Learn the strategies Jason Wong used to start Doe Lashes with $500 and turn it into a $5M company.
When Jason Wong founded Doe Lashes with $500, he had a hunch why the bootstrapped model might work for the company. The 23-year-old Shopify entrepreneur had a history of successfully (and unsuccessfully) launching online ventures, which led him to get to know the intricacies of supply chain management, shipping, and other global commerce essentials.
His experience paid off. Doe is on track to generate more than $5 million in revenue by the end of 2021, up from $120,000 in 2019. The skyrocketing revenue is the result of a variety of marketing experiments on platforms like TikTok, where Doe Lashes is the 48th fastest-growing TikTok brand, which drives 27% of its revenue.
Other things that are working: the lash quiz that lets the Doe team customize their marketing campaigns to uniquely specific audiences.
For Jason, Doe Lashes has become one of multiple ventures. He's teaching a Shopify course on how to successfully launch and grow a brand. And he founded Wonghaus Ventures, an ecommerce incubator for ecommerce stores of all sizes and at all phases of growth. (Past clients include Jack in the Box, Coca-Cola, Adidas, and Fashion Nova.)
We had the chance to talk to Jason from his HQ in California about everything from how to hire a team, jump onto new social platforms, hire influencers, create authentic community, and more!
CH: Congrats on everything you've done with Doe Lashes. Can you tell us about how you founded the company with $500?
Jason: I want to say that the $500 framework worked because the product allowed it. It's not something that will work for everyone. I wanted to do this for two reasons. One, as a challenge to myself. "Can I make this work?" Number two was to knock off this misconception that you always need to have a lot of money to start a business.
Disclaimer: the reason why we were able to keep it so low is because I trimmed expenses in hiring people and did everything myself. I wore all the hats. I did my designs, emails, Shopify store, and built our own marketing. But that's also why I'm teaching, so that you can also learn to do the exact same thing.
CH: At what point did you know you needed a team? Was there a moment when you were doing too much, or was it a revenue based decision?
Jason: It's when we could afford to. It's twofold, right? You need the revenue and the cashflow to hire people. Every single person on your payroll is a fixed amount on a monthly basis. So you need to make sure that your monthly expenses and the profit that you make can cover that person. Once you hit that level, it unlocks the little green light. You're like, "Okay, now I can hire," but that's just the financial side.
On the operations side, you need to hire when you, as a founder, realize that you can hand off what you're doing and trade the hour that you have freed up into things that will scale the company further. So as the founder, your time multiplies. Your job as a founder is to lead and to grow, not to be in the warehouse packing orders, which I was doing.
Your job is to draw the roadmap of how do I grow my company in the next three months, six months, nine months? And how do I decrease my expenses by trimming the fat here and there? How do I negotiate with these people for better payment terms, so I can get a better cash flow?
So in a way, a founder's job should always be strategic and forward-facing. Whereas the people that you hire are people that are helping you drive the car, making sure that the wheels are turning. And your job is to make sure that there's enough road ahead of you to drive. If you run out of money, there's no roll. If you don't plan enough, you're falling off the cliff.
CH: Let's talk about the wild ride of 2020. What happened for Doe Lashes?
Jason: Two things. One was the pandemic in March 2020. Most of the country went into lockdown. The mask mandate happened. We were scared, because we're a beauty company. We were like, "Heck, people aren't going out. Everyone's locked down. We're doomed." But the opposite actually happened. People who were now working from home and on Zoom, they focused a lot more on the upper body. So you saw apparel go up and pants sales decrease, because no one really cared about pants anymore.
The same effect happened for the face. When you're wearing a mask, the only thing you can see is your eyes. And on the Zoom call that we have right now, we're really looking into each other's faces and eyes, the eyes predominantly. So there was a focus on making your eyes look better. Mascara sales, eyeliner sales, and eyelash sales went up 250% in 2020.
The second thing that happened was we pivoted away from a dependency on pay acquisition to a very strong, organic social and retention effort, because of the rising cost of marketing, but also trying to be the first to market, to deal with these things. And as such, we were able to do a really good job on social media.
CH: At what point did you decide to make that shift to social?
Jason: We were always a social first company. For the first four months, I didn't run any paid ads because I was trying to do the 500 pushup blueprint. What we did was that we went purely with micro and nano influencers on Instagram, through product exchange.
We send them products and then they post for us. We did that enough times, while still making it economically make sense because our products are on the lower end. So we could afford to send more products, and thereby driving a larger volume of people to post for us. So from the first day, we were always a social first company.
Anytime there's a new opportunity within a social media platform, we jump on it first.
When TikTok started getting traction in 2020, we were like, "Let's take advantage of that." Every brand was following the notion that TikTok is for kids. There's no one buying on TikTok. People on TikTok do not have purchasing power.
I started off as an influencer back in 2012. I was a Tumblr influencer and had a microblogging site back in the day. So I understand influencers and platforms very well. I understand how to create narratives that allow things to go viral.
One thing that I noticed about TikTok that was fundamentally different from any other platform I've ever seen was its algorithm. It didn't force you to have followers in order to get your content to the right people. It actually rewards you for having good content. So we started with zero followers. We grew to 100,000 followers in six months without spending money on bots or paying people to gain us followers. We were just focused on making really good content on TikTok. That platform accounts for about 30% of our sales now.
CH: It's interesting that what you learned with Tumblr all those years ago still applies to the influencer sphere today.
Jason: Yeah, it's really the same. Fundamentally, why people watch things and why people share things will always be the same. From hundreds of years ago to the future, people's behavior doesn't change. It's just the medium and the platform that they consume content on that change. If you're able to understand how it worked back then, you can adjust your actions and your tactics to these new mediums.
So one of the things that I did right off the bat was the mistake of trying to cross-post our Instagram stories or Instagram posts onto TikTok, thinking it'll just be the same. That didn't work.
So we went into TikTok, we scrolled through our feed, and we hired someone who was natively a creator on TikTok. She didn't have a lot of followers, but we saw that she knew how to make content for TikTok. We brought her on and she started making content for us. And immediately, we were seeing a huge spike in sales from TikTok. Our TikTok was getting viral here and there. And now we're one of the top 50 fastest growing TikTok brands.
It just really goes to show that you need to understand the platform that you're on. Don't listen to the noise.
CH: What about Doe's community. Does it feel organic to them? How have you created that?
Jason: I think community needs to be authentic. Anything forced will never work well. And as such, we actually hire our customers to measure communities. We interact with our customers very often, through our SMS. And then we talk to them, bring them into our private groups, hire them into roles like customer support and community managers.
These are the people who love our brand, who understand our brand better than anyone else, and who are able to speak the same language as the audience that we're targeting, because they're part of that. So being authentic is very important. It's impossible for you to hire a community manager on LinkedIn or Indeed, and expect them to do the same level of quality of job as someone who's literally your customer. That's first and foremost.
Number two is understanding where to build your community. And for that, we knew that we were targeting a younger audience. A Facebook group was out of the picture, but I have friends who are targeting older audiences, who are doing phenomenal on Facebook groups.
What we did was go to Discord groups. Discord is like Slack, but for gamers, but all the kids are on there now because they like to play games. There are groups, voice chats, and whatnot. And we do weekly games, giveaways, and get in on beauty chats. Slowly and surely, it became self-sustainable.
These became our most loyal customers, and we reward them with first access peeks. They become our test groups. So they get free products to test whenever we come out with anything new. We go to them for feedback.
Sometimes when we make drastic changes to our business model, like increasing prices or introducing a new product, we go to them.
So community, in a sense, isn't just purely revenue generating. It's also a big part of shaping the future of your company, if you use it right.
CH: Tell us about how the "find your perfect lash style quiz" came to be, and how that played into your strategy last year.
Jason: The way that I came to be really started with our core belief, is that we're extremely open to testing anything and everything. So as a beauty brand, we know that if we're bootstrapping, and we're the small guys in the room, we need to find whatever we can to have an edge over everyone else. And one of those things was our adoption of technology.
Early on, we adapted fairly unconventional tactics. We were testing things like sending postcards to our customers. We were testing things that didn't scale, but we tested everything. And when we had the opportunity to test the shoppable quiz from Octane AI, it was a gamble because, first, it was very expensive to use the app.
It was probably the most expensive app we had on our store, but we realized that at our size, we need to go above and beyond in customer experience. We can't just toss them into a home page, and expect them to know what to buy. We're a new brand.
They didn't have any recommendations on what to buy. If you're going to buy something from Kiehl's or from L'Oreal, or Lancome, you most likely have seen that product in the past, and you know what to buy. We're a brand new brand. We have to do things that help the customer make the purchasing decisions. That was the main reason why we created the quiz.
Once we created that quiz, we realized that it was very effective. It actually collected more emails than our email pop-up, three times as much, actually.
We found that there's a lot of things that we can do, and we just went crazy with it. We started connecting that with different paths, automating it. So people that answer specific answers within the quiz will get put into different Klayvio flows to get different answers.
People who said they have never tried lashes before, we'll give them a bigger welcome offer compared to someone who has tried lashes before. People who say that they wear lashes more often than one time, once a week, will get on the larger bundle of lashes, rather than someone who just wears it once a week, who doesn't need the bundle.
So we started creating a bunch of logic within the quiz that leads to different product recommendations, and we saw a huge increase in our AOV revenue and the overall customer experience.
CH: What is the future for Doe?
Jason: Doe Lashes was the initial vision, when I started two years ago. We're just going to be a lash company. And over time, I realized that there's so much more room for us to expand into. Doe, as a brand, isn't limited by just lashes where some other brands in the space have, quite literally, no other way to go because their entire branding was around their lashes.
But our brand was focused on Doe, the deer spots. And really, the way that I think about design and product expansion is, what are the design principles that I follow when I make Doe Lashes?
I feel like I should've explained this earlier, but for Doe Lashes and Doe in general, our design principle is to create extremely comfortable products for your eyes. And our hero product and our first product were lashes. But the same principles can be applied to creating anything around the eye area.
We're talking about cream, mascara, eyeliner, contact lenses, anything around the eye area. If we're able to recreate you, become comfortable, a natural part of you, then that's going to be within our product lineup.
That's really the expansion over the next three years. It's really owning the eye space for us. Now in terms of what I think we would do, or what I expect we will do over the next few months, is that we're going to really hone in on our hero products. So you'll see a new development of our lashes in a couple of months. We redesigned everything to become even softer, which I didn't think was possible, but we re-engineered it. And then we're introducing a lot more tools and new styles along with it.
CH: The focus on eyes makes so much sense.
Jason: Right. You expand the parameters of what you could create now because a lot of brands, like Ardell Lashes, for example, the stuff that you guys see at CVS, they're forever going to be confined to just selling lashes. Granted, they're also a huge company, they can afford to do that.
But we can't afford to do that because we don't have the volume to justify just selling one product. We need to start thinking a little bit bigger. And the bigger picture is owning the category. Just like how Hims and Hers have owned a category, and all these other DTC brands have owned categories, no one has owned eyes. No one. Think about it. Who makes the best eye drops? The best contact lenses? The best eye cream? They're all different brands, right?
CH: How did you know where to steer Doe?
Jason: Doe was my eighth brand. Some brands were complete flops, some flopped midway, some were acquired, and some are still running. I basically just took all the learnings from the failures and the successes, and Frankensteined the framework that I now teach in my Shopify course by applying it to Doe.
A lot of things changed once I built Doe: what kind of products I want to go after, what kind of people I want to go after, how I want to run the business in terms of leading a team, turn up projects and operations, and finances.
Finances is truly one of the most important things you need to have a grasp on as a founder. People look at their Shopify dashboard. They look at this analytic tool that tells them their gross revenue. None of that matters. What really matters is what actually ends up in your bank account after you pay everything off. That's your net margin.
Most people have a bigger loss net margin than they think, myself included. I didn't know what it was until I took the time and went into an Excel sheet, which is a place that I never really wanted to go in the first place. But I went in there and I listed out every single expense that we spent in that month. Our payroll, transaction costs, refunds, taxes, shipping costs, everything, you name it. Anything that came out of our bank account, I listed it out. And then I subtracted that from our revenue.
And you're like, "Dang, I am making a lot less money than I thought." So understanding that is the key to survival. Really, the number one reason why companies fail is two things. They run out of financial runway, or the founders lose passion. That's really why most companies fail. Four out of five ecommerce companies fail within the 120 days because they don't have money.
CH: Are founders afraid to face the spreadsheet and really look at the reality of the business? Or they don't realize it's important?
Jason: It's not that they don't want to face it, it's that financial literacy wasn't really a thing that was taught in the school system. Heck, they didn't even teach us how to do our taxes. They never taught us about budgeting or about how to forecast your revenue. Most founders aren't business or finance majors. Most entrepreneurs are hobbyists that turned their passion into actual entrepreneurship. And now you're telling them that they need to manage a P&L.
CH: You mentioned AOV. What's your take on AOV versus LTV. How are they connected? Which one should brands focus on?
Jason: When we talk about AOV, the main goal is to sell. Everyone thinks that you just need to upsell or cross-sell them. And while that may be true, there are other ways too. You can give them better incentives, like free shipping offers, or give them free gifts at a certain threshold. But if you were to go with the upsell or cross-sell method, one of the best methods I've found is on the product page itself. You provide variants of bundles, rather than a click-add-to cart upsell.
What I mean by that is, and this wouldn't work if you have different color or size experience, but for Doe, if you go on through our product page, you'll see a one-pack button and a three-pack button. So we make the upsell process very easy, to just a single button. And then they click add to cart. Once they click add to cart, then there's different sequences. Immediately, you can get someone to come up with a higher base priced product before they even see all your other upsell offers.
CH: What about LTV?
Jason: There are two ways to think about that. Either you get them to buy the same product over a period of time, like a toothpaste you've got to buy every three months, or you introduce new products that you think that type of customer will buy in order to increase your LTV over time.
So if you sell the toothpaste and you come up with a wash towel, like a antimicrobial wash towel, and you come with face wash and all that stuff, you know that you can sell all the stuff to the same customer because they have shown that they have interest in facial care or personal hygiene.
At Doe, we try to increase people's LTV by getting them to buy the same lashes, over and over again. So we have the subscription programs. But we also know that our products are replenishable. So we know that these people will buy back at a certain time.
But in addition to that, we're also introducing new products, like our reusable cotton rounds or pimple patches, because these are the products that we feel like the same people who are buying our lashes will also like. And that's been proven to be pretty valid.
That's how we're able to increase LTV both ways. So if they don't buy the same lashes, over and over again, that doesn't mean that their LTV will just get cut short. We still have a second way to get them to increase LTV.
CH: Let's talk about Wonghaus, a project where you get to share your knowledge with brands at all phases.
Jason: Wonghaus was created four years ago, and you may laugh at this, but it was really just created because I get antsy. I have to do multiple things. If you want me to run a company for the next 20, 30 years, I will be the worst hire. I need to be constantly working on something new because it keeps my mind fresh. I have what my mom called, a three minute hotness. And it makes a lot more sense in Chinese, but it's basically like a proverb saying that someone who just constantly needs to do something every once in a while. So Wong House was created in order to satisfy that.
And in order for me to do all that, what is the most scalable way for me to do that? Well, create a portfolio company where I can work on multiple brands at the same time, advise them at different levels, consult them. And at the same time, I am now able to get visuals across multiple brands, and help transfer the knowledge across these brands, and apply them where it fits. Share the same operational teams, share suppliers. We can decrease the cost because we now have volume with the size we have. And generally, just also fulfill the sense of wanting to do everything in different categories.
Now I'm in beverages, I'm in beauty, I'm in the B2B side of stuff, logistics, supply chain. It keeps me fresh.
CH: This is an industry that is constantly changing. How do you stay up on everything? How do you take in the right information?
Jason: I don't like to glamorize hustling. I would never tell someone to drop out of school or tell someone to do sleepless nights. I do it myself because I'm so passionate about what I'm building that I cannot sleep. If I'm in a zone of building something, you will not see me.
How I keep up with information is just constantly being around people smarter than me, and really trying to dissect their thought processes. And also trying to ask them the right questions. When you're on the internet, you're going to get a lot of noise. You're going to get these media outlets telling you A, another media outlet telling you B. For example, the TikTok stuff I was referring to.
But just by surrounding yourself with people that you respect and you think is more than you, you can always make assessments on any subject with a lot more brains. I don't think I'm perfect. I don't think I'm the smartest or the wisest person, but my superpower is the fact that I'm able to be around a lot of other people. And being able to leverage that power, to make myself more informed and more educated. That's really how I stay up to date.
CH: What are the biggest mistakes Shopify stores are making in 2021? Where are stores going wrong?
Jason: Stores go wrong when they try to emulate other companies. When I was growing the lashes, I was looking at the larger brands that I respect. I was looking at the brands that I want to become. I'm like, "Yeah, I need a really big team. I need an office. I need to do in-house fulfillment because that's what everyone else is doing. I need to hire more people. I need to spend money on this."
No, you don't need any of that. But I did that, and it burned us out financially. I was trying to follow their marketing tactics, their creatives. I was like, "Yeah, you know what? They're spending a lot of money on Facebook. Let me also do the same thing. Oh, they're making their ads this way, let me also do the same thing. Let me try to cut it and edit it like this.
And all of that flopped. Every single one of them flopped. The reason why is because there is not one single formula that will guarantee success for a DTC brand. So trying to emulate another company, or multiple companies, isn't going to work. Because if it's that simple, I could just standardize that and everyone can be successful, right? But it doesn't work like that.
Every single brand needs to be refined over time, through their own learnings, through their own demographic, understanding the product market fit, understanding their financial capabilities. You're trying to emulate companies that are funded by VCs and have $50 million in the bank. If you have $500 in the bank, you cannot be doing the same things that they do. They may be doing things that are losing money, but they have enough financial runway to cover that because they're trying to acquire more customers.
You're trying to survive. We're in different boats, right?
The mistake that I made early on was just trying to be like the big guys. I got an office, I grew my team super big. And then I was wondering, why isn't it working? Asking myself, "Why didn't this work?" And then looking back now, it was a very naive thought process, thinking that there is a single format.
When you say you want to be like a DTC brand, that's great. You want to have good reference points and you want to have role models, but do not try to follow in their footsteps because you don't know their financials, you don't know how their operations are. You don't even know if they're burning money or not. A lot of these companies are not profitable. Why would you want to copy an unprofitable company? Yeah, they have $120 million in annual revenue. That's great. But they're also spending $123 million in expenses.
Just go with your flow, don't try to speed up and catch up with people. Make sure your fundamentals are set, your operations, your finances. And most of all, take care of yourself. A lot of founders neglect mental health in the beginning stages of building the company. Some still do. I think, making sure that you're in the right mindset and you're healthy enough to continue the business is super important. So making sure all that is set before you try to scale. You need to have a really solid groundwork.
CH: Any other advice for founders who are trying to take the leap from early phase to a more recognizable DTC brand?
Jason: Study. Study a lot, and try to read newsletters. Sign up for alerts for specific keywords, follow the right people on Twitter. There is simply too much free knowledge being given out on Twitter by people who have made it in their own respective industry.
But with that, the caveat is, don't follow everything at face value. Take in all this learning, and digest, and evaluate on your own. But there's just so much free knowledge out there that you need to take advantage of. Watch YouTube videos.
But the same principle applies, don't follow someone else's exact footsteps. You should always learn. What is their thought process? How did they come to that conclusion? And see if you're able to make the same conclusion without that process. Because again, there's not a single formula that works. What you need to learn is always, how do I think and how do I think about problems? And how do I evaluate situations to come into that evaluation? Once you have that, and once you're comfortable with that, you can apply that to everything else that you do.
CH: There's something in there about trusting yourself, right?
Jason: The amount of times that I fell, it will honestly trump any success that I have. And the thing is, no one really shares the failures. I'm not going to go out and make a Twitter thread on how I lost a million dollars over a few months. But those that do, all the respect to them.
CH: Jason, your story is so inspiring. Thank you for sharing it with us! Best of luck with all your endeavors.
Jason: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.