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Aimee Millwood
Director of Content at Yotpo
February 2nd, 2016

How a Love for Pets Inspired a Booming Jewelry Business

Far from home, Cindy Chan, a Chinese exchange student studying in New York, missed her dog. Learn how her homesickness for her pets inspired into a flourishing eCommerce business.

As a child growing up in Hong Kong, Cindy Chan spent weekends helping her parents in their clothing store. While Cindy loved working in the store with her brother and helping customers, her parents didn’t want her to follow in their footsteps. They saw self employment as risky and wanted their daughter to instead get a corporate job and steadily rise up the ranks. They wanted her to have a predictable, safe career.

But Cindy had other plans. She dreamed of attending Parsons School of Design in New York City, where she could study business, like her parents wanted, but also explore design, which she had always loved. In New York though, she faced the harsh reality of the expense of studying abroad as well as the pangs of homesickness.

While she went home twice a year, she still missed her rescue dog, Lucky. She’d grown up around pets her whole life, and an intrinsic part of missing home was missing the animals closest to her.

Since she couldn’t ship her pets to her, she started crafting some of her jewelry pieces in their likeness.

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“It was nice to have a keychain or jewelry just to remind me of home every now and then,” Cindy explains.

As far as expenses, a smart budget helped her make ends meet, but buying gifts for friends and family was difficult. So she started giving the pet jewelry to her friends as presents. Her first gift was a pendant to a friend who missed her cocker spaniel.

“I thought she’d appreciate having her dog close to her even while she was thousands of miles away,” Cindy says. Everyone loved the gifts, so she started selling the jewelry on Etsy to see if other people were also interested in them.

Once she started getting sales through Etsy, she realized she was on to something and thought it could be a good way to make some more money while in school.

At Parsons, she was eager to learn as much about building a business as possible. She gained editing skills from the illustration department, photography and lighting skills from classmates, and marketing and business accounting knowledge from her classes.

“There are a few core skills that every entrepreneur needs if you want to do online business. You really need to get a really well-rounded picture before you start. If you are not prepared your chances of failure is very high. Everybody can sign up for an email and open a store within an hour. But, not everybody can make their first sale within the first three months.”

She also stayed extremely close to the product. As an animal lover herself, she knew her audience, and she put care into each and every piece of jewelry, even making the packaging by hand.

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As far as marketing, she made due with what she had.

“I was in school, and we had a printer and graphic designers, so we just started making leaflets and putting them up around school and handing out leaflets in the park.”

The few sales she got from this grew from from word of mouth, as happy customers told their friends, which brought her more customers.

“If you’re passionate about what you’re providing, other people can feel it too and if it’s something that they like, then the chances of them telling their friends about it is pretty high.”

Before she knew it, her side project grew from 10 pieces a week to 100, and she needed to hire more designers and find a studio. Animal Jewelry was born.

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The burst in business was an awesome surprise, but the adjustment wasn’t without growing pains.

“Once sales started just going through the roof, it wasn’t really possible for me to keep hand-making everything. You go from making things by hand and sculpting things to drawing things out and having other people make them. It’s a whole new process working on a completely different scale, so there were definitely a lot of difficulties there just in terms of figuring out how to manage your production line,” Cindy says.

She found a producer through her family’s clothing business in China. The apparel factory they worked with was able to connect her with a friend who had just started producing and was willing to take a small order.

Now, both she and her family produces mainly in Thailand, because the quality is better.

When producing overseas, learning to effectively communicate needs and expectations to the factory was an important lesson for Cindy, who was used to making things herself and knowing exactly what she wanted as a result.

“While the initial process of setting up overseas sourcing requires a lot of back and forth, it’s necessary for building relationships with producers so that things go smoothly,” she explains.

Relationships have been key to Cindy’s success. When starting, she found resources and help by attending local meetups, where she grew her professional network. “Generally, people are very willing to help out and give advice, especially to those who are just starting out.”

She’s repaying the favor, selling the products of small designers in the US who are very talented but don’t have an online presence on her store.

In such a niche market, it’s important to really understand and be in the places where your customers hang out, online and off. Cindy volunteered at pet rescue centers on the weekend and met more of the people who would become her customers.

“The majority of our customers are repeat customers, so word of mouth and just maintaining our relationships with existing customers is very important.”

Although she has now been featured in publications like Vogue and Glamour, it’s still these personal relationships that do the best long term. Cindy says publicity from big names hasn’t been nearly as valuable as reaching customers directly and being written about in pet blogs.

As she moves forward in an ever-changing eCommerce market, Cindy’s goal is to continue adapting and growing to new challenges.

“Things like Pinterest don’t really work anymore. I mean, those things were very successful a couple of years ago, even a year ago. But today, every business is on social websites trying to promote their product and being overt about it.”

As the market becomes saturated with self-promotion, customers become more discerning.

“In order to cut through the noise today, you have to find ways to stand out.

Cindy sees the future moving towards more organic, personal interactions, as well as an increased focus on personal connections. She says it’s important to be in a lot of different places trying to reach as many people as possible, because every little bit counts.

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