On February 3, 2012, Ready to Stare officially opened its Etsy store and made its first sale to a customer who would become one of my favorite people in the world and a loyal friend, Mylissa. I remember tweeting Mylissa who I had met earlier that week that my store was now live (also Mylissa is hilarious on Twitter so follow her). I was SO nervous. I still didn't believe anyone would actually buy anything that I had made. And while I didn't get my second sale until nearly two weeks later, in the three years since then nearly 1,600 others have followed Mylissa's lead purchasing on Etsy along with countless others at all of the trunk shows, fashion shows, and festivals; not to mention those who purchased from Ready to Stare's 20+ retailers.And as a company that started as simple Chicago-centric wire-wrapped jewelry business, Ready to Stare has evolved into a full-blown global body positive apparel and accessory brand while staying handmade and customer-focused.
If there's one thing I've learned over the past three years, it's that failure is necessary for success so in honor of Ready to Stare's 3-Year anniversary, I'm going to recount three of my biggest hits and three of my biggest misses.
Selling through Etsy has allowed me to connect with customers all over the world and I made my first international sale March 12, 2012 to Toronto. Since then, Ready to Stare has shipped to 25 different countries including Italy, Sweden, Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, Qatar, Brazil, Slovakia and Denmark among others. These days, it's not uncommon to have an international package per shipment -- something I know is due much in part to Etsy's global reach. While other designers opt to start with a Big Cartel, I'm grateful that I decided to start on Etsy. This summer, I was actually approached by the Etsy Styling team to have my dinosaur earrings featured in a blog for Etsy Canada. The blog post featured the earrings on Cailli Beckerman of the Beckerman Blog -- a high fashion duo I probably couldn't have reached without Etsy.
2) The I Woke Up Like Dis Design
If you've only been following me since January 2014, chances are you don't remember a time when I didn't design tees or feature myself in my campaigns and lookbooks. But Ready to Stare's first two years were focused on handmade metal and chain jewelry worn by local Chicago models. I had experienced steady growth but by December 2013, sales stalled and the business was struggling. I decided I had to do something drastic to change my situation. It was then, during one of my lowest personal and professional moments, that the I Woke Up Like Dis tees were first born. At that point, no one else was making any shirts with this phrase (that has since changed lol). The phrase itself for me represented that self-confidence that I needed to take a risk as big as this. With the release of the shirts, I also started modeling for Ready to Stare and introduced the #ReadytoStareWokeUpLikeDis movement in which I personally came forward for the first time about my sexual assault. The design, the movement, and the fresh face to the brand (who was really hiding behind the scenes the whole time), transformed Ready to Stare and catapulted sales. In fact, sales from 2013 to 2014 quadrupled. The design has sold has sold to nearly all 50 states including Alaska and Hawaii, represented at nearly every "On the Run" tour stop and ship worldwide to countries such as Australia, Kuwait, France and Malaysia. The shirt was even worn by plus size model and empowerment activist, Tess Munster.
3) A Full Range of Sizes
Ready to Stare by definition has always been grounded in empowerment and confidence. The name itself was born out of my own experience being bullied and fat-shamed. But when the brand first started, the message was communicated more subtly through big, bold statement jewelry worn by models I felt best carried themselves confidently. I designed my first body chain in May of 2012 but with the exception of my friend Britt who owns almost every style I've ever designed, the body chains were mostly used in styling for editorials and I rarely sold them. So for the first two years, the body chains were made in one size. But as a plus size woman myself, I always said I would be happy to make them bigger by request. When I first designed the chunky gold chain belt for the Fall 2013 collection, I decided to make the size range XS-3X because I knew how badly I wanted a belt like this and I hoped other woman my size would too. And once Essie Golden first wore the belt in February 2014, I saw the demand to make more items available in a full size range. I am extremely grateful for Essie's support of Ready to Stare and of indie brands in general. The belt went onto become my best-selling jewelry item of all-time; in fact, one sold while I've been writing this. After the initial success of the belt, I made all of my previous body chains available in plus as well as designing a few new ones. I made it my priority then to make as many items as possible available up to at least 3X and now, I strive for up to a 5X. The bloggers, editors, models and designers of the plus size community have been nothing been supportive to me and I feel extremely fortunate to have found a place where I feel not only can I be accepted and but where I also have an opportunity to make an impact on changing the face of fashion to be more inclusive and representative.
1) The Wrong Change
While a lot of people in their early 20s live for the Chicago summer festival scene, my anxiety kept me scared of large crowds. In my seven years as a Chicagoan, I braved only a handful of these festivals but when the opportunity came about for me to be a vendor at Pitchfork Musical Festival in 2012, I jumped at the opportunity. I had never been as a guest but I figured I could avoid the crowds by staying put behind my vendor table. The festival is three FULL days long and my first year, there were days where I didn't even leave to go to the bathroom. My fear of crowds really made working behind the booth with no breaks for three days straight seem like my only option and by the third day of the 2013 festival, I was near delirium. When a customer handed me their cash to pay for a $10 pair of earrings, I swore he gave me a $100 bill and I proceeded to count out $90 in change. I handed it to him and he casually walked away. A few minutes later, I snapped back into reality and realized he had given me a $20 bill and I had just PAID HIM $70 for those earrings. I didn't even really remember what he looked like but I ran all over the park looking for him -- hoping if I could find him, I could reason with him to give me the money back. I never found him because I really honestly didn't remember what he looked like, but I realized one very important thing: crowds are not as bad as losing $70. So the next year, you can bet your ass, I wondered around a little more than usual, took breaks, got water, and used the bathroom like a regular human.
2) Shipping Fail
I've already discussed how much I love Etsy for giving Ready to Stare a platform to become a global brand; however, there's one sale to Australia that I will never forget and not for the reasons you may think. Since I used to sell vintage clothing with my previous businesses, I still pepper that inventory into Ready to Stare's shop when I feature it in a lookbook. The white faux fur coat was one of these items. I featured it in the Cheap Luxury lookbook and then listed it in the shop. At that point, Ready to Stare had never sold a coat. My previous vintage store sold mostly in person so I had never shipped a coat before. I decided to GUESS at the cost of shipping this coat. I made the international cost of shipping $22 -- most jewelry items cost between $9-$10 so I figured doubling this would account for the difference. I also assumed it would sell to someone in the US. I was wrong; on both accounts. The coat sold quickly to a customer in Australia. I had to buy a box because nothing I had was big enough to fit it. When I got to the post office, I told them I wanted to send it first class mail and the postal worker said "Okay, that will be $61." I think my mouth hit the floor. I took the package home to re-group and think about my options. And the more I agonized about it, I realized this was MY mistake for not being pro-active and figuring out in advance how much this would cost so that the customer paid the correct postage. So I bit the bullet and shipped the coat and vowed never to list an item without looking up the shipping cost first.
3) The Shopping Bags
I think there's a phrase that goes "mother always knows best" and for the most part, I agree with that; except when my mom is advising me about shopping bags. In February 2014, I was a vendor at POOL Tradeshow. This was my first time being a part of Magic Market Week and I was beyond excited to have this opportunity even though I can admit now looking back, I was not ready for it. I applied in October 2013 and was accepted as a vendor in the cash & carry section. I was advised that this was a great place to get started since I was still a small accessories-only brand at the time. As the show approached, I was frantic to create enough inventory to meet the demands of such a large crowd; by far the largest I had ever seen. I was warned by a friend that a lot of buyers placed orders instead of taking items with them at the time, but since it was called cash & carry, I figured I had to be prepared with a lot of inventory. While I stressed about that, my mom reminded me that I also needed to make sure that I had tissue paper and shopping bags so that these customers could carry their items. Although, I don't remember her exact logic, my mom wanted me to buy 500 bags. We compromised and I bought 250 total in two different sizes. I was traveling by plane from Atlanta to Vegas so I had to fit all of my inventory, which also by this time included four t-shirt styles, and these damn shopping bags into three suitcases. After four long days of set-up and vending, I think we had used maybe a total of five bags. The majority of customers either placed orders to be shipped or didn't want another bag to carry. I didn't want to throw away the bags so my best friend who was helping me made the executive decision to ship the bags home to Atlanta to avoid paying the luggage fees again. I think we ended up using two big boxes for the left over tees and bags and around $100 to ship them. And while I take every opportunity I can to use them, I probably still have 200 shopping bags in four different boxes taking up space in my studio to this day.
My mentor told me that you pay for your education as a designer and small business owner, one way or another. While I did not go to design school, I've paid for my education in learning experiences and I am all the wiser for it.
Over the past three years of running Ready to Stare, I've cried my share of tears -- both of happiness and disappointment. I've experienced the best moments and biggest challenges of my life through this business. I've been told multiple times give up or to make Ready to Stare a hobby instead, but my passion for creating fashion that empowers all people is what keeps me pressing on despite the roadblocks. I believe in making your passion your paycheck and that if you do what you love the money will come. The sacrifices I've had to make haven't been easy but I have faith that it will all be worth it and every time I get a comment, message, or e-mail from someone telling me I've inspired them, I feel like it already is.
As a girl who found her own empowerment through fashion, working as Ready to Stare's owner and designer has truly been my dream job. It continues to be a privilege to be able to design for my customers. I'm grateful every day that I've been able to do what I love for the past three years.
Ready to Stare is nothing without its supporters so I wanted to give fans of the brand an opportunity to ask a few questions about the business and here are a few!
Q: Is there something you thought would sell and didn't? Something you didn't expect to be popular but surprised you? -@lagrosera
A: When I first designed the "I Woke Up Like Dis" shirts, I honestly had no idea how they would sell because I wasn't sure if people would be accepting of a jewelry brand now designing t-shirts. But the "I Woke Up Like Dis" design was pretty much an instant success and went onto to become my best-selling item of all time. The fanny packs were another surprise success since it started off as a custom order. I've found now that while not everything is a hit right away, taking risks and trying out new designs does pay off. In terms of items that I thought would be popular, I think I always hope that my more avante garde stuff appeals to my retail market. For example, I still love the silver chain headpiece or chain bangs as I call them, but they haven't quite caught on like I had hoped.
Q: What was step one? How did you know where to begin? - @jonquelart
A: When I started Ready to Stare, I already had experience running another small creative business with two partners. And as much as I loved that business, I knew that I wanted to run Ready to Stare differently. I immediately reached out to everyone I knew that I thought could help me. I talked to my aunt who had run her own hair salon for ten years and we talked once a week until I had finalized my business plan (something my previous business never had). I made an appointment with my former professor at Loyola who taught my career life planning class and not only did she assure me "YOU GOT THIS," but she also introduced me to a few people that she knew who were jewelry designers and got me tickets to a major jewelry show so I could go do some more networking of my own. At the show, I connected with a designer who taught private Etsy classes and that was extremely helpful. I did all of this before my Etsy store even launched. I knew well enough to know that I alone did not know enough and I sought out help from as many people as possible.
Q: What are your criteria for vintage finds? -@lagrosera
A: Because everything I design has a 90s aesthetic, I try to only look for vintage items from this era. I basically ask myself: would a Spice Girl have worn this? could this have been featured in Clueless? Would Romy & Michele sell this? And that pretty much guides my decision making process.
Q: Where did you learn to make of all your items especially the metalworking? - @unicorn_rockets
A: I took my first metalsmithing and jewelry design class while I was a junior at Loyola University Chicago. I was an art minor and this class counted towards my minor but it was also something I have always been interested in. The professor of the class mentioned that in addition to teaching at Loyola, she taught metalsmithing at Chicago's Lillstreet Art Center. Once I completed the course, I planned on continuing my classes at Lillstreet since Loyola didn't offer a second level course. But my senior year turned out to be more hectic than I anticipated and I didn't end up taking classes at Lillstreet until right before Ready to Stare launched in early 2012. I took metalsmithing classes for the first two years of running Ready to Stare and a lot of my early designs were ones I was able to run by my instructors for extra guidance. I was also able to try out new techniques and designs using Lillstreet's equipment and got to see whether or not my customers responded well to it before I invested into it for my studio.
Q: What has been your favorite place you've traveled with your work? -@bumblezef
A: 2014 was a big travel year for me! I went to Vegas, Chicago and New York and I lived in Atlanta and Cleveland. This really gave me an opportunity to connect with people all over. I have traveled to all of those places before but it was this different going these times for business. I think my favorite was New York because I got to meet people in person who I've built strong relationships with on social media. It was so nice to talk in person with them and see how excited they were when I talked about things on horizon for the brand and hear their ideas for what they want to see next. The feedback that I can get in person is really invaluable to me!
Q: How would you describe your aesthetic? - @lagrosea
A: My aesthetic is pretty much like wearing your confidence. The Ready to Stare customer doesn't give a fuck what you think about what he/she is wearing -- they wear what they like. It's bold. It's in your face. And it's something you probably haven't seen before. I take a lot of inspiration from confident woman of the 90s and of course, Beyonce.
Q: What do you enjoy most about owning your own business? - @unicorn_rockets
A: This is tough! I love so much about running Ready to Stare. I think my favorite thing would have to be all the people that I've met through this. I know people from all walks of life and all over the world because of Ready to Stare. I've even had the opportunity to talk to people that I've admired for years and some of them are now my closest friends. By nature, I am a shy person and Ready to Stare has forced me (in a good way) to really open myself up to new people and new experiences. I'm grateful everyday for that!
Q: Was there a particular moment when you realized an idea you came up with in your head had transcended and touched people you've never met? -@bumblezef
A: I am grateful for all of the messages and comments I receive. I do my best to respond to them and I even screenshot most of them to look back at when I am having a bad day, but there's one that really stands out to me. I received an e-mail from someone who reached out to me because she said she needed encouragement and didn't know where else to turn. I'm not sure she was necessarily someone who had ever bought anything but she mentioned that I inspired her and that I was someone she looked up to. In her e-mail, she shared her story and it left me in tears. She had been through so much pain and disappointment in her life and she was starting to feel like her dream of being in fashion was impossible. The fact that when she felt hopeless she chose me to reach out to me was extremely humbling and not something I took lightly. It symbolized to me that I am doing something right as a designer and as a person. Because at the end of the day, Ready to Stare is about empowerment and building others up! I put aside everything else I had planned for that evening and spent two hours answering her e-mail in great detail. And while this moment had nothing to directly to do with an item I've designed, this was the moment that I felt that Ready to Stare as a brand was truly making a difference.
Ready to Stare is celebrating its 3-year anniversary with a 3-day 30% off everything sale on Etsy with the coupon code "THREEYEAR." And stay tuned for 3-winner giveaway on Instagram (@readytostare)!
Thank you as always for your support! XO
This post was originally published on February 3, 2015.