How a Hawai‘i Student Started Two Businesses on Social Media
What started as a hobby for Kate Li has turned into a moneymaker that’s helping her pay for college.
With a click of a button, 112,000 subscribers worldwide receive another alert: 18-year-old Punahou graduate Kate Li has posted a YouTube video. This self-described passionate introvert has grown her following into two businesses and a social media presence that has drawn partnerships with big brands, all while going to school.
Growing up in Kaimukī, TV wasn’t a big part of her life, and neither was going out with friends every day. Her parents wanted her to stay home and focus on her studies. But in December 2016, Li and her best friend, Christina He, decided it would be fun to make a channel called Kate and Christina, to document their everyday lives and travels. After a few years, Li found she enjoyed filming and editing so much, she decided to launch a channel of her own.
In 2018, the summer before her sophomore year, Li began posting at least once a week. Within a few months, her videos about high school life—everything from her reaction to her SAT scores to her asking a crush to prom—drew thousands of followers. “I didn’t expect people to watch my videos,” she says, “but then, I just thought, why not continue with it and see where it goes?” Her parents did not approve. “They were concerned it would distract me from studying,” Li says. “I kept pushing because I thought this could be something. I was like, sorry, I’m just going to keep on doing this.” She managed to keep her grades up, maintaining a 3.9 GPA.
One year in, Li was up to 20,000 subscribers and was getting inquiries from companies wanting to sponsor her videos. In the years since, she has had various opportunities to collaborate with big companies like Amazon and Princess Polly. Then, in November 2019, Princess Polly reached out, asking if she would be interested in putting together some looks for them. “I would send them the link of the items I wanted, then they would send it over,” Li says. She used the Princess Polly apparel in videos titled “Guy Friends Pick My School Outfits for a Week” and “My Boyfriend Picks Out Date Night Outfits.” Then last fall, Amazon asked her to help promote its back-to-school college essentials line of products. She was thrilled, she says. “Amazon wanted me to do some social media posts and an unboxing video of some college essentials they had sent to me. With sponsors, I always make sure that I only collaborate with people who I genuinely support, like Amazon or Princess Polly. … I would never recommend something I don’t believe in or don’t actually like, even if the products were paid for.”
As her following continued to grow, Li realized she could use her platform to promote another hobby: making jewelry. “I was looking online for affordable, cute, personalized but also popular jewelry styles like gold-plated necklaces, butterflies, cherries, etc.,” Li says. When she was in sixth grade, she started creating her own pieces and soon her friends wanted their own. As a senior in high school in January 2019, she launched Precious by Kate, selling custom-made necklaces on Etsy. She started with one design, then added a rose, petite locket and a cross. “Business was a little slow, and I felt like adding those three products would give me that push I needed.” Li says that making jewelry makes her happy. “It’s fun … and I also can’t wait for my customers to be able to see it.”
In her first year, Instagram Influencers such as Avani (15.4 million followers) and LaurDIY (4.6 million) were seen wearing her pieces and @preciousbykate had more than 20,000 followers. Li says she grossed about $36,000, though much of the money was used to cover inventory and other expenses. A YouTube video about her journey, “How I Started a Successful Business at 16,” has been viewed more than 930,000 times.
Despite her success and consistently high grades, her parents still were not happy with what they viewed as a time-wasting activity. Li says they saw it as “just a hobby that would die once I gave up.” But she kept going.
“They were like, why are you doing this?” Li says. “They grew up in a different generation, [both are] emigrants from China. … The way my parents work is that they need to see the results first, and then they will believe in the success of my business.” So Li persevered, using her own money to buy materials and keep her website going.
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She even expanded. Just before starting her freshman year studying business administration at the University of Southern California, the young entrepreneur and her friend, He, decided to launch another company. Milky Lashes sells cruelty-free false eyelashes for a variety of eye shapes. “It wasn’t planned. We talked about it in July, then got right to work after a few days,” Li says. “We started to look for suppliers, manufacturing things and stuff like that. She and I both liked silk lashes and so that’s why we wanted to sell that type of lashes as well. A week later, we got our samples.” The excited friends rushed to the post office. With some experience under her belt, Li says she took on “advertising, marketing, setting up payments, and everything else business-related.” She recruited some friends to help with social media and customer service for both of her brands.
It hasn’t always been easy. “My biggest lesson is to always double-check with your manufacturing,” Li says. “I had an instance when I was ordering things for Milky Lashes, and they sent me everything completely wrong. It cost me thousands of dollars. I should have been doing accounting and keeping things like that. It was a mess for a while.” But she rolls with the punches.
What helps is that her parents have come around and are now supporting her jewelry business and YouTube career. “My parents and I make jewelry together now, which I think is pretty cool,” Li says “My mom will sit on the couch, and my dad and I would usually work together. He would print out the labels for me, and I would make the jewelry, then package it up and send it out. So that’s like our family time at night.”
Li also helps support her family, using some of her profits for household expenses and her tuition. “I think it’s brought us closer together in the end.”