Banking on Bling

650 million. That’s probably a few more reasons than Bonnie Kelly and Teresa Walsh considered when they were trying to decide whether to start a company back in the early 90s.

When we caught up with “the girls,” as they’re known in the Silpada offices, for a July 2007 cover story interview, the Silpada Design founders told us they had three criteria any business idea needed to meet: it had to help out their household budgets (their husbands were both out of work at the time), it had to “fit” around their children and they had to have fun doing it.

So, $50 appropriated from their grocery money and a shoebox full of jewelry later, the two friends were in business together. But it was with a company—Cool Jewels—that turned out to be their farm team, so to speak. For six years with Cool Jewels, they earned between $100,000 and $150,000 each year. Not a bad annual take for two moms who had been looking for a “fun” and “child friendly” way to supplement the family income. But it was labor intensive—the two friends were doing 150 to 200 parties a year. And they knew they were leaving money on the table: Women who attended their parties were asking them how they could have their jobs. Walsh and Kelly started asking themselves how they could grow the business beyond themselves.

In answering that question, Silpada Designs was born in 1997. The two women brought in Bonnie’s husband, Jerry Kelly, who had management and catalog experience, to help them grow the new business. And grow it they did. At the time of our July 2007 cover story, the company had 300 employees and 20,000 sales representatives nationally. And, just last month, Silpada Designs sold to Avon for $650,000,000.

I’ve heard some people say, “$650,000,000? It wasn’t even that novel of an idea!” But that doesn’t matter. Walsh and Kelly did a lot of things right from a business perspective—even though they also made some doozey mistakes along the way. For example, when they did their first catalog shoot, it lasted eight hours, with Bonnie and Teresa staging all the jewelry and Jerry Kelly manning the camera—only at the end of the shoot he discovered he hadn’t put in the film. (Can any of you entrepreneurs relate?!)

Whether or not the idea was novel, the business model was innovative or they made some mistakes along the way, here are the three key things Walsh and Kelly did right. They are the key things any entrepreneur must do to be successful:

They came up with an idea, and they acted on it. They didn’t talk it to death. They took $50, a jewelry-filled shoebox (which they later traded in for a Caboodle from Wal-Mart), and they got to work. Talk is cheap. Action can turn into $650,000,000.

They knew that to succeed, they had to grow the business beyond themselves. How many business owners never grow past the point of wanting to do everything themselves and keeping total control? Most of those businesses don’t succeed in the long run. The owners either burn out, can’t keep up, quality suffers, or they remain very small.

They listened to their customers. When they listened to the customers who were interested in selling jewelry themselves, Walsh and Kelly had the answer to how to grow the business. Don’t underestimate the value of listening to your customers. Some of your best ideas will come from responding to what they tell you they want, not what you think they want.

Congratulations, Bonnie, Teresa and Jerry!

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About Smart Companies Thinking Bigger®

Kelly Scanlon is the owner and publisher of Thinking Bigger Business Media. She recently finished a term on the national board of directors of the National Association of Women Business Owners, and was the national chair from 2010-2011. An advocate for small business owners, Kelly sits on numerous boards and committees to advocate on behalf of small business owners. She has won several awards for her advocacy. Among them are the 2011 United Nations NGO Positive Peace Award on behalf of Kansas City area small business owners, the U.S. Small Business Administration's Region VII Women's Business Champion of the Year in 2009, and the Women in Business Advocate of the Year from the State of Kansas in 2006. In 2002, she won the SBA's Region VII Small Business Journalist of the Year Award (Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas). Whatever your business stage—aspiring, startup, established, mature—Thinking Bigger Business Media has the resources you need to grow to the next level. We are a resource organization dedicated to providing the strategic, "how-to" information small business owners need to become more productive and more profitable. We also provide information that helps owners connect with resources within the business community that can help them grow. We deliver that information through a variety of media products and other channels easily accessible to business owners.
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