Christian Johnston of GLD: “Things are never as good or bad as they seem”

Things are never as good or bad as they seem. When something great happens, it’s natural to feel amazing. Likewise, when something bad happens, it’s normal to feel down about it. But at the end of the day, the big picture usually doesn’t shift all that much. The best thing to do is take it […]

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Things are never as good or bad as they seem. When something great happens, it’s natural to feel amazing. Likewise, when something bad happens, it’s normal to feel down about it. But at the end of the day, the big picture usually doesn’t shift all that much. The best thing to do is take it as a learning experience and get right back to work.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christian Johnston.

Christian Johnston is the President, Co-Founder, and lead creative of GLD, the Miami-based global fashion brand renowned for its jewelry. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Christian is a self-taught designer and entrepreneur whose pieces are worn by entertainers such as Wiz Khalifa, ASAP Rocky, Cardi B and Justin Bieber, and whose fans include sports stars such as Paul Pogba, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. Under Christian’s leadership, GLD transitioned from a two-man operation out of a cardboard box in 2015 to a brand headquartered in a 12,000 square foot facility in Miami, Florida. GLD has exclusive licensing deals with the MLB, NBA, NFL, PSG, as well as Marvel. Christian’s instinctive understanding of craft, materials and styling, combined with an intrinsic comprehension of his audience, places him in a tradition that stretches from Alexander McQueen to James Jebbia.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Definitely! I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA alongside GLD Co-Founder Dan Folger. Ever since middle school, we’ve had the vision of creating a lifestyle brand revolving around jewelry. Fast-forwarding a bit, I attended Duquesne University, where I majored in finance and played on the basketball team. It was here that Dan and I began to make our vision a reality. We started by taking the 1 dollar Megabus up to New York from Pittsburgh and buying jewelry. We would then bring the jewelry back and sell it at school and on social media. This basically proved the concept for us, as we saw the power of social media and the potential it had.

From there, I really focused on creating a fully custom line of GLD designed jewelry and perfecting the quality of the entry-level jewelry, because that was where the biggest opportunity was at the time.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

One real “aha moment” for me was when I saw how much success we had selling through social media. Realizing that there is a true demand for the absolute BEST quality of entry-level jewelry, I set out to make sure GLD would always have the best quality. I knew the potential for a true lifestyle brand in this space, rather than just trying to sell people jewelry.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When starting a new business, you’re guaranteed to encounter tough times. I remember when we invested what seemed like a huge amount of money and resources at the time into booking a spot at a sneaker convention in New York City. We packed up everything we had, hit the road, and made it all the way to the convention ready to sell. Upon arrival, we realized one of our employees booked the table incorrectly and they wouldn’t allow us to go in without a table. We thought the world was ending because of how much time, money, and everything else we put into this. Luckily, we refused to take the L and managed to convince another vendor to split their table with us. We ended up selling more jewelry off that 1-foot end of the table than we ever could have imagined.

I never took those thoughts of quitting seriously because I told myself very early on I would win and I would never stop until I did. The drive to succeed and continue on has to come from within. I am a firm believer that self-motivation is one of the most important traits a young entrepreneur can possess.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Today, things are amazing. Sometimes I feel like I will wake up back in my dorm and realize everything has been a dream. GLD is thriving and still such a young company, and I’m excited about the future.

Grit and resilience are both skills that I take pride in. There is no doubt that they’re both significant to my success. The late nights, early mornings, and bouncing back from failures are all super important. Having that grit to grind on a daily basis and focus on all of the little things is something that may be hard to see in the short run, but over time you really start to realize how big of a difference all of the little details make.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

GLD stands out because of the versatility of what we do, and how much people genuinely associate with the brand. GLD brings a unique element because our customers can relate to us. If you look back at when we started GLD, you can see us grinding just to get off the ground. Many of our customers — even celebrity clients — can relate to that. They can look back at a time they had to grind to make their dreams come alive. When you pair that with the best quality jewelry across multiple price points from the entry-level to the super high end, GLD can do it all. There aren’t many brands that can sell someone something for 100,000 dollars and something identical for a few hundred dollars, offering amazing quality and a lifetime guarantee across the board. The fact that the high-end clients can relate to the grind and the journey makes them love the brand and relate to those rocking the entry-level pieces. It’s all a family and we are all grinding to be the best that we can be. Just like our vision says: We inspire others to work hard, innovate, and change the game.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Something I always laugh about is a time when we were pulling an all-nighter brainstorming. We decided we wanted to introduce a new clothing line, so we ordered a bunch of samples to test. When the clothes came in, we all took a few pieces to “test wear” and wore them out one night. By the end of the night, the clothes were all ruined and we then had no samples. We ended up just having to write that off as a loss and move on. Turns out the clothing wasn’t the best quality, so we ended up going in a different direction that time. I learned that not all ideas are good ones, and even though we had a ton of ideas for the clothing line, it’s sometimes just as important to understand which ideas NOT to pursue.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Good question. I realize now that most times when people say “this is just how it works” or “this is the way it works in this industry, just go with it” — really anything along the lines of trying to justify something that doesn’t seem to make sense — it’s usually because it actually doesn’t make sense. So when people say something like that now, trying to get me to go against my gut, I always research it even more. I study it, learn it, and make sure it actually makes sense. Never blindly trust the industry standard.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

There’s a wide range of skills that can lead to success, but in my case, I think versatility/open-mindedness, hard work/consistency, and the will to win are the most important factors that led to my success.

Versatility/open-mindedness: The willingness to be open to new ideas, changes in the world/industry, and then the ability to be able to pivot quickly to take advantage of those things is extremely important. Even when you think you may know your business inside and out, things are always changing. Look at this past year — I think everyone got a lesson in being versatile and being able to pivot quickly for success. The pandemic came, we quickly shifted non-essential workers to be remote, we spread a positive message to our fans, and gave back to the community through giveaways and donations.

Hard work/consistency: Staying up late working every night, getting up early to work the next morning, and then doing that consistently. Working hard is something every business needs in order to be successful. But in order to sustain that success, consistency is key. When GLD first started I would be at the office 18 hours per day. This may not be sustainable forever, but I kept it up long enough to make it a consistent pattern over the first 18–24 months. Now, luckily, I don’t have to spend all of my time in the physical office, but I keep that same mentality every single day.

Will to win: Having the strongest will to win and using that to push all other skills and character traits is something that I value. Throughout my life, I’ve never necessarily been the smartest, best, most athletic, etc. But having the strongest will to win and finding a way to win no matter what is something I value. Sometimes I may not be the most formal or go about it in the prettiest way, but at the end of the day, I am going to do everything I possibly can to win.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Take care of your body and mind. I mentioned earlier how at the beginning of GLD, I would work 18-hour days in the office. That isn’t sustainable forever, so I had to reinvent my working habits and find ways to achieve more, all while allowing my body and mind to take some time off. I workout daily and find time to just think and unwind. Always save some time to learn new things and to think about the big picture.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I see a lot of really smart people that don’t understand the value of money, and spend too much of it at the beginning. They take the most important thing, generating sales, for granted. The first thing you should ever do is figure out how your business will generate sales and make money. Once you figure that out, you can fix most other problems. So at the beginning, make sure not to overspend or invest too deeply without having the sales side proven. Sometimes developing a minimum viable product and building from the ground up is the best way to go. This relates to a number of different areas: marketing, product development, legal, logistics, etc. You don’t need everything to be perfect at the beginning. Pick the most important areas to focus on and build with time.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

A lot of people who don’t own a business or run a company struggles to understand that it really is a 24/7 job. I may leave the office and go home, but my mind is always thinking about GLD. There’s no clocking in or clocking out. I completely understand that this mentality is not meant for everyone. I try to save some time later at night for creative thinking and brainstorming so that I can relax and unwind while still being productive. I’ll knock out the other tasks throughout the day as much as I can, so I’m never a roadblock to something getting done. In the early days of GLD, my mom would always ask me “What do you do down there all night?” talking about me being at the office all night. I always laughed because normally i couldn’t even explain it — there was just too much to explain.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Things need to be improved continuously. In the beginning, I would often think, okay once we do this and set it up this way, then we won’t have to worry about that anymore and we can focus elsewhere. I came to realize that most things need to be continuously improved. Most of the time, there is usually room to improve something. The best thing to do is come up with a great plan and be willing to adjust and improve it over time.
  2. If you want something done right once, do it yourself. If you want something done right forever, figure it out yourself and then teach it thoroughly. People often say if you want something done right, do it yourself. I believed that to a degree, but I also learned that mentality can only take you so far because it’s impossible to do everything yourself as you scale a company.
  3. Things are never as good or bad as they seem. When something great happens, it’s natural to feel amazing. Likewise, when something bad happens, it’s normal to feel down about it. But at the end of the day, the big picture usually doesn’t shift all that much. The best thing to do is take it as a learning experience and get right back to work.
  4. Bet on yourself. Always believe in yourself and bet on yourself to be successful. Don’t underestimate what a dream and hard work can do. I had no prior experience in jewelry, business, fashion, or much of anything for that matter. I started GLD while in college and learned most of what I know along the way. Thoughts and doubts may creep into your head or come from others, but the one thing you can control is yourself.
  5. Enjoy the ride. Through all the hard work, failures, wins/losses, and everything that comes with being an entrepreneur make sure to enjoy yourself. Enjoy the little wins, big wins, and everything in between. Look back and reflect on the losses, once the sting goes away. Running a business is a lifestyle — enjoy every part of the ride because it will definitely affect every part of your life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I always had a dream of improving the lives of those who are less privileged or don’t have the same opportunity to succeed as others. I want to provide an opportunity. Whether that comes by building parks in less-privileged communities to give kids a chance to practice their sport or providing educational opportunities for aspiring jewelry designers, I definitely want to achieve this if nothing else through my time at GLD. Ultimately, I want to make the world a better place.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Keep following GLD (@Shopgld on Instagram and my personal Instagram is @Christian_johnston). Keep an eye out — we are just getting started!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

Thank you for taking the time to ask great questions and doing this with me.

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