A Small Business That Paid for College
How BU alum Emma Johnson’s accessories line, Em John, helped her graduate from BU debt-free. And, oh yeah, end up on “Oprah’s Favorite Things” list—twice
In our My Big Idea series, we bring you interviews with BU alums and other members of the University community who have launched a business, built a new product, or solved problems big and small. We ask them how they got the idea, what were their biggest stumbling blocks, and what’s next for their big idea.
Not many businesses hit it out of the park on the first try quite like Em John, the accessories line Emma Johnson started in her high school bedroom.
Johnson (CGS’17, COM’19) was a BU freshman when the keychains she had designed—a Lucite initial with a faux-fur poof, which sold for $15—landed on the 2015 list of “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” the gift guide of gift guides, curated by Oprah Winfrey and the team at O magazine. After Johnson interned at the magazine the next summer, her letter keychains landed on the guide for a second time, in 2016.
The keychains were so popular, profits from the sales allowed her to pay off her BU tuition.
Johnson wasn’t quite prepared for everything that popularity would entail: “At the time, I was thinking, what did I get myself into?” she says, laughing, as she recalls the first round of making keychains for the gift guide. “We ended up selling over 10,000 keychains when I thought selling 300 would have been crazy. I was telling friends, ‘I will pay you in friendship for life if you sit with my parents and pack orders!’”
Since then, Em John has grown to include pouches, fanny packs, and wallets. But don’t think her operation has changed much: even though her products are now made overseas, it’s still up to Johnson to design products, manage logistics, and assemble, pack, and ship orders. (Her friends and family are mostly off the hook these days.)
“It’s funny, I’ll get emails from people saying things like, ‘Can I speak to your customer-service rep or head of product design?’ and the answer is always, ‘Sure, her name’s Emma, Emma, and Emma!’” Johnson says.
Johnson spoke to Bostonia about running a business as a college student and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.
with Emma Johnson
Bostonia: So, what’s the full Em John origin story?
Emma Johnson: I’ve always been obsessed with DIY projects. I used to do lemonade stands outside my building in New York City as a kid, and I made bracelets that I sold to my friends in high school. Back when I was applying to colleges, I was thinking about how much it costs to go to university and thinking to myself, if my bracelet business takes off, why even go to college? I could just invest the same amount of money that I would in college tuition into my small business. Then I decided, why not do both? So, I set a really ambitious goal for myself to pay for college through my entrepreneurial endeavors.
I invested the money I made from selling bracelets into a manufacturer [that made the Lucite letters]. The summer before my freshman year of college, I made an initial keychain with a faux-fur poof on it. Summer is when magazine editors tend to start looking for gift-guide ideas, so I decided to pitch my keychains to magazines. I got an email back from the creative director of O, The Oprah Magazine, who said, “I got your keychains and I love them so much that I want them to be featured on ‘Oprah’s Favorite Things.’ Can you make thousands by the time the list goes live?” I was in total shock—I was off to college in Boston and I had sent him keychains in three colors. I enlisted my family members to sit on our living room couch and help make 3,000 keychains. We ended up selling over 10,000. So all throughout my freshman fall, I was running this operation from my dorm room and enlisting friends to go over and sit with my parents and help make keychains and pack orders.
Fast-forward to sophomore year, I hit my goal of fully paying for BU through my small business. Being on “Oprah’s Favorite Things” really exploded my business freshman year. Then I was lucky enough to land on the list a second time, after interning at O magazine over the summer and learning the ins-and-outs of what does well on the list.
Bostonia: Are there skill sets or lessons you had to learn to make Em John successful?
Emma Johnson: Definitely. I think the best advice I got was that you don’t know any of the answers to your questions, so keep asking questions and reaching out to people. I also had to learn about pricing. I was testing different price points to see how customers react—if it was too high, they weren’t buying it. If it was too low, they thought the product was [cheaply made]. Also, at the very beginning, I was creating stuff that I would want to buy as a 17-, 18-year-old girl. I had to realize that not everyone’s favorite colors are pink and purple and loud and neon. Once I got into “Oprah’s Favorite Things,” I transitioned into a more natural, muted look for an older crowd of mothers and grandmothers.
A lot of those early lessons were just understanding what the customer wanted. I was getting tons of feedback from people saying things like, “I wish you made this color,” or “I wish you made this item.” [It was instrumental to] take that constructive criticism and implement it into my business instead of saying, “Well, I personally don’t like that, so I’m not going to do it for Em John.”
Bostonia: What’s down the line?
What I can say for sure is product development and expanding into more accessories. I just launched fanny packs. New wallet colors are coming. I mostly phased out keychains, but I will be bringing them back because I get asked about them every single day. I love a good pop-up, so what I really hope is down the line is a holiday pop-up with different entrepreneurs. I still love storefronts and shopping in person—meeting customers in real life would just be awesome. My dream is to have a storefront where people come in and say, “I’ve always been a big fan of Em John and meeting you finally puts a face to the name of the product.” Also, more partnerships with major brands would be amazing—the fact that I get to cross off my list landing on “Oprah’s Favorite Things” is huge.
People always ask if I would go into clothing, and that’s too many sizes and variants and colors. I think sticking to accessories is super fun. I love the idea of my products and these bright colors I’m drawn to making an outfit. So I’d really love to expand and continue that trend.
Bostonia: What do you enjoy most about running Em John?
It’s funny—it’s been eight years at this point and even though the business has grown, it’s still me packing, shipping, and fulfilling these orders and pouring my heart and soul into it to make the customer happy. The idea that you need all these different people on your team to do different things is just not reality. I think that if you really want to be an entrepreneur, you will achieve it and do it all [yourself]. Of course, there have been moments when I wish that there was someone else waiting at the post office or responding to customer-service complaints. But at the end of the day, the idea of reaching new customers, fulfilling orders, and creating new items that bring happiness and cheer to people outweighs the idea of needing more hands on deck.
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