A partnership can make or break a business. Contrasting personalities and creative perspectives can serve to complement or corrode a collaboration. To learn more about pairing up in the entrepreneurial realm, we spoke with Jenny Klatt and Stephanie Wynne Lalin, cofounders of the 10-year-old New York–based jewelry brand Jemma Wynne, which has quickly become a go-to brand for stylish, everyday diamond and gemstone jewelry.
Klatt and Lalin met right out of college while working in product development for a fine jewelry house and partnered on their own brand. They faced various challenges getting their business off the ground—from the economic recession to a wave of copycat designs—but they stayed focused on their creative vision. “Both of us have a strong idea of what we wanted our business to be and what we wanted our brand to look like,” says Klatt. Today, Jemma Wynne sells through its website as well as Bergdorf Goodman and Net-a-Porter. They attribute their success, in part, to their solid partnership. Says Lalin, “We always say, ‘How do people do this alone?’”
We talked with the cofounders about the benefits of having a business partner, the challenges of learning on the job, and advice they still live by.
What were some of your biggest challenges when you started?
Jenny: Stephanie and I both come from creative backgrounds. When we first started, we really didn’t have any formal business training or finance background. We didn’t have a formal business plan in place. In some ways, it was good being totally naïve when we started, but it was also challenging because [we] had to learn the ropes quickly. Managing people and strategizing for our growth was not something that we ever thought about in our previous roles in our other company.
It helped that we’re able to be a sounding board for one another and to be able to come at our business from different perspectives—that is to our advantage, but it also comes with a lot of challenges because it’s not like one of us was a finance person and the other person was the creative.
In what ways did not having that business experience benefit you in those early stages?
Jenny: I think the fact that we were so creative and passionate about what we were doing helped push us through and almost took over the lack of business acumen in the beginning. While I think we were naïve starting in the sense that we didn’t know the ins and outs of how to build a financial model, we did have a strong vision of who we wanted to be and what our aesthetic is and what we wanted to create. That drive is what got us to here today because there’s really no replacement for that.
Was there a moment when you really felt like you had “made it”?
Stephanie: As designers and entrepreneurs I think we are our hardest critics…I don’t know if there was a time I really felt like I had “made it”—nothing ever feels truly good enough, but I think that’s part of what pushes us to be better and original in our designs. But I will say there were three distinct times I felt very good. The first was seeing First Lady Michelle Obama wearing our earrings, the second and third was having our collection picked up by Net-a-Porter and Bergdorf Goodman.
Who were some of your first clients?
Stephanie: My mom and all her friends. My parents are huge supporters of what we do and they’re huge fans. I don’t think it would be easy to do this without support of your family, your spouse, or friends because it’s a huge roller-coaster ride.
In the beginning, how did you get the word out about your designs?
Stephanie: When we first started and we weren’t in any stores, we were just starting to build out our collection, so we did private trunk shows in people’s homes. That was all word of mouth. It might have started with a friend then we gained a little following from there and it connected to another friend and we started hosting these little private events where we would just continue meeting other people.
What were some of your first design successes?
Jenny: Our open bangles were a bestseller early on. At the time no one was making them and it was something we felt strongly about and saw a gap in the market. I love wearing bracelets but hated how they always got in the way. We wanted to make a bracelet that was more oval shaped and sat very close to the wrist. I had made one for myself right as we started our business.
Stephanie: We gained real collectors with our bangles. Every store that we worked with bought heavily into them. Our clients came back to us time after time to add to and build their stacks. Early on we also had a collection that was entirely comprised of bicolor tourmaline bangles. We absolutely loved them and how each stone was beautiful and different in its own way. They did very well and we could not keep them in stock!
On the flip side, was there ever a design you experimented with that just didn’t translate to the customer?
Stephanie: I can say that anytime we have tried to do a style with black or brown diamonds we just could not sell them. Our clients are definitely not into that look!
What advice do you give to new designers now?
Stephanie: I always tell people to stay true to their own aesthetic. It’s so easy, especially with social media, to see what so many people are doing. Sometimes, if you look at it too much, it’s hard to let your own originality and creativity come through. Or you feel like, well, if everyone else is doing it I have to be doing that also.
Jenny: Know what your strengths and weaknesses are—if you can’t do something it’s important to be okay with outsourcing it. You’re only as good as your team, and you just can’t do every single thing yourself. If you’re a creative person and you’re really amazing at design, you’re probably not going to be the person who is putting together the budget for next year. Focus on the things that you’re good at and trying to find the right team to complement your strengths and weaknesses.
And make sure that you’re really passionate about what you’re doing because being an entrepreneur and starting your own business is a huge roller coaster of emotions. The highs are so high and the lows are so low that you need to be able to be strong in order to ride it out. If you know what the big picture is and you know where you want to go, you might have to pivot and get creative along the way, but if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing then what’s the point?