How We Started a 6-Figure Business With Just $4,000

How We Started a 6-Figure Business With Just $4,000 - Three Ships

Hey lovelies! Today we wanted to address a question that we get asked all the time - how we financed Three Ships (formerly NIU BODY) and got the brand going! In this blog, we’ll cover how we bootstrapped our business from just $4,000 (CAD), the initial inspiration behind the brand, tips and tricks for saving money with your startup and why we’ve made the choice to say no to investors (so far).

How We Began

Alright so let’s go back, back to the beginning (shout out to our girl Hilary Duff!). The initial idea for NIU BODY came about while Laura was in university, in February of 2016. A friend introduced her to the magic of using coconut oil to remove makeup naturally. She loved how well it worked on her skin but couldn’t stand the mess that it made and how super un-cute it looked on her vanity. After scouring the web, she wasn’t able to find a product that was just as natural, more convenient (ideally a wipe), effective and fit within her student budget.

So, Laura went about creating her own solution to this problem and NIU BODY was born! She had recently finished school and was thirsting for something to do in her free time outside of work. After running through a quick margin analysis in an excel doc (basically just an estimation of the costs of our goods (aka COGS) and the fixed/on-going costs associated with this business), she realized that there was something with this idea!

A month later, she had created NIU BODY’s first minimum viable product prototype of our original makeup remover wipes. This along with the brand name, a registered domain, initial packaging mock-ups and a dream was all that she had when she met Connie the next month in November 2016!

connie lo laura burget three ships co-founders

Where it all began!

Tips & Tricks for Saving Money When Bootstrapping

When we started this company back in March of 2017, we decided not to take on outside investments in the first two years. We chose, instead, to bootstrap with an investment of $2,000 each and hustle our butts off, as opposed to giving up a significant portion of our equity for a small valuation. Running on an extremely small budget, we naturally learned to save money wherever possible. We picked up tips along the way, which we will now share with you! Here are a few areas we chose not to spend money on: 

  • Outsourced Production – many manufacturers require minimum opening quantities (MOQ) of thousands of units, which requires a significant amount of upfront capital. Rather than partnering with manufacturers, we chose to produce in-house (literally started from Connie’s kitchen!). This allowed us to purchase ingredients in smaller batches and save our precious funds for other initiatives. Were there moments where this was stressful? Definitely. In our first two months of business, we received an order for 6,700 units of our sample 2-count makeup remover. Since everything was done in-house, we met up every night after working our full-time jobs and manufactured these wipes by hand. The process took us 3 weeks but it was so worth it!
laura burget niu body
One of our many late nights when NIU BODY was still just a side-hustle, working away on Connie's kitchen counter!
  • Professional Product Photography – when you’re bootstrapping your business, you have to prioritize where your funds are being spent. For us, we decided not to spend hundreds on product photos. Instead, we built a DIY lightbox from a cardboard box and white tissue paper, which we used for our initial photos! It’s all about the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) here, people! 

niu body before and after

New and improved!
  • Website Development – this is another area we decided to jump into on our own. We personally found it very fun to learn how to create a website, and Shopify made it extremely easy to create a beautiful e-commerce store with their pre-set themes. Their support team was also very responsive and to this day is a great resource for us.
  • Online Advertising – we didn’t start promoting posts on Facebook and Instagram until close to the 2-year mark. Instead, we relied on word-of-mouth through Instagram, markets, trade shows, and subscription box partnerships. This was a strategic decision for us, as we believed and still focus on developing deep personal relationships with our followers and customers to create products they’ll genuinely love. 
niu body markets three ships
    Doing what we love - talking with customers in-person at markets!
    • Salaries since NIU BODY was a side hustle for 1.5 years, we were still making income from our other full-time jobs. After we took the leap to working on NIU BODY full-time, we decided not to start paying ourselves until after the 2-year mark. Up until this point, we’ve relied on savings and funnelled all of our profits back into our company to propel our growth.

    three ships co-founder connie lo

    Redirecting our profits to future purchase orders, like the above (all made by hand!).
    • Influencer Marketing – we haven’t and probably will never pay influencers to post. One of our 5 values is integrity, and personally we’d prefer to have followers genuinely want to post about NIU BODY. Instead of paying influencers to mention NIU BODY, we provide sample products to influencers whose values align with ours (e.g. wellness, cruelty-free, self-care) in exchange for an honest review. We find these reviews are more authentic and have a greater impact, as well as sharing customer reviews from our website.
    niu body glow
      One of the many beautiful product photos shot for free by @dirt.naturals
      • Press Mentions – on a similar vein, we have never looked into paid press features. Rather than paying to be included in a magazine or blog, we look for our own opportunities. One example is our Calm Lavender Toning Mist’s inclusion in the print issue of ELLE Canada. A friend of ours (Joella Almeida, read about her #BOSSBABE story here) alerted us that the Managing Director of ELLE Canada posted an Instagram story asking for natural makeup remover recommendations. We jumped on this opportunity, immediately DM’ing her and offering to send her our makeup wipes, along with our other top-sellers. She ended up loving our products and recommending our toning mist as one of her favourite wellness gifts! 

      niu body three ships elle magazine calm lavender hydrosol toner

      It was such a surreal moment, picking up a copy of ELLE at the hair salon and seeing our product inside!
      • Office Space – co-working spaces definitely have their perks, such as being surrounded and inspired by other founders, and the ability to separate work from personal life. We didn’t think we would need an office space for the first while, so we chose to take turns meeting at each other’s apartments. A few months ago, we pitched and were selected out of 75 businesses to join an accelerator program sponsored by Bumble Bizz and Make Lemonade. We feel so fortunate to work in the beautiful all-female office at Make Lemonade!
      • Instagram Growth – Instagram has been a huge part of our strategy for understanding consumer wants and trends, and for keeping our followers in the loop. Instead of paying for ads or followers, we focused our efforts on giveaways. Contests with partner brands are a great way to grow your following organically and reach consumers that follow similar brands but may not have heard of yours. Once we hit 10K followers, we were able to have the swipe-up feature on Instagram stories, allowing followers to check out different links and visit our website. Other free tools in our Instagram roster include UNUM (feed planning) and Unfold (beautiful Instagram stories). 

      The key to a consistent Instagram feed is planning. Connie is a huge fan of the app UNUM.

      Along with the areas we decided not to spend budget on, here are a few additional tips on growing as a small business:

      • Ask for free things where possible
        • We are currently writing this blog post on the plane, where we’re headed to the ShopTalk retail conference. The fee to participate is $5000 CAD per person. Our cost? $0 (plus $2,600 in travel and accommodation credit!). We applied through their Hosted program and were selected as an emerging brand to attend free of charge, including travel and accommodations at The Venetian. Apart from the monetary savings, we also are so excited for the invaluable lessons we will learn from the speakers, keynotes, and other attendees (some of these include the EVP of lululemon, CEO of Dollar Shave Club, Co-President of Nordstrom, Chief Brand Officer of REVOLVE, Co-founder of ipsy, CMO of Ulta Beauty, CEO of Stitch Fix, Co-Founder of Pinterest, and President of Google Retail Shopping.
        • Another example is our participation at this year’s Winter TimeOut. We were initially approached by the organizer after a referral from the active apparel brand Lolë. Recognizing that the attendee demographic is extremely interested in wellness and all things natural, we chose to donate product in exchange for two free tickets of $1,200 value and a speaking opportunity. Being interviewed in front of the 150 guests allowed us to reach new women that weren’t previously following us, and grow our follower base.

      We had a blast being interviewed at Winter TimeOut!
      • Be on the lookout for opportunities – an example is signing up for different newsletters to keep up to date on free resources, local meet-ups and events. Connie learned of the Queen’s Venture Network Upstart Pitch Competition through being subscribed to her alumni newsletter. If we hadn’t been on the hunt for these opportunities, we would’ve passed on our $10,000 winnings!

      queen's venture network upstart niu body connie lo laura burget

      1 video application + 10 min. pitch + hours of prep = $10,000
      • Get creative – this applies especially for product-based businesses. If you’re crunched for margin, negotiate credit terms with suppliers and retailers. Cash flow is key, and credit terms are one way to “save” cash so to speak.

      Why We've Said No to Investments (so far...)

      Not taking an investment to launch our brand has always been a conscious decision for us. Often times, entrepreneurs raise money too early and either a) give away too much of their business, too soon or b) don't know what to do with the money that they have raised which leads to a lot of waste! By bootstrapping to get our company off the ground, we've been forced to be scrappy, resourceful and always negotiate every last dollar that we spend to get the best possible deals.

      There’s also the added bonus that oftentimes the best and most innovative ideas are developed when you’re strapped for resources and your back is up against the wall. Would it have been easier to raise money from the start? Definitely. Would have it lead to higher growth earlier on? Probably. Would we ever go back and change our decision? Not a chance! We’re extremely proud that we have grown this company through sweat equity (y).

      As for the question of would we ever bring on investors in the future, the answer is yes - but not out of desperation. We would want our investors to be true partners in our business - not just shareholders. Ideally this relationship would take on the form of them pushing us to become better business owners and helping to open the lock on just a couple of doors to allow us to go and break them down! 

      Of course, we’re still learning as we go, so take this advice as you will but we hope that you found at least one thing useful in this post! As always, DM us if you have any questions or just want to chat about entrepreneurship <3