Copycats! How Cheap Knockoffs Nearly Sank One Small Business [VIDEO]

The II Sisters (pronounced “Two Sisters”) is a tableware small business run by sisters Simmin and Sudi Taleghani in the heart of Half Moon Bay. They are well known for their custom-made, colorful decorations that are high quality and trend-setting within the gift industry. Although you might have seen their latest line of products, Red Pomegranate, at various retailers, it hasn’t always been what their business was about. In fact, the II Sisters are the embodiment of a lifelong adventure and learning, filled with sweat, tears, and the joy of entrepreneurship.

The two sisters originally immigrated to America from Iran in 1967 when they were still kids. Their mother, a single mom with four children, planted the seeds of entrepreneurial spirit within the family by starting a business in Half Moon Bay after going to school for cosmetology. The younger sister, Sudi, later joined her after she had obtained her own cosmetology license in 1992. Sudi later started her own salon and learned the ins and outs of communicating with customers. She also found the salon to be a great place to showcase her immense creativity as she painted everything under the sun on each fingernail.

Meanwhile, the older sister, Simmin, started off in the corporate ranks and slowly worked her way to the startup world. Along the way, she’s done everything from being an executive assistant to working in finance to HR. Although her professions have spanned the whole spectrum, the few undeniable consistencies throughout the years were her reliability, trustworthiness, and love for working with people. In turn, people also loved working with her.

The first incarnation of the II Sisters was in the fancy food industry in 1994. Their main focus at the time was olive oil. However, as it turns out, their product packaging was so pretty that customers were reluctant to consume it. Instead, they were used as home decorations. In addition to featuring great design, they were ahead of the curve in introducing organic products in 1997. As their brand grew, they also received more publicity. At one point, they were contacted by an agency to buy large orders of their products, but disaster struck when the agency decided at the last minute that the price was too high and ultimately canceled the deal. Simmin and Sudi would later be horrified to find nearly identical products on the shelves of Wal-Mart at a highly discounted price. Upon seeing this, they realized that there was little they could do to fend off the competition and keep the business going. Production was scrapped in 2000.

Although their olive oil didn’t become a household name, the sisters never gave up. Their perseverance led them to start exploring other products, and it was one of their loyal customers that had gave them the idea of transitioning to the oil candle business. The sisters weren’t chemists but they loved being hands on and experimenting with different materials. They began researching the concept in 1997 and later worked with a company called Bay Area Oil to recycle motor oil as the basis for their product. It wasn’t easy, as various government regulations required the oil to be refined in order for the oil to be deemed safe for indoor use. However, there were few refineries that would do such work, let alone agree to work on such small quantities. Fortunately, their persistence along with an amazing track record of innovation finally won over the brass of the refineries and led to the Kahar Oil line.

Kahar, which means “two sisters” in Farsi, was an amazing success, eventually scaling up to 16 employees producing over 60 SKUs of handmade oil lamps. Days couldn’t possibly have been brighter. But as the II Sisters were enjoying great success, predators were eying the gold mine they were sitting on. In 2001, two knockoffs appeared and threatened to take away their glory. Simmin and Sudi immediately filed intellectual property infringement suits, but while they were protecting their livelihood at home, more trouble found its way to them. Chinese firms began flooding the market with more copies. By 2007, this line of products was defunct.

Undeterred, Simmin and Sudi began looking ideas for the next iteration of their business, looking with no clear concept in mind other than not wanting to own the manufacturing process again. Eventually they settled on decorative tableware due to their previous market penetration and established brand name. Despite not having to worry about manufacturing the products themselves, they are now burdened with finding a trustworthy partner. The sisters decided to look in Turkey, where they were already familiar with manufacturers. This line, Red Pomegranate, has been going strong ever since, and has led to the opening of a local retail store called Nasturtium Art of Living.

When asked if they had any advice to share with fellow entrepreneurs, Simmin proudly replies, “Life is all about learning and being exposed to different things. When you get handed a lemon, try to do the best you can and make lemonade out of it!”

To this day, the II Sisters has been in business for over 16 years, starting with only $2,500 and growing into a well-respected name in the gift industry. No, they didn’t hit a home run from the start but starting over hasn’t dampened their entrepreneurial spirit at all. Throughout it all, they have learned to take calculated risks and lean on each other, as well as the loyal connections they have built over the past two decades.

For more stories from our business visits in Half Moon Bay, click here.

About Kang Chen

Kang Chen is an engineer working for Intuit. He has worked end-to-end on many projects in his career including Community.Intuit.com, LoveALocalBusiness.Intuit.com, and of course Blog.Intuit.com. His expertise include Ruby on Rails, database design, system administration, deployment, HTML, CSS, and jQuery. Outside of technology, Kang is a huge tennis fan and enjoy biking.
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