Lessons Learned From a Noob Entrepreneur

A Millennial’s Lofty Quest for Ethical Consumption

Flora 원선 Baik
· 6 min read

You know what hurt the most during the time I was working on my start up? It wasn’t the public asking “so what do you guys do again?”, but one of my teammates asking me that same question when we were 4 months deep. Ouch.

There are 2 types of organizations — those that start with a mission and find a solution (think Kiva’s micro-financing) and those that find a solution to a need, then come up with a mission (think Facebook). The story behind the first is much stronger, but the latter is usually more promising and further along towards Silicon Valley success. We were in the first bucket. Our mission was clear: we wanted to educate and compel consumers to be better stewards. But our solution? That was our quest.

Story of Stuff, YouTube

Let’s back up a bit. Good Journey was founded on the principle that making a product has costs — human and environmental. These costs add up throughout the entire supply chain from extraction of raw materials to disposal of the products (see diagram). Good Journey’s name was birthed out of wanting to know the entire journey of our goods. We didn’t need to know the names of the people that touched them, but that they can be verified and that they are treated fairly. We never used the lingo “vote with your wallet” but essentially that’s what we were advocating. Plus, there was good momentum happening with brands like Patagonia, Adidas, and Everlane that proved that the public actually care about environmental and human costs in making products. But even with shifts in the wind, shopping ethically was not easy to do, and we wanted to find a solution that made it simpler.

In our brainstorming phase, there were a few players in this arena that tried to tie consumption and learning together. Project Just tried to be the ethical fashion wikipedia, the Good Trade was blossoming with beautiful lifestyle blogs for ethical-everything, and Global Citizen was opening up their e-commerce shop in addition to their yearly festivals. Because Good Journey didn’t have a solution set in mind, we started doing 3 things all at once:

  1. Writing articles to educate (note these things when you buy xyz)
  2. Selling things to compel (choose this brand over that)
  3. Creating communities to celebrate (look at these folks doing good!)

Enter: lack of sleep, direction, and focus. My team was a hot mess.

Lesson #1: One Thing At a Time

Our beautiful pop up shop event in Lower East Side

If I could go back in time, I would’ve done one of those things at a time and went onto the next solution if it did not meet a proposed benchmark of success.Those three organizations did not need to be our competitors — not all at once. Even though they had similar missions, they had very different target markets and therefore different voices and mediums to convey those messages.

Doing 3 things at once was extremely hard not only because I was stretched too thin, but mainly because we started getting “okay” traction on all 3 forefronts which made it harder to choose which one was best.

Lesson #2: Find What You’re Good At & Capitalize

If I had to pick one to start with, which one would I have started with? Not sure, but definitely not selling products online. Neither my expertise nor my mentor’s was in e-commerce or marketing and trying to tackle this without hiring someone with the experience was a grave mistake.

(Just think hundreds of boxes of chocolate and scarves and Christmas goodies in a small 700 sq ft New York apartment. Add Flora and a coworker licking stamps into the picture. Then imagine us making several trips through half melted snow to the local USPS to drop off the packages.)

What we were good at and enjoyed doing was teaching and working with students. So we should have focused on producing good content and building community in tandem a little after.

So then what happened?

I learned the hard way that inventory management is no joke, producing and editing quality content on a weekly basis is at least a 3 person job, and we weren’t making new stewards. You know how we knew? Because in this answer-me-now era, people were coming to me and asking me for questions instead of reading the articles to understand the “why.”

“Flora, what are some good brands for ethical bras?”

“Where should I shop for new shoes that don’t use child labor?”

I loved answering these questions! I took every question seriously, made them into next week’s content topics, and voila? A successful company? No. I was a resource. They were not my customers for the brands I was recommending. But they were our audience because they trusted us with the research. So we had an aha-moment. We were better equipped to teach than to sell. So we pivoted to e-learning. Enter name change from Good Journey to Making Stewards.

Lesson #3: People Now Buy Experiences

If the product or a service is a nice-to-have, it better come with a great experience. E-learning as the primary mode of learning does not work. With so much information on the web and at low costs, we are left in a paralysis. There are too many things we can learn that we don’t take in anything at all. It is nearly impossible for us to give our undivided attention to something without a physical act. Our user interviews said that that our courses would sell among college-educated single millennials with a steady job, but our target market didn’t translate to students and therefore our customers because e-learning lacked the “experience” factor because there was no direct ROI like coding.

On a brighter side, we had great engagement during our beta-testing workshops with university students than our 5 rounds of e-learning testing. Workshops are a type of experiences where people give their whole attention with their bodies and minds. I think e-learning can be powerful as a way to re-learn or review something just as pictures and videos mean something greater if you were there to experience it first at the moment.

So we decided to fold. Feelings aside, I learned invaluable lessons about team building, legal structures, burning the midnight oil, people’s buying habits, and brands trying to make a difference. Feelings included, it was a whirlwind of 2 years where I felt like a failure almost every single day and a champion about once a month. I now have so much respect for entrepreneurs who have grit to get up every to make a difference. I have much more respect for entrepreneurs who try to run their businesses ethically. Will I try to something similar again in the future? Maybe, but for now, I will vote with my dollars until the opportunity arises. Here are a few more pictures to convince myself that I wasn’t dreaming…

All hands meeting to share vision and plan for the next quarter
In-Person Workshop at DCON with Circle K Clubs in the Northeast
Our summer interns whom I come to love dearly!

Data Driven Investor

from confusion to clarity, not insanity

Flora 원선 Baik

Written by

Crazy about design systems that impact personally, relationally, and systemically.

Data Driven Investor

from confusion to clarity, not insanity

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