The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Meet the Interviewee: Yandy Zuo
When Yandy Zuo was in 10th grade at a Toronto high school, she started Thoughtfully Handmade, a business that sells handmade bookmarks and greeting cards. For this post, I had the opportunity to interview Yandy about some of her experiences and tips for students interested in entrepreneurship.
What does your startup sell and what’s your role in it?
“I am the owner of Thoughtfully Handmade, and I sell handmade greeting cards that are either pre-made or custom made. I also sell handmade bookmarks.”
Why is this your passion?
“I have always been a crafter at heart. From a young age, I would make DIYs and decorate my bedroom how I saw fit. I never had an allowance growing up, so Christmas and birthday gifts all had to be handmade. For the Christmas of 2015, I had run out of ideas until one came to me: handmade cards! I made several for my friends and family. I really enjoyed it. It was fun to be creative.
Fast forward to February 2016, Careers class. My teacher strongly pushed us to sign up for Make Your Pitch and Summer Company, which made me think of several start-up ideas that could be implemented immediately. I ultimately settled for a cardmaking business unique from the machine-made cards most stores like Hallmark and Dollarama offer today. My slogan is “Adjustable. Affordable. Adorable.” because I want to give people beautiful cards with the option to personalize them at an affordable price. Most stores on Etsy charge $7 for a card, while I never go above $3.”
How did you turn the start-up from just an idea into an enterprise?
“Summer Company helped a lot when it came to making my dream a reality. By applying for the program, I already wrote my business plan, which definitely made me think about the details such as pricing, my niche market, and my budget. I actually wrote a blog post about it, where I share exactly what I did to get in.
I took detailed notes in the workshops that Ryerson University provided (they are Summer Company program providers) and implemented them. I created a QuickBooks account for accounting purposes, started social media accounts for Thoughtfully Handmade, and booked vending spots to sell my cards in-person. I had already designed a (somewhat passable) website with Wix, and Summer Company provided me with the additional tools to turn my idea into an actual business.”
What were some of the biggest challenges you encountered along the way and how did you overcome them?
“One of my greatest regrets was not taking Summer Company seriously. I thought that after the summer of 2016, I would stop. So I never thought much about the future. However, as I went through the program, I realized that I enjoyed running my business a lot and definitely wanted to continue. But the program ended.
Then came the summer of 2017. I got a summer job with YIPI (Youth in Policing Initiative), and while I loved my job, I didn’t put that much focus into Thoughtfully Handmade. And now, the story continues into the summer of 2018. One of my biggest challenges thus far is definitely having to start over from scratch this year. I got into bullet journaling, which led me to find Boho Berry. She is a strong advocate for Lisa Jacobs and her Marketing Creativity website. I became hooked on learning how to improve my business. Then I had a giant epiphany: How can I improve something that was so broken? The answer to me became quite clear. I had to start over and Lisa Jacobs’ Your Best Year 2018 workbook really helped me to set an even stronger foundation for my business.”
5. Running your own startup can be stressful. Why do you keep going? Where do you find your motivation?
“Running my own business isn’t as stressful as it is panic-inducing. I constantly wonder why I’m not getting any sales, why people aren’t signing up for my email newsletter (by the way if you want to sign up, you would be helping a girl out!), or why my Instagram posts aren’t getting enough likes (follow @thoughtfullyhandmade!). Then I remind myself that I have only been back at this for a month, and significant change can’t occur in 30 days. My motivation comes and goes but I always keep in mind that no other job gives me as much flexibility as this one. Sure, I don’t make much right now, and I might have to take a second job in the summer months, but I am certain no other job will allow me to only work on the weekends when university starts and allow me time off to visit my grandma. No other job allows me to create whenever I want, whatever I want. No other job gives me the freedom to work at home.”
“A helpful community also gives me motivation. The cardmaking community on Instagram is really welcoming and supportive, especially campaigns like Just a Card and flea markets like Leslieville Flea or the Trinity Bellwoods Flea who encourages people to shop local. Ultimately, I love helping people and nothing gives me more joy than providing people with positivity. Cards are usually given during a celebration and the recipient is almost always happy to receive a card.”
6. What tips would you give to a high school or university student looking to create and run their own start-up?
“Tip #1: I highly suggest applying for Summer Company as it provides the largest amount of start-up money ($3000) for essentially nothing. I’ve researched for grants and programs when I restarted Thoughtfully Handmade this summer but most are actually loans.
Tip #2: If you want to sell a product like I do, I recommend having an online shop and selling at your local market (I use Shopify now and it is much better). For example, my online shop is a great place to direct people through social media, email marketing or conversations with people you meet. Another option is to build your own website. Hosting Foundry is here to help you with web hosting services that is affordable. However, by selling at a local market that fits your niche, you meet people who are ready to spend money and meet your clientele. A physical point of sale (a place people can buy your stuff) can also work for a service. I also sell a service: custom handmade cards. I use my market days as a chance to promote my service as well as to sell my premade cards. It is much easier to connect in person through face-to-face communication than through a screen.
Tip #3: Don’t start right away. I know that is probably not what people suggest. Most say just do it now. And while I agree that you should start now, you should develop your ideas a bit before going full steam ahead. Do thorough research and build a strong foundation to build your start-up on. Many great things started as a half-baked idea. But to continue, your idea must become solid, like a rock. Answer these questions first to get started: What is it specifically that you want to do? How are you going to implement this? Who is going to help you? Where is your headquarters going to be- will it be at home or an office space? When can you start? Why are you doing this?
Tip #4: You must find a reason for why you want to start your own start-up. Once you do, write it down and hang it somewhere that is visible or save it as your screensaver. That is going to be the mantra you say to yourself when you feel like giving up, when nothing is working and you just can’t muster any more motivation. Trust me, you’ll need it. Starting a business is fun and exciting, but there are dark moments as well.”