Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Jackie Burke and I am the founder of Tini Lux. Tini Lux is the first line of fashion earrings made specifically for people with metal allergies and sensitive ears.
Tini Lux is an e-commerce business and our customers are mainly women between the ages of 18 and 45 who were previously not able to wear earrings because of their sensitive skin or allergies.
I started my business in November 2017, the same month that I moved from Washington, DC to New Jersey, started a new job, AND was in the middle of planning a wedding. I got married in July 2018 and was working full time as an engineer the entire time, so to be honest, the first 9 months I barely put any time into my business and it showed. After July, I had a lot more free time outside of work and was able to focus on Tini Lux and at that point my business really started to noticeably grow.
In the 15 months since launch, and especially in the last 6 months, Tini Lux has continued to grow slowly but steadily each month and has gained a very loyal following. Some of my customers’ emails have actually made me cry! Many women, like me, hadn’t worn earrings in over a decade and are so happy to finally be able to wear them again.
This month, Susan Kelechi Watson, a star of the NBC show This Is Us is was on the COVER of Good Housekeeping magazine wearing a pair of Tini Lux earrings. Seeing that cover photo was a serious pinch-me moment.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In college, I stopped wearing earrings because every pair I tried, even the ones labeled “hypoallergenic,” gave me extremely painful reactions and even caused my piercings to bleed. I researched online and asked around and so many people had the same problem. The solutions online said to try things like putting clear nail polish on your earrings or putting vaseline on your piercings. None of those “hacks” worked. At that point I just resigned myself to not wearing earrings again.
A few years later, when fashion influencers became really popular on Instagram, I started buying everything my favorite bloggers posted. Unfortunately, they always wore the cutest earrings and I could never buy any of them. So one day I decided to do some serious Google-ing because I knew there had to be someone that had created skin-friendly earrings by then.
Deep within the pages of Google, I found a woman who was selling very basic titanium studs. They were made of pure titanium and manufactured by a medical implant manufacturer. She explained how titanium is an inert metal that does not react with the human body, which is why it is used in medical implants. Because of that, it is perfect for earrings. I ordered a pair right away. They completely healed my piercings and I wore them for weeks with absolutely no issues. The only problem was that I wanted fun statement earrings and hoop earrings that looked high end and I couldn’t find any that were made with titanium.
As I continued to look for fashionable titanium earrings I learned that more than 20% of the population, like me, has developed a contact allergy to metal. I also continued talking to other people about it and it seemed like every person I asked either had reactions to earrings or knew someone that did. Eventually, I realized that the product I was looking for did not exist. There were zero earrings on the market that people with metal allergies could safely wear. At that point I decided to design my own and Tini Lux was born shortly afterwards.
I knew I wanted Tini Lux to be a direct to consumer e-commerce business. I do almost all of my shopping online and I felt like that was the best way to reach people. The only market research I did before launching was asking around to friends and family to see if they had problems with earrings or knew anyone who did.
I knew in my gut that there was a market for this product and didn’t need a lot of convincing to go after this idea. I studied Nuclear Engineering in college (at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) and had worked as an engineer for 5 years when I launched my business. Although engineering is great for thinking analytically and logically, the skill sets I honed in engineering had very little (if any) overlap with the skill sets I needed to launch an e-commerce fashion business.
Every step of the way has been a huge learning experience. I have learned so much about business in the last 15 months. There is so much information available online but until you’ve put it into practice and seen the results it isn’t that useful.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I started by reaching out to manufacturers.
I found the medical implant manufacturer that made the original pair of titanium studs that I bought and asked her if she could make a couple other styles. I have been ordering from her since then. She is only able to produce basic stud styles though, so I contacted a few manufacturers in China to see if they could produce the remainder of the earrings.
Now, my US manufacturer creates the studs which I send to my manufacturer in China who then creates the rest of the earring. Although it is more expensive and complicated to have two different manufacturers for a single pair of earrings, it is very important that the portion of the earring that is in contact with your ear is 100% pure titanium so that is why I do it that way.
I know when I order from my US manufacturer that the earrings are pure titanium with no alloyed metals or trace elements that could potentially cause an allergy. Titanium is very difficult to manufacture because of its high melting point which is why it is rarely used in jewelry so that was an added challenge.
Once I found a manufacturer in China to create the rest of the earrings I started designing. I designed a simple line of 12 pairs of earrings, all of which I wanted to wear myself and felt that other women in my target demographic of 18-40 would also want to wear.
I have since learned a lot about what my customers like and it has informed my designs going forward. I used to be very reactionary when I added new pieces, for example, if someone said they wanted to see silver I would put in an order for silver pieces right away. Now, I have learned that I can’t make decisions based on one or two customers or advice from friends and family. It is more important to look at the data and see what people actually are buying and make informed, thoughtful decisions about what to design and add to the collection.
I never ordered samples from any of my manufacturers because the cost per item was so expensive. Ordering from my US manufacturer has been very straightforward because the designs are so simple, so I really never needed samples. Looking back, I wish I had ordered samples from my Chinese manufacturer. They have done a good job and I am still working with them, but I think from a design perspective I would have done things differently if I had physical prototypes of the designs rather than just my sketches. The woman I have been working with in China has been very good about sending me photos throughout their manufacturing process and letting me make changes as needed. Overall, it has been a pretty seamless process to work with Chinese manufacturers and I have been happy with their work.
Packaging has been iterative. I started with bubble mailers and since have moved on to biodegradable cardboard boxes from Eco Enclose. They are more durable and professional looking than bubble mailers and it is very important to me that my packaging has a low environmental impact.
I also like Eco Enclose because they make custom sized boxes and I can order in small quantities. I typically place orders for a few hundred boxes at a time, whereas many companies require you to place orders in the thousands.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I “launched” my business on Shopify. It was a very, very, very small launch (I basically just texted my friends and family to say it was live).
I really didn’t know what I was doing at that point and didn’t have any kind of social media following so I barely had any traffic the first few months. Shopify makes it pretty easy to customize your website. I bought a custom theme after a few months and have tweaked my site over and over again since I first launched. I don’t even remember what the original version looked like but it was definitely bad.
If you are an ecommerce business, content marketing and SEO are slow but they are worth it. Invest your time and money into this because it will pay off down the line.
As I said above, I launched this is as a side hustle during the same time I moved to a different state, started a new full-time job, and was planning a wedding. So the first 9 months of my business being live I had very little time to put into it so business was very slow. However, I did have customers within the first week.
I used Google Adwords from the beginning and targeted keywords related to hypoallergenic earrings and sensitive ears. My first sale was to my mother-in-law but within a week I had a “stranger” purchase a pair of earrings from me and that was such a cool feeling.
The first month a lot of my sales were to friends-of-friends but after about 2 months the vast majority of my sales were to “strangers” so that was when I knew I was on to something. It took about 9 months for me to start having multiple orders, every single day. But, it was my side-hustle and I knew nothing about launching a business so if I had put more time and effort into it I definitely could have seen results and sales earlier.
I have financed everything myself, 100% from the beginning. There have been many months where I have carried a credit card balance, but I haven’t taken on any outside investment. Like I said before, I had been working as an engineer for 5 years so I had some money saved. I have also continued to work since launching the business so I have had money to pay my bills and continue investing in the business as I go.
My initial investment was just the cost of inventory and my monthly Shopify fee of $29. From there, I have had smaller costs like ordering packaging and office supplies. The biggest expense has been advertising. I have been spending anywhere from a few hundred a month to a few thousand on ads on Google and Facebook as well as influencer advertising. Before I started my business I thought my only cost would be the physical goods, but advertising is the biggest ongoing cost by far.
Around 9 months in I finally invested in professional product photography from POW Photography and that was the single most important investment that I have made. It was ~$2000 and I wish I had done it from day one.
Don’t invest in influencer marketing until you are ready. I thought that I could just pay for a few sponsored posts and my Instagram account and sales would blow up, but it doesn’t really work that way.
It is SO important to have good product photography because the photos are the only thing the customer has to go on when they purchase items online. I wish I had tried to build a following or some momentum on social media before the launch. Building a following from nothing is very difficult and takes a long time, so the earlier you start the better.
There were a lot of moments in the planning process that would have been cool to document and would have made people feel a part of the process. Don’t invest in influencer marketing until you are ready. I thought that I could just pay for a few sponsored posts and my Instagram account and sales would blow up, but it doesn’t really work that way.
Same with advertising, don’t dump a bunch of money into ads for a site that isn’t going to convert. Make sure that your social media presence is something of value that people will want to follow and make sure that your site is convincing and easy to use. Have your email marketing ready to go from the beginning.
Your email list will be so valuable (my conversion rate from email is very high, and it’s free!). I use Privy to collect email addresses and then have automated welcome emails sent from MailChimp. It’s such a great way to give your customers more information about your story and your brand.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
For me, Google Ads and SEO/SEM have been the best and most effective way to reach customers.
The fact that my earrings are stylish and pretty is an added bonus, but the real reason people are seeking out my earrings is that they react adversely to other earrings. If people start having reactions to earrings their first instinct is to Google their problem, so when people search for things like “why do earrings bother my ears” and see my ad explaining why my earrings are different.
Additionally, I have focused a lot in the last 6 months on content marketing. I read case studies on Blue Bottle Coffee and Casper mattress about how they use content marketing to drive traffic and I have implemented the same strategies. Essentially, I am working on creating a blog post or landing page for any potential search topic related to earrings and optimizing that page by including other long tail keywords in the content. So for example, I have a blog post dedicated to the search term above “What are the best metals for sensitive ears?” This strategy has helped improve my ranking in Google, and my conversion rate from this organic traffic is extremely high, some months it is almost 20% compared to a typical ecommerce conversion rate of ~1-2%.
Email marketing has also worked very well for retaining customers. When a customer joins my email list, I send them a 15% off coupon and then send them a series of three welcome emails over a couple of weeks that give them more information about my brand and the products. I try not to bombard my customers with emails, I usually send them once or twice a month when I am running a sale or introducing a new product. I like to do flash sales for my subscribers and those are always very popular.
I run Facebook ads but my conversion rate from them is very low. They have been good for driving traffic to my website but the traffic takes much longer to convert than the traffic from Google. I think that Facebook could be a really great way to attract customers, but I haven’t given it the focus and time that it needs. Improving my Facebook advertising is one of my goals for this year.
I am active on my Pinterest page but I have not attempted any Pinterest ads yet. I think this could be a valuable tool for customer acquisition because it functions as its own search engine, but I have not had the time to utilize it fully.
I have all my products listed on Amazon, but very rarely get a sale from there. Again, I haven’t given it the time and focus that it probably needs. I may try to improve my Amazon presence this year because it is a search engine in its own right and something crazy like 1 out of every 4 dollars spent online is spent on Amazon. I also sell on Etsy, and that accounts for ~10-20% of my sales each month. I tried to optimize my product listings and use their promoted listings on a few of my more popular items and that seems to work well.
I just hired a PR team this month to help with my goal of building brand awareness. For PR so far, I have just reached out to media outlets on my own and have responded to HARO inquiries. This has lead to a few placements, but I’m confident that a dedicated PR team will make a huge difference in spreading the word about my brand. There are many articles around the web listing “hacks” for wearing earrings like painting clear nail polish on the posts, so I reached out to bloggers who wrote those articles to see if they would give my earrings a try. Some have responded and tried them and I have gotten a lot of traffic and sales from the resulting blog posts like this. My magazine cover placement was not a result of PR, it came through a stylist who saw my earrings and liked the style.
Ultimately I have just found it’s much harder to compete based on looks alone. There are thousands of earrings available to consumers so when they are just looking for something that’s cute it’s hard to stand out. But, when people are specifically looking for a pair of earrings that won’t cause a reaction, my earrings sell themselves. So I am always trying to find better ways of reaching those specific customers rather than trying to market to anyone looking for earrings.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Last month was the first month that I was profitable. My gross margins are around 80% which is great, but I spent a lot of money over the last year trying out different advertising and customer acquisition strategies and many of them did not have a positive return on investment which is why I am just now becoming profitable.
My returning customer rate is ~20%, overall conversion rate ~2%, and my website is getting around 6,000 visitors per month. My website accounts for 80-90% of my sales and then I have another 10-20% of sales coming from Etsy. I am projecting that my sales this year will be about 4x higher than last year.
Now that I am profitable and have a better understanding of my business, my customers, and ecommerce in general, I have really high expectations for this coming year. I am planning a couple new product launches that my customers have been asking for over the past year. I plan to work with a PR firm to improve my brand awareness and have more targeted, thoughtful influencer and media partnerships planned.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Invest in professional product photography. I had terrible product photos that I took myself for the first 9 months and my revenue literally doubled the first month that I updated my photos with professional ones. It was expensive but they paid for themselves almost instantly. I should have done that from the beginning.
My motto is “No Zero Days.” In other words, do something every single day that contributes to your business.
Don’t spend money to drive people to your business if you aren’t ready! Don’t spend money on advertising if your website is not ready to convert. That money will just be wasted. I also spent a few thousand dollars to attend a trade show about 3 months into launching my business and only got about $500 in sales from it.
I was not ready to attend a trade show and I’m sure it was obvious to all the buyers there. I also picked a trade show that really wasn’t suited for my product. I also spent a lot of money early on on influencer collaborations that didn’t do anything for me. If you are going to pay for influencer collaborations make sure you have a clear vision for what you want out of them.
If you are an ecommerce business, content marketing and SEO are slow but they are worth it. Invest your time and money into this because it will pay off down the line.
Don’t take advice from anyone (friends, family, etc) that hasn’t started their own business or is not a professional in the field! Just because someone listened to a podcast or read an article about marketing doesn’t mean they know what they are talking about. EVERYONE has an opinion and thinks they know what you should or shouldn’t do.
In general, if you have limited time and resources then focus on the things that work for you instead of trying to do everything. I know Google Ads and SEO/SEM works for me so I put my time and money into optimizing those channels. Other marketing and advertising efforts haven’t been as successful for me so for now I am not worrying about them. I read The One Thing and realized that multitasking just means you are doing a lot of things poorly. It is better to wholeheartedly do one thing that works.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I use Shopify as my ecommerce platform. Shopify is so easy to use and has all the tools you need, I would definitely recommend it.
For Shopify apps, I use Judge.Me for reviews, Pagefly for building custom pages, Quickbooks for bookkeeping and taxes, EasyDonation so customers can donate to our charitable partner, Pre-Order Now for items that are backordered, and MailChimp for email marketing.
I would recommend all of these apps, they have worked well for me and most are free or very inexpensive. I also use the free version of Airtable for creating a content calendar. For social media, I use Tailwind to schedule posts on pinterest, and Lightroom for editing Instagram photos.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- How I Built This with Guy Raz - inspiring stories from visionary entrepreneurs, there are some really valuable lessons in many of the episodes
- Social Media Marketing - really valuable & practical tips about how to improve your social media presence
Methods of Persuasion: How to Use Psychology to Influence Human Behavior by Nick Kolenda - This book is really great for understanding how to write copy and ads that move people. I implemented a lot of the strategies from this book and it honestly increased my revenue by more than 10% within a month. I highly recommend it.
The One Thing by Gary Keller: The gist is that you should focus on one thing at a time rather than multitasking
Anything from Rand Fishkin (founder of Moz) Particularly this video: 7 Lessons That Will Make You a Better Entrepreneur
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Be patient and persistent.
My motto is “No Zero Days.” In other words, do something every single day that contributes to your business. Whether it is just a social media post or an email to a media outlet, those efforts will add up and over time you will see the growth from them. But you should also understand that it will take time to see results and that is okay. Just keep showing up and learning and improving everyday and you will see growth.
Be very focused on the things that are effective.
Don’t try to do a bunch of different things and spread yourself thin. For example: Google Ads have been very effective for me and have consistently given me a positive ROI. Facebook ads have not. So I spend more time and money on optimizing my Google Ads than struggling with Facebook ads.
You can’t please everyone and your product will not be for everyone.
I have made changes to my designs and product based on the feedback of friends or individual customers and for every change you make to please one person, another person will say they liked the original version better. You should always aim to make your customers happy but you will never be every single person’s cup of tea so the sooner you accept that the better.
Don’t take advice from people who haven’t started their own business.
Everyone thinks they know what they are talking about but if they haven’t done it before then they don’t.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am not hiring any full time positions at the moment but hopefully will have positions opened in the next year. Stay tuned! If anyone is interested in interning, email me at [email protected]
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!