Illustration: Rachelle Baker
It’s not unusual for jewelry designer Kate Kim’s pieces to bring customers to tears. Since 2013, she has been selling custom, hyperpersonal accessories through her Etsy shop, Caitlyn Minimalist: necklaces featuring the handwriting of a relative who passed, rings with newborn babies’ fingerprints, friendship bracelets with secret messages — the kind of stuff you buy to commemorate a special person or occasion and then buy again when you have something else to celebrate. Kim estimates her returning-customer rate is about 40 percent, and she sees between 60 and 100 percent overall growth year over year. This spring, the brand reached 1 million sales — a rare achievement for any seller. Here, she and her husband, Michael, who quit his job to help her full time, walk us through how they reached such a huge milestone.
How it all began:
Kate Kim: My family has always been involved in jewelry. We moved from Vietnam to America in 2012, and our first workshop was in Little Saigon in Orange County, California, where we live. Sometimes, I would create something personal for myself. In 2013, a friend asked me to make something for her that was similar to a piece I’d created with my grandfather’s handwriting. She wanted her late father’s handwriting of the word love replicated for a necklace. I did it for free; the amount of joy and comfort that it gave her was priceless. After that, more of my friends started asking me for custom jewelry. I went online and saw that there are not many options out there, like literally nobody sold handwriting necklaces, and custom jewelry is very expensive. One seller I admired back then was offering one for around $300. So that’s when I decided to start my business. I realized, I can make something out of this. I can make affordable and meaningful jewelry that everybody can enjoy.
Why she started an Etsy shop:
Kate: Custom and personalized items are really a thing on Etsy, so I thought it was the best fit for me. The jewelry that I create has a story behind it, so my relationship with my customers is very important. Back then, Etsy was probably the only platform that offered that connection. Also I wasn’t very tech-savvy in 2013, and Etsy is user-friendly.
My first shop was called Silver Handwriting, and it was solely focused on handwriting jewelry. I don’t think I took very good photos, but even with my bad job of branding, the demand was still there. With the amount of people coming to me to share their stories, I thought, I can do better than this. So I rebranded to Caitlyn Minimalist in 2014 and got a professional camera. My sister Vivian then took over Silver Handwriting and still runs it today. My husband, Michael, quit his job and started working with me full time.
On balancing work and family:
Michael Kim: For the first two years, it was mostly me and Kate doing all of the front-end stuff. Juggling family and work life has been a pretty big challenge. We’ve had three kids since we launched. When we had our first son, in 2015, he was born a few days before Black Friday. Kate was having contractions, but she was determined to keep packing her jewelry. We were frantically trying to get everything to the post office before we headed to the hospital. It was pretty crazy. Since then, we’ve had two more kids, but we’ve had a lot more help along the way.
What they’ve learned:
Kate: The biggest lesson: Know how to delegate. Like Michael said, we used to do everything by ourselves. My mom and dad watched the kids and packed jewelry. At first, I would model, and my sister would be the hand model and my mom would be the photographer. Michael’s sister helped us with customer service. Literally everybody in the family is involved in this business. But we needed help.
Michael: It got to the point where we were like, Okay, I think it’s time that we actually start hiring people, and really trusting the procedures that we’ve implemented. We hired our first employee in 2016 — a college student who helped with customer service. She’s now our office manager. We outgrew working from our home workshop back in late 2017 and had to get an office. Today we have about 30 employees total and are about to move into an even bigger office in September.
Kate: We’ve had a few “viral” moments that have certainly helped us with our momentum. Back in 2016, a mom-blog page on Facebook featured our Handwriting Bracelet, and it got about 200,000 shares. We were actually headed out of town to visit family when it happened, and all of a sudden we started receiving tons of emails and orders and had to work the entire trip. We’ve also had a few items featured on BuzzFeed, like our City Rings, and we also had a customer post a recent viral TikTok video that got about 7 million views. We haven’t spent very much on advertising, as much of our growth has been through word of mouth or social media. We didn’t even hire someone to help with social media until November , though. Etsy, of course, has also seen tremendous growth over the last few years, and we’ve certainly ridden its coattails as well.
On the secret to their success:
Kate: I think what makes us different from other sellers is that we focus on our community. We take care of them throughout the whole process, from the customer service in the beginning to the engraving to the unboxing experience to any questions after. It’s hard to measure an exact number of our customer-return rate, but if I had to guess, I would say it’s roughly 40 percent.
Michael: A lot of people on Etsy, especially in the earlier days, were treating it a little bit more like a side project, and we really went all in and treated it like a business from the start. Emails are answered instantly, and that was actually very important to our growth in the early days, that attention to detail. Some sellers weren’t responding for hours, and we were responding within ten minutes. And if someone gets a response, then that’s usually going to lead to a sale.
The jewelry has much more sentimental value than monetary value. Many times, people come to us because they’ve lost a loved one or they’re having a baby or they’re recently married. So we always make sure that our customers feel like they’ve been heard and taken care of. When you open this beautiful package and it’s exactly what you pictured —
Kate: It’s amazing how many people cry with happiness. It’s just something so special.
Michael: Yes, we love seeing reaction videos. Everybody shares those on our Slack thread.
On hitting 1 million sales:
Kate: It happened overnight. Like, I think I stayed up until 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. trying to catch when we hit the exact 1 million mark to screenshot it. But Etsy doesn’t have a live countdown — you have to refresh the page — so I fell asleep and I woke up and it had already happened. I missed it! It was a little difficult to celebrate, as it happened right when we were starting to get busy with Mother’s Day orders and preparation in early April. But it was exciting.
On how it has changed their lives (or not):
Michael: We are pretty much living the same lifestyle.
Kate: Yeah, there are no fancy things here.
Michael: We literally share a minivan with three kids.
On the future:
Kate: We’re still going to be on Etsy. We’re a small community in a big community, and we’re very grateful for all the opportunities Etsy brought us. But we also just launched our own website. For now, we’re just going to continue focusing on what we do best: creating custom jewelry at the price that anybody can afford and trying to make everyone happy.