How Regina Ye Started A CPG Company While In College

starter
Founder, Zirui
$1,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
2
Employees
product
Zirui
from Boston, MA
started October 2017
$1,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
2
Employees
2.68M
alexa rank
2K
followers
31
followers
platform
productivity
social media

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

My name is Regina Ye, and I am the founder of ZIRUI.

Our flagship product is a modular magnetic travel toiletry case that is secure, sleek, and simple. ZIRUI is the best way to travel with liquids.

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

I am a big traveler and a beauty fanatic!

Being an international student, I traveled back and forth a lot between countries and continents. When I came up with the idea of ZIRUI I was 18 and had already traveled to more than 20 countries, so I was very familiar with the pain of traveling and having to pack my things nicely.

I was just getting very fed up with the standard startup rhetoric, and being in the ecosystem, I saw there was a lot of ego in the game. Some people are not working on what they truly believe in but just picking a problem that sounds cool because a “startup” is cool now.

I also used to spend an obscene amount of money each year at Sephora, like I was there VIB (very important in beauty) every year.

I studied Computer Science and spent the summer between my sophomore year and junior year (which was the summer before I came up with the idea of ZIRUI) interning abroad in Berlin doing UI/UX designing for an APP. In APP design you think a lot about the user workflow and the start to finish experience, and I started to wonder if it could be applicable to other areas of business. I think UI/UX design process has the same principles that would apply physical products.

The “aha” moment

The “aha” moment happened when I got back to the U.S. after the summer and went to a tech conference in Texas.

I carefully wrapped my oil and toner, then when I checked in at a hotel and opened my suitcase, I was shocked to see that my favorite toner had leaked again. I sort of sat there in disbelief, like how can you have all these smart people at the conference talking about solving the next big problem yet overlooking such a simple problem?

I talked to many people on campus and beyond school within and out of my network, went to the mall to just interview random strangers, and really went in with an open mind, and eventually realized wow this problem was bigger than I thought and people wanted a better solution.

The people that understood the pain were so excited. Their faces lit up and they would just tell me "omg can you please make it happen? I would buy it and that would be so cool."

While everyone was trying to solve a big “let’s change the world” buzzword idea, I thought I’d start with a niche but high-frequency and annoying problem.

I was just getting very fed up with the standard startup rhetoric, and being in the ecosystem, I saw there was a lot of ego in the game. Some people are not working on what they truly believe in but just picking a problem that sounds cool because a “startup” is cool now.

Personally, if I don't believe in the problem, there is no way I can be 120% committed, which is why I waited a long time before starting ZIRUI. I was waiting for the idea that can convince me to start.

Since my background was in computer science and philosophy, it didn’t really apply to the making of ZIRUI. I was in school so I tried to be very lean and asked for a lot of favors (still do) to get it started.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

It was not an easy nor short process by any means.

So I actually took an architecture class when I was a junior just for some extra credits but ended up learning the essential skill to start the design process.

I learned CAD modeling and spent a few extra nights at the computer lab to finish a very coarse 3D model so I could stop just waving my hands or drawing on the whiteboard when I tried to explain the idea to people.

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Our school had a 3D printer so I went to the lab to print that. The first prototype was clumsy and bulky, and the process took two days due to my inexperience at the time. Still, the excitement I had when I saw the product was incredible. Just the jump from 2D to 3D was crazy, like I had my idea actually printed and fresh off the plate.

I then had a friend recommend a lawyer to me to file a patent, and had everyone that I talked to at the time to sign an NDA.

The process took about 1 year to file the two kinds of patents, and two years later we are almost done waiting for the USPTO's approval.

I know NDA and patent are controversial topics and some will say it’s not worth it. I went in with the “what if” mindset since both are time-sensitive and you cannot reverse the process if left undone, and they are really showing value now.

It is true that if the company doesn’t take off the NDA and patents are sort of in vain but as a founder, you should always think you will succeed.

Now that we are at the stage of raising funds, I see the value of the patents so much more. And signing NDAs is just a good practice, I have that ideal drilled to my head by one of my mentors who is very experienced with international sales. You will likely encounter people who tell you NDAs and patents are just useless but I believe NDAs are still a legal document that provides one more barrier for anyone to infringe upon you and is always good to hold the other party accountable in the following conversations.

Then I actually did a few more iterations that were more detailed, I spent the whole winter break doing that with an engineering student I found in a nearby school. I would drive through the New England snow to work with him and spend all the time trying to describe my vision to him.

I then had a friend of a friend in China to find a prototyping agency to do a more real-life prototype with colors and all the design details which we used for Kickstarter, and then together we came up with a list of manufacturers we found online in China. He did the initial visit and narrowed the list. For the actual molding contract after the Kickstarter, I flew to China to meet with the manufacturer and tried to meet as many people as I could in the circle through my personal connections just trying to understand the process of getting a product made in China. I took a lot of notes and had a lot of coffee in that month.

I did have to invest more into legal stuff to get patents and form a company to do the Kickstarter as well.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

I did the first five versions of the website which people often assume it’s easy but really in school even computer science majors don’t learn how to make a website pretty, it’s more design stuff.

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I did a friends and families round of funding. It was under $50k.

It took me a year to have a prototype to launch the Kickstarter, and it took me another year to have the products delivered and now panning out the sales channel.

What slowed us down was just constant delay and trying to fix the molds over and over because we wanted a perfect product or the quality needed to past our bar. Another major factor was I was a full-time Computer Science student at the time in college, with a lot of dues and homework at all times. I was taking this really fun but really time-consuming cybersecurity class that ended up eating away most of my free time. I was just hopelessly trying to hack computers since I needed to graduate.

In the beginning not being as focused and trying to find shortcuts by letting others have control over the product and sales, which in the end only brought in more losses.

Things were very condensed during the Kickstarter phase since the clock was ticking, then after delivery, I realized I needed to actively push sales which seems like a simple lesson but took me a whole month to learn.

It was constant work and a steep learning curve. The good thing is I used to do this along with school which was a huge frustration because I did not get to spend as much time as I wanted to on the project, and now it is such an improvement because I get to spend more time to work on ZIRUI. I see myself at the prime of my life where I can afford to take risks and focus 100% on ZIRUI.

We use Shopify and have gone through so many iterations. I definitely spent way too much money hoping other people would the job that a founder has to do, but the reality is you have to lay the ground for the business.

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

So our product does really well offline. I was only selling online before and the sales were not so great, also partially because we did not direct any traffic to the store at the time.

But I went to a local art and craft markets, and ZIRUI GO Case just sold so well. We received a lot of feedback and realized it was such a great holiday gift item and our demographics turned out to be older.

Overall, getting real-time feedback from customers and seeing them walk away with five products at once was a really satisfying experience. I definitely want to do more offline events in the future.

ZIRUI has had a lot of great PR to this day, Forbes, HuffPost, MTV, and the mayor of Boston recently tweeted about ZIRUI as the Startup of the Month For October.

I had the initial piece by HuffPost through a friend of a friend. The rest of the PRs were either me linkedin messaging editors or asking around other people who got covered by the same reporter. The best PRs though, were not asked but fell on my lap. I had the Forbes, Startup To Watch and MTV reporter reaching out to me first. It's just a good reminder that you just focus on the work, people do notice and they come to you.

PRs in general don't bring a ton of consumer traffic although I have seen a slight increase in conversion. It's more about the quality of the readers and the credibility add-on.

Because certain PRs mean we are now in the "Boston startup scene", or investors, potential employees see us and have more confidence/understanding of the story.

I love sharing the story and am trying to direct more PR to the product as well. Overall I think PR is a great long term investment for building the brand but we have not gotten one piece of viral PR yet (Oprah, wink).

We are beginning to try Amazon, in the process of becoming Prime. Currently I outsourced it to an agency, I want to focus internally and if the sales go well, we will invest more into the channel.

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

We are not profitable but we should soon reach breakeven with our accelerated efforts into sales.

The distribution part is tricky as I do not want to work with big retailers who often work on really harsh terms, so we are carefully expanding while developing newer products for the retailers out there who are compatible with our values and our products.

We are now pushing sales as well as raising a round of capital to accelerate growth and be able to build ZIRUI into an “on-the-go” lifestyle brand. I want to expand globally as well as pushing different price tiers and designs for different demographics as we see a huge potential for multiple groups of people. We are now raising our seed round of funding from VCs.

We are currently developing our second and third product, and looking at opportunities in the markets outside of the U.S. as well.

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

In the beginning not being as focused and trying to find shortcuts by letting others have control over the product and sales, which in the end only brought in more losses.

Say, for example hiring outside agencies to do social media ads for them, or trying to find someone to take over "sales", yes, the entire sales channels for us. Turns out, you are in the business yourself you have the most interest over any outside party to make the money.

It was definitely the right decision to start small and grow with the company as I would not have been able to handle a large operation nor a big amount of capital a year ago.

I have a great group of mentors, whether formal or informal, around me. They each have very diverse skill set and altogether can really lower the risk of my decisions, yet at the end of the day I learned that I still needed to trust my gut feelings as I know the business the best.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Shopify and Instagram. I am not happy with what is happening with Instagram right now I think the algorithm change is pissing off people and the company is losing focus.

This is just my opinion… but ever since FB took over IG, they are essentially turning IG into another FB. Users are not really seeing what they want to see albeit that is what the algorithm thinks is the best. I think their technology is now curating the content which in the long run draws the attention away from the platform and will hurt the advertisers as well.

I also use an app called Forest and the website Toggl to keep track of my time use.

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

I rely heavily on my mentors and I also do really review my vision once in a while.

When I started on this journey I wrote down my vision and I just remember also. So when I get confused or sidetracked I ask myself "what was it you want to start", "what was the idea that made you so excited on the night of the inception"?

Don’t lose focus and lose sight of why you started. And don’t take all the advice you receive.

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

Just start, you can’t figure everything out before starting. Don’t trust all the advice you get, including mine.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

I am definitely looking for someone to build up our social media presence, who is creative and also analytical with a growth mindset. I am also looking for growth hackers who want to grow the company like crazy. Depending on how good you are, the sky's the limit here.

Where can we go to learn more?

- pat-walls Regina Ye, Founder of Zirui

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