We quit our jobs—and gave up a combined income of $400,000—to sell used kids’ clothes online
Simon Tan and Christine Trinh started their company, Beeja May, last year, selling used baby and kids’ clothes online while working day jobs in finance and real estate. When the pandemic hit, their business boomed. So Tan and Trinh both quit their jobs, giving up a combined $400,000 of annual income to become fully self-employed. Here’s how they did it.
Christine: I met Simon 16 years ago. He was a high school friend of my brother. We started dating in 2009 and got married five years ago. When our daughter, Charlotte, was born in May 2018, I was working as a land development manager for a real estate investment trust, where I earned more than $100,000 per year. We knew how quickly babies outgrow clothes, and we were conscious of the environmental impact of fast fashion, so we tried to buy used as much as we could. But going to bricks-and-mortar thrift stores was impractical. I had to pack up my baby and all her stuff, put her in the car seat, put her in the car, drive to the store and sift through all the clothes. Or I’d go on Facebook Marketplace and contact people about their items only to find out they’d been sold, or I’d set up meetings with the seller and they would flake on me at the last minute.
Simon: At the time, I was working for a financial company in corporate development and acquisitions, with an annual income of more than $250,000. I’d always wanted to do something a bit more entrepreneurial, so we thought about turning a traditional bricks-and-mortar thrift shop into an online business. We only needed to invest about $3,000 to get the shop off the ground.
Christine: We set up an Instagram account in November 2018 to create some hype around the business, posting lifestyle photos and examples of clothing that would be sold on the website. We set ourselves the goal of having 1,000 items online by the time we launched in the spring. Friends and family donated clothes, and we also bought clothes off of Facebook Marketplace. It was so much work in the beginning because we didn’t really know how to price things. We spent a lot of time in the basement of our home in East Toronto inspecting and pricing clothes and creating an inventory.
Simon: Christine was in real estate and I was in finance. We’d never done e-commerce or started a company. But we reached our target of 1,000 items and launched the shop at 12 a.m. on April 12, 2019. We called our store Beeja May because Beeja is Hindi for “the beginning” and May is our daughter’s birth month. It’s a metaphor for a new beginning for kids’ clothes, and also for us becoming parents and starting this business.
Christine: We got 17 orders on the first day, mostly from friends, family and people who followed us on social media. For the first few months, we averaged about 50 orders a month. My maternity leave ended in June 2019 so I went back to work at my full-time job. It was a lot to juggle.
Simon: We were always trying to add more and more clothes. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I would be at my day job. From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., we’d make dinner and spend time with Charlotte. Then, when she went to sleep at 8 p.m., we’d work until 1 or 2 a.m., pricing items, taking photos and packing up orders.
Christine: On Sundays, we would drive around the GTA for six hours picking up clothes to sell with our baby in the back of the car. She’d nap and eat while we did our thing.
Simon: We were making a couple thousand dollars a month revenue at most. If you factor in mine and Christine’s time, we were definitely losing money. But it was our side gig. It was fun. So we kept going at it. As our inventory and workload grew, we hired my niece, Danielle, to help us out part time taking photos.
Christine: We were satisfied with how the business was going for the first few months. From April to August, we were steadily growing about 10 per cent each month, but we weren’t planning to quit our day jobs anytime soon. Then Covid happened.
Simon: We were worried that, given the pandemic, people might be afraid of buying used clothes or that people wouldn’t need to buy as many clothes because they weren’t going out. But since all of our bricks-and-mortar competitors were closed and people were shopping online, our sales exploded.
Christine: From April 2019 to March 2020 we had a 50 per cent growth in sales. Then from April to May, we grew fivefold.
Simon: That meant our workload went up by a factor of five, too. We were staying up until 3 a.m. some days, doing customer service, packing orders and printing shipping labels.
Christine: Our full-time jobs were demanding. Those first few months of the pandemic were a grind. We just didn’t stop. It felt like we were working 24/7. During the day, if a big order came in, we’d think: Yes, 30 items! Then that night, we’d be like, Shoot, now we have to find the 30 items to ship the order.
Simon: It was in our two-year-plan to quit our jobs and work on Beeja May full time. But Covid expedited everything. Christine was the first one to quit her job.
Christine: My last day of work was May 1. I went first because Simon makes more money than I do, so it made sense financially. It took me a while to have the guts to send out my resignation email. I’m so risk-averse. I was giving up a career that I thought I would do for the rest of my life. It was scary. But I knew it was the right decision because my heart was with Beeja May.
Simon: Sales continued to grow, so we felt confident about me leaving my job as well. My last day was June 12. Including bonuses, we were giving up a combined salary of almost $400,000.
Christine: I was worried people were going to think we were dumb for quitting our jobs. We’re both children of immigrants, and our parents worked so hard for us to get where we are. My parents are Chinese-Vietnamese and Simon’s parents are Malaysian-Chinese.
Simon: We were worried to tell our parents about it, but they supported us.
Christine: It helped that the business was doing well. And they also knew that Simon and I are the type of people that won’t quit until we make it. My mom was a factory worker and my dad always had blue-collar jobs. In their minds, they were probably thinking, Wow, you guys made so much money and you’re really going to give this all up? But they’re so supportive. Sometimes we’ll have an item that we’re supposed to ship that night, but I’ll find a hole in the seam that I didn’t notice. My mom will sew it back up for me. She is around our house a lot helping out with child care.
Simon: I was anxious about telling my parents, I didn’t want them to think that I was throwing my career away. I was worried about disappointing them, but I knew they’d accept whatever I was going to do. They eventually came around to the idea. Compared to my old job, I enjoy the entrepreneurial stuff so much more.
Christine: Before quitting, we made sure that we had more than six months of savings so we could still support our family and our daughter. We’re cutting back on our expenses too. We’re not planning any crazy vacations, not that we could do that anyway. Covid helps with removing that temptation.
Simon: For June and July, our sales actually went down. We thought, Crap. The pressure’s on. But then we had record sales in August. At the same time, since the business was growing, we moved our inventory out of our basement into a warehouse in Vaughan. We also hired four more part-time employees to help us with pickups, photography and processing orders.
Christine: Right now we’re getting about 500 orders a month and buying about 2,500 items. We usually sell about half of what we put up online. We donate everything else to the New Mom Project, which is a Toronto-based charity for underprivileged families. Since Covid, we’ve also been donating Beeja May gift cards to families through several Canadian charity organizations such as the New Mom Project and Mamas for Mamas. In April, we also donated $2 from every order to Food Banks Canada. We wanted to create a company where giving back is part of the business model.
Simon: We want to keep scaling the business. Right now, we just buy in the GTA, but we’re starting a program where we send families prepaid shipping bags so that they can send us inventory.
Christine: Our plan is to continue to grow our team and scale our business with the hopes of freeing up more time to spend with our daughter.
Simon: We want to be the go-to business for parents looking for a sustainable and sensible way to shop. We’re nowhere near that. But we’re getting there.