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Jump Start 2015: Start Your Own Business!

Kara Dyer of Storytime Toys
Rachael Byers of Rachael Ryen Jewelry
You have this amazing idea. A game-changer, if you will. But how do you make it more than just an idea? In the first installment of TBF's Jump Start 2015 series, we talked about organizing our busy lives. In the second, we discussed ways to up our game in our current job. But maybe you're ready to branch out on your own! So this week, I talked to two successful, local entrepreneurs, Rachael Byers of Rachael Ryen Jewelry and Kara Dyer of Storytime Toys to learn more about their insights on striking it out on your own!

What sparked your initial interest in starting your own business?

RB: My interest in starting a business grew from an idea that I could create a career that challenged me, helped me grow personally and professionally, and would get me out of bed each morning excited to get to work. I genuinely liked the idea of becoming my own boss, calling the shots and being accountable for those decisions. The impetus for starting Rachael Ryen was realizing that I was creating a solid product that really stood out in terms of design, detail and quality. People were really interested in the jewelry and I couldn't ignore that.

KD: I studied mechanical engineering, and my senior year at MIT, I took a product design class, where we were tasked with developing a product for senior citizens with physical limitations. We had a team and a budget that we had to stick to, and at the end of the semester, all of our products would be judged. I loved brainstorming ideas with the team, doing the market research, coming up with a great design for the product and presenting its benefits/trying to "sell" it to the judges. I knew then that someday, I wanted to have my own product company where I could design and sell products that I believed in/could relate to/that could make a difference in someone's life. So I was always looking for an opportunity, a problem that I could address with a product that I designed!  

How did you identify a hole in the market and how did you believe you could fill it?

RB: When shopping for pieces to add to my personal collection I noticed there weren't many jewelry brands that offered pieces in between the “costume” and “fine” jewelry categories. It was difficult to find a beautiful, genuine stone that wasn't set in solid gold with a price to match. The vision behind Rachael Ryen Jewelry was about creating a luxury brand that embraces vibrant colors using real gemstones, brilliant shapes and fun textures while maintaining a high-quality, handcrafted feel that wouldn't break the bank. My line encompasses pieces for everyone’s taste and budget, whether a woman wants a pair of classic gemstone stud earrings for everyday wear or a statement piece for a special occasion.

KD: When I was shopping for a dollhouse for my three year old daughter, I found that they were either really large and expensive (albeit beautiful), or kind of cheap and not very interesting or well-made. There was nothing in that sweet spot in the middle - a less expensive, smaller, but very beautiful and fun dollhouse. So, I started thinking about how I could design that kind of product. And I had lots of ideas!

How did you decide to just go for it? What was your first step?

RB: Initially, making jewelry was merely a hobby. I started out creating pieces for friends, and then on a whim I took a few pieces into a boutique who took in the collection on the spot. I think looking at it as a hobby made it easier to pursue as there wasn't much to lose. I took classes during the evenings and weekends to learn how to carve wax, the fundamentals of soldering and fusing, how to cast, setting gemstones… everything that went into making a solid piece of jewelry. Over time I thought about making it into a career, but it took about four years to get to the point where I was able to quit my day job.

KD: After my daughter was born, I worked part time for a consulting firm. It was during the economic downturn and they gave me an ultimatum - I either needed to work full time and travel to clients, or I would have to leave the company. I'd had the idea for the toy house line for a while, and decided that if I was going to work long hours it might as well be to create my own product and business.  

I started by doing a lot of research.  I reached out to everyone in my network to see if they had contacts in the toy industry. My sorority sisters were especially helpful! Some of them were in the industry (e.g. Pottery Barn Kids and Crayola) and some just gave me great business advice and encouragement. I found industry trade associations to better understand the industry as a whole and where there were areas of growth and opportunity. And I talked to several toy sales representatives and store owners- this helped me understand where I wanted to be in the industry and how to position my product.

When did you tell your family / friends about your endeavor? What was their response?

RB: My parents are artists and really understand what it’s like to be the type of person who thrives with the creative process. When I told them I was pursuing my jewelry line full time they were incredibly supportive. I had a harder time personally; I had a successful corporate career that I was leaving behind which made me feel guilty, like I was doing something wrong by giving it up. At the end of the day I realized I had an incredible opportunity to make a living doing something I loved.

KD: My husband and parents have been very encouraging. I wouldn't have been able to make this happen if they hadn't been supportive. I am so lucky that my husband has a job that can support our family while I've started the business. And I'm lucky that he's interested and engaged in what I'm doing. He's been there every step of the way, from helping me make prototypes, to setting up our trade show booth, to discussing our business strategy.  

Did you write a business plan? What did it include? What do you wish you had included?

RB: I wrote a business plan about four years ago. However, my goal for the business back then was very different than it is now which is why I’m in the process of writing a new one. The plan outlined what my business was, how it differentiated from the competition, the channels I would use to sell my jewelry and lots of financial projections among other things. Most businesses fail because they are undercapitalized and a jewelry line is no different. You don't realize how much cash you need until you get a large order from a national retailer! My new plan is focusing on cash flow and even financing options as I continue to grow and get more exposure to large retailers.

KD: I did write a business plan. It had sections on the product, a marketing plan, competition and finances. In the beginning I used it to flesh out my ideas. And I've revised it several times as my business has matured. Very soon I will be applying for a line of credit to help purchase inventory, so it will come in handy when I apply!

How did you identify what you needed to learn? How did you learn those things?

RB: A pretty solid combination of good, old-fashioned trial and error and networking. I realized early on that I had valuable resources all around me and most of them were happy to share their experiences with me. I networked like crazy, especially with other designers. I kept a running list of questions specific to problems that I was running into and asked for advice. The information I gained from a five minute conversation with another designer was more than I could learn on my own in six months! As an entrepreneur, being comfortable with networking and asking questions will definitely impact your level of success.

KD: I learn something new every day as a small business owner. As I go along, I've realized just how much I don't know! Some examples of my really big challenges are importing goods from China, managing inventory and quality control. For some of these things, I've learned a lot by talking to vendors. When someone is trying to sell you a product or service, they're more than happy to answer lots of questions for you. Our overseas shipper spent an hour on the phone with me telling me how shipping and importing works - information I wasn't able to find anywhere else! I also spend a lot of time talking to other entrepreneurs. Most of the time, I can find someone who has had a similar problem and can share their experience.

How did you determine the amount of funding you might need, and what was your method of acquiring it?

RB: My initial business plan was pretty spot-on in predicting the cash I would need to get things going. Luckily I had a full time job and the disposable income I needed to help fund the early stages. I personally haven't thought about doing Kickstarter, but I suppose it could be a great means of both marketing your business and increasing capital if executed correctly.

KD: We did a Kickstarter campaign, and I'm so glad we did! It was the first time that I really showed our product and it was very validating. By the time we did our campaign, the development and production prototypes were already finished. I needed about $100K to buy my first batch of inventory. I needed to raise at least 25% of that on Kickstarter, and was able to get the rest from other sources.

How did you go about setting up a sales / distribution model and a price point?

RB: Sales is one of the most difficult and critical aspects of this business. In the beginning, I expected to generate revenue primarily through online/e-commerce orders. Upon realizing how expensive it is to acquire a customer online who has never heard of your brand, I pivoted to building my boutique presence. I love working with boutique owners! Pricing was a bit easier to figure out, as there are standard mark-ups in the industry that you follow.  

KD: We sell our products in specialty toy stores and online. My first step towards selling in stores was to attend an industry trade show for specialty toy retailers. It was great -  I met lots of store owners and took our first orders, but more importantly, I met some wonderful sales reps who have helped us place our products in many more stores than I would have been able to reach on my own. I also reach out to stores via email marketing, which is surprisingly effective. Store owners also helped me determine the price point for our product. I learned that birthday party gifts are between $15-20, and grandparent gifts were more expensive ($30-50).  That helped me set the price!

In addition, selling on Amazon is surprisingly easy! I made product pages for my line and I was off and running. They even fulfill our orders for us. I love working with Amazon because they make it easy and I reach a huge market.

What was something surprising that held you back? What was something surprising that helped you?

RB: Fear. Fear of failing. Fear of making a mistake. There was a lot of being afraid. Then I made some mistakes, learned a thing or two and moved on. Failure is inevitable and shouldn’t be feared. The most valuable lessons I learned were the product of failing. I would imagine most successful entrepreneurs would tell you something similar. That fear is also one of the things that propelled me forward. Each time I would get uncomfortable with a situation I realized it was because I was venturing into unchartered territory and that it was actually a good thing. It almost became a form of motivation.

KD: One thing that's held me back is that I've had a tough time buying enough inventory because my business is so seasonal. This year, I bought as much inventory as I possibly could afford, but it wasn't enough! I sold out and missed sales. One thing that has been surprisingly good is just how helpful other people have been. People are rooting for me! Other entrepreneurs and owners of more established businesses have been great in offering advice and resources. I've found myself wanting to do the same for others. It's been such a positive experience in that respect.

Imagine you are back in time, at the moment you decided to start your company - what do you wish you knew then that you know now?

RB: I wish I would have been more aggressive about getting my brand and jewelry out there. I also wish I would have known that there’s NO amount of experience that will ever enable you to have all the answers. You just do the best you can with the information you have in that moment, make a decision and move on.

KD: I wish I'd shown the product to people sooner and gotten more feedback. I was afraid that it wasn't a good idea, and I didn't want to hear anything negative.  Now I wonder what I was afraid of.  

Imagine you are talking to someone who wants to start their own business. What is one thing they could do tomorrow to jump start that endeavor?

RB: Take action. Any action, big or small. Develop a logo, write a few sentences about the problem you are trying to solve… just do something!

KD: Sketch out a quick plan on the back of a napkin with goals and dates. And just start with the first thing on your list.  

Learn more about Storytime Toys and Rachael Ryen Jewelry, and check out two more local, female-led small businesses: Rain Dear and Brass Clothing!

Be sure to check out the other posts in TBF's Jump Start 2015 series:
Get Organized
Up Your Game at the Office
Get Involved

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  1. Thank you for the great advice, Kara and Rachael! You are true inspirations. Now, to go shop your sites! :)

    1. You'll want to purchase it all!

  2. Starting your own business allows you to be your own boss and shape your own future. There are several methods to start a business, so do your homework and select the best business for you.