Think Lucky Charms cereal meets candy jewelry, meets your favorite unique, handmade accessories, but better. Buried Diamond is a colorful feast for the eyes, or, as founder Martha Porter puts it best, it’s “a peek inside [her] brain.” Though Martha makes developing an aesthetic vision and carrying it through look easy, it requires a lot of planning, hard work and years of patience.
After Martha completed her textile studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, she worked as a textile designer in the New York fashion industry where she perfected her unique, painterly and colorful style, and developed novelty designs. After eight years in the business, her lifelong love of jewelry-making began to rear its pretty little head and Buried Diamond was born. Her online shop opened in 2011 with a line of handmade eyeball necklaces, but has since grown to offer signature charms, jewelry of all kinds, textiles, stickers and apparel. Since the beginning, Martha has handmade all of her products in small batches, all embodying her fun, quirky, signature illustrative style. Today, we’re thrilled to have Martha share how she turned her part-time passion project into a successful business, how listening to the market is key, the importance of sustainable pricing, and more. —Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I worked in the fashion industry as a full-time textile designer for eight years before committing myself to running Buried Diamond full-time. After about five years in the industry, I started to look up the ladder — I am ambitious, and I was beginning to realize that there were not a lot of textile designers with job titles more senior than my own. That was when I realized I might not be a full-time textile designer forever. I wasn’t sure what my next step would be, but I was interviewing for more senior jobs and putting money into a savings account, knowing I might one day make a leap of faith and work freelance or for myself. Around that time, I also opened an Etsy shop to sell the jewelery I was making as a hobby. I didn’t think of it as starting a business at that time, but I liked the idea of sharing my work with the world.
Over the next two years, things began to change: at first no one was buying my jewelery, but I didn’t give up. I spent weekends learning how to take better photos and write better listing descriptions. Then, all of a sudden, people started to notice. I had a few images of my jewelery go wild on Tumblr and get thousands of notes, redirecting people to my shop. A few influential blogs posted my earrings, most notably the Urban Outfitters blog and Buzzfeed, and product started to fly out of the shop. I realized I had a business when I was packing orders most nights when I got home from work. It wasn’t a hobby anymore!
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
When I first opened my Etsy shop, it wasn’t very thoughtful. I had a little bit of everything: clay jewelery, beaded jewelry, hand printed stationery, stickers…and sometimes listings would expire because no one bought them. I would take new photographs and rewrite the listing, but if it expired again, I would drop it and move on. If something was selling, I would make more of it and offer more colors. I allowed the market to guide me — and I still do.
I really started considering Buried Diamond a business in 2012. That was when I wrote my business plan and that’s when I understood that I needed to clarify and articulate my vision. I wanted to make jewelry and accessories that I wanted to wear, but that were not yet available in the world. I didn’t want to limit myself to any specific product, but it always had to be something that I personally was eager to wear. In general, I have strong ideas about what I like and how I want things to look. I try to be true to my aesthetic vision in all aspects of my business, be it the products I make, the packaging or the photographs I take of the products to display them to the world.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
My dad has his own private law practice, and my mom used to work for him, so they both had a lot of insights on running your own business. They told me to write a business plan (and stick to it) and to hire an accountant. While neither of these things were particularly fun to do, once you have a document clearly outlining your business goals, and someone in place to help you manage finances, you can focus on the creative side of things. I also had a boss at my 9-5 job sit me down and tell me I wasn’t charging enough for my jewelry. She told me that if I was serious about it, I needed to pay myself properly for my work (this was before I had a business plan or accountant to reinforce this wisdom). I took her advice to heart, and she was right! Make sure your pricing structure allows you to sustain your business.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Because my business grew slowly while I was working full-time, things were easy at first. But when Buried Diamond started to grow, I felt there were never enough hours in the day. I would wake up early to take product photos before my commute, and I would stay up late packing orders. Weekends were for making jewelry. I tried hard to maintain a balance, but my social life took a big hit. When you work for yourself, you feel guilty whenever you are not working. I always remind myself that part of why I decided to have my own business was that I wanted more control over my hours and how they are spent.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
I have three big lessons:
1. Love your customers! If it weren’t for them, where would I be?! This should be easy, but sometimes customer service can be stressful. I enjoy keeping an open dialog with customers on social media. They are so kind and positive, and they keep me motivated on tough days.
2. Love other small business owners! They will support you more than you could ever imagine. In addition to moral support, other small business owners have given me fantastic advice on everything from how to expedite my order picking and packing to how to deal with a difficult customer.
3. Love your accountant! My accountant has taught me so much. Even though I don’t enjoy using Quickbooks, I am very happy to know how to run a Profit & Loss report. You won’t know if your business is making any money unless you learn some basic accounting.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
Not to dodge the question, but I don’t like to think anything I have done is a failure. In the beginning, my pricing structure was terrible — I was selling things for the cost of materials and making absolutely no profit. But I educated myself about costing and corrected that problem. Sometimes I design and make a product that doesn’t sell, and I have to learn from that. Why didn’t it sell? Was it the price point? The color? Take that into account and move forward with something new. If you are a small business, you are nimble, which is awesome. You can quickly adjust your products and get a response from customers.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
When you start your own business, you must be prepared to work all the time. Mornings, nights and weekends are fair game. I try to say “yes” to every good opportunity that comes my way, and that sometimes means I get to socialize less. Now that I work for myself full-time, I am regaining that balance and making more time for myself to spend time with friends and relax.
Money can also be a sacrifice. I used to work in a corporate office, which meant I received corporate paychecks every other week. Those days are behind me, so I can’t spend money on myself like I used to. This doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to me, though, because I am happier working for myself, and I enjoy investing my profits back into the business. Make sure that’s how you feel, or running your own business might not feel great to you (unless you have a lot of financing, in which case, that’s great!).
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
I view every sale as a success! I never intended for my shop to sell out as quickly as it does, but I will never complain about it! I thought that when I had more time to make more jewelery, it would linger in the shop longer, but it doesn’t. Each time I set up a big shop re-stock, I am blown away that it sells out. When I add a new charm design or a new product, it feels great to know my customers are excited to own it.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I don’t own any business books, but I am always searching for podcasts, blog posts, and articles about small business. I specifically like to learn about female entrepreneurs. Now, when I shop (especially when I shop online), I pay attention to the customer service I receive, the packaging, the overall experience of the transaction. If I have a positive experience with a brand, I like to analyze why, and I try to implement what I’ve learned into how I run my own online business. So I would say, pay attention to other businesses, there is so much to learn from them!
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Do you have enough financing? You need a clear understanding of your finances before you can develop, cost and sell new products.
2. Do you have a support system? Friends and family will help you through difficult days! I work for myself and I don’t have co-workers. Make sure you have people you can call if you need to brainstorm a new product or complain about a big package getting lost in the mail. (Your friends will love brainstorming new products!)
3. Do you love what you are making? Do you love the message it sends into the world? Do you love the kind of person who will be your customer? If the answer isn’t YES, don’t bother, you won’t be happy. If you love what you are doing, success will find you.