In anticipation of International Women’s Day next Monday (8 March), PJ sat down with Connie Nam, founder of jewellery brand Astrid & Miyu.
She discussed her inspiration for starting the business, the challenges of working from her kitchen table and entering male-dominated boardrooms while pregnant to ask for funding, as well as international expansion plans for the business nine years after its founding.
What did you do before you started the brand?
Before I launched Astrid & Miyu, I was working as an investment banker in Hong Kong. It was hard work and long hours and I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I was always business-minded and knew that one day I would set up my own business – I just didn’t know what!
In my banking role I predominantly worked with tech start-ups and I learnt a lot from them with regards to how corporate funding worked from the business side.
After a lot of consideration, in 2012 I took the plunge and started A&M from my kitchen table. Looking back, it was a gamble and a massive journey to undertake on my own, but I was so passionate for it to succeed.
And your website says you spotted a gap in the market before you started Astrid & Miyu in 2012. Can you describe what that gap was and how you went about filling it?
Jewellery has always been a huge part of my life. My mum owned so many baubles I played dress up with growing up.
I was fortunate to travel around the world throughout my life and jewellery is something I would always pick up either from the local markets or a small quirky jewellers on my travels.
Jewellery purchasing has always been serendipitous, but when I tried to purchase with intent for friends, family or myself it was difficult to find a go-to brand or even a jeweller.
All existing brands were either very expensive or felt mass produced without any meaning. The experiences were also very stale, with products under the glass counter and sales staff in black uniforms.
I wanted to bring all the sentiment I felt during my travels and offer cool jewellery that’s accessible to everyone, in terms of service, design and price points.
And then I remembered a tiny local jewellery shop back home in Seoul I used to visit all the time just to chat to the owner who was making the pieces. The pieces were beautiful but above all the owner was so friendly and delightful.
Combining my price points and the tiny jewellery as inspirations, I wanted to revolutionise the jewellery experience. We do this through engaging physical experiences and a strong community, as well as innovative products.
We are not just a jewellery brand – we are a movement.
What were some of the greatest challenges in the early days of starting the business?
Initially, securing funding was difficult. Nobody really warns you about this when you start out. At the time, investors were really focused on tech-based business and it was a very male-dominated environment.
It was hard to be taken seriously as a young businesswoman – especially when pregnant – with a very young and female-orientated business.
But the setbacks I encountered only spurred me on to prove the male investors wrong, as I knew my brand would resonate with our millennial market. I just had to prove it.
Are they any challenges or experiences (positive or negative) in the industry that you have come across that are specific to women?
I think the pandemic has unfortunately highlighted so many issues women in business still face today. Juggling a successful business or career along with raising a family can be difficult at the best of times, especially in the mass working-from-home period we are currently experiencing.
The cost of childcare is also high and can impact working mothers and their work/life balance.
My experience with securing the funding for my business was also interesting and highlighted to me that there is still a certain perception with women in business, particularly in a male-dominated environment.
During one round of corporate fundraising I was pregnant and to some investors this was seen as off-putting as they questioned my commitment to return. Women in business should always be celebrated and encouraged to succeed.
How has the last 12 months been for the business?
The last year has been tough for all businesses and a worrying year in general for us all. Since the first lockdown, I wanted Astrid & Miyu to retain its experiential element of retail as much as possible as we moved to operating only online.
With tattooing and piercing shutdown, we found other ways to keep our customers happy and retain the high levels of customer service they expect in-store.
We launched bookable digital styling sessions that saw our store experts helping customers find exactly what they are looking for on the website, with these customers increasing spend online.
Customers that shopped using our digital styling sessions spent an average of £85, compared to those that didn’t use the service and spent on average £63.
Our online community has continued to flourish this year, thanks to the changes we made to the business to reflect ‘the new normal’ with Q3 online sales growing by 48% and by 41% in Q4.
Astrid & Miyu is big on our community and we kept our customers entertained virtually when we needed to this year with live social media events, virtual events and launching a new podcast called The Brand Lab.
I think it’s important that businesses consistently evaluate what they are doing and reaffirm their purpose, especially amid so much rapid change.
Evolving your business to keep up the current times is vital in a post-pandemic landscape.
Despite an uncertain year, it’s been an exciting one for Astrid & Miyu, and to top it off, we were ranked number 9 in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 at the end of 2020.
What other women in business inspire you?
I recently listened to a podcast interview of Victoria Tsai, founder of Tatcha beauty in the US. Her ethos towards beauty and giving back to young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, and how much she persevered during the first few years of business, really inspired me on my business journey.
Looking to the future, do you have any plans you can reveal for Astrid & Miyu?
When allowed, we are excited to continue our UK expansion plans.
We are waiting to open up our next store in Notting Hill, the launch of which was delayed due to the third lockdown.
I am excited for the launch as I was living in the area when I began the company from my kitchen table and so it feels right that we establish bricks-and-mortar roots there.
Cambridge and Brighton are next on our list for new stores, along with potential plans for Newcastle, Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
We are also looking at international expansion, so watch this space!