I have always wanted to be a maker and an entrepreneur.
When I finished my four years at Savannah College of Art & Design, I dreamed of starting my own jewelry business. But I wanted more credibility than a 21-year-old with a Bachelor's degree could command. So I decided I would apply for corporate design jobs first so that I could learn the ropes of a fashion business, supercharge my resume, and establish a reputation of being an authority in my industry. I got my first job designing jewelry for Coach and for (former Coach creative director's namesake brand) Reed Krakoff. I spent nights and weekends working towards my gemology degree, which eventually allowed me to make the transition to designing jewelry for Alexis Bittar.
While corporate design more closely resembled The Devil Wears Prada than it did Jay-Z & Alicia Keys' Empire State of Mind, I sure learned a lot from it, and many of those lessons really prepared me for entrepreneurship and have continued to serve me as I grow my small business.
Here are the 10 things that working corporate taught me about entrepreneurship:
1. Get Everything in Writing.
Document everything! Keeping good records of your interactions between customers, vendors, managers, coworkers, etc is imperative. This is good insurance when things go wrong: (ie- A factory is late on production samples, and it is going to cost you business. If you have record of them promising the product by a certain date, maybe you can ask for free expedited shipping, discounted product, etc). It's also good practice to maintain and foster an already positive relationship: (ie- If you have written down the exact date that a customer received their product, you can put it on your to-do list to check back in with them a week or two later and ensure that they are enjoying their purchase!).
2. Take a break.
When I worked corporate, there were SO many nights where I had to stay until 11pm or 2am staring at my screen pretending to "work" just because other people on my team had tasks to do, or I was waiting on them to finish their work, so that they could hand it off to me for the next steps (like a relay race). I am SUCH an advocate for walking away from your work when you need to. If you are feeling tired and drained of energy/creativity- go take a walk or get some sleep. Working for the sake of working isn't good business practice. When you're tired, your work gets sloppy and that's when mistakes are made. You can get better work done in an hour when alert than you can in three hours when sleepy.
3. Focus on your strengths. Work with people whose strengths are your weaknesses.
It is always good to know your strengths and capitalize on them. I happen to be good at presentation and paying attention to small details. When I landed my first big internship at Fossil, it wasn't because my watch designs were better than my classmate's designs. In fact, my classmates watch designs were far more technologically groundbreaking. But because I enjoy color and presentation I chose to render my designs (color and shade to make lifelike). This made my designs stand out in a room of pencil sketches. Alway play on your strengths. But know your weaknesses also. If you have your own business, you should hire people whose strengths are your weaknesses. For example, if you are a genius entrepreneur, but bad at communication & small talk, hire someone else who can give your elevator pitch and communicate with customers, vendors, or retailers in a way that will generate enthusiasm and confidence in your brand.
4. Product Perks offer free advertising and product insight.
If you are selling a product, you should try to make it as easy as possible (without losing money) for employees of your brand to have access to your product. First of all, employees are great free advertisement for your product, and making it easy for them to enjoy it generates good company morale and loyalty! Employees also provide great opportunities to gain feedback on your product. When I worked at Coach, I would take production samples on loan to wear around for a couple weeks, then I would fill out a questionaire about the quality, attractiveness, and comfort of the piece. Customer reviews can be polarizing- usually, the only time you hear from a customer is if they are out-of-this-world satisfied or out-of-this-world dissatisfied with a product. So employee feedback on a product can offer valuable insight than differs from customer reviews.
5. Integrity is everything. Especially in the jewelry industry.
Use your honesty and expertise to generate trust from your customers. Jewelry is an investment, and so much of your relationship with clients and stockists is built on trust. If you break their trust, you will undoubtedly ruin your business. Jewelry materials (precious metals and gemstones) come from all over the world, but if you say your jewelry is made in America- you need to keep your promise that all those raw materials are assembled & crafted into the final product here in America. And if you call a gemstone Amethyst, it better be naturally formed amethyst that grew in Brazil and not in a labratory. Yes, they are chemically identical, but selling a gemstone by name without disclosure lab creation or treatment is unethical. I wish I could say I didn't encounter this sort of practice in New York, but I did.
6. Your job title should not synonymous with your identity
I have always strongly identified who I am with what I do. It is very easy to start identifying with your job title and to begin allowing the highs and lows of your job to be the highs and lows of your life. My first boss in New York was Billy. He was an exceptionally talented designer, and taught me how to beautifully render my designs like a painter. He said he learned it all from Bob Ross videos! Billy was also a loving family man- with a wife and two daughters. Whenever work got stressful and anxiety started to kick in, he would remind me not to internalize any of that. He would remind me that while it is okay to be passionate about your job, the things that really mattered in life all happened outside of the office. They are our relationships with family, friends, and loved ones. And at the end of the day, that is what you go home to. This Ted Talk reminded me of Billy's advice: https://www.ted.com/talks/david_brooks_should_you_live_for_your_resume_or_your_eulogy?language=en
6. In this industry, there is no such thing as a crisis
This one is similar to the last one, but easier said than done, huh? In this business, there is no such thing as a crisis, only situations and solutions. Hell, even the president has a "Situation Room" not a "Crisis Room"! I can remember going into teary-eyed, panic spirals over many a jewelry crisis when I lived in New York. Want to know what constituted a crisis?! The stone setter didn't finish their job, and Neiman's needs to see samples tomorrow! or Lady Gaga needs this abstract brooch for her show in two days! or This sample arrived in rose gold, when we clearly asked for yellow! Yes, these are all challenging situations, but they are not a crisis. Just situations that need a solution. There are many occupations that deal with life or death crises on a daily basis, but jewelry design is not one of them. When the going gets hard, its good to remember to check yourself and put it all in perspective. Someone, somewhere has a way harder struggle than your jewelry production delays.
7. Know not only what you make... but why you make it!
To stand out, you need a distinct voice, a mission, or a niche. I make jewelry. But that itself is not memorable or special. SO many people make jewelry. To succeed in business, it is not enough just to make a product. You need to know why you make that product. Because the why is what makes your brand special. Then that why becomes your mission. For me, I want to make jewelry that exists between the classifications of fine jewelry and costume jewelry. I wanted to make something of enduring quality, but for less money than traditional fine jewelry. I also wanted to create my product using natural materials that connect the wearer with the places and landscapes around them.
9. Don't Assume (Makes an Ass of U & Me)
Always be as detailed and specific as possible because when you assume, it really does make an ass of u and me. I learned this when creating product specification drawings for factories. When I worked in New York and all of my jewelry designs were outsourced to manufacturers in India and China, I quickly realized that the communication issues and misunderstandings that can come from distance, time zones, and language barriers can be avoided with good spec drawings. When you leave room for interpretation, you can almost always count on that product not being made the way you envisioned it. For example- it is not enough to write that you would like a 5mm jumpring at the top of the pendant. Do you want the interior or exterior diameter to be 5mm? How thick is the wire that makes the 5mm ring? How large is the contact point between the ring and the metal it is soldered to? By on top, does that mean centered or to the side?
10. Your words aren't the only thing that communicate
I grew up on a farm just South of the Georgia line. How I ended up working in the fashion industry is beyond me! Now that my business is the ground floor of my home, you'll most often catch me in tank tops, leggings, shorts & flip flops. But what I learned at my corporate job (and clearly have lots of room for improvement on now) is that personal presentation has a huge impact on success. The way that you dress, accessorize, speak, stand, and present yourself carries a lot of weight in the respect you command from other people. Coach was a mainstream American brand nestled in the middle of Manhattan. So I learned to dress and accessorize in a way that was classic, put together, and fashion forward. Alexis Bittar was headquartered in Brooklyn just under the Manhattan Bridge. It was a more gritty brand with a devoted cult following, so while I still strived for thoughtful fashion, it was way more acceptable to stand out and be edgy. If you want to be successful wherever you are, it helps to present yourself in a way that looks like a success story for that particular company.