Growth & Hiring - Katie of Katie Dean Jewelry
This miniclass is part of our Wholesale In a Box Mentor Intensive, which is offered free for Wholesale In a Box makers. You can find the rest of the miniclasses here.
Katie Dean is the owner and designer of her eponymous line of jewelry. Sold online and in dozens of stores around the country, the line is known for being feminine, dainty, and versatile. Katie created her company from the ground up, taking risks and finding her own way of doing things. And while every maker has her own style, goals, and approach, Katie gets really candid about her path, what she’s learned, expensive mistakes she hopes you avoid, and how to structure a team so it keeps you sane and healthy (while also helping your business grow).
Risk-taking, crying on the daily, and starting a business
I’m an artist and I am originally from Michigan. I love Michigan and my whole family is there but I also felt like I was getting a little too comfortable. And I didn’t have anyone I could look up to as a working artist. So I decided to pick up and move to LA. Luckily, I didn’t know how hard it was going to be when I left because if I had known I wouldn’t have gone.
When I got to LA, I was shell-shocked. I probably cried every day for 3 years because I was so lonely. I thought I was going to apprentice with an artist but actually I just had to start doing odd jobs that were unrelated to art. I worked as assistants at offices, a personal assistant running errands, a nanny, and a chef (among other things). It was a lot of hard work and getting lost on the freeways in LA.
At the end of the day, though, I knew that my goal was to learn from other artists. And even if I wasn’t on my true path, I tried to be good to the people I was working with. Eventually, over the course of many jobs and over 5 years, I ended up becoming a stylist, which felt closer to what I wanted to do. But it was still frustrating because I felt like I’d never actually be able to do my art. I was really at my lowest and wondering whether I should just move back to Michigan.
The truth is, though, that you will discover your most amazing skills in the hardest part of your life. One night, I came home and felt so bad… and decided to just buy a bunch of art supplies and started making. Part of that was disassembling jewelry I already had and remaking it into things I really wanted to wear… and in that moment, I felt so fulfilled.
So I started making jewelry during all of my free time, every night and between jobs. And I found that when I wore the jewelry I made, people asked to buy the jewelry from me, right off my body. That’s when I felt inspired by the feeling that maybe I could really make a living from making something.
Making that jewelry, in addition to the styling work I was doing, led to me making jewelry for photo shoots from time to time, which was really the beginning of my business. Kylie and Kendall Jenner ended up wearing some of the pieces for a magazine shoot and their fans really loved the line. From that moment on, I worked my butt off and never worked so hard and never said no.
It was by no means easy, but things did start taking off. I did continue working my other job for almost 3 years. I got a lot of orders right away but cashflow was a huge problem. It’s not a walk in the park in the beginning but I don’t think that should deter someone from starting a business -- I’m so glad that I did.
What Katie’s team looks like
Flashing forward a few years, we have a strong team that surrounds me as we grow Katie Dean Jewelry.
Personally, I do a lot of emails. I also set up all of the events that we do. Events are a personal connection and I’ll be there personally so I want to make sure to handle all of the details of those. I also personally handle our social media. I design the collections, do the photo shoots, and do future planning. It’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I can focus on the future. Right now, our goal is to stick to a schedule of launching a new mini-collection every 6 weeks and that’s been really exciting.
In the company, I’m a sole proprietor. So I have:
Social media person. She interfaces with bloggers that are a great fit. And she also does customer service.
Wholesale In a Box.
Wholesale Rep. She handles referrals from Wholesale In a Box and collects their orders and invoices.
Production partners. Everything we do is handmade in LA. So one company helps me with the waxes and casting. And then we work with a separate company that helps me hand-make each piece and do fulfillment.
Email marketing team. They’re based in Ohio and help me with email marketing to our customers.
Web developer. They created our Shopify website and are doing a trial of Instagram ads.
Bookkeeper and Tax Accountant.
How she structures her hires
I hire people on as Independent Contractors for a few reasons, but at least partly because I have a home office. And technology is amazing - you can have someone in another state doing things and you don’t all have to be in the same office, with a traditional work setup.
Also, I want to have kids and travel the world. So having a storefront or having a big office isn’t part of my vision for how I want things to evolve. Plus, managing other people (in terms of being on top of them hour-to-hour) just isn’t my thing. When I worked for other people, I worked really well when I was able to manage my own hours and work and that’s how my team works, too.
How she knew it was time to hire
For years, I would travel with a suitcase with all of my supplies and hand-make each piece before shows. And then I had another suitcase with all of my bubble wrap and mailers and everything. When I transitioned to outsourcing some of our production to our partners here in LA, I honestly felt like I was selling out. But I had gotten to the point where I was so exhausted that I would have conversations with people and then wouldn’t be able to remember what had been said. Ultimately, I knew I had to make a shift for my well-being and that it wasn’t selling out.
It was very gradual, though. We started working with our partners on just a few pieces and made sure we were getting everything right before we expanded their role. I think the best way to do hiring is to do everything yourself until there simply isn’t enough time in the day to do what you need to do, or the volume of product is more than you can produce. At that point, you hire someone on.
Hiring gone wrong
The times I’ve run into mistakes mainly come from not doing my due diligence and researching the person that I’m looking to hire. It takes time interviewing them and seeking out the right person but when you really list out the proper questions that you need to get answers to and take a moment to analyze them, it’s so valuable. Also, getting references and checking them is key. You need to actually talk to the people they’ve worked with in the past -- it can save you so much headache in the long run.
For instance, early on, this guy was like, I could be your right-hand person and bring in orders, kind of like a wholesale rep. I just kind of jumped into it and signed a contract with him. But 3 months later, we saw so few orders come in. We were paying him a lot… and we already had so much momentum that it just didn’t make sense to continue. But then to get out of this contract, I had to pay a pretty hefty price tag. Thank goodness I did, because now I have a much stronger business. But that was extremely hard.
On managing a team
Managing people isn’t necessarily my strong point, but I do things in a way that works for us and I learned a lot as I went.
I think the biggest key is respecting everyone you work with.
Always using more communication than you think is necessary.
Keep things in perspective when mistakes and mishaps arise.
Stay solution-oriented rather than allowing yourself to get too upset in the moment.
When you need to hire but don’t have the money to do it
It’s a really tricky spot because it’s wise to invest in yourself and your company but sometimes you just don’t have the money to do it.
I have a few tips for folks in this situation:
You have to be really realistic with your finances -- don’t overextend yourself if you really can’t work a new expense into your budget.
Be honest with people you want to work with and let them know what you might be able to pay or spend -- often, if there’s really a great fit, people will work with you.
Find pennies for hiring wherever you can. I went through my personal budget and started cutting things to find money to hire people that would help my business grow. Being a business owner isn’t glamorous at the beginning, but I tried to keep the perspective that these things would get me where I wanted to be in 5-10 years.
Consider creative arrangements. Sometimes you can structure things with a trial period, at a lower cost, and then if the person or company meets certain metrics, you can increase the amount you pay them.
Do not quit your day job. It’s expensive starting your own company and if you have to start going into debt or not having money for groceries, it can be really stressful. You may even have to get another side hustle to cover your business’s expenses.
On staying on top of finances
It’s about simple organization and then prioritizing what you’re already doing. Even little things like buying lunch every day can have a big impact on the money you have available to grow your business. But a lot of times, we don’t even realize exactly where the money is going. Write out your monthly expenses and get clear on how much money you need to keep the business going or started.
In terms of staying organized, we use Quickbooks. The second thing that I invested in was a bookkeeper. I am one of those people that didn’t want to do budgets or finances. But I did it myself for about two years and then I realized that I was missing out on things that would have saved money, so I did hire a bookkeeper. She goes through every statement and all of my business expenses. And then quarterly, we go over everything together. It’s hard, looking honestly at how much you spend, but it helps so much because our bookkeeper has the experience from working with other clients and can put that spending in perspective.
As a counterpoint, remember that it’s good to be conscious of what you’re spending money on -- but at the same time, you have to go out and spend on the things that will then make you money in return.
On the emotional side of outsourcing
Starting to work with people on the production end of things was a roller coaster for me. At the beginning, I felt very sad about it and I felt like a sellout. As I started to have the free time to look into the future and make plans for the future, I really embraced it and I saw how it helped me focus on the art and design aspects of my business.
Plus, we really started to see our sales rise because of the intentional planning and marketing that I was doing -- which I simply wouldn’t have had time for otherwise.
On a personal side, before we hired those companies, I was neglecting my well-being. I ran on coffee and sugar. So once we started working with them, I also felt mentally more clear.
I don’t think it’s wrong to feel sad about it. I think it’s a very personal thing. But now what I do is make sure that I’m still very much connected with the making -- I still make all the samples because I have a very particular vision for everything. And I also do little projects on my own - like for friends or special projects, as well as the repairs for our pieces.
On staying organized and effective
Writing everything down is key. I use ‘notes’ on my Mac laptop to keep a running list of things that are being worked on by other people and as soon as they are done I cross them off. For my personal to-dos, I keep a notebook that I handwrite my list on, but for other projects I keep them on my computer. I know there are some programs that are helpful, like Trello, but since I only work with a handful of independent contractors I find this to be really simple while still keeping me organized and on a timeframe.
How to tell the story of a handmade line if you do outsource some production
Go back to your purpose of why you started this company. What is the reason you do what you do? Have that be an integrated and shining part of your story and then talk about how your pieces are made by hand or what parts of the process are being made in the USA. It’s a priority (and a must) to stay truthful but when you tell your story, you should highlight how you’re continuing to stay handmade as well as expanding as a brand. It’s nothing to be ashamed of -- it’s something to be proud of!
On the biggest mistakes makers make when it comes to hiring
I see two things happen a lot. Sometimes, makers don’t hire at all and get totally burned out from doing everything themselves. If you do that for too long, it can be a mistake because it harms your well being and hinders growth and expansion.
Alternatively, makers hire someone completely wrong for the brand. For example: the person isn’t interested in the company or what they’re doing, they’re just waiting to get paid, they aren’t enthusiastic about the product of the company, they’re on social media the whole time they’re working. I see this at events and markets more all the time. You really need to put on your observation hat and when you’re going to have someone do work for you, whether it’s a one-off project or long term, you need to make sure that they support what you’re doing, have interest in it, and want to see you expand.
Katie’s hiring process
I start by looking at what’s overflowing in my brand. Is it social media, wholesale accounts, website work, or something else? In other words, I think about what the thing is that is getting so big I can’t handle it myself anymore. And I ask: how can it be done more efficiently and better than how I’m doing it?
Then I write down what that thing is and how I have been doing it (SO important to write this out!). That way, when I start looking for an independent contractor to do this for me, I know what I’m looking for and I can plainly see if they are right for the position or if they don’t fit the bill.
After that I usually post something on social media (it’s free, and a great tool to utilize!) and get referrals. Referrals are always the best option in my opinion but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your due diligence after you get connected with someone! Typically, from that point, I find people to interview but if I haven’t found the right person I start emailing, texting and calling people directly to get referrals. Again, it’s free. All it costs is your time.
Once I’ve narrowed down some people that were referred, I set up a video call and just talk to them. You can tell so much about a person by the way they communicate. I highly recommend the video aspect of this because you can see their expressions and if they’re all smoke and mirrors you’re much more able to see that. And because I hire independent contractors, the main thing I’m looking for are: what are their skills? how much do they cost? how will they be able to help me become more efficient and achieve the goal that I’m looking to accomplish?
When I hire someone to do something, ideally I want them to do it better than me.
I rarely make a spur of the moment decision on these things and I always interview more than one person or company because I want to see what the industry standard is before I commit to someone. You can learn a lot from interviewing people so it’s good to soak it all in and really look at the pros and cons between the people you’re looking at working with.
The thing she looks for in everyone she works with
The main thing is ALWAYS good communication. If they aren’t able to explain how they’re doing something, get flustered easily, or they seem to have a lot of uncertainty in our conversation, it’s a direct connection to their abilities and confidence in what they’re doing. I want whoever I work with to be confident, friendly, respectful, efficient and a self starter.
Katie has an incredible wealth of experience in going from wishing she were doing her art, to starting a business, to growing it into something sustainable and thriving.
Some of the key things Katie shared include:
Don’t rush the hiring process.
Do your due diligence and make sure to go through all the steps to vet the person.
Be creative in how you structure hires.
If you really want to work with someone but don’t have all of the money to fund it, be honest about that and sometimes you can find a creative solution.
If necessary, make personal spending sacrifices to invest in your business.
Write everything down.
Keep yourself honest with what you’re spending by tracking it. Write out what teammates are working on and when things are done. Write out characteristics of people you’re hiring for, so that you’re clear in the interview process.
Hire help when you get to the point that you can’t do it yourself anymore because of the workload.
If possible, hire via referrals or through your personal or business networks and always look to hire great communicators.
Have questions or need a hand?
This miniclass is part of our Wholesale In a Box Mentor Intensive, which is offered free for Wholesale In a Box makers.
As always, we’re here to help! If you have clarifying questions, want us to take a look at what you’re working on, or would like to schedule a coaching call, just drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.