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Side Gig Thursdays: Steve Chou, Bumble Bee Linens

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Steve & JenThis week’s Side Gig Thursday is a bit of a unique one because it’s someone that I met at FINCON, a financial blogging conference, and the first case where a side gig became a full time gig for someone in the interviewee’s family. I met Steve Chou at the conference last year in Denver and I’ve since gotten to know him a lot better than I did before. I’d always been aware of his blog,, but I didn’t know as much about the side gig that give his wife the opportunity to quit her job.

That business was Bumblebee Linens and it sells exactly what you think it does – linens. Let’s find out more about how Steve started the business and how it does.

What is your day job?
I design embedded microprocessors that are used in portable electronics.

What is your side gig?
I have several side gigs, but the most lucrative one is an online store that sells wedding handkerchiefs and linen napkins specifically catering to the wedding industry. Newly engaged couples come to our shop to purchase personalized handkerchiefs with their initials or the names of the bride and groom as a keepsake for their wedding day. In addition, wedding planners and caterers buy our napkins because it’s actually more cost effective to buy our linens rather than rent them.

How much does it make each month?
I’d rather not disclose specific numbers, but my store generated over 100K in profit during our first year in business and has grown in the double and triple digits every year since.

How did you come up with the idea for your side business?
My wife was actually the one who came up with the idea. When we got engaged and started planning our wedding, my wife knew that she was going to start crying at the altar so she wanted to carry a handkerchief to dry her tears instead of a ratty tissue. But what was strange was that we couldn’t find handkerchiefs anywhere. Normal brick and mortar stores didn’t carry them and no one online was selling them either.

In fact, the only way we could get them was to import them directly from China in bulk. So we ended buying about 10 dozen handkerchiefs, used a couple for our wedding and sold off the excess on EBay. And because they sold so well online, we decided to start an online store selling wedding handkerchiefs.

How did you find customers and generate traffic to your online store?
Early on things were extremely slow, but we had several strategies in place to gain traffic and customers. First off, we continued to sell our products on EBay. But whenever we completed a transaction, we included a business card and a coupon for use on our own website. This way, if a customer wanted to make another purchase, they would bypass EBay altogether and shop directly at our store.

The second thing we did was become active on the wedding forums. By providing helpful advice for would-be brides and recommending our own store here and there, we managed to get the word out about our business.

The third thing we did was to use Google Adwords in order to purchase extremely targeted traffic to our website. In addition, my wife and I started started pumping out content which allowed us to attract organic search traffic.

Finally, we contacted wedding and event planners who ended up purchasing products from us in bulk and provided us with the consistent business we needed to generate a six figure income.

Do you have a plan to try to turn it into your full time gig?
Actually, my wife ended up quitting her job after the first year in order to run the business full time. Because the business was initially run out of our house, she had the flexibility of staying at home and taking care of our child at the same time.

As for myself, I could theoretically quit my job as well since the business makes a lot more than my salary. However, I would still like to remain in the high tech industry. Technology is one of those things where if you give it up, you will lose it forever because it changes so quickly.

What resources did you rely on in starting the business?
I am a huge fan of open source software. These days, you don’t have to write a single line of code in order put up a fully functional online store. Everything is completely written for you and it is absolutely free! In fact, putting up a website is so inexpensive that you can literally start an online business for as little as 5 dollars a month. My wife and I invested about 630 dollars into our business when we first started.

In terms of starting an online store, I can recommend a bunch of services. Most new shopowners get stuck trying to source product but there are many services out there like Worldwide Brands that can help you find vendors quickly and easily. If you want to import from overseas, Alibaba is a great resource. And if you just want to buy domestically, there are many wholesale tradeshows across the US that you can attend.

How much do you invest back into the business?
We are constantly expanding our inventory and our selection of products. In addition, I follow the ecommerce industry very closely and keep up with technology in order to make sure our website is up to date. Most recently, I implemented a mobile optimized version of our website. As smartphones become more and more prevalent, we’ve found that the percentage of mobile shoppers continues to rise.

We’ve also recently invested in office space and new employees. As the volume of orders continues to ramp up, we’ve needed to expand and buy more capital equipment like sewing machines and computer equipment.

Do you have any advice for people looking to start something on the side?
The first piece of advice is to just get started. Starting a business is extremely cheap and very low risk. The second thing I would advise would be to learn the ins and outs of search engine optimization. Once you start ranking in search, your website will receive free traffic which will translate into paying customers.

What is the funniest story you have while running your store?
Since we’re in the wedding industry, we have to deal with a lot of stressed out brides. One time, I was talking to a bride on the phone and she was deciding what color thread to embroider on her fiance’s handkerchief.

After wavering back and forth between dark blue(what her fiance wanted) and hot pink (her preferred color), she full on broke down on the phone and basically told me about her relationship problems with her fiance.

“Did you know that my fiance has not helped at all with the wedding planning? I don’t think this wedding means anything to him. Don’t you think the groom should help out too? Does he not care?”

“Do you know what he did last week? He missed our cake tasting because of some stupid basketball game on tv…”

So I spent the next half an hour convincing her that he indeed did care and that he probably just didn’t have an opinion on a lot of things. Crisis averted!

Another time, I had a customer who wanted to buy linens for her dinner party. But she wanted everything to be made in the USA. So when I told her that most of our linens were made in China, she full on gave me a 15 minute lecture on how we need to support our country, how the quality in the US is better and that we should be ashamed of ourselves for carrying goods from Asia etc etc…

But then towards the end of the conversation, I told her that the prices of our linens were almost 33% off the regular retail prices of brick and mortar stores. And she ended up buying a bunch from us. I guess lower prices trumps patriotism!

If you want to learn more about Steve’s side gig, you can check out his blog at

I hope you enjoyed the interview – if you know someone who would make for a good profile/interview for Side Gig Thursdays, please let me know!

{ 4 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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4 Responses to “Side Gig Thursdays: Steve Chou, Bumble Bee Linens”

  1. Shirley says:

    This story is amazing and I really enjoyed reading it. Necessity truly is the mother of invention here.

  2. I have often read about Steve online but I think this is the first time I saw the whole story. It is amazing what you can do on the internet and I hope to be as successful one day!

  3. Peter says:

    Love it Steve! You’re a entrepreneur and amateur psychologist! Way to go, loved reading a bit more about your story – very encouraging for those who want to make an income online!

  4. Nicole says:

    Steve has been my inspiration over the last two years as I’ve been getting my own online store up and running. I’m thrilled for his success!

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