E-commerce, Blue Butterflies and the Face of Creative Entrepreneurship

by Diana Drake

Three years ago, at the age of 13, Rhea Rijhwani looked for a place to sell her hand-crafted heat-transfer vinyl stencils, and she found it on Etsy. The e-commerce marketplace supports sellers who want to open online shops, providing both a platform and marketing (and trend-spotting insights in its seller handbook).

Before too long, Rhea, now a high school junior in Jersey City, N.J. (just across the Hudson River from New York City where Etsy is headquartered) was operating two Etsy shops and generating more than $100,000 in revenues. In some ways, Rhea represents the face of the Etsy Entrepreneur — a young woman with an innovative spirit and aspirations to grow her small business. 

Wharton Global Youth sat down with Rhea for episode 40 of our podcast to learn more about her experience with e-commerce entrepreneurship and how Etsy has taught her “the hard work and effort that it takes to establish a name for yourself.”

Wharton Global Youth Program: Hello and welcome to Future of the Business World. I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Wharton Global Youth introduces high school students to business education, through summer programs, year-round online courses, competitions and an online business journal.

Our monthly Future of the Business World podcast features conversations with savvy high school innovators from around the world. We’re wrapping up the year with our 40th episode of the show, and what a year it’s been. Our guests took us on a journey from financial education in Canada to learning about the FemTech industry to raising money for a $12.5 million startup that uses AI to detect cognitive decline. If you haven’t listened to these and more, be sure to check them out.

I think it’s safe to say that right now a lot of us have shopping on our minds as we celebrate the holiday season. Today’s guest, Rhea Rijhwani, has built an entrepreneurial presence on Etsy and is here to give us an inside look at e-commerce. Rhea, welcome to Future of the Business World.

Rhea Rijhwani: Thank you, Diana.

Rhea Rijhwani.

Wharton Global Youth: Let’s get started. I want to know a little bit more about you first. What is your life like in Jersey City in New Jersey, which is where you live? Tell us about yourself and tell us about the city.

Rhea: I would definitely say that my life is pretty different from a lot of other kids, because I live in a city. It enables me to be super independent. I’m able to walk places. I’m able to do things on my own, right by the waterfront. So, I have beautiful views from my apartment as well. And then I also get to go on many nightly walks with the New York skyline. It’s a really beautiful place to live. And I am definitely really grateful that I live here. It’s an amazing experience living here. I think it has enabled me to be super independent.

Wharton Global Youth: When you say that you’re on the waterfront in Jersey City, you actually get to look across the water at New York City, right? So you’re very close to New York.

Rhea: Yes, I’m just a four-minute train ride away. If I take a PATH train, I can be in the city within four minutes.

Wharton Global Youth: Let’s get to it. Starting with the infamous Black Friday that we all know about the day after Thanksgiving, one industry is really in the spotlight this time of year – and that’s retail. Everyone is buying gifts for the holidays and looking for great deals. And e-commerce, which is basically selling things online, is a really important segment of that market.

For the past couple of years, you have run your own store on Etsy, which is an American e-commerce company where you can sell handmade items. Etsy is really a platform for entrepreneurs as I see it, and I’m excited to hear about your experiences. How did you get started on Etsy? And what do you sell?

Rhea: I got started on Etsy during the pandemic. This was a time when I was home and I had just turned 13 years old. So, I had a pretty early start. And I had a lot of free time. So, I started to spend a lot of time going through YouTube and I came across multiple videos where I saw people customizing their own shoes with paint. Eventually, I saw people using heat-transfer vinyl, which is basically stickers that you can iron on to a surface. I saw that being used on shoes and I thought wow, that would be a great idea to sell. So, I was just inspired by a lot of people on social media like Instagram, Tik Tok and YouTube. And I started to sell heat-transfer vinyl stencils that could be used to apply to surfaces like shirts and shoes. So, it’s used for customization. And you just simply iron on the pattern that you order. And then you have a customized item.

Wharton Global Youth: Do you actually make the decals?

Rhea: Yes, I do make the decals myself. I purchase the vinyl. And then I have a machine that does the cutting for me that cuts out the different patterns in the stencil.

Wharton Global Youth: It seems like a niche market to me. And I’m wondering how you discovered this place to put your creativity. And I’m wondering also about the market for shoe decals. Are there lots of competitors out there doing the same thing? And who specifically are your customers?

Rhea: I discovered this on social media. I came across shoes on Pinterest and I came across videos on YouTube. That really gave me the idea to get started with creating the vinyl decals. I would say during the pandemic, there was a big market for customization because people were customizing gifts to send to their loved ones since they couldn’t be with them. And I think customizing shoes with different stencils was a way to do that as well. When I started, I definitely did face a lot of competition because of people being home. A lot of people had time on their hands to start their own businesses. So, I definitely encountered competition during that time. I remember there were some stores that had 10,000 sales by the end of maybe five or six months in the business, so that was definitely big competition there. Regarding my customers, the customers are typically people who have their own businesses themselves, or people who are just looking to make gifts for their loved ones for birthdays and events like that. I also have a lot of customers who are in the customization business and are selling different items that are customized.

Wharton Global Youth: Can you give us a snapshot of one of your customers? I’d love to get a picture in my mind of who they are.

Rhea: One of my customers actually did have her own Etsy store, as well. She was based in New York, and she purchased blue butterflies from me. These blue butterflies are a popular item in my store. They’re really vibrant, and a lot of people really like them. This customer used to buy a bunch of blue butterflies from me in bulk. I remember her asking me if I could do this for her. I used to send her multiple blue butterflies with the paper needed to iron it on. And she used to customize her own t-shirts, sweatshirts and shoes. And she made a bunch of sales from that. I saw reviews for the items. And I was happy that the stencils that I was making were able to be used and customers of hers were enjoying them.

Wharton Global Youth: When you decided to go into business at age 13, what drew you to Etsy? Did you consider other platforms like Shopify?

Rhea: When I initially started, I thought that Etsy would give me a good customer base. Etsy gives you access to advertising on the site. And they give you a basis already established where you can use certain search terms to find items. So, I thought that was really helpful because it would require a lot less marketing on Etsy compared to a platform like Shopify. Shopify helps you with starting your own website and gives you an interface. But it still requires a lot more manual work and independent work on your side. Whereas Etsy gives you a base to get started from there and use their resources. I think they’re really helpful in that regard — helping you get started and promoting your products as a new shop.

Wharton Global Youth: How is it structured, exactly? Does Etsy take a cut of your profits? And what are some of the other parts of your infrastructure on Etsy.

Rhea: I’m pretty much the only operator in my shop. So, I don’t have any employees to pay or anything like that. In terms of Etsy taking a cut of my profit, they do take certain fees, they take a processing fee and if a buyer finds the product through online ads that Etsy automatically puts up, then they do take another fee. Over the years, the fees have increased. But the opportunities and the resources that the platform provides definitely make it worth it. I think at times that the fees can be a bit much. But I think with the resources and the advertisement, it does end up being worth in the end.

Wharton Global Youth: While we’re talking about money. Let’s get into that part of it. I noticed on your Etsy shop that you have 3,325 total sales. As a past participant in our Essentials of Finance program, which you attended last summer, I’m sure you can talk numbers with me. First, how did you price your products? I’d love to know about that. And what kinds of revenues have you generated during the past three years? How much did you invest back into the business maybe for things like raw materials, and have you made a profit?

Rhea: With pricing my products, my materials did not cost too much because I would buy them in bulk. I would go on a platform online and I would find a seller. For example, in China I was able to find a vendor there who would sell me huge rolls of vinyl in bulk. I was using the vinyl every single day. I would go through rolls super quickly. So, getting it in bulk definitely helped me save a lot of money regarding materials.

As for pricing, I typically priced my products reasonably because the materials did not cost as much. So, my materials might have cost me $2 per item, but I would be able to sell it for $10 to $12, depending on the type of item, the popularity. And again, the price for materials ranges from product to product because I would use different types of vinyls. So one of the types of vinyls that was really popular was reflective vinyl, and then another one that was really popular was rainbow reflective. So, the rainbow reflective might be a little more expensive because that vinyl is less common and it requires more money for me to spend. So, the pricing really differs but I would say that all my products were pretty reasonably priced as the materials weren’t as expensive.

For the first three years, I really expanded. I went on to open another store, so I’ve opened up two stores. And my revenues combined for those two stores have been over six figures in the past three years. I’ve generated a lot of revenue and I feel like for being so young, I’ve had a lot of success within the Etsy field. And I’m really, really proud of what I have done so far. In terms of investing back into material, I made a lot of profit as the materials were not as expensive initially. So, I invested very little back into it, I garnered a lot of profits, I probably invested about 25% of my profits back into the materials. And yeah, that’s pretty much that in terms of profit, I have made a profit. And I’m pretty proud of what I’ve done so far.

Wharton Global Youth: it sounds quite successful. Was social media essential to your marketing strategy?

Rhea: Social media didn’t have as big of a part in my marketing strategy in the beginning. Etsy was helpful in garnering customers for me, they gave me that basis, they gave me the advertising, they gave me the promotion. So, I think I was able to build a customer base without heavily focusing on social media. However, I definitely did utilize it. I needed to post my products, post them being used. At times, I would partner up with other customers of mine who use the product and we would do a giveaway. This is just to give people an introduction to the product, see if they want to buy more and maybe try to customize on their own. So, I definitely did use social media a bit. It did not have a huge role as I relied heavily on the Etsy platform. But, I definitely did use it. And it was helpful at times to build a customer base.

“I remember multiple times where my dad would stay up late with my cutting machine…loading the vinyl and the cutting mat into the cutter. He would cut vinyl stencils for me until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning…I was getting 40 to 50 orders a day.”

Wharton Global Youth: I’m still stuck back on that ‘six figures.’ I think that’s great. And I’m wondering, that sounds like a huge commitment of time. Did you have help? Or did you do this all yourself?

Rhea: Since I’m so young, it is hard to do this all by myself. I definitely had support along the way, I started this business again, during the pandemic, which was when my whole family was home. And I was still 13 years old. So, it was a family effort in the beginning as I started to gain popularity a lot around May of the pandemic, May 2020. I remember multiple times where my dad would stay up late with my cutting machine. And he would be loading the vinyl and the cutting mat into the cutter. And he would cut vinyl stencils for me until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning, as I would be so exhausted. And at this point, I was getting 40 to 50 orders a day. So, it was difficult for me to keep up with it myself. And it was helpful for me to have my dad cutting vinyl for me. My brother would love to help me package the stencils. He would want to put the little postage stamps on the envelope. I would have to weigh them to see how much postage I would have to put, and my brother took on that responsibility and he enjoyed it. There would be wrappers everywhere and I would make him clean up. And then my mom, she enjoyed walking a lot. So she’d go drop off my envelopes in the post office box. It was a really big family effort in the beginning when I was getting so much popularity. I was not expecting it at all. But I think like the time being the pandemic enabled me to get that support. Otherwise, I would not have had that base of support.

Wharton Global Youth: How has your business experience with Etsy helped you define entrepreneurship and your own journey as an entrepreneur? And, really, what are you taking away from all of this, Rhea?

Rhea: I think that Etsy has helped me to define entrepreneurship, because now I really know what it means. I know the risk that comes with it. I know the hardships that come with it and how you may not always be getting the most sales. You may not always be the most successful. At times, business may slow down. And I really learned the hard work and effort that it takes to establish a name for yourself. So as an entrepreneur, I feel like it has opened up my perspective to what major corporations are doing, and also what individual small businesses are doing. I see small businesses in my town and it makes me realize that, wow, this is something that they have to go through, but on a much larger scale than me and there’s a lot more risk for them if they have a physical location. So, I think it’s really helped me see the importance of entrepreneurship and how it is different for everyone.

Wharton Global Youth: Where are you today in your journey? Have you expanded your product line? And do you want to continue with e-commerce?

Rhea: I still have my two stores open today and I have expanded my product line. I’ve grown to include many stationery items. One of these items that I’ve grown to include is washi tape, and washi tape is like decorative tape. It’s sticky on one side. And then there’s the pattern on the other side. The patterns can be striped or sparkled, or something like that. These can be used to decorate journals and posters. So, I’ve definitely gone on to expand a lot into stationery. There was a point in time where I also customized my own phone cases. I don’t do that anymore, however, but that was a really fun experience because I was able to put different patterns on phone cases and I was able to make them for myself, as well. I found it really cool to be able to do that as I would typically just go on Amazon and buy a phone case.

I do want to continue with e-commerce because I feel like having a platform like Etsy makes it so easy to continue. And I’m also able to work directly from my home, I don’t have to go to a physical location. So being able to work from home helped me a lot. And it definitely makes me want to continue this journey because I feel like it creates a lot of accessibility and makes it a lot easier for me.

Wharton Global Youth: What advice would you give other young entrepreneurs about navigating e-commerce?

Rhea: I would say in the beginning when you are first starting a business, if that’s something that you’re interested in, starting with e-commerce on a platform like Etsy is extremely helpful. There are multiple e-commerce platforms, such as Shopify and Wix, but I feel like those websites are websites that you go to when you are an established business and you are ready to start your own website. That takes a lot more independence, because you’re not getting all the marketing that Etsy provides. You have to market yourself, you have to rely more heavily on social media paying for Google ads, Pinterest ads. So going to websites like that I think is something that you should do later on in the journey. But starting on a platform like Etsy definitely gives you a lot of help, and it helps you start your business.

Wharton Global Youth: Let’s end with our lightning round. Try to answer these questions as quickly as you can.

What was the coolest product you ever bought online?

Rhea: I would say the coolest product I ever bought was a volcano humidifier.

Wharton Global Youth: That sounds pretty interesting! How has Essentials of Finance helped your life as an entrepreneur?

Rhea: I think it’s really made me realize the financial aspect behind being an entrepreneur. Although I don’t apply whatever I learned directly since I am a business on such a small scale, I think in the future if I do expand, the knowledge that I have obtained from the Essentials of Finance program will propel me forward in my journey.

Wharton Global Youth: What would you be caught binge-watching at midnight?

Rhea: I would probably be watching Gilmore Girls or Gossip Girl.

Wharton Global Youth: Something about you that would surprise us?

Rhea: I have never been to my native country.

Wharton Global Youth: Which is?

Rhea: I’m from India.

Wharton Global Youth: What is the next thing you hope to learn that you don’t yet know?

Rhea: I would say that since I am still a high schooler, I would like to learn how to navigate through the professional world successfully as I do want to be successful in the future.

Wharton Global Youth: You’re starting your own business-themed talk show. Who is your first guest and why?

Rhea: I would probably say Emma Chamberlain. She’s a young entrepreneur. She started her own coffee business. She started off as a YouTuber, but then she went on to be an entrepreneur. And I feel like she is super relatable and I personally relate to her. She has her own podcast, and I feel like that helped me connect with who she is as a person. I think having her on a podcast would be a cool experience.

Wharton Global Youth: Rhea, thank you for joining us on Future of the Business World.

Rhea: Thank you for having me.

Conversation Starters

What has Etsy taught Rhea about entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial mindset?

How did Rhea keep expenses low as the demand for her products grew? Did she exclusively sell business-to-consumer or also business-to-business?

Do you run an Etsy shop? Tell us more! Share your story in the comment section of this article.

Hero Image Photo Credit: Joshua Woroniecki

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