Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Chrissie Lam, the founder of Love is Project.
We’re best known for our bright red LOVE bracelets—but what you might not know is that we’re different than your average jewelry company, because we’ve utilized a “Pay It Forward” business model that’s created 1,200+ jobs for female artisans around the world. Our ethical supply chain of love has literally changed the economics of developing communities from Kenya to Guatemala and touched the lives of families from Vietnam to Ecuador.
Each LOVE bracelet is carefully crafted using traditional techniques and materials that reference their unique cultures of origin, but still have a worldwide appeal. Since launching as a stand-alone brand two years ago, we’ve generated over $1.2 million in revenue.
We've also been featured on the cover of Glamour (on Anne Hathaway’s wrist), in Refinery29 and Elle, and on an episode of Good Morning America in November 2018. We are featured as one of Oprah’s favorite Valentine’s Day gifts in the February 2019 issue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I worked in concept design for 12 years before founding Love Is Project, for brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle Outfitters.
Perfection isn’t the goal. Test and execute things, and then adjust.
In 2012, I left corporate fashion with a mission of working with artisans around the world to create products and connect them to brands for market access. I connected artisans and brands in a consulting capacity for a few years before launching Love Is Project as a standalone brand in 2017.
My "AHA!" moment came when visiting the Maasai mums in Ngong. I was inspired by the colors of their tribe, so I designed a simple LOVE bracelet with the equally simple goal of helping to create jobs for their community.
With that bracelet in hand on a flight to Russia, I asked two strangers from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan what love meant and profiled them on Instagram. What started as a personal travel project transformed into a viral social media campaign.
With the grassroots support of influencers spreading the word, it validated the concept and product-market fit and convinced me to make it a stand-alone brand. We had posts about the love bracelet attracting up to 240,000 likes on Instagram.
I was thrilled to see Anne Hathaway wearing her own Love Rainbow bracelet in the June 2018 cover story of Glamour magazine. My friend texted me about it. Of all the ways in the world to find out a major fashion magazine had an A-list star wearing it. Needless to say, it was a total surprise. We just made a thank you video for Anne from the Maasai kids in Kenya and hoping she gets to see it!
We’ve had other notables wear and post about the bracelet, such as: designer, Steven Alan; fashion bloggers, Jessica Stein & Shay Mitchell; actress, Bella Thorne.
Anne Hathaway rocking our bracelet!
French influencer @Ivan.Kricak with his dog Pablo
With the success of our early corporate partnerships with American Eagle Outfitters and Whole Foods, I knew the Love Is Project could be a powerful stand-alone brand. By harnessing the meaning of LOVE, we could create economic opportunities for thousands and empower millions more around the world.
Leaving a stable corporate job was initially scary, and it has had its ups and downs over the years—but it has also enabled me to merge my passions for design and development together into a new category of fashion philanthropy.
I’ve been able to take ownership and drive the vision of my brand forward, as opposed to trying to change an industry from within. In the past two years, I’ve learned more than I thought possible, and have become involved in every aspect of the business.
It hasn’t been all roses and sunshine, but my background in fashion design and extensive travel (I’ve visited 104 countries!) prepared me for entrepreneurship. Travel has made me adaptable, curious, and resourceful, and enabled me to find inspiration anywhere.
My skills in photography and trend forecasting help me style photoshoots, and my experience in merchandising showrooms gives me an edge when creating visual displays at trade shows. As a hard-charging New Yorker for 18 years, I’m used to getting things done.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I partner with artisans through local social enterprises and non-profits. Together, we develop, produce, and manage quality control for all of our collections. I’ve lived in or traveled to many of the countries we work with, and it’s been helpful to be familiar with the culture and have contacts on the ground as we start or expand production.
In the beginning, I worked with Abigail, an expert Maasai beader, to develop the first prototype of the LOVE bracelet. The original LOVE bracelet is deeply rooted in Maasai culture and traditions: they're known for their beading, and the color red symbolizes bravery and strength.
As we expanded to Bali, we incorporated new designs and craftsmanship while still paying homage to the original LOVE bracelet. Balinese gold and silver jewelry is stunning, so we evolved the original beaded concept by incorporating circular dots. A nod to beads, they also symbolize rice in Balinese culture. The dots also emulate the Maasai beads in the original design of the Kenya LOVE bracelet. Rice and LOVE are both plentiful and provide sustenance to the communities who make these bracelets.
Unlike Kenya and Bali, I had no connections in Bhutan when I arrived. We started from scratch, building relationships with artisans at the market and browsing local products. We found artisans at the market and looked at products. We met a group of nuns at a Buddhist convent on top of a mountain who made macrame bracelets. I asked them to make me a few hundred and bless them and our mini prayer flags and we organized an impromptu photoshoot with them.
For every new country collection that we launch, I visit both artisans and markets to get design inspiration and a sense for the resources available. Then we sample different ideas, and consider:
- What looks best, and is it wearable?
- Is it unique enough from our other collections?
- Does the price point make sense for our audience?
- Are we representing the history and culture of the country?
After we’ve decided on a design, we place a small test order to ensure quality control issues are worked out before ordering a larger quantity. This approach also allows us to test our own market and assess customer response.
We work closely with our artisans, who are eager to learn and participate in the global marketplace. By collaborating on every step of the process, we’re “teaching them how to fish,” and are helping them to gain access to the right market with the right product.
Our average startup cost per country collection is $15,000-$20,000, which includes travel, design, development, and production. Marketing costs are separate, and include digital ads, platform fees for Klaviyo and Shopify, and freelance consultants that help us with everything from email marketing to copywriting.
We’ve found storytelling to be a key differentiator from competitors. Essentially, we’re a media company that happens to sell bracelets. Content is gold for us. We use all the photos and videos in our Facebook & Instagram ads, email campaigns, blog posts, PR. We always hire a local photographer and videographer to help document the artisans’ process, and do a fun lifestyle shoot that features locals.
We just won Best New Product in Personal Accessories at NYNOW Gift Show for our new Corazon Mexico collection of hand painted wooden bangles and hand made Milagros. This project was put together just weeks before and everything came out beautifully!
Describe the process of launching the business.
When #loveisproject was just a social media campaign back in December 2014, I concepted an Indiegogo campaign Dec 2014 that raised over $33,000 in a month. The Indiegogo campaign was managed by the non-profit group producing at the time.
I pitched the idea to my old employer, American Eagle Outfitters, who placed a $250,000 order and created 400+ jobs for the Maasai in the process. Whole Foods subsequently placed large orders for Green LOVE bracelets a few months later.
My business is truly a labor of LOVE. You have to be all-in and you can’t do anything halfheartedly. The hustle is real and overwhelming. It pays to be focused, keep evolving and iterating, and don’t be afraid.
Fresh off our success with American Eagle & Whole Foods in 2016, I set up shop in Bali. I used $30,000 of my savings, cashed out some stock, and hired a handful of freelancers around the globe to get the business started.
Love Is Project launched on January 1, 2017. Bali is a great place to launch a business. Access to the jungle and beach coupled with low living expenses make for a great quality of life—and the access to local artisans, talented creatives, and digital nomads from around the world make it even better.
I had heard through the grapevine that with the help of Facebook ads new brands could skyrocket sales in months. After a bit of research, I found a freelancer who had experience growing sales through Facebook ads, and hired him to help me launch.
Within the first month, sales exceeded our initial by tenfold, helped along by Valentine’s Day and Trump’s inauguration (everyone needed more love!) For the first couple of months we were consistently sold out and trying to catch up on production while figuring out everything from logistics to marketing on the fly.
As great a place as Bali is to launch a business, I realized I needed to be back in the states to grow the business. I needed to be present for more meetings, trade shows and networking opportunities that were critical to our success. Currently, I spend 2-3 months a year in Bali.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The most important way that we’ve attracted and retained customers is by building a brand through authentic storytelling—from our artisans, our consumers, and our contributors. We fuse “Humans of New York”-style narratives with social impact products that bring a sense of compassion and humanity to our collections.
Here are some of the campaigns we did:
Love Rings. My Phun (68) is from the Padaung tribe in #myanmar. The women wear heavy metal neck coils starting from age 8, increasing the number as they age. My Phun has 25 neck rings, the maximum number. Legend has it that the coils serve as protection from tigers.#loveismany things. She loves having people come from around the world to visit her at #inlelake#loveisproject
Kandy Love. #loveis like a Tuk Tuk, it can take you everywhere and it is very strong. Pradeep Wijekoon is a #TukTuk taxi driver in #kandy #srilanka. He is also a fitness instructor, but that isn't a very lucrative profession here, so he drives his mom's Tuk Tuk. #loveisproject
Lord of the Birds. For 27 years old Asalbek, “love is home.” in Bayan-Uglii Province, Sagsai Town, Mongolia. He is an eagle hunter, which is called “Qusbegi." This traditional form of falconry is celebrated on the steppes of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan & Mongolia. There are an estimated 250 eagle hunters. The custom involves hunting with golden eagles on horseback, and they primarily hunt red foxes and corsac foxes. They use eagles to hunt foxes and hares during the cold winter months when it is easier to see the gold colored foxes against the snow. Each October, Kazakh eagle hunting customs are displayed at the annual Golden Eagle Festival. Asalbek's eagle loves the #loveisproject bracelet too! Photo: @inomad
Caption: Focus on LOVE. We're so excited to share the beautiful illustrations our talented friend, Sujean Rim, created for the #loveisproject this week. Sujean is a freelance illustrator, designer and consultant with a focus in Fashion, Accessories, Lifestyle and Children's industries. Sujean is also an author and illustrator of several published Children's Books. She lives in New York with her husband and their son, and is a big believer in LOVE. You can visit her at sujeanrim.com and on IG @sujeanpics.
This storytelling is accomplished through a diverse set of growing channels: 30% Facebook and Instagram ads, 10% Google ads, 30% CRM email marketing, and 20% wholesale/trade show.
This mix has taken time, persistence, and experimentation to achieve—and we’re still learning! Here’s an example: Though email has always been an important channel for us, implementing incentive campaigns, strategic segmentation, and special edition product launches have all helped with conversion.
Luckily, after working in the fashion industry for over a decade, I still maintained my network and could reach out to friends in press to help get the word out. For some of our recent PR coups, I have reached through cold emails. I’ve also met press at tradeshows.
Another significant ingredient to our success in building a brand has been the Shopify platform and the level of customization we’ve been able to achieve.
I’ve been hesitant on expanding on the Amazon platform. The lack of ability to include special packaging and inserts coupled with the fact that they take your customer’s emails made Amazon a non-starter for us (though I understand they can be a fit for white-label products).
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re actively working towards profitability for the business. Sadly some major blips over the past two years hindered our financial progress.
Lesson Learned #1: Learn it yourself before delegating.
Digital marketing freelancers and agencies mismanaged our account and caused losses of $120,000. It has been a frustrating and expensive learning process, to say the least.
Inexperienced marketers produced campaigns with sloppy creative and wrong links that led to underperforming ROAS on long-running campaigns that should have been iterated or retired.
This experience taught me the necessity of knowing how to implement Facebook ads in order to effectively manage others.
I got a coach, worked on creative for months, and can now launch my own campaigns. Time constraints mean I can't do everything, but I do have a hand in choosing creative from photos to copy.
Lesson Learned #2: Make sure your 3PL is in order.
We transitioned 3PLs during our high season (we had no choice), and the new 3PL accidentally shipped over 800 duplicated orders (many with multiple units). That left us with a major product deficit and a loss of over $65,000 in inventory. LOVE is a four-letter word, but I’ve used a lot of other ones over the past couple of years.
Here’s the good news: We have a loyal-and-growing following on Facebook (45,000) and Instagram (10,000). Our direct-to-consumer sales is driving 98% of our business.
We just started exploring wholesale channels and look to grow that in the coming year. We’re also going to focus on corporate partnership and gifting/customizing opportunities. I’ve been able to achieve press placements from Good Morning America to Oprah without the help of an agency.
In addition to profitably growing the business, another big goal for the near-term future is hiring another full-time employee. Right now I literally manage all aspects of the business from conception to production to marketing to customer service. It’s a 100-hour per week job, and needless to say, it’s not sustainable.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
In short, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. And more. Be prepared, but always be learning. That means moving on from mistakes quickly.
Perfection isn’t the goal. Test and execute things, and then adjust.
Despite the challenges, I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in such a short time with so few resources. I’ve created collections in multiple countries, spearheaded partnerships with major retailers, and received major media placements within our first two years in business. Our customer retention is 36% and conversion rates on our site average 4%.
To get here, I’ve had to learn fast and often—about technology, about new platforms, and about managing people with other expertise to manage performance. I worked in a fashion industry before Facebook ads or many of these platforms even existed, so I’ve had to learn new methodologies and metrics in order to continually grow the business.
Our mentor/advisor was shocked that I did not have any other full-time employees, and was doing the work of 10 people. He called me a Unicorn and said that I should be able to walk into any Silicon Valley VC partners and command an executive role for E-commerce with excellent mobile conversion rate and customer retention experience.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Shopify Plus and Klaviyo for our CRM. I honestly don’t know what I would do without the Shopify platform. I also love the team at Klaviyo. They're full of knowledge and have the best workshops and conferences. They actually filmed a 3 part series mini-documentary on the Love Is Project!
Fulfillment is Shipbob. We don’t have lots of bells and whistles. Our product and story speak for itself.
Six months ago, we started doing trade shows which have helped us grow our wholesale channels and brand awareness. We have been invited by Bloomingdale’s to participate in their PopUp events - one in San Francisco & 59th Street.
TaskRabbit is a good resource to get some last minute help. I’ve yet to use Upwork, but I hear that is good too.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
How I Built This - Hearing about struggles from entrepreneurs that have made it, humanizes the experiences. Learning from others mistakes.
This American Life - Real stories from real people. I love Ira Glass!
Becoming by Michelle Obama - book It was inspiring to hear her trials and tribulations, her life of service to others, acts of kindness and how she pays it forward.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Here’s my best, unadulterated advice:
My business is truly a labor of LOVE. You have to be all-in and you can’t do anything halfway. The hustle is real and overwhelming. It pays to be focused, keep evolving and iterating,and don’t be afraid.
Perfection isn’t the goal. Test and execute things, and then adjust.
Make sure to rest. You need to take time out for yourself and recover too. That’s what I’m planning on doing the month of March in Bali with my A-team of healers, massage therapists, yoga classes, meditation, and delicious and healthy food!
Finally, it helps to have a supportive and loving family who believes in me and my project.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’ve been running the company on my own from San Francisco for two years with a handful of freelancers helping me with different tasks. It would be wonderful to hire a head of operations / digital marketing manager to offload some of the work.
The ideal person would be… an enterprising individual who can take charge of all operations and manage the execution of digital marketing campaigns.
Most of our readers are aspiring entrepreneurs, but some are also just looking for a change of pace in their careers.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Our website: www.loveisproject.co
- Our Facebook.
- If you want to learn more about our Kenya impact and Expansion Blogs, check out our impact page.
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? Shoot me an email!