Roadmap program and assigned a designated mentor from our team of 21 full-time tutors.

Like me, all of our tutors are in their twenties and graduates from either an Ivy league or top 10 school. I’ve found students work better with a non-parental influence closer in age to them who feels more like a peer.

We currently have 150 students in the Premier Roadmap program, and most begin working with us in ninth grade.

Christopher Rim. Credit Raphael Gotlieb
Rim says students respond well to tutors who are recent graduates themselves.

As tutors, we know that long gone are the days when high GPAs and near-perfect test scores were all you needed to get into the top schools – now that’s the baseline.

Today’s college admissions counselors look at student’s life experiences more than ever. They want to know what students are most passionate about, what types of extracurriculars they’re engaged in, and how they spend their summers. The details can be a determining factor between two applicants with similar grades and test scores.

We guide them through everything from developing their time management skills, to course selection and extracurriculars, to helping them locate leadership opportunities in both their schools and communities.

When it’s time to apply to college we assist with compiling an appropriate list of schools, strategize about early action/decision, help navigate the essay process, and create itineraries for college visits and tours. Since launching in 2015, 96% of our students have been accepted into one or more of their top three schools, including all eight Ivy league institutions.

We also offer academic tutoring in all subjects as well as the SAT and ACT prep which costs an additional $950 an hour. On average, most families purchase a block of 40 hours to be used as needed.

This summer, four of our tutors are living with families in the Hamptons.

To ensure it’s a positive experience for everyone, a student must work with us for at least a year before we’ll consider a live-in arrangement.

While it’s hard work, working as a tutor in the Hamptons certainly has its perks. Live-in tutors often have a more flexible schedule, can study vocabulary cards poolside, or work out at the home gym alongside their student in between lessons. There are also some major perks such as being flown in by helicopter, luxurious accommodations, daily chef-prepared meals, and access to cars and drivers.

One family even hired a tennis coach for their tutor and just recently, another attended a crypto billionaire’s private bash in Amagansett where Miley Cyrus performed.

Parents are thrilled to have us around, encouraging and motivating their children to do their best work so they don’t have to be the ones doing it all the time.

Over the years, I’ve learned when to say no, even if it will disappoint the parents.

I’ve turned down a parent’s offer to buy out all our time so no one in their child’s grade could hire us. I’ve also said no to another one who wanted three tutors for one child in case any of them got COVID.

One parent wanted us to tutor their child for four hours a day, five days a week, which I flat out refused, explaining it would be both mentally and physically draining and likely cause the child to suffer from burnout.

I also refuse to work with any families that micro-manage our process. I talk to 300 parents a week and everyone says their child is the smartest, their teachers are unfair, and they swear they aren’t helicopter parents. I can always tell who’s telling the truth.

$85,000 a year might seem like a lot, but the families we work with spend $250,000 to maintain their boat for a single season, so investing in their children’s future for a fraction of that cost, for them, is really a no-brainer.

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I’m a concierge at a 5-star resort in Bora Bora. My job is to cater to VIP guests’ every need.

Giovanna Vargas, 38, is a villa host at the Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora 5-star resort in French Polynesia.
Giovanna Vargas is the villa host at the Four Seasons’ Bora Bora Resort.

  • Giovanna Vargas, 38, is a villa host at the Four Seasons resort in Bora Bora.
  • As guests’ go-to resource, she’s in charge of planning last-minute parties and private excursions.
  • This is what her job is like, as told to freelance writer Kaila Yu.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Giovanna Vargas, a 38-year-old villa host at the Four Seasons Bora Bora. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Bora Bora is the ultimate dream destination. Many of our guests save up for years to travel here to celebrate weddings and memorable milestones.

That’s why as a villa host, I do everything I can to make each guest’s experience especially remarkable.

I get to wake up every day in Bora Bora, and it’s heaven on earth. I’m originally from San Jose, Costa Rica, and I first started in the hospitality industry as a freelance tour guide in 2004.

In 2008, after giving birth to my daughter, I decided to look for a more stable career and left my resume at the Four Seasons desk at a travel industry job fair.

I was so excited when I got called in, and after several rounds of interviews, I was offered the job of villa host at the Four Seasons Bora Bora and moved there in November 2011. I live in staff residences provided by Four Seasons, which are a 15-minute boat ride from the resort.

As a 5-star resort, we go above and beyond to exceed guests’ expectations.

Four Seasons Bora Bora
An aerial view of the Four Seasons Bora Bora Resort and Mount Otemanu.

So much of our great service is thanks to our staff – many of whom are local Tahitians and eager to share their culture with guests.

As the villa host, I greet guests at the airport and escort them to the resort via a private yacht.

Once they settle in, I’m their primary contact to ensure that everything is perfect.

We pay attention to every detail, including guests’ food preferences, special occasions, favorite wines, and even their desired cut of steak.

I also handle everything from travel planning to charter arrangements to restaurant and spa reservations to private excursions and special celebrations. My job is like a cross between a butler and a personal assistant.

There’s very little routine in my day and time flies by since I’m always busy.

My schedule tends to be based on the villa guests’ routine.

If they’re early-risers, so am I. If they prefer late dinners and evening events, I stay up, too.

I spend some time in the office for administrative duties, but most of the time I’m at the villas catering to our guests.

Each villa has a private infinity pool, outdoor wooden deck, and a full alfresco kitchen.

Four Seasons Bora Bora
The infinity pool at one of the Four Seasons Bora Bora’s villas.

At the Four Seasons Bora Bora, we have seven beachfront villa estates that lie on a private stretch of white sand beach overlooking Bora Bora’s famous lagoon and the Mount Otemanu.

The villas are huge with two to three bedrooms each and have beachfront decks with private entrances. It’s like staying in your own mini resort.

We also recently added eight new overwater bungalow suites and MoeMoea – a 3,550-square-foot shopping center – so guests never have to leave the hotel.

Guests in the villas are often CEOs, celebrities, entertainers, and athletes.

The villas are private and luxurious, so they’re well-suited for guests who demand confidentiality.

One of my proudest moments was working with a CEO staying at the resort with his family. Halfway through his stay, his children reminded him that it was “mommy’s birthday.” He reached out to me in a panic to organize something on the fly – in less than 24 hours.

Our team jumped into action and threw together an epic surprise party, which included a private chef-cooked dinner, a beach party with a live band, fireworks over the lagoon, and her favorite cake for dessert. The event looked like it took weeks to plan, and the CEO’s wife was none the wiser.

Another time, an actress was staying at one of the villas with her husband. She wanted to treat one of her security guards to a day of fun, so we organized a day for him. We surprised him with a private guided snorkel excursion with our marine biologist and a Mai-Tai cocktail class, and he spent the rest of the day at the spa. They said they’d never seen him happier!

I enjoy helping guests plan their special occasions, such as a famous musician who wanted to set up a scavenger hunt for his girlfriend for an engagement proposal. The search included a customized map with treasures to find all over the resort, culminating with a buried ring on the beach.

I was so paranoid the ring would get lost somehow that I was on edge all night. But she ended up finding the ring just fine, and the romantic proposal followed. After that, they toasted the night away with champagne and a private fire dance by a Polynesian dance troupe.

There are occasional hiccups and challenges that come with the job, even in paradise.

Four Seasons Bora Bora
Vargas says her daily routine varies greatly depending on guests’ evolving needs.

Once, one of our guests lost her diamond engagement ring while swimming in the lagoon. She called me in a panic and minutes later, our security and dive teams started canvassing the lagoon in front of their villa, diving, tracking the tide, and combing the sand.

Within two hours, we found the ring and it was back on her finger. Our resort pearl boutique also adjusted the size of the ring for her so she wouldn’t lose it again.

Many of our guests come back year after year, so I keep in contact with them even after they leave. Some even start planning for their next stay as soon as they get home, and I’m always glad to be their point of contact and welcome them when they return.

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I’m a hotel ‘vibe manager’ who gets paid to curate playlists, set mood lighting, and help guests record their own songs

Ramon Olguin Sanchez
Ramon Olguin Sanchez.

  • Ramon Olguin Sanchez, 33, is the ‘vibe manager’ at the Hard Rock Hotel Los Cabos.
  • He’s in charge of curating music for 14 locations throughout the resort and maintaining the upkeep of iconic memorabilia.
  • Here’s what his job is like, as told to freelance writer Molly O’Brien.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Ramon Olguin Sanchez, a 33-year-old hotel vibe manager from Los Cabos. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I’ve worked with the Hard Rock brand for over four and a half years and have been the resident vibe manager for almost three years.

Before, I earned a degree in master of musical production with a specialty in live audio, and worked for audiovisual companies that produced big events.

I initially started working at Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya in 2017 as supervisor of the audiovisual department. Following the former vibe manager’s resignation, the hotel’s general manager asked me to step in and eventually offered me the role full-time. A few years later in December 2019, I was transferred to Hard Rock Hotel Los Cabos.

Hard Rock first introduced the vibe manager role in hotels around 2005.

We set the stage for memories to be made, from curating music and overseeing memorabilia to creating mood lighting.

I don’t have a set schedule, but my day usually starts with a walk around the property

Ramon Olguin Sanchez
Besides curating music, Sanchez is also in charge of upkeep of the property’s celebrity memorabilia.

I adjust the music volume on-site and check on the memorabilia displays. There are 14 separate music zones on the property that I manage. Next, I go over any events we have for the day, and mingle and interact with the guests throughout the grounds and chat about our music amenities.

I also oversee the upkeep of our musical memorabilia, a collection of more than 83,000 pieces, including at one point the famous “Prince Blue Guitar.” I made sure it stayed secure, in good condition, and with proper lighting and care. I also deal with special requests, such as carefully shipping a motorcycle from Riviera Maya’s Bret Michaels-themed suite to the Hard Rock headquarters in Florida.

At Hard Rock Los Cabos, we have a professional recording studio guests can use to create their own songs

I run the signature “Sound of Your Stay” program which includes three major components. The first, called “tracks,” is our free music service. Guests get a key holder with a code at check-in, and we curate playlists they can download to their device for free.

The second is “picks,” our electric guitar rental service with a menu of around 20 different guitar models. Guests can pick one to bring back to their room with an amplifier and take an in-room video guitar lesson on their TV. And the third is “wax,” our turntable service. We lend out over 100 vinyl records for guests to take back to their own room since every room has its own turntable.

I also run a DJ music creation activity on-site called “Mix,” where we teach guests how to use popular DJ software.

My favorite part of the job is planning live concerts and meeting musical guests

Ramon Olguin Sanchez
Sanchez with some of the vinyls available for guests to listen to.

When it comes to creating a good atmosphere for any event, the most important component is to properly manage lighting and the volume of the music. Our standard for the proper volume of the music at The Hard Rock is measured by whether we can hear the person we’re speaking with loud and clear without having to raise our voices.

I love getting creative to put on unique music experiences for guests, anything from an 80s party, to a reggae party, to a disco party. I scout local musicians to perform at the hotel and have also met famous artists who’ve stayed as guests, including Bret Michaels himself.

Another great guest encounter came when I met a couple where the husband, who is blind, enjoyed singing his poetry over smooth jazz music. His wife made a reservation for the recording studio, and he sang original poetry over a smooth jazz track. I helped them throughout the recording process – I’d never heard someone sing poetry over smooth jazz before, and I loved it.

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I give tours to VIP visitors at Disney World and Universal Studios. The job can be magical, but some clients make it pure hell.

Dave Dixon.
Dave Dixon.

  • Dave Dixon is a Disney and Universal theme park guide based in Orlando, Florida.
  • Since 2009, he’s led around 150 private tours a year to help families make the most of their trips.
  • Here’s what his job is like, as told to freelance writer Jenny Powers.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

I was born 11 days before Disney World opened its doors in 1971, so I like to think I was born to do this.

Growing up, I was a card-carrying member of the Mickey Mouse Club and at 21, I officially became a cast member at Disney World Orlando. I worked everything from parade audience control to attractions at The Magic Kingdom.

Despite leaving in 1994 to pursue a career in IT, I’d often accompany family and friends to the park and use my know-how to avoid lines.

In 2009 after giving countless tours for free over the years, I launched Magical Tours.

Dave Dixon.
Magic Kingdom Fast Passes.

Armed with insider experience, I helped families avoid long waits, maximize the use of FastPass service, and free up time for more rides. By 2010, demand was so high, I started working full-time and trained my wife and brother to help out too. During the busy season, there are days when we’re all in the parks running separate tours for families.

Until the pandemic, the key to navigating The Magic Kingdom was through the FastPass system, which allowed guests to reserve a time to access a popular ride. Once I mapped out a family’s route, I would race around the park with their magic bands securing fast passes while they were on rides.

When Disney World reopened they suspended fast passes. As a result, I’ve lost the bulk of my tour business since the Magic Kingdom was my most requested property.

Before the pandemic, I did 100 to 150 tours a year, charging $500 to $1,000 a day depending on group size, $1,500 for holidays, and $2,000 for the busiest day of the year – New Year’s Eve. Our full-day tours typically run between eight to nine hours, beginning the moment the park opens. Some folks do get tired halfway through and decide to call it quits early.

Disney may be called ‘the happiest place on earth’ but it’s pure hell on New Year’s Eve.

The crowd at the Magic Kingdom. Dave Dixon
The crowd at the Magic Kingdom.

The crowds and meltdowns have become so extreme, I stopped offering tours that day. No money in the world is worth all of that stress.

Some people think I just get paid to go on rides all day and that’s the furthest thing from the truth. In fact, it can be downright stressful. Families are spending $20,000 to $30,000 on a trip and it’s my responsibility to ensure they have the best time possible. We have to be aware of the lines, closures, and disruptions, but also keep it to ourselves and work behind the scenes to make sure everything goes smoothly.

During the busy season, my wife, a 911 dispatcher, will help out sometimes and she says it can be more stressful than her job, and she’s talking people off ledges.

If there’s one thing I’ve carried with me from my Disney training, it’s ‘never say no to a guest.’ I’ve got a choice – do I want to be a problem solver or a vacation wrecker? I might have to say ‘let’s see what we can do,’ but that’s different than a flat out no.

My job can be a lot of fun but I also see the not-so-nice side of people.

Dixon's wife Serena at Universal Studios Florida. Dave Dixon
Dixon’s wife Serena at Universal Studios Florida.

Once I was two minutes late to meet a group because the monorail broke down and the client called me screaming, even though the park wasn’t even open yet. Then in the middle of our tour, she fired her nanny and the poor girl had to remain with us for the duration of the tour.

Another time I had a single dad with his baby and 3-year-old toddler. The man would take his older child on the rides and leave me holding his baby. By the third ride someone called security because they thought I was attempting to kidnap the baby because he wouldn’t stop crying. After that, the dad realized it was time to go home.

Then there was the tour where I had a celebrity and his family. Halfway through the tour, the wife went back to the hotel with the nanny and the baby. Upon returning, the park was at maximum capacity so security turned the wife away. The guy went berserk and threw a tantrum but there was nothing we could do. In the end, I had to take the two remaining kids on all the rides because their father was too busy screaming over the phone about how he didn’t want to be there.

These days, I still offer tours at Universal Orlando Resort Theme Parks since they never operated on Fast Passes and to make up for lost revenue, I recently launched a business creating websites.

This fall, DisneyWorld and I will both be celebrating our 50th birthdays and I can honestly say, we’ve been through a lot together.

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I’m a pro poker player who won $3 million in 7 years. It may seem glamorous, but poker is also mentally and physically draining.

Xuan Liu.
Xuan Liu.

  • Xuan Liu, 33, is a former pro poker player and World Champ.
  • In 7 years of being pro, Liu won $3 million at tournaments, but says the mental and physical tolls of poker began to weigh on her.
  • This is what her career is life, as told to freelance writer Jenny Powers.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In 1985 when I was 5 years old, my family emigrated from Tian Jin, China to Toronto. By the time I was seven, I’d gained a basic understanding of poker from watching movies and TV and would set up poker games between me and my stuffed animals. I’d concoct hypothetical scenarios for each player and make decisions on what I thought each of them would do.

I’ve always been drawn to games of strategy.

In 2006, I went to the University of Waterloo, often referred to as the M.I.T. of Canada. Since we were all a bunch of super competitive analytical type students, the school was a hotbed for poker players.

I got a dealer’s license after my first year of college and for two summers I worked at the Canadian National Exhibition charity casino, initially as a dealer and then a floor supervisor.

As I became more immersed in poker, my grades suffered and eventually I lost the full scholarship I’d received to attend Waterloo. Instead of giving up poker, I began playing more, hosting games at my apartment to cover my tuition so my parents wouldn’t find out.

In 2010 with the encouragement of my friends, I started traveling to try my hand at playing in tournaments.

Xuan Liu 1st WPT event Liu played in Fallsview Poker Classic.
A trophy from the World Poker Tour Fallsview Poker Classic event where Liu played in 2017.

My first major tournament was the $10,000 World Poker Tour Fallsview event in Niagara Falls where I won my way in by winning a couple of events at the $500 level. I wasn’t yet familiar with the concept of selling actions (finding investors to back me) so I basically put most of my net worth on the table. I was horribly outclassed, but got to meet many poker legends and got hooked on the poker lifestyle.

As I started traveling to play, my parents realized what was going on. I made a deal with my mom that I’d travel for a year to play as long as I promised to settle down and get a real job. I ended up with two half a million dollar finishes within nine months, so she let me keep going.

From 2010 to 2017, I earned $3 million playing live and online tournaments, online under the name xx23xx.

From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem glamorous, but poker is also mentally and physically draining.

Liu with fellow players at a poker tournament. Xuan Liu
Liu with fellow players at a poker tournament.

There was a time where I was playing nonstop; it was like being on a hamster wheel. When I wasn’t competing, I was studying anything I could get my hands on about the game.

Poker is a game where you’re playing against other players, but it’s also very mathematical. It’s important to understand what general tendencies are, and study which game theory is optimal for any given situation in order to exploit your opponents and their tendencies.

In the past you could be quite successful playing a heavily exploitative style, but these days the game is a lot harder, so studying is important to compete at the highest levels. While I’m successful by most measurements, there’s another tier of players above me at the highest levels. I have a poker coach I study with who belongs to that tier.

The game is not only mentally draining but physically as well. Often we sit at a poker table for up to 14 hours, with limited breaks just to use the restroom or make a quick call.

Poker is a hard way to make easy money. I don’t know any pros that would actually recommend it for a living.

Don’t get me wrong – I love poker. It’s allowed me to travel to places like Italy and China and meet some truly amazing people, but the game can be a cold and lonely place. When you’re doing well, it means someone else isn’t. There comes a point when you see some of the worst aspects of humanity.

By 2017, I didn’t like the trajectory my life was heading, so after a brief marriage to a fellow player, I left the circuit to live life at a slower pace in Vancouver. I planned to move into a completely different field, but recently I kept having poker opportunities knock on my door that I couldn’t refuse.

Now that live events are back, I’m getting back into poker in different ways.

I’m doing live poker tournament commentating work in English and Mandarin because there’s a broader international audience these days. During COVID, I also became a board member and instructor with Poker Powher, an organization whose mission is to empower women from all walks of life by teaching them to play poker.

Poker can arm women with essential life skills like learning the beauty of risk, negotiating like a pro, and taking control – lessons they can take from the game room to the boardroom for the rest of their lives.

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