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I turned my failed Etsy shop into a business that made $1 million in its first year. Here's how I did it by 21.

Ashley Couto   

I turned my failed Etsy shop into a business that made $1 million in its first year. Here's how I did it by 21.
  • Keida Dervishi, 21, chose to start an embroidery business with her mom instead of going to college.
  • She started selling embroidered products on her Etsy shop at 17 but orders dried up.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Keida Dervishi, the 21-year-old founder of Soulmate Customs. The revenue has been verified by Business Insider. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

As a young girl, I never thought I'd follow in my parents' footsteps. They moved from Albania to the US before I was born and owned a fashion line. I grew up traveling to trade shows all over Europe.

I was always curious about my parents' businesses, but my passion was singing and acting. As a nine-year-old, I competed in Gjeniu I Vogel, a televised Albanian children's singing competition. As a teenager, I appeared in TV shows and movies like "Fresh Off the Boat," "The Wrong Husband," and "The Council."

When the pandemic hit, I thought it was time to try something new. At age 17, I saw other teenagers on TikTok starting businesses. I purchased a $300 embroidery machine with my parents' help. I thought it would be a side hobby to earn some income. I didn't expect it to blow up. Soulmate Customs made over $1 million in sales in less than a year.

It hasn't always been easy. There have been some failures in growth that were our fault. But even with failures, we've learned from our mistakes.

I had some early success thanks to TikTok, but sales dried up fast

I got the machine in December 2020, six months after graduating from high school. I unpacked it, opened up YouTube, and searched "how to embroider," I learned how to use it in a day. After a few weeks, I felt confident enough to start selling designs.

I started with an Etsy embroidery shop before founding Soulmate Customs. Using an app called Procreate, I drew designs on my old iPad. Once I had a design I liked, I'd put it on a USB and plug it into the machine, which automatically digitized the design to embroider.

I got a few orders initially, but things boomed when I posted a design inspired by Olivia Rodrigo's song Driver's License on TikTok. The video got around 4 million views, and my shop had over 300 orders in three months. I thought, "I've made it!"

Once the song's hype died down in 2021, the orders dried up on my Etsy shop, and I freaked out.

A birthday gift for my mom was the spark for Soulmate Customs

Around the time orders dwindled, my mom's birthday was coming up. I thought, "Why don't I take a picture of me and her, outline it, and embroider it with the embroidery machine I already have?"

When my mom opened the shirt with the embroidered outline of us, she started crying. She told me it would be a great idea for a business.

Later that year, in July 2021, we launched Soulmate Customs, which makes soulmate-themed custom embroidery clothing. My mom is a cofounder because she is very involved in the business and helped set up all the legal paperwork.

We got our first order after 4 days and made our first $100,000 in 4 weeks, thanks to TikTok

After experiencing the drastic fall in orders with my first Esty shop, I knew for Soulmate Customs, I had to be promoting it on TikTok constantly.

I made vlog-style content of me embroidering. After about four days of posting, we got our first order. I did a mini-vlog of making and shipping that first order. About 30 minutes after posting the TikTok, we saw floods of new followers and supportive comments. The video was blowing up. It ended up getting 3.7 million views.

I started hearing the sale "cha-ching" on my phone repeatedly. I was sitting with my mom on the couch, and we looked at each other in shock. We got over 1,400 orders in the first month and made over $100,000 in sales. It was a huge jump-start.

The business became a family affair immediately

When those orders came in, the business was still one $300 embroidery machine in my parents' house. There was no way that I could fulfill every single order on time. I told my mom we'd have to shut down the store.

My mom said we weren't shutting down. She sent my dad to look for office space. We rented out the second office we saw and have moved twice since then. We invested in four commercial embroidery machines and hired anyone we could find just to help us fulfill all of the orders. Thankfully, we did it successfully.

The business became a family affair. My mom runs the entire production and back-end parts of the business. We call her the "Kris Jenner" of the family.

My dad deals with the operations. He fixes machines, buys new machines we need, and trains staff. My older brother Kenny handles everything marketing — running ads, email, and SMS campaigns. A big part of his work is also accounting. We are fully family-owned.

Posting constantly means momentum doesn't fizzle out

I knew from my Olivia Rodrigo success that after a business blows up on social media, it's hard to keep the fire going. So, I knew creating a lot of content would be key.

Once I get into the office, the first thing I do is post a video. I post five to eight times per day on TikTok and Instagram. It's the most important part of my day.

I work with trending sounds and video formats. I see what's going viral and copy the trend. Drama also sells. For example, I've made so many drama videos where I include customers who reach out to us with their stories. In one video, a customer reached out to us saying that one of the custom orders she saw on our page was her boyfriend ordering for another girl.

Posting a lot content on TikTok has been key to keeping our business thriving. We hit $1 million in revenue in 2022 in just 11 months.

Relying on virality is tough

We've had huge ups and downs because we rely on virality, which can be tough. Views aren't consistent, so I'm looking for more stable ways to grow the business this year.

We're still trying to figure out how we can keep on scaling at all periods of the year, not just whenever we go viral or during seasonal peaks. Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and Father's day are when we see a bump in orders.

As a young founder, I haven't always made the right calls

When we hit $1 million, we had a super small team.

One of the mistakes that I made in growing the business last year was over-hiring. Because we grew so quickly initially, I thought more team members would help us keep growing. We hired graphic designers, extra content creators, and videographers. I overhired, and it got very costly very quickly. It was a big lesson. Now, we've found a better balance.

My focus is on growing the business rather than college

School has never been a huge priority to me. My parents didn't push me to go to college. When I would have applied for college, the business took off and sent my life in a different direction.

I didn't start the business with this endgame in mind. Now that we're at seven figures, I'm fighting with everything I can to keep it going. It's been very stressful. There have been times when I've been so overwhelmed that I don't know if I can keep going.

Reaching out to other people on social media has helped a lot. Instagram has been a big platform for me to make connections with business people and others who are doing cool things with their lives.