When I was a young college student, trying to figure out what career I wanted to pursue, my dad gave me a piece of advice: “Pick an entrepreneurial business that can evolve with your life.” As an eighteen-year-old, I had no idea what he was talking about. I spent three years studying interior design and architecture before realizing it wasn’t the right path for me. I yearned for something that would allow me to create by hand and also fulfill my entrepreneurial craving. Eventually, I picked jewelry design. It might be more accurate to say that jewelry design picked me, but that’s a whole different story!
Seven years into owning my own business, I finally understand what my dad meant all those years ago. Life is full of changes and transitions, and a business that transitions with you is a business that can survive and thrive. Fortunately, the jewelry industry is highly flexible and able to adapt through many phases of life. I want to share what I’ve learned about the various stages of growing a business and how to succeed through every pivotal crossroad.
The Big Idea
Every small business starts with an idea. For me, that idea hit during my final year at SCAD. Rather than going to work for a large jewelry company, I wanted to be my own boss and design my own pieces. I had visions of myself tinkering away in my studio for days on end, creating unique and beautiful rings, earrings, and bracelets. That part was clear. The rest of it (how I’d market myself, how I’d balance my budget, how I’d actually make a living) was significantly less clear. What I lacked in experience I made up for with passion and tons of energy. Those early stages are often marked by high energy and positive spirits with a slight dash of naivete.
All this excitement is essential to building the momentum you need to get your big idea off the ground. Plus, it’s a lot of fun! However, I do wish I had taken some time to think a little more carefully about some of those less exciting but equally important aspects of running a business, such as taxes, salaries, and making a profit. I would have saved myself a lot of headaches later on if I had only taken the time to plan ahead. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how important it is to clearly articulate your goals. You can’t hit a goal you don’t think about!
The Side Hustle
For the first couple years after graduation, my passion was a side hustle. In addition to pursuing further education and running my budding jewelry business, I was working two part-time jobs. Fortunately, both of those part-time jobs helped me develop skills I would use later on. Working retail taught me how to sell and provided valuable practice with customer service. I was also working at SCAD as a “studio monitor” in the jewelry department, keeping students safe and helping them problem solve. Guiding students toward alternative solutions when projects failed, blew up, or melted taught me how to coach a team, which turned out to be pivotal to my success. On top of all this work, I was about to get engaged!
It’s completely normal, and in many ways wise, to start out your business as a side-hustle. It’s important to have a consistent source of income and some semblance of stability. Unfortunately, there is also a serious risk of burnout during this period. No one can sustain that fractured attention forever, and eventually you will have to decide if you want your small business to grow into your primary focus or shrink into a hobby. Especially for high achievers like myself, it’s tempting to want to please everyone, which means it might be hard to “let down” the people you are working for. But if you’re honest with yourself, you will know when the time is right to step away from other pursuits. For me, that moment came when I realized I was missing out on sales because I didn’t have time to fulfill them. Worse, the money I would have made from those projects was more than the money I was making from my day jobs!
My Advice: When it costs more money to not work for yourself, it’s time to switch to full time. Not when you get the idea. Not when you think you can make the switch, but when it’s clear, measurable and obvious that transitioning is the right choice. That’s when you know the risk is worth it.
Transition to Full Time
There’s never an easy time to make the leap to full time, but the same month as your wedding is probably among the least advisable. Still, as I said above, the numbers usually don’t lie. I quit those two day jobs, got married, and dove head first into the deep end with Kristen Baird® Jewelry all in a matter of weeks. That amount of abrupt transition was unnerving but also well calculated and in the end worthwhile. I’ve definitely never looked back.
Transitioning to full time work can be scary. Suddenly, you don’t have that safety net from the day job, and it can be tempting to make rash decisions in pursuit of quick growth and fast cash. I can’t tell you how many people advised me to throw all my savings into advertising so I could scale up my business as rapidly as possible. Quick! Fast! Speedy! While that advice was certainly well-intentioned, I’ve witnessed countless folks who went out of business because they jumped in headfirst, burned through their money in a second, and fizzled out faster than a wet firecracker. From my experience, faster is not always better. Grabbing quick sales from one-time discounts that undervalue your work can limit your ability to cultivate relationships with great customers who will buy from you again and again. That’s where real success happens!
My advice: Operate at a slow burn. Be authentic and create real relationships within your community. It’s strategic, calculated, and sustainable. It does take a big ego check, though, and a lot of patience. Which brings me to the next phase…
If your business is going the way you want it to, you will eventually get to the point where you can’t do it all on your own. That’s a good thing! Still, it can be hard to get out of the cost-cutting mindset of those early years. Combine that with the fact that my husband and I were in the process of buying our first home, and the thought of hiring my first employee was pretty nerve-wracking.
No matter how hard-working you are, there is only so much you can do on your own. So, right as I was settling into my new suburban life, I added my first in-studio employee to help me with jewelry production. She assisted with all the pieces that sold in galleries so I could focus on the higher price point commissioned work as well as the overall business direction. I also hired an accountant and a business lawyer at this time. Before then, I tried to DIY my taxes and it ended up costing me a ton of money. This is not a mistake I ever want to make again.
My Advice: The money you save from being your only employee is also money lost because you’re limiting your ability to grow. Once again, the numbers will tell you when the time is right. Additionally, spend the money on specialists. It’s worth it. Pay the people who know what they are doing when it comes to money, taxes, and Intellectual Property. Pay the people!
Going All In
Impostor syndrome is a very real challenge for many small business owners, especially when you’re just starting to find success. Even though I was working full time and had a full time employee, I still didn’t feel like an established business owner. I was very concerned about making sure all the bills were paid, and consequently I was eager to take every single job that came through the door, even ones I wasn’t personally enthusiastic about. I didn’t fully realize that I was doing this until I applied for the Halstead Grant. I placed in the top 5, which was a good result for a first time applicant, but when I received the feedback report from the judging committee, their advice really struck a chord with me. This is what they said:
|“We see that you are at a fork in the road. There are two likely paths ahead for your business and both are promising, it is just not clear which way you are headed. Path one is continuing to pursue custom, one-of-a-kind bridal as your primary profit source as a regional jewelry store…offering a wide range of work (and styles) to appeal to the many different customer segments that might walk into your brick and mortar storefront. Path two is to focus on developing a cohesive signature look and putting the Kristen Baird brand front and center in all you do. (Bridal/Commissions) can still be a part of this business but must clearly show your individual look and aesthetic.”|
This turned out to be a major turning point in my journey as both an artist and a business owner. While I thought that quitting my day job and hiring an employee meant that I was fully invested, I wasn’t really fully invested until I started believing in my own vision. I chose to go all-in with my signature aesthetic: jewelry inspired by nature with flowing, organic forms and soft geometric shapes. My signature “ripple” design, which imitates flowing water, became synonymous with Kristen Baird® Jewelry. This decision paid off. When I applied for the grant again a year later, I won.
As a side note, I absolutely still offer custom work, but now I do so on my own terms. In fact, I refer to all my custom projects as commissions. I offer some tips and advice on offering custom jewelry in this blog post.
My Advice: Trust your gut. Stay true to your vision and what you’re passionate about. While it’s tempting to want to be everything to everyone, it’s okay to be choosy about which projects you take on. Don’t listen to anyone who undermines your best judgment! Also, find solid, trustworthy, people who will give you good advice from an outside perspective. To that end, I cannot recommend applying for the Halstead Grant enough! The committee’s feedback was transformative in my journey, and they can do the same for you.
Mix It Up
Inevitably, something unexpected will come along that will force you to adjust and change the path of your business. This will probably happen several times in the course of your career. For me, the first major disruption came in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many small business owners, I had to adapt to a totally new way of operating. Up to that point, most of my sales had been local/regional and in-person. I attended jewelry shows and put my pieces into galleries around the Southeast. During the early days of the pandemic, I canceled all of my planned travel and started focusing more on online sales. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. There was such a wide and untapped market for my work that I never would have found if I’d stayed focused on local sales.
Additionally, I started adding more remote and 1099 employees. These contractors could work from anywhere in the country (or the world), which hugely expanded my pool of potential team members. Suddenly, I realized that the best people for the jobs I needed might not be locally based - and that was okay! I also had to take a hard look at the aspects of my business that were no longer making sense. Laying off my in-person employee was not an easy decision to make. However, it was the best thing for the direction of my business.
My Advice: When crises arise, it’s often necessary to make speedy yet calculated decisions. I had to make very quick and decisive choices, without panicking, to save my business.
Additionally, 1099 contractors are a great way to build your team with experts and specialists who share your entrepreneurial spirit. You’ll save a lot of money on benefits and will be able to collaborate with experts on both short and long term projects. You can read my blog about building a contractor team for tips and more in-depth advice.
Making Time for Family
There really is no bigger transition for a person to go through than starting a family. My first child came along right as I was making the major shift toward online sales, adding more 1099 employees, and in the middle of the Covid situation. Fun times! There is certainly a lot of benefit to being able to work from home with your kids, but it’s a bit of a myth to say that you can take care of your little ones and work at the exact same time. Both your business and your children demand full attention, so it’s important to separate those things and set aside genuine time for both. Fortunately, I have established a supportive network of grandparents, babysitters, and friends to watch the kids during the day so I can focus on work. When the kids are home, I focus on being a mom. On that note, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to childcare. Nanny-shares, daycare, and taking turns watching neighborhood kids are all options that work for different families. It truly does take a village!
Some small business owners might tell you that true entrepreneurship requires you to sacrifice your work-life balance. I strongly disagree. It’s essential that you allow yourself to step away from work from time to time and make choices that are compatible with your lifestyle. For me, that meant significantly cutting down on travel, even after pandemic restrictions ended. I simply need to be home more often than I am away, and that’s all right. Fortunately, my strategic decision to focus on online sales played right into this need for flexibility and focus on my family
My Advice: Decide what your personal priorities are in addition to your professional priorities. Sometimes, the personal has to take precedence, and that is completely acceptable. Whether that means kids, travel, caring for an elderly family member, or anything else that might come along, make time for what matters most to you.
Prepping for Big Growth
As my dad wisely told me, your business will ebb and flow along with the various stages of your life. When I was a brand-new mom, my primary focus was on my kids, and it always will be to an extent. But now, with one kid entering preschool and the other spending days with his grandparents, I have more time to refocus on my business. With all my experience behind me and all my infrastructure in place, I’m gearing up for some major growth. It’s a very exciting time!
That’s the joy of running your own business. There are times of growth, times of plateau, and times of discovery. Throughout all of it, it’s important to keep your goals in mind, not only revenue goals, but lifestyle goals, family goals, and creative goals. One day, you will look back with pride and gratitude and realize that all the planning, late nights, and craziness were worth it.
All images courtesy of Kristen Baird.