“My real desire to inspire people actually started when I was in my last year of high school. I went to a selective school so all of my friends were pretty smart. I asked them what they wanted to become when they graduate. Most of them had their minds set on careers that seem most decent and well-paid that they absolutely had no passion for. I felt very frustrated that the smartest kids in the country were never encouraged to find out what their true passion and purpose in life are and to turn that into a career. That moment really inspired me to one day inspire people to live a purpose and passion driven life and to find happiness from within.” — Mo Seetubtim, Founder & CEO of The Happiness Planner
Today, Mo is running the Happiness Planner, a company that inspires and empowers through a various collection of planners and notebooks. With only three employees in total, Mo’s company is doing better than ever. Their planners are sold in Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and many other major department stores. Mo’s goal is to bring happiness to those who are actively trying to improve their wellbeing and increase their clarity in life through the practical art of journaling and planning.
I was lucky enough to interview Mo and ask her about how she realized her dreams, scaled up her business quickly, and conquered all the challenges along the way. Read on!
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
I always knew that I wanted to own some sort of business. My dad is an entrepreneur, so when I was little, he would always encourage me and my sibling to come up with different business ideas.
I went to really selective schools growing up, but when I asked my friends what they wanted to do, they had really basic and boring answers. I felt frustrated by the fact that they never considered what they were really passionate about, and I thought that I could play the role of inspiring more people to follow their dreams instead of giving in to society’s expectations.
How did the idea of the Happiness Planner come about?
To be honest, I spent all four years in college trying to come up with the perfect idea, but it just never came about. I had a lot of ideas but didn’t know which one would work out.
Before I started the Happiness Planner, I had a personal blog where I was posting inspirational quotes and writing inspirational articles. My blog was doing really well, and I started to gain a lot of traffic on my blog. The engagement with my blog inspired me to start my first business, which was a company that made inspirational posters. I realized that people enjoy inspirations that remind them of the things beyond their trivial daily lives.
This small poster business gave me the opportunity to learn more about E-Commerce, building a website, and other skills that I was able to later transfer to my current company: the Happiness Planner.
However, the business was small and I wasn’t making a lot of money. Then, all of a sudden, one of my readers commented on my post and said they would like some product or app that can keep them positive and inspired in life. That was when I realized that a journal or planner would be perfect because by writing on a daily basis, you are habituating the practice of constantly reminding yourself of who you want to become.
Many people are scared of the instability and uncertainty of the entrepreneurship lifestyle. What do you think?
Changing the concept of time and money is really valuable. I had to change my way of thinking and lean into the fact that time is a flexible thing.
Instead of seeing your work in terms of time, it’s much more efficient if you start measuring your work in terms of value. As long as you are providing your employer with value that is unique and irreplaceable, they will be willing to pay you any amount you ask for.
What were some challenges you faced in the process of starting the Happiness Planner?
There were a lot of challenges. The first big challenge was paying for the first batch of mock samples for my planners. I was unsure about it because all the payments had to be made before I cold see the manufactured products. I was scared that the quality of the products would fail to meet my expectations. I had to get 3000 units made for the three colors of notebooks, and I was terrified, but I just told myself: Mo, you can do it!
Where did you get your funding?
I took a loan from my father. It was difficult because he has always been the most supportive figure in my life, but when it came to money, he was worried that I wouldn’t be able to pay him back.
After all, the risk of a start-up actually succeeding is less than 1%. My mother would badger me all the time, asking me, “Mo, how are you going to pay your father back? Will you ever pay him back?” But in the end, my dad agreed to lend me money.
This actually motivated me to work really hard because my mother kept reminding me, “Pay your dad back! Pay your dad back!”. I paid my dad back eventually by the end of the first year I started the Happiness Planner, with interest.
Was it difficult for you to get your brand out there? How did you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
I acquired my customers quite organically. I’m naturally good at branding and design, therefore the process of marketing felt natural to me. I believe that aesthetics is the most important thing for our planner, so our first series of planners were pastel pink and green. Our customers really like those colors.
It’s easy to go from 0 to 1, but not so easy to scale from 1 to 100. How did you scale your business up?
My growth strategy has always been to build a brand that attracts. Honestly, the big stores like Anthropologie reached out to me. I didn’t go to them. We first started getting some attention after a lot of influencers started posting our products on their instagram and talking about our planners in their Youtube videos.
Then, in 2015, Anthropologie reached out to us and purchased some of our planners. We are still constantly trying to expand our product range and we want to keep inspiring our customers with better planners made with care and love.
What’s your principle in hiring?
I actually spotted our chief designer on Instagram. I was initially paying her per post, but eventually I paid her to work for me full time. We only have three full-time employees because I believe that a few people can get a lot done. My other two employees are based in Europe, and I am in LA, so we are not in the same physical space. But they are extremely responsible, always get their work on time with their own pace, and we can always hold each other accountable.
What does your day look like as a female entrepreneur?
I hit the gym early in the morning. Then, I’ll go to a co-workspace or a cafe to get work done. I check my emails and communicate with my designer to come up with new content. I don’t outsource any of our content because all the creative juice comes from my brain. I am in charge of all the writing and the creative content in our planners. I love turning my inspirations into something beautiful and practical that people can use on a daily basis.
Where do you gain your personal inspirations?
Traveling has inspired me and helped me grow in so many ways. We are now launching a travel planner to help more people understand the power of traveling.
What would you say to college students to inspire them to live their best lives?
We all have our strengths and weaknesses, as well as our passions. But sometimes as we grow up, we lose track of our passions. Perhaps your parents will tell you that your drawings are bad or your music is useless, and then you start putting these things under your pillow and let them go over time. But if you have something that brews inside of you that makes you truly happy, then the only advice I can give is: pursue it.
It’s hard because there are external forces that stray you away from following your true passions. But your happiness is the most important thing. You may have a stable career, but if you don’t have happiness, then maybe you will die sooner, which is not worth it.
It’s tiring to go after fame. Doing what you really love provides you with real satisfaction. Usually once we get into a new job, we get excited. But as time goes on, we get jaded and want to keep jumping. It’s important to find a job that truly aligns with your passion.
This piece is written by Alexandra Huang, a Weinberg freshman. Alexandra is the founder of Activate, a publication dedicated to sharing stories of inspirational entrepreneurs. You can read more of Alexandra’s articles on her website. Besides writing, Alexandra is a gourmet and traveler who loves exploring new cultures and experiencing the world. She can be contacted via email.