(If you can't see the slideshow embedded above, view it on Flickr here.)
Lauren Rundquist is a 20-year-old sophomore at MU and an independent jewelry designer and business owner.
A desk cluttered with spools of gold and silver wire, scraps of patterned fabric, and strands of double-link chain. A bookshelf stacked with cartons of colorful paint and long handled paintbrushes. A backpack containing a sketchpad and a laptop connecting a young entrepreneur with a network of customers from coast to coast and even beyond.
That desk, those shelves, and that laptop are LaQuist, an independent, handmade jewelry and custom painted shoes business started by me, Lauren Rundquist, a 20-year-old student from the University of Missouri – Columbia.
From the time I was old enough to subtract money spent from money earned, I was making and selling little handmade trinkets to collect funds for heartfelt causes like bookmarks for the American Cancer Society and jewelry to put together gift baskets for teenage expectant mothers. Now, as a sophomore in college, I do relatively the same thing, only on a bigger scale. I have moved past simple math and on to calculating things like profit margin and return on investment.
My current business venture began upon high school graduation, after years of making little handmade pieces of jewelry for myself and for loved ones. One day while shopping at a local boutique, I happened to show one of these pieces to a shop owner and before I knew it I had my first jewelry order on my hands. After that, I jumped right in: I created a logo, business cards, and a name for my line before I even knew what my business was. Needless to say, all of those things are now retired. Somewhere along the way, I began painting customized TOMS, Keds, and Converse shoes, which took off in a similarly unexpected way.
That summer I began promoting my new “business” in person by going door to door to local boutiques, then through email and mailed flyers, which required a lot of creative wording about a venture that was barely under way. I then moved on to social networking sites, promoting with pictures, and most recently I created my online store. It’s a blurry line between where my hobby crossed into a business, but a year later, with my first two semesters of college under my belt, my jewelry and custom painted shoes are now available at boutiques throughout the state (two in Columbia) and online at my newly open shop on Etsy, LaQuist.
I was asked to write about life as a young entrepreneur, and here it is … On the shuttle bus to campus I’m sending and answering a seemingly nonstop stream of emails – thank goodness for smart phones. In between classes I’m making phone calls to local shop owners or managing the inventory of my online store. Throughout the day I’m sketching out designs and scribbling down ideas. But running a business is much more than just work. With each sale I am overjoyed that someone wants something I made, and that it is worth more to them than what they spent to get it. I have the opportunity to communicate and connect with people I would otherwise never be able to reach. I get the chance to involve my customers artistically, and use my hands to create a piece of wearable art that they will hopefully love and cherish and much as I do.
My creative process begins when a design pops into my head, and right away I sketch it out – on a napkin, a receipt, my homework. I then head to my bedroom-turned art studio and am off into a frenzy of beading, braiding, and painting. It all starts with one idea, and before I know it I have ten new pieces in front of me. Some of these creations have ended up in the garbage, but some have turned into top sellers. I collect inspiration for my designs from my favorite children’s books, boutique window-shopping, and local and global art and culture. Sometimes I am given inspiration from customers for custom pieces, like a little girl’s first set of fancy jewelry or a custom pair of wedding TOMS for a groom to give to his wife at their reception. This part is the most thrilling for me because I get to bring someone’s unique vision to life!
My creative process goes hand in hand with reaching my customers. I can’t sell my creations unless I make something my clientele want, and I can’t create what clientele want until I’ve found them! Reaching and communicating with potential patrons involves trial and error, as some of my most profitable techniques were attempted on a whim. I have to get creative and use my resources: past clients, friends of friends, family members. I must pursue opportunities to learn: my internship doing marketing for a top local event planner, my job teaching art classes at the campus Craft Studio, or the art-based local charity that I established and continue to grow. Now that I have expanded my business to incorporate shoppers on the World Wide Web, I have had to rethink this entire communication process.
Finally comes sales, where I’m not only promoting my product, but I’m promoting myself. I have to make my first impression a lasting impression, and a good one at that. As a young entrepreneur, I don’t reveal my age until I have presented myself professionally. It’s a sad fact that doors will close if you walk in saying, “I just turned 20 and I would like to sell you something.” Once I have established a professional relationship, however, I have found that my age has actually been a positive factor in my business. People seem to embrace the idea of a young, ambitious entrepreneur. In my online store I don’t have the opportunity to meet my customers in person, so I attempt to make their shopping experience as personal as possible. I present a photo and biography of myself to give them an idea of my personality, background, and my reasons for doing what I do. I write detailed item descriptions and notes to establish the quality, workmanship, and passion behind my pieces. I send personal messages to demonstrate my service and professionalism, but mostly because I love hearing what customers have to say!
There comes a point where every entrepreneur has to decide what sets his or her product apart from alternatives. Eventually I came to the realization that the thing setting my creations apart is me. The owners of the shops where I carry my creations know that I’m a young artist who loves summer weather and enjoys sipping on tea. Customers who come across a piece of LaQuist artwork at a boutique are first greeted with a photo and mini biography about my business and myself. Owners of my jewelry and shoes are aware of the heart that was put in to their piece, and have my personal email address right there on the tag, because they know I love to hear their thoughts. My pieces reflect myself, and nobody could have created them but me. I believe it is the personal relationship between buyers and myself, that customers recognize and remember.
Starting and running a small business as a young individual didn’t require knowing the ins and outs of the business world. It didn’t necessitate a huge amount of startup money or big, important connections. There are several things, however, I don’t think I could do without. In my case, it began with a unique product, and grew with my belief in that product and in myself. I must be innovative by attempting new ideas and by not being too hesitant to retire old ones. Along with this is a desire to learn. Each successful and failed attempt is an opportunity to grow and improve along with my business. Being self-motivated is essential. There is nobody handing me a checklist of what I’m expected to do. The goals I strive to reach are my own, and I can make them as big as I want. This doesn’t mean, however, that as an independent entrepreneur I’m entirely out on my own. I have been offered support and encouragement from places I never expected to find it. Finally, I believe the key to operating my small business is creativity, but that requires a separate discussion all on its own.
I’m certainly no expert, but if an aspiring entrepreneur were to ask me for advice, here’s what I would say: First, figure out what sets you apart and take advantage of it, but most of all, do what you love. I couldn’t possibly have the motivation to run a business if I didn’t love every second of it. Once you figure out what that thing is, just jump right in and do it. Accept that speed bumps will occur along the way, but that each one is a learning experience. Second, embrace not only the opportunities that come your way, but create opportunities for yourself. Get your name out there, network, use your resources, think outside of the box, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll likely be surprised by the support you receive when you actually go looking for it. You never know who can relate to your situation. And finally, whatever you do, “Do not stop!” – a bit of advice I was given from someone I look up to.
There is no telling what’s in store for this young entrepreneur, but I’m looking forward to future opportunities to embrace my creativity, challenge myself, and to learn from my successes and failures along the way.
To take a peek at my jewelry and custom shoes please visit my online store at www.etsy.com/shop/LaQuist or stop in to Poppy or Elly’s Couture in downtown Columbia.