Out of the oven and onto your neck: 5 business lessons I learned from being burned

It was 2007, and while I had a good job at Google as a designer, I still felt restless. At this time I had been a graphic designer for Fortune 500 companies for nearly a decade, but somehow I had a sense of something missing. I was searching for creative outlets—I was always interested in transitioning from the pixels/digital world to the physical one.

I had accumulated a giant Illustrator file I called “Pixel Dump” (a metaphor for my life?). This was my dumping ground for patterns, both made and found, and everything that inspired me. Here are a few areas zoomed in:

As you can see a total mess…what my creative process usually is

At the same time I took a jewelry making class at a community college, and was on the way to spending all my money on semi-precious stones and sterling silver wire:

Something your mom might like…

There only one problem — I hated traditional designs and would never wear anything I had made.

So I put on my designer hat. What would it take to make jewelry awesome, or at least something I would be open to wearing?

I should have expected where the answer came from. I discovered Shrinky Dinks at a craft shop with my four-year old daughter: thin plastic you can print on, bake in the oven, and harden into wearables. The crucial sense of playfulness had drained out of me over a decade of pushing pixels solving business problems, and this children’s toy made it all rush back.

I went back to my Pixel Dump and selected images and patterns that I printed on Shrinky Dinks using my ink jet printer. I thought designing squares would be nice—since my last name is Blok, I would use blocks. I bought leather bands, jump rings and a hole puncher. I would take a sheet of plastic, print images, cut them to size, make a hole and bake it in my oven. Once each square cooled down, I would attach it to leather band with a jump ring.

I decided to name the company “I Love Blocks.” I came up with the logo, press kit and designed and programmed a website. My biggest accomplishment was including a PayPal widget so customers could check out. I also put together a business plan… I‘ve never done any of these before, so I was learning a ton.

I had no budget to hire models, so I decided to photoshop pendants onto royalty free stock images. My first set of designs were just things I thought were aesthetically cool, they were decorative—but I still felt this was not enough. They lacked the big idea.

I had to push these to the next level.

Technology and the Internet were still fairly new trends in popular culture. Taking their familiar symbols and placing them in an ironic context creates fun irreverent statements. Since these were amusing to me, I thought they would also appeal to other people in tech. I designed a few pieces, and sure enough, they started selling like hotcakes.

Broken image necklace
Remember when if images didn’t load while browsing the web you would get a weird broken image icon? Well, what if the image on a necklace “didn’t load” either?

Progress bar necklace 
All those years staring at progress bars brought this one. “Sorry, I’m a work in progress…” I sold quite a few of these.

Error bracelet
I was trying to open an old JPEG file one day, but it was corrupted and opened as an abstract pattern. I thought this was awesome! I like accidental finds like these… So I collected a few and made jewelry out of it.

Stunning diamond necklace
The counterpoint to Magritte. If you can’t afford the real thing, $20 will buy you the no-frills version. Indicated in exquisitely readable Helvetica.

Arrow pointer necklace
Click with me.

So after I baked all of these, I decided to do some PR and emailed my site to some awesome blogs (JoshSpear, DesignSponge, SwissMiss etc). My hopes were low but I wanted to get the word out… And since the products were fun people wrote about these! I got a lot of domestic and international coverage:

So I had a product, a website, and consumer interest. I was getting orders through my site and was baking jewelry, assembling, and shipping all by hand in my spare time after work. I was up ‘till the wee hours of the morning pasting labels on boxes and attaching jump rings to leather bands. The word was out, and the orders were rolling in 10–100 a day.

I was hating my life!

I felt like I was running a sweatshop and working for one too (after subtracting materials cost, I was paying myself $3 an hour). Not exactly the creative outlet that helps self-fulfilment. But the orders kept coming in, and I was on the hook to deliver. Also Shrinky Dinks turned out to be a terrible material that would break down, imprecise and uneven. Maybe good for four-year olds, but not appropriate for commercial production.

SF MOMA museum store was initially interested in carrying my designs, but when they saw the quality of materials they backed out — it was total crap! So I found a local factory that was able to cut pendants out of acrylic, and silkscreen images on it. The problem was cost, they could only silkscreen one color, and I still had to do all fulfillment and shipping by hand.

I got contacted by ThinkGeek, a very cool online store that were interested in buying bulk orders. I sold a few 500 count batches, but the cost factor was not enough to continue operation. After about a year of slave labor and breathing in plastic fumes I decided to call it quits. As a creative person I enjoy the process of design, but when it comes to establishing distribution and fulfillment channels it requires a different skill set than I had.

From all of this I learned the following:

  1. Be ready for success
    As Walt Disney said: “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” Ask yourself — are you really ready for success? Is it just a small hobby to flex your creative muscles or are you willing to quit your job and make it your life?
  2. Make something people want 
    It’s important to create a product people really want. If you’re inventing a new product, it’s because you believe you can improve the status quo. In my case I believed customers want to express themselves with fun, irreverent jewelry. Creating a desirable product is probably the hardest thing in running a successful business, but it’s not the only thing.
  3. “Baked-in:” interesting products market themselves
    If the product is interesting enough, or entertaining, it becomes “viral”, so it markets itself. People happily sharing and talking about it, bloggers and journalists are writing about it. But the key is to have something relevant and newsworthy. No one cares about traditional grandma-style jewelry, but are excited about a modern interpretation. This is much better than trying to buy ads and shove it down consumers’ throats.
  4. Make it well, ask for help if you don’t know how
    It’s very important to create a profitable and high-quality production pipeline. In my case this was the biggest failure. I also assumed that I had to do everything by myself (common mistake). So if I had to do it all over, I would make the right phone calls and would find operations people who could help.
  5. Don’t roll over
    Dealmaking skill is one of the super-powers of creating a sustainable successful business. This would require someone able to negotiate favorable pricing and establish relationships with wholesalers. While I had a few wholesalers reach out to me organically, it would be much more effective to do outreach and come up with sustainable cost structure. If you don’t have the negotiation skills, find someone who does.
“Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

I still believe working on side projects that might not turn into your full-time job is very beneficial. Through this process I learned so much, compared working for a bigger company only focusing on a small part of business. If I would give my ten-years-ago self advice, I would say go for it…but don’t try to do everything by yourself.