If you think the bridal industry is saturated, think again! Meet Vivian Chan and Jenn Qiao who stumbled onto a flourishing niche in bridal gown design.
Whilst having zero experience in building a business, they’ve been able to entirely bootstrap from Day 1 and grow their company to a 6-figure annual recurring revenue in less than 2 years while helping thousands of brides around the world.
Dive into the story below….
Viv and Jenn, can you give us some background into why you decided to tackle the very competitive bridal industry?
The idea for East Meets Dress (EMD) originated from my co-founder, Jenn’s, personal struggles
when she was looking for a modern version of the traditional Chinese wedding dress. She wanted to wear a cheongsam for her wedding tea ceremony to honor her parents and heritage but finding a modern design that fit her aesthetics turned out to be near impossible.
At the time, her options were limited to suspicious online sites or stores in Chinatown with poor
service and a narrow selection. Ultimately, Jenn resorted to custom making her cheongsam at a
local tailor. I was her Maid of Honor and we both felt that Asian-American brides shouldn’t have
to be confined to low-quality options or scouring Yelp to find the one tailor who could make a
quality cheongsam from scratch.
So we set out to create a modern brand and reinvent the cheongsam shopping experience for Asian-Americans.
When did you realise this business had the potential to go big?
When we first started, we had no experience in fashion, e-commerce, or entrepreneurship. We simply had our own experiences as consumers after going through my co-founder’s wedding process trying to find a modern cheongsam dress for her tea ceremony. We also weren’t sure how many other Asian-American brides out there were also struggling with this problem and where we would find them since this was a pretty niche market.
So we decided to just start small and test out our idea quickly. We spent a Friday night creating a free landing page via Unbounce and running a $50 FB ad to see if anyone within our target demographic would be interested. Over a weekend, we got 40+ interested subscribers through a simple landing page that had no actual product on it, which gave us the initial reassurance that there may actually be a market for this.
We started personally reaching out to every email we received and asking if they would want to hop on a call or answer a few questions to better understand what they were looking for. From this, we felt confident enough to put up a simple Shopify website the next weekend and to start with just one initial dress design on our site. Not long after, we got our first customer and brought her dress to life, which she loved.
We knew we found good product-market fit when friends of friends and people we knew but never told anything about our business to ended up purchasing their wedding dress from us after organically finding us through Google.
How many years before you went all in to full time?
My co-founder worked on this idea full-time after we launched our idea and got our initial customers. I joined her full-time a year later after the startup that I was previously working for got acquired.
What mistakes did you make in the early days?
1. Being too risk-averse–you need to spend money to earn money. Not being willing to spend money in the beginning was one of the biggest mistakes. Growing up in immigrant families, we were always taught to save more than we spend so in the beginning (and because we’re entirely bootstrapped), we were a bit more reserved when it came to spending on ads, paying for subscriptions, etc. But we realized that you have to spend money in order to earn money. Time is also money and as a founder, it’s important to prioritize your time to be able to learn quickly from experiments and that often requires spending money to test out a new idea/initiative.
2. Launching with just one design. While being scrappy and resourceful helped us a lot in the beginning, I would not recommend launching with just one dress design on your site. In hindsight, we should’ve launched with 3-5 designs. Unlike other e-commerce/tech products, where you can launch with one design and market it as the greatest product out there, dresses are a bit different. You never visit a clothing store or fashion e-commerce site and only see one design. We also naively thought that we already understood the tastes and preferences of Chinese-American brides and that they would all want something very modern for their Chinese wedding dress. So our first design was also a bit too modern for many brides who wanted the traditional red and gold, phoenix and dragon cheongsam.
Can you share with us a couple of key components that cemented your success?
Starting small but starting quickly. Being resourceful and being able to test out different and new ideas quickly has always been part of our DNA. We’re a small and nimble team and we prioritize execution rather than adopting bureaucratic processes. Most mistakes are reversible and rarely are they the end of the world, so part of being successful is to try a lot of different things (many of which will likely fail) but then doubling down on what works best.
What top 3 tips for success would you share with someone starting out?
1. You don’t need to have everything figured out to start. If you had told us that we needed to have 50 designs and beautiful photography all ready before we launched our site, we probably would’ve given up before we even started. Instead we focused on launching our first design and then getting immediate customer feedback and then launching a few new designs for our first official collection and continuing to iterate from there.
2. Action > motion. One of my favorite quotes is by the author of Atomic Habits, James Clear. He says, “Motion feels like progress. Action is progress.” A lot of times, we mistake motion for progress. For example, if you have a goal of getting in shape, motion would be talking to a personal trainer but action would be to actually just do 10 pushups. While motion can be useful, only actions deliver final results. The same concept applies to running a business. You should always reflect on whether you’re focusing more on motion or action.
3. Focus on the rocks, not the sand. When you’re starting out, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with everything you need to do to run a business. Once we started getting some customers, our to-do list looked like a never-ending blackhole that spanned across operations, customer support, marketing, and product design. There’s a tendency to just get the sand—the fun, easy tasks or things like emails—out of the way, but that doesn’t really move the needle. We realized that you first have to focus on the rocks—the harder, foundational objectives—to reap the most rewards later. So every day, we try to complete one rock no matter what.
Where to find East Meets Dress.