The Story of Simple & Sentimental

I'm going to share with you the story of Simple & Sentimental. By the grace of God and many hours or hard work, I took $300 and turned it into a multi-million dollar company. Along the way, I built a great marriage, graduated college, and worked through tough things from my childhood. Here's how I did it.

FALL 2016

In the fall of 2016, I was an 18-year-old freshman at East Carolina University majoring in Interior Design. Many of my classes were 3 hours long, so in between classes I would practice hand lettering. Hand lettering is the art of having pretty hand writing, to put it simply. I would make things for myself, and I even had a basket outside of my dorm room that I put my creations in for people living in my residence hall to take for free.

Here are some of the bookmarks I made and left in my basket outside of my dorm room.

In September of 2016, I was saved and gave my life to Jesus Christ. I didn't grow up going to church. My boyfriend (now my husband), Nick, grew up going to church and naturally joined a Christian college ministry when he started attending ECU in 2014. When I came to ECU and joined Nick, I went to the ministry with him where I attended a conference. God met me right there.

I shared my testimony on stage one night at my college ministry. This was probably the first time I ever spoke publicly!

I was baptized the morning after I found God, and my pastor was praying over me. He spoke a calling of leadership over my life, talking about how I would become a respected leader of many. As a young, shy, anxiety-ridden teenager, I felt intimidated by it. I was abused for years during my childhood, and had deeply rooted beliefs that no one could ever love me, that I was never going to be good enough. How could God use someone like me to be a leader? 

As the fall semester went on, Christmas time came around. Friends knew that I did hand lettering, and they asked me to make gifts for them. I got to thinking, maybe other people wanted to buy my prints too. As a result, I created an Etsy shop, "TDHDesign". TDH were my initials, innovative, I know. 

This was my first Etsy shop banner. There was no thoughts on branding, I just made this on Canva so I had something up there.

I listed my art prints that my friends were buying on Etsy, expecting the same results. I waited for sales to pour in, but no one bought them.

This was one of the art prints I listed on Etsy. This was the only listing photo.

Time passed, and no one bought my prints. Black Friday rolled around and I saw an ad for craft vinyl cutting machines that were going on sale. I knew many of my fellow college friends LOVED stickers. What if I could take my hand writing and make it into stickers? Maybe that would sell?

The machine and materials were going to be around $300 total. I talked it over with Nick, and he really encouraged me to go for it. We drove to the craft store late on Thanksgiving night, and I came home with everything I thought I needed to make stickers.

This was the first decal I ever made! I made it for Nick's car, he loves mountain biking.
I started making stickers out of my handwriting. I would write on a piece of white printer paper with a pen, take a picture of it, upload it into Photoshop, remove the white background, and cut the design out of vinyl. 
Slowly but surely, orders started coming in. I posted sticker designs on Etsy, I posted about it on my own social media, and I even created an Instagram and Facebook account for TDHDesign.

2017

This was how I packed my sticker orders when I first started! I hand drew names, designs, and other fun things to make each package personalized.
Keep in mind, I'm still a freshman in college at this point. I stored vinyl rolls under my bed, the cutting machine in my closet, and filled orders at my desk. Nick came and helped me fill orders when he wasn't working at other jobs. I quickly became known as “sticker girl” around campus, selling my decals in front of the Dowdy Student Store as well as on my Etsy shop.
This photo was from my first professionally photographed shoot. I thought it would make my business look more legitimate if I had better quality photos. Photo by AG Photography.
By the end of my freshman year of college, TDHDesign had 500 sales on Etsy. The side hustle was supporting me enough to pay my expenses, so I didn't get a summer job. I spent the summer at my family’s home in Clemmons, NC to keep making stickers. I had more space at their house than in my dorm room, so I decided to start selling more than just decals.
I was on Etsy looking at bridesmaid gifts. I had anticipated getting engaged soon, and wanted to see what was out there. I saw bridesmaid proposal boxes. They were a brand new thing at the time. Most of the available boxes had the same issue. The first listing photo showed a beautiful gift box filled with various items. The price seemed low though. And it was because the listing was really only for the gift box, not the items shown in the listing photo. Customer reviews showed how this frustrated customers. People were confused by the listing showing one thing, when it didn't come with everything pictured.
I decided I could make better bridesmaid proposal boxes. I went to the craft store, bought some photo boxes, metallic markers, a machine to make cards, envelopes, crinkle paper, wine glasses, hair ties, and artificial roses. I was going to make the perfect bridesmaid proposal box that included everything the bride needed to pop the question. All of the items shown in the listing photo would actually be included.
This was a picture of my first iteration of a bridesmaid proposal box. 
Check out my totally professionally photography set up! I decided to write the recipient's name on the lid with a swirl underneath. This swirl became our signature box lid style that you can still see on Simple & Sentimental gift boxes today. 
And voila, the first listing photo for a bridesmaid proposal box!
Quickly after I listed “Bridesmaid Proposal Boxes” in June, they took off. I called ECU in July and changed my college major from Interior Design to Business Management. I decided to pursue the business as a potential career, just something to make money for myself. Maybe I could be a stay-at-home mom one day and they Etsy shop could supplement my income. I could fulfill orders at nap time. That was the future vision of the business.
I remember the moment I took this picture like it was yesterday. I had 50 bridesmaid gift boxes to ship out at the post office by 5pm that day. It was 3pm, and it was just me. Somehow, I scrambled around and made it happen!
Come Fall of 2017, Nick and I were back at ECU. While walking on campus saw a sign for the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge. It was a pitch competition hosted by ECU where you could win money for your business idea.
We didn’t know anything about business or how to pitch, but Nick convinced me to enter anyway.
This was my booth at the first round of the pitch competition!
I worked hard on my poster board and prepared a pitch for the judges of the competition. On the day of the first round, TDHDesign was rebranded and became Simple & Sentimental. Nick and I manned the booth as students and professors walked by to learn about the business.
I did most of the pitching! Nick helped answer questions and encouraged people to vote for us as they walked by the booth.
The pitch competition was three rounds in all, and that day we made it past the first round! As Nick and I proceeded through the rounds, we made it all the way to the final round. As we prepared for the last round of the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge, we finally moved the business out of my apartment and into an actual office!

2018

I was so proud of this first office! It was 100 square feet total.
In February of 2018, it was finally time to pitch and possibly win $12,500 to scale the business. My business mentors told me about a local pitch competition happening the night before the final round of the Pirate Entrepreneurship Challenge. I decided to enter and get some practice for the following night.
Nick snapped this picture holding my giant check!
I entered that room thinking I would get some good practice pitching and be more ready for the next pitch competition. I ended up winning first place, taking home $6,000 and a newfound confidence in pitching a business. I went home and kept practicing, perfecting my pitch for the Pirate Challenge the next night.
Two of my business mentors, Dr. Mike Harris and David Mayo, posing with the check from the PEC. They helped me prepare throughout the competition and are still business advisors to S&S today!
We won again! Simple & Sentimental walked away with $12,500 in seed capital that night. Over the course of 2 days, Simple & Sentimental received $18,500 to kickstart the business.
Another perk of our new office, I got to bring Dunkin to work with me!
By April of 2018, the funds were used to sign a lease on a new 500 square foot office space in an incubator in Greenville. We hired 3 employees to help fulfill orders as we added new products and expanded the business. In May 2018, we expanded to a 1,500 square foot production space to keep up with orders.
We made a LOT of post office runs even when we had scheduled pickups. Our operation wasn't always efficient enough to get everything done by the time the pickup arrived.
During the summer of 2018, Building Hope Community Life Center in Greenville reached out. They asked if we would host a group from their summer camp at our office. We said yes of course! That day started a long-lasting relationship between Building Hope and Simple & Sentimental.
Building Hope's summer camp now visits our office annually to take a tour and do entrepreneurial activities!
I enjoy working with Building Hope and Simple & Sentimental partners with them financially and through volunteering! I am passionate about helping at-risk youth and vulnerable children. They hold a big place in my heart.
This was the panel of judges from my first Women Mean Business event at ECU. It was exciting to bring together local female business owners to encourage students and talk about their experiences as entrepreneurs.
I am also passionate about women entrepreneurship. As a female entrepreneur, I know first-hand the challenges of being a female entrepreneur. I started an event at ECU called "Women Mean Business" that is hosted annually to celebrate National Women Entrepreneurship Week. The first event was in the fall of 2018.
2018 was our first time having an official Christmas collection! I had a photoshoot to celebrate.
Back at the office, engagement gift boxes became a staple for S&S. Soon, Christmas season came along, and the volume was more than we could have ever imagined. In November, the office was expanded to 2,600 square feet to allow for higher order volume. Simple & Sentimental quadrupled its revenue from 2017 to 2018. That would not have been possible without the financial push from the pitch competitions, and hard work from the S&S team.

2019

We hosted a ribbon-cutting at our new location! You can see myself, Nick, and our first full-time employee, Sarah.

With the new year came new growth! We hired our first full-time employee and moved into a new office in March 2019. We hosted a ribbon-cutting and had a small storefront where community members could come in and shop.

We invited our business mentors to our wedding to celebrate with us!

May 2019 was a busy time for us personally and at the business. We hired a second full-time employee, Nick graduated college, we bought our first home, and we got married!

I attribute much of our business success to mentorship, so of course our mentors were there on our big day! We had to snap a photo with our full-time staff and mentors to remember celebrating with them.

This was our staff in November, 2019! We hadn't hired all of our seasonal employees quite yet.

By the end of 2019, we had a staff of 5 full-time employees and 3 seasonal employees! Nick and I both graduated from ECU in 2019, so it was a busy year. We tripled the size of the business from 2018 to 2019, so we were excited to see what 2020 had in store.

2020

2020 started out a big rough for Simple & Sentimental. We had come off a great Christmas season, but in January some of our suppliers overseas were seeing delays due to COVID-19. The pandemic affected our business far before it came to the United States.

Sales dropped dramatically once stay-at-home orders were announced around the country. We sent our employees home and sat tight for a little while, hoping it would all end soon. Luckily we had saved enough money to continue paying our employees while we waited things out.

With no end in sight, we happened to come across a Facebook post showing how to make face shields using a laser engraver. We had a laser engraver at S&S to make cake toppers and Christmas ornaments, we never thought we would use it to make PPE.

Nick and I spent a lot of extra time in the office making and packaging face shields! We delivered many donations in-person as well.

I made a GoFundMe to raise money so we could make and donate face shields to our local hospital. We raised enough money to donate over 2,500 face shields to our local hospital and hospitals around the country. It also helped us continue paying our employees while our personalized gift sales were down.

As we wrapped up our donation campaign, I decided to expand our product line. Before the pandemic, Simple & Sentimental was primarily known for engagement gift boxes, bridesmaid gifts, and Christmas ornaments.

I listed a gift box that said "Happy Quarantined Birthday". For the first 2 weeks, nothing happened. Sales suddenly started picking up as quarantine went on, and the "quarantine gift boxes" became a best-seller.

A make-shift packaging station for quarantined birthday boxes.

We were NOT ready for the order volume we saw in April and May. I don't have many photos from this time because we were so busy. We hired around 20 people to work full-time and help us fulfill the orders. At one point we had around 25 people working in the office at once to fill quarantine orders.

A local news station featured our popular quarantine gift boxes!

After Mother's Day, things calmed down a little. We were able to regroup after the insanity that ensued in our office for weeks. During that time, Nick and I worked 40 days straight, usually 12+ hours per day. We were so ready to have a rest and take a break from the office. 

We were thankful to have built a business that survived the pandemic and grew as a result of it. But we learned a lot from our big rush of orders. Our current operation was not made to handle 500+ orders going out per day. We decided we needed to change how we fulfilled orders, and it started with production.

Our staff posed in front of the giant crate that our new production machine came in. We were all so excited that it arrived!

We took the profits we made from the Mother's Day rush and invested them in printers to make our operation more efficient. Throughout the history of S&S, we have consistently reinvested the profits back into the business. As a result, we see growth year after year. 

Now, we're ready to keep expanding and growing until we become the leading personalized gift company in the world!

Simple & Sentimental is known online for our quarantine gift boxes, cake toppers, engagement gift boxes, tumblers, Christmas ornaments, and personalized gifts. Nick and I work full-time at S&S alongside a team of production, customer service, sales, and graphic design staff. As the company has scaled, I've been able to focus in on product development and marketing while Nick manages the day-to-day operation of the business. What started in a dorm room has become a thriving business that has served hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

Nick and I are proof that you can own a thriving business AND have a great marriage and family life outside of the office. I don't think "work/life balance" applies to many entrepreneurs. Instead, your work becomes an extension of your passions and your home life. It all works together. Your career and your home life support and help one another, they aren't separate.

C.S. Lewis said "Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” and I believe it whole-heartedly. My challenges during my childhood created in me a grit and perseverance that can't be formed any other way. I believe hardships make us better and they bring us closer to God.

I hope my story encourages people that your past doesn't hold you back. Your history makes you who you are, and it gives you an opportunity to be a light to other people.