Entrepreneurship remains such a rare opportunity for students who grew up in the United States and abroad, that those wishing to hold onto that chance will surrender even what they keep close. For UCI graduate Vivi Huang, among the list of items she sacrificed was her car.
“I used the money my parents gave me for tuition, and put it into the website first,” she said, referring to the digital platform of her company, EteStore. “When the day came to pay tuition, I had no money. So the only option I had was to sell my car.”
Today, the e-commerce company, which sells its own sunglasses and doubles as an Asian beauty products retail store, continues to grow out of a rickety experience that began stabilizing as late as March 2017.
Lane Zheng was among the three ANTrepreneurs who founded EteStore in 2015. He managed marketing and finance, while the other two members focused on product purchase. Upon graduating UC Irvine, they left the city and company, leaving Vivi to fill in the empty space. “After a couple of months, I found out that I really like this,” she shared. “I really like making your own decisions. It was really hard and challenging, but I liked it.”
Lane and Vivi first focused on gaining exposure. After experimenting with various forms of advertising, the two discovered that reviews from YouTube creators attracted the highest number of customers.
“We tried to find new YouTubers,” the UCI alumnae explained. “They probably only have 2,000 followers. We tried to ask them if they could try out some products and give an honest review. A lot of YouTubers said yes, which was really good! And now they have a lot of followers and they also love our products.”
But after a year in the business, EteStore struggled to remain afloat. The highly saturated Asian beauty industry includes online retail giants, like Amazon, and shops in Los Angeles and Orange County. While not all of these firms are brick and mortar, they are all built upon a solid reputation and the infrastructure to handle hundreds, if not, thousands of unique goods. The young, small scale EteStore lacked both.
At the same time, internal issues arose. Costs to maintain the website and store all the products in a nearby warehouse and ran so high that Vivi sold her car. Moreover, EteStore struggled to maintain support from investors. Both ANTrepreneur’s parents initially encouraged their children to start a business, provided funding and even advice, but cut the cash flow after seeing little return.
Vivi intends to attend graduate school, but her status as an international student means that staying in the United States is wholly dependent on a visa, which cannot be extended solely to pursue a startup, i.e. self-employment. “My parents were so worried that I was going to get kicked out of the country after I graduated,” she shared. “I understand where they’re coming from and worry about the things they also worry about. But If I quit this time, I don’t know if I’m going to be an entrepreneur again.”
“We didn’t want to upset our parents too, so we both asked our parents for three more months. If the website doesn’t work, then we’re gonna quit. We knew that they cared about us, they didn’t want to worry about us, so over those three months we cut all the costs.”
And cut they did. Lane found a cheaper platform to host their site, and Vivi transferred all the products from the warehouse to her apartment. Monthly payables dropped from $10,000 to approximately $800.
But the real turnaround happened through a friend in class, whose aunt had sunglasses that were sold on EteStore. After reaching out to YouTube creators, sales reached unprecedented levels as the end of the three month agreement approached. “We started to look for more YouTubers to advertise for the sunglasses,” Vivi recalled. “And it was always crazy. We would get 100 plus orders, 200 plus orders in one day. For the beauty products we would get 40 orders a day – that was, like, the highest.”
The business continues to grow so well that EteStore is launching a line of its own sunglasses later this year. But the tribulations of previous experiences has left a stronger impact on both ANTrepreneurs. Both are now smarter about how they spend, approach work, and focus on a network, said Vivi.
In fact, reaching out to the ANTrepreneur Center for a consultation, taking UCI’s Introduction to Entrepreneurship course, and speaking with investors in America during events held by Applied Innovation was a means to gain advice for smarter business decisions.
But for EteStore, as any other startup, to prosper, resources are in fact, not primary. They always sit in the shadow of willpower.
“A lot of people at first will support you, but sometime later during the business will later question it,” Vivi reflected. “They’re not seeing what they’re expecting from you. It’s hard. They’re not in the business, so they don’t understand a lot of stuff. So you have to believe in yourself.”