So at 22, you graduated college and you’d been working at the futon shop. What came after that?
I stayed at the futon shop for a while and I realized that we needed a website. The guy who owned the shop paid for me to take a web design class. Then I realized we also needed a printed catalog, so I taught myself graphic design. Eventually I moved to New York City and started doing graphic design for a bunch of brands in the city. That’s how I made a living while I moved to the city. I was living with my boyfriend, who is now my husband, and we were lucky that we had a rent-stabilized apartment. We were really able to make decisions based on what we wanted to do and not based on rent. I had been doing graphic design for a while and I decided that I wanted to open a store. Having the rent-stabilized apartment was really a gift–it was what gave me the freedom to do other things.
Had you saved up money before opening the store?
Yes, I had saved up $16,000, and this was also back in the day of 0% interest credit cards. Every day in the mail you’d get these credit cards, where for six months it would be 0% interest. I didn’t take out any loans, I just used 0% credit cards and paid them off. My friends and family also came and helped me build the store. It was a really busted space–it was an old hair salon that we redid. So I used the money to redo the store and also to buy merchandise to sell in the store. I was buying from other brands. I had some jewelry that I had made at home that I was selling but I was also buying jewelry from other people. And in the beginning it wasn’t primarily jewelry; it was clothing and art supplies too.
Why did you transition to primarily selling jewelry?
It became apparent to me that when people buy jewelry, it’s such a joyful experience. Everyone is happy when they’re buying jewelry. It’s never tedious. It’s never like, “Ugh, I have to buy this ring.” Clothing and jeans can be a pain to buy.
From a business-owner’s perspective, jewelry is wonderful because it’s small, so it can be displayed well in tiny stores. With clothes, there are sizes and seasons, and what if winter never comes? What do you do with all of those wintry clothes? I don’t know how anybody does that.
I quickly found that I loved the experience of selling it to people and having that connection. You’re buying something that you might wear forever, as opposed to most items of clothing. There’s also such artistry in jewelry, and you could buy yourself something really nice that makes you feel special without having to spend a lot of money. It’s such a positive experience and that is really satisfying. I always loved jewelry; I always wore tiny, delicate pieces.
When did you start producing your own jewelry for Catbird?
I had worn a first knuckle ring since 2004, I had gotten it in the East Village. People were always complimenting me on it, so I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll have someone make them for the shop.” One of my employees was a jewelry maker. She had a little jewelry bench in her kitchen, so I asked her to make a few for me. But nobody bought them! Over time I thought of other designs; one of the first were alphabet earrings. Personalized things are so nice but they usually take a long time to make, so I thought, if they were just available to buy, it could be easy. Little, tiny alphabets. That was really the first thing we made and it opened us up to a world of possibilities.
But the way we were making jewelry was not a particularly efficient way to do it: I was paying someone to make stuff in their kitchen, and she would charge me whatever she felt like that day. There was nothing formalized about it. Then we realized that if we were going to be making jewelry, we should make it in-house. It was all very one-step-at-a-time and organic. Now there’s more of a vision because the stakes are higher, and there are way more people here.
How did you scale the business to what it is today?
It would be really great to see a timelapse video because it was a pretty slow process. We had one jewelry bench and then I thought, okay, maybe we need two. Then I realized I needed to hire a manager because I didn’t know how to manage jewelers, so I hired a manager and she hired a couple jewelers, and it really just grew organically from there.
What’s your turnaround time for the jewelry you make in-house?
It really depends! Say you have something simple that will be low price: we won’t release it until we have 500 of them already made so that when we release it, we’re prepared. Something like that, we could make really fast, but we have to stock up. If it’s something like a wedding ring, from when we design it to when it’s produced–well honestly, it could be five years in the making. But then there are other styles that we can make in a week.
What advice do you have for young people who want to start their own businesses?
Get a job in what you think you might be interested in. You might realize, like I did, that a certain job is not the right fit for you! Talk to people, ask a lot of questions.
I like to hire people who have worked in the service industry. I feel like you get a sense of humanity, you learn to be patient. I think those skills are extremely important. I can’t think of any business where you wouldn’t benefit from those skills. ♦