What began as a hobby in her parents’ basement has grown into a three-store business with plans for a new studio space! Teaching herself jewelry-making through YouTube, Kate Stevens has been running Red Giraffe Designs (RGD, for short) for over 10 years. During this time, she’s moved from sole jewelry designer to manager of 15 employees. Kate shares how customization became central to her business, the tools integral to her success, and why adaptability and evolution are vital to being an entrepreneur.

Headshot of Kate Stevens, Entrepreneur & Owner of Red Giraffe Designs in Columbus, Ohio

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Give us a summary of your business in 200 words or less.

Red Giraffe Designs (or RGD, for short), is a handmade jewelry studio and curated boutique. The core of each of our shops are the handmade designs we make in our downtown studio, but we also offer other curated designs, many also designed or handmade by other small businesses.

Each store also has a Customization Bar where customers can get items personalized right in-store and take them home the same day. Our main goal is to offer unique, high-quality designs that are affordable for all.

How did the idea for your business come about?

In the beginning (in 2009), RGD was purely a hobby. I was just out of college and having trouble finding a job. With so much free time, I found myself crafting a lot (this was the early days of Pinterest, haha). I dabbled in a little bit of everything from T-shirt design, to home decor items, to hair accessories, to jewelry making. Initially, I would sell them to friends and family, but then I started toying with the idea of selling at craft fairs. After doing a few markets and gaining some experience, I realized what I really loved was the jewelry-making side of my business.

I slowly focused more on my jewelry designs and techniques, and eventually, that’s mostly what I was making and selling. Today, customization is a huge part of our business, but initially, it wasn’t as much the focus as it is now. From early on, I would take on almost any custom request that customers had (many of which I should not have attempted).

My jewelry-making experience was very limited at that point, but when customers would come to me with custom requests, I almost always said yes. And I think this is how I developed so many different jewelry-making techniques over the years. Taking on custom work forced me to learn things I normally wouldn’t have attempted on my own, one being hand stamping, which is an integral part of our custom work now.

Customization Bar at Red Giraffe Designs in Columbus, Ohio

What was the turning point for your business?

I started realizing I had something special during the summer of 2014. At this time, I had really found my niche; I was participating in roughly 25 craft shows and pop-ups a year. I would have a great show over a weekend, sell most of my inventory, and then go home and work my butt off to replenish my jewelry for next weekend’s show.

By this time, I had enlisted the help of my husband whom I taught some basic jewelry-making techniques, but even with the additional help, it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep up with the demand at each show as well as my Etsy shop online.

What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner? 

Being a business owner and entrepreneur means having a vision, working incredibly hard to execute that vision, while also staying adaptable and flexible. Knowing that each day, some new problem will present itself, whether big or small, so you have to be prepared for anything and have the ability to act quickly and confidently.

It can be easy to fall into routines and stay in your comfort zone, but as an entrepreneur, it’s important to evolve and continually evaluate every aspect of your business. I’m always looking for ways to improve RGD, whether it’s the product we sell, the store appearance, or the customer experience.

What are some of the ways you’ve evolved over the years?

I’ve personally and professionally evolved over the years along with my business. When I opened up my first store, I had very minimal management experience and had zero clue what I was doing as far as running a boutique. I’ve always been a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of person and usually operate best under pressure, but with a team and in retail, that doesn’t always work. You have to plan ahead and communicate those plans and expectations.

As far as the business, that has also evolved tremendously over the years. The designs and materials we use for our jewelry have probably been the biggest change. Initially, most of my designs were made with vintage, deadstock, or repurposed materials and mostly consisted of brass pieces that had a more rustic or vintage look. Now we use a wide range of materials to suit pretty much anyone.

You’ll still find pieces made with brass, copper, aluminum, and plated materials but over the years we’ve added higher-quality materials: gold-filled, rose gold-filled, and sterling silver. These work best for people with sensitive skin or those who want to spend a little bit more on items they can wear daily with no worry.

Note: Check out our list of the Best Women’s Boutiques in Columbus for great shopping day ideas!

What does the city of Columbus mean to your business? 

Columbus means everything to me and my business. Since my very first pop-up, Columbus has welcomed RGD with open arms! You can really feel the support of the community for small businesses here, and I feel so proud and grateful to live and operate my business out of this city.

Are you from Columbus? 

I grew up in Pickerington, so just about 25 minutes outside of the city, and went to Ohio University in Athens for college. After college, I struggled to find a job, so I lived with my parents for a few years while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. Luckily, during that time I was able to explore my artistic side and fell into jewelry making after stumbling across some jewelry-making videos on YouTube!

Was YouTube the main way you taught yourself jewelry-making?

I’ve taken one metalsmith class and one enameling class about 8 years ago, but most of my knowledge has come from doing my own research online and watching videos on YouTube. I’ve always been creative and naturally had a good eye for design, but I didn’t start off as an expert jewelry maker. It’s taken a lot of dedication and trial and error. I’m still learning new techniques even today!

What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give someone wanting to start a business? 

If you can, start small. I’m so glad I started off selling at craft shows and online for a couple of years before opening up my first storefront. It gave me time to learn the ins and outs of the jewelry business and figure out my niche. It also gave me time to grow my customer base and establish a bit of a following.

How important is finding your niche as an entrepreneur? 

Finding your niche is so important – if I had kept signing up for craft shows where the most popular booth there sold baby dolls in baskets, I never would have made a dime. Those customers weren’t my customers; RGD wasn’t their style of jewelry or their price point, and that’s okay.

Once I found where I fit in in the craft show world, it became a lot easier. I didn’t have to work as hard to sell my product, because what I was making and selling is what the customers at these shows were looking for and liked. When you find your customer base that aligns with your product or service, you can stay true to yourself. For me, that means designing jewelry I want to make.

What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business? 

Before owning a business, it’s difficult to fully grasp how much work it takes and how demanding and constant it is. There is always something to be done, so that means a lot of behind-the-scenes work, late nights, and long days. In the beginning, I rarely took a day off, and even now it’s challenging because even on off days I have to be “on-call” for anything that may arise.

What’s the most challenging part of your business?

Over the years, there have been a lot of changes in the business, as well as my role within the business. RGD started as a little hobby in my parents’ basement. We now operate three storefronts and one office and studio space with about 15 (mostly full-time) employees.

Now managing so many people, I spend a lot of time worrying about my team and how I can better help them. It’s really important to me that RGD is a positive, fulfilling work environment.

Employees at Red Giraffe Designs Working at the Customization Bar

Has it been hard to transition from doing it all yourself to managing others?

As the business grows and the team grows, I spend less and less time making. It was very challenging going from making every single piece of jewelry myself, to now rarely assembling anything. Although making jewelry and designing will always be one of my passions, I am also passionate about building up my business and making it the best company it can be. I’m still involved in a lot of the purchasing and designing, but I now have a team that assembles and designs many of our items.

The jewelry you see today is all very “RGD” and my aesthetic, but it’s not just my designs that you see on the sales floor anymore. It’s a collaboration of many people in our studio, which I love. It’s really cool to see how beads or supplies I order with one idea in mind are then used in so many different ways by others on our team. We pull a lot of inspiration from each other and having so many creative people now at RGD has only made me a better designer and jewelry maker.

How do you stay on top of things?

I would be lost without would be my phone. That is my lifeline to staying in touch with my team through phone calls, texting, group chats, etc… Specifically, the calendar, camera, and note apps are my most used tools. I would forget everything without my calendar or the note app.

My notes are filled with my goals for the days ahead and the year. I put all of my business and design ideas there and plan a lot of our marketing and social media ideas in that app as well. I take many of our pictures for the website and social media, so the camera on my phone helps me get our product out there to our customers as well as show our team new products, designs, merchandising, etc.

Every business owner has a flaw. What’s yours?

There are a few things I could put here, but probably my scatterbrain. A hundred things are going through my head at all times about things I need to get done or ideas I have, which can sometimes make it difficult to focus on the task at hand.

Why do you think most business owners fail? What’s made you different? 

I think there are a lot of varying reasons why business owners fail, and everyone’s situation is different. After a challenging couple of years, I feel very fortunate that we are still doing well. I think one reason we’ve continued to be successful is that we’re a manufacturer of many of our products. This gives us a lot more flexibility with what we offer as well as our pricing.

We’ve also done a great job pivoting when needed and evolving over the years. The designs at RGD are a lot different today than they were when RGD first started over 10 years ago, all for the better! We try to listen to our customers and stay on top of the latest trends while also staying true to our design aesthetic. Offering great customer service is also key.

What was your biggest mistake, and what did it cost you?

I’m not sure there has ever been one major mistake that I’ve made that cost me in the long run. More small failures over the years, such as product launches that didn’t pan out, pop-ups that were a waste of time, or materials that weren’t what I thought they’d be. But even with missteps along the way, I’ve always gained something from it.

Some of the early craft shows I participated in cost me hundreds of dollars for a booth and I lost money in the end because it wasn’t my customer base or a great fit for my brand. But even at shows like this that seemed like a loss, I gained experience, made some connections, and learned valuable lessons for my business.

What tool has helped you the most for your business?

Having an accountant, Anderson Tax & Consulting, has been such a lifesaver. I read once that as a business owner, it’s important to know what your weaknesses are so you can hire that out rather than spending extra energy trying to be good at those things. You should instead focus on what you already excel at and put your energy there. Having someone take care of the financial side of the business is such a relief and allows me to focus on what I like doing and what I’m good at.

Note: Check out our list of the Top 5 Columbus Accountants if you need help managing your finances!

When did you know it was time to expand your business, make your first hire, etc.?

My first expansion came when I opened the Short North location in April 2015, but I didn’t hire anyone officially until October 2015. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher friend on summer break who helped me in the early months with the shop. Even then, I was still working 6-7 days a week to keep up.

Once she went back to school, I knew I couldn’t handle it all on my own, especially with the holidays around the corner. I hired my first two employees and one of them still works for me today as our Studio Manager!

What’s been a game-changer for your business?

Hiring help! It was something I was so nervous about doing in the beginning, but it gave me back some freedom and more time to focus on the parts of the business that I loved the most. Without my team, RGD wouldn’t be able to function today.

What’s something your business spends a lot of money on that’s worth it?

Payroll, by far. It’s important for me to invest in great people who are willing to help our customers with as much care as I would while also creating beautiful jewelry pieces. I feel so fortunate to have such an amazing team that helps me keep RGD going.

What are you working on right now that you’re very excited about?

We were looking for a new studio space pre-Covid, with hopes we could offer other fun things with a larger space (events, classes, etc.), but that was put on the backburner. Now that we’ve made it through the worst of the pandemic (hopefully!), we’re again focusing on finding the perfect space!

What form of marketing is the most valuable for you?

Although frustrating at times, we find a lot of value in social media. Facebook and Instagram marketing are two that we utilize. Email marketing and word-of-mouth have proven to be great for us as well.

What email marketing tool do you use? Any other marketing tools that have made your life easier? 

All of our email marketing is done through Square. We use that platform for our POS, website, payroll, email marketing, and our loyalty program. Canva is a lifesaver for creating great graphics for emails and other marketing channels!

Who do you vent to when you have a business problem?

Usually my husband. He’s been there from the beginning of RGD and it’s really nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of or cry to at times. Also my Dad. He’s a business owner himself, so I go to him for advice as well.

Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?

I tend to focus on yearly goals rather than looking that far into the future. Sure, I think about where RGD could be in another decade, but it’s hard to really know, especially with everything that has happened the past couple of years. I find it a lot more useful and less overwhelming to have short-term goals to focus on, but I’m always thinking ahead too.

When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, what do you do to overcome this feeling?

Taking deep breaths and making a to-do list really helps me focus and ease any feelings of stress. I have so many random and lengthy notes saved in my phone. It’s so helpful to get everything written down somewhere so I can revisit my thoughts when I have time. Having a rambunctious toddler helps too! 🙂

What’s one component of entrepreneurship that’s much different than what most people think?

It’s not glamorous. It’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice.

What other entrepreneur do you look up to most?

I’ve always idolized Jeni from Jeni’s Ice Cream. As a female business owner in Columbus, watching her growth and success while also handling various obstacles along the way is really inspiring to me.

If you had to tell a visitor one thing to do/see/eat in Columbus, what would it be?

My husband and I live in the Short North, so we usually gravitate to that area. A trip to the North Market, lunch at Press Grill, coffee at Roaming Goat, book browsing at Prologue Bookstore (both RGD shop neighbors), and dinner and drinks at Arch City. Outside of the Short North, I always recommend Cosi or the Columbus Zoo. A Blue Jackets game is always a good time too!