My Story: From Unemployed to Founder

My Story: From Unemployed to Founder

Welcome to Overcaffeinated with Jenny, a founder series and newsletter where I'm sharing never-heard-before stories and all the lessons we've learned building a sustainable brand.



The short story (and the version you’ll read on our about page) is that I started Freja because I couldn’t find a suitable handbag for my upcoming interview. While that was the catalyst for starting Freja the handbag brand as we know it today, the steps leading up to this concept had been brewing for almost a decade. 

The story starts all the way back in 2008. I was a teenager who had newly discovered vegan recipe blogs and instantly became utterly fascinated by all things food, nutrition, and wellness. I was 12, waking up at 5am before school to go for a quick run then make my green smoothies and chia seed pudding breakfast. As a recovering night owl presently I am convinced I used up all my willpower stores at that young age.

Looking back I would call it my first true passion in life. My other passion appeared to be completely uprooting my own life and starting over – which is exactly what I did at age 13. I decided one day that I was done living in the USA, and wanted to try living somewhere else. China seemed like my best option (I’m Chinese, by the way). My very confused parents supported my decision and I flew back by myself the next year, living with my grandparents before my parents moved back two months later. I spent the next three years attending the local highschool and learning how to read and write Chinese. 

During this time I really missed all the vegan food and ingredients I couldn’t get in China, and started an instagram account to save and share all the recipes I’d make once I went back to the states for college. It was a time when kale and quinoa were considered unique ingredients. People were spiralizing zucchini, injecting avocado into everything from pasta sauce to chocolate pudding, and discovering nutritional yeast. I was one of the few plant-based focused pages on the platform at the time, and the account grew to over 800k followers over the next few years, organically and through strategic partnerships with other growing accounts. Companies started paying me to post ads for them. I remember sitting down with my parents for a full meeting on what I should charge for my first collaboration post. We decided on $30 (I had 100k followers at the time and the campaign took me 2 hours to shoot). It was honestly such a fun time to be on instagram, very different from what it is now. 

The social media growth continued, and in last year of highschool I wrote 3 recipe ebooks for my audience. I listed them for sale on my own squarespace website, and marketed them through my page and by using affiliates. The instagram and ebooks proved somewhat lucrative, and covered some of my college tuition and all of my living expenses. This was my first taste of the power of social media, building an audience, and making a passive stream of income. 



Because I had somewhat of a steady flow of income all throughout college, I never felt the sense of urgency to find a job like all my peers did. I ended up graduating in May without a job, and honestly had no idea where to even start. I felt like I wasted my four years of college – everyone around me had impressive internships starting from freshman year and I felt so behind. I could not believe I had been so blind to reality, but that was 22 year old Jenny. She lived one day at a time and never thought about or planned for the future. 

The instagram algorithm also changed, and my account was making a fraction of what it used to. People were sick of seeing the ads and I knew I had ruined the trust I built with my audience. It was beyond salvageable at that point, and I had to figure out a plan b, fast. I googled “how to make money fast” and one of the first results to come up was dropshipping. In case you’re not familiar, dropshipping is a business model where you have a store but don’t hold any product. When a customer purchases a product from your store, you place that order with the supplier of the product, who then ships it directly to the customer. Unlike retail or wholesale strategies, it’s a very low investment, low risk business model which is why it was so popular at the time. 

Curious about this seemingly magic money printing machine, I dedicated the next two months of my life to job hunting in the am, and consuming every semi-related reddit thread and youtube video and applying whatever the 19-year-old driving a supercar with insane shopify dashboards preached at night. I spent every spare hour tinkering with fb ads, designing graphics, and making websites. My first six stores failed, but the 7th one I tried got a sale within a week. Then another, then a few more, and by month five I was pulling six figures in revenue. A month. I felt like I had cracked the code and it was exhilarating. I continued running that store for the next year, and learned so much. I learned how to scale facebook ads, how to hire help, how to run customer service, and got my first taste of operations. 

I also learned the difference between a running business that prints money, and building a brand that provides value. I saw the former (like my instagram account and dropshipping stores) start with a bang and gain steam rapidly, then fizzle out just as quickly. I learned that you can sell any product with good marketing. But a great product sells itself. I recognized that the way I ran the businesses was unsustainable – I exchanged long term growth for short term gains, and customer goodwill for making a quick buck. And that was understandable. I was young, didn’t know any better, and needed money to pay rent now, not years down the line. 

I vowed to myself that my next venture would be built for the long term. I was not going to invest so much time into building something, just to run it to the ground and have to start over yet again. 



At this point I was 22 and still needed to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, so I decided to go back to grad school in Jan 2019 to study UX design. I thought it sounded interesting, and more importantly it would buy me some time. Thankfully my foray into dropshipping left me with more than enough money to cover tuition and then some, so I wasn’t quite as strapped for cash this time around. 

I dedicated myself to my studies and career fairs and interviewing for any roles I had an inkling of interest in, determined that I would do college “right” this time around. Somehow, I secured a last round interview at a very prestigious firm. I felt like this could be my chance to join the ranks of my peers, live that dream finance life, the beginning of my own impressive LinkedIn profile... 

It was 1am and I had to be in NYC for the final round of interviews the next morning, but I couldn't find a suitable bag for my trip anywhere. My options were either 1) a rather small tote where my laptop stuck out the top, 2) a floppy bottomless pit of a bag that didn’t hold its shape, or 3) an otherwise nice quality tote that was plastered with logos. None of them fit the occasion. I needed something classic, understated, and functional. I ended up purchasing a plain stiff beige tote in a random store the next morning. Complete with my fresh, very not-broken-in heels and contrived, memorized stories, I shuffled up the stairs and waited for the beginning of the rest of my life. 

Well the interview was a complete flop – I was scheduled for a full day of interviews on-site, and they let me go after just 2.5 hours. I changed back into my comfortable shoes and spent the rest of the day in Bryant Park, soaking in the sunshine.

I got back to school that night and started dreaming about creating something of my own. Something small, something personal. The original idea was to create my perfect interpretation of the work bag – designed for the modern day woman’s busy lifestyle, by a woman. It should be handcrafted with attention to the little details, one that both pulled my outfit together and kept me organized and on top of everything. I got started immediately. 

I already had a marketing internship at a real estate firm lined up for that summer in NYC. I called my future manager Ivan, told him how much I was looking forward to working with him, and also about my plans to start Freja. I told him not to pay me for the duration of the internship, but that I would also only come in the mornings and leave in the afternoons to work on my own thing. He was cool with that, shoutout Ivan. I took two weeks off in July to go visit factories in China, and went back to school in the fall. I worked on Freja every day and night, replying to my factory in China and receiving samples in between classes and homework. I graduated later that year in Dec 2019 and immediately went full time with Freja, launching our first 300 bags two months later in February 2020. 

Our next founder series will document the highs and lows and lessons learned building the brand over the next four years – stay tuned x

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