Olga Kay came from nothing. In fact, that's not even her real name.
After growing up in the kind of poverty most Americans only read about, the Ukraine-born entrepreneur ran away with the Russian circus, became a YouTube star, and now is building a minor retail empire built on animal-themed kneesocks.
"I feel like I was born to be an entrepreneur," said Kay, the 34-year-old CEO of Mooshwalks.
She was born Olga Karavaeva in a tiny village in Crimea. "Every day was like, 'How are we going to survive another day?'" Her parents were paid in grass seed, sugar and pasta, instead of money. "We used to make candles out of olive oil and gauze because we didn't have electricity."
Kay said she wasn't an especially good student, but she daydreamed of a life entertaining people. Her mother told her, "Olga, if you want to be successful in the entertainment business, you'll have to work soooo hard if you don't want to go to school." Kay's response? "I'll work hard!"
Instead of becoming a better student, Kay decided to get a job.
At the age of 14, she joined the Russian circus with an aunt and uncle. Kay wanted to become an aerial artist, but she was told her hips were too wide. The only job available was juggler. "I never wanted to become a juggler," she said. Still, "I thought, if that's the only thing I can do to become a performer and travel the world, I'll just put all of my energy into that."
Kay spent hours every day practicing juggling, and when she started seeing results, she began to believe in the benefits of hard work.
By the age of 16, she joined Ringling Brothers in the United States, but soon she discovered the circus life in America wasn't as prestigious as it was in Russia. So at the age of 19, she followed a boyfriend to Los Angeles and used her juggling skills to pick up acting gigs.
Then everything changed.
"In 2006 I discovered Youtube." A juggler friend of Kay's started putting up videos on the brand new website. Kay logged on and was immediately hooked by all the different videos created by people just like her.
"I remember watching them and being so mesmerized and not understanding why I like this, but it's this new medium where somebody's talking to me while I'm sitting on the toilet, and I'm actually connected to that person."
A lightbulb went off. Changing her name to Olga Kay, she began posting her own juggling videos, and then started creating videos about her life.
She created funny characters, like Emo Girl.
She even started reviewing video games.
At one point Kay had several YouTube channels and was churning out 20 videos a week. "I remember spending 12 hours a day just figuring out how to post the video, how to edit, how to talk to the camera," she said.
Kay started attending YouTube creator gatherings to network and build her brand. She eventually was accepted as a YouTube partner and began getting paid.
"I remember my first check," she said. "It was 54 cents, and I was like, 'Yes!'"
Kay's channels grew to over 800,000 subscribers. "I've never been a millionaire on YouTube," she said, "but I've made over $100,000 making videos, waking up in my home and not sitting in traffic, just creating content out of my living room."
Then Kay decided she needed to change course again.
"I remember thinking I don't want to be a 60-year-old turning on the camera and being like, 'Hey guys, today I'm wearing this lipstick!'"
Like many YouTube stars, Kay had partnered with retailers to promote their merchandise, but she didn't like not having control over product quality or customer service. Fans would complain about something they bought that she promoted, "and I just sat at home, and I knew there's nothing I could do."
The only solution was to do it all herself. First, she had to think of a unique product. What would her fan base of young women and teenage girls be willing to buy?
"I remember thinking, 'Well, I love socks.'" She particularly liked kneesocks, but how could she differentiate herself?
One day it hit her: "My socks have to be alive."
So in November 2014, Kay used her entire savings of $20,000 to create Mooshwalks, named after Moosh, her cat. Mooshwalks are socks with ears and faces, socks that have names, backstories and personalities, socks that don't look like any particular animal, but are a hybrid of dogs and cats, birds and pigs.
Once again, there was a learning curve. "I knew nothing about manufacturing," Kay said. "I knew nothing about the process of building a website. How do you acquire customers?"
Kay had a lot of trouble finding a manufacturer willing to put floppy ears on socks at an affordable cost. Her wholesale prices started out too high for retailers. She created a pop-up store to test market the socks — "right away it was just, like, $12,000, gone" — and got sidetracked by the feedback, creating merchandise that didn't sell.
"I was terrified all the time," Kay said. "I used to have dreams where I would see my kind of socks walking around, and I would wake up and was like, 'It's my idea, my baby, and now everyone is doing it!'"
Everyone was not doing it, and after several fits and starts, Kay started selling Mooshwalks both directly and through retailers last year. To date, she has sold over 12,000 at around $20 each, which translates to nearly $250,000 in total sales.
The high point? Kay was on a YouTube shoot with Snoop Dogg, and she gave him a pair of Mooshwalks. "His whole team sent me an email a week later saying, 'He loves the socks so much, can you send more?'"
Kay is now working on creating a Mooshwalk "universe" — pillows, pajamas, stuffed animals, comic books, maybe an animated show. "I compare myself to Disney," said the juggler-turned-juggernaut. "They've created characters, and my socks are character-based."
Kay loves what she's doing now, but she's starting to realize that in a few years, she will probably make another switch. For her next act, she's interested in mentoring an entrepreneurial spirit in her female fan base.
"I see myself bringing up other entrepreneurs, creating some kind of a system where young girls are not terrified to do something big." She's hoping to partner with HSN, which has a similar mission to encourage entrepreneurship.
In other words, she is still juggling. "I wake up early, and I get things done, and I get knocked down, and I get up, and I keep going."
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