Hailing from a family of self-starters and entrepreneurs, the support and vote of confidence that Emi Grannis received to start a business of her own — paired with her desire to make — made her road to self-employment an obvious one. But it wasn’t until she attended California College of the Arts that her medium became evident: jewelry-making and the art of metalsmithing. For Emi, it wasn’t hard to fall in love with the process and the tangible, forever-lasting quality of jewelry, but the reality of running a business was a bit harder to swallow. As Emi admits, “at best, only 20% of my time is spent at my bench creating actual jewelry, and the other 80% is spent on accounting, social media, updating and fixing my website, emails, photographing, editing, packaging and shipping,” but wearing many hats and working long hours is a dance she’d never dream of quitting.
Her heart and immense attention to detail go into every piece she hand-makes from her San Francisco, CA studio as they do in every business transaction (however more challenging to navigate). Today, Emi’s joining us to offer more insight into her business — from how she landed on being a metalsmith, to her rocky relationship with email, to pricing and invoicing. –Sabrina
Portrait Photography by Melissa King
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I graduated from art school in 2013 with a degree in Jewelry and Metal Arts, and I made a silent pact to myself a few weeks before school ended: I decided that I wanted to start my own business and make my own work, and I told myself that no matter how tough things got, I wouldn’t get a job working for someone else. This tactic may not be the safest or work for everyone, but I knew my personality, and knew that if I worked for someone else and got too comfortable, I might not have the drive to really push and make things happen for myself. I needed it to be “sink or swim” in order to fuel my desire for success.
It was important to me to be able to do my own thing and express myself the way I wanted to. I’ve always been inspired by people who take a chance and follow their dreams, so it was meaningful to me to create my own path. I knew that regardless of what I ended up doing, I’d be working hard, so I figured I might as well invest in myself and my own brand. In addition to my own personal drive and desire, I also had an amazing support system in my family. I had the good fortune of being brought up by two parents who worked for themselves, and later in life got to see my sister, Kina, forge a successful music career out of sheer passion and determination; so making a career out of the thing you love didn’t feel like as much of a pipe-dream to me. I’m so grateful to come from such a supportive family, and their unending emotional support and encouragement is another reason I felt inspired to take the leap. In our home growing up, there was always a culture of “regardless of what you choose to do and we’ll still love you and support you.” No one has ever told me to give up or get a “real” job, and at times when I’ve doubted myself, they’ve always been there to help me gain perspective and figure things out.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
In my first year at California College of the Arts, I chose random classes to see what resonated with me — drawing, textiles, ceramics — but my intro to jewelry/metal arts class and the amazing people I met in the department really stuck with me. I realized it matched my making style — creating three-dimensional, tiny, precious objects with attention to detail and purpose. I liked the idea that jewelry was a physical product that people cherish and hold onto for decades, if not for their entire lives, passing it down through generations. Such a tiny piece of metal can be imbued with so much meaning.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
My dad is a doctor and has owned his own practice for decades. When I decided to work for myself, I felt like I had joined the family club, and I remember him telling me, “if you want to work for yourself, don’t expect to work 40 hours a week just because everyone else works 40 hours a week. Expect 70, 80, sometimes 90+ hour weeks when you’re first starting out.” He stressed that it wouldn’t be comparable to a “normal” job, and I think that helped me adjust my expectations early on.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
It takes a lot of discipline and a lot of balance. Important decisions need to be made every day, and you’re the one who has to make all the calls. I have a maker’s brain through and through, so it’s often really tough for me to do the operational aspects of the business. Accounting, emails, scheduling — none of these are my forte, but everyone has to start somewhere. I’m a big believer in the notion that everything can be learned and any mind can be trained. While it’s helpful to really know yourself — your strengths and your struggles — it’s also important to not let self-limiting beliefs hinder your potential. One difficulty for me is finding the line between perfection and efficiency. I hand-make all my pieces personally, and I’m sure I could be more efficient and sell more if I outsourced some of the work, but I’m not willing to compromise the control and quality of the product. I also hand-make my packaging and hand-write a note to all of my customers — again, not the most efficient — but it’s important to me that my product feels unique and personal.
Making my own schedule is simultaneously one of the most awesome and most difficult parts of owning my own business. Sometimes I have incredible freedom and flexibility — I don’t ever have to ask someone for time off as long as I’m still getting everything done — but sometimes I have to work for a month straight with no time off. It can also be difficult to not have a boss to tell me what to work on next, or if I’m meeting my goals and doing a good job, etc.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
First, have the confidence to put yourself out there. I think the fear of success can sometimes be just as scary as the fear of failure for a new business owner (or anyone, really!). I can trip myself up sometimes, but I’ve learned to never wait until you feel ready. Chances are, you’ll never get there. All of the big milestones in my business — my first business cards, launching my website, my first custom order, first museum exhibition — were done before I felt “ready,” but taking that first step is the biggest hurdle and you can always go back and fix things later. Things don’t have to be perfect the first time around.
Secondly, know your worth and don’t be afraid to stick up for yourself. I can’t stress how important it is for creatives to charge what they are worth. If you’re making a custom ring for someone, you can’t just charge them for the materials in the ring and call it a day. You need to think about not only the time you spent on the labor of making the ring, but also the time designing it, doing research, emailing back and forth with the client, and any face-to-face or Skype meetings. All that time is time not spent making other work that can bring in income. It can feel really uncomfortable charging what you deserve at first, but if a lawyer can clock and bill in six-minute increments, why shouldn’t an artist? Do not underestimate the value of your time. It seems like the easiest thing to give away, but it’s so precious.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
Okay, real talk — I am so bad with emails. It’s definitely the one area of my business where I feel like I’ve dropped the ball more than once. It’s something I’ve struggled with since day one and something I’m constantly trying to improve on, but I came to realize that when it came to the back-and-forth emails necessary to design/work out all the details of a custom piece, the stress was killing me. It finally got to a point where I decided that I needed to redesign how I conducted business or I was going to constantly feel like I was failing and falling behind, so I implemented a different way of communicating with clients that played to my strengths instead of my weaknesses. Now I try to either set up an in-person meeting or a video call to replace weeks of back and forth and trying to explain visuals through email. This way I have an experience that I really enjoy: it’s easier to explain design ideas or show visual aids; I get to speak to clients face-to-face and really get to know them; and best of all, when a meeting is over, it’s over! Not something that gets added to my to-do list that can get lost in the shuffle.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Hour 1: Free time in the studio. It’s easy to get caught up in fulfilling orders, but I went into this line of work because I loved the unstructured creative side of it, so I can never get enough. I’d also like to have more time to work on my art jewelry and the kinds of things I made while in school.
Hour 2: Walk around in nature/check-in with myself/meditate. If you’re the only one running the ship and you’re unwell, it makes it almost impossible to succeed.
Hour 3: Socialize. I can already be a bit of a hermit, and having my own business has made spending time with the important people in my life that much more difficult. Those are all things that I think I can realistically fit into my life on a more regular basis, it just takes some restructuring. Really, what I want more than more hours in my day is to learn how to be more efficient with the hours I do have.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
Feeling financially comfortable, especially in the beginning. It can be hard to look around and see peers who have nights and weekends off, 40-hour work weeks, stability, PTO, and benefits. The amount of uncertainty can be scary. I feel like I always need to be working — it can be hard to turn your business brain off and dedicate time for play, but if you want to be successful in the long run it’s incredibly important to master this so you don’t end up burning out.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
I won’t ever forget the feeling of my first website order that had a name on the invoice that I didn’t recognize. That was such a proud moment for me. I felt like I had nurtured my little baby business and poured everything I had into it, and when I saw that it had reached this new level — that I could share handmade goods that I loved with strangers I had never met — it was incredibly special. One of my favorite jobs I get to do is to create custom wedding bands and engagement rings. Something I love doing with these projects is melting down and recycling some of the client’s family jewelry to make a custom alloy, or blend, of gold. Getting to witness how special it is to someone to be able to wear a one-of-a-kind ring containing gold from multiple generations of loved ones is incredibly rewarding and helps me remember that what I do is worthwhile.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
The War of Art and Do the Work, by Steven Pressfield. Both are quick reads and I’d recommend them to anyone in a creative field, anyone starting a business, or anyone who feels stuck in general. I personally deal with a lot of internal resistance, and these books helped me understand and overcome those struggles. A friend recently shared Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey with me. I haven’t finished it quite yet, but so far it’s fascinating. So interesting to take a peek into the lives of other creatives to see how they tick and then realize how many different ways there are to approach the creative process.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
Originally, I started out as a studio art major at UCSB, but I couldn’t quite find my groove. I was doing a lot of painting and drawing at the time, as well as some installation work, but I felt a bit lost and wasn’t sure if I had a strong enough voice or perspective in those mediums to really make a living doing it after college. After two years I realized I was rapidly hurtling toward a future that didn’t align with my end goals — I wanted something different and knew I had to actively take steps to change my course. I ended up dropping out of school even though at the time, that went against everything I felt a successful and responsible person would do. I moved home and spent a year working to save up money and figure out my next steps (and I watched a lot of Friday night movies with my parents). I only applied to one art school, got in, and transferred to California College of the Arts in Oakland where I spent the next four years.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Really spend the time to hone your craft. Be unique. There is always room for improvement and creative growth, but it’s helpful to make sure you have a clear aesthetic and vision when you’re first starting out.
2. Do it for the right reasons. Does it make you truly happy? It’s important to really know that you love it. You’ll be spending the majority of your waking hours thinking about and working on your business, so you need to be passionate enough to be willing to make personal sacrifices. It’s an exciting idea to go be a maker and work for yourself, but there’s definitely not any guarantee of immediate fame or wealth.
3. Take stock of and utilize your resources. Do you have enough saved up to stay afloat in the beginning? It can take months or even years before you start making a profit, so now is a good time to consider taking a look at your savings or considering if there are any alternative ways to access extra start-up capital. Do you know someone in the industry that you really admire? Try reaching out. Any advice from someone who has been through it can help, and you can start building a network of contacts while you’re at it.
Bonus: Take some time to really think about who you are, what your tendencies are and how you operate, and what makes you happy. Self-reflection will go a long way in really determining if starting your own business is the right choice for you.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Personal emails, then Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, then work emails. Some days that all feels like too much, so I’ll read an article online or watch a TED Talk instead, and leave the emails and social media for when my day is already up and running.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Wearing about a thousand different hats at any given time. Some people may have this romanticized notion that a jeweler sits around creating beautiful things every day, and while that’s definitely true for part of the time, there are so many other tasks to be done in order to make a living from it. I would say at best only 20% of my time is spent at my bench creating actual jewelry, and the other 80% is spent on accounting, social media, updating and fixing my website, emails, photographing, editing, packaging and shipping. Doing the work of 10 people on your own while trying to have a good life/work balance can be difficult, but it’s an adventure I wouldn’t trade for something less fulfilling.