Side Hustle Series: I Sell Women’s Hankies

[Please welcome my new friend, and hustler,Β Steve Chou to the show today! We’ve bumped into each other many times over the years at our financial blogger conference, but this last one we made it a point to actually get to know each other a little bit. And I’m glad we did – he’s a pretty smart guy! And hopefully you enjoy his story and side hustle below :) Take it away, Steve!]

Out of all of the possible things that could be sold online, I have to be honest here. Selling handkerchiefs was not my first choice.

But the numbers don’t lie. When it comes to finding the right niche to going into, it almost always boils down to the numbers, your circumstances and a little bit of luck.

Here’s my story about how an average dude got into the hankie business.

How I Got Started

Back when my wife and I first got engaged to be married, we spent a lot of time and energy planning our wedding. Actually, “we” was a strong term for the actual planning process. In reality, my wife called all the shots and I was the “yes man”.

“Yes dear, those wedding favors are great. The guests will love them”
“Yes dear, that corsage will go perfect with the bridesmaid dresses”
“Yes dear, a purple tie would go great with the wedding decor”

“Wait, how much are those flowers going to cost? Son of a motherless B#$%^! ***Bites tongue*** That’s great dear. Love ’em :)”

Looking back, I’m happy that she gave me a say with all of the decision making even though my opinion pretty much meant nothing. Overall, the wedding planning went quite smoothly until we hit a sudden snag.

You see my wife can get pretty emotional at special events like weddings, and she knew that she was going to cry during our vows. She also knew that she didn’t want to be seen holding a ratty tissue to dry her tears especially since we were spending so much money on photography and makeup. (Don’t even get me started about how much we spent on photography and makeup)

Long story short, she wanted a handkerchief. The problem though was that we couldn’t find them anywhere, even online. After browsing the web and going to countless department stores, we finally found a place in China that was willing to sell us womens handkerchiefs. But the problem was that the minimum order was 20 dozen.

Yes, you heard that correctly. We needed only 1 handkerchief but we had to buy 20 dozen and pay for the ridiculously high cost of air shipping from China. Anyways, we used 3 of these hankies for our wedding and put the rest on EBay.

And they sold like hot cakes!!!

We knew we were onto something here but didn’t really do anything about it until my wife became pregnant. As soon as we found out we were going to have a child, my wife decided that she was going to quit her job to stay at home with the kids. And since she made over 100K in salary at the time, we really needed a way to replace her lost income.

bumblebee linens

This was when the “A-HA” moment happened. After running the profitability numbers, gauging search demand, and reestablishing contact with our initial vendor in China, we decided to launch, an online store selling handkerchiefs to would-be brides.

How Much We Make

As with any online business, the potential upside is limitless but you have to put in the work. As soon as my wife and I committed to the idea, we spent all of our free time working on our little business venture.

She was in charge of product and logistics, and I was in charge of all of the technical aspects of the business. We also did our fair share of cold calling wedding and event planners, participating on the wedding forums and using PPC advertising.

To this day, my wife still makes fun of me about my wedding forum persona. Let’s just say that I play an awesome overly excited and gushing bride to be:)

Anyways long story short, we managed to make over 100K in our first year of business. Once we delivered our baby daughter, my wife basically went through her maternity leave and then promptly quit her job.

We launched our store in 2007 and it has since been growing in the double and triple digits to the point where it now makes many times my salary as well. Who would have thought that a $630 initial investment would have led to this?

Benefits and Drawbacks

The main benefit of starting an online store is that you don’t need to be physically present to make sales. You basically set up your website and let the server take all of the orders.

Then at some point later, you ship the products to the end customer. At a high level this sounds straightforward, but it requires a tremendous amount of upfront work to set up all of the processes involved with running a smooth operation.

When we first started out, we sacrificed all of our nights and weekends while our friends were out having fun. The other drawback is that you can never be 100% sure that you will succeed. You kind of have to take that leap of faith that all of your blood, sweat and tears will lead to something meaningful.

The benefits of course are obvious. If you can find good vendors and establish a consistent business, you can be your own boss and spend time on activities that you are passionate about, like spending time with family.

Today, our little hankie business has office space and 2 full time employees who handle most of the heavy lifting. My wife supervises the day to day and shuttles our kids to all of their various activities.

How To Get Started

What’s funny about starting my hankie business is that it has spawned 2 other businesses for me as well. If you are interested in learning how to get started with selling online, I have written over 300 posts on my blog about the subject that you can check out in your free time.

Bottom line, you shouldn’t be discouraged by the technical aspects of launching an online store. These days, all of the shopping cart software is already written for you and it’s free and open source.

Also, there are many services out there that will not only host your shop but also take care of all of the technical aspects for a small monthly fee. Heck, there are even places like Amazon who will take care of the shipping, fulfillment and logistics for you as well.

Don’t get me wrong. Selling online is not an easy path to take, but it’s a great way take control of your financial future and there’s very little upfront investment involved.

My wife and I started for around $630. Do you have $630 to spare?

Steve runs the popular blog where he talks about his experiences running his various online businesses. In addition, he runs a course on how to create a profitable online store.

EDITOR’ NOTE: Here’s a Side Hustle we ran almost two years ago that gets more in depth with the items/costs behind online stores – specifically with women’s luxury clothing: I run an e-Commerce store. The site has since been shut down it looks like, but hopefully you can still get something out of it. And just goes to reiterate how hard it can be! You hear a lot of the success stories out there, but there are 10x as many failures. Not to discourage anyone, of course, but just know it definitely takes some hustle and a little luck as Steve pointed out earlier. It’s all possible, though!

If you have a side hustle yourself you’d like to share with us, please do :)

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  1. Aimee January 16, 2014 at 6:40 AM

    What a great story!!! There is so much money to be made in the wedding industry, and also in the baby industry “they” say. Good for you and your wife for taking a leap of faith and going for it! I feel like anything you can’t find online now is a business waiting to happen. I can’t even think of anything not online, but I’m sure there’s still some things!

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 11:54 AM

      Thanks Aimee. There is a lot of money to made but the wedding industry is also super competitive at the same time. You just have to carve out a very small niche for yourself

  2. celeste January 16, 2014 at 7:11 AM

    wow! I love hankies for everyday use! I have my grandmas and they are soooo very pretty. I’m not a fan of tissues and throwing away unnecessary trash. What a fabulous idea! What a Great story!

    Saving your site because I love hankies. I get picked on about them because they are different but…hey, dare to be different!

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 11:54 AM

      Awesome. Honestly, I think handkerchiefs are making a comeback for both men and women as sales volume has been increasing over the years.

    2. J. Money January 16, 2014 at 3:41 PM

      HAH! Awesome… perhaps I’ll have to rock a nice square one with my suits the next time I put one on :) I can get down with dapper’ness!

  3. Jon @ MoneySmartGuides January 16, 2014 at 8:07 AM

    Great story! The old saying here is true…opportunity knocked on your door and you answered. Great job. Starting up a side business takes a ton of work. I started an online t-shirt business once and spent almost every moment outside of my day job creating shirts and setting things up. It was a complete failure but I cherish all of the things I learned from it and have used those lessons in my new ventures.

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 11:56 AM

      We started this business a while back but I still have fond memories of the late nights and the early startup frustrations. Good times…good times.

  4. Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life January 16, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    $630 dollars is a lot for me, but if I KNEW it would pay off I would hop on board. I admittedly spent a lot of money to get my blog up and running, so for now, I’m working on following through on that to make it profitable. Perhaps, I’ll take on another project soon. The more income streams, the better.

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 11:57 AM

      Yeah. The problem is that you’ll never know whether it will take off unless you take the leap. Compared to a brick and mortar store, $630 is nothing.

  5. a terrible husband... January 16, 2014 at 8:46 AM

    I LOVE it! It’s pretty amazing how uncomplicated big business can be – you don’t need a Ph.D. in biophysics (is that a real thing?) to make hundreds of thousands of dollars. And you don’t need a million of seed capital either. Awesome!

      1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 11:57 AM

        Yeah, it’s not rocket science. Going to checkout now why you are a terrible husband:)

        1. a terrible husband... January 16, 2014 at 2:10 PM

          Hope you enjoy it, Steve. At least more than my wife did for the last several years… It’s pretty fun publicizing all the lessons, books, etc. and documenting even more for all the world to see… Helps me keep focused, too, for sure! :)

  6. Brian@ Debt Discipline January 16, 2014 at 8:48 AM

    Amazing story! I’d love to invest $630 to make $100k, just need an idea. :)

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 11:58 AM

      Finding a niche is one place a lot of people get stuck on. The other is actually pulling the trigger. There’s no perfect idea.

  7. Holly@ClubThrifty January 16, 2014 at 9:44 AM

    Hey Steve,

    That’s awesome! Who knew that hankies were such a hot commodity. Go, you!

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 11:59 AM

      Thanks Holly. I owe it all to the fact that my wife is a cry baby:)

  8. Broke Millennial January 16, 2014 at 9:54 AM

    This is Shark-Tank-level awesome! Talk about an amazing ROI. I was at a wedding over the Christmas vacation and the groom whipped out a hanky as soon as his wife-to-be walked down the aisle. Perhaps it was even one of yours!

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 12:01 PM

      My wife and had considered applying to Shark Tank for fun. Maybe we’ll still do it someday. I just want to meet the Sharks

      1. J. Money January 16, 2014 at 3:44 PM

        Plus, imagine all that exposure??? Even if Kevin gives you his trademark “you’re dead to me” lines, you’d prob double your sales for the next month.

  9. Chris @ Flipping A Dollar January 16, 2014 at 10:15 AM

    This is a re-sellers dream. Having a regular supply is one of the hardest things about my side business. I’m always out looking for more either at rummage sales, garage sales, or thrift stores, and I never know which one is going to have something worth while. You seem to have found a way to NOT have to do that and set up a very good, sustainable business model. Way to go!

    My main question is are you still looking for other options if some other joe schmoe is able to undercut your business?

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 12:03 PM

      Yes, it’s important to have consistent and reliable sellers. We have pretty deep relationships with our vendors in Asia and Europe so it would take quite a bit of effort for any Joe Schmoe to copy us, put up a ranking website and find their own vendors.

  10. Mike Collins January 16, 2014 at 10:37 AM

    Hey Steve, great story! I always wondered on how you settled on handkerchiefs, it’s something that would never even occur to me to sell but apparently there is a huge market for them.

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 1:45 PM

      Hey Mike,
      Haven’t heard from you in a long time. We should catch up on Skype

  11. John S @ Frugal Rules January 16, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    What an awesome story Steve! Kudos to you for having the eye and wits to see a possibility and running with it. It just goes to show you that there are opportunities out there, if you’re looking for them and willing to put in the hard work to make them succeed.

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 1:46 PM

      Thanks John. There are opportunities out there but they all take hustle and time.

  12. Grayson @ Debt Roundup January 16, 2014 at 11:33 AM

    I know this story all to well Steve. I built an e-commerce store based out of the lack of product in my college town. I created a thriving business over the years, but then shut it down for personal reasons. There is nothing easy about running a e-commerce website and it takes a lot of time. I wish you the best in growing your site.

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 1:47 PM

      Hey Grayson,
      Why did you shut it down instead of trying to sell it? Was it dropshipping or inventory?

  13. Andrew@LivingRichCheaply January 16, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    Hey Steve, I’ve read and followed your story on your blog. When my wife was pregnant last year, I was really looking into building an e-commerce store. And then she found a government job with great benefits. I’m still looking into the e-commerce website, but haven’t thought of a good idea. Now with a little baby, I’m really impressed your wife was able to get any work done…when I’m at home with my son, I don’t get much done at all!

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 1:48 PM

      Thanks Andrew. It is tough to get any work done with kids in the house. Fortunately, we got started when they were still in her belly:)

  14. Charlie @ Our Journey To Zero Debt January 16, 2014 at 12:26 PM

    I like to hear success stories like this.

    One day as I was driving to work, I saw this for sale by owner sign at the front of a house. The sign and the house looked dark and beat up. At that point, I thought I had an awesome idea to start a site where people selling their homes by themselves can go and list their house for sale without the need for a realtor and paying commission. Lo and behold, the site already exists!

    Oh well, I will never stop trying to think of ideas and I’m sure one will come eventually.

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 1:49 PM

      Yeah, I’ve had lots of ideas in the past and a nice assortment of things that didn’t work out too. Eventually, something sticks.

    2. J. Money January 16, 2014 at 3:46 PM

      At least you know it was a good idea ;)

  15. Cat Alford (@BudgetBlonde) January 16, 2014 at 1:51 PM

    The is one of the coolest things I’ve read about in a very long time. Congrats on all your success!

    1. Steve January 16, 2014 at 1:57 PM

      Thanks Cat.

      Do a lot of BudgetAreSexy readers go to FINCON? If so, would love to meet all of you there in 2014

      1. J. Money January 16, 2014 at 3:50 PM

        Yup! A lot of readers here are also pf bloggers who hit up FINCON. We should throw a B.A.S. party for everyone :) On your dime – cool?

        1. Steve January 17, 2014 at 10:42 AM

          In general, the person who looks the most like Zangief should be treating

  16. AverageJoe January 16, 2014 at 3:33 PM

    What a motivational post, Steve! I enjoyed meeting you at FinCon.

    1. Steve January 17, 2014 at 10:43 AM

      Hey Joe, the pleasure was mine!

  17. Ree Klein January 16, 2014 at 8:05 PM

    Hi Steve,

    I’ve read your story, blog posts and watched some your video. What I love about you is that you seem to be the real deal. You don’t sugar coat how hard it is but have amazing testimonials proving that your course produces results.

    I’ve been tempted to pull the trigger and sign up. My only hesitation has nothing to do with you or the cost. I’m afraid of fragmenting my focus and not giving my blog the time and effort it deserves. But when I come up for air, your course is at the top of my list.


    1. Steve January 17, 2014 at 10:43 AM

      Hi Ree,

      Looking forward to having you in the class whenever you are ready:)

  18. Lizzie January 17, 2014 at 8:44 AM

    I love your story!! when I was about four, I started collecting hankerchieves. Elderly relatives would give them to me. I will definitely check out your site, though I am not a bride!

    1. Steve January 17, 2014 at 10:44 AM

      Thanks Lizzie. Not all the hankies are for weddings but weddings just happens to be our largest market.

  19. Lazy Man and Money January 31, 2014 at 9:28 AM

    I think you were a little conservative when you called him “a pretty smart guy.” I caught up with Steve for just a few minutes at the conference and in a room of a lot of very, very smart people I came away thinking that he might just be the smartest.

    1. J. Money January 31, 2014 at 10:56 AM

      Truth. And sexiest, right? ;)

    2. Steve January 31, 2014 at 11:05 AM

      Thanks for the kind words Lazy Man though I don’t remember saying anything particularly intelligent during our conversation. Are you sure you have the right Asian guy?:)

  20. Susan kuber May 6, 2015 at 6:38 PM

    I have some vintage handkerchiefs. Woukd u be interested in buying them?

  21. Kyle December 14, 2017 at 3:35 PM

    Crazy. He’s even had his business featured on the Today Show and all kinds of magazines. A handkerchief business! Who would’ve thought? I’ve looked into reselling things from China on eBay before, but pretty much everything is saturated. I guess no one thought to try selling fancy handkerchiefs! :)

    1. J. Money December 15, 2017 at 6:15 AM

      Haha… indeed :)

      Fun person to hang out with in real life too btw – I’ve shared a beer or two with him over the years at our yearly blogging conference.