Before Saskia started selling her jewelry - just after a year-long journey across Asia - she took a part time job in Washington DC at a bead store where she shopped as as a teen called Beadazzled, which was owned by an amazing entrepreneur named Penelope Diamanti. Penny had begun her career as a journalist with a wanderlust to see the world and interact with everyone she met (sound familiar?). In the mid-80’s Penny began wholesaling goods she found in her travels and then in 1989 opened a storefront in Dupont Circle to house all the amazing beads she had found. After more than 20 years, Penny sold the business to her employees and has since been working with Guatemalan artisans, selling their crafts to the Smithsonian gift shop.
Saskia thinks of Penny as a mentor, and recently sat down for a conversation, which yielded some very helpful tips that any small business owner should consider.
Where to begin
One of the first pieces of advice she gave Saskia was, “Trust your gut and follow your heart.” Penny never set out to run a bead business: her degree was in journalism. Through her travels, she discovered a love of artisanship that led her to start an importing business. The business plan came later - the love came first.
Making a system
Though she didn’t pursue a career in writing, the journalism degree came in handy. Essential to setting up a successful business is creating a solid operations manual and constantly writing marketing material - everyone inside has to know what to do and everyone outside has to know all about you. Her second piece of advice to Saskia was “learn who you can trust.” Beyond just writing a rulebook, you need people around you who can help you succeed. Penny's success began with the artisans she worked with around the world, continued throughout the supply chain and all came together in her shop.
Wholesale vs Retail
Penny faced an interesting dilemma that we face ourselves - how do you sell your goods? She joked that unlike Saskia (who worked in theater), her journalism background led her away from the spotlight - wholesale is where Penny began and where she has returned. In those intervening years, however, she ran multiple retail locations. The benefits of wholesale are lower costs: fewer employees and lower rent. The benefits of retail all lie in the margins and the ability to find a buyer for those unique, one-of-a-kind pieces. At the end of the day, Penny again followed her gut and returned to where she began. In her words, “I like to help people from disadvantaged places make money from their skills; I like to be there; and I like to sit home and put stuff in boxes.”
Being able to adapt
Perhaps the best piece of advice Penny offered was this: “Things change, things always change and our ability to adapt is where success or failure comes.” In the late 80’s Penny frequented the boutique wholesale shows with around 30 other people. When in 1989 the opportunity presented itself, she opened her retail storefront in Dupont Circle and soon quit the wholesale scene. A few years later, only a handful of her old colleagues were still in business. They had stuck to the same way of doing things and never reevaluated the course. As Penny says, “We live in a world where changes happen so fast, you have to be ready to change or die.” We’ve taken these words to heart, and make it a habit to constantly check in, challenge our assumptions and refine our vision. Penny has been an amazing mentor, and her pearls of wisdom are ones we can all take to heart.