Curated and bespoke products boxed and shipped directly to consumers are enormously popular right now, and with good reason; as my interview with Freshly founder Michael Wystrach illustrated, people are willing to pay for both convenience and a good product, particularly as online shopping has become the dominant mode of commerce.
If convenience and quality are what people want, what almost all of us need is both self-care and relaxation, and that is what Cuddle Box is providing. Founded by Phoebe Chen, yet another entrepreneurial wunderkind, Cuddle Box offers custom, artisanal self-care routines, and as befitting this latest generation of ever-younger founders, it has an eye towards greater good, with a process that emphasizes economic and environmental sustainability. I spoke with Phoebe about her journey as a young entrepreneur, her perspective on the business world, and her goals for both herself and her company.
Mary Juetten: What’s the name of your company and where are you based?
Phoebe Chen: My company is Cuddle Box, a self-care curation company, and it is based in Jersey! However, we are in the middle of a rebranding to open up a bigger vision beyond care packages so keep your eyes open for some fresh updates this spring.
Juetten: When did you start?
Chen: I started Cuddle Box on my 16th birthday. However, my journey into entrepreneurship started at age six when I had the brilliant idea of selling cups of dirt and moss to my neighbors as “potted plants.” I made $20 in two weeks and I thought to myself, “Wow, business is my calling!”
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Chen: We’re solving three problems. Number one is that a huge majority of gifts on the market are generic goods made by huge corporations. All our products are carefully made by local artisans and personalized to the recipient! Economic sustainability is something I really care about, so aside from working to provide a bigger platform to my artisans, I also donated a portion of Cuddle Box’s profits as a grant to Haitian entrepreneurs last summer.
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Number two is that self-care products are often made in huge batches with chemically-ridden ingredients. We don’t–– all our products are clean and cruelty-free.
Number three is that people, especially now, often neglect self-care which is why burnout rates are skyrocketing. Our goal is to bring self-care routines from the hands of artisans the world.
It’s a win, win, win situation: good for the artisans, good for the planet, and good for you.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
Chen: I have one-time customers who purchase Cuddle Boxes as a relaxation care package for themselves or for a loved one, but my biggest market is corporations– from Gen-Z tech companies to real estate co-signing agencies. I recognized that a lot of companies, from all industries, have challenges giving a “thank you” gift to their valued clients and employees and Cuddle Box strives to change this. I find most of my corporate clients through LinkedIn cold messaging and warm contacts.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Chen: My first venture was Hephaestus Hand, where I was on-boarded as the director of operations. Hephaestus Hand was a startup that produced one of the least expensive battery-powered prosthetic hands on the market utilizing 3D-printed technology. This definitely opened my eyes to the fact that teens could accomplish what society deemed as “impossible.”
Juetten: Who is on your team?
Chen: On the executive team, it’s just me. However, I did hire several other teens who are volunteering to help me out with marketing, operations and graphic design. Shout out to Sophia, Angela, and Alexa!
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Chen: I did not raise angel or VC funding, but I did win some money from competitions and my parents also gave me around $1,000 to start off. Aside from that, I have been just using my Cuddle Box revenue to continue funding myself. This means I haven’t given away any equity, which is something I definitely take pride in.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure — what’s your favorite startup story?
Chen: I find that the best startups are founded based on problems that the founders themselves experience. Two of my favorites are The Lemonade Stand and Spark Teen. The Lemonade Stand is an invite-only newsletter for ambitious teens creating startups and Spark Teen is an entrepreneurial launchpad for teens who want to make a difference. The founders of these companies are my friends and they recognized the need for actionable change in the teen entrepreneurship community, so they decided to take action. I find that incredibly admirable.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Chen: This one’s tough. I guess I measure success by my value-add. This sounds a little generic, but I truly have heard so many heartwarming stories from my artisans. I find my local artisans via the internet and have had inspiring conversations with them about their own journeys. They range from mothers who lost their job during COVID and wanted to invest in their passions to teen entrepreneurs like myself. They inspire me to continue doing what I do.
As for my favorite success story, I really admire the beauty company Glossier’s story. As a customer, I am inspired by founder Emily Weiss’s journey of launching a beauty blog, being rejected by 11 venture capital firms and then growing Glossier into a unicorn!
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders or CEOs in growth mode?
Chen: Put yourself out there. Especially when you are early-stage, people are likely not going to reach out to you, so you will have to reach out to people. Cold call, LinkedIn message, and join incubators. You never know the people you can meet. I definitely am really blessed to have met great mentors, including JC Garrett, the CEO of Farshore Partners. He has been encouraging me to strive for more every step of the way. I definitely would not be here without him and his encouragement.
Juetten: And of course, any IP challenges or horror stories to share? They can be anonymous.
Chen: This sounds quite brutal, but sadly, it’s the truth: most teen entrepreneurship stories I hear are horror stories. Society almost inevitably views teen entrepreneurship as a simulation, so a lot of teens end up coming up with brilliant ideas and winning competitions but rarely do they actually execute those ideas. The result? A pretty line on the resume, a wonderful business pitch and $0 in traction. I know teen entrepreneurs are capable of breaking out of this vicious cycle, and this is also a change that myself and other teen entrepreneurs are trying to actively promote.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Chen: My plan is to bring Cuddle Box to the university I end up attending. I want to major in sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, or sociology so I can learn how to better long-term economic conditions worldwide. At university, I hope to continue growing the B2B stream of Cuddle Box and land in some big tech companies like Spotify and Google. I also hope to outsource production so that Cuddle Box can be as automated as possible. Of course, investor funding is not out of the question either! I think especially as a teen entrepreneur, everything is so subject to change and I’m so excited to see where this journey ends up. Feel free to reach out to me via my email: email@example.com.
Thank you to Phoebe for taking some time to answer my questions; definitely on the right track! She is spot-on about hitting people up on Linkedin or Twitter – that is where I met the best and boldest entrepreneurs. I can’t wait to see what’s ahead for Phoebe. #onwards.