[00:00:00] Maggie Chui: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Asian Hustle Network podcast. Today, we have very special guest weather. Her name is Florence Kwok. Jelcie is bringing the future of nails to your home with a new semi-cured gel nail strip technology. Jelcie makes it easy to do curable gel nails at home, without the typical dry time, nail damage, or high salon costs.
[00:00:21] Maggie Chui: Florence is the CEO and co-founder of Jelcie. She’s previously worked on UX research and marketing at meta app, Annie, and Intuit and is a UC Berkeley graduate. Florence, welcome to the show.
[00:00:34] Florence Kwok: Hi, I’m excited to be here.
[00:00:37] Maggie Chui: We’re very excited to have you on as well. So let’s jump right into it, Florence. We would love to know what your upbringing was like. Where were you born and raised, and what was your childhood like?
[00:00:46] Florence Kwok: Yes, so is my upbringing! I’m a first-generation Asian-American. My parents are immigrants from Hong Kong, so I’m Cantonese. I also speak Cantonese. I was born and raised in New Jersey, so I lived there pretty much up until high school, I would say. And then, I moved to California.
[00:01:04] Florence Kwok: When I was 15, I finished high school here. I would say my family was a very traditional Asian family. So, my dad worked at a Hong Kong bank. He was very hard working. Yes, he was like the breadwinner of the family. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, both were very hard-working, and they were, I would say, you’re stereotypical Asian-tiger parents. So that has affected the way I was raised too.
[00:01:32] Florence Kwok: I was internally very hard on myself. Very competitive internally, I would say. I didn’t have the perfect GPA or the best GPA, but I would say I took almost every AP class available in high school.
[00:01:45] Florence Kwok: I would say, like growing up, I was also very shy. I love drawing and being creative. I was like that shy, quiet Asian girl. Yes, so like any chance I would get, I would take art electives, which was always my elective. That was like my creative outlet, my stress reliever growing up away from all the competitiveness of school on everything.
[00:02:06] Florence Kwok: Yes, that is like my upbringing.
[00:02:09] Maggie Chui: Oh, I love it. Yes! I can see that creative side of you. I feel like, for a lot of entrepreneurs, you have to be creative in some ways, and I feel like a lot of us as entrepreneurs, we often think, am I a creative person or am I not?
[00:02:22] Maggie Chui: And we tend to put ourselves into one bucket or the other. But you have to be creative in one way or another, right? Like I think all entrepreneurs are creative in one way or another. And so as you were growing up, did you always know that you were going to be an entrepreneur? Do you love just doing what you wanted to do, or was it something you fell upon throughout your career?
[00:02:44] Florence Kwok: Yes, I never thought I would start a business. I only became exposed to entrepreneurship during college. My parents were very traditional and so I always thought my career path was just like the typical stable cure path. I went to psychology and media studies school, and I was thinking, oh, I was going to grad school for that and maybe doing something in psychiatry.
[00:03:08] Florence Kwok: So yes, I had no idea. I wanted to start a business until college. That’s when I was exposed to it. I met a lot of different people and that’s when I first met people that were doing businesses as a side hustle while they were doing school and they were making a ton of money from it. That was so interesting to me and just watching how they moved and what I loved about it was that they not only had a very flexible schedule, but they got to be as creative as they wanted to with their business. Essentially you can do whatever you want to grow and scale your business, so it was really fun to watch my friends build something from nothing. They were just students at the time.
[00:03:45] Florence Kwok: So yes, getting that exposure solidified that I did not want to go to grad school and I pretty much knew after seeing that and being exposed to that. Oh yes, this is what I want to do. But I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, so I still worked after college and always had entrepreneurship in the back of my mind.
[00:04:05] Florence Kwok: And I would do random things like flip furniture or something like that on the Facebook marketplace and just try out different side hustles until I finally landed on eCommerce.
[00:04:15] Maggie Chui: Oh, nice. Yes, I feel like, for a lot of us who grew up in households that are not very entrepreneurial, it’s like we see things differently from a different lens where it’s, oh, I would never imagine myself to be an entrepreneur.
[00:04:28] Maggie Chui: That’s the same for me too. I grew up in a family that was not entrepreneurial. My father worked in the same company for over 40 years. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. So to them, they were not entrepreneurs. And so, for their children, my sisters and me, it was harder to introduce a concept of entrepreneurship to us than someone who grew up in a household of entrepreneurs.
[00:04:50] Maggie Chui: If you see your parents being entrepreneurs, it’s easier for you to think. I want to do what my parents did; that’s like something that I want to do. But I think it’s incredible! You didn’t even feel that you would be an entrepreneur and were introduced to it.
[00:05:01] Maggie Chui: That was something that you decided, or maybe fancy the idea, like, perhaps this is something that I would be interested in. Was Jelcie your first company?
[00:05:10] Florence Kwok: No. As I mentioned, I did some random things before so that I would sell stuff on the Facebook marketplace. That was the first time I got paid to do something independently.
[00:05:21] Florence Kwok: And then after that, while I was still working in tech, I think I was working at app Annie At The Time, that’s when I started my own little business. I would say I would run events for tech companies. I would host yoga events, for example, for their employees and things like that. I realized I didn’t like hosting events because it was a lot of work and wasn’t like a scalable business.
[00:05:43] Florence Kwok: So then, I fell into eCommerce. That’s when I started my beauty business. I had another firm before that. It grew to a point where I was deciding whether I wanted to stay at my job or just do my business full-time. That’s when I decided I think it was time to finally just commit to this and do it full-time.
[00:06:05] Florence Kwok: So I left app Annie. I started doing my e-commerce business full-time. Then, I met my co-founder, a nail artist; this is how Jelcie began. She is a nail artist by trade, and it was a pandemic at the time. And so nail salons were closed, and people all over Facebook were like, I was already in a bunch of beauty Facebook groups from my other e-commerce business.
[00:06:27] Florence Kwok: Everyone was looking for DIY-like salon solutions or an alternative to going to the salons where salons were closed at the time. So that’s how gel started. We started selling press-on nails first. The first iteration of JLC was not what it is today. And then my co-founder and I were like, oh, there has to be a better product because if you’ve ever used press on nails, it’s not like salon quality per se.
[00:06:53] Florence Kwok: It’s like little pieces of plastic that you glue onto your nail. So yes, we found this product like your gel, and that’s how we launched what Kelcie is today.
[00:07:03] Maggie Chui: Oh, wow. Yes. I have used the press on nails, and just for me personally, it’s really hard for me just to do everyday tasks with the press on nails or anytime.
[00:07:13] Maggie Chui: Like I have acrylics on because I like control over my nails. For me, it’s really hard. And then, when I discovered this new thing for UR nails, that is brilliant because it makes it much easier and feels much more comfortable. I love that there’s this whole new concept now, and I think it’s just way more affordable.
[00:07:36] Maggie Chui: And if you use those press-on nails, you just have to throw them away. But I love semi-current nails.
[00:07:41] Maggie Chui: I just want to know. What was the first iteration leg, and how did you get that into the market? Because I feel like at that time, when you guys had launched Jelcie, it was like, not a lot of people knew about some of your nails, right?
[00:07:53] Maggie Chui: Like a lot of people were still going to the salons, I feel like many people can’t give that up. Some people like going to the salons, but you waste so much time like it’s so much money. What was it like introducing that product to them?
[00:08:04] Florence Kwok: Yes, it is still a new product in the nail space.
[00:08:09] Florence Kwok: It came out in 2020 in Korea, so this is a Korean-inspired product. When we found out about this product, we’re like, oh my God, it makes so much sense. It’s a huge game changer because essentially what it is, it’s partially cured gel. So what you would typically get at the salon is the liquid gel, but now it’s in a sticker format, and it already comes partially cured.
[00:08:31] Florence Kwok: The process of putting it on is much easier than if you were to do liquids, dip nails, or nail polish at home, so you’re getting that salon experience. Also, if you’ve used nail Polish or anything like that, it is a messy experience and takes a long time to dry. It’s not necessarily the best for your nails.
[00:08:47] Florence Kwok: It can cause damage when you remove them. Yes, it was just not like the most incredible user experience, so essentially what semi-care gel is, it’s bringing the single-grade gel, but now instead of liquid, it’s a sticker format. So super easy to put on, it usually takes me like 15 minutes to put on a whole set of nails and then you cure it.
[00:09:07] Florence Kwok: The gel is activated and cured, and then it hardens onto your nail, just like a liquid gel would card onto your nails. And you’re getting the same quality stuff way easier to put on. The best part is that it doesn’t damage your nails because there’s a medical adhesive underneath the gel.
[00:09:24] Florence Kwok: The gel doesn’t touch your nails. Then when you’re ready to take it off, all you have to do is just peel it. You just put non-acetone remover right off. It’s like a no-soak-off process, whereas, in a traditional liquid gel, you must soak it off. If you’re familiar with being your nails, you’ll know how that is.
[00:09:39] Florence Kwok: It takes a while, and if you’re not careful, you could damage your nails and make them more brittle. Yes, that was like a long-winded explanation, but it’s a really good product. And in my opinion, it’s a superior product to what was already common practice in the nail space. It’s a vast upgrade from nail polish and even DIY nail stickers, which were just made of polish, but now it’s made of curable gel.
[00:10:03] Florence Kwok: Yes, so that’s when we heard about the product, and it just made a ton of sense for us to bring it here in the US. We were the first movers to get the product to the US, and we launched it in May of 2021. It’s still a relatively new concept. Many people still don’t know about it, and I’m just like my semi-pure gel.
[00:10:22] Florence Kwok: I was just in my bubble thinking that so many people know about it. But when I step out of my bubble and when I like to meet people, just like in my day-to-day life, I realize that there’s still a vast market of people who have not yet heard about this product.
[00:10:36] Maggie Chui: Yes, when you mentioned how it damages the press on nails, damages your actual nails, that happened to me as well. And like you would have to use a cuticle stick to push off the press on nails and like my nails were damaged, and I had to wait for it to grow out.
[00:10:51] Maggie Chui: But I love how easy it is to remove the semi-cured nails. Just to talk about the entrepreneurship side to it. What were some of the challenges when you first started the company? Was there any pushback from people thinking this product wouldn’t be successful?
[00:11:06] Maggie Chui: I just want to know what the ups and downs were when you first started.
[00:11:10] Florence Kwok: Yes, and so one of the most significant issues, and it’s still an issue to this day at first glance. It looks like a nail sticker, and people usually associate nail stickers with the stickers you get at the convenience store, or just like the nail polish stickers that aren’t a sound quality that kids use.
[00:11:27] Florence Kwok: There’s a huge problem just like trying to educate people and get it since it’s a new product in the market until this day. We meet people and show them the product, and they’re like, it’s just nailed stickers. I’ve heard about this before. We’re like, no, it’s not. Do you have five minutes for me to explain it?
[00:11:43] Florence Kwok: And that educational piece is really important for our particular business, just because we’re essentially creating a new category in the space. And then another thing was when we launched it to an audience that had already heard about it in Korea. And so we were the first US-based semi-care gel brand.
[00:12:03] Florence Kwok: We had a lot of supply chain issues like inventory issues. We didn’t expect it to be that famous brand in Korea, just to give you a benchmark. They did 80 million in their first year in 2020. So we knew it was popular, but we didn’t realize it, I guess. We didn’t have the correct inventory expectations and slash management skills.
[00:12:22] Florence Kwok: So then, we sold out twice when we first launched, and we were out of stock for pretty much every other month. We would be out of stock for a month, hindering us. So now, we’ve gotten the hang of it. We bought so many products after that. There was no way we would sell out again because it takes two months to get a new product.
[00:12:40] Florence Kwok: So yes, it’s just like figuring out what works for this particular space and educating people. To this day, I would say the education part is still a massive part of their business that we’re trying to overcome.
[00:12:52] Maggie Chui: Oh yes. But I’m glad you guys have sold out, and that’s fantastic news.
[00:12:58] Maggie Chui: I want to know, were you doing this just like at home, or did you have a warehouse? Where were you operating, most of all of the packing and everything?
[00:13:05] Florence Kwok: We were so scrappy. We were self-funded entirely, initially. It was just me and my co-founder Kelly. Everything was in my little apartment.
[00:13:13] Florence Kwok: I live in Reno, Nevada, so I have an apartment. It was all in my room. I took a bunch of videos. It’s all on TikTok so that you can see the setup. My entire room is just my warehouse, and I would be the only one packing at the time. And yes, we did everything just super scrappy.
[00:13:28] Florence Kwok: We hired a designer that we found on Instagram to help do our packaging and everything, our branding the website. We just found a free theme on Shopify. And so, initially, it was just very scrappy. Then, we eventually upgraded it to an enormous warehouse.
[00:13:42] Maggie Chui: Yes, that’s amazing. I’m so glad to hear that you guys have upgraded.
[00:13:46] Maggie Chui: It’s so amazing. Just hearing those like scrappy stories and the first couple of months or years starting your business. Many people started in their garage, their bedroom, their dorm room, or something like that. So it’s just amazing to hear those like humble beginnings.
[00:14:02] Maggie Chui: See how far you guys have come today. How did you guys come up with the name Jelcie?
[00:14:07] Florence Kwok: Yes, so when we initially launched it, as I mentioned, we were selling press on nails as we had a really good URL for that. It was called press on shop.com. So eventually, when we decided not to sell press-on pins anymore, we were still called press on and people were getting confused. They would go to our website and think that it was pressed on nails. We tried to avoid changing the name for the longest time because its rebranding is just a lot of work, and we already put so much time into growing that link, and our SEO for press on the shop.
[00:14:41] Florence Kwok: We noodled on the name for months. We knew we needed to rebrand, but we were pushing it off for the longest time. We just couldn’t figure out a name. And we had hundreds of like potential words that we could have chosen. But I think Jelcie was just like, for my co-founder and me, the cutest kind of a nonsense name, like Etsy, just like cute plain words, but it also has the phrase gel in it.
[00:15:04] Florence Kwok: So it alludes to the fact that it’s gel nails, and the C just makes it sound cute, so really, there’s no deep meaning to it. We just liked this name. We just thought it was the cutest, alluding to gel nails.
[00:15:16] Maggie Chui: I think it’s very creative and cute. And it’s catchy too.
[00:15:19] Maggie Chui: When you have a catchy name, I feel like a psychology thing where people are more inclined to check it out. Can you talk through your routine? Just being an entrepreneur, as a pub business owner, you are bomb boarded with many things every day. There are fires almost every other day. It’s just hard to manage time when you don’t have to stick to a specific schedule or just do things that someone tells you to do. Can you walk me through what your day-to-day looks like and the routine you set up for?
[00:15:48] Florence Kwok: Yes, I would say even until this day, everything is ad hoc. We need to get something done. Let’s talk about it right now. So even the best practice is to do product meetings and plan out your product a year in advance. But because we have such a short lead time, 60 days to get the product out, we usually do it maybe 90 days in advance. So, 30 days before we’ll have our product meetings, and so man, the day-to-day is so different. It’s just, what’s the fire we need to figure out today? Like, oh, we need to get new products in. It’s almost the end of the year. It’s going to be Black Friday. Let’s talk about it.
[00:16:22] Florence Kwok: We have three weeks to get it in. And so then, that will be the focus for the week. We will just figure out our product for that week. And then yes, it could be several things, usually meeting. The work is divided. So, my co-founder, she’s more of a person that focuses on content and the product.
[00:16:39] Florence Kwok: If you look at our TikTok, it’s like all her, and she’s killing it on TikTok. And then I’m focusing more on our financial stuff, more like the boring business things. I will meet with our growth person who runs our ads, trying to figure out the ad strategy and content we need, like our influencer strategy. I run the day-to-day of that. So just setting up the processes for that.
[00:16:59] Florence Kwok: Just making sure we’re getting at least X packages out. Making sure we’re getting the content that we need for our ads. What else do I do? Our email marketing that’s also something I do.
[00:17:10] Florence Kwok: So, just like going through the emails we want to launch each week. We’re better about it. We plan a month for the emails we want to do, but it used to be super ad hoc. We’ll just do, oh, we need to launch something this week, let’s get it on email. Yes, we’re still not the most organized, but at least now, the roles are a little bit more divided between my co-founder and me. Her strengths are content and like the product, and mine is more like the growth side of things and more of the business aspect.
[00:17:40] Maggie Chui: Yes, that’s amazing. I’m glad to hear that you guys figured out what your strengths are and divide and conquer. Like we’re the same way with Asia? I feel like when we were just starting like the newsletters, we would just put anything.
[00:17:51] Maggie Chui: Whatever happened that week, we’re like, oh shoot, we got to put it in a newsletter. Now we’re getting better at it where it’s okay. If we have an event happening in three months, we must start marketing it. Now, if it’s bigger, we’ll have to do it six months in advance.
[00:18:02] Maggie Chui: I understand what you mean. As you continue to scale and put these systems and processes in place, you get better. But those are just like the struggles of starting and operating a business. How do you manage burnout? I’m sure it’s so busy every single day.
[00:18:18] Maggie Chui: Have you and your co-founder ever experienced burnout, just running this company? And how do you keep it low?
[00:18:25] Florence Kwok: We had burnt out, especially last year when we were just starting and trying to make this something out of nothing. My co-founder has a kid, too, so we’ve both experienced burnout at different times.
[00:18:38] Florence Kwok: I’ll notice when she’s just not communicating as much or something, and then I’ll check in with her, and she’s, yeah, I’m just, burnt out or having a rough week. I’ll understand and the same with me. I’ve had burnouts before. Like if, especially when, for example, earlier this year, I’m sure you’ve heard about the iOS updates and everything.
[00:18:57] Florence Kwok: And for us, like earlier this year, our ads were, it was just wasn’t working like anything we did, it would not work any matter like what we tried, and it just really stressed me out a lot for like Q1, I would say. I experienced burnout back then. I’m still trying to figure it out to this day.
[00:19:16] Florence Kwok: I don’t have it figured out yet. Like honestly, I still get burnt out, but now I’m just trying to take more time. Like before, I would always work on weekends. But now, I’ll still check my email and everything, but I’m not working. Like I’ll pick a day of the week where I just don’t do anything aside from check emails, or if I do, I don’t make it a huge priority.
[00:19:38] Florence Kwok: Whereas, usually, I would just be on 24/7. Especially earlier this year, when I like burnout. So I was just, yes, I don’t have it fully figured out yet. To be honest with you, but trying to make it more of a top-of-mind thing and just make sure I make time for myself.
[00:19:55] Maggie Chui: Yes, for sure. I feel like we’re all trying to figure it out, especially in these rough times. We went through the same thing with algorithm change and everything. It was just so frustrating, just like wondering why none of our ads were getting the same amount of exposure as they did before.
[00:20:11] Maggie Chui: Or it’s frustrating when you put in so much work and like the algorithm changes on social media, and your content is not getting out there. But I think that happens with everyone. It’s just the nature of running a business. And I feel like, yes, it’s easy to fall into this habit of working hard every day.
[00:20:31] Maggie Chui: You’re so passionate about what you do, and you feel like you have to move ahead and do something with it every day. Otherwise, you’re not moving. I think it is essential for us to take a moment and take a step back and just go for a walk and do something that we enjoy doing.
[00:20:47] Maggie Chui: That helps you recoup and get yourself refreshed to come up with newer and more creative ideas for the next day, but it’s not something that we think about all the time. Like it’s not something we think about, oh, I need to go for a walk, but we just have to do it.
[00:21:00] Maggie Chui: Otherwise, we’re just going to get burnt out quickly. But I’m glad to know that you like figuring it out. I think all of us are, so we need to figure out what works best for us. What might work best for us might not work for another person and vice versa.
[00:21:15] Maggie Chui: So I did a little research and found that you were a founding member of Dreamers and Doers. Can you talk a bit about what you do for Dreamers and Doers?
[00:21:26] Florence Kwok: Yes, okay. So it’s just a community of like female founders. I’m not an actual founder.
[00:21:32] Florence Kwok: They require everyone to say that they’re a founder because they just want to be, I don’t know, democratic like that. So yes, I was in that group. I would say since I want to say 2018 now. But yes, I’m not a founder, just like full disclosure. It’s a great community, though, for people who just want to meet other female founders and connect with more people. I would say join that.
[00:21:54] Maggie Chui: Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that. So what’s next for you, Florence? And where do you see Jelcie going in the next five years? Do you plan on adding more products? Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
[00:22:08] Florence Kwok: Yes, a hundred percent. Right now, we are already launching new products.
[00:22:12] Florence Kwok: We’re launching something in urban Outfitters very soon in Q3. It will be a different product. It won’t be nail stickers. We’re very excited about that. We just want to do more out. Yes, we want first to make sure we do well in the nail category, but we are already exploring different products, and it would be cool to just be like a more prominent beauty brand doing other classes and things like that.
[00:22:36] Florence Kwok: I haven’t exactly figured out what products we will make yet. We just go quarter by quarter. We figure out, talk to our customers, see what they want, and get a feel of it. Don’t have an exact roadmap of what products we want to launch yet, but for sure, our goal is to launch different products and do more.
[00:22:54] Florence Kwok: And yes, I would love to do retail. I think that’s our next step right now. We’re entirely focused on DSC. We’re on Amazon. We’re doing retail. We’re doing urban Outfitters, as I mentioned in Q3. End of Q3. So I think we’re focused on retail for 2024 in 2023. That’s it.
[00:23:14] Maggie Chui: Amazing. I can’t wait to hear all of that news for Jelcie, and I know for sure that it will happen, so I can’t wait to see more products coming out for Jelcie in the next few years. So we have one last question for you, Florence. If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring entrepreneur, what would that one piece of advice be?
[00:23:36] Florence Kwok: Okay. I would say that advice would be higher for areas you’re not good at or fill in the gaps of your weaknesses because you can’t do it all. I would say that’s where I fell short. I tried to do everything, and I just burnt myself out. Figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are.
[00:23:53] Florence Kwok: There’s something more administrative, that someone can do better than you, or even if it’s just something you don’t like to do. For example, I don’t like doing content, so I’m so happy that my co-founder can fill in that gap for me. Just make sure whoever you’re working with can just fill in those blanks that can make your business whole.
[00:24:13] Maggie Chui: Amazing. That’s good advice. Thank you so much for sharing, Florence. Where can our listeners find out more about you and Jelcie online?
[00:24:21] Florence Kwok: Yes, my Instagram is pretty boring. I didn’t post the last time I posted five years ago, but you are welcome to AME it’s in Florence. It’s just my name with two LS.
[00:24:33] Florence Kwok: And then, on TikTok is where we’re most active right now. It’s at getting Jelcie, it’s J E L C I E, and also that’s our Instagram as well.
[00:24:42] Maggie Chui: So awesome! I’ll share all of that in the show notes of this episode. Florence, it was fantastic having you on our podcast today. Thank you so much for sharing your story.
[00:24:50] Maggie Chui: Thank you for having me. This is a fun course.