From Flea Markets to $500 Million in Business Sales
As the founder of accessory brand Charming Charlie, I've learned a lot of lessons in customer engagement.
I fell in love with business because of its opportunity. “EBITDA” (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) or “valuation” didn’t enter my lexicon until college, but I learned about earnings and gross profit margins during drives back home from flea markets and cash-and-carry events that helped build my parents’ jewelry business. The lessons I learned from watching my mom’s faded black fanny pack slowly fill up with cash over a long day of selling gold necklaces and mood rings pushed me to start my own entrepreneurial career.
What began by renting Nintendo video games to students in my elementary school ultimately grew into a global accessory brand, Charming Charlie, doing $500 million a year in sales and with 360-plus retail stores around the world. All the steps along the way were rooted in the same fundamentals of hard work, listening closely to customers and obsessively staying on top of trends.
I learned these lessons firsthand from watching my parents carve out a living, and from their makeshift curriculum that encouraged me to think like a business owner (and keep me off my Gameboy), along with summer trips back to Asia. There, we walked in and out of various global supply chains that created every widget that I could imagine. As we factory-hopped across Asia, I witnessed communities rise from dirt roads into megacities (Shenzhen’s skyline seemed to double every time I’d return). Houston was home for most of the year, but I was witnessing the world becoming flatter with every passing day.
Small business owners without a “family and friends’ round,” my parents' slow growth turned a corner when department stores wanted the same gold necklaces and mood rings my father created in Thailand. To us, the mall was just a shinier flea market, with a movie theater and food court where everyone wanted to hang out. Just as in bazaars we visited across Asia and the flea markets in Texas, we focused on standing out to buyers and ultimately customers. The latter, we understood, had the power to vote us off the store shelves.
Related: Flea Market Organizer
As my parents imported more volume, we spent less time at flea markets and more time at the mall. On the weekends, we visited stores and meticulously studied how we were displayed and what competitors were doing. We also built long-term plans as to how we could creep up to the customer’s eye level and gain what I’d later learn in business school as “market share.”
Years later, I was dividing time between Professor Mark Cohen’s phenomenal course in retailing leadership and retail fundamentals at Columbia Business School to investor meetings and construction sites around the country. “Wherever you put your focus is where you gain your expertise,” my Ama (Grandma) would say. So, I focused on creating a shopping center location, then another, until I got up to three. In between attending classes and office hours, where I went to get world-class advice on growing my business, I’d work hard to double Charming Charlie’s storefront by the time I walked on stage to accept my degree.
Shortly after graduate school, I applied that accumulated knowledge to take my retail brand global.
I spent my childhood watching products move from factories to ports to department stores — saw malls and shopping centers giving our family and other immigrant communities a way to build the American Dream. The success of these communities was curtailed when the 2008 financial crisis began to chip away at retail as we knew it, ultimately leading to the loss of entire businesses like Toys“R”Us and Borders Group, Inc. It was a slow bleed also hallmarked by the true flowering of ecommerce. “Was the world finally flat now?” I wondered. “How tall are Shenzhen’s buildings now?”
But, even during dark times, there are still opportunities to build. The financial crisis meant big corporate chains stopped growing, offering small businesses a chance to take shape. Just a few short years after the recession, I’d built the fastest-growing retail chain in America.
While the financial climate offered an opening, it was Charming Charlie’s brand that made the store truly stand out. One Saturday morning while I was collecting cash at the register, a customer asked if I could separate products by color. It took a few adjustments, but that advice would change the way we showcase goods forever. Women had found a store that met their shopping style and they ultimately chose to vote with their feet. Lines were out the door. We went from a handful of cities to nearly four hundred stores around the world. That dizzying expansion offered me my biggest lesson to date: listen to your customers.
Principally because of the Covid-19 pandemic, ecommerce has accelerated by 10-plus years over just the last 15 months. Even as more than 15,000 retail stores shuttered, established online businesses boomed, including Boosted Commerce, a venture I co-founded that exclusively purchases consumer brands on Amazon and Shopify to build what I term, “The Fifth Avenue of Digital Real Estate.”
Similar to any entrepreneurial venture, ecommerce businesses need to apply principles that differentiate them from the competition. These include finding the right product-market fit, adapting to the changing climate and, of course, listening to customers. Amazon entrepreneurs are an entirely new breed, and the pressure to meet customer expectations is higher now than ever before. Finding success on Amazon is no small feat.
As we rely on the internet more and more for our shopping needs, shopping experiences are integrating social media and fostering online communities. Waiting in line to win the golden ticket at Krispy Kreme and going shopping with friends is being replaced by catching coupons for the best Tik Tok dance duo and Black Friday deals on Popshop Live, alongside strangers-turned-influencers who drive engagement virtually. As I watch my own children recreate new dance routines that have gone viral by their classmates, individual influencers are shifting the narrative on how we shop as a family. The shift online isn’t just about our purchasing decisions; it engenders a bottom-up approach to nearly every aspect of our lives. The power is suddenly in the hands of influencers, not institutions.
The future of physical retail will be further consolidated and won by large names you are already familiar with, using innovative concepts that create great customer experiences. The loss of our “C”-level malls helps the Targets, gyms, community centers, Costcos and Whole Foods expand. The question we ask at Boosted is, “How can we build the next version of Unilever online? Who will be the future brands that grow because of ecommerce?” As purchasing power moves online, we need to build the best “digital shelf” possible.
When I hear my parents speak about their life in Thailand and the leap of faith required to come to America, I’m enamored of the blind courage they share with every immigrant who chooses to travel the world to begin a new chapter in their life. While I’ve never had to make such a profound decision, I’ve learned from them that the American Dream is alive and well, and lives inside each entrepreneur who chooses to take a similar risk in beginning a new chapter in life.
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