Millennials, huh? Those avocado-toast-loving, Instagram-influencering, selfie-taking young’uns. They’re always too busy disrupting industries to get to the business of making themselves a proper career.
Just kidding. You’re safe here in the knowledge that I, too, am planted firmly within the age range that defines me as a Millennial. And personally, I think we’re great.
And as for traditional careers, who needs ‘em?
Today, more and more Millennials are rejecting traditional career paths and stepping out on their own, and entrepreneurship has always been an appealing alternative. According to a study by the Kaufmann Foundation, 54% of Millennials want to start their own business or have already started one. With the promise of setting your own hours, not having to call anyone boss, and the satisfaction of watching something grow from the ground up, it’s easy to see why Millennials are drawn to the idea of starting their own businesses.
Jenny Lei is proof that despite their age, Millennial entrepreneurs are ready to play in the big leagues. With no formal business training and a single internship on her resume, this self-taught entrepreneur has grown her ecommerce business to an enviable success. Her business, which sells handbags and accessories, has recently passed the $600,000 revenue mark despite launching less a year ago.
I called her up at her apartment/office/temporary warehouse in New York City to talk to her about finding her feet as an entrepreneur, her biggest mistakes, and the little details that have made all the difference to her success.
The First Steps as a Millennial Entrepreneur
Jenny Lei is 22 years old, and brimming with energy and enthusiasm. She’s a self-described optimist, a trait she thinks is crucial to her success as an entrepreneur.
“I’m very positive person, I think that helps. You have to be optimistic when doing this, because a lot of things are going to go wrong,” she says.
Then after graduating college early in December 2017, she found herself out in the real world with the prospect of her entire career spanning before her.
“This past year I was trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, and how I’m going to make money, so I was interviewing a lot.” she says. “But I realized that the jobs I was interviewing for, I wasn’t really interested in.”
Unsatisfied with the idea of falling into an office job, she started to look for projects she could pick up to make some money to support herself.
So in April 2018, in between interviews and job applications, she started dabbling in her ecommerce businesses.
She’d tried running an ecommerce business before in college, selling avocado slicers to her Instagram followers. Her followers (all 800,000 of them) were part of a healthy recipe page she’d spent most of her high school years building. “I was thinking, I have a recipe Instagram page, and people love avocados! Let’s do this,” she says.
In the end the store made a few sales, but didn’t take off in the way she’d hoped.
But this time around, she went for a different approach.
First came the clothing store. Then the jewelry store. Then the bangle store. Then the luggage cases.
“My original goal was to start one store a month,” she says.
While she had some success, most of the businesses didn’t amount to much.
“I don’t remember how I stumbled on the idea of selling bags,” she says. “But it appealed to me, I collect handbags, so I thought it would be a good idea.”
She quickly launched her store with Shopify, and used Oberlo to source the product suppliers and help fulfil the orders. She chose to dropship the products from her supplier in China so that she wouldn’t have to buy inventory upfront. Then, once a customer had placed an order from her store her supplier would take care of delivery of the items directly to her customers.
In May 2018, she launched her handbag store. And her success was quick. After advertising a couple of the bags on her Instagram page, she scored her first sales. And once they started, they flooded in – she made $1,000 in sales in the first 24 hours.
“I was with my boyfriend at the time and he was like, ‘Woah, what are you doing?’” she says. “He works in finance and works really long hours. He was like, ‘I’m sitting next to you and you haven’t done anything and you’re making money!’”
“At that point I told him that my ultimate goal was to get to $200,000 per month, because that’s what I see all the YouTubers doing. He was like, ‘That’s impossible!’” she says. “Well, I got to that in November!”
The Journey from $0 to $200,000 a month
When it came to marketing her bags, she began with the area she knew best. “I started with Instagram influencers because that’s what I was doing during high school so I was familiar with that space,” she says.
She paid influencers in the fashion space to promote her products by sending them samples to pose with in photos. Then, she offered them an affiliate code to incentivise them to promote the brand even more.
“I dabbled in Facebook advertising in the beginning too. But in the first week I did it I’d be like, ‘Oh, I spent $10 and nobody has bought anything! I’m going to stop this ad, I’m losing money!’” she laughs.
Eventually she grew tired of constantly coordinating promotions with influencers, and was looking for a way to run marketing that could be automated to keep pulling in sales 24 hours a day.
She thought back to some fatherly advice. “Like my Dad says, ‘You have to lose money to make money,’ so I thought I’d give it $200 to try Facebook ads properly.”
At first she struggled to find a formula that worked. “In the beginning I was doing my ads wrong, they looked really bad,” she says. “I was basically using the product description as the ad copy. Then I was scrolling through Instagram and I was like, ‘Hey! Nobody else does that, I’m going to stop doing that.’”
Eventually, after tests upon tests upon tests, she found her winning format. A carousel ad showing a collection of her best-selling bags, with simple copy inspired by the ads of fashion retailer Revolve.
“People say that video marketing is the best thing, but for me personally, my best ad has been a carousel post of different products. My best performing ad is the simplest,” she says.
Then everything started to click.
“My first $1,000 day was at the end of August, that happened on my Dad’s birthday. Then the first $2,000 day was a week after that! And then the first $10,000 was the day before Black Friday in November. These little milestones keep you going,” she says.
Although Black Friday turned into the biggest weekend in her store’s history, Jenny says the weekend was, “actually kind of calm.”
She had planned to be on a cruise with her boyfriend over the weekend of Black Friday, so she started planning early to make sure everything would be in place for the weekend. In September she hired two virtual assistants to help with customer service and order fulfilment, so she could focus on the marketing.
“I didn’t do too much prep for Black Friday, but I had three different ads set up to run the day before Black Friday. Then we just kept the best running one and scaled that up for the following week.”
On the day of Black Friday as she was cruising around the Bahamas, she kept an eye on the Shopify app on her phone as the orders flooded in. Midway through the weekend, she realized that orders were coming in faster than she expected and she quickly hired another virtual assistant to help with the workload.
In the end, the day was a huge success.
“I did $18,000 on Black Friday, so that was our best day,” she says.
The sales from Black Friday helped tip her revenue over the $200,000 mark for the month – the very amount she was told was impossible.
“I think anything is possible now after the past few months. Because my boyfriend said that I could never get to $200,000, and I got there while we were on a cruise!” she says, grinning.
What Makes Her Store Successful?
So what makes this store, out of all the stores, stand out?
For Jenny, the answer is in her dedication to the details.
She knew from the beginning she wanted her store to feel premium, so she went looking for inspiration from some of the world’s best designer brands.
“I went to Celine’s website, and decided I want my website to look like that. So in the end it doesn’t look like that, but it was good inspiration,” she says.
Determined to make her website and products feel just as cohesive as the designer brands, she spent hours photoshopping all her product images to make them match perfectly.
“If you’re selling a physical product, you need to have really good product images. Even better if they’re cohesive. You need to make all the images the same size, and you need to position all the bags at the same spot. So when you’re scrolling down all of the items you can see it’s consistent. You know when you click on it that it’s going to be the front, the side, the back, someone wearing it. That’s something that I think is very important. If I went to a website and all the images were different, I wouldn’t buy. The websites that I personally use are very easy to use, easy to navigate, the product images look beautiful. That’s a sign of trust to me.”
The level of dedication to cohesion not only builds trust with her store, but it elevates the feel of the brand, allowing her to charge higher prices and make a healthy sales margin. The bags in her store cost $80 on average, with a sales margin of 66% thanks to the premium brand image she’s built.
“In the beginning it took a lot of time to write the product descriptions, but now I have a good idea of how to write them. I write a little blurb of what the bag is, and how to use it. Then I write what it’s made of, dimensions and suggestions of what you can fit in it.”
But unlike designer brands which can come across as cold and clinical in the way they describe their products, she wanted hers to feel more approachable.
“There’s some brands like Warby Parker, where you can imagine someone reading the product description to you, and you can imagine how it fits into your life. That’s the direction I’m going for,” she says.
To make her products feel personal, she took the descriptions one step further. “I gave all of my bags names, so it will be something like the ‘Annie tote’ or the ‘Lauren bag’. I didn’t used to do that, it used to be like, ‘Round Circle Bag,’” she says.
“I think that made a big difference too, because people will say, ‘I like the Annie!’ or ‘Do you know when the Annie will be back in stock?’ I think that’s something worth considering doing, I noticed a difference after doing that.”
Ignore Everyone’s Advice, Follow Your Gut
Sure, Jenny’s success sounds exceptional, but I know from experience that it’s never smooth sailing to get to this point. “So, what were some of your biggest mistakes?” I ask her.
“Oh let me count the ways!” she replies, laughing. Then she pulls out her phone, where she has compiled an actual list of the mistakes she’s made.
She learned the hard way that there are good suppliers and bad suppliers, and that choosing a good one is crucial to making your business a success (and reducing the amount of stress-induced freakouts you experience).
“I learned that on AliExpress a lot of the suppliers carry the same items, but they’re not necessarily the same quality. The first batch of bags I had, some people said that they smelled bad and that the zippers broke a lot. So I ordered the same bag from five different suppliers to my house to compare, and then I picked the one that I thought was the best quality. There actually was a visible difference between the bags.”
In the end, the situation turned into a positive. By ordering samples of the products she was able to determine the best supplier in terms of quality and delivery service. “After that I built up a relationship with this supplier and now he sources all of my bags for me,” she says.
She’s gotten better at trusting her own instincts too. In the beginning, it was tempting to follow the advice of ecommerce gurus and experts, but she found that their suggestions often just didn’t feel right for her business. So she ignored them, and went her own way.
“Don’t listen to everything that people tell you,” she starts. “Do your research and follow your gut. Don’t do it unless you feel like it’s the right thing to do in your heart.”
Why Dropshipping Works So Well for Millennial Entrepreneurs
Because ecommerce businesses built with the dropshipping model are so lightweight, they’re flexible enough to let you start, stop, or change course if the direction of the business isn’t matching what you need from it.
And for a Millennial entrepreneur who is still trying to figure out both business and adult life, that’s kind of perfect.
Jenny’s the first to admit that if there’s one thing that’s certain about her life, it’s uncertainty. And she’s okay with that.
“The idea of having a set career path is scary to me,” she says. “But someone like my boyfriend, he’s got a great job, and it’s a job he’s wanted since he was five. I’ve never been like that. I don’t buy plane tickets months in advance, I buy plane tickets a week before when I’m sure I want to go. Then I’ll buy a one-way ticket there, because maybe I’ll want to stay a few extra days. I’m that kind of person. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next week, let alone five years from now.”
So she’s keeping her options open. This year, she’s headed to grad school to study information science, and will keep running her business on the side. Thanks to the help of her team of virtual assistants, she’s been able to scale back her work on the business to only 5-10 hours per week.
As for any other Millennial entrepreneurs thinking of following in her footsteps, she has one piece of advice: “Honestly, don’t give up. It’s not easy, but it’s also not as hard as people make it out to be. As long as you keep at it, you’re bound to succeed sometime. I succeeded on my seventh try or something. You’ll find a product that sticks.”