At just five years old, Janet Hoang already had a ton of business savvy. After acquiring a surplus of a certain in-demand item, she figured out a way to earn some extra money from her kindergarten classmates.
“I don’t know why, but my aunt spoiled me with Hello Kitty stationery,” Janet said. “I would tear apart my Hello Kitty notebooks into five pages and sell them for $5 [to my peers]. That’s how I paid for my snacks.”
And that was just the beginning. When Janet was in sixth grade, she was inspired by Ashley Quall – the 14-year-old who created her website that offered HTML tutorials and Myspace layouts. Janet had read about Quall from a Seventeen magazine she got from her middle school library. The story galvanized her to write up her very own in-depth business plan which she presented to her father.
While she wasn’t quite ready to open up her own business as a preteen, all that drive would pay off. By age 21, Janet had already earned six figures from her lifestyle brand Janet Gwen. And today – seven years later – her business has steadily grown and reached seven figures in sales. Here’s exactly how she did it.
Crafting one-of-a-kind products in her high school art class
The fact that Janet would spend a ton of time in art class her senior year of high school was happenstance. Because she took on such a heavy course load – enrolling in eight classes a semester instead of four like the rest of her peers – she finished up her requirements early.
While that may have been overwhelming to some, it wasn’t for Janet who always had a strong work ethic. In fact, she was reading at a college level by the time she was in fifth grade.
“So what happens when you take all the classes?” she said. “Then you only have electives like art classes. I felt like I went to art classes three times a day.”
It was in her high school art class that Janet would create and sell her very first product – a decorated phone case. She got the idea to do so after her mom had given her one. The only problem? It wasn’t cute.
But as the daughter of immigrants, Janet’s family didn’t have a ton of extra money and her first instinct was never to ask her parents to buy her something. Instead, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“Instead of being like, ‘Oh, let me buy a pretty phone case.’ I was like, ‘let me just paint this.’”
At the time, her art class was learning about a painter who used a unique swirl technique which inspired Janet to create a similar design for her phone case with acrylic paints. Janet’s classmates quickly took notice of her custom case and started asking the teenager if she could paint their phone cases, too.
So that’s exactly what Janet did. She would paint various designs on index cards and pass them around school – a sort of catalog if you will. After choosing their favorite designs, her classmates would give Janet their phone case and she would work her magic. She sold these cases for anywhere between $12-$20.
This make-shift business became so popular that Janet had to hire classmates to help her with the logistics of collecting and delivering the cases. It also got to the point where her art teacher and principal caught on. And while students weren’t technically allowed to run their own side hustles, everyone was super supportive of Janet and her talent.
“Everyone believed in me,” she said. “My art teacher was like, ‘Janet, I just see you making a million dollars.'”
Unfortunately, by the time senior year was wrapping up, Janet had felt immense pressure to pause her business aspirations and go to college for a practical job. She was nominated by her school for a full-ride scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill, but to continue the application process, she would have had to go through a series of interviews and at the time, she wasn’t sure what she wanted. This led her to withdraw her application.
“The Morehead scholarship felt like so much pressure,” Janet said. “There was no guarantee that I’d get it. I didn’t even attempt it, probably because of my fear of failing. But also, to have to commit to four years of school that I'm not even sure I want to do?”
Instead, she went to community college and took on a bunch of part-time jobs. But all along, she continued to work on her small business – a dream she just couldn’t let go of.
Going all in on her small business and opening up an Etsy shop
During college, Janet was doing a little bit of everything. After she’d get done with her classes, she’d go to her part-time jobs where, somehow, she managed to always get promoted. It got to the point where the 19-year-old was slacking on school and working 90 hours a week in retail.
“I remember just being so bored one day in a retail shop [during my shift].” Janet said. “And I was like, am I going to work so hard for someone else – because I turned every part-time job into a full-time job. All my managers loved my work ethic – or am I willing to work hard for myself?’”
That epiphany drove Janet to get back to focusing on her small business. She opened her very own Etsy shop in 2014 for exactly $100. All she needed was plain cases and acrylic paints, most of which her art teacher from high school provided her with. She ran all of the operations from her mom’s house.
Things moved quickly for the fledgling entrepreneur. Within the first week, Janet had already received many domestic orders along with 17 international orders from places like Japan and France. Janet attributes this boom to a few things. For one, she had an in-demand product – marble phone and laptop cases – and was doing things differently than any other online shop at the time.
“When I got my first MacBook I was like, ‘let me look up all the cute stuff [other retailers] have. But it was all boring to me,” she said. “So I made my first mobile laptop case with contact paper. We were the first person to come up with the golden marble laptop case.”
Another factor was that social media was quite different then, and Janet’s aesthetically pleasing phone cases were a huge hit online. She got a ton of traffic just by sharing her work on Tumblr and Instagram and even went viral on Pinterest.
“I was posting my phone cases and they would get so many likes — the Instagram days when everyone gets likes and views — So we were picking up so much traction.”
The entrepreneur also had partnerships with influencers before the term influencer was even a thing. Accounts with huge Instagram followings would reach out to Janet after seeing her cases and promoting the brand, one of them being Laura Beverlin.
But there was an issue. At 19 years old, Janet wasn’t well versed on how to run a business and soon found she couldn’t keep up with the demand – which was growing thanks to the influencers. Customers were getting upset because the delivery of their phone cases was delayed.
“I didn't know anything about shipping or supply chain or even cost of goods. I was ordering cases from eBay that I didn't realize came from China,” Janet said. “So the timeframe to get everything out was three weeks…I was taking my products to the post office and just getting them to mail it for me.”
Instead of going into crisis mode, Janet realized that she needed to pause and reevaluate. She officially dropped out of community college just before turning 21 and poured her energy into learning everything about running a small business. She also familiarized herself with Etsy.
When she finally reopened, she was prepared and ready to grow Janet Gwen into the successful small business it is today.
Increasing her online traffic and diversifying inventory
Since her early years on Etsy, Janet has experienced steady growth in her business. For reference, in 2014 when she first opened up her Etsy shop, the entrepreneur made $12,000. A year later, her earnings increased seven times to $85,000. By 2016, she made over $120,000.
Janet knew she needed to diversify her online traffic if she wanted to continue to grow her business, which is why she made the switch from an Etsy store to a Shopify website. The results were impressive.
In recent years, the brand has hit a huge milestone by making seven figures in sales.
With her business expanding, Janet moved her headquarters out of her mom’s living room and rented a larger apartment she was both living in and using for business storage.
It got to the point, however, where Janet kept needing to move into bigger and bigger homes to accommodate all of the orders. A good problem to have. Finally, she rented out office space – aka the company's Warehouse – for $3,200 a month near Charlotte.
This is when the entrepreneur started feeling more secure to grow the business. For the longest time, Janet Gwen was composed of just Janet, an administrative assistant, and a social media manager. But in 2021, Janet began hiring more employees to help with shipping out orders and has since added additional members to her team.
Janet also realized that to stay relevant, she needed to be more innovative with her products. Which is why she decided to move away from solely producing their signature marble accessories. While the brand still sells tech accessories, including iPhone and AirPod cases, they’ve also introduced a host of new products into the business.
For Janet, it was important to stay true to her brand while also keeping up with the latest trends.
“We have to evolve as a business. We can’t keep dying on the same hill… how can you use a trend and change it into something that fits your brand, without compromising your brand?” she said.
But when it came to growing, Janet is very intentional about what products she adds into the mix. She looks to social media, specifically Pinterest, to predict what would interest customers. That’s how she came up with Janet Gwen’s viral unicorn rainbow can glass.
“We’ve done a lot of trend forecasting,” Janet said. “So every single year, since the inception of the business, I've been very grateful that we have always created one viral product per year.”
For example, in 2018 Janet Gwen made the shift to more home decor items, predominantly candles. In 2020, amid the pandemic, the brand introduced propagation stations as a way for people to enjoy their space during lockdown. Then in 2021, they added concrete goddess statues – which the brand makes in-house in Raleigh — along with trays, and drinkware.
The switch to more home-based items also felt like a natural shift to Janet because she had reached that stage in life when she was looking for home decor, as were her followers.
“Most people don't realize that my audience grew up with me. They’re the same age as me. So we went through the whole aesthetic influencer phase,’ … now we're into home decor because now we all have our own homes.”
Not only is Janet willing to switch things up, but she also does a ton of market research and is very particular with each and every product she creates. This very steadfastness has contributed to her small business’s success.
Once Janet comes up with a new product, she works closely with manufacturers to ensure the item is made exactly to her standards, even if it means a ton of back and forth.
“Sometimes my manufacturers hate me,” Janet joked. “Because I would die on a hill for a product.”
The Future of Janet Gwen
Janet has been crafting and selling products since she was 17, and now, almost a decade into her own small business, her ambitions are as big as ever.
The entrepreneur admits that she’s achieved a ton of amazing things in her life from both a business perspective and also personally, like paying for her twin sister’s college education all thanks to her small business. Still, she feels there is so much more to accomplish with Janet Gwen. Her next move is to do a rebrand for the business as a way to get back to the basics and really find the company’s voice.
For now, she’s also passionate about helping others. Over the years, Janet has received a ton of questions from supporters and admirers about her success, leading her to release YouTube vlogs showcasing the reality of her life as an entrepreneur.
“The reason I did YouTube was because, everyone kept asking me, ‘how do you figure out business? How do you do X, Y, and Z? How do you have so much time in your day?’” she said.
Janet is also working on a podcast to connect with more of her followers and address a variety of topics from running the business to conversations about race as well. As an Asian American, Janet wants to use her platform to speak out about important and timely topics around diversity, inclusion, and life in general.
As she continues to invest more into her brand, Janet’s main goal is to always make products that can brighten her customers’ days.
“To bring a daily dose of happiness to people is everything I’ve ever wanted.”