This week, I'm diving deep into Margaret's experience as an entrepreneur. It's been a few years since Margaret retired from her jewelry design business, but her transition from a stressed mom stringing beads for relaxation to a successful entrepreneur with a long list of customers including First Lady Michelle Obama is fascinating. Those of us who love watching "Shark Tank" or listening to "How I Built This" will find Margaret's story compelling and full of lessons.
I learned a lot from Margaret. She came into my life at just the right moment. She was the first person with whom I shared my idea of selling vignettes and she looked at my idea and magnified it in a most supportive and generous way. Her confidence in me enlarged my spirit.
She taught me how to price my collections to include costs, labor, photography, packaging, and shipping. She shared press contacts. She shared her accountant and web designer. She pushed me to pay for a professionally-designed logo and professional photography. For the most part, I was a good student.
Once though, she tried to teach me yoga in her yard. We were in the middle of an interminable downward dog when two stags, chasing each other in a way that didn't seem at all playful, ran right between us. We stopped then and went inside to eat instead.
Margaret listens when I complain about shipping, about the stress that comes from living with a shop in the basement. And now, maybe Margaret is teaching me how to pivot my career.
Whatever the case may be, if you have ever had an idea or a dream of launching your own business, I think you will be inspired and motivated by Margaret's experience.
Can you share a quick synopsis about Bhati Beads?
Sure! I started Bhati Beads in 2002, out of the basement of my home. My jewelry was all handmade with hand-dyed silks, Tibetan prayer boxes, brass hardware, and beautiful beads. For the next eleven years, I sold my designs through J. Crew, Athleta, Henri Bendel trunk shows, a variety of individual retailers and through my own online shop.
How did you begin?
We were moving from Illinois to Wisconsin and I was so stressed. Our kids were young and after I got them to bed, I would sit and string beads. It soothed me. Maybe for the first time in my life, I could focus. This was a "Eureka" kind of moment because I've always been ADHD. I was teaching yoga at the time and wore a Nepalese prayer box on a silk tie to class. My students noticed and wanted to buy them.
How did you come up with the name Bhati Beads?
Because these designs were meant to be worn during yoga, I needed to convey that. Bhati is a Sanskrit word for a yogic breath-work practice, kapalabhati, or “skull shining.” I liked the “to make shine or glow” meaning of bhati.
How did you go from hobby to business?
I started selling my silk ties at other yoga studios and through trunk shows at boutiques. I even got into the famous L.A. store, Intuition. Basically I pounded the pavement. In the early days, it was a gradual process.
For a while, I didn't even want a website. But my cousin pushed me. She insisted that it would be a necessity and she was right. Once I got some really great publicity, I knew I needed a functional website. But it was scary. This was in the early 2000s and it was a big step to sell online.
I also invested money in great packaging and a beautiful logo designed by Patricia Van Essche.
How did you widen your reach so successfully?
I gave away a lot of product to jewelry reps. I sent samples to Lucky Magazine and Daily Candy. Their editors called me right away. They loved the look.
I would make trips to New York to meet editors face-to-face, which made a huge difference. At the time, Condé Nast was conveniently located in one building in Times Square and I met a lot of editors there. Though, for the record, I never saw Anna Wintour in an elevator.
Once I got that kind of press, I could go to Henri Bendel in New York for an "Open-See", which is where you stand in line for a chance to give a five-minute pitch to an accessories buyer. They invited me to do trunk shows.
From there, I sent something to Jenna Lyons at J. Crew. They picked me up and that's how Michelle Obama came to be a customer.
How did you manage this success?
It evolved so quickly and so grassroots-y, I just tried to stay alive. My husband was back in Wisconsin, juggling his job and taking care of the kids, which completely overwhelmed him at first. I remember crossing Madison Avenue in New York and he called me in a panic because one of the boy's homework assignments got thrown away. I was like, "And???" But he very quickly got better at it. He and the boys became this well-oiled machine when I took business trips. I give him so much credit for that.
Were you lucky?
My timing was lucky. Yoga was big. Everything online was still so raw. Etsy was still very small -- not like today with four million vendors.
Did you have to deal with copycats?
There is no barrier to entry in beading and you can't copyright jewelry. People were ripping off my designs and selling online. So I had to make sure I was different. My prayer boxes from Nepal definitely set me apart. I wasn't trained in metal smithing or gemology but I hired someone who fabricated my designs. I just kept designing.
What did you do wrong?
You could write a book on what I did wrong. It was the great clash of my inexperience as a business woman and my success as a designer. I should have hired a numbers person or found a business partner.
What did you do right?
One of my biggest breaks came when I noticed that the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models wore accessories. I sent samples of my silk wraps to the editor who thought the casual beachy vibe was perfect. For the next seven issues, Sports Illustrated used my jewelry. I ended up the subject of a documentary on CNBC about the business behind the SI Swimsuit Edition. After the documentary aired, my business exploded.
What kept you going?
I was driven. Despite the successes, it was hard to be proud in the moment. There's always "what am I doing next." This is what keeps entrepreneurs going.
Also, I didn't realize I would get so much pleasure from it. The trips to New York City were magical. The bead shops, the garment district, the inspiration that came from walking the streets, all the energy. Everything is in New York!
The best thing about Bhati Beads was what my kids saw. They were proud of me -- such a great feeling. What your kids think of you can really hold you up. They thought I was the bees knees, and let me clarify, their adoration was not blind. We are talking two adolescents.
Why did you quit?
I was exhausted. I didn't have a team or a factory. I wasn't in New York City. I had huge decisions to make if I was going to expand. I had problems sourcing the silk, challenges with the jewelry showrooms, and there were changes at J. Crew management. I looked into Shark Tank and sent them a pitch. They were interested -- they thought my story and my association with Sports Illustrated was sexy -- but I would have been eaten up and spit out. Whether you get a deal with a shark or not, they get 5% of your business in perpetuity. I couldn't live with those terms. When my husband's company wanted us to move to headquarters in another state, I knew it was time to reinvent myself.
Do you miss it?
No! I don't miss it! I had such a good run. And I reached the epitome. That Michelle Obama is wearing my jewelry? I had surpassed my wildest dreams. I thought, 'okay, I'm done.'
Can you share your best advice?
Sure! Here goes:
Launching an entrepreneurial business is not for the faint of heart. But sometimes, you don't know what you don't know, and maybe that's a good thing.
Know every inch of the market. Then, find a niche. Figure out how to be different.
Know your customer. And be careful about trying to please too many people.
Listen to customer feedback. If people aren't buying, you must reinvent. Pivot.
Ignore the haters because there is no shortage of them. Learn to trust your instincts.
Design is everything. Pay the money for a great website, logo, and name.
Hire a partner or professional help to make up for what you lack.
Remember that it doesn't happen unless you make it happen. Copier breaks down - you've got to do that. No orders coming in - you've got to do that. Invoices overdue - you've got to do that.
Absorb the mantra "the customer is always right."
Don't pin all your self-worth on your business success.
Photo of Jessica Perez for Sports Illustrated by Bjorn Iooss.
If you like reading about women who take life by the horns, you might enjoy my post on Martha Stewart and why I think she deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor. Click the photo to read.