After graduating from college with a degree in finance, Catherine Choi thrived in banking in Canada for 11 years. There was just one problem: She didn’t enjoy it. “When I looked around at the people I worked with, I felt alone,” Choi recalls. “Everyone else seemed like they were satisfied. Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time moaning about how much I hated my job to my then-boyfriend (now husband). Then, one day he said to me ‘Well, why don’t you just quit?’”
At first she was speechless. “The answers [seemed] so obvious to me: It was my upbringing. I have security. I’m making good money. My parents are proud of my job. They would kill me. I can’t do anything else.” But then Choi began thinking seriously about the idea. Could she really do something different?
After some soul-searching that included getting married, a stint as a shiatsu practitioner and starting a family, she found the courage to start her own business in 2008. Armed with a personal investment of $10,000 and a vision for a better diaper bag that suited her own needs as a new mother, Choi launched her company SoYoung with an initial order of a mere 400 bags.
Today, the SoYoung line produces more than 10,000 bags a year, and they sit on the shoulders of stylish celebrity moms from Rachel Zoe to Heidi Klum. The company earned $700,000 in sales revenue in 2013. We talked the Toronto-based mother of three about moving from finance to fashion and building her business from scratch.
Tell us about this transition. Was it easy launching your new business?
There is definitely some truth in the `ignorance is bliss’ theory when starting a new business. Everyone I told about my new business idea was excited for me, but I’m sure there must have been some private skepticism. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no experience — not in design, not in manufacturing, marketing or selling. Looking back, I can’t believe some of the risks I took and how lucky I was that I didn’t go broke. But I think that’s part of the process of going after a dream.
Speaking of manufacturing, how did you learn quickly to get your product made?
Trying to find the right manufacturer itself took about a year and half. Through word of mouth, I’d met different manufacturers locally at first, here in Canada. But ultimately I was led to finding the right manufacturer in China who I worked with without having ever visited the factory when I placed my first order. And boy, did I pay for that mistake. When I opened my first shipment, back in February 2008, it didn’t look right. In fact, there were parts of the bags sewn backwards. I later found out that they were basing the order on an incorrect sample! So I had to have the entire production run reproduced. As a result, I learned I had to make a trip to China myself to build a better relationship with my manufacturer.
What is your advice to someone wanting to make a big move like you did?
You have to believe. To someone who is inspired by a business idea: Do your homework, be as realistic as you can, but also believe in your dreams. Plus, it helps tremendously to set goals, even when it can seem impossible. I remember one time I took a course on setting financial intentions, and my goal was to sell $100,000 in products that year. It seemed like an absolute impossibility — every time I would read that goal, my mind would say “Yeah, right.” But I did the work. And I attained that goal.
My husband has been a huge source of both support as well as reality checker. I was so mad when he gave me an ultimatum I had to start paying myself a salary or else. But I did — a small one. Then he forced me to double it the next year — and I wanted to kill him. He kept saying that it would make me raise the bar on my business. He was right.
What’s next for your company?
Right now, I’m trying to expand in many ways with the international distribution of my bags. We already have a strong presence in Australia, but that list is growing thanks in part to my distribution partner. We’re also a big seller at Whole Foods in California and are excited about moving into different regions of the country. While the diaper bag is still one of the biggest revenue generators, we also have a clutch and other bags that have gained great appeal beyond the baby section of a store.
I must say, it is extremely empowering today to know the salary I pay myself is a direct result of my business growth. But even better is knowing that I don’t do this for the money. That is the real reward.