You must make risk a good friend. You have got to be OK with discomfort and risk if you’re going to have your own business. Because there is no path, there is no “right” way; there is only what you decide is your way, what you create. You are the one that is responsible and accountable for it all. Owning a business means that EVERY SINGLE DAY you take financial, operational, reputational, relational, you name it, it happens, really BIG leaps every day. So befriend risk. Try to enjoy walking the plank every day because that’s what you signed up for. Decide to enjoy the ride.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Abby Sparks, CEO and Founder of Abby Sparks Jewelry. Abby Sparks is the founder of Abby Sparks Jewelry located in the RiNo District of Denver, Colorado. After being frustrated by the overwhelming, confusing, and impersonal process of the traditional jewelry buying process, Abby wanted to create a different experience, so she created the anti-jewelry store, where there’s no product to buy, only things to make.
Thank you so much for joining us Abby! 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?
I love jewelry, it has such a soul. It represents who we are at our core. Sometimes a piece of jewelry because of a marriage and, like a wedding ring, allows you to even exist. I started designing it as a child, when my grandmother would give me beads and trinkets she had collected over the years. But despite all of that, I hated going into jewelry stores and feeling judged. I started Abby Sparks Jewelry because I felt like the jewelry industry was broken.
We buy jewelry for ourselves and give it to loved ones to celebrate life’s biggest moments: finding your soulmate, wedding anniversaries, births, graduations–the absolute biggest personal and professional milestones. And yet the jewelry buying process is totally impersonal. I wanted to create a different experience; not a jewelry store, not simply “point-and-buy” or “click-and-buy.” We deserved another option.
And so I created the anti-jewelry store, with nothing for you to buy and only things to muse about and make. I opted for a design studio instead of a traditional store because I believe that each one of us is one-of-a-kind, totally magical, just as we are…and our jewelry should reflect that, especially for the big moments. I never want to tell my clients what design they “should” like or push my aesthetic onto them. Each piece is inspired by my client — what they love, the aesthetic they like, their story.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I definitely made some mistakes when I first started. Little known fact, I tried to go down the collection route one time, years ago. Every piece was one-of-a-kind, but it’s not what people wanted, and good business means making decisions based on what people want. The more I got my jewelry out there, the more I would have clients coming to me saying “I love this ring you made, but can I change this thing about it?” So I would do it, and soon I was making completely new pieces from scratch for my clients. That was a huge lesson for me. The need in this industry wasn’t pushing more product onto people, it was providing a service for them to have the options to create the thing that was perfect for them, not what I wanted for them. I think when you are just starting out and you aren’t confident in your brand yet it can be hard and scary to branch out from what everyone else is doing. But what that taught me was it’s ok to make those mistakes though because only by failing was I able better find my voice and my business model. Part of being an entrepreneur is always pivoting. When something isn’t working, pivot. Learn from your mistakes and keep going. Mistakes are not mistakes, only lessons.
We’d like to learn more about your unique business model. As a designer, an artist, if I may use that term — how much of Abby Sparks is in every custom designed jewelry?
While my company may have my namesake I don’t have a branded look or visually matching collection like most jewelry designers, and I have been criticized since day one for this. Like I mentioned before, I originally started with a collection. Every piece was one-of-a-kind, and very much my design aesthetic, but it’s not what people wanted. Seven years later, I feel pretty darn proud of following my instincts and not offering *my* branded, single look to the world because it allows me to instead be inspired by someone else.
At the same time, if our clients are the inspiration for the story, then I am the writer, the painter, the poet… the person who actualizes their story into a tangible piece of art in a way they might not have been able to on their own. So while each piece of jewelry that leaves my design studio is completely unique and one of a kind, there is my very own sense of creation and artistic flair in each and every piece. This is my subtle contribution to their story, an underlying artistic tone that holds each piece of jewelry to a certain standard of quality, creativity, and craftsmanship.
I assume that Abby Sparks, one of a kind, exclusivity, and heirloom quality, are strong marketing points. Are there any others?
We pride ourselves on client relationships. We aren’t selling you a piece and then never speaking to you again. We want to take care of your ring for life. We offer repairs and lifelong VIP treatment to assure that our client’s engagement ring stays in pristine shape, and is able to be passed onto future generations.
Not only do we create meaningful relationships, we also aim to empower our clients so that they feel as though they had a meaningful role in the creation process. Our clients can come in knowing nothing about jewelry, and leave feeling confident, informed, and ultimately really proud of what they’ve created because they made something from scratch, just for their partner, something that no one else will have.
Our clients benefit from being involved because buying an engagement ring is more like buying a car or a home than buying clothes, and such a significant purchase will come with a ton of questions. By going through our process, working one-on-one with a designer they are able to consider all of the issues associated with the piece, specifically tailored to their situation, Will this material hold up to my partners active lifestyle? What metal allergies do we need to consider, if any? Does your partner love bling? Or do they want something understated? Do you even need that big of a stone? Are the ethics behind the provenance of your materials important to you? We walk our clients through all of these questions and more to make sure that they are truly making an investment in a piece that is going to have the most value for their lifestyle.
Is there a single factor that binds all Abby Sparks clients? Is there perhaps an artistic sensitivity that mirrors their interests and lifestyle?
We get clients from all walks of life. Business people, mathematicians, artists, engineers, teachers, scientists, botanists, entrepreneurs, I could go on. What works about our process is that there is room for a client to be super creative and have all of these design ideas, but if you are not someone who is creative or starts sweating when thinking of trying to design something on your own is that you don’t have to. We take care of the whole process for you.
I think more so the common thread that binds all of my clients is the feeling that the traditional jewelry store model just doesn’t feel right . Getting engaged and making the commitment to spend forever with someone is a huge deal, and just buying something off of the internet or going into a store and completing a transaction in 10 minutes seems impersonal. It feels wrong. All of my clients find value in making this piece something so special, even the most simple design, it’s more about the intention and time and care and love that went into creating something for their partner. They want to be able to tell a story, and they want their partner to feel honored by the the care they devoted. They want their partner to truly love the ring, and they want to feel proud about what they’ve created.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Jewelry is one of very few ‘things’ that is passed onto future generations. All the good things in life mean more when we lend our hearts and efforts to their creation. Because sometimes the little things ARE the big things. Every single one of us has our own unique combination of personality and soul attributes. Add to that your personal story, all of the trials, tribulations and experiences…that’s pure magic in my eyes. Then, when you find your person, well then we have something that has never existed before. And oh man, that spark can move mountains! To me, no spark is the same. No connection is the same, no love is the same, and no two people are the same. This is the flicker that started my business and the north star that guides it and me today. My company exists for those looking for jewelry with meaning, that they can tell a story about, made just for my clients’ unique lives, for their magical connections. For their spark.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
It has taken me a long time to be able to scale my business and to capture in words and processes how I discover the best design for my clients. It can get pretty deep. I get to know my clients on a real level and I ask the hard questions. I need to know what makes you YOU, and what makes up you and your partner’s special “zing”. . It’s way more than round diamonds, halos, and prongs. I want to know about your values, your lifestyle, your passions, your story. Only then can I curate jewelry around your deep and intimate story.
One thing we always talk about as a team is we’re not here to sell anything or push anything on anybody. We’re here to solve problems. We’re not a fit for everybody, if I don’t think someone needs my services I will tell them. If I can help them solve their problem by giving a recommendation to a different jeweler, then that is what I will do. Being honest with people and providing answers to their problems will always win out over the traditional “sales” tactics. The people who are a fit for what we do will come back if you’ve provided enough education and value to solve their problem.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Problems are immanent, nothing is easy. If you can get into this mindset, then running a business will be full of acceptance instead of resistance. There is no “right” way to start and run a business, there is no step-by-step manual. Even companies with the best biz plans fail, so it’s really important that you have an “all-in” mentality and simply expect (if not enjoy!) the challenges that come from running a business. When I started my business, really quickly after months of hurdles and unknowns, I got tired and frustrated and sleep deprived, so what really helped me was a massive change in perspective. Once I put the hat on of “bring on the problems” my perspective alone lended towards my startup being less overwhelming and more like a video game almost — tackling problems head on with eagerness, being ok if something failed or didn’t work as I had planned vs. being massively disappointed or feeling like a failure. Every single conceivable problem will occur, and it’s incumbent upon you to master your mindset.
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 I first decided to start my own business, I had no idea what I was doing, I was so scared, the timing was horrible, and I’m still learning and growing each day in how to build my business. Everyday, My business and I are still a work in progress. There were plenty of times it would have been easy to give up. It required me to look in the mirror and see what things I held onto to define myself, to understand the world, and it required that I make some very big choices. I had a comfortable, well-paying job that allowed me security and financial freedom, something that starting a business would not afford, at least not immediately. I had paid vacation, I had retirement, I had health insurance. And I found that security to be very comfortable. It took me pure and complete exhaustion in order for me to even realize that my heart’s guide was even a thing. I decided that I would rather give up a life of security, financial predictability, and all that was comfortable and predictable in order to have more career fulfillment, more creativity, more passion, more clear understanding of a company mission, and more control of my happiness. That need for fulfillment was what kept me going.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
I have gone from being a one-woman show to being the leader of a rockstar team. From jewelers, designers, and creative marketers, the ASJ team works hard to give each client a custom jewelry experience where they are fully involved, fully guided, and fully educated to create their dream custom jewelry. Abby Sparks Jewelry was voted Denver’s Best Jewelry Designer and Best Fine Jewelry in 5280 Magazine in 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. These awards mean the world to me because we won by the votes of the people of Denver. What makes Denver so awesome is THE PEOPLE here. I will never be able to express enough gratitude to the people of Denver for continuing to love us and letting us honor their weirdness. It lights us up.
Starting a business is never easy and I’m constantly learning, every single day. If you want to start your own, know that there is no perfect business plan. You’re going to hit roadblock after roadblock. This is normal! I have five pieces of advice to future CEOs and founder for starting a service-based business with purpose and passion:
- Solve people’s problems. Truly great service based businesses are ones who make their clients feel relief — that they are fully taken care of and they don’t need to worry about this problem they had anymore, it’s in capable hands. When you’re talking to potential clients, dig in. Ask the hard questions, what is the problem at the root of what they are looking for, and can you fix it? If you can’t, it’s ok to tell them you’re not the one for them.
- Build relationships. Not everyone is going to keep up with your business after they’ve received a service from you. But while you are working with them, find out about their lives. Everybody wants to feel seen and heard and understood on some level, give them that space. You will instantly stand out in a sea of impersonal, sales oriented businesses.
- You must be really good at what you do, you must love what you do, and you must make money. This piece of advice actually comes from a mentor/friend/alum/client of mine. You must have all three of these things to really have your service to be a viable option. You can be really good at something and love what you do, but if you don’t make money, then you’ll be hard pressed because you gotta eat and have a roof over your head. 1 and 2 without 3 are better left to hobbies. You can love what you do and make great money, but if you’re not really good at it, eventually people won’t come to you because they’ll go to the person that is better at your “thing” than you are. You can be really good at something and make great money, but in time, if you don’t enjoy it, you’ll keep seeking the next big thing. Your heart and soul will require it because you won’t feel fulfilled. Make sure the service-based business you are starting checks those boxes at the very least.
- You must make risk a good friend. You have got to be OK with discomfort and risk if you’re going to have your own business. Because there is no path, there is no “right” way; there is only what you decide is your way, what you create. You are the one that is responsible and accountable for it all. Owning a business means that EVERY SINGLE DAY you take financial, operational, reputational, relational, you name it, it happens, really BIG leaps every day. So befriend risk. Try to enjoy walking the plank every day because that’s what you signed up for. Decide to enjoy the ride.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
In 2013, my leap into Abby Sparks Designs was not easy. Only a year prior I had graduated with a masters degree and a substantial amount of debt. I had been doing full-time consulting at the same time as taking on only a few jewelry clients at a time. However, the balance between the two started really taking a toll on me and at one point, I went months on end sleeping only 2–3 hours per night in order to work both jobs. At this point of exhaustion, and nearly crazed from sleep deprivation, my father pulled me aside and asked me a very impactful question. He said “Hun, I have watched you run yourself into the ground for the last six months and I can no longer hold my tongue on this. You need to decide the life and future you want, right now, before you end up collapsing from exhaustion. You can’t do two things to your best ability, and since knowing you, you have never once accepted second as best. So decide what you can give up. One has to go- is it consulting or is it jewelry?” And what he said next floored me since my dad is not the ‘feely’ type AT all. “Which one is your heart not willing to let go of?”
It was difficult for me to answer what I wanted because my mind was in the way, but by asking me what I was not willing to let go of….yeah, that I knew. I knew that day that I was going to quit consulting immediately. I knew that not because I wanted to give up consulting and the security it offered (because I didn’t. I wanted the safety and security of a known career path). But only when we are asked to give up that thing do we truly know our hearts desire for that thing… And so in knowing that I was absolutely not willing and not OK with giving up my jewelry dream did I realize my path, and did I realize what I truly wanted and needed.
My father said, “You have had an immense amount of apparent ‘success’ from doing something you don’t love. Just imagine the success you’ll have doing what you DO love.” And so the way that I was able to take my big leap is because I was willing to give it all up in order to build it back, all based on believing in myself and following my heart whispers. Really, it was then that I learned one of my biggest lessons- that you have to make your faith higher than your fear.
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 came into the world of jewelry challenging industry norms. One of those norms I am working to break down is that women have to just accept the ring they’re proposed to with. Or that women have to get a diamond solitaire ring just because it’s what their mom, their grandmother, and their sister did. If solitaires are your thing, then go for it! No judgement here! But my point is that I want it to be ok for people to be more comfortable with speaking up and voicing what they want. People are silently suffering and complying with norms their heart doesn’t agree with. I like to ask my clients, “What would your dream ring look like if there were absolutely no limits?” I think it’s an important question because for some reason a lot of us will take things off the table because we think it’s too much or too weird or too over the top or too simple or not possible. There are people out there who don’t care what it looks like because it came from the person that they love. But other people do care what it looks like and they want to find a ring that still has every part of their partner in it, but also reflect who they are.
Your engagement ring is the one thing that you’re going to be wearing everyday, for the rest of your life. That’s pretty huge — not even your favorite pair of jeans gets that much wear. So it’s important to make sure it’s something you really love. I want to change the industry norm that people have to be secretive about the ring they want, and just hope that their partner can figure out what they like. People aren’t mind readers and we always encourage couples to have an open and honest conversation about getting engaged, and even about what elements they would like to see in their engagement ring.
When it comes down to it, I want to give people, especially women, the permission to follow their hearts and be themselves in an industry where that can sometimes be frowned upon.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Youtube: Abby Sparks Jewelry
Facebook: Abby Sparks Jewelry
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!