Entrepreneurial Moms Turn Silver into Gold

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In 1997, Bonnie Kelly and Teresa Walsh officially launched Silpada Designs—a jewelry home show company that offers handcrafted sterling silver pieces. The company’s unique and beautiful designs, sold by 19,000 women across the country, doubled its sales year after year by word of mouth. Today the company is poised to top $250 million in sales for 2007. We at Mom Inventors interviewed Bonnie and Teresa to discover how they launched their idea into the marketplace and what they learned along the way.

Q: Why did you start the company and when?

A: We first met in 1985 when our oldest of three children started first grade. We had both signed up as room mothers and immediately became the best of friends. After chatting about how we could earn a little extra cash, we tried a few new business ideas. We had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t until we each took twenty-five dollars from our grocery fund and pursued our passion for sterling silver jewelry that we really began to love our ‘jobs.’ We started designing our own jewelry creations and hosting what we called “A Fun Ladies” Night Out Playing Dress-up with Jewelry!” Quickly, one party to led to another, and it wasn’t long before hostesses and customers began telling us, “You look like you are having so much fun-we wish we could have your jobs!” After hearing this again and again, we decided we would start a company to offer other people the opportunity to build their own business while balancing family life.

Silpada Designs began officially in 1997, and we created our exclusive line of Silpada Designs Sterling Silver Jewelry and our very first Silpada Designs Catalog. Friends and customers became independent Silpada Designs Representatives, and we realized our dream of running our own business.

Q: What were your initial goals?

A: We were having a lot of fun selling jewelry at in-home parties, and through this experience, we met so many wonderful people who touched our lives. We loved what we were doing so much that we wanted to share it with other women. Empowering other women by building their self-esteem and creating opportunities for friendships and financial freedom was so important to us.

Q: Describe yourself and your family. What is your background and how does it relate to your company?

A: Our background is built around having fun! Before Silpada, we were both stay-at-home moms with three children looking for a way to juggle family life while earning some extra money. Yes, we had a passion for sterling silver jewelry, but we also loved having fun and spending time with friends. (Bonnie is married to Jerry Kelly, who serves as CEO of Silpada and is a co-owner, and they have three children. Teresa is married to Tom Walsh and they have three children.)

Q: Have you ever experienced an epiphany that changed the direction of your life?

A: After hearing from people, again and again, that they’d like to do what we were doing, we discovered that our two-person start-up business could evolve into a fun, life-changing business opportunity for other women. This changed our lives forever.

Q: What process did you follow to develop your jewelry? Did you source all your pieces or create them yourselves?

A: We work with artisans from around the world to design original jewelry that meets Silpada’s high standards. We are involved in the design of every single Silpada piece to consider the style, look, quality and weight. Each piece of Silpada jewelry is handcrafted and we use only the highest-quality silver, stones and materials. On average, six to eight artisans, each with their own expertise, have touched every piece. This hands-on process means no two Silpada pieces are exactly alike.

Q: How did you find these artisans initially? How do you find them now?

A:   Silpada employs the most skilled artisans available for each step in the jewelry making process. In addition to their knowledge and skills, these talented artisans must also possess a high degree of hand-eye coordination and hand dexterity. Currently, artisans in more than ten countries around the world work to craft Silpada jewelry to its exact standards.

Quality is important to us. Each piece of Silpada jewelry receives a quality inspection as it’s shipped from its manufacturing point and is inspected again upon arrival at Silpada’s distribution center. Our commitment to quality allows us to deliver each piece with confidence as evident by Silpa’s lifetime guarantee against manufacturing defects.

Q: You began selling to your girlfriends. How did this help shape your product line?

A: We’ve always had an eye for style and our girlfriends seemed to love our taste in jewelry. But, we also recognized early on that jewelry is an important part of a woman’s individuality and not every piece of jewelry will appeal to all women. While we certainly keep up with fashion trends and styles, Silpada jewelry is hip-classic and offers something for everyone of all price ranges and styles.

Q: How did you come up with the home party concept? Is there a way you do it differently?

A: We always said we wanted to start a party plan company that threw a party we’d want to attend. That’s why there are no formal presentations or rehearsed sales pitches at Silpada parties. It’s all about having fun!

Q: Were there any setbacks in product development that had to be overcome?

A:  Silpada has always been committed to producing the highest quality products and never settling for anything less. During the initial years it was challenging to find the right artisan mix that would adhere to Silpada’s higher-than-normal standards. Our unwavering devotion to producing the best possible products has enabled Silpada to offer our customers a lifetime replacement guarantee due to manufacturer’s defect.

Q: What was the biggest learning curve in terms of developing your product or growing the business?

A:  Silpada has experienced unprecedented growth in the last ten years. One of our biggest learning curves happened at the end of 2001 when Silpada’s growth in retail sales jumped from $1 million to $3 million. We didn’t offer online ordering at the time and there were two hour waits to get through to our two customer service representatives. We were taking home orders to process and helping fulfill orders. We quickly realized we had to put an infrastructure in place to support what we saw as some dramatic growth in the coming years. From that point, Silpada has taken a proactive business approach to stay ahead of the growth.

Q: How did you grow your base of sales reps and the home party concept? How did you get the word out?

A: Silpada grew through word-of-mouth marketing for the first nine years. In 1997 we were a basement-born company with only fourteen Silpada representatives, and now there are more than 19,000 representatives across the country.

In 2006, Silpada launched its first national branding campaign with national public relations and advertising efforts. Our branding efforts are geared toward creating greater awareness.

Q: How long did it take to get your product from idea to market (conception to product launch)?

A: We work about twelve months in advance of the launch of our summer and spring catalogs.

Q: How have you managed to juggle the roles of business owner and mom? Whatif anythingfalls by the wayside (laundry, work-out, travel, etc.)?

A: Our approach has always been to get it done instead of worrying about it. We prioritize our tasks and aren’t afraid to ask for help if necessary.

Q: What kind of support system do you have in place personally and professionally?

A: We have a wonderful support system in our families, each other, friends, representatives and dedicated employees who we can always count on.

Q: What is your company’s current financial picture and what are your projections?

A: In 1997, Silpada Designs was a basement-born business with only three employees. Today, there are about 300 employees. Silpada has experienced an average of one hundred percent growth each of its ten years in business and exceeded $190 million in retail sales in 2006. Silpada anticipates it will exceed $225 million in retail sales in 2007. To have achieved this level of sales with nearly 19,000 representatives is unprecedented in the party plan industry. Silpada is still small based on industry standards with huge growth potential.

Q: Do you think it was mostly word-of-mouth that facilitated such rapid growth those first ten years? How did you keep up with the growthwas it ever overwhelming and if so, how did you handle it?

A: During the first nine years in business, Silpada simply grew organically by word-of-mouth. From day one we have been focused on building a solid infrastructure, developing the highest quality jewelry and supporting our representatives and customers in the best way possible-and this continues to be our primary focus.

Silpada has always been committed to being the best at what it does, it strives to produce the best products possible and provide the best opportunities for its representatives. This underlying philosophy has fueled the phenomenal growth and laid a solid foundation for Silpada’s bright future.

Q: What has been your greatest success or “high point” in the process?

A: We are inspired on a daily basis when we hear emotional stories from Silpada representatives about how Silpada has changed their lives. It is our greatest success to share the Silpada business opportunity with other women and hear how it has impacted their lives. It gives us chills.

Q: What is your vision for moving forward?

A: Silpada is still a relatively small company, and we intend to keep growing. Our focus is supporting that growth and supporting our representatives. We want to be top-of-mind when it comes to sterling silver jewelry. The end result is the positive effect the company has on so many women’s lives. Silpada is about empowering women with a wonderful business opportunity and friendships. Silpada is the best of everything, and that’s what we really try to focus on. It’s more than jewelry; it’s more than a job. It’s a lifestyle.

Q: Who has been your biggest source of inspiration? What keeps you going?

A: We are inspired on a daily basis by the emotional stories from representatives about how owning their own Silpada business and having control of their own income has had a positive impact on their families. We frequently hear stories from women whose husbands have lost their jobs. Time and time again we hear, “I stepped up my Silpada business and we never missed a beat.” The touching stories extend beyond the financial benefits of the representatives’ businesses. One representative came up to us with tears in her eyes and said, “You don’t realize what this has done for my life. It has made me a better mom, a better wife and a better friend.” The increased self-esteem that stems from looking and feeling better about themselves and achieving personal and business goals is another positive result we see in our representatives.

Q: What advice would you offer other moms developing their products and ideas?

A: There are a number of preliminary steps you should take before diving into a new business venture. It’s important to do something you’re good at and make sure there is a need for your product or service by testing the market. For six years prior to starting Silpada, we pursued our passion by helping women reinvent their wardrobes and hosting home jewelry parties.

A few other guiding principles we live by:

• Most likely if you’re really passionate about something and willing to put work into it, you will be successful.

• Stay open and flexible for what is around the corner.

• Don’t be afraid to try something once.

• Discover your strengths and then follow your passion and dreams.

• Remember, passion and fun are contagious.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: From basement beginnings to now, we’ve always known life can be as big as you dream. Every day we are inspired by the individual stories this business creates—the women who have solely supported their families, the women who have found new friends, the women who have experienced their self-confidence soar, the list goes on. Each of their success stories proves that when you are surrounded by people who believe in you and support you, you realize there are no limits to what you can achieve.

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