We’re Aneri and Sammy, two friends from college who started an e-commerce business after college called Project Memory. We both have a passion for journaling, taking lots of photos, and documenting our lives. We believe that our photos are the gateway to precious memories and that they should be visible and discoverable, not buried in our phones amongst a bunch of random screenshots and selfies.
We wanted to share that love with others and empower people to preserve their life’s memories through hands-on storytelling - so we started messing around with an idea and eventually ended up creating a photo album brand in the months between graduating from college and starting full-time jobs.
We launched our flagship product, the Chronicle Photo Journal in December 2020, and sold out 4 months later. Recently, we just launched pre-orders for our second restock of the Chronicle and introduced a myriad of new products onto our shop. As we prepared for this Launch 2.0, we did a lot of reflecting and we wanted to share some of the important lessons we learned!
Lessons We've Learned
You don’t need to know everything to start a small business.
Starting a business can really take a hit on your self-esteem, at least in the beginning. When you try something you’ve never done before, you’re suddenly made aware of just how much you don’t know.
For us, that feeling really sucked and often hindered us from wanting to pursue our idea. Manufacturing products, taxes, business licenses, social media, and the whole concept of e-commerce - even though we’d spent a considerable time in college formally studying entrepreneurship, we had very little knowledge of all these things. But over time, we realized that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know things, as long as we learn how to figure them out.
We learned to ask for help early and often, from people who had done these things before. We connected with other small business owners and entrepreneurs, made friends, and learned great tricks from them.
We also learned to just try random things (and fail) until we figured it out. We were always on the lookout for good podcasts and videos that taught us what we needed to know. Believe it or not, we actually learned so many important things on TikTok!
So if you’re worried about not knowing enough, just start! You’ll figure it out.
Consistent baby steps can translate into big leaps
There’s often a conception that if you want to start a new business, you need to dive all in and pour every bit of passion and dedication that you possess into it (and drop everything else in your life). While it’s true that starting any business requires hard work and passion, we realized that it’s not always necessary to immerse yourself fully, in the very beginning.
In fact, we found that it’s helpful to take your time to fall in love with the idea before actually committing to it - just like you would in any healthy relationship 🤷♀️
In order to get to know and fall in love with our idea, for two whole months, we set up weekly 1 hour meetings, or what we called “think tanks”. During these sessions, we’d settle in with a cup of tea and brainstorm ideas, conduct research (aka googling things together), and seek inspiration.
Without the pressure of turning this into an actual business at first, we created a space for ourselves to explore and take baby steps that built a habit of consistently taking action, no matter how small.
From our past experiences, we found that overcommitting to ideas with a lot of intensity in the beginning often leads to burnout or poor risk management. But by taking it easy and building a solid foundation of interest and action, we laid the groundwork of consistency that eventually translated into long lasting momentum.
Social media is a powerful tool if used well
Being an e-commerce brand, a significant portion of our business is built on social media. Especially as a small business, an authentic social media presence is EXTREMELY important as our relationship with our customers is a lot more personal. Through social media, you get to update your community (i.e., customers, potential customers, partners) on updates, the behind-the-scenes, and even get live input on your business decisions, which will make your community feel more invested and engaged with your brand.
Although using social media to grow our business seems like an obvious strategy, after having spent many hours on each platform, engaging, consuming content, and experimenting, we learned that social media marketing has many layers and nuances.
We learned that in order to be successful on these platforms, we have to be avid content consumers on that platform. Every platform has its own language, “culture”, and tools that we needed to be well-versed in so that we could connect better with the audience on that platform.
For example, creating content for TikTok and Instagram requires a very different mindset and specific knowledge of the respective platforms (tools, trends, etc.). Before starting the Project Memory Tiktok, we both were not on TikTok personally, and it took a while (and a lot of scrolling on TikTok) before we were able to understand what makes a good TikTok video and come up with creative ideas.
Understanding the strengths, weaknesses, and characteristics of each platform is also very important to use social media to its fullest potential - so we use our three main platforms: Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest differently, with different purposes.
There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll be posting a longer blog post that covers this topic in more detail - stay tuned for that!
Making the best out of limited resources
We started off with a single product - the Chronicle. After its initial success, we felt excited and eager to grow our product offerings and diversify our shop with a bunch of different products. But very quickly, we realized that doing so isn’t that easy…
Ideally, we’d have all the space in the world for inventory, the funds to have a diverse catalog of products in our store, and the means to pack and ship them all. But in reality, we have a single apartment in San Francisco with a closet and a shelf to store products, a constrained budget, and 2 stressed 23-year-olds with full-time jobs. That’s what we’re working with.
We realized we needed to get creative. We needed to innovate with what we had. Some of our customers expressed their appreciation for the journal cards that come with the Chronicle, so we decided to create journal card sets and sell them in our stores.
Very quickly, it became our 2nd best selling product and unlocked a whole new customer base of people for us. Our new customers started using our journal cards for a variety of different use cases like writing letters, wedding invitations, wedding notes, and more!
We also introduced gift kits as a product in our shop, with The Chronicle Photo Journal as the centerpiece of the kit. We took advantage of Mother’s Day in May to test out the concept and put together a Mother’s Day Gift Kit with our Chronicle and other items that we thought people might like - we designed stickers that said “#1 Mom”, journal cards with special templates for gifting, and collaborated with Kai Co. Candles (another small women-owned business!) to make custom candles.
We figured that since we couldn’t get new products, we needed to make our existing product more valuable and suitable for our customers’ needs.
Entrepreneurship means dealing with constraints, and you can’t always do what you dream of (at least at first). Time, money, and space can be limiting but we’ve learned that there’s still so much room for innovation if you find the right ways to work with what you got.
Being adaptable when seeing opportunities and listening to customers
Although it was uncomfortable at first, we learned to be OK with changing our plans on the fly. There were many times where we’ve had to pivot to respond to opportunities and customer needs.
For example, we turned our first-ever product launch plan upside down to cater to the holiday season. We had to pull a bunch of strings to make that happen, but this turned out to be one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
We had originally planned to launch our Chronicle Photo Journal in January 2021 as that was when we were supposed to receive all of our stock from our production partner. We had planned a big influencer campaign to hype up the product before the official “launch”, so we requested one expedited box of the Chronicles (around 30 Chronicles) so that we could send PR packages in December.
Here’s what derailed our plan: As we started to talk about our product concept to our small audience on Instagram, we started getting messages and comments (both from strangers and friends), asking if the Chronicle would be available for Christmas. The more we got this feedback, the more we felt that we should try as much as we can to make a Christmas launch happen - despite not having any products!
After several intense brainstorming sessions, we decided that we would make the Chronicles from our expedited box (which we received in early December and originally meant for PR packages) available for purchase for people who signed up to our newsletter. We called this an “early access” launch, which actually helped in fostering a sense of exclusivity and community.
During the early access launch date, we sent out an email with a password to our shop and emphasized that we had a very limited stock for this round.
This campaign actually created a sense of exclusivity and urgency, as well as planting a clear idea to use the Chronicle as this year’s Christmas gift in the community.
When we sent out the email with the password, we had the highest conversion rate from email to newsletter (until date) and we still clearly remember the moment where a bunch of order notifications started popping up within minutes of sending the newsletter! If we hadn’t listened to our customers and took advantage of the opportunity of the Christmas season, our launch story would be very different. So moral of the story - listen and adapt!
Lessons from running a small business as a side hustle
Project Memory is our side hustle, which we manage on top of our full-time jobs. Hence, there are some unique learnings that we’d like to share that might be useful for those of you who still want the stability of a traditional job while still pursuing your passion and an idea.
The first thing we learned is the importance of being kind to ourselves. It is easy to compare ourselves at other businesses and feel disheartened by the fact that we grow at a slower pace, or that there are tons of things that we know for a fact we could be doing better.
However, there are only so many hours in a day, and only after fully accepting our own resource constraints (i.e. time, energy, etc.), we were able to feel satisfied, be less harsh on ourselves, and keep growing at a sustainable pace.
Time management and emotional management are also extremely important. Running a side business means working at night after our full-time jobs are done for the day, meetings on the weekends, and never feeling that we could fully “switch off our brains”.
We learned that burnout is real, and it needs to be addressed. We communicate with each other when we feel overwhelmed, and continuously remind ourselves that it is OK to take days off, recuperate, and adjust the operations and pace of growth of the business accordingly.
Even now, balancing life, our day jobs, and Project Memory pose challenges every day. If you also own a side hustle, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments - or reach out to us to chat!
Where we're headed...
A week ago, we “relaunched” our shop in what we call our Launch 2.0. We are finally bringing back the Chronicle Photo Journals - and not only that, we are launching a new Chronicle design (the Woodland Edition).
When we first launched in December, we did not know if enough people would resonate with our mission and if people would actually buy our product. We were thrilled to have our proof of concept in Launch 1.0 validated - not only people were buying our product, we regularly received raving reviews and messages from our customers on Etsy and on Instagram. During this time, we connected with customers and partners, learned a lot, made mistakes, and sold a bunch of photo journals :)
Through Launch 2.0., we are aiming to strengthen our brand and community, introduce more products, and focus on inspiring and empowering more people to start treating their memories with the care they deserve. We introduced new sections on our website that serve to purely inspire our customers, and we have lots more in store. We’re so excited for this next chapter!