How I Started A $1K/M Side Hustle Selling Slim Paper Wallets From Rural Japan

Kan Yamamoto
Sep 4, 2019 · 9 min read
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Who I am.

Hi, my name is Kan Yamamoto, and I am the designer of Kamino Wallet.

I started it as my side hustle, and since I opened my shop in June 2018, it has grown slowly. Though it is still a tiny business, I enjoy creating useful tools that are loved by many users around the globe.

Considering what I’m making from this project, I know it’s not that much, and it will take some more time to turn it into my full-time business.
But I’ve learned many things along the way, so I think it wouldn’t hurt to share my story.

About Kamino Wallet.

Under this brand, I make minimalist, eco-friendly paper wallets out of washable paper.

Washable paper is a kind of material you would find as those labels on the back of your jeans. It is highly durable and even machine washable, which makes it an ideal alternative to leather while maintaining the paper-thin profile.

My wallets help you lighten the load on your pocket and the environment, by getting rid of the bulge and the cruelty of the conventional leather wallets.

The wrap wallet is my best selling product, and it is the best example of how my products stand out in terms of the design.

I apply the art of Origami — the traditional Japanese paper folding technique, to bring the full potential out of the material and make the most minimal wallet ever with maximum utility.

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My backstory and how I came up with the idea.

I am a self-employed graphic designer who also works as a woodworker/lumberjack. I was born and grew up in Kochi, Japan but moved to Europe and have spent my twenties in Switzerland and Berlin, where I practiced graphic design and the fine arts.

After I graduated from the University of Art Berlin in 2011, I returned to Japan to dig deep into my cultural roots and to contribute to the local community.

Now I am living in a mountainous village in a suburban area of the city of Kochi. I love living near nature, and the quality of life here is irreplaceable, but one of the biggest problems in rural areas is that there are no jobs. So I thought the best thing would be to learn how to create small businesses myself. And by doing it, I could be an example for the younger generation to show that it doesn’t matter where you live. You could build a global business, however small it is.

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Tosayama village, Kochi, Japan

With my background in art and design, I am a maker by nature, so I naturally looked for ideas for products that I can make myself by hand without much investment.

A wallet was my first choice because I genuinely needed it as a consumer but couldn’t find the right one that is slim, functional, and eco-friendly on the market.

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My small workshop in the village

The process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing my first product.

I started designing wallets by prototyping with paper, looking for which form and style work best. I wanted it as minimal as possible, in its appearance as well as in environmental impact. After trying various materials, paper, which I always had considered the material for prototypes, turned out to be the best solution for me. It also helped that I had some knowledge and experience with various kinds of papers as a graphic designer.

Soon after I finished the design of the first version, I wanted to see if there is a demand at all. So I quickly made a simple landing page to release the design as a free DIY template. And I asked visitors if they would be interested in the production version which will be made out of more durable material.

I shared it on Twitter, Reddit, Medium, Instructables, etc., and to my surprise, I immediately got hundreds of downloads. I could build a mailing list of about two hundred in a few months. Some people contacted me to give me their feedback on the usability of the design, and I kept refining the design based on that feedback.

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One of the first prototypes made out of used Rhodia cover.

The process of launching the business.

After I realized it could be a business by seeing the demand for the DIY version, I started to prepare for the launch. Finding the right kind of paper that is durable enough for daily use was hard, and in fact, I am still looking for the perfect material. But I eventually found a durable synthetic paper that is good enough for the first product, ordered it in bulk, and started making the actual products.

At the time of the launch, I had managed to have a mailing list of about 200 subscribers. Looking back, it is not that big at all, but I think that is enough for a start and assumed that a large number of them would place orders. But I was wrong, dead wrong. I learned a hard lesson that subscribing to a mailing list and paying for a product is a different thing. In the end, only a few out of the list ended up buying my product.

I had zero knowledge of e-commerce at the beginning. But I have slowly learned many things by doing it, such as how to build a brand, website copywriting, and the way to optimize my site for conversions. Then I slowly started to gain customers from all around the world, and the designs have also evolved.

What worked for me to attract and retain customers since launch.

What I care about the most is the personal connection with my customers. I always enclose handwritten thank you notes in the packages and respond to questions or feedback as openly as possible. One of my customers once wrote to me

“It’s great that you are so committed to customer service. These days it’s not normal anymore to get this kind of swift, effective and personal service.”

I also include one or two cards/bookmarks with a discount code printed that are made out of the same material as my wallets to encourage word of mouth. It would make it easier to refer a friend by simply giving a card so that they can touch and feel it.

After all, the digitized world we live in is sometimes rough and noisy, so this personal touch is what makes a difference in the long run. I believe being able to offer this kind of service is one of the strengths of being a small maker. And it certainly helps to build trust and retain my customers.

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Thank you card that doubles as a bookmark.

What I’ve learned particularly helpful through starting the business.

What surprised me the most is that many people on the internet do like to give feedback when I ask them to or when they genuinely love my idea/products. I think I made the right decision to release the DIY version as soon as possible to get feedback and brushed it up. It is still relevant now, and listening to my customers is one of the best tactics I have learned when it comes to product development and marketing.

Another thing I am impressed by and thankful about and is how effectively the global postal network works. As I am based in a remote area, the logistics could have been a pain, but in reality, it works like a charm.

I can send my products out from a small post office in my village. Usually, within 10–14 days, they will arrive in North America and Europe, where most of my customers are. By the effort of making my products and the packages as slim and lightweight as possible, I could reduce the shipping cost and ultimately afford to offer free shipping worldwide on all orders.

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The inspiration.

I’m a kind of a bookworm, so I’ve read many books about starting a business, building a brand, or design/art in general, but my number one would be:

“Design for the Real World” by Victor Papanek

I always come back to this book whenever I want to make sure if I’m on the right track as a designer/maker. Let me quote one of my favorite lines.

Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical in the truest sense. It must dedicate itself to nature’s principle of least effort, in other words, maximum diversity with minimum inventory or doing the most with the least. That means consuming less, using things longer, and being frugal about recycling materials.

Now and the future.

Currently, it makes around $1,000 in sales, of which about $600 is profit. So it is not a typical success story you usually see here. At least it is profitable as my side hustle, and I love doing it.

I get about 60–100 visits a day mainly through organic search, Instagram, and Reddit. And my current conversion rate is around 1%, which would explain why it has been slow in sales.

I tried google ads for a while but couldn’t figure out how to make it work effectively, so I stopped it for now. While I would like to keep the business rather small, it could expand a bit more so acquiring new customers is the biggest struggle at the moment.

Regarding the cost and the profit, I try to keep the gross margins before ad-spend around 35–40% for every product. The cost of labor is also around 40%, which I am taking for now, but I would hire someone with it for making my products if it eventually scales in the future.

Based on the feedback from my customers, I have been designing new products, including notebook wallet and coin pouch. Also, I am talking with a manufacturer who produces even more eco-friendly material that has more color variations so the products line up will undoubtedly keep growing.

It may sound optimistic, but I believe my business has the potential to turn into my full-time business eventually, or even beyond that. It seems more and more people are interested in a simple, eco-friendly lifestyle, and my products would appeal to those audiences once I tuned in the right channels.

Advice for fellow side hustlers.

All the above being said, I guess I am nowhere near the position to tell anyone how to start/run business. All I can say is that you need to take time to grow the business, so take it easy and don’t give it up too soon.

Thank you for reading, and I hope it could give you some inspirations for starting your side hustles!

This article is the edited version of the interview I did with Starter Story.
They’re doing a great job collecting the best examples of starting businesses, so don’t forget to check it out.

Kamino Wallet

Slim, minimalist, eco-friendly minimalist paper wallets…

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