The first-ever Future of Design Business Incubator Contest will reach its climax on Tuesday, March 13, when the winner will be announced at a live finale taking place during the MJSA Expo. The competition—the only one in the jewelry industry that places high demands on both designer vision and designer business acumen—has narrowed the field down to three finalists who will pitch their business ideas to a panel of industry experts.
JCK spoke with Jewelers Resource Bureau’s Cindy Edelstein, one of the judges, to get a sense of how she thinks Future of Design can find the next big thing.
JCK: How did the idea for the contest come about?
Cindy Edelstein: The idea came after the MJSA Show last year where I had just run my annual designerDAY business conference for jewelry designers and participated in the MJSA one-on-one mentoring session at their show. Andrea Hill and Kate Peterson were speakers at my event and part of that mentoring session too, so at dinner that night—before taking in the opening week performance of Priscilla Queen of the Desert—we were rehashing our day.
We had met many new designers or those with dreams of starting a business and we were musing on which had potential and who was really not ready or capable in our viewpoints. It reminded me of the TV show Shark Tank (which I adore) … and then I said, “What if we were to do a Shark Tank-like contest of our own?” It was quite an undertaking from idea to reality – we needed to build an online application platform and create a strong enough business questionnaire to really be able to evaluate a designer’s business acumen.
JCK: How did the process take shape?
CE: We put out a call to enter in early September. We had set parameters for entry to attract designers who have been in business for a while – this was not a contest for newbies. They had to demonstrate a history of working on their own and making inroads into that business. We didn’t set a years-in-business rule but rather an annual sales volume range of $50,000 to $350,000.
Remember, our goal was to take those that were serious and help them reach that next level. We wanted to foster the “freshman,” so to speak, and help them get to “star quarterback” status faster and with the support of industry peers. Each year we will reevaluate our parameters and adjust as we see the need.
We drew designers from all over the U.S. (we kept it domestic this year because all the prizes were U.S.-based and because the business landscape is so different in other countries we didn’t want to over commit ourselves). We got designers who have been in business for just two years and some who have been in business for 20 or more. We got men, women, and teams applying. We got applications from those that specialize in silver, bridal, one-of-a-kinds, and even one with a “new invention.”
The 78 questions were intense business evaluation exercises to make sure the designer knew their business well and we wanted folks to be able to gain knowledge and expertise from just the application phase alone. Many designers open their own business based on their design talent and innate drive—but it takes strategy, financial knowledge, and an overall understanding of how business is run to really succeed. So the application poked at every sore point an entrepreneur could have—be it understanding their market, their competitive analysis, their REAL costs and profits, their vision, and their growth potential.
Most designers said after completing the application they had gotten value out of the process and learned more about their own business. You can see the video of the semi-finalists to see what they thought of the process. We did take the designs into consideration AFTER evaluating their business potential—this isn’t a design competition but good product is necessary to succeed.
JCK: Why do you think this competition is good for the industry?
CE: We did it as a way to support the future. This industry has been hit hard in the past few years and it’s even harder for young designers to grow. New designers have always faced the common problems of lack of business acumen and connections but during this recession the road to success became even more challenging. The windows of opportunity became even more narrow.
If these folks are going to survive they need to improve their business skills and their understanding of profitability, strategy, and salesmanship. Retailers aren’t buying as quickly and as freely as in the past. Designers need to understand the game more than just how to make pretty jewelry.
The Future of Design will offer more in the future than just the contest. Every applicant gets feedback from our judges on their application—so they are getting input on their line and their businesses from our five judges. Expert advice not always available or affordable to many. The semi-finalists also get a mentor date with one of our Designer Dream Team (Erica Courtney, Robert Lee Morris, Penny Preville, Gurhan, Lisa Jenks, and Todd Reed).
JCK: Talk a bit about the live finale of the competition, which will be held next week.
CE: These three designers gave the best answers on their applications and subsequent live interviews. They demonstrated the best grasp of their businesses, their market, their potential, and their road to growth. Our judges also felt that their jewelry designs showed the best potential for growth in the marketplace, too.
On Tuesday, the designers get one last chance to impress us on their ability to grow their business in the next year. They will be making a public 10-minute presentation on their business, their place in the marketplace, and their plans for growth. The audience will get the chance to meet all three, ask questions and the judges get the chance to be wowed in person and see the audience’s reaction.
Charisma and poise are an essential part of a successful business strategy too and this is the first time we’ll get to see how they show up in public. And of course, how they handle the task of a live presentation gives us more insight into their salesmanship and drive—they’re all quite nervous but they’re jumping in with passion, drive, and determination! We are looking for the whole package—the one that has the design sense coupled with the mind and heart of a successful entrepreneur. And we will be behind them for a long while—supporting their growth and cheering on their successes.
The live finale takes place at 10 am on March 13 at the Hilton on 54th and 6th Ave in New York City. Enter through the MJSA Expo on the 3rd floor; the event will be in the seminar area.
Author of A Girl’s Guide to Buying Diamonds, Randi Molofsky has covered the fine jewelry and gemstone industries for 12 years. A noted contributor to fashion and business publications ranging from W to New York, and the former fashion editor at National Jeweler, she also serves as a strategic consultant for industry organizations and high-profile designers. Randi muses on personal style and design at pimpsqueak.com.