Cassie Kwong was bored.
Work wasn’t cutting it for her. Although she had majored in Marketing at San Jose State University, she had accepted a full time position as a paralegal with the attorney she had worked for part time while she was a student. In college, she had started a women’s networking group, was a Salzburg Scholar, participated in a European Innovation Academy startup competition, and discovered weightlifting. She had built her confidence and found her voice. She longed for more. How could she find new ways to grow?
Knowing that law was not the path she wanted to take, Cassie contracted with LinkedIn as a deal strategist through EM. While the role was different and new, there was still something missing. “I was asking my manager for more projects, and I was even setting up meetings with people in other roles to learn more about what they do. It was just so slow-paced for me,” she said.
Cassie daydreamed about being an entrepreneur. Seeking inspiration, she watched YouTube videos about how to run your own drop-shipping business. It was the beginning of a journey that would lead her through consulting and to her dream job in growth marketing.
An Influential Launch
Around the same time, one of her friends invited her to go to the launch of her sister's influencer marketing agency. There, she met artists, creators, and influencers from all over the Bay Area. She met with a friend who had been running a digital agency successfully. Another friend had started her own Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA) business, selling lashes as a side hustle.
After talking to them, Cassie decided to start her own business. “My ‘why’ was to become a better marketer,” she said. “Even if I failed, I knew that it would be a great learning experience.” Any financial loss, she decided, was “tuition.”
How would she marry her personal and entrepreneurial interests? Recalling her weightlifting days in college, she remembered how surprised she was to see just a few girls participating.
“I joined a professional business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi. When some jacked guys found out I was taking a weightlifting class, they invited me to join a group called ‘AK Swole.’ It ended up being really fun,” she said. “I saw my whole body structure change. People were surprised I lifted weights but didn’t look bulky.”
She had also noticed that most weight training gear was designed for men and only came in men’s sizes.
Starting with Resistance
She started doing market research on Google Trends, looking into selling ankle straps and barbell pads. But not many people were looking for ankle straps, and shipping for barbell pads was really expensive. “But, when I typed in resistance bands, it was growing phenomenally,” she said. “It seemed like a lot of women were looking to refine their glutes. I felt that if I started with resistance bands, I could slowly introduce them to weightlifting products as well.”
And so, Mighty Buns Athletics, an e-commerce business selling weight lifting accessories for women, was born. She had a clear vision for the brand: tough and bold, but also cute and feminine. To succeed, Cassie would have to learn about sourcing and manufacturing, building an e-commerce site and figuring out how to drive demand.
She designed the products, and searched for manufacturers in the US using Maker's Row, an online marketplace that connects small businesses with American manufacturers. She also looked at suppliers in Taiwan and India. Ultimately, she went with a supplier in China. “They had so much more R&D, and it was cheaper, even with the tariffs.”
She acquired her first customers on Instagram, in part by reaching out to several fitness micro-influencers to cross-promote each others’ posts. “Collaboration is key,” she says. “That has a compounding effect because your followers and their followers combine. It's a long term relationship. Your following can grow dramatically with collaborations like that.”
Eventually, she signed on to a platform called Hey Influencers to outsource that process. Despite some initial success with it, she eventually concluded that hiring a virtual assistant to research and find influencers would be more cost effective.
She also started a blog for women weight lifters. And then, personal issues arose, distracting her from the business. “When running your own business, you always have to be inspired and excited about it,” she says. “Because of what I was going through, my business felt more like a burden and I avoided it for a long time.”
She outsourced content creation. Months later, she started seeing issues and realized her agency was doing a terrible job. The business started dying.
Cassie went back to basics. “Mighty Buns grew because of great customer service and having a personal touch,” she said. “I saw content as busy work, but it's actually very strategic. In 2020, I want to stay closer to the business and produce better, more insightful content such as workout guides and weightlifting tips.”
She’s also sticking with the personal touch on influencer marketing. “Until I gain more volume or decide to distribute internationally, instead of an agency, I’ll use a virtual assistant to find influencers I can personally reach out to,” she said.
Livin’ the Dream
All these lessons learned help her grow her career. After her gig at LinkedIn, she did a short stint in a growth marketing position at Zūm. Those experiences, combined with Mighty Buns, helped her land her current job at a high growth startup, GoPuff, an East Coast snack delivery service.
“Running Mighty Buns has given me so many opportunities to speak at events, lecture at universities, and open doors for marketing jobs. It was the best move I ever made in my life and I am so glad I decided to start it,” she said. “I’m really in my element having my own side hustle and working on another project, full-time or not. I feel the most comfortable and happy when I have the two because I'm constantly learning more,” she says.
Her advice to anyone who wants to start their own side business: Figure out how to keep the passion alive, and how to build a brand that lasts. “You have to figure out what will keep people with you, even when the industry and your products aren’t doing well.”