You’ve probably seen Trixie in the papers and on magazines before, but meet her in person and you’ll understand why she’s a media darling. Down-to-earth, principled, smart, genuine, and outgoing yet private at the same time, we like that Trixie walks the talk when it comes to running her jewellery label, By Invite Only. We visited Trixie (and resident cat Amany) in her studio to talk about her experiences starting up, challenges and highlights of her career, and her aspirations for the future.
Q: Give us some background on By Invite Only (BIO) and how did you get started?
A: BIO is a jewellery label that focuses on handmade products – craftsmanship and items with a story behind them are what people identify us with.
I started making jewellery in 2009 during my first sem of uni. I didn’t intend to make it my career then because I was also working part time at Asylum Shop and studying; I would work on BIO when I had time to source for materials so it wasn’t a wholehearted effort. It was only when I graduated in 2011 that it became bigger. I stocked at Curious Teepee for the first time and from there decided to give myself a year to work full time on it.
Q: So what happened during that first year when you decided to go full time? Was it an easy decision to take or did you struggle to make it your career?
A: It was only over the past year that it became survivable – I was basically hustling every day before that!
It was tough at the start because we’d take on every event and opportunity to put our products out there and stock in as many places as possible – at one point we were stocked in 10 stores. That was very tiring but it also didn’t mean a lot of sales were coming in. We did it because we felt that it was necessary to build awareness for the brand. We never starved but it was only within the last year that it became better. I’m now at the point where I’ve started to do things properly and am getting a hang of suppliers, wholesalers, production time – before that it was pretty much taking small steps and learning along the way.
It’s not that there were never any doubts but there was always a reason to continue even though the business today still isn’t where I think it should be. I remember arriving at crossroads where I’d weigh the pros and cons of continuing BIO full-time or working for someone else when job opportunities came up, but I’m the sort of person who prefers to do something I like given a choice versus something I have to do for the sake of a salary or so I won’t have to struggle anymore.
Q: How do you find your suppliers and wholesalers?
A: I spend a lot of time doing research online – alibaba.com is a great resource. Buying materials online can be tricky cause you it’s not always what you imagine it to be, so now we try to go to where our suppliers are, which was why I just came back from Seoul. Hopefully we’ll go to Brazil one day.
Q: Production wise were there any costly mistakes you made?
A: Yes – everyday! One of them is not being able to buy in bulk for the first 3 years so that’s definitely an opportunity cost. But buying in bulk doesn’t mean you can sell it for sure. Now it’s better because we’re getting better at estimating quantities since we’ve been doing this for a while now.
Because I place my orders online, I sometimes sketch designs and send a picture over to my supplier using WhatsApp. They then create a sample and send a photo of it back to me – this is not a 3D image or a professionally shot picture – so I need to ask questions to visualize it and often decide based on gut feelings.
Q: When was your first hire?
A: We hired our first staff in 2013 and decided on an intern because we weren’t ready for a full-time hire. We’ve had 2 interns so far, each for about 3 months long. Our first 2 interns managed the marketing side of the business but the next one coming on soon will focus on production instead.
Q: What have you learnt from working with interns?
A: When you pay peanuts you’ll get monkeys!
I always pay my interns and don’t go below market rate, but having interns made me realize I need to hire a full-timer who is more experienced, or at least someone older who’s able to commit to a full time gig, which is my goal for next year.
Business relationships are tricky. You don’t want to be too friendly with your interns, but you also don’t want them to not be friends with you and be dishonest, especially when it comes to products and inventory. It’s very hard to tell a person off when you’re too close, but when you’re not close it becomes difficult to get someone to do things better for you. So it’s a balance and I need to keep coming back to being objective about things.
What I’ve learnt is that you should always let them know who’s the boss but you don’t have to be mean about it.
Reprimanding someone is also something hard for me. I’ve learnt to practice self-control when I get pissed and to always come back to mutual ground – if there’s something you don’t like, you need to say so immediately so the impact is felt.
Q: When did you first get a workspace outside your home?
A: Also in 2013, a significant time where we were no longer considered a start-up and faced predictable situations with growth like hiring, looking for space, etc.
Q: How much money did you put in at the start?
A: My mum gave me $500 as allowance every month and I would segment a percentage to buy tools and materials that accumulated over time.
I wasn’t keeping business and personal accounts separate until registering the business in 2011 and had to be thrifty knowing that a portion was to be used to develop the brand. After registering I paid myself a salary that allowed me to pay the bills and my expenses, and this amount was evaluated every 3 months.
I was rolling the capital until I got a small investment from a relative last year – not that the investment brought me out of where I’m at, but it helped me get to a comfortable level where I could start growing – I could pay myself, buy materials in bulk, and get an office.
Q: Was the investment from your relative in exchange for anything?
A: He has a share in BIO and is more of a partner who keeps me accountable. Taking money from someone else is another big lesson. Some people want money from VCs but getting millions of VC investment doesn’t mean anything; you haven’t profited from it yet and the person who has the money (i.e. the business owner) carries such a heavy burden. Having more money doesn’t mean you know how to use it wisely either; my goal the day after I received money was to return it as soon as possible. Having it at the back of your mind is stressful so my advice would be to not take money at all if you can help it.
Q: How about grants?
A: We’ve received subsidies from Design Singapore for doing a trade show but the process was not easy. It took about 5 months from application till the money came in – you’ll still need to have sufficient funds to tide over the period waiting for money to come in.
Q: How do you stay competitive as a jewellery maker given that craft is gaining traction in Singapore?
A: We don’t make craft a focus but rather a criteria so the customer knows by default what they’re going to get – you’ll know that 80% of the end product will be done in-house while the more difficult things like soldering will be done by a craftsman and will never be mass produced.
What keeps us competitive is our tone of voice and attitude towards branding and marketing. Our messages on Instagram are directed towards female empowerment. We don’t want to focus on selling as much as we want to create a feeling; in a way the emotional aspect helps us to maintain our competitiveness.
In terms of design, it’s not rocket science where our designs are patented but the way we curate the stones and chains show a certain aesthetic and taste which customers can recognize us by, which we hope will differentiate us from everyone else.
Q: What is your marketing strategy like?
A: We’re focusing on social media and digital marketing because we sell our products mainly online now. In May we’ll be renting a space at Raffles Exchange in a shop that sells rack space. Raffles Place is great because that’s where our customers are and there’s a lot of traffic. After April it’ll be the only store we’ll be stocked in because we’re taking our products back and focusing on online retail. Online is great cause we can ship internationally and we don’t have to think about rental and staffing. It is also relatively cheaper compared to running a full-fledged store that will only be in Singapore.
Getting featured in magazines or the papers is a bonus but no longer a priority – it used to be a priority because we wanted some kind of legitimacy that comes with the brand. Now we’re just focused on Instagram, Facebook, and email marketing.
Q: So for a new fashion label, would you recommend focusing on social media or trying to get media attention like what you did in the past?
A: I think it depends on your pricing model and your selling strategy. I want the focus to be online so I’m keeping my marketing online. It doesn’t mean if you’re offline you cannot have a social media presence but if your products are going to be at a flagship store then you would want people to go to your store and all channels will be appropriate.
Online presence is so important now – you can tell a story, upload videos – there are many ways to translate your story using technology. I just went for a workshop where they spoke about the first moment of truth when someone enters your (online) store, but there’s also a zero moment of truth before that happens. For instance, if you’re a potential customer looking for jewellery to match your dress, you will first Google ‘best local jewellery brand in Singapore’ to shortlist your options – that pre-buying stage makes it important to be search engine optimized.
Q: In terms of stockists, why did you decide to pull out and what was your learning process like?
A: I pulled out because physical retail wasn’t doing as well as online. The effort to maintain stock or having dead stock can be overwhelming, and my aim is to minimize the steps of my process while removing barriers to buying for customers.
I’ve always made it a point to not work with people who are intentionally mean, unreasonable, or whom I don’t like. This applies especially to big corporations that should be more professional than all the small shops out there.
In terms of learning, everything has to be in black and white. There will be loopholes in contracts so when something comes up it needs to be addressed immediately because you cannot assume everyone will have the same mindset as you. In business, there are no friends – you should not allow grey areas to ruin friendships and everything must be clear.
When you have stockists in different areas, you’ll learn which areas work better for your product, e.g. town, CBD, Tiong Bahru etc. I always set a sales target with stockists at the start to manage expectations, which we’ll review every 3 months to either change or pull out.
Q: Do you have a core support group and are/ were they supportive?
A: I have friends who will not judge or feel threatened by me, certain individuals that no matter what I do I can never do wrong. Sometimes it becomes a social competition when I appear on magazines because people say things like ‘wah, now you become very famous already ah’. But this is work and I’m still the same person; I’m not doing this to become more famous. My core support group will be happy for me when I’m on magazines but not feel threatened that I’m trying to be better or richer than them; these are the people I go to.
For my parents, not doing anything is already a show of support. Not pressuring me to look for a job with a steady income is something I really appreciate, there’s no need to be a daily cheerleader.
Q: Was there a turning point in your life that changed the way you did things or who you are right now?
A: I spent a lot of time alone in my recent trip to Seoul and reflected on how I should get my shit together. When I got back, we changed our pricing model by reducing our prices. I didn’t want to go cheaper in the past because I didn’t want my brand to look cheap but that’s more a personal desire than what’s good for the business. More affordable prices means fewer barriers to entry, which works because we no longer need to peg prices of products up for wholesale or consignment.
Q: Do you have any mentors?
A: I don’t really have mentors, though I do meet and speak frequently to fellow designers like Larry from Sundays. I ask fellow industry people what they think about a certain idea I have because they know the weather of the industry and we’re able to chat openly.
Q: In terms of resources, anything you’ve done and would recommend?
A: I buy a lot of books and use Flipboard where I tune into the entrepreneur section and read a lot of articles from Inc.com. I read Inc.com everyday to tackle issues like growth, management, and leadership.
For empowering women in business:
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Q: Name us a highlight of your career.
A: It always changes. It used to be when the first magazine published me, now it’s not taken for granted but no longer a highlight. Then it was when famous bloggers like Margaret Zhang pitched our products, but that’s also not a highlight anymore.
A constant highlight of my job is when something I push on social media is bought almost immediately – and doing this is free. It’s always going to be a highlight and the instantaneous response will always motivate me to think of ways to make my posts better.
Q: Where do you see your business in 5 years’ time?
A: Hopefully we’ll have a flagship store. It’s difficult now because I don’t want a flagship store that just has jewellery in it. If the store is in Raffles Place, that will be gold.
I'd like business to get busier so I will be able to sustain a staff of 4 or 5 people so I can focus on strategy. There’s a lot of research out there and you can read a lot but when it comes to issues like leadership and hiring, you really need to think about them – who exactly do you want to hire? Eventually I don’t want to have to micromanage; I’ll make decisions but not jewellery anymore.
Q: Any advice to give to someone who’s starting out?
A: You must invest in yourself. Everything that I do, I do because I want to be happy. If it makes me happier working for myself to become a more complete person, I will do it. A lot of people think about how to do it instead of why you do it. But if you keep worrying about the how then you will never do it because most of the time you can only see the first 3 steps out of 10.
Take pleasure in continuing to invest in yourself, keep learning, and be teachable.