Categorized | Shoestring Startup

How we built Schmutzerland from Nothing into Something.

How we built Schmutzerland from Nothing into SomethingI know we all have said, “There’s got to be a better way.” We look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “What can I do to get out of this bind?” Over the past few years’ businesses have failed, people have lost their jobs; we’ve taken concessions at work just to keep our jobs. Income is down, tension is high. You have that lost feeling. So you’ve thought about getting a new job, a second job to boost your income or starting up your own business. The problem is, things just don’t feel right, you can’t fit into that new career, you don’t have the skills for that business you wanted to buy into, a second job takes you away from everyone in your life.

Well, we had all of the above. We run a small corporate branding design company called Johnson OR Berish Creative. Our customers started to have their own financial problems, cut their budgets and stopped spending on corporate design projects, some went out of business, others were bought out. All contributed to drastically reducing business income. The available technology on the web allowed businesses to buy template solutions for almost no cost. Why should they hire us?

So, back to the figuring out part. We knew we were good at design. We also knew we had an understanding of branding and we knew we were creative thinkers. So how do we take our strengths and build it into something? So we strategized, reasoned, and try to figure out something new, but our brains just couldn’t come up with the right solution. Then the answer smacks us in the head, like a cast iron frying pan. Only with us, it was a little subtler.

One day, our daughter Lauren was fooling around with an idea of making jewelry in specific fonts and words out of large blocks of colored acrylic. I went out and tried to find the cost of getting these fabricated. My research concluded that the financial investment necessary to have this done was way out of our league. However, some of the acrylic fabricators sent us some clear samples that were domed and they magnified whatever image was placed under them. We thought this was very cool, but so what? We liked it, but big deal, would anybody else go for it.

As designers and students of design, over the years we have collected hundreds of images. We had some books that were close to 150 years old that had some phenomenal old images. When we put the cabochons over the images, they really popped. Some quick research found a company that made very interesting jewelry settings, so we spent about $30.00 or so on settings. We put the images under the cabochons, put them in the settings and created some necklaces.

Then the big day, we listed our first product on ETSY. This is a great web site for artists and crafters to sell their creations. They charge 20¢ to list something and take a very low percentage of the sale price, only after a transaction occurs. Then we waited. In a couple of hours our first product sold. We listed another and it sold. So now we have sold a few pieces, “hey people like this!” Now what?

What happened next, is part effort and part luck. As with any business, you need to brand it, you need a name. You need to create an image. Through a process of debate, kidding around and serious thought, we came up with the name Schmutzerland. Actually there’s probably a whole article’s worth of writing on how we came up with the name.

Then, maybe it was the name or just being on ETSY. We were contacted by a reporter that wanted to do an article about Schmutzerland, our daughter’s idea and our ETSY experience. We don’t know how she found us, but we’re glad she did. That article caused a small independent retailer to get in touch with us. They wanted to know if they could sell our designs. Hey, so now we are in a store.

Well, if one store liked our jewelry, maybe another one would. We knew of a little shop in a neighboring town and over the years we had become somewhat friendly with the owners. We decided to ask their opinion on our jewelry and if they thought it had some potential. When they saw what we were doing, they wanted to sell it at their shop.

So now we are selling in two stores. Our little business has turned into a kitchen table industry. By day, we are still trying to operate Johnson OR Berish Creative, our design business, at night the whole family works on making more pieces for Schmutzerland.

How we built Schmutzerland from Nothing into SomethingWe decided we needed to see where we could take this business. A friend recommended we try to sell at an Arts & Crafts Fair. Our oldest daughter Lauren, who is now working in the business recommends a Christmas sale that is sponsored by Bust Magazine in New York City, this is Christmas 2008, December right after the financial collapse of Wall Street and the banking industry, gulp!

We couldn’t have been more surprised. All of our designs sold…and sold. The reaction was amazing. This was the first time we saw people actually reacting to our jewelry. We were selling necklaces and rings. It was like people couldn’t get enough. In addition to selling to holiday shoppers, we had a couple of store owners stop by and ask if they could sell Schmutzerland in their shops. By the end of 2008 we were in eight stores and selling quite nicely on the Internet.

The next big show we do is the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn in June of 2009. This turns out to be another great success. Great sales and we pick up a few more retailers. Schmutzerland makes a commitment to do as many craft shows as we can. Throughout the rest of 2009 we do several shows and experience very encouraging sales. We also get a little bold and start walking into stores we like and asking them to look at our product line, this turns out to be a good tactic.

Our cost of doing business is relatively low and basically we reinvest everything we make back into the business. We develop an independent website to sell Schmutzerland. We use Paypal as our payment processing company. It is very easy using Paypal Website Payment Standard. It only charges a fee when a transaction is completed so there is no risk in setting up the shopping cart. Since our design business is familiar with designing and programming websites, we use those skills to our advantage. Because we now have this website operating, we start getting hits off the Internet from people searching for jewelry with specific images.

Now Schmutzerland is making necklaces, two sizes of rings, earrings and brooches. The subject matter in our products range from famous faces to botanicals, animals, nostalgic images, maps and geometric shapes. The variety of our line means there is something for just about everyone.

In late 2009 Tracey Ullman, the famous comic actress, contacts us. She wants to wear our Abraham Lincoln Necklace on her “State of the Union” TV show on SHOWTIME. What a thrill, our Abe is a TV star. He gets a prominent role on Tracey’s neck as she portrays Megan McCain.

Since we were on TV and we wanted to let everyone know about it we start a Schmutzerland Twitter account and start Tweeting. We even get a response from Megan McCain herself; she has a great sense of humor.

So Twitter leads us to Facebook. Now we are full force using social media. We post on Facebook regularly. Our Facebook page is set to automatically post to Twitter. We even have a Schmutzerland page on LinkedIn.

In the meantime, we noticed an interesting phenomenon. Since we are in the fashion and accessories space, people who buy our jewelry, like to tell others about it. Many of our customers maintain their own blogs. They write about their lives and the things they buy. These folks are blogging about their Schmuzterland purchases. On a check of our web presence on Google Analytics we find we are getting hits from almost four hundred referring sites, most of them are personal blogs. This works out better than almost any advertising we could buy, because these blogs are satisfied customers, recommending our line to their readers.

With a Facebook and Twitter presence, along with our customer’s blogging we are starting to get known a little bit. When we are out selling at our craft shows we have people coming up to us that actually know who we are. They come to seek us out after seeing our Tweets about where we are selling. Then, we have a couple of interesting breaks. Through the efforts of our oldest daughter, Lauren, Bust Magazine puts one of our pieces in their Holiday Gift Guide. Bonnie our main art director and Mom, happens to be at a party where one of the fashion editors of Nylon Magazine is a guest. She wants to know where Bonnie got that great looking jewelry. When she finds out that Bonnie made it for her own company, Schmutzerland, she wants to write an article. In the March 2011 issue of Nylon, Schmutzerland has a small feature. This P.R. boosts web sales and more stores contact us. The power of positive press is fantastic. We compile a list of retail and press contacts and start writing press releases on a regular basis.

Now let’s backtrack a little to September of 2010. Up to this point we have financially been running the company by the seat of our pants. We buy all of our supplies, pay for show fees and any other expenses from the proceeds of our sales. When we have a good month, we are able to take some cash out of the business for living expenses. Enter the equity investor.

Now this may be hard for some small start-ups, but we had the great fortune to have a friend that was a very successful businessman. He saw how our business was going and was looking for something to invest in. He had us create a fairly extensive business plan. The plan showed where we had been and where we expected to go. He liked what he saw and agreed to help finance the company. Now we had some capital to provide assistance with living expenses, create marketing materials, bring on board some accounting help and some sales help as well.

How we built Schmutzerland from Nothing into SomethingWith the financial help of our equity partner we were also able to afford to participate in the New York International Gift Fair in August of 2011. This opened the door to international exposure. We are now it over 70 stores, in 20 states and 3 countries. We have expanded our line to include cufflinks and do a strong business creating custom lines for our retailers. We just recently created a line of custom rings for the web retailer In addition to this our Abraham Lincoln piece in a brooch setting was used as an accessory in a promotional documentary produced for Jack Daniel’s.

The thing that seems to help our company the most is positive publicity. Whenever we get a mention in a personal blog, a fashion or lifestyle publication we can see a measurable jump in our business.

Moving forward it seems inevitable that we will need to add sales representatives to help promote our brand into other markets that we cannot reach. We can anticipate that we may even develop other products outside of the jewelry space, to other lifestyle markets.

The bottom line to all of this is that we took the skills that we had developed over the years and translated them into another area, which we were able to develop into a company that is full of hope and promise even in these dismal economic times. We took what we knew and didn’t reinvent the wheel; we just changed the direction it was rolling.

By David Rubin

[email protected]


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