In this post, I'm going to share with you the entire timeline of my very first handmade jewelry business, Tiny Hands Jewelry, where I've made over $1,000,000 in sales cumulatively over the last 14 years that I've been running this business. You’ll want to read to the very end where I’ll share with you the top 3 takeaways from all of this. Hi, my name is Mei, and I help makers, artists and designers make a consistent living from selling their handmade products online.
I had never done anything truly creative or made anything with my hands until I turned 15 years old. I was born and raised in Malaysia, where doing anything artistic or creative is not valued as much as other fields like science, math, or economics. What really started all of this, was when my mom and I decided to sign up for a jewelry making class for the first time together. You're probably familiar with the story, where we got so into making jewelry that we ended up making so many pieces that we didn't know what to do with it so we decided to sell them online! It goes without saying, that the things that we were making at the time, weren't made with the intention to sell and we weren’t thinking about our customers. We made them because we just enjoyed the process of shopping for supplies and, honestly, we didn’t know any better. Our first few products were definitely what I like to call a “garage sale” product line. I'll share with you a few pictures that I could find from my old deviantART account, which is a site where I liked to share pictures of the products that I made.
As you can see, a lot of these were beaded work from the jewelry making class we took. I became super inspired with polymer clay when I came across a livejournal blogger who also handcrafted miniature food jewelry and was selling them on her blog. I didn't know polymer clay existed before this, and I was obsessed with the idea of being able to shape anything with your hands and curing it so it turns rock-solid in the oven. Unfortunately, it was really hard to find polymer clay in any stores in Malaysia at the time, and the one craft store that carried it was selling it for really expensive prices. Even so, I was hooked and I became really passionate about polymer clay. I started Tiny Hands in 2006 and for the next few years (what I consider the hobby years) I invested a lot of time and energy into teaching myself the craft of polymer clay. I read a ton of blogs, I got books, and I did a ton of trial and error. At the time there wasn't an abundance of YouTube videos where I could just learn from other polymer clay artists.
During these hobby years, my shop evolved from being a garage sale shop selling the things that I like to make, into a more cohesive brand where I wanted to be known for something. This is when I was starting to actually think about the customer. As you can see in the pictures here, my first few creations were definitely not very good looking, but I practiced and practiced until I got better and I felt more confident about selling them. I even taught myself how to make hand-bound journals! When I started selling my polymer clay work, I priced them for around $10 US and now I sell them at $20-$30. To make sales during this period, I spent a lot of time doing online networking. At the time, Facebook wasn't available to the public yet, so we didn't have Facebook groups. And Reddit wasn't popular. So where did I do my online networking? In these early years, there was a huge blogging community. These were a lot of creative teenagers and young adults, who enjoyed doing graphic design, making crafts, photography, and fashion. A lot of these people had online forums that accompanied their blogs. Some of these forums were very popular with thousands of members. These forums attracted a specific type of person depending on what that blogger was all about, so each forum had a niche. I joined whatever forums I thought were a good fit for me, and I would just chat with people. One of those forums is called Craftster, which is still around as of this writing. I would join these forums not to just promote my products, but with the primary goal of making friends because the people that I met online were so much more on my wavelength and we shared more similar interests than my actual real-life friends. Occasionally, whenever we did any promotional threads, I would post pictures of my products. I made my first few sales that way. I remember my very first sale was to an American girl named Angela who bought one of my hand bound journals. I set up my PayPal account for the first time so she could pay me, but at the time in Malaysia there was no way for me to withdraw that money. Still, it was really cool to have American dollars in my PayPal account, that I later spent on buying stuff online. I also did social media, primarily Facebook. I got to my first 2,000 Facebook fans by doing a few giveaways here and there and posting regular content and engaging with my community. At the same time, I was also building my email list so I started that really early on.
Coming to America
Then in 2009, I had the chance to do a transfer degree program in America for 2 years. I packed my entire life into two suitcases and traveled by myself across the world (I had never traveled alone before). What I remember to be really funny was that I actually packed a lot of my polymer clay tools and equipment because I loved it so much, and I wanted to keep doing it, but I wasn't sure if I could get those tools in America. I clearly didn't know that we had Michaels and Jo-Ann's Craft stores. I continued running Tiny Hands through my college days. As we graduated, no one would hire me because I was an international student on a Visa, and employers would have to pay some extra fees if they wanted to hire me. No one wanted to do that because they had equally as good, if not better, candidates that were local. I struggled to find work and no one would take a chance on me. I'm so glad that it worked out that way because otherwise, I wouldn't be here today.
Looking for Work
I got creative looking for work and I actually found a part-time job on Craigslist doing the exact same thing that I was already doing for Tiny Hands, which was building up a website to sell products on and doing online marketing. The money I made from this job supported us financially, and it was also great because it took some pressure off so I could take the time and space to make my business work. I used some of the money from that job to invest back into my business. For a long time, my husband and I had roommates so we could lower our rent. I think this is a practical and realistic way of going about it and if you can get a part-time job while you’re simultaneously building your business, that's going to help a ton. What I see often is that a lot of creative people who want to start their own businesses don't have any other stream of income, so they get really stressed out trying to make their business work. They put themselves in this desperate, do or die situation, which isn’t healthy or conducive for success. When you're stressed out, you're not going to make good decisions. I worked at this part-time job for about a year and it was also around this time that I realized I really didn't know what I was doing about making sales and marketing. Even though I was spending about a full-time amount of time on my business, I only made $9,000 in sales in that year after we graduated. The next year, I had a mindset shift and really started to invest in my business education. Because I had taken the time to train myself on my craft of polymer clay, why shouldn't I invest that same amount of effort and time into the business side of things? I signed up for a lot of courses. I got some one-on-one coaching help here and there, and what really brought my business sales to the next level was my effort in focusing on media outreach. In the next year we made $30,000 in sales and the year after that we made $80,000 and then the year after that we made $200,000. The way that I was able to level up so quickly was 100% due to media outreach. I would pitch my products to magazine editors and bloggers, and people would feature my products on their sites. Some of those features ended up bringing me a lot of traffic and sales to my site, but more than that I was also spreading brand awareness for my products. It was because I was featured on blogs and magazines, that I started seeing this domino effect of success. What was really awesome about it, was that these press mentions usually lasted me months if not years of results. Like my very first blog feature; I continued to get traffic and sales from them for years. And the best part is I didn't have to pay any of these people money to feature me. I'm not the only business that found success through media outreach. A majority of other successful brands out there have a successful track record of media outreach. So if you're interested in learning how to do that I'll link of video to that here for you to watch.
Around these years I also formed my very first mastermind group. This was a group of two other women who also ran their own product-based businesses and we met once every two weeks to talk shop. This was hugely instrumental in the following success that I had because these ladies helped push me and held me accountable to do a lot of things in my business that I didn't enjoy or that I was scared to do. One of these ladies is actually a really good friend of mine now, Stacey Trock who you might have seen in my YouTube videos. Stacey used to run an amigurumi pattern business and it was through Stacy's influence that I started my subscription product the Necklace of the Month Club in 2013. This is meaningful because my subscription product ended up becoming a consistent income for me and half of my entire business sales come from this subscription product.
I always had big dreams for my business, and I knew I wanted it to grow big. I knew that I could not accomplish those dreams if I were the only one making the jewelry all by myself. I just wouldn't have the time to make the jewelry, ship packages, answer customer service questions, and keep up with daily marketing. It was also during these years when I started the process of hiring and growing my team. That was certainly not easy, and like anything else in business, it was a learning curve and a new muscle that I had to build and train. It took me years of going through a lot of different people to finally find the core team that works with me to this day, and who have worked with me for close to a decade now. I should mention that when I started hiring people, I wasn't making those tens of thousands of dollars yet. I barely had consistent sales, but I devised a strategy to pay my assistants on a pay per piece basis, and because my jewelry is made to order, I didn't have to use any of my own money to pay my team. What would happen is, I would make a sale, and now I would have the money to then pay my team to make the product. It's really just a shuffling of someone else's money that helped me grow the production side of my business.
Starting a Second Business
After I hit my $200,000 a year, I started Creative Hive, because I was just so excited to share with other makers all the things I had learned from Tiny Hands. I learned over the years that I actually really enjoy marketing and business, and that's something I would encourage you to do as well. If you can fall in love with the process and with the business side of things, everything is going to be more enjoyable and fulfilling. It was also around this time that I started to hit the wholesale market really hard. I hired two sales reps, I did trade shows, I got my products tested, and over two years, Tiny Hands was selling in over a hundred stores across America. This was obviously amazing for sales, but after a few years of doing wholesale, I started to learn that I didn’t truly love working with people at the wholesale level. Finally, when it became more expensive to focus effort on wholesale than it was bringing in sales, I fired my sales reps, I stopped doing trade shows and I stopped actively seeking out wholesale relationships. Now, I still do wholesale, but I do it on my own terms and that's made me a lot happier. While I've lost some of the wholesale income, I was unable to focus my time and money on Facebook ads, which has been primarily what is driving traffic and sales to my business to this day, and now, Tiny Hands still makes an average of $200,000 – $300,000 a year.
Major Takeaway #1
Some major takeaways and huge learning lessons that I want you to have from reading this post, is investing in myself and expanding my skill set was the most impactful thing I could have done. I want to emphasize this because when I was trying to make my business work in the early days and I was taking a lot of courses to learn marketing, a lot of people, including my friends and family, would criticize me for spending so much money on courses. I would feel bad to the point where I considered it a personality flaw. None of the people around me invest in training and learning new skills in the way that I do, and I'm learning now that they were so wrong. I'm learning that people who are millionaires and billionaires invest in their skills and learning. For a long time, the people around me weren’t millionaires, and they weren't at the level that I wanted to be in. It's easy to be complacent when you're in that situation. For example, my husband is very self-sufficient and intelligent. He doesn't believe in taking courses, but I think that's a very dangerous mindset to have. I’m not saying he thinks this, but the moment you think you know everything and that you don't need to learn, is the precise moment that you’ve lost.
Major Takeaway #2
The second takeaway is that you need to surround yourself with the right people that will push you forward, challenge you and support you. My husband and I don't always see eye-to-eye on things, but ultimately he supports me. It wasn't always that way in the beginning. When I was just starting out he questioned everything I did, and for good reason because I have no experience or track record of having by my own successful business before. My parents felt that same way. They kept asking me when I would go out and get a real job. It wasn't until I proved to everyone that I could be successful that they started to trust me more.
Major Takeaway #3
The third takeaway, and what I attribute a big part of my success is to showing up every day and taking massive action. I wasn't always like this. When I was just starting out, I would let myself get paralyzed by the smallest challenges and in decisions in my business. A lot of that was my anxiety and lack of self-esteem. I had a lot of fear and a lot of things I was scared of. Like, just getting on the phone with anyone. It could be a stranger or a friend or with customer service, but I would start pacing, my heart rate would go up and I would sweat bullets from my armpits. I was so scared of being judged or rejected. I was scared to do media outreach. I had this fear that no one would trust me when I started Creative Hive because I look so young and I’m not that kind of white, blonde Instagram influencer type of person. I had a lot of fear doing video, if you go back to watch my earlier videos on my YouTube channel, you can definitely see what I’m talking about. I had a lot of fear speaking up as well because I wasn’t used to using my voice. I don’t want you to think that I’m better than you or more special or smarter than you, because I’m not. I was able to identify that those were the problems and I did invest in managing those things better. When you're just getting started, it's normal not to have confidence in yourself especially when you've never done this before. As time goes on and you experience little wins here and there, that confidence starts to build up. What kept me going despite my anxiety, was the fact that I wanted my dream so badly. If you don't want it bad enough, and you've got nothing to motivate you, giving up is going to be very tempting and easy to do. Be sure that you're spending some soul-searching time figuring out why you want to build your business and use that as a compass for moving forward.