** Update, Feb. 2017: At the time this interview was published, I had no idea that in a few months I would be diagnosed with breast cancer, which is why you don’t see it mentioned below. I also had no idea that in creating Sweatpants & Coffee, I had built the community I didn’t know I was going to need so badly. It was and is my joy and my nourishment. – Nanea Hoffman
Nanea Hoffman, 46, is the founder and director of Sweatpants & Coffee. The website, which she began in 2013 as a fun hangout with friends, is dedicated to the wearing of comfortable clothing, the drinking of hot caffeinated beverages, and to being one’s best self. That might or might not mean literally wearing sweats and drinking coffee; yoga pants or PJs, or miniskirts and heels might be your comfort thing. Hot tea, warm milk, ice-cold soda, flat beer, or ayurvedically tepid water? Whatever floats your boat. The idea at Sweatpants & Coffee is not to be thwarted by other people’s judgments and to go on and be your true self.
With this ethos in mind, we sat down with Nanea to ask her a little more about the S&C credo and what she envisions for the magazine going forward.
How did you get the idea and where did you come from—that is, what had you been doing all this time when suddenly the idea came to you?
The idea for Sweatpants & Coffee actually came to me during a period where I was struggling with anxiety and depression. I had two school-aged children, a husband who frequently traveled for work, I had just become a caregiver for my mother, and I was a bit adrift. My kids had reached an age where they needed me, but not in the intense way they had when they were younger. The work of parenting and caregiving, while important and valuable, was not fulfilling my creative desires. I wanted inspiration. I wanted connection. I wanted to feel at home in the world. One day, I was having a shower cry, which is one of my favorite coping mechanisms, and I just thought, “I want to talk about things that make me feel good. I want to focus on that.” And, well, two of the things I love are sweatpants and coffee. I got out of the shower, hair still dripping wet, sat down at the computer in my robe, and bought the domain name. I thought I’d have a cozy little blog with a couple of hundred readers, maybe. If I was lucky.
You run a growing internet startup from your home, have two active children, and take care of your elderly mother as well. You’re a busy woman. How do you cope with the time management?
This has actually always been a struggle for me. I think it must be for anyone who runs their own business and works from home because you are literally always at work. I did not do a good job of this in the beginning. When my mother moved in with us, we converted our home office into her bedroom, which meant the computer came to live in our room. I would open my eyes in the morning, roll over, and pretty much be at work. On the one hand, it was awesome because I had the shortest commute ever. On the other hand, it’s not the healthiest thing to be within arm’s reach of work when it’s midnight and your husband wants to snuggle. Eventually, I adopted what my son calls the “line in the sand” approach. Which means, at some arbitrary point, I just stop. There’s no such thing as done when it’s your own business. But there’s a time to stop. The other thing I do is carve out spaces for the big stuff. Taking my kids to school, talking to them about their day, going to medical appointments with my mom, having lunch with my husband. I fit work around my life now, not the other way around.
What do you think of the idea/social pressure/Madison Avenue and peer shaming/impossible construct of “having it all”? Especially for women? (Men don’t seem to be asked this question.)
I haven’t spent much time in a traditional office environment, so I’m fortunate not to have to deal with that sort of peer shaming (my cats really don’t care). But I do feel tremendous self-inflicted pressure—probably due to societal standards that I’ve internalized—to do and have it all. I remember just before Sweatpants & Coffee launched, I was at the doctor’s getting a referral to a therapist and my primary care doc casually asked me what was going on in my life. I mentioned I was starting this business and my mom was moving in and my husband had this sales job that had him traveling several days a month, but I was going to make it work. She just looked at me very kindly and said, “No, you’re not. You can’t. No one can. You cannot do all those things you think you’re going to do, so start crossing some things off the list.” She was totally right. You know what the secret to having it all is? Lower standards and flexibility. I’m BUSY. So, maybe my house isn’t going to sparkle like something out of a Pine-Sol commercial. Maybe my kids eat fast food sometimes. Maybe I sneak in a coffee date with my husband in the morning so we can have grownup conversation and then I’m working at 9 p.m. while he puts my daughter to bed. Redefine what “all” is and you can pretty much have it. Screw what other people think your life should look like.
Redefine what “all” is and you can pretty much have it. Screw what other people think your life should look like.
What has surprised you the most about starting and running your own business? What’s easier than you thought it would be, and what’s harder?
Starting my own business was the surprise. I didn’t know this was going to be a business. I thought I was going to be putting my thoughts into bottles and chucking them out into the Internet and I would be happy doing just that. The fact that it resonated with people and turned into a brand and a community continues to surprise and delight me. I won’t say that came easy, but it did come organically. The hardest part is drawing that line in the sand.
When do you have time for #ContinuousPractice? Where can you possibly go in that full house for some peace and quiet? Or do you not need it? What are you continuously practicing?
I’ve learned to do a daily writing practice anywhere and at any time. For me, the key is pouncing on a free moment. I carry my notebook everywhere. I’ll write on a picnic table at soccer practice or in the car while I’m waiting for my mother to finish her banking. If I’m out for a walk and a thought strikes, I will sit on a curb and start scribbling. I used to be the kind of person who could only write in a certain spot in my house and in complete silence. Since I abandoned the idea of producing beautiful, perfect sentences in beautiful, perfect conditions, I’ve gotten much more prolific. I have books full of shitty writing! And some good writing, too. But mostly, it’s total dreck. It’s just about keeping the faucet open.
Please tell us about the Tiny Office Pod. Is it kind of your Red Tent?
I did eventually outgrow the bedroom, so now I have this lovely little studio office. I joked when we had it built that it could double as a menstrual hut. It’s small and quiet and perfect, and it stands in a corner of our backyard. I named it “Hale Ho’oulu Makemake” which is Hawaiian for “House of Growing Hopes and Wishes.” And that’s what I do in there. It’s the closest thing Sweatpants & Coffee has to an official headquarters.
Sweatpants & Coffee has been steadily growing since it was launched. How has your vision for it changed over the past two or three years?
I never anticipated the huge response to this idea of comfort and inspiration. There’s this deep-seated need for validation and connection that I think people find in Sweatpants & Coffee and that is what’s really shaped our growth. We’re not just a website or a social media platform, we’re a community. That’s the vision. The biggest, coziest, most amazing blanket fort on the Internet.
Tell us about the Anxiety Blob: What is that and where did it come from? Some thoughts on mental health and the shame of mental illness?
The Anxiety Blob is my primitive attempt to draw how I feel when I am at my most anxious and dysfunctional. Apparently, my soul looks like a vaguely worried potato. Most of the stuff I produce for Sweatpants & Coffee comes from my own inner dialogue, and the Anxiety Blob says all the weird, vulnerable, completely mental shit that runs through my mind all day long. It turns out a lot of people relate to that.
As far as the shame of mental illness, what I’ve found is that if you talk about how uncomfortable and strange and fucking hard it is, if you talk about the shame, it sort of dissipates. Or, what happens is, a bunch of other people hear you and go, “OMG, ME, TOO!” And shame is a thing that lives in isolation. It’s hard to keep on being ashamed in a group full of weirdos who are raising their voices in solidarity. And if you can’t be the one to speak up first, you can certainly be one of the ones who chimes in with a “Me, too.”
What keeps you up at night?
Anxiety. Sometimes justified. Sometimes just my wonky emotional smoke detector going off for no damn reason. I used to wake up two or three times a night with anxiety attacks, but I’m better these days.
What’s more important, sweatpants or coffee?
You’ve used the wrong conjunction.
What are you teaching your children about comfort, caffeine and sanity? More importantly, what are they teaching you?
I think what I’m teaching my children is that you do what you need to do to take care of yourself, because a sane, healthy you is a gift to everyone around you. My children teach me about perspective. I’ve got an 18-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter who are on completely different ends of the personality spectrum. He’s calm and serious and reflective; she’s bubbly and fierce and open. And they’re both funny as hell. It’s impossible to take myself too seriously when I’m around them, and they keep me in the moment, which is where I’m supposed to be.
What’s your Starbucks order?
I want to say something really fancy, but the truth is I always just get a nonfat latte. No whip.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do what you did to create and grow Sweatpants & Coffee?
Figure out what it is that makes you happy. Like, really, deeply, stupidly happy. I don’t care what it is. Once you know that, you’ll know what the next step is. And then work at it like it’s your job because it is. All the other stuff—building a platform, creating something meaningful, connecting with people—if you do that in the service of what makes you happy, it will be authentic and that’s where you’ll find success.
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist. She has edited newspapers and magazines, and has been blogging since 2003. She is the author of five books and a collection of poetry, and was recently named Best Independent Blogger and cited (Best Feature) by the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club for a Sweatpants & Coffee feature article.