scorecardI run a 7-figure online stationery store I started on the side while working as a pharmacist — here's how I grew it
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I run a 7-figure online stationery store I started on the side while working as a pharmacist — here's how I grew it

Irene Kwong   

I run a 7-figure online stationery store I started on the side while working as a pharmacist — here's how I grew it
Careers5 min read
Irene Kwong.    Courtesy of Irene Kwong
  • Irene Kwong is the founder and CEO of stationery company Simply Gilded.
  • She started the business on the side in 2015 while working as a pharmacist.

Entrepreneurship was always in my blood, but I didn't realize it until my thirties.

My father taught himself how to code and eventually designed database software that led to him quitting his 9-to-5 to start his own company. Because he dealt firsthand with the risks and hardships of owning your own business, he wanted me to experience stability in the workforce. He always believed I would be a suitable pharmacist, so I became one.

But years later, I decided to follow in his footsteps. Although starting a business while working a full-time job wasn't easy, it paid off: My stationery company Simply Gilded become a top-ranked Etsy shop based on sales per day two years into business, and by late 2017 I was ready to quit my six-figure job to go all in. By 2018, I was making seven figures in revenue exclusively through my Shopify store.

Simply Gilded exists because I reignited my childhood passion

stationery designs
Simply Gilded designs.      Courtesy of Irene Kwong

When my sisters and I were young, we used to spend hours trading and collecting stickers. These were some of my happiest memories.

I became a pharmacist in May 2009 after eight years of school and more than $100,000 in student loans. After working 14-hour shifts plus overtime to pay back my student loans — which I completed in 2012 — I longed to go back to where I felt most alive.

Browsing pretty stationery online to destress inspired me to start creating again for fun. I don't think any business can survive without the founder having an insatiable love for the product.

I was constantly searching for stationery that had a whimsical yet grown-up aesthetic. When I couldn't find it, I decided to make my own.

I started in November 2015 with a camera on loan from my dad and the family printer. I continued balancing my business with my day job for more than two years and spent every night and weekend fulfilling orders, working customer service, and designing new collections. When I first started, I worked around two to three hours a day on the store, but when things really took off a year later, it was an up to seven-hour daily commitment on top of my pharmacy hours.

Along the way, I discovered a group of impassioned people who loved to decorate their paper planners and made them my target audience. Many of my first customers were motivated by new offerings, so I started an email list and used it as a way to send sneak peeks and special offers.

Facebook and Instagram are an important part of my marketing strategy

I have 90,000 followers on Instagram and a private Facebook group consisting of about 19,000 members. Instagram accounts for approximately 35% of my social sales and Facebook accounts for about 10%.

In the early stages of Instagram, I would host giveaways with other shops, which helped boost numbers. Going live is especially fun, and I get to know frequent customers.

My content has always been all about experimentation — I've tried all sorts of things like behind-the-scenes peaks, pretty pictures, and more TikTok-style funny content. In the end, I've gone with what I personally love most — taking pretty pictures and doing live reveals. The things that weren't really "me," like the funny content, didn't bring in the same amount of engagement or views. I've stopped trying to chase every trend and do what feels most authentic.

A post shared by simply gilded (@simplygilded)

In addition to posting three to four times a month on Facebook, two to three times a week on my Instagram feed, and Instagram stories daily, attending conventions like Go Wild help me bond with fellow business owners and led to collaborations.

One of my recent collaborations was with the journal company Archer & Olive. I really love their products, and they have a large customer base to which I was introduced.

I felt comfortable leaving my job as a pharmacist when I matched and then exceeded my former salary

When I quit my job, I was able to laser-focus on designing and producing more products. I started releasing new collections monthly rather than quarterly to meet demand.

In the beginning, I was told about bulk discounts from my manufacturer where I could save $0.10 to $0.20 per roll of washi tape if I ordered 3,000 rolls instead of 1,000 — but those 3,000 rolls took me nearly three years to sell. After this overestimation, I became more conservative with my inventory. This inadvertently led to more demand for my products.

After a few years in business, I was even able to add on a $30-a-month subscription option, which now has thousands of subscribers and contributed to the business hitting seven figures in revenue.

There's a misconception of entrepreneurs being superheroes who build companies by themselves

This may be true for some, but I know I couldn't have done it without the help of mentors and a strong support system.

When I first started, I reached out to another business owner I really admired who owned a pen shop called Pengems. She became a true cheerleader who helped me believe in what I was doing and navigate some challenges early on since she had gone through those challenges herself.

When I couldn't handle the workload on my own, I hired my first employee in 2017. Today, I have eight people helping me with social-media moderation, email campaigns, sponsorships, website maintenance, customer service, graphic-design work, and managing inventory.

I don't fit the profile of your average entrepreneur

I'm a woman of color, mother, introverted, and generally risk-averse.

I think that being an introvert — and an especially empathic and sensitive one to boot — has been a major advantage. I have an ability to enhance the customer-service experience, tap into my rich inner world to bring a unique spin to the business, and create cohesion and harmony in my team.

Most people thought I was reckless for leaving a stable job, especially with many years and thousands of dollars invested into my doctorate degree. Don't let what others think or expect of you define who you are or what you're able to achieve. Know that it's never too late to start something new and to find success in what you're inspired to do.