Michelle VanBibber of Ciao Bella Jewelry: From Avocation To Vocation; How I Turned My Hobby Into A Career
An Interview With Jason Hartman
Take it as a compliment when someone copies your design. I used to get really frustrated and upset when this happened, but I learned it is not worth getting upset over. By the time the other person executes the design, I will already be moving on to my next great idea!
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle VanBibber.
Michelle VanBibber is the founder, president, and designer of Michelle Marie Boutique and Ciao Bella Jewelry wholesale, headquartered just outside of Pittsburgh, PA. She specializes in custom-made, personalized artisan jewelry, accessories, and home decor. She is also a co-founder of the VanBibber Service Legacy, a non-profit dedicated to providing funding, assistance, and trained service dogs to individuals and families dealing with brain cancer and brain injury.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in Warren, Ohio, and was enjoying the crossover of science and art- I was always painting and drawing. In high school I moved to Leesburg Virginia. I won various art competitions and even sold one of my pastel drawings to a local museum. I attended Virginia Tech for college, studying Animal Science with a minor in Art. I worked in pathology, toxicology, and cancer research for the first 10 years post-college graduation.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
Once I had my children, it became more difficult to manage family life with ongoing travel and my research schedule. I left my job at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Medicine to stay home with and care for my children. I started making jewelry as a hobby and creative outlet and discovered my passion for it. I began to get approached by local stores about carrying my creations in their stores- before I knew it I was selling pieces all over Pittsburgh. This was definitely an “ah-ha” moment for me, and I realized that this was something I could do on a larger scale. I tested the water at the Virginia Gift Show wholesale market for East Coast gift shops and haven’t looked back since!
There are no shortages of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I frequently traveled and found myself growing frustrated with the gift items I had purchased for my children and loved ones- a couple days after purchasing them the gifts would break. I saw a need for quality, artisan-made jewelry and gift items. The need for high quality, made-to-last gifts and memorabilia resonated with many of my current clients. I specialize in handmade keepsakes, personalized to create cherished memories from special events, sites, and travels.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
I would first recommend for them to draw up a business plan and talk with business and legal advisors (I personally use SCORE, a free business mentor service, and have been with my advisor for the past 10 years). I also find that online classes are very helpful in learning how to manage the business side of a creative enterprise- I have taken many through SCORE, Coursera, E-shop Marketer, and Business Boutique Academy, but there are tons out there.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
Designating work and play time has really helped, and I recently hired someone to assist in the areas I struggle with and dread the most. Keeping track of over 20 sites carrying our products both retail and wholesale, managing spreadsheets, and maintaining inventory can be challenging for me, so I found someone to manage this aspect of the business. We meet regularly and I jokingly refer to these as my “headache days.” To counteract the parts of the business that aren’t as enjoyable I make sure to supplement with a “design day” to keep things fresh and enjoyable. That’s when I have the most fun and the opportunity to work with so many clients from various museums, travel destinations, zoos, aquariums, and much more.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I love to design and create using a plethora of styles, mediums, and colors. I also greatly enjoy the flexibility of running my own business. Some of the downsides, though, are that I find myself always thinking about or working on the business. It can be really difficult to take time away, but I have been lucky to have some very reliable workers that I can trust to run the company while I’m traveling or when I had to take leave to care for my husband in the last few months of his battle with brain cancer.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Running a business was something I had no experience in and it took me a while to really understand the inventory management and scaling the product line down. The numbers and business aspect is about as important as the creative aspect, which I was not expecting.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?
At the start of the pandemic I was only selling wholesale- most of the orders placed before mass closures were to be shipped in a few months, giving us time to manufacture huge quantities of personalized products. We had created their products, I had paid my workers, and then many of our customers canceled the delivery of their orders. Most of their sites had completely closed due to the pandemic. I was frustrated and ready to just quit. I was forced to re-evaluate my situation, and I decided to re-launch our retail division- Michelle Marie Boutique, and gave it the full focus and attention necessary to make it a success. I kept a lookout on what people were purchasing during the pandemic and we were able to utilize some of our wholesale product equipment for retail markets. We opened up our online shop and Etsy page and have had great success since.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the funniest mistakes I made was when I was first starting to work with a Civil War Museum in Virginia. They had sent me multiple photos to create a design for their order of personalized cuff links for an event. They had asked me to use the “older” photo of the general, so I did. I shipped the order and received a call a few days later. The client said that the items looked great, but there was one small problem- I had used a photo of the Union General instead of the Confederacy General that was requested. Since that time I have learned to brush up on a bit of history and to run mock up designs of products and double check with clients before manufacturing their order.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Both my mother and my grandmother were great leaders that inspired me to be the person that I am today. I was taught to be strong and independent and to always stand up for what I believe in. I’m continually inspired by them to be a leader, especially after having a daughter of my own. It’s vital that she understands that there are no limitations other than those you set for yourself. As my mother and hers have passed on for generations, I was sure to instill in her that if you believe and work hard, you can accomplish your dreams.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have used the success of my small business to bring awareness and raise funds for a cause that is very near and dear to my heart. After losing my husband at age 52 to glioblastoma brain cancer, my children and I began a non-profit in his honor. The VanBibber Service Legacy works to raise awareness and funds for those living with brain cancer and brain injury. We work to assist individuals dealing with treatment and healthcare costs, after learning first-hand what a toll it can take on families. Our charity also works to provide individuals with specially trained service dogs to aid with mobility and household tasks.
This April I was invited to participate in a pre-Awards ceremony red carpet luxury gifting suite for Oscar and Grammy nominees. I thought about what product and message I wanted to take to Hollywood. With such a large audience, I knew right away what message I wanted to bring- I began designing a Go Gray Collection, based off of the tagline Go Gray in May for Brain Cancer Awareness Month. I used many up-cycled materials, including old vinyl records, for this collection, and 30% of all proceeds from pieces purchased go to the VanBibber Service Legacy.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Take it as a compliment when someone copies your design. I used to get really frustrated and upset when this happened, but I learned it is not worth getting upset over. By the time the other person executes the design, I will already be moving on to my next great idea!
2. Brand each piece you create. This helps in spreading brand recognition, awareness of your product, and continued sales in the future.
3. Make each customer’s experience a positive one. Send them thank you notes, Christmas cards and let them know their support is appreciated. I see my cards on the walls of my clients when I visit them years later, and it always brings a smile to my face.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and be open to taking courses. Continue learning as you move forward.
5. If it doesn’t scare you at times you are not challenging yourself enough. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and try things that may not work out.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement to bring the most amount of good to the world, it would be a movement to help others in need, and to pay forward the gifts life may have given you. I’m thinking gestures as simple as some kind words of appreciation or encouragement. I have faced many obstacles and challenges over the past few years, with my husband’s cancer diagnosis in conjunction with the pandemic, but I was able to continue on thanks to the blessing that is my incredible support system. Time together as a family during the pandemic is something that I will be thankful for always. There were times I thought of just curling up and retreating into sorrow, but I knew that if I could make a difference for others in similar situations it would be worth it. I want to pay forward every act of kindness that was shown to myself and my family during our time of need.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life is too short. Grudges are a waste of perfect happiness. Laugh when you can. Apologize when you should and let go of what you can. Take chances. Give everything and have no regrets. Life is too short to be unhappy. You have to take the good with the bad. Smile when you’re sad. Love what you got and always remember what you had. Always forgive but never forget. Learn from your mistakes but never regret. People change and things go wrong. But always remember, life goes on.”
This quote is one of my all-time favorites because it truly provides guidelines to living your as the best, happiest, most successful version of yourself. Though this advice can be difficult to follow, I strive to do so everyday.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would absolutely love to share a meal with Oprah or Martha Stewart (especially if she’s cooking). Both of these women are huge inspirations to me, especially as a small business owner. They have both worked so hard for their amazing success, yet remain humble, and always share words of wisdom and encouragement. Both have also accomplished huge feats with their personal branding, becoming household names and icons. I would absolutely love to hear any words of wisdom they could share with me.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.