Have you ever wanted to peek behind the scenes of a super successful physical product business? Today's episode is your opportunity! I'm chatting with my friend, Amy Gabriel, the creator of LippyClip about how she turned a $10 product into a full-time business that today employs more than a dozen women. Plus, in 2021, she worked really hard to automate her business so that she could pursue another dream (and don’t worry - we are going to talk about that too!). Now, Amy balances running LippyClip while pursuing a master's in theology.
Here’s a sneak peek into what we covered:
- How she scaled her business and built her team
- What her day to day life is like running a business as a mom and a seminary student
- How she grew different distribution channels (she started on Etsy)
- How automation was one of the KEY time freedom pieces for her
Remember in episode #207 where I shared some of the biggest pinch me moments in the last 7 years in business? Amy was the one I was on the panel at Christy Wright’s Business Boutique conference with! So we became fast friends preparing to speak in front of 3000 women. Fast forward, we also ended up in the same mastermind and were able to reconnect at the retreat the next year. It’s been a long time since then, but I've just loved following Amy and learning from her, seeing her business grow and cheering her on.
No matter what kind of business you have: whether you are a service provider, a physical product business like Amy or a digital product, I know you are going to love this episode. There is so much to learn from Amy’s story. She’s a true inspiration!
LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE NOW:
LippyClip is Celebrating 11 Years in Business This Year! What Was Life Like Before That for You?
After earning a nursing degree, I worked for over ten years as a pediatric RN (the first decade of my marriage). Eventually, my husband decided to pursue his lifelong dream of obtaining a master's in counseling (which is a very lengthy process), and I agreed to support our family while he attended graduate school.
We already had two children at that point, so balancing our schedules and childcare was a challenge. There were times when he would have to go to class and he would drop the kids off at my office and I would put them in a patient room with a couple of popsicles for an hour or two until somebody could get there and pick them up. For a while, it felt like the only times we saw each other was when we were passing each other in the garage. It was a struggle. While I loved the job of nursing, it wasn’t flexible enough for me and I got tired of working nights and weekends and all the odd shifts just to make it work.
Meanwhile, both of my grandmothers were pretty accomplished seamstresses. I also grew up watching one of them (my mom’s mom) have a really strong entrepreneurial spirit and I watched her grow her sewing business into a pretty sustainable income and a pretty successful livelihood and that always just impressed me as a teenager. I remember being so captivated by how she did that.
During periods of struggling as a nurse, I always had this thought in the back of my mind wondering how I could do something like that. This was back in the earlier days of Etsy too, when it was still an up and coming platform. I started sewing when I came home from work at night to unwind and let the adrenaline of the day crash and then I just started putting things on Etsy.
And then… it started selling. I was so grateful. I didn't have a business degree. I didn't know how to take great bright white background photos. I learned everything from trial and error. The Lord blessed my sewing business and it just grew. As soon as I could, I went part-time in my nursing career to sell on Etsy part-time. In 2014, I quit nursing to pursue LippyClip full-time.
Truly, it has just been this beautiful story of how the Lord took something really small from my childhood (or seemingly small), ended up being so impactful. I thought I'd be a nurse for my entire adult professional life. It's not a story I could have dreamed to have written but I’m so grateful God had other plans.
You moved from a nursing career to sewing and designing which feel so different! Do you feel like you have a very science/analytical brain or do you feel more creative?
Both. I've always been really good at math and science, but I have always had a creative side. I've always loved making things. It's so therapeutic for me - it feels like self-care.
On top of that, one of the main things I took from my nursing career was the way that nurses are taught to “triage” all the things. They teach you very early on how to determine which patient gets care first. It taught me how to have a bunch of different things in my head and know what needs to happen next and I definitely still use those skills today as an entrepreneur juggling between answering emails, shipping orders, getting things into production, ordering from suppliers, and so much more.
You went from offering a variety of things to niching down and focusing on one signature product - the LippyClip. Can you share more about what the LippyClip is and what made you decide to make it your core product?
Essentially, the LippyClip is a lip balm holder. It is a clever yet simple product that you never knew you needed until you had one and you can't live without it. It’s fabric holds all standard size lip balm (ChapStick, Blistix, Burt's Bees, SunBum, Moroccan Magic, Carmex - the list goes on!), and we combine that with very good hardware. Seriously, we searched high and low for hardware that was sturdy without being bulky. You can clip it onto your key ring, your kids' backpacks, sports bags, diaper bag, yoga bag, belt loop, anywhere you want it.
Eventually, it ended up becoming our sole product so we renamed the business in 2018/2019 to LippyClip. We based that decision off of sales data - the LippyClip was truly standing head and shoulders above every other product. It was what we were known for and what customers were coming back to buy again and again.
I had heard before that 80% of the sales will come from 20% of the products, and this was our 80%. I knew if I was going to run my own business with no business training, I should hone in on the one thing and just run in that lane. From there we started using it as our business name, we trademarked it, and put all the intellectual property protection on it that we could.
How did you come up with the idea for the product?
One night, while my husband was in grad school, I showed him some little handmade items I had made earlier, little purses, cosmetic bags, and a chapstick holder. He kind of looked at me and laughed and said, “do you think that will sell?”. And I told him I didn't know. I was just going to put them all up for sale and see what happened. It felt like the Lord was guiding my hand behind the sewing machine.
What made you go back to Seminary after running a super successful product based business?
First, I had gotten involved at my local church and was teaching women's Bible studies. While I was doing that, there was this fire lit inside me for understanding the Bible. I grew up in a Christian home, I became a Christian early on in my life, and I would say that I've always followed Jesus, but I just had this burning desire to understand what the Bible was really saying.
My husband, who actually went to seminary very early in our marriage, looked at me one day and said, “this is unusual, there is obviously something here and you need to think about going to seminary”. Fortunately, there is a seminary in Orlando and they were offering some very affordable classes for women once a month so I just started to go. I remember after the first class, when I got in my car afterward I just laid my head on the steering wheel and knew I needed to find a way to make attending seminary work.
What does a week in the life look like running a successful product based business and going to seminary and being a mom?
First, I want to be crystal clear that for the first eight years, I worked full-time in the business (whatever full-time looks like as a business owner). I did a lot of it all by myself, especially in the first few years. Then when this desire for seminary came up, I didn't have any career goals with it, which is very difficult for me as a, I don't have a career path ahead of me which is very strange as a goal-oriented person. I just love everything about it though. I take that to be something that the Lord has put in my heart and so I'm going to pursue it until he closes the door.
At the same time, I knew that my family still needed the income from LippyClip. So, I spent most of 2021 doing 3 big things:
- Figuring out what I could say NO to
- Deciding what I could delegate
- Investing in really great systems (like upgrading our email marketing technology to that things could be more streamlined and automated)
I didn’t hire anyone new during this time either, I focused on maximizing the team I already had. I asked them what they enjoyed and what they felt they could do quickly and repetitively. I decided that I would still handle our primary sales channel (Shopify), but I would delegate the rest.
One of my favorite quotes is by Gretchen Rubin when she says “what you do every day matters more than what you do every once in a while”.
What my week looks like now:
Monday is my hardcore LippyClip day. I do everything from social media scheduling, pre-recording things for Instagram, getting product photography done, getting products published in our store, checking inventory and ordering supplies.
Tuesday and Thursday are my study days and my classes fall on Wednesday for this semester. If I need to have a meeting, I have a little flexibility on those days.
Then Friday, I'm back in the LippyClip office, but I'm usually just there for a half a day. It's kind of my project day so if there's something like a new webpage I'm wanting to rebuild or a program I'm wanting to start, I'll do that usually on Fridays.
With kids, the summer always looks different because my kids are teenagers and so they're home for the summer. And I have just a few summers left with both of my kids at home before they go to college so I really try to savor those. That means that on a yearly basis, I work really hard September to May to make sure I have as much time as possible from June to August. I will still work on my Mondays, but I save the big projects for the new year.
What does your team look like now and what did it look like when you hired your first team member?
Right now, we have three seamstresses, two people in the office with me on Mondays (and one of them is with me Fridays too) that handle shipping and inventory, and then four people who do Marketing and operations. I wouldn’t just classify it as marketing because one of them does TikTok, one of them manages our wholesale accounts, one is a graphic designer, and one publishes our products to all the platforms and sales channels.
When I first started, I think I ran it for a solid three years with zero help. My husband would graciously come home from school at 10.30 at night and then help me package up orders that had to go out the next day, but I quickly knew that was not going to be sustainable nor was it his favorite thing to do when he got home after a very long day.
When I was going to hire my first person, someone had told me to make sure I hired for character. I didn’t hire for the job, I hired the person. I can teach someone to sew or manage inventory, but I can’t teach someone how to love their job. I’ve had really good luck with hiring people who are highly motivated. Some of my best seamstresses sew hundreds of LippyClip’s a week, and they are stay at moms with 3-5 children. I don’t know how they do it all!
You have a larger team than most of our audience - how have you learned to lead and get out of the weeds as the CEO and business owner?
I believe in working alongside my team. If anything were to go wrong and we find ourselves with a huge batch of orders, I wouldn't hesitate to jump in and help them fulfill the orders. I wouldn’t be sitting in my office recording Instagram reels. Whether it's sewing, packaging or shipping products, there's nothing in my business where I feel like I’m “above that now”. I’m not going to ask my team to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. I believe we all play an important role in the success of the business, and it's my job as a leader to make sure my team is set up for success. I frequently check in with them to see how I can help them do their job better. I ask them what is slowing them down and what we can do to be more efficient.
Let’s talk about marketing your product based business on TikTok! I love that you decided that you aren’t even going to learn TikTok. How is that going?
To be honest, I was initially hesitant about TikTok. I'm in my 40s and consider myself past the TikTok age (but if you are in your 40s and love it - that’s great!). My sister (who is my marketing manager) suggested we give it a shot a few years ago. She came to me with someone in mind to help us and ultimately, we agreed to do a 30 day trial. My sister was her direct supervisor which was the first time I’ve ever hired someone who hasn’t directly reported to me which was interesting. After the trial period, we decided to bring her on board permanently. If something will benefit the business, I’m always open to it! Even if I’m not the right person to do it!
You started your product based business on Etsy, but now you have your own dedicated website through Shopify! Despite having your own website, you are still on “all the places” like Amazon, Etsy, selling wholesale and more. How do you decide what sales channels to focus on?
Our flagship store is Lippyclip.com and it is where I invest in all of the apps, all of the extras, all of the bonuses and rewards points for our customers. It’s really where I want customers to shop! It is also where I retain the highest profit margin. It's where our product looks the best too. But I also recognize that we have a large number of customers who found us first on Etsy and prefer to keep all their purchases there. So, I've maintained a presence on Etsy from the beginning.
In the same way, we have maintained a relationship with wholesale. That was something that I wasn't seeking out, but many years ago, there was a part of Etsy called Etsy Wholesale. We were featured on the homepage for a season in 2016 or 2017, and THAT really skyrocketed our wholesale orders. Then, I had to find answers to questions like: What is this entire wholesale world?
Although Etsy Wholesale is no longer, there are still a few other options for product-based businesses that want to offer wholesale. Fair and Abound are both popular! At LippyClip, we try to maintain a presence on all of them, even if we only get a couple of orders a month, because they are commission based, and you don’t need to pay to be on them.
Wholesale business sustains our business from January through August. We are a very seasonal business. If we did not have wholesale, we would probably only operate for seasonal items like during the holidays, teacher appreciation, Easter baskets, Valentines, etc. In general, wholesale carries our business despite most of our marketing being geared toward retail.
If someone wants to start their own business in 2023, would you still start on Etsy?
If I was doing it over right now (and I knew everything I know now), I would still tell somebody to start on Etsy. It is the easiest, quickest way to get your product up there. Because of the search algorithm in Etsy, you will likely get found more than you would on your own website (unless you already have an established social media following or something like that). Etsy is a great way to get up and running quickly, and it's also a great way to get quick customer feedback and know what you want to tweak before you invest a ton of money into a new website.
With that said, I would also add that as soon as you have the bandwidth, build your own Shopify website. Build your email list for sure, build your text marketing list, build your social media followings - all of that. You don’t need to stay on Etsy forever. But Etsy was a huge blessing to our family in those early days. I had no idea what Shopify even was when I started, but I knew what Etsy was. And I knew that there were shoppers on there. It’s the perfect way to have a turn-key ready-to-go business at first. If you want even more customization, you can look into Pattern by Etsy.
You have made your own category with the LippyClip, and you’ve built such a successful product based business with a $10 product. What advice would you give someone who is also an inventor of a lower-ticket item?
First of all, if you think that you can't make really good money off of a small (low price point) product, you're wrong. You absolutely can - you just have to sell a lot of them. And so we've done that through diversifying sales channels and using both wholesale and retail streams. My business would not be sustainable on wholesale OR on retail alone. It has to have both. It needs to be a “multi-pillared” business, as I would call it.
As far as paving your own way, if you're inventing a product, I would say a couple of things. First of all, trademark early. Trademark as soon as you can afford it. Get your name trademarked and if you qualify for a patent, get that too. Put all of the intellectual property protection in place that you possibly can.
I would also say learn SEO. Learn your keywords. That's something that I had to learn just by Googling and listening to people who are smarter than me. I had to learn what people are searching for, look at my Google Analytics, and just figure out where people finding me.
Thirdly, know your audience. Speak to them every time you write copy.
Lastly, know what other brands are in your niche that you can work with. I have friends who've personally been on Shark Tank for things they've invented. I love talking with them, collaborating with them on giveaways or social media posting, or even cross-promoting on our email list.
At LippyClip, we talk a lot about how we are “a simple yet clever product” that makes women's lives easier so they don't have to search for things they need. So I think, “What other businesses out there are doing that?” I have a friend who invented this jewelry holder with a patented lock so that it won’t lose your rings or earrings. Then she had a friend who made these bangle key chains. I also look at my wholesale side and look at the types of products that are selling alongside mine.
Have you had to deal with people knocking off your creation?
We've dealt with that a lot. Trademark early and protect what you can, for sure. I've had moments where I've said, "Lord, this is your business," and trusted He will sustain it for my family. It’s always been in God’s hands.
I also think early on, I had to learn to keep my head down, mind my own business, and focus on how to make my business the best. I wouldn't be here 11 years later if I had let it get to me early on. It can be hard! But my advice is to keep your head down.
What are some tips for product based businesses trying to increase their average order value?
A free shipping threshold is really important (for us, it's $49m, which means they need to purchase an average of 5 products). Our products are really lightweight and really small, so that works to our advantage because shipping doesn't cost us a ton per order. For a $49 order, the profit margin is high enough that I can offer free shipping.
We also offer some “bundles” and bulk discounts, which we see a lot of people take advantage of closer to the holidays. If they're ordering in quantities of 10 or more, 20 or more, 30 or more, they get a bigger discount. It’s great for people like PTA managers who want to buy one for their entire staff, or the whole baseball team, or a group like that. We really try to stress that there are SO many people who need a LippyClip!
Why did you make the decision to separate your “personal brand” Instagram from the LippyClip Instagram?
There were a few reasons!
First, you could only have one link in bio, and you couldn’t swipe up unless you were over 10,000 followers. At the time, I wanted to share bible study groups and resources at my church, but I didn’t necessarily want to invite the entire LippyClip community to someone’s home address.
Second, my kids are getting older and going to high school and may not want to have a social media presence just through my platform or through my posting. I wanted to be really aware of where their picture was going.
Ultimately, I think that the biggest reason is that they were very different audiences. While I have a lot of friends who buy LippyClips, and a lot of my LippyClip customers have become friends, in general, they're very different audiences. Especially with going to seminary, I wanted to be able to talk about theological things and spiritual things on mine, and then I wanted to be able to just let LippyClip be what it is - just LippyClips.
Plus, I was letting my team manage the Instagram account, and a lot of times, I would have friends messaging me through the LippyClip account, and it was a bit confusing for them as well.
I don’t think there is one “right” answer to whether or not you should separate your business from your personal brand. For us, it also grew that know-like-trust factor too because people knew what we were about, and what they can expect from us. Occasionally I will cross post my LippyClip posts onto my personal profile but it’s definitely not the purpose of my account.
Do you think it's a good idea to go “all in” on one product from the beginning or are you glad that you started with a more diverse product lineup before you niched down?
I'm glad that I started with the wide variety and then we niched down. I think I learned a lot. I was able to listen to my customers and tune into what they actually want and are asking for. A good example of this is in 2020 when we came out with the SaniClip. It was something that everyone was asking for!
I'm grateful for my story and I think that you never know what's going to be successful in the beginning. If you had asked me 12 years ago to pick which product I thought would be the most successful and build a business that's going to last 10+ years, I’m pretty sure the LippyClip would have been at the bottom of the list.
I don't think I would have thought about it then, but I do think it lends itself to that mindset of “your product has to solve a problem”. I think that's why the LippyClip has been so successful. Even if it feels like a “little first world problem”. We have people tell us all the time that they actually got to the bottom of the tube of their lip balm for the first time in their life. Is it changing the world? Probably not, but it's solving their problem and it's a sustainable business model for us.
Rapid Fire Questions with Amy Gabriel from LippyClip
What's a pinch me moment for you in your business journey?
Doing Business Boutique with you was definitely a pinch me moment! A few others were doing the Atlanta wholesale market (which is enormous!), and then just recently was last December when we opened up the office to the general public for an open house to do some holiday shopping. It was a lot of fun! Plus, my 13 year old daughter came and worked it with me and it was just so sweet remembering that I started this business when she was three.
How is it different running a business with teenagers than it was when your kids were younger?
I can be a lot more open with them about profit margins or when we went through a lot of supply chain delays post-COVID I was really honest with them about that. They have a greater sense of understanding and a greater appreciation for what the business does for our family. I also think more about how I can make my business more “portable” now that my kids are going to be going to college in the next four years or so.
It’s also fun to see how invested they are in the business now. My daughter always wants to give a LippyClip to everyone they know!
What's one unpopular opinion you have about growing a product based business?
Stay on Etsy. Don't think that you're too good for Etsy. I mean, so many people have told me, “you just need to get off of Etsy”. And I'm always like, but why? I get sales there every day. Why would I do that? So yeah, don't think that you have to leave Etsy. Don't think that you've outgrown platforms that are still making you money.
I've heard you refer to LippyClip as an impulse purchase - what was YOUR last impulse purchase that you loved?
I am not a trendy person - I'm a plain Jane kind of girl. But I bought one of those cross body purses recently and it’s SO nice to be hands-free.
Connect with Amy Gabriel!
As we air this episode, we are approaching Mother’s day and beach bag season. You are going to want a LippyClip. Amy has GENEROUSLY given everyone who listens to this episode 30% off with the code ELIZABETH. Make sure you shop now!
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Listen to Episode 207 Where I Share My Biggest “Pinch Me” Moments
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May 2, 2023