I Was a Broke Young Adult with a Business — and Here are Some Lessons I Learned

Article published on Transit Dialog

I ran a small jewelry business with my husband for a short time. I was a broke young adult with then-undiagnosed ADHD and bipolar disorder, sick of working entry-level jobs that did not bring in enough funds for me and my PWD husband to live a normal life. The idea of finally earning enough money every month was my driving force to keep going.

To an outsider, it may have looked like we were earning a lot. After all, we were selling precious metals, gemstones, and diamonds! But in reality, we only made enough profit for us and our young daughter to survive in Metro Manila. Moving to a distant province with a cheaper standard of living wasn’t an option, because we need to have quick access to medication and hospitals.

Our business had a good five-year-run. At our highest point, we got over a hundred orders each month. We had stock items, consignment items, and made-to-order products.

Then, the pandemic struck. We lost a great deal of money to the sheer cost of business upkeep. It didn’t help that we fell victim to an elaborate scam in November 2021. 1The original text on the published article says 2021, but the scam actually happened in 2021, amidst the pandemic. We tried everything we could to re-establish our enterprise, but every attempt to “sell more” only led to an accumulation of backlogs and much greater expenses.

The fact that we started from zero meant that taking loans would be impossible because we had no collateral. I managed to make some money off pawning my personal investment pieces, but it still wasn’t enough.

Meanwhile, impatient customers poured in. Though we expected this to happen, the fact that we couldn’t do anything brought us dangerously close to depression. We started self-preserving for the sake of our already-fragile mental health.

By this time, I started to feel like the business had brought out the worst in others – and also myself. I found myself growing cynical about entrepreneurship, and detesting complete strangers who spoke harshly to us (although I knew they were just protecting their interests).

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from our ongoing business debacle:

Jewelry is a millionaire’s game. Without your own means of production, there are very real limits to how much you can produce. Under normal circumstances, you might get by, but your ability to survive will ultimately be tested by uncontrollable situations, like a pandemic.

The more control you have over your production process, the better chances you have of surviving. Otherwise, you remain at the mercy of others.

High return = high risk. Established people in the industry will often highlight the sheer amount of money you can make in just one sale. While this is true, they often won’t tell you that high return often equates to high risk.

Without a system to double-check every order – which may require having your own paid staff – you may overlook details and end up scrapping and redoing projects more than you want.

At the end of the day, business is business. We were quite idealistic in starting our enterprise, hoping that we could do business with a “personal touch” and even try to befriend our clients. While this strategy worked for a while, it backfired when we found ourselves on the losing end.

At the end of the day, the only relationship a business has with (most) clients is built on their capacity to pay and the expectation of receiving your products. Ultimately, nothing in between is relevant to the paying customer.

Despite the disheartening things we went through, I’d like to believe there was a silver lining to our struggle. Because of this experience, I grew even more determined to support small-time local brands.

I recently visited a Marikina shoe expo where I heard that some local brands pulled their exhibits out of local malls because they could no longer cough up money for rent. I realized that it happens to small businesses more than people think.

These days, I seek to make use of my limited funds to buy goods from homegrown small businesses. I also do my best to understand and respect their process. If what I am buying from them is not an essential good (i.e. food, medicine, etc.), I avoid placing a deadline in my head.

This also applies if I am buying a gift for someone. If my order got compromised and the seller is honest enough to tell me, I do not rush them. If my gift gets delayed, I will simply apologize to the recipient and educate them about my philosophy of supporting local brands.

True friends understand. And, ultimately, there is much more to a business than its products.