How selling Cutco knives as a teen inspired this entrepreneur's direct-selling empire

How selling knives door-to-door led to a direct-sales empire

At age 17, Chantel Waterbury got her first real taste of the power that comes from being your own boss, selling Cutco knives door-to-door.

"I was looking through a newspaper and saw this ad," Waterbury says. "It made me think there was potential to make a tremendous amount of money."

But this wasn't your average summer job to earn enough to go shopping or fill up her gas tank. Waterbury was hustling to pay for her first year of college at Santa Clara University in California. She raked in a whopping $30,000 in one summer, enough to fund her first year of school.

"I was driving to people's homes, doing five to seven demos a day, seven days a week," she remembers. "It gave me tremendous confidence, running a business at a young age."

It's amazing to me how fearless I was at the time. It was this or nothing.
Chantel Waterbury
founder of Chloe + Isabel
Chantel Waterbury selling Cutco knives as a teenager to pay for college.
Source: Chantel Waterbury

So it only seems fitting that Waterbury, now 40, is at the helm of a direct-selling empire of her own, New York City–based Chloe + Isabel. The social-commerce company allows merchandisers to set up curated online jewelry boutiques to sell to customers on the web and in person.

What's more, she is employing over 10,000 saleswomen across the country, 70 percent under age 34. Products retail for under $200, and merchandisers keep between 25 and 40 percent of sales — the more they sell, the more they keep. Chloe + Isabel keeps the rest, generating revenue off its merchandisers' sales online and in pop-up shops.

The retail veteran walked away from a 15-year corporate career to launch Chloe + Isabel in 2011. She was a vice president of merchandise and design at Haskell Jewels in New York City, developing jewelry for big brands like Kenneth Cole. Then a conversation with her mother, who was losing her battle to breast cancer, gave her the push she needed to launch her business.

"I always knew I wanted my own company, but you get to a point in your life where you become comfortable," Waterbury says. In "the last conversation I had with my mom, she said, 'This isn't the daughter that I know. The daughter that I know was fearless — she wouldn't have been afraid to take that plunge.'"

Waterbury, then a new mom to a baby boy, gave herself six months to get off the ground. She did just that, raising $3.5 million before launching. Five years later, the company has raised over $37 million from investors, including SoftBank Capital and General Catalyst Partners, and is reportedly valued at more than $100 million, a number the company declines to confirm.

"It's amazing to me how fearless I was at the time," she says. "It was this or nothing."

Chloe + Isabel’s jewelry ranges from $18 to $200.
Source: Chloe + Isabel

The entrepreneur credits her drive in large part to the complicated relationship she had with her mom, who Waterbury, as a child growing up in Oroville, California, watched struggle on and off in welfare programs.

Waterbury worked as a kid, running a paper route to help with the bills, and recognized early on that education was a way out. At 14, she moved four hours away to attend a private high school in Red Bluff, California, where she was admitted on scholarship due to her grades, and she continued to work odd jobs and tutor to make her way. Later, she emancipated herself at age 15 from her mother, and remained focused on finding ways to achieve her educational goals, like selling knives door-to-door.

Today, she's proud to see the company she took a leap of faith to launch helping other women gain confidence and financial independence. The start-up, which interviews and trains all sellers before they can dive into running their businesses, is receiving thousands of applications each month from would-be merchandisers. Waterbury approaches the structure from a retail point-of-view, making sure they have the tools to approach their business the way a buyer would.

"One of the first sentences I ever wrote about Chloe + Isabel was, 'I don't care if this is a stepping stone or your destination, we're here to help you reach your goals,'" she says. "Our tagline is 'Be Creative, Be Confident, Be You,' and it's not that we are looking for someone to have all this confidence coming in. It's that we want to help give them the confidence to be great at what they do."