by Cindy Edelstein
The idea came after the MJSA Show last year where I had just run my annual designerDAY business conference for jewelry designers and participated in the MJSA one-on-one mentoring session at their show.
Andrea Hill and Kate Peterson were speakers at my event and part of that mentoring session too so at dinner that night -- before taking in the opening week performance of Priscilla Queen of the Desert -- we were rehashing our day.
We had met many new designers or those with dreams of starting a business and we were musing on which had potential and who was really not ready or capable in our viewpoints. It reminded me of the tv show Shark Tank (which I adore) .... and then I said "What if we were to do a Shark Tank like contest of our own."
Each of the ladies took a pause, and then said "I'm in!"
So throughout the broadway performance that night I kept adding details to the idea and we had something realistic to run with by intermission!
It was quite an undertaking from idea to reality -- we needed to build an online application platform and create a strong enough business questionnaire to really be able to evaluate a designer's business acumen.
Andrea and I decided to partner in a new business to launch and nurture the Future of Design concept. Her team of business strategists and technology whiz's were a great match for my team's reach and understanding of the designer community. The making of an online application system, online judging platform and overall scope of this plan has consumed us for 6 months.
THE INDUSTRY RESPONDED IN KIND
And then I turned to some industry friends to join the party so to speak -- Kate was on board as a judge and brings with her a great understanding of what happens at the retail level (her company Performance Concepts is a leader in retail training and coaching) and I turned to Mendel Rotenberg who owns several businesses including his wife's namesake jewelry line Sara Blaine. Mendel is a great business mind and we've had lots of talks over the years on how hard it is for small designers to gain a toehold when they most often lack capital and might lack manufacturing or general business acumen.
He was more than happy to donate his time and expertise -- and then he threw in a key element to our prize package -- manufacturing support for the winner -- which would take on different meanings depending on who won.
After manufacturing comes sales, right? So I asked Jim DeMattei if he'd donate his time and expertise . . .and he added to the prize a year's worth of sales representation from his showroom, ViewPoint.
So I had my judges.
Then friends in the industry got the bug and we got even more support for our winner -- Amanda Gizzi and Helena Krodel (then of JIC) were eager to help with consumer publicity outreach so Jewelers of America became a sponsors, Jenny Luker of Platinum Guild loved the idea and wanted to help so they because a sponsor, too.
Chris Casey of Nielsen offered support from his Jewelry Group and now our winner can have a booth at the upcoming JA Show as well as being featured on NationalJeweler.com.
Dan Kisch of SmartMedia graciously offered an ad campaign in INDESIGN magazine for our winner and Ron Salteil of RSP Media agreed to shoot that campaign.
And Michael O'Connor made the prize pool even richer by agreeing to show our winner's jewels in one of his Red Carpet suites during the next awards season.
So this seemed like a complete package of support to help a designer move from good to great.
We put out a Call to Enter in early Sept. We blasted it as far and wide as we could go.
We had set parameters for entry to attract designers who have been in business for a while -- this was not a contest for newbies. They had to demonstrate a history of working on their own and making inroads into that business. We didn't set a years-in-business rule but rather an annual sales volume range of $50k to $350k.
Remember, our goal was to take those that were serious and help them reach that next level. We wanted to foster the "freshman" so to speak and help them get to "Star quarterback" status faster and with the support of industry peers.
Each year we will reevaluate our parameters and adjust as we see the need.
We drew designers from all over the US (we kept it domestic this year because all the prizes were US based and because the business landscape is so different in other countries we didn't want to overcommit ourselves)
We got designers who have been in business for just 2 years and some who have been in business for 20 or more. We got men, women and teams applying. We got applications from those that specialize in silver, bridal, one-of-a-kinds and even one with a "new invention."
The application took some folks weeks to complete.
The 78 questions were intense business evaluation exercises to make sure the designer knew their business well and we wanted folks to be able to gain knowledge and expertise from just the application phase alone.
Many designers open their own business based on their design talent and innate drive -- but it takes strategy, financial knowledge and an overall understanding of how business is run to really succeed. So the application poked at every sore point an entrepreneur could have -- be it understanding their market, their competitive analysis, their REAL costs and profits, their vision and their growth potential.
Most designers said after completing the application they had gotten value out of the process and learned more about their own business. You can see the video of the semi-finalists to see what they thought of the process http://youtu.be/MIxzM8UVQP0
We did take the designs into consideration AFTER evaluating their business potential -- this isn't a design competition but good product is necessary to succeed.
WHY DO THIS? WHY IS IT GOOD FOR THE INDUSTRY?
We did it as a way to support the future. This industry has been hit hard in the past few years and it's even harder for young designers to grow. New designers have always faced the common problems of lack of business acumen and connections but during this recession the road to success became even more challenging. The windows of opportunity became even more narrow.
And if these folks are going to survive they need to improve their business skills and their understanding of profitability, strategy and salesmanship. Retailers aren't buying as quickly and as freely as in the past. Designers need to understand the game more than just how to make pretty jewelry.
The Future of Design will offer more in the future than just the contest. Every applicant gets feedback from our judges on their application -- so they are getting input on their line and their businesses from our five judges. Expert advice not always available for affordable to many. The semi-finalists also get a mentor date with one of our Designer Dream Team (Erica Courtney, Robert Lee Morris, Penny Preville, Gurhan, Lisa Jenks and Todd Reed).
Based on the data we've collected from the applications we can see what areas are of particular need to help designers in the future. I'm sure it will be useful to help us create seminars and webinars for designers.
The reason so many industry professionals joined our cause was out of pure desire to help the next generation. What would our industry look like if designer entrepreneurs faded away?
Mendel said in our first video interview (seen at www.FutureofDesignContest.com) that he felt a strong emotional pull to help -- it's a charitable effort for him. He feels strongly about giving back -- we all do -- because we have gotten so much from this industry.
We've been able to make careers and it's time to give a hand up to those that could use it. That's what motivated our Dream Team members to donate their time -- the feeling of "I wish I had this kind of support when I was starting out."
Of course my business has been dedicated to helping designers for 20 years so this is a natural evolution for me . For Andrea, she has an adoration for designers that began when she was CEO of Rio Grande -- and even though her consulting business now serves many sectors and businesses of all sizes, this is where her heart lies in helping small entrepreneurs think like CEOs.
FINAL THREE CHOSEN:
These three designers gave the best answers on their applications and subsequent live interviews. They demonstrated the best grasp of their businesses, their market, their potential and their road to growth. Our judges also felt that their jewelry designs showed the best potential for growth in the marketplace, too.
We chose these three because they impressed us the most as being able to grow and improve and be able to take our advice and resources and SOAR!
The designers get one last chance to impress us on their ability to grow their business in the next year. They have learned a lot from our process and they've gotten some feedback and coaching already...
They will be making a public 10 minute presentation on their business, their place in the marketplace and their plans for growth.
The audience will get the chance to meet all three, ask questions and the judges get the chance to be wowed in person and see the audience's reaction.
Charisma and poise are an essential part of a successful business strategy too and this is the first time we'll get to see how they show up in public. And of course, how they handle the task of a live presentation gives us more insight into their salesmanship and drive -- they're all quite nervous but they're jumping in with passion, drive and determination!
We are looking for the whole package -- the one that has the design sense coupled with the mind and heart of a successful entrepreneur.
And we will be behind them for a long while -- supporting their growth and cheering on their successes.