Small Business Stories: interview with eco-jewelry designer Leslie Yang

Retail Ready with FiestyelleLeslie Yang is passionate about jewelry, eco-awareness and San Fancisco. Her jewelry line Feistyelle is yet another fantastic example that green design doesn’t have to be all brown rice and sandals, but can communicate a polished, modern aesthetic. A Ponoko regular for a number of years, Leslie was the first person to laser cut felt for jewelry. With that innovative approach to materials she has been evolving her ever-popular, wearable laser cut designs and regularly introducing new ideas.

Getting Started

• What made you decide to start your own business? I officially started feistyelle in the fall of 2005. At the time, I was pretty active on online crafty message boards, and some makers were starting to set up small businesses selling their work online and at shopping events. This was all pre-Etsy! It felt like the next, exciting step for me was to get my work out in front of a increasingly DIY-friendly public. I was making really different pieces during those first couple of years: brooches, hair clips, badges, out of needle felted wool and Japanese textiles.

• How did you decide on the jewelry direction? I’ve always loved jewelry, but it was actually serendipitious that I started making earrings. When I found out that Ponoko was offering to laser cut felt I about dorked out with excitement. I started by designing a dahlia brooch, and because I didn’t want to waste the felt, I threw in a smaller vector of the dahlia in remaining space. A co-worker wound up wanting to buy the brooch but when she saw the smaller pieces, she said she’d love them as earrings and asked if would I make her a pair. I said, “Sure!” and then walked to my local bead store and asked the shopkeeper sheepishly, “Um, how do you make earrings?” I poked around the bead shop and settled on the hoop design that I still use for the majority of our earring designs. When my co-worker wore the earrings to work, it started a stampede to my office of female coworkers asking for their own pair. I started to realize that I had a hit on my hands!

• What skills did you already have when you started your business and what did you have to learn? I’m a graphic designer so it was helpful to have experience in branding and packaging and of course design software. I did and still am learning about marketing, accounting, and all those very necessary business skills.

The important takeaway here is that you should know how to do everything but you should definitely not do every single thing yourself! I love the extra time I get by having a photographer shoot my product and model shots as well as a person handle online order fulfillment.More from Leslie after the jump:

Business as Usual (or unusual)

• What is the the most challenging part about running your own business? Doing it all myself! I’m starting to bring in more support but getting that going takes quite a bit of time too.

• Do you generally create small production runs or make to order? Mostly small production runs. I do custom orders from time to time, which is both fun and time-consuming. I’ll take on new work if it means I can learn from the process, such as experiment with a new material or test a new design. I design two collections a year to keep things fresh and interesting for the customer. I find it’s more eco friendly to do small runs than large ones where there’s more possibility for creating waste.

• How do you balance your creative drive with entrepreneurial requirements? Take it day by day. My advice would be: Don’t over think what you have to do. If it’s time to working on earring prototypes then that’s when you do it. When it’s time to prep the wholesale order then do it. The myth of the artist lounging in their fab all-white studio designing when they feel like it, is just that, a total myth. You design while the chicken’s in the oven, scribble out your marketing plan on the train ride home, and call the vendor when you’re walking to the grocery store. The work isn’t glamorous but I wouldn’t trade it for anything!

I use Action Method for managing my to-do’s and Evernote to capture all the random ideas I generate while walking around or on the train.

Also, I like to mix the creative with the business while I’m out and about. It’s important to talk about your work, your frustrating challenges, and your simmering ideas, with all different kinds of people. Don’t be that quiet artist in the corner. I’ve received such inspiration, developed a clearer understanding of how different people experience my work, as well as deepened business relationships by talking about feistyelle with a variety of people. And last but not least, and this is related, but the people you know in your life are happy to help in their own way support and grow your business. I’ve gotten the most generous, unexpected support from friends who are lawyers to vendors who’ve given precious feedback on how to do what I do better and more efficiently.

Makin’ the Money

• What type of selling outlets are your products in? Shops, online? feistyelle is in 30-plus stores across the country and online: www.feistyelle.com. We just redid our website so definitely check it out and let me know what you think! I’m about to launch the new spring-summer collection: Glimmer & Cream, which features pastel pops of color and metallic shimmer in a vegan suede made from recycled polyester. I’m so excited about using this super soft and incredibly strong material!

• In what ways do you promote your business? I use Facebook and Twitter for social media. I also have a separate Etsy store from my online shop. Lastly, I make a point of always having business cards and wearing one to two pieces of my jewelry. People always like to see you wear your own stuff to get a sense of how to wear your pieces.

Sage Advice

• Have you made any business decisions that you regret? I wouldn’t say I have regrets but I do have some lessons learned. On a couple of occasions I stayed in a business relationship longer than I should have. If the ROI isn’t there, then cut it off cleanly and quickly, otherwise you not only lose money, you lose time that you could spend finding another company or person that would could be an infinitely better fit for your business needs.

• What would you say is the key factor to your success? Between the time I stopped needle felting pieces and the time I started laser cutting felt was one year. I decided then that what I was making wasn’t working well and that I would put the company on hiatus and just be open to trying new things. That one year allowed me the opportunity to both produce a well-liked product and one that could scale. This transition wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten honest with myself. It’s an important practice, specifically if your work isn’t clicking with your target audience. You’ve got to take a calm, critical look at your work and ask yourself tough questions like: “Is this design appealing? Why isn’t it selling?” both of which are hard to do but are very necessary if you’re in business. You needn’t beat yourself up, but do take a break or move on to another design.

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One Response to “Small Business Stories: interview with eco-jewelry designer Leslie Yang”

  1. Matthew Dimond Says:

    We should mention that Leslie’s designs were featured on the Today Show last week:
    http://feistyelle.com/_blog/feistyelle_blog/post/feistyelle_on_The_Today_Show/

    Congratulations Leslie!