Talk story with Corey Neri

Corey Neri, a 24-year-old Kauai Community College student, operates Kauai Buy and Shell, which sells individual sunrise seashells and jewelry.

The business, which has been open for two years, caters to people between the ages of 18 and 40.

He sells the jewelry, made with sunrise seashells, wholesale to shops around Hawaii. He also sells individual shells to six stores on Kauai.

The shells are so named because they have hints of pink, red, orange, yellow and purple shades, similar to the colors seen in a Hawaiian sunrise. They used to be found on the shoreline, but because of their growing popularity, they are now found 10 to 30 feet under the sea.

Because they are only found in the ocean, Neri contracts two scuba divers to collect the shells.

Neri, who lives in Omao, will receive his associate of arts degree from KCC in the spring and plans to go to business school at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

What exactly is your business and what do you do?

I do two things: I procure the shells from my friends who are commercial divers, and I’ll wholesale those shells to dozens and dozens of jewelers throughout Hawaii via social media and the Internet. I also travel twice a month to meet up with people.

So I have a wholesale side, and I have a jeweler, Amber Lewis, a classmate of mine, who designs jewelry with the shells, and we’ll package it, and we have it in about 30 stores.

My business is composed of many key parts. I have my divers, who are basically family to me; my jeweler, I wouldn’t be where I am today without her; and my retail outlets.

I really don’t do much. I coordinate everything to make sure things go where they’re supposed to.

I’d like to expand, but I can’t focus on expanding right now. We’re a small-scale operation.

Do you make your own jewelry?

No, she does it all.

What kind of jewelry does Amber make?

Mostly fashion jewelry, with a beach theme. She makes earrings and necklaces.

Do you have pieces that are the more popular than others?

Everything is handmade, so they’re one of a kind.

How much do you sale the jewelry for?

They go for $125-$130 retail.

Where do you sell the shells?

The jewelry can be found at Poipu Surf, Aloha Spice Company in Eleele and others.

My loose shells can be found at Ace Hardware and six other locations in Hawaii. Specifically on the Big Island, Oahu and Kauai.

How did this whole thing start?

It’s funny. I had some friends visiting, and I wanted to give them something.

I wanted to give them the sunrise shells because they represent Hawaii; they’re only found here. I went to go buy some, but they were $50 a piece, and I realized there was a big market for that here. So I invested the leftover of my school money, bought 10 shells, and I’ve been selling them ever since.

Where are divers located?

They dive at a secret location on Oahu.

A lot of people are concerned because the volume I am able to have at a steady basis. Some people think we’re harvesting them live, and tell us we’re the rapists of the ocean.

But that’s not the case. My divers have been going to the same spot for years, and not the shells they collect or harvest are alive.

How many shells can divers get in a day?

They can collect about 100 per day and about 30 of them can be sold. If you get 100 shells, 50 of them are going to be chipped, and 30 of them are going to have holes, and the rest are going to be sellable.

It takes about half an hour to clean one shell properly, so there’s a lot of man hours in a bag of shells. When we find them, they’re dirty. They’re cleaned with a wire brush, razor blade and white vinegar. Usually my divers will clean them, but every now and then, if I’m hanging out with my friends, I’ll put them to work.

In the two years you’ve been doing this, how has business been?

I don’t know how to explain it. It started out as a hobby, and about six months into it, I was able to pay my own bills and get my way through school. I’m not going to get rich off it, but it’s enough to go to school, make my car payments and be independent. And I get to travel whenever I want.

How do you balance going to school and running a business?

And trying to have a girlfriend, which never works. There’s not enough time in a day. It’s hard. It takes a lot of discipline to figure out what is more important to me that day — social time with my friends, making my rent money, or going away for the weekend. That changes daily because I can decipher what I want to do for the day.

What’s your daily routine?

My life is kind of simple. I get to cruise most of the time. I wake up in the morning, go to the bank and to the post office to see if I received any shells in the mail.

What are some of the perks of being your own boss?

I like having the freedom to make my own schedule. And I enjoy the human interaction, and I like doing business.

On the flip-side, what’s the most challenging part about owning your own business?

Everything is on me. If I don’t want to put in the work, I don’t get any results. But I’ve always been very self-motivated, so it works for me.

For every 10 no’s, I get one yes, so I have to be acceptable to the fear of rejection. When I go to stores and ask to meet with the owner or buying representative, and they say no, I kind of leave with my tail tucked in, so being persistent is challenging.

When you first started, was it hard going into businesses and asking them to sell your stuff?

Not really, because our product speaks for itself. When they know that I make them money. Whatever I sell to them, they’ll double it. Our product doesn’t have a hard time moving.

Did you always want to start a business, or is this something you saw a need for?

I’ve always had a knack for selling things. My mom was a fashion jewelry designer, so I helped her sell her products. I learned how to communicate with strangers and sell them products, so this is natural.

Do you have any advice for other young entrepreneurs who want to start a business?

It’s definitely possible. You just need the right skill set, and be able to develop it. You can’t be afraid to take risks; you got to risk it for the biscuit.


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