Trixie Khong was only 16 when she first started crafting her own jewellery as a way to make some pocket money and also as a hobby. A decade and one Chemical Engineering degree later, she’s the founder of By Invite Only, a proudly Singaporean brand that makes affordable, sensitive skin-friendly jewellery. She has also recently acquired The Mindful Company, another local jewellery brand. She tells Options how she keeps her shine amidst tough, murky times.
Founder and owner of local jewellery brand By Invite Only, Trixie Khong is at first glance, quiet and reserved. Thoughtful and observant, she is no flashy diva; rather, she comes off as careful and cautious. Perhaps it is because this young, savvy entrepreneur has (figuratively) been running her own business since she was 16 years old.
For her, the learning curve from hobbyist to businesswoman was steep. It was a tough climb that she had to take, step by step; yet what started as a hobby to indulge her interest in crafting has now turned into a flourishing business, both online and offline.
Today, By Invite Only is on track to achieving a seven-figure revenue in 2020 alone, in spite of the dismal retail conditions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and has recently also acquired The Mindful Company, another homegrown jewellery label that focuses on customised pieces.
By Invite Only, which was established in 2009, has doubled its revenue figures every year, especially after since it started going direct-to-consumer about five years ago. The acquisition (Khong declined to reveal the figures) is another feather in Khong’s cap and an exciting new project for By Invite Only.
“When they [The Mindful Company] announced that they were closing in late February, I was very shocked. I know exactly how much effort they put into this, the money they would’ve spent on their brand. And I was always interested in exploring personalisation for jewellery [for By Invite Only],” she says. “So I thought it would be a good complement to By Invite Only. I spoke to the owners and they were looking for someone who could take over that would genuinely keep the ethos of the brand. They were approached by a few others, I believe, but they felt that we were the ones they could see as a good fit,” she adds.
The Mindful Company was founded in 2015 by entrepreneurs Ciara Yeo and Lim Wen Ling, with a social mission to promote mental well-being and kindness through its jewellery line. The brand was stocked in over 20 stores across five countries and was best known for its Reminder Cuffs, a series of bands with engravings of purposeful messages for mindful living. However, they announced that they were closing the brand in February, before Khong entered into talks with them. The acquisition was then finalised in July.
For Khong, the acquisition is more than a buy-and-sell affair: “It’s not just the money, but also who is the right person to take over. My intention for the brand is to continue as it is; how I can contribute is to the expansion of its product range. The branding, story and social cause behind The Mindful Company was something I felt was a way for me to have deeper conversations around the [mental health] space.”
Khong says, new hires in the company prompted her to connect on a deeper level about mental health, as there were those among them who had been, or are, suffering from mental illness. “I feel like this could open up deeper conversations within the office and among peers; as a way for the team to open up and talk to each other about mental health, by buying a gift customised to them, or through the content we create,” she adds.
For Khong, this will also help her learn more about mental health. Having had conversations with her family and friends about being burnt out, she wanted to get to the root of why she was feeling depressed and lethargic.
Ultimately, she wanted a deeper understanding of mental illness and how to have productive and compassionate conversations about it. As such, her plans for The Mindful Company is simply to grow and expand the brand with the experience she has gained from By Invite Only, keeping to the spirit of the brand as much as possible.
Even as she became the owner of two jewellery brands, Khong had never dreamt of being a jewellery designer or entrepreneur. Crafting and making jewellery was just a hobby she enjoyed as a teenager. “I was 16 when I discovered crafting. It gave me a big sense of identity and purpose; I guess one of the ails of being a teenager is not knowing what you want to do with your life. And so it gave me direction. I enjoyed it, and I did it as a way to supplement my pocket money,” she recalls.
At the time, too, she was working part-time at a design store, and the owner had allowed her to display some of her crafts for sale. Still, the idea of running a business full-time never truly entered her mind. After all, she was pretty good at mathematics and physics. She even studied Chemical Engineering at Temasek Polytechnic; but it was mostly for practical reasons.
Three months into her training at a Jurong Island Kerosene distillation plant made her rethink her career path, and she took up Media and Communications in university, before finally deciding to take the leap. “I told myself, I’ll start a business for one year, and see how it works out. If it did not work out, I still have a degree in Media to fall back on,” she says.
So, with just $500 and with the help of a graphic designer friend, By Invite Only was born.
“It sort of became ‘legitimate’, in a way — we could start approaching stores to stock what I was making,” she says.
Over the next few years, Khong slowly grew her brand by selling her products at multi-label stores across Singapore. It was not unusual for a small local brand to stock consignment at big department stores, and that’s what Khong did. However, as is normal with these stores, they take a cut of the sales, meaning she had to mark up prices a lot more in order to turn a profit.
“Before direct-to-customer was even trendy, I realised I had to [go that way]. I made the decision to end my relationships with the stores — and many were really good relationships — and started selling directly to customers,” she says. “I spent months pulling out my stock from these stores, went fully online, reduced the prices and in the next month alone, I quadrupled my sales.”
Going direct-to-customer also meant she would have valuable insight to her customers’ needs. “Selling at the stores, I did not know who was buying my products. Sure, I could talk to the salespersons but they would only be able to give me a general overview of who my customers were. And I realised I could not build up ‘the list’,” she says.
“Knowing who they are means I can re-market to them, to know them and what they want.” For Khong, that was the turning point of her business. It also really helped that from day one, she has believed in making her jewellery suitable for those with sensitive skin. Having sensitive skin that’s prone to eczema herself, she made sure all the pieces are void of nickel, lead and cadmium, which are known to irritate.
With a minimalist, delicate and distinctly feminine style and design, By Invite Only is popular with the younger, fashion-conscious set. It also wins over the eco-conscious — it offsets carbon and neutralises all shipping emissions for every order, and all carbon-offset funds are invested in sustainability initiatives to counteract the environmental impact, such as the Jari Para Forest Conservation Project run by Pachama, an AI-driven tech initiative that uses data to aid environmental conservation.
In addition, all pieces are also produced in factories that are members of the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI), which ensures that they are fair to workers, are not involved in child labour, are ethical, have steps in place to protect the environment and many more.
This is serious business for Khong, who refuses to buy into greenwashing. As the company grew, she become more conscious of the packaging and shipping of the products. “If it’s one person, you think it’s one straw. But if every person has one straw, that’s eight billion straws. And as a company, our impact is so much more,” she says. “So in the last year or so, we’ve introduced carbon offsets for all our shipping, and we’ve eliminated plastic from all our packaging. We use shredded paper from our everyday office waste instead of bubble wrap, and instead of paper bags, we have created drawstring bags which can be reused infinitely.”
She also continues to research ways in which she can turn By Invite Only into a carbon-neutral business — there’s a ways to go yet, perhaps, but she’s definitely taking the right steps.
Having spent 11 years running her own business, Khong knows all about taking the right steps, one step at a time. “What I’ve learnt is failing fast and small, and many times — and not making the same mistake again. I guess I learnt to keep tweaking and learning. The question is always, how do I get started? But I always say, just get your toes wet and it’s never going to be perfect the first time,” she says. “I feel that the pressure to do everything perfect the first time is holding a lot of people back.”
She adds, chuckling, “Just do first, and think later.”
She also advocates asking for advice and questions of people who would be able to impart the correct knowledge. “I have gone up to retail managers and said, “Can I buy you coffee and can you just tell me, ‘how are you as a manager?’ or ‘what do you look for in a person?’ And I will then use that when I am looking for my next hire.” T
he best advice she’d ever gotten, says Khong, is “it takes 10 years to be an overnight success”. “I cannot remember where I got that from. But it helped me set up my expectations for endurance. I’ve also learnt that money is not going to be the shortcut. Pouring money into a brand doesn’t cut down the time you need to take to be successful. A lot of what makes a brand successful is in your brain — what the product should be, who your customers are, and what are the stories you tell. These are things you cannot throw money at,” she says.
Khong says she never gives up — although certainly she has had downs as well as ups — because she has too much pride. “I just have too much pride. I just think: I must not fail!” she says, laughing. As for what’s next for By Invite Only, and now, The Mindful Company, Khong is focused on improving and expanding the brands, scaling up and continuing to do what she does best.