While most kids their age are playing Minecraft or marathon watching Pretty Little Liars, 16-year-old Shelby Gogulski and her 12-year-old brother Gordy are excelling in entrepreneurship. Shelby, a straight-A student, serves as CEO while Gordy hails as CFO, as in chief fun officer, of Yourself Expression. The retailer and designer of jewelry with interchangeable snap-in charms let “one piece of jewelry be over a 1,000 different designs.” In just two years, sales average $1,000 a day. They’ve appeared on Shark Tank, morning chatfest The View and local TV. Shelby has her sights on becoming the next Pandora, a jewelry maker offering hundreds of charms that customers mix and match to create a unique end piece.
Shelby first started selling jewelry she bought wholesale in August 2014. Then she designed her pieces in addition to adding a men’s and kids’ line and making custom designs with logos. The Snap and Popper pieces cost $0.40 to $3 to make and retail for $4 to $15. All profits have been reinvested in creating new collections, building inventory, improving display and packaging and opening a retail location.
The Jacksonville, Fla. enterprise had $240,000 in sales and $80,000 in profits when the Gogulski siblings filmed their Shark Tank episode in June 2015. Sales hit $42,000 in just 10 days after their airing on May 6, 2016. Yourself Expression was selling in 330 retail locations before Shark Tank and expanded into another 67 the week after. Also, a big box store asked to carry two of the collections, and two theme parks in Florida are negotiating a deal.
“Companies that have been thinking about Yourself Expression are now following through,” Shelby said.
Despite Yourself Expression’s shining sales and the Sharks’ supportive nature for teenage entrepreneurs, no one bit on the Gogulskis’ offer of 20% equity for $50,000. Barbara Corcoran said she didn’t see the potential to make a lot of money and that there were too many product offerings. Kevin O’Leary concurred, calling it an “inventory nightmare.” Robert Herjavec said the siblings made him feel bad that he hadn’t done enough with his life, but he wasn’t the right Shark for them. Mark Cuban said they’re going to do bigger and better things. Lori Greiner said she would complicate things for an already successful company.
“We scared the crap out of them with my number of SKUs (stock keeping units),” said Gordy.
“They missed out on a good thing and good people to work with,” said Gogulski.
Shelby Gogulski explains how she turned her hobby into a bling business with a whopping $381K in sales in 2015 even before getting any media exposure.
Creating Jewelry in a Snap
Ky Trang Ho: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
Shelby Gogulski: My Mom said “No!” I was 14 and wanted a cool pair of boots with a cute bow on the back. They were $100 more than the boots I already had, and she said: “No way, go home and use the bows in your room and clip them to your boots.”
I made my own Boot Bling, which could be put on the side or the back and changed as often as I wanted. Interchangeable concept. It wasn’t easy to keep them attached, but I managed with a simple office clip and friends liked them. I could change the bow to match what I wore. My boots were better than the ones at the store since those came with a bow in only one color and only attached to the back.
I began searching for everything I could change to allow me to personalize and customize. Snap jewelry was first and the biggest.
Ho: What key features distinguish your company from others on the market?
Gogulski: It’s an interchangeable accessories company that allows you to take a base such as necklace, bracelet or even keychain and change it out to match what you’re wearing or what you love in life. For $4 to $6, you can change it to something new every day. The options are limitless.
The collections are for women, men, kids and even pets. Although I did not invent this collection, it is our company with many of our designs and priced so that anyone can afford it. I want to be sure that even a kid can buy from us with their allowance.
Ho: How did you develop your products? How did you source the materials and find a manufacturer?
Gogulski: This started as a hobby so making a company out of it was trial and error. My mom is a dabble inventor and was able to ask for some direction on finding a company to do low minimum order quantities (MOQ) and produce designs I made, or Gordy drew. I had a lot of mistakes and money wasted, but in the end, we found the perfect factories to work with and make what we create.
Since the pieces are made of different materials such as stones, crystals, metal and even clay we had to find the direct source for each specific need. I have three collections of Yourself Expression. Snap and Poppers were featured on Shark Tank, but two others were in the works and briefly shown: Shel Coin Collection and Angel Lockets.
These two have been a work in progress for a year and are growing faster than I expected. All items are interchangeable with a $4-$20 price point. I don’t have patents but have design copyrights.
Ho: What hardships did you encounter in developing and launching your product?
Gogulski: I can’t say I had a hardship; I have truly been blessed. I don’t have a sad story of the struggles I’ve been through. I will say that I have had struggles that got me to a place where I am confident enough to dream big and go for it.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer on May 6, 2009. Before her diagnosis, I would say we were an average family just running around from the carpool line, dance class, and baseball practice. She had an aggressive form of cancer that required a bilateral mastectomy (big word for a 9-year-old and 4-year old at the time), chemo for one year and two clinical trials that took her across the country once a month for six months.
Right after she was diagnosed, we made a bucket list of all the things we wanted to do. Whether it was inventing, creating, or traveling, mom was going to make sure we got to do them all. Dream big and do it was, and is our motto. We never talked about life being short.
You can do anything you desire if you work hard and want it bad enough. Your only failure is not trying. During the past seven years, mom invented a little kitchen gadget, and we wrote two books as a family. This gave Gordy and me the silly idea we could start a company just from an idea and make a little money.
Ho: What sacrifices, if any, did you make to start your business?
Gogulski: I have no regrets. I am now homeschooled because of a busy travel schedule. I still don’t have a learner’s permit, but I am very good at using Uber. I have less time with friends. But the friends I do have are very supportive and love the fact that I have been able to do so much.
Ho: How is the product distributed?
Gogulski: We sell at cash-and-carry shows, wholesale to retail stores, an online store and a new retail shop in Jacksonville. I started the company as an affiliate program so that other kids could also earn an income selling my products.
They too had to be serious about business and sell at shows and events. We also partner with websites such as www.TheGrommet.com and have reps around the country that help us get into hospitals, stores, and boutiques in their areas.
Sparkling Fundamentals and Sales
Ho: How much of your own money did you invest in your business?
Gogulski: $500. I know that sounds like nothing but every penny we make goes back in. We are a debt-free company. We don’t even have a credit card except for a debit card. We have reinvested all profits because my parents have full-time jobs and Gordy and I don’t need anything that my parents won’t buy.
When we took the $500 and turned it into $1000, we bought more product. When the $1000 made $2,500, we made a website. When that made $5,000, we hired a photographer and did a catalog. The list goes on and on. We have gone through four websites, two new logos (along with our original that has changed three times), four catalogs, two new collections and tons of inventory. We are on our second retail and warehouse location.
Ho: How much are you paying yourself?
Gogulski: Thankfully, we have four great team members and our parents pay our bills. I’m going to be earning $10 an hour. Gordy will get $9 an hour. He wants to save up for a PlayStation. My parents, who are partners, have their full-time jobs that pay their expenses.
Many, including me, though as soon as I aired my life would change and money would be flying in the air. That is nowhere near the case for me. Shark Tank does give you credibility and a huge audience to see you, but the work is harder now since you don’t have that platform to hope for again. Unless you apply once more.
Ho: Have you gotten other investors to invest in your business?
Gogulski: We’ve had numerous calls, but honestly it’s not the money we need. It’s the mentorship and connections to get character and sports team licensing that I want most. This would expand our collections and can triple the current sales.
Yourself Expression could become a tradition much like pin trading and baseball card trading for kids and adults. The beauty is that it’s a crossover product. No matter where you go or what you’re doing you can create, wear and change.
Glowing Market Potential
Ho: Who is the target market for your product?
Gogulski: Since I can create any design and use everything from cufflinks to purses, I can sell to anyone and can offer custom products. I know it’s crazy to want something for everyone. But why not have one company that offers and custom designs items whether it’s for Harley Davidson (HOG), SeaWorld (SEAS), New England Patriots football or just a ton of bling? Customers can create, wear and change as often as they want. They get to personalize everything they wear.
Ho: What made you think it could be a successful product?
Gogulski: I saw what people did when they got to play with it. Even now, customers will spend hours in our shop just choosing what fits their style most. We are all so unique in our style, and this is a great way for you to be the designer of what you want to wear.
One of my slogans is “Why wear what others create when you can create what you love to wear?” You and I may love the same ring but have different tastes in stones and crystals. I have something for everyone. Price is another factor. Interchangeable companies are very hot right now. Things become such a fad so fast that you need to be able to change the industry and Yourself Expression does that.
Ho: What other products do you have in the works? When are they set to launch?
Gogulski: I have two new collections that grew to start in the fall after Shark Tank filmed. They are a best seller on The Grommet, and my newest collection is on fire. People love that anyone can afford it and everyone is the designer of what they want to wear or are passionate about.
My challenge is that people think a kid created it so without looking, it gets classified as a kid product. That’s only about 12% of our business right now.
It’s a ladies accessory company that has created multiple income streams to maintain sales. I’m focused on creating a tradition rather than a quick trend. When I was 13, I went to a business conference with my mom and heard Barbara Cochran, and Tory Johnson speak.
Barbara said perception is reality and all you need is someone to believe you are the best. Even if you’re small, think big. Get others to believe that, and you will become it. Tory Johnson said always have multiple income streams, and you will never be out of a job. I took that information to heart when I started my company.
Fashioning a Shark Tank Appearance
Ho: How did you value your company when you appeared on Shark Tank? How did you come to that valuation?
Gogulski: Math is not my favorite subject, so I went to my grandfather and based it on the sales and projection for the year. Then I tried to undervalue so we could get a deal. We didn’t over project at all and did dollar for dollar what we had currently made.
Ho: What did they like most about you, the company and product?
Gogulski: If you asked me while I was in the tank, I would have said they hated us. But watching the clips and hearing the wonderful things viewers have said, I would say I gave it my best shot. We knew our company, and they said we had a great product.
My dad is the only one that has watched the segment. We had a large viewing party, but Gordy and I couldn’t be in the room for it because of all of the nerves. We will wait when things settle down, grab a bowl of popcorn and relive the memory of rejection. Ha-ha, not really. I am going to try again with the newer collections, not featured, that are more streamlined.
Ho: Since you didn’t get a deal, should you have done anything differently?
Gogulski: Yes! I wish I had packaged it so that you could see how it would easily display in a retail setting instead of a photo-shoot style. I wish I didn’t show so much, I took some of the advice and did streamline the number of SKUs, stock-keeping units.
Ho: Was there anything you wished the producers included that was edited out? Was the edit fair to you?
Gogulski: I hear it was amazing and showed how strong and passionate I was even though I shed tears. They made me look better than I expected and I am grateful for that. I do wish the comment Mark Cuban made, offering to help me with a Dallas Mavericks opportunity, stayed in. Sports accessories are great when it comes to clothing but not so much with accessories. That could have a been a chance for me to show other teams what they could be offering.
Ho: How did you prepare for your appearance? What made it a success?
Gogulski: Every day Gordy and I would practice a pitch. I would go into the shop to see and understand all the numbers. Remember, at 15 I was less worried about the money side than how many people bought it that day. My goal was and is to see everyone able to wear our collection.
I had to study a lot for this. We would study for a test and then study for Shark Tank. The process started in February, but we were not even sure we would be going out until late May.
Ho: If you could do the show over, what would you do differently?
Gogulski: I would have pushed more on how they could help me grow and made the display retail friendly. It was nice to look at on the table but there was no way to show how a store could easily sell it.
Ho: What can you teach others about your Shark Tank experience? What are the secrets of a successful audition and appearance?
Gogulski: Be fun, happy, and someone people can relate to. The rest will fall into place after they start working with you. Know your business, but personality is more important to get on. When you get the fantastic call (from producers), you better study and know what you’re doing.
The Sharks do not know anything about you or your company until you walk out on that stage. Gordy was only interested in filling the candy machine at our shop and doing the trade shows. As soon as we found out we had a chance is when he cared about the money. The downside was when he realized our numbers, he wanted to know why he still couldn’t buy a PlayStation.
We had been watching since 2009, so we felt like the Sharks were family, which isn’t the case.
A Shining Business Strategy
Ho: What are the biggest challenges facing your business now and how are you addressing those issues?
Gogulski: I still struggle with the fact that I am a teenager and people won’t take me seriously. It’s a double-edged sword. It’s wonderful, cool and inspiring that I am a teen who started a company that’s doing well.
However, the real business side of meetings and phone calls don’t happen because I am a teen. People feel someone else must be behind the curtain. It is Gordy and me along with my parents and team of super busy people helping. But the direction I want the company to go in is all on me.
I called Starboard, which provides the items on cruise lines’ gift shops, 37 times in 60 days. Not one time did I get a call or email just to meet and show the ideas. I am sure if Mark Cuban or Daymond John called, they could get someone to answer even if it was the security guard.
Ho: What are your goals for your business over the next year and five years?
Gogulski: We are a great bling company. But I do want everyone to be able to wear it. I can’t do that unless I can get licensed in the sports and character industry. There are beautiful shirts and stickers for your favorite sports team. But the accessories end is lacking, and nothing is trying to fit the entire family.
Why can’t a company offer a beautiful necklace with the Mavericks today and next week change it the Patriots and then just awesome bling the next day and also offer a cool leather bracelet for a 10-year-old boy with his favorite player or a backpack clip that has his favorite character and medical alert items. It sounds ridiculous but no matter your age, budget or style we have something to offer you.
Ho: What was the most effective thing you did to get more exposure for your business before going on Shark Tank?
Gogulski: We do a lot of wholesale shows like AmericasMart. I was on The View with Rosie, and that was purely heaven sent and a real game changer for me. One, I loved being on TV and making people smile, and I had so much fun. Two, people I had never met went to our website and crashed it, which is better than anything I can imagine except having my mom cancer free.
Gems of Business Wisdom
Ho: What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made in business and how can others learn from it?
Gogulski: Website and shipping stability for an online store is the most important. I know I lost sales from the website crashing after appearing on The View. At that time, I didn’t have a true shipping method or packaging in place, and so that was a lot of money thrown out the window. You have one shot. Make it count and get noticed.
Also be skeptical and ask important questions because there are a lot of people ready and willing to help you and others who want to piggyback on your success.
Ho: What is the best advice and business insights you’ve received from the Sharks?
Gogulski: Downsize my SKUs since inventory is a nightmare. I agreed, and one collection is now gone, giving me more room for the product in my warehouse and less clutter on my website.
Ho: What motivates you to continue to pursue your business in the face of obstacles and lack of profits?
Gogulski: I think the excitement of what I can do next is what gets me up in the morning or keeps me up at night. There are so many opportunities I can work on and many I will never achieve. For someone coming from an average family with a mom who cleans houses and a dad working for Lowe’s (LOW), who would have thought I would have done this much in just 16 years?
I may have to run for president 20 years from now. My favorite saying is “What if I fall, oh but darling what if you fly?” You may fly if you try. We should all remember this. You can never truly enjoy success if you have never had to struggle.