Arriving at ShopJeen.com can be a bit of a mindfuck. The seizure-inducing video for Lil Mama’s “Sausage” is there to greet you, along with splashy emoji-filled graphics pointing to an array of zany merchandise. For millennials, much of the store's selection hinges on nostalgia: light-up sneakers, Spice Girls-sized platforms, and ‘90s throwbacks like stretchy tattoo chokers and alien-spotted socks. The site is like an impossibly of-the-moment, new-and-improved Claire’s, where wearable memes and trends are unabashedly cycled through as often as posts hit your timeline.
Erin Yogasundram is the 23-year old mini mogul behind this rapidly-booming online store. Armed with the hustle of drug dealer and an eye for kawaii trends, Yogasundram built a cult following on Instagram, and carved out a customer base that ranges from Tumblr tweens to cool moms, all without spending a dollar on advertising. The FADER spoke with Yogasundram about her hustling roots, why she ditched a full college scholarship to start Shop Jeen and how her YOLO business plan came to be.
When did you first realize that you had a knack for entrepreneurial endeavors? I’ve been working since I was 11. My mom is a single parent. She didn’t go to college, and she had to pick herself up and compete against young college grads when my dad left. I get a lot of the hustle mentality from her. I always wanted to help out, and I wanted Jordans. I was anxious to earn my own money, so I started selling autographs when I was 12. I used to be obsessed with Good Charlotte, and I met them once. Then, I realized that I could sell their autograph. So I had my mom make an eBay account, because I had to be 13 to make it.
I started making so much money and it kept me out of trouble. When I was in high school, I evolved from the autographs to going to sample sales and I’d buy 30 pairs of Tory Burch flats—when they were super hot—for $40 and sell them online for $100 and they were $195 originally. Then, I did a bunch of fashion internships and shipped myself off to George Washington University.
When did you realize that you wanted to start your own business? I was working three retail jobs and going to school. I’ve never thrived in the classroom. I was a bad kid academically because I was all about getting work experience. I was frustrated that I was working retail and giving so much of myself for just $8 an hour. As a sales girl, I would also [provide] input with buying and marketing. I realized that I was multi-faceted and had a lot to offer. I thought, I can do this myself.
I couldn’t open a store because I didn’t have enough money, but I understood the value of things and what I could sell them for. So buying a Celine bag was a calculated decision. I saved $2,000 and bought the medium luggage tote. This is when it was hella rare and no one could get it; I was on the waitlist for two years. Then they called me said we have this tote, but it wasn’t the one I wanted, but I bought it anyway and then sold it for $3,000. I knew I had to do something smart with the money.
“So many brands are these 50-year-old guys in suits trying to figure out how to sell to millennial girls. Shop Jeen’s authentic and I think you can feel it.” — Erin Yogasundram
When did you start Shop Jeen? I started the website in March of 2012. I taught myself how to code, took that $3,000 from selling the Celine bag to Forever 21. I bought stuff for $2, made it look nicer and sold it for $20. I flipped everything and invested in more inventory. By the time finals rolled around that semester, I made $40,000 from buying, selling, packaging, and running social media all by myself. Then I decided to come home. My mom wasn’t super thrilled because I got a full ride at George Washington University. So I came back to the city, took the first office space that I found, and hired a bunch of interns. In 2013 I hired my first employee, Amelia Muqbel, who is now our creative director.
How did Shop Jeen find a following so quickly? We’ve been using Instagram since day one. I would follow anyone who followed a relevant brand and then unfollow. We built a cult following and at one point we were getting 20,000 likes per photo. It was insane. We still spend virtually no money on marketing. It’s all word of mouth and social media. We post five times an hour. It’s aggressive, but it works for us.
What sets Shop Jeen apart from other online shops? We want people to know that they’re buying from people just like them. I really am like everyone else, except for the fact that I hustle. I’m a 23-year-old girl. I have the same problems as every other 23-year-old girl. Boys suck. But we’ve really fostered a community of strong girls and want to empower them. So many brands are these 50-year-old suit guys trying to figure out how to sell to millennial girls. It’s authentic and I think you can feel it.
Do you think that you lucked out with timing? My whole life, timing has been of the essence. The fact that I did autographs when I did? TRL doesn’t exist anymore. David Letterman has a barricade across the street. You can’t even get close to the door. Tory Burch isn’t a wave anymore. I like to think that I sense opportunities and voids. I’ll see things that don’t exist and be like, Why is no one making money off this? At Coachella, everyone is wearing a bandana, I was like, Why is no one selling bandanas? Look at the pedicabs that drive you to your car. Why aren’t there lap dances offered?
What’s it like to build an empire on trends that are so ephemeral? Everything in the world is ephemeral. Nothing lasts forever, but if you can continue to ride it and maintain that good sense of what’s hip, then it has longevity. There will always be some new trend.
What have been some of the growing pains you’ve gotten over? It’s definitely a “Mo Money, Mo Problems” kind of thing. Hiring and firing is really difficult and the company is still bootstrapping. It’s rough because I’m really sensitive. I’d cry after firing someone and feel terrible. I always have to remember what’s best for the business and that it’s not my fault. But it’s hard because I haven’t worked at many formal office settings. We don’t have massive amounts of money in the bank. We put all of our money towards growth. I don’t take a salary. I’m still 100% invested in growing the business.
Who would you say is the core Shop Jeen customer? I remember a venture capitalist yelling at me like, “Ralph Lauren knows exactly who his customer is. Tory Burch knows exactly who her customer is. You need to know who your customer is.” I’m like, Go through our tagged photos on Instagram. Our customers all look very different. We’re combining so many styles into one and that’s why it’s hard to identify a competitor. We’ll sell something sold at the CVS beauty aisle next to something sold at Bloomingdale’s next to something also available at ASOS.
Amelia and I are the personification of Shop Jeen: Nike sneakers, Minnie Mouse socks, Hells Bells leggings, a wrestling jersey, and a Balenciaga bag. It doesn’t really make sense, but we bring it to life. It doesn’t matter to the customer; they don’t care if a shirt has a brand name, they’re buying it because we put our stamp on it. We’re just curating something that we think is cool.