Starter Story

How I Built A Six Figure Business Bringing Asian Culture To The American Wedding Industry

$25,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
0
Employees
product
East Meets Dress
from San Francisco
started July 2018
$25,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
0
Employees
1.91M
alexa rank
1.61K
followers
7
followers
platform
email
customer service
productivity
design

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hello! My name is Vivian and I’m one of the co-founders of East Meets Dress. We’re the first modern fashion company to bring Asian-American representation and inclusion to the traditional wedding industry by combining contemporary cultural designs, quality craftsmanship, and a dedicated customer experience.

We’re in a pretty niche market in a large industry. Our core products are our Chinese wedding dresses (known as cheongsams or qipaos), but we also have a collection of men’s outfits, dress accessories, wedding favors, and mother of the bride/groom dresses that now make up around 30% of our revenue.

When we first started, we were targeting Asian-American brides in the U.S (and that’s still our core customer base), but as we continued to build our company, we started getting inquiries from brides around the world (e.g., Canada, Australia, and Europe), brides marrying into Chinese culture, as well as high school students looking to wear cheongsams to prom to celebrate their heritage.

East Meets Dress has been entirely bootstrapped from Day 1 (we got started with less than $100 over a weekend). Neither my co-founder nor I had any prior experience in fashion or entrepreneurship, but through a lot of hard work, hustle, and trial and error, we've been able to grow our team and company to a 6-figure annual recurring revenue ($25k/month) in one year and help hundreds of brides across the world celebrate their heritage in style.

how-i-built-a-six-figure-business-bringing-asian-culture-to-the-american-wedding-industry Our wedding cheongsams

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

My co-founder, Jenn, and I met and became best friends during our freshman year at Yale. After graduation, Jenn had started her career at Google before working at several smaller startups and then joining a coding bootcamp. I started my career in education and nonprofits before joining an early stage startup that was later acquired by Facebook. Around this time, Jenn and I started working on the concept that would later become East Meets Dress.

When we first started, we had no experience in fashion, e-commerce, or entrepreneurship. We simply had our own experiences as consumers.

The idea for East Meets Dress (EMD) originated from Jenn’s personal struggles when she was looking for a modern version of the cheongsam, a traditional Chinese wedding dress. She wanted to wear a cheongsam for her wedding tea ceremony to honor her parents and heritage but finding a modern design that fit her aesthetics turned out to be near impossible. At the time, her options were limited to suspicious onlines sites or stores in Chinatown with poor service and a narrow selection. Ultimately, Jenn resorted to custom making her cheongsam at a local tailor. I was her Maid of Honor and we both felt that Asian-American brides shouldn’t have to be confined to low-quality options or scouring Yelp to find the one tailor who could make a quality cheongsam from scratch.

When we first started, we had no experience in fashion, e-commerce, or entrepreneurship. We simply had our own experiences as consumers and having gone through Jenn’s wedding process. We also weren’t sure how many other Asian-American brides out there were also struggling with this problem and where we would find them since this was a pretty niche market. So we decided to just start small and test out our idea quickly.

We spent a Friday night creating a free landing page via Unbounce and running a $50 FB ad to see if anyone within our target demographic would be interested. Over a weekend, we got 40+ interested subscribers through a simple landing page that had no actual product on it, which gave us the initial reassurance that there may actually be a market for this. We started personally reaching out to every email we received and asking if they would want to hop on a call or answer a few questions to better understand what they were looking for. From this, we felt confident enough to put up a simple Shopify website the next weekend and to start with just one initial dress design on our site.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

The very first dress that we launched was actually Jenn’s own wedding cheongsam design. In hindsight, we wouldn’t recommend launching with just one dress design, but in the beginning, my co-founder and I were super scrappy and just wanted to move quickly to achieve product market fit.

Since neither of us knew much about making dresses, we would go to Joann’s, an arts and crafts store, across the street from our apartments to touch and learn about the different fabrics and their names. We also partnered with a local tailor and asked if we could shadow her each week to learn about the craft of making a cheongsam and how the different parts of a dress fit together.

In the beginning, even though we had limited manufacturing connections, we put aside our insecurities and asked anyone we knew if they had any connections related to the fashion industry. Although neither my co-founder nor I are very extroverted, we learned that by approaching each new relationship with the mindset of a student, many people were helpful in providing us tips and recommendations.

For example, a friend introduced us to her distant cousin in China who worked in silk manufacturing, who then introduced us to a dressmaking business run by two siblings, and we’ve been working with them ever since. We were able to show them our dress designs and work with them to select the fabric we wanted to use. We’ve also since expanded our dress suppliers who all have decades of experience specializing in the craft of making cheongsams.

Since we’re an e-commerce store without a physical storefront, our startup costs were much lower and we didn’t need a lot of additional business licenses to operate. We created our LLC agreement using RocketLawyer for $100, got a business bank account from Chase, and googled any questions we had about sales tax (the not so fun part of running a business). All of our dresses are also made-to-order so we were able to reduce our inventory costs and waste.

Our very first packaging design took 30+ minutes to complete for each dress, which quickly became inefficient and not scalable. We would paint a punny stencil design onto the wrapping paper, include Asian candies, stickers, plus a personalized note and then tie a bow around the whole package. The paint would take some time to dry and the hand-written notes for each package also took time to write. While we still do all of the packaging ourselves, we’ve since evolved to using custom printed tissue paper and compostable mailers, which has reduced our packaging time down to a few minutes per dress, but we’ve still kept the little goodies and stickers as a treat.

In terms of delivery, we either schedule a pick-up ahead of time each week or drop them off at the local USPS ourselves. Shopify makes it very easy to print shipping labels online for a discounted price and we have a Rollo printer label at home which has been a life-changer. We’ve also become good friends with all of our delivery people from USPS to DHL to UPS, etc.

how-i-built-a-six-figure-business-bringing-asian-culture-to-the-american-wedding-industry Our first package design

how-i-built-a-six-figure-business-bringing-asian-culture-to-the-american-wedding-industry Our current package design

For us, the transition from a simple idea to making our first dress design and bringing that entire process to life from end-to-end came one step at a time. We never felt 100% ready to fully dive right in and there are still many things we’re learning along the way, but we believed in starting small and helping just one customer at a time–that’s always been our philosophy.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Our website and first product launch was very small and quiet. There wasn’t anything glamorous about it–we didn’t have any PR or influencers to promote it. Prior to launching, we went to a nearby park to take photos of our first dress design on an iPhoneX (Jenn was the model and I was the photographer). Then that same day, we finished building our online store and simply pressed a button on Shopify that made our store “live”. We only spent around a $100 to launch our store since we didn’t have any inventory or physical location.

We honestly never expected to get this far and to have become profitable so quickly. While we still don’t earn enough to replace our previous tech salaries and there’s definitely more room to grow for our business, we’re definitely proud of how far we’ve come in just a year.

What our original Shopify site looked like :

how-i-built-a-six-figure-business-bringing-asian-culture-to-the-american-wedding-industry

how-i-built-a-six-figure-business-bringing-asian-culture-to-the-american-wedding-industry

how-i-built-a-six-figure-business-bringing-asian-culture-to-the-american-wedding-industry

Our very first dress design (photos taken on an iPhone X):

how-i-built-a-six-figure-business-bringing-asian-culture-to-the-american-wedding-industry

how-i-built-a-six-figure-business-bringing-asian-culture-to-the-american-wedding-industry

In the beginning, we were relying mostly on ads to drive traffic to our site. After about a month (which felt like forever), we got our first customer! It was both exciting yet terrifying–we were definitely not 100% confident that everything (or anything) would go according to plan and our customer’s wedding was also in less than a month so there was no room for mistakes. Thankfully, her dress came out great, was delivered in time and fit her well. This was our first big success and celebration and we still remember the joy of bringing our first customer’s dream dress to life and having her love it.

It took another month for us to get our second customer, but by the third month, we had gotten 10 customers and hit our first profitable month and we used those profits to reinvest back into the business so we could launch a new collection, improve our photography, branding, etc.

While being scrappy and resourceful helped us a lot in the beginning, in hindsight, I would not recommend launching with just one dress design on your site. Unlike other e-commerce/tech products, where you can launch with one design and market it as the greatest product out there, dresses are a bit different. You never visit a clothing store or fashion e-commerce site and only see one design. We also naively thought that we already understood the tastes and preferences of Chinese-American brides and that they would all want something very modern for their Chinese wedding dress.

However, as we talked to more brides, we realized that there was a large percentage of the market that still wanted more traditional designs, but their needs just weren’t being served for other reasons (they needed custom sizing, wanted to skip the language barriers, etc.). We learned that while it is important to go into your business with a vision, you need to also be flexible and change it based on the feedback you get from your customers.

While we had limited designs in the beginning, we managed to be creative by leveraging our ability to create custom dress designs for our brides to drive revenue since many of them already had an idea of what they wanted. This also gave us valuable insight into the type of dresses that were actually desirable in our market. During our first Black Friday Sale, we ran a special promo offering to make any dress design of their dreams and this brought in $5k of revenue over a weekend and gave us countless new design ideas for our future collection.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

SEO

As a company in a pretty niche industry, we knew SEO was where we could shine. From Jenn’s wedding planning experience, we already knew there were a lack of resources available online about Chinese wedding dresses and how to plan for a modern Asian-American wedding so we invested heavily into writing useful blog articles.

One of our most popular blog articles is titled 30 of the Best Ideas for a Modern Asian Wedding, which brings in 1,000 visitors per month, organically. Pinterest is another area that is super popular for wedding planning. One of our most successful pins is for our Marilyn cheongsam dress which receives around 250k impressions per month.

Ads

Since we have a very targeted demographic, Facebook and Google ads were a great way to attract customers when we first started. Our sales cycle is also much longer than typical e-commerce stores since brides will start planning for their wedding a year or two in advance but not purchase until a few months before their event so FB ads retargeting has become more effective in driving conversions.

Our ads weren’t entirely optimized in the beginning so there were months where we probably threw away $1k, but since then we’ve worked on making it more efficient and have been able to get our CAC down to $60 per new customer across all our ad and marketing channels.

Expanding your sales channels

The most successful channel we tapped into was Etsy. What’s great about Etsy is that it’s like a search engine within itself and a marketplace that a lot of people use to find unique custom items you wouldn’t typically find elsewhere. Etsy also does their own marketing and promotion across Google Search, Google Shopping and Pinterest to drive traffic to their own platform and it’s essentially free marketing and ads for our business.

PR & Partnerships

We’re just starting to tap into the influencer world but have found some success working with previous Miss Chinatown and Miss Global beauty pageant contestants. Most of them have to wear a cheongsam to compete in the pageant and are also influencers in their own communities so we’ve seen some good word-of-mouth effects from those efforts.

Leveraging your own customers

The most effective referrals we’ve received were from our own customers who loved their dress and experience working with us so much that they have in turn referred their friends and family members. Nothing beats the power of having someone you know and trust highly recommend a brand/company to you.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We honestly never expected to get this far and to have become profitable so quickly. While we still don’t earn enough to replace our previous tech salaries and there’s definitely more room to grow for our business, we’re definitely proud of how far we’ve come in just a year.

When you start a business, there will be a million different things that you’ll need to and want to work on. Focus on accomplishing one rock (the important tasks that will actually move the needle) a day, no matter what and time-bounding it to a few hours at most.

Currently, we’re hitting $25k per month and have gross margins of 60%. We spend about $1-2k on marketing each month and another $2k on shipping which make up the bulk of our costs aside from the costs of making our dresses. We average around 5-7k unique visitors per month and have worked with around 1000 brides so far. 70% of sales are through Shopify and 30% are through Etsy.

In the beginning, the two of us also did everything–we were our own models, photographers, mailmen, accountant, customer service agents, etc. While we’ve maintained the same scrappiness and hustle, we’ve been able to hire part-time team members to help and they’ve been amazing and a huge part of our small and nimble team of four. We were lucky enough to find them through personal connections and a community Slack channel that's made for Asian-Americans where we've also met a lot of great people and entrepreneurs.

We’re currently in the process of launching a new collection for the upcoming new year and plan on continuing to expand our product line to include more accessories, men’s outfits, mother-of-the-bride/groom and bridesmaids dresses. For the long term, we want East Meets Dress to be a sustainable business that supports our lifestyle. We’re also interested in exploring other avenues and ways that we can help elevate Asian American lifestyle and culture.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Start small, but start immediately.

You don’t need to have all the answers before getting started. If we were told that we had to have 50 dress designs, beautiful photography and everything figured out before launching, we probably would’ve given up.

It’s also important to be creative when it comes to problem solving. For example, we didn’t want to hold a ton of inventory of dresses that might or might not sell so we decided to make our dresses made-to-order which had the added benefit of being able to offer custom sizing (because they’re being made from scratch anyways) and minimizing environmental waste.

Don’t say yes to everything.

It’s important to try everything at least once to understand the pros and cons. Afterwards, it’s important to then prioritize the things that will have the most impact. For example, in our case, we realized that ROI for bridal trade shows was very low compared to the time investment needed, so we’ve become much more selective about what events we attend.

Target local newspapers and smaller publications for PR.

The best and easiest way to get PR exposure when you first start is to target your local newspapers and smaller online publications that cater to your niche. Many local newspapers are looking to write about small businesses, especially ones that serve the surrounding neighborhoods and smaller online publications will be more likely to want to cover your brand story than the larger mainstream ones. A tip is to sign up for HARO and respond to reporter inquiries with your pitch and set up Google alerts for keywords that you want to be featured for.

Adopt best strategies from other brands that you admire.

We’re all about being efficient and not reinventing the wheel so if we have an obstacle that we’re currently working through, we’ll look to see how other brands have solved that challenge. For example, when we were figuring out our alterations and returns policy, we looked at a lot of other custom size clothing brands to see what they do. We also adopted ideas such as a “Sample Kit” and a “Ships Now” collection from other online clothing brands and have found them to be quite popular with our customers as well.

Time-bound your projects and set a goal to complete one rock a day.

When you start a business, there will be a million different things that you’ll need to and want to work on. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and to go down a rabbit-hole on one task. One habit we’ve adopted is to focus on accomplishing one rock (the important tasks that will actually move the needle) a day, no matter what and time-bounding it to a few hours at most. If necessary, you can break up a large project into smaller rocks to accomplish.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

For Operations

  • Coda.io - It’s like Google docs on steroids. We use it to manage our customer orders, dress details, suppliers, and inventory. The great thing about Coda is that if you update one thing about a customer in one table, it automatically updates that detail across all other tables.
  • Zapier - Connects all these different apps together to eliminate redundant tasks.
  • Shopify - What our entire store is built on. It is an amazing platform for any non-technical founder looking to launch a site/e-commerce store quickly. Shopify also has a ton of apps that you can install and integrate with to further enhance your site.

For Design, Printing, and Packaging

  • Canva - Allows non-designers to create beautiful Instagram/Pinterest posts, flyers, business cards, etc. Their founder’s story is even more impressive and you can read that here.
  • Stickermule - We use Stickermule to print all of the custom stickers that we include in our packaging. The stickers are super high quality and they have great customer service.
  • Noissue - This is where we get our custom tissue paper and compostable mailers from.
  • Rollo Label Printer - We print all of our shipping labels at home and this printer is a life-saver.

For Marketing and Sales

  • Chatra - A more cost-effective chat tool that works just as well as Intercom.
  • Klaviyo - One of the best email marketing tools out there built specifically for e-commerce businesses.
  • Typeform - We mainly use it for lead generation via our style quiz but we also use it for collecting customer measurements.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Books

Podcasts

How I Built This With Guy Raz

Articles

Subscribe to First Round Review - they post a lot of insightful articles from founders and business leaders.

These are two of my favorites:

Highs, lows, and lessons learned during Canva’s journey - incredibly inspiring post written by Canva’s founder, Melanie Perkins, on her humble beginnings and how she built a $3 billion company.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

1. Be resourceful but don’t be cheap.

There’s a difference between being resourceful vs. being cheap. For example, before we invested in nicer photography and hired an SEO agency to help, we would first see if we can try things out on our own before outsourcing or committing a larger budget to that project. We also leveraged many free trials of tools we were interested in before deciding to commit to a paid subscription and only if that tool/service truly helped optimize our time (since that was just as valuable as money). Ultimately, you should be willing to invest money into things that will have long term benefits and help the business grow exponentially rather than save for the short term and grow linearly.

2. Truly understand and reflect on the pros and cons of starting a business and why you want to do it.

Running your own business is not glamorous and you should definitely not expect a nice upward trajectory of growth. As an entrepreneur, you have to know what you’re willing to give up (whether that be lifestyle, stability, etc.) in order to achieve what you want down the line. If you can be honest with yourself and remember your real reasons for wanting to do this then it can help you stay the course when things aren’t going well or help you decide if it’s time for you to call it quits.

3. Spend more than a few minutes thinking about your brand and name.

When we first launched, we wanted to execute on the idea quickly and didn’t give too much thought to our branding or name. In fact, we were called Modern Asian Bride for the first few months until several of our friends told us that it reminded them of a mail-order bride service, which prompted us to quickly come up with a new name. But we had to change quite a few things on the backend and legally. Luckily, we were still in the beginning stages so it wasn’t that terrible and it didn’t affect our SEO much yet, but we certainly underestimated how much work goes into rebranding once you’ve established yourself more.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re currently at a stable point in terms of our team growth and want to continue to stay small and nimble. However, we’re always looking for collaborators whether it be photographers, models, makeup artists, etc.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Vivian Chan,   Founder of East Meets Dress

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