A simple phrase can go a long way and brighten someone’s day. In the case of a store called “Feel Better,” he proved it in less than two years.
The Queens-based stationery business on Etsy Inc. opened in February 2021, nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and brick-and-mortar stores closed. Since its launch at a time characterized by economic uncertainty, the store has achieved 2,817 sales worldwide as of December 8, with more to come.
Feel Better’s online storefront or “office” invites customers to purchase homemade art prints, postcards, decorative ribbons and stickers. Behind every order are the store’s employees, who describe themselves in the “about” section as “two sisters who just wanted to try something new.”
Unbeknownst to the clients, the sisters are also college students who balance their hustles with schoolwork and part-time jobs.
Janet and Michelle Lee are, as the premiere puts it, the “iconic sibling duo” behind the boutique. They pay homage to their Korean heritage in their products, as evidenced by the store’s popular sale prints featuring Shiba Inu dogs and desserts.
Janet studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts, graduating in 2021. The one behind Feel Better’s designs, the artist carries a sketchbook in which to doodle when the inspiration arises. Places and objects that evoke nostalgia such as nature, bakeries, breakfast cereals and the Korean supermarket chain H Mart inspire his art.
“A lot of the work I do is very simple and often comparable to children’s drawings, but it’s those children’s drawings that have always stuck with me,” Janet said.
A few blocks from art school, Michelle is studying operations management as a junior at Baruch College. She handles the logistical and financial aspects of Feel Better – packing orders and managing the shop’s Etsy and Instagram pages. The latter racked up 10,000 subscribers in its first two months.
“The experience of seeing others enjoy the work you create from start to finish is truly an irreplaceable feeling,” Michelle said. “Being able to have my own creative vision when creating physical products is another nice aspect of being the leader of your own business.”
Motivated to help her sister gain more confidence in her art, Michelle asked Janet to start the business together. Janet has also been encouraged by the praise and interest from people to buy her art, especially with drawings of dancing Shiba Inu dogs.
Making the most of their time at home without worrying about physical school work in the wake of the pandemic, the sisters bought inkjet color printing, researched and experimented with samples. They launched their store once they developed a consistent production process and produced enough inventory.
“With the onset of the pandemic, we realized that with feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and excess time, opening ‘Feel Better’ felt like something we could commit to,” Janet said.
The aptly named company aims to bring comfort and smiles to people’s faces through products that emanate this message.
For their success, the sisters shared the post with customers around the world, even earning a “Star Seller” badge from Etsy for their performance. Customers shared photos of their orders, some showing how they decorated their phone cases with Feel Better’s stickers.
Barnard College senior Joanne Lee – with no family connection to the sisters – is a frequent Feel Better customer, having known the sisters since college and seen Janet’s art. In addition to supporting the sisters, Joanne buys their products to add color to the white walls of her dorm.
“I bought from them and their subsequent launches because their art prints make me ‘feel better’ every time I see them on my dorm walls,” Joanne said.
Although Feel Better is a sideline for them, the sisters do business in an estimated $5.9 billion market. Industry Research reported that the stationery products market grew at a healthy pace this year, with popular brands such as Staedtler, Mead, Muji and Pilot Corp.
“While it may be more convenient to buy stationery in bulk, owning items sold exclusively in one store is quite boastful, if you ask me,” Michelle said, adding that she hopes customers ” feel the warmth in their hearts knowing they are receiving serious human interactions” when doing business with Feel Better.
As Feel Better grew at a rapid pace, Michelle put her Instagram page on hold so she could take a stress break, following the outlet’s own advice to ‘feel so much better’.
As creative blocks may challenge the artistic direction of Feel Better, the pandemic also poses challenges for the sisters, such as finding a vendor with cheap, available gear. They try to source materials locally from companies such as City Papery for paper and Washi Mill for decorative tape, which Feel Better has run out of.
Etsy provides labels to orders through the US Postal Service, but the delivery service may lose packages, never reaching the customer. Feel Better communicates with customers when this happens.
As a result, the sisters ship another package for free, which has a financial cost, especially for international orders. They added insurance to their package, but that also increases shipping costs.
In addition, the inflation of the national economy has led to an increase in business expenses such as raw materials and, therefore, Etsy’s services. The platform increased its transaction fees for sales-dependent sellers to 6.5% in April, up 30%.
“Etsy should be more aware of the barriers they place for independent store owners to continue their store and support themselves,” Janet said.
Michelle suggested that the e-commerce platform could show that the higher fees are worth sustaining by “improving the selling experience”, such as updating the website.
Despite inflation driving prices up, Feel Better’s customer base remains strong, as Janet notes repeat customers make up about half of that. Joanne said inflation hasn’t deterred her from shopping at the sisters, who credit their low and affordable prices for encouraging customers to return.
Michelle said Korean stationery can be expensive in the United States and hard to find in stores. Not to mention that Janet’s art comes from personal and “healthy” experiences that add an “intimate” vibe to the products.
“I think our store and what we offer is more about the mental health aspect of it that’s not so refined and ‘finalized,'” Janet said, explaining that they’re not driven by making d “a perfect product, but rather by something” more intimate and often, even a little childish, to connect with people’s childhood.
The sisters say customers can expect new products such as a 2023 calendar and tote bags this month. In the future, the sisters hope to open a café where they can combine their interests in baking and selling art. They also hope to participate in popup events and conventions, such as independent art fairs.
When starting a freelance business, even a temporary one, Michelle advises students to plan, take risks, and make improvements accordingly to help them achieve their goals.
“It’s more than okay to give yourself a break when life gets too hectic or tiring to handle,” she said. “Of course, the payoff from jumping over obstacles is great, but trying too hard may not be best for your business or yourself in the long run. there’s no shame in taking breaks – to some extent – and remember that your well-being comes first.