Secrets to Growing your Business from Mei Pak/Tiny Hands
So without further ado, Mei has lots of secrets. She's gonna share the secrets of growing her business from a handmade product in her dorm room to a six figure business, so here's Mei, come join me.
Hi, Stacey! Thank you so much for having me.
Mei and I are actually real life friends, too. Woo!
Oh, yeah! (laughing)
Okay, so why don't you get started just by telling us a bit about you, for people who don't know?
Yes, okay, so I run a lot of businesses, but the two notable ones is Tiny Hands, where Stacey talked about it. I make super cute scented food jewelry, so little tiny cupcakes and waffles that also smell like what they look like, and they're all handmade. And then the other business I run is Creative Hive Co., where I help other makers, artists and designers learn how to sell their products online and make a consistent income.
So, back to the polymer clay charms. What were you doing when it was just you?
I was doing everything! I was doing so much production work, I...
was doing design, I was doing the marketing, and trying to figure out how to get new customers in the door. And it was literally like, I don't know if you guys have ever lived in a dorm room, but you're given, like, a tiny, I don't know, maybe three foot table. And I had my computer there, where I was answering emails. I had like a little space where I was doing homework, and then I had another little space, where sometimes I'd take my laptop, and put it away, so I can do production work. And then, I remember like, I was in the dorms for like maybe one semester, and then I met my boyfriend, now husband, and then we moved in together, and so I had a little bit more space, in terms of like, we had a, I think like a queen size bed? Don't go there! I mean, it's useful surface space for packaging, and that was like, so I upgraded my table, from like three feet to maybe five feet, so I had a little more space, but it wasn't enough space to do packaging, and so I remember, I was still in college, probably my junior year, and it was my first big holiday season, and there was nowhere to package things. And I had all these little gift boxes on the bed, and I remember my parents were visiting too, and we were all like little elves, like an assembly line style, putting things together. So that kind of paints a picture for how bootstrappy everything was. (laughing)
So, how did you first start hiring people?
Not very well. Well, I made so many mistakes with hiring people. Some of the few, okay, well, so we all go through this phase, right, where you get to a bottleneck, and you realize, okay, I'm either not good at doing this, or I don't have time to do this, or I'm just not capable of doing it. Like, if you don't know how to use Photoshop, you might just hire a graphic designer, right? And so the first few people I hired were not contractors, per se, but they were experts, so I hired a graphic designer, I hired a company to do SEO for me, I hired another company to do PR for me, and it's so embarrassing to say this, but a lot of them were actually scams.
(laughs) This, hold on, to be fair, this was back before all of these great websites we talked about were around, right?
We really were hustling to find someone to do something.
Right, right, and it's not easy to find, like, reviews of people.
Back in the day.
Yeah, back in the day. I worked with a PR company that was just, anyway. Long story, but I was scammed quite a few times. So I made a lot of mistakes, there, and I didn't get into, let's see, like hiring production assistants, I started, I think, one year after I went full time, which was about 2011, 2012. And I was not making any sort of income at that point. I was not making a consistent amount of sales. I believe that first year I went full time, I made 9,000 dollars for the whole year. For the whole year. And I did start already pursuing, like, okay, let's start the process of getting this ball rolling. Because if there's one advice I'll give to you, and maybe you talked about this already, but start hiring before you think you're ready to, especially when it comes to production help if you go that route, because by the time you get there, or by the time you're making a lot of money, and you're making a lot of sales, and you're super busy, that is too late, because then you won't have time to train someone. And that gets...
We didn't talk about that, so it's a really good point to bring up, yeah, because you can't train someone in the middle of when you're trying to ship something, and especially for production work, what would you say? A couple months, for sure, before you feel like you can really hand over the entire process.
Right, it took me four, actually, even in that starting phase of hiring production help and fulfillment help, it took me five people. I went through five different people to find the two production assistants, and one of them also does shipping for me, today, actually, she's doing shipping while I'm here. It took me a few years to find these people. And the first one I hired, it didn't work out, because I'm still learning, you know? And I'm sure we'll talk about this later, with, like, advice for working with people.
Yeah, definitely, and not everyone has the same skillset, right? So even if someone shows up on time and they're super friendly, they may not be able, like the polymer clay charms are super detail-oriented work. And they might not have the capability, and you don't really know in advance, like is this person really good at making waffle necklaces, or no? You have to just find out, right?
So how long do you give someone before you know they'll work out or not?
I feel like it kind of depends on the job. If I have a long term relationship with someone or if I intend to, like someone who's more of a virtual assistant type person that's more general, like personal assistant that does a lot of different things, then I might invest more patience, more time to help correct their mistakes, give them feedback, things like that. But if, say I needed like a short term project, I needed like 12 banner ads that I need to get done, then, like I actually just went through this exact situation maybe last week. I hired this new virtual assistant, and she appeared to be design-centric, like she had an eye for design, but she does everything else, too. Like she does emails for me, she does a lot of the technical stuff, and I wanted her to, hey, give a shot at some of these graphics. I gave her a lot of instructions, here's my branding guide, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Branding guide, there's branding guide, we talked about that.
And so she took a crack at it, and then she showed me like one sample. And I'm like, okay, here, I gave her some feedback, and she came back to me with new work, and at that point, I'm like, okay, she's not getting any closer to where I need her to be. So then I just went and outsourced to actual graphic designers, because she's, you know, a general virtual assistant.
Okay, oh, man. Well, you've already given a couple, but is there a story about having to have an awkward conversation with a freelancer about, like, they're just not meeting your expectations?
Yeah, oh, boy, right. So I was actually doing like, I was pulling up some numbers, just, you know, fun facts, but since I started my business, and on Upwork, and other places outside of Upwork, I've probably hired over 100 people. People or agencies.
I'm a hirer, I'm all about outsourcing. And I was also thinking, like, out of those 100-plus people that I've worked with, how many of them didn't work out, that I had to fire? Or that they were scams? And it was about 10 to 15 of them. So the awkward kinds of conversations I was thinking, like obviously, if you had to fire someone, that's never fun, there's so much guilt behind firing someone, especially if they were relying on you for a lot of their income. So that's hard, but I guess the tip that I will share with you is that just try to, it's not personal, right? You're not in business to support someone else's family. It's kind of cutthroat in that way, but also just be assertive, you know? You've made a decision, you can no longer afford someone, and just don't be personal about it. When you're giving them feedback, telling them why you have to cut ties, just be very objective about it. But I feel like another very awkward conversation personally for me, because of my personality type, I hate confrontations. I'm not very good at it, but I have learned that it is important, in any sort of relationship, if you have a happy marriage, it's only because you've had a lot of uncomfortable, awkward conversations with your spouse. And so, like I said earlier, like with the long term relationships you wanna invest in, there can be awkward conversations with like, you didn't quite do this one thing right, or there was a mistake that happened, and then it can be even more awkward, if that same mistake keeps happening over and over again.
Right, and this is one difference between hiring an ongoing relationship, versus hiring for one job, right, which is why I love the hiring for one job thing. If you hire someone to do some banner ads, and you don't like them, you just, like, you don't actually have to talk to them again, and you don't have to explain why you're not hiring them again, because they were just answering the one ad, bam, we're done. But when you have the ongoing, it's so much commitment, that's why I don't have a VA, that's too much commitment.
And on top of what you were saying too, I think I've really evolved into hiring people based on that one specific thing they're really good at. So I have a lot of people on my team, and that's only because one person does graphic work, one person does this, one person does bookkeeping, and that makes everyone happy.
Yeah, right, but when you're doing that, you're also patching together the network, right? You can't just leave for a week and be like, hey, you, handle it, you know, because everyone's patched together. So it's a different level of management as well, when you have all of these people, versus just one person who kind of takes over the whole reigns. Okay, so when did you know, like, this business is gonna be big, I should start investing big money into it? Like, I should start going to PR firms, or I should start, like this is really gonna be successful?
You know, I always had that vision. Way before I even made that 9,000 dollars, I knew that, it was very clear that the bottleneck was in the production of the charms. Every single piece is hand sculpted from polymer clay, from scratch. And if I wanna, and they're like, I don't know, they're like 20 to 30 dollars each. And if I wanted to make a healthy income, that a normal person would make, which, I don't know, 50,000 to 100,000 a year, I would need to sell a lot of little itty bitty charms. I would get carpal tunnel syndrome! And so I knew that that needed to be taken care of right away, and that was why the first contractor that I brought in and trained on my own were production assistants. But I think, for those of you that are listening today, like, how do you know when it's time for you to take the next step and hire someone, first thing, obviously, is can I afford it? So after you pay all the other people you need to pay, after you pay yourself, are you able to pay this other person? So like right this morning, I just hired another person. I hired a project manager, who is actually what you were saying, like the person that patches together and talks to everyone for you. So she's kind of like an extension of myself. But the big thing I had to, I mean, I loved her, we chatted and she is exactly everything I needed that I don't already have, but the big question for me is crunching numbers, like, can I afford this and still pay myself at the end of the month?
And then the second big thing also is I think, and you kind of talked about this with hiring graphic designers but, if you're just starting out with hiring people, I like to kind of categorize hiring in two categories: How measurable is it, and how trackable is it, or is it a very abstract job that they're having you do? So I made the mistake when I was a baby business owner to hire a graphic designer. I had no clue what my vision was, I didn't know who my ideal customer was, and I wasn't happy with the end result of having hired that graphic designer. And who is to say, no one can promise you, right? Like, oh, if I spend 1,000 dollars doing whole rebrand, that I'm gonna double my business the next month. That's just not a thing with graphic design, or with branding, unfortunately. And that's why I totally agree with what you said, like rebranding, doing investing in branding is something that I highly recommend you do when you're a little bit later down in your business path. But then, for something like hiring a Facebook Ads person, where it's very easy for you to track, okay, so I'm paying this guy like 30 dollars an hour, I'm spending 10 dollars a day on Facebook ads, and I made 200 dollars today. Like, those are all numbers that make it a lot clearer. Whether or not, should I take this risk, even if maybe I can't quite afford it. Like maybe I'll take a little bit of a pay cut, because this guy could really grow my business.
Right, yeah, that's a really good point too, because, like you were saying, the branding sort of thing, that's abstract, that's kinda like, how pretty does your business look? It's harder to really measure exactly what that's worth, yeah. So what do you spend your time doing now? Like, what do you do? (laughing)
Twiddling my thumbs.
Right, you have a project manager, you have two people making production.
What's like the day in the life of Mei's business, being Mei?
Well, so when it comes to--
Hiring people. (laughing)
Actually, you know, a lot of my work is communicating with my team members. Back and forth, so like, in terms of Tiny Hands, I, to just give you an idea for where we're at, I spend maybe one to two hours max per week working on Tiny Hands, and what that involves is like I have a person that answers all of my customer service emails, the best thing ever! She goes into Facebook, she answers questions and comments, Instagram, everywhere, Etsy, I gave her all of my logins, it's so good. But there are some things that she still has to ask me about. For example, inventory, right? Like, I give her access to my inventory management system, so if someone, "Hey, I need a rush order "for a cupcake necklace to be delivered this weekend," then she can go into my inventory system and check, "Okay, we have some available, "we can ship it overnight to you." But there are some things that are custom, older products that are not in the inventory system, so I maybe spend three to five minutes every day answering some of these questions for her. And then on Sundays and Wednesdays, I create packing slips that I give to my production and shipping assistants because that's what they use to know, okay, this person, Stacey Trock gets one cupcake necklace shipped to this address, and that's how they kind of tell what needs to be shipped out.
The rest of my time, I work on Creative Hive, because that is a newer business, it's getting there, and so I probably spend like 20 to 30, maybe even 40 hours working on that. So I'm building that up, systematizing it, so that it can be like Tiny Hands, and then I can start pursuing other adventures, and endeavors in other businesses.
And start another business!
And start another business!
Right, so this is, all the way at the beginning, we talked about time, energy money, and you're always balancing these factors, and it's a really common growth cycle. Like at the start, you have to invest a lot of energy, a lot of time, and you probably don't have that much money to put into it, and then you start earning money, and unless you had 60 hours a day to do all these things yourself, it turns into spending the money to have other people do things for you, and then you're managing and doing the parts that you really like doing. Like, sometimes you make polymer clay necklaces.
Sometimes, very, very rarely.
Last, well, that was actually, you know, you were talking about doing custom work, right? And how I don't do custom orders anymore, because they're so time-consuming. So whenever someone says, "Can we do a custom order?" I'll say, the minimum order is 100 pieces, so that's like a 2,000 dollar order.
Exactly, yeah. So I guess we've sort of gotten it, but how much has your business grown?
So Tiny Hands, bear in mind, the first year I went full-time, I made 9,000 dollars, and it was not, I mean, obviously nothing to shout home about. So this year in business, with all of the outsourcing that we've been doing with Facebook Ads, reaching out, we are on track to be making, conservatively, I'm like for certain we are gonna get there, a third of a million dollars. And I'm gonna try to see, like, what we can do to push it so that we can get half a million.
Yeah, because that sounds cooler, really.
Yeah. (laughing) And it's closer to one whole million. And then, with Creative Hive, last year we made 54,000, and this year, we're on track to making 120. And last year, I had like a bare bones team, like just general VA's that weren't really impacting the business a whole lot, but this year, I brought on a team, like a project manager, that has a bigger impact in the business, right? And so, that's where you start seeing, like, things start to scale up, because you hired the right people.
Right, right. So I mean, that's always the thing, and it's sort of been coming up, is like, how do you know it's the right person? It's sort of trial and error a little bit. Like you're always trying someone out, like you didn't find these people ten years ago. You're always trying someone new, you're always seeing what works. Maybe it's not ads that's working. Maybe it's this Instagram person or whatever, so it's just always a work in progress, right?
Yes, yeah, hiring is hard.
Hiring's the hardest part.
Finding the right people is hard, that's why you need this course, because then you know, you're like way ahead of the curve.
Right. So what was like the biggest growing pain in your business? Like the point where you were like, or a bottleneck?
It was one of the things you listed on there. It was technology and membership site stuff. So Stacey talked about this. I run a subscription business for Tiny Hands, it's called the Necklace Of The Month Club. You get one necklace every month, and it's a little bit cheaper if you bought into the club. You can buy them as standalone necklaces on my site, but they would be more expensive. And then on the Creative Hive side, I have a membership site where people pay me a monthly fee for ongoing coaching, access to courses, and guest experts, and things like that. So a lot of membership recurring income stuff happening. One thing to realize if you ever decide to get into a recurring income business or product, you need to have the technology to support all of that stuff. And I made the mistake, we were just talking about this earlier over lunch, that I made the mistake of being a cheapskate at the start, and I didn't invest. I chose the cheapest option for technology that was out there, because I thought, I was saving 50 bucks a month not having to go with the better, more fully fleshed out system. And then a year down the line, I outgrew those systems, and I needed to, because you know, those systems don't have the marketing features you want, you can't do the things the customers are telling you, like changing billing date, things like that. A lot of technical things.
Been there, yeah.
And so I ended up hiring this programmer, which another site actually, I don't think a lot of people know about this. If you want, like, really serious programmers for bigger projects, Codeable--
I said that.
Oh you did! Oh, Codeable, okay, perfect, you said that, okay.
You just should come to class. (laughing)
I need your class! So I hired this guy on Codeable, and it took us about three to four months to take the membership site and put it on a new platform, and it was about 4,000 dollars. And so I ended up spending more money than I'd saved, you know, if I had just went with. Anyway, serious growing pains.
But you never know, I mean, I guess you could have started out, and it could have flopped, and then you were like, why did I spend the big bucks on the site?
And that was my thought when I was starting out, was maybe this was not gonna get any customers, so I wasn't sure.
Yeah, no, it's always super hard, and we're all just like, guessing kind of. I mean, no one has the right answers.
We don't know what we're doing. (laughing)
Right, we have no idea! Yeah, okay, so I brought this up, oh, this was a story I told about you earlier. So you love the marketing, but you still hire PR firms and Facebook Ad managers. So can you talk about, even though you're so good at these things, why you hire the people. Like, is it a time thing?
It is a lot of the time thing. Like, okay, in terms of Facebook Ads management, I was good at it, I mean, I was proficient at it. I was doing well, but I started to see, like, oh my goodness, I'm spending like an hour every day checking in on my ads, maintaining it, creating new ads if the old ones weren't working, and it was, I think a lot of creative people are like that, like, I can't put myself in a box like that. I need to be a little more creatively, have that freedom with my day and with my time. And so Facebook Ads, the guy who manages my Facebook Ads right now for Tiny Hands, he probably saves me like 20 to 30 hours every month, because he's doing all of that, all of that work. He goes into my Ads accounts every 48 hours to track and check that everything's working well. And what if I wanna go on vacation, what if I wanna go on a trip? Come to CreativeLive to talk.
I don't want my business to fall apart. And so the same thing with hiring someone to do PR. Like, I love marketing, I love talking about the strategy, but I don't always love implementing. And so these people are implementers, but another good thing also is that I don't need to guess, if I hire these people. Like, I am a designer. I'm an artist, I am not a Facebook Ads expert. I am proficient enough in it to do my own ads, I could probably run other people's ads, but I am not keeping myself up to date with like the latest Facebook Ads guidelines or whatever, like these people are, because that's their job.
Yeah, that's something we talked about earlier, is like, you can't keep up on everything. Like so there's a new Facebook algorithm. There's a new Instagram algorithm. There's a new, I'm really up to date on the posted requirements, but you know, like there's all these things, and you just can't keep up to date on all of it. And so having someone that you trust who's gonna be informing you about certain things, like it's my web designer who emailed me and said, "Google just changed its rules about pop-ups, "so I'm going to go install a new plugin." I'm like, "okay, do that," because I don't read the blogs about the Google algorithms. So having someone who's on top of it, because for them, it's the scale of economy thing. They're not spending an hour reading for you, they're spending an hour reading for their hundred clients, so it's worth it for them to be up on it, and not really for you.
And from the PR standpoint, I mean, when you hire a PR agency, you benefit from them having already had relationships with all of these media editors, and I wasn't very good and consistent at pitching myself either. I mean, when I was doing it, I was doing it well, but it kinda just stopped there, and I lost steam, and I moved on to the next thing, you know?
Yeah, that's a great point. Okay, so we only have a couple of minutes left. So I wanna know, what's your-- So you said you spend an hour or two a week on Tiny Hands? What's like, what's the end point? I guess people can sell businesses. You can just kind of let them keep rolling and growing until they get bigger and bigger, is that like the game plan?
The game plan is to take over the world! Just kidding.
All polymer clay necklaces, all the time.
Well, okay, I have a silly goal to make a million dollars.
And then you're done? (laughing)
Well, we'll see, then it'll be like two million dollars. But I feel like it's, I just wanna see if I can do it. You know, it's like a part of, we all have different goals, right?
We talked about that earlier.
Yeah, and part of my psyche is like, I like playing games, and I'm very competitive. And I wanna get the high score, and I mean, I'm not a sore loser, like if I lose, it's okay. But I just wanna see if I can do it. So it's kind of just a personal goal to see if I can get there.
Right. Other people have goals about sustaining an income, having downtime, we've talked about lots of different kinds of goals. We talked about my four hour workday goal. That's mine, like I just wanna be done at the end of the day, and have a nap.
One last thing, I think it's important to note, one million dollars sounds like a lot, but when you are talking about, because this is all about scaling your business, right, growing your business. It's important to know also that when you work at that scale, your profits go way down. So one million dollars--
Right, so she means one million in revenue.
Sales, right, sales, in revenue.
And in profit, that's gonna look at around 250,000. It's usually about a quarter, or a third of that. And maybe when you're in the lower range, where you're making like 50,000 sales a year, you can make 25,000 in profit, and it doesn't grow proportionally is my point. So once you start dealing with the larger numbers, you're hiring so many people, you're paying so many people, your costs are higher, and I think there's no way around that.
Yeah, no, I've been thinking, we've been talking about this issue a lot. So at first when I started my business as a solopreneur, I saw this happen to like every business, right? And I really thought, like, well, that's fine. I'm just gonna quit while I'm ahead. Like, right, I'll just make, let's say, you know, let's say the nice five, low six figure range that I want to make, and then I'll just keep the business there, and it seems like that's not possible. Like, I'm not quite sure what it is, like, it's very hard to keep a business exactly where it is, because you start to look not fresh. Right, so you always have to be doing new things, which means you have to keep growing. And so it feels like there's this inevitable force in business that makes you keep growing. Does anyone have anything to say in the chat rooms about that? Like I'm curious, I've asked this question to, it must be pushing a hundred business owners, and everyone feels this compulsion to just keep growing, and part of it is our own personalities as business owners. We wanna try the next thing. We want our customers to be engaged. We want our customers to be entertained. We wanna be entertained. Like, who wants to be making the same thing all of the time? And so, it does keep growing, and the natural way to keep doing it is to start wholesaling, maybe, or give bigger packages, or to upgrade the product somehow. So yeah, that's just like how the world is. And it's hard to say if it's better or worse. Like, I think my happiest point in my business was like 2012, when it was like a steady income but not overwhelming yet, and that was like the brightest little spot, and you can't go back to that. Like you can't go back to that time when you had enough customers and they were all really in love with your business, and the emails weren't quite overwhelming yet, and you were just like, "Wow, it's gonna make it!" And now it's making it, and it's like, okay, that's good, but it's just a job in a way. Sorry, that's like the downside of what-- but, like, in a sense, it's just a job. And it's way better than any other job I've ever done, and I'm not going to quit and start working, I don't know, at a restaurant or whatever, but it's still just a job, and you're trying to do the things you love doing, and minimize these things that you don't like doing, but you have to do all these things to run a business, and it's either delegating, or it's doing it yourself, because otherwise, you're not running a business, you know? That's us, that's what we did.
Loving it. (laughing)
The main thing I want people to take away from this is that you can outsource at any level of business that you're at, and it's, like we just said, it's not all rosy roses getting to the point where you have a six or seven figure business. It's actually like, kind of like day in day out, same old stuff. So what you want to be doing is identify what you need for your life, identify what you need for your business, and then start to hire out the small timey things that you need to get there. It may be the taxes, it may be some small component of product production, and I hope that what I've done is helped you identify those points, helped you identify the bits of your business that are being really successful, so you can grow them, and made it not too stressful to look into hiring someone to alleviate some of those things that are really stressing you out. So that we can all do this thing we're doing for a decade or two, and be really happy doing it.