How did you get started with leather?
Leather goods have always been a part of my husband's life and my life. Growing up, we both lived on horse farms where we used multiple pieces of leather equipment every day. A few years ago my husband and I met, and I learned that his mother made leather goods. Her specialty is riding chaps for people who show horses, but she has created numerous leather products throughout her 40+ years of experience. In 2013, we decided to move from Georgia to Kentucky to be closer to his family and learn some of their knowledge of the horse and leather industries. My initial goal was to learn how to create riding chaps, but God soon set another goal in front of me. Dog collars. The area of Kentucky we lived in was extremely rural, and I was having a hard time trying to find a job that wasn't an hours drive away. Spinning my wheels, I came across some beautiful and unique collars that my mother-in-law had created the previous winter. She said she didn't have any real luck selling them. All I could think was that there was no way they wouldn't sell if we could show them to the right people. I had heard quite a bit about Etsy before and thought that would be the best place to start. I soon had potential Etsy customers asking if they could have custom designed collars, and the rest is history
Were you always interested in owning your own business?
If you would have asked me in high school, I would have said absolutely. If you would have asked me four years ago, I would have said I had other plans in mind. In high school I devoted my life to anything business related. I took every marketing and business class that was offered. I was a part of a marketing and business organization, DECA, in which I competed at multiple levels in entrepreneurship. I had originally entered college as an Agricultural Economics major with the intentions that someday I MAY own some sort of business. That dream eventually faded into something that seemed a bit more realistic. Out of all small businesses, 80% fail within the first eighteen months. That figure alone was a constant reminder of an unsure future in the small business world and my ideas weren't all that new or grand. A year or so later, I changed majors to Early Childhood and Special Education following one of the best experiences of my life. I was a counselor and member of the barn staff at a camp in Colorado called Camp Chief Ouray. The kids were amazing, and the life there was so wonderful that I was sure that working with youth was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I returned back to my life in college, changed my major, completed the required courses, student taught, and received my degree and certificates. Somewhere towards the end of my college career, I met my husband and that is when life started to drift back towards my original career path.
How did you learn to make leather goods?
A lot of my leather knowledge I owe to my mother-in-law and father-in-law. She helped teach me the basics of leather work and sewing while he helped teach me how to stamp leather. Also, some of my knowledge also came from trial and error. Once I learned the basics, I would make test products and "tweak" things as I went along. It is all a continuous learning process, especially as trends come and go.
How do you get ideas for products?
My customers are my number one resource for ideas. We allow our customers to design their own collars or customize pre-designed. This helps guide us in directions that others may like. Our customers have created some really unique pieces that my husband and I would have never thought of. Once we get done with a custom piece, we decide if it is something we would like to offer the rest of our customers. Then we make small changes so it is not an identical design. Our other source for ideas is the products and ideas on the internet - not just leather goods but anything handmade. We want to keep that handmade, one-of-a-kind feel alive, and we love creating designs that capture those feelings.
What are your inspirations?
Our biggest inspirations are the West and Southwest. I have been fortunate enough to have had the chance to visit many places in Native American and Cowboy country. I've visited Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona which all offer an abundance of different inspiration for our work. We actually have a collection called "The Southwestern Collection" that has a piece named after a city in almost every state mentioned. Each state has it's own unique set of characteristics. For example, Texas is cowboy country so we have our stamped leather collar and our hair-on-hide collar named "The Dallas" and "The Fort Worth". Our collar made with real turquoise cabochons is named "The Santa Fe" due to the amount of turquoise products you find in the area.
How do your hobbies influence what you make?
Owning horses and being outdoor enthusiasts have a huge impact on our designs and the way we create our products. Living on a horse farm, you have to have equipment that is of outstanding quality, or it will not last through the daily grind of dirt, sweat, and wear. If a horse's bridle can last for years and years, then why can't a collar? (Unless Mr. Pickles decides to make a yummy leather snack out of it :P) We use some of the highest quality leathers and materials the industry has to offer.
Our love for the outdoors has also had a huge impact on how we create our collars. Although we have various collections that are all based on completely different styles, our "Rustic Canine" and "Everyday Hunter" collections really emphasize more natural designs. Earthy colors and antiqued metals attempt to imitate things you may find while walking in the wonderful outdoors.
What has been your biggest lesson?
Not undercutting ourselves is a huge ongoing lesson. The handcrafted market is such unique market that the price and quality of the products can not really be compared to something you would buy in a franchise store. Each handcrafted piece, no matter if you buy from us or someone that makes wooden spoons, has so so so much time and money invested. Each one of our pieces takes at least two hours to complete between both my husband and I. Those two hours are just the creation part. The time we use to talk to customers, order products, take pictures and so on isn't even included. Before we had even opened our business, I read many articles about setting good and fair prices for handmade goods. Stubborn me, I didn't listen to them. When we first started, we had our prices very low. We hoped that our one-of-a-kind pieces could be marked at a price where almost anyone could buy them. Unfortunately our dreams and desires didn't work out so well. We were making such a small profit margin there was no way that out business could make it without increasing our prices. We still don't have our products at a full retail markup, but we hope to find other ways to increase efficiency or cut costs so our products can be used and worn by more individuals.
What's your favorite thing about owning your business?
Being able to work with my husband is by far one of my favorite parts of this business. We both share in the same joys and disappointments of the business and help each other up when one is feeling down or unmotivated. Creating and growing this business with him has been wonderful, and I couldn't ask for a more hardworking and dedicated partner for this journey.
My other favorite part about owning this business is creating custom designs. I love creating designs that customers have developed or new ones that my husband and I have drawn up. It is such an amazing and rewarding feeling to see something go from a leather hide to a finished product. When customers receive their custom products, I always look forward to the response emails or letters. We are always humbled by the gratitude our customers pay us.
What's been your best advice you've been given?
To keep on and never give up. Just like with life, owning your own business does not have a secret recipe. Each business takes its own unique set of instructions to keep it going and make it successful. There are so many different directions to go and when a lot of your choices don't seem to be working out it can be quite a let down. If you don't keep a positive attitude and keep moving forward, all can seem hopeless. Our business venture has been such a roller coaster ride since the first day we opened in 2013. We know we have a unique product, but trying to find a way to keep the orders coming in has been a serious ongoing equation. Sometimes I am not sure that my abilities or skills will be enough to keep the business going. I consult my husband or my parents and they soon remind me to keep trying.
Why should people support small business?
Supporting small businesses doesn't mean that you are buying just another product. You are buying a product that will in turn support a family, a dream, and a passion. Additionally you are potentially giving to a business that helps and supports different organizations in your community. Many small businesses try to help raise money and awareness for various organizations at local and national levels. This year we plan to dedicate at least three months where a portion of sales are donated to organizations focused on youth and dogs. Small businesses also tend to have a much better customer service standing. Lots of handmade companies offer warranties and guarantees for their products. Small businesses usually go out of their way to meet their customers needs and to make them happy.
What's been your biggest challenge in owning your own business?
Trying to find a balance between our business, family, and personal life has been really rough. If you let it, your business can really consume you and all your time. Since all of our products are handcrafted, it takes almost double the time compared to a simple retail business. My husband and I handle customer service questions, design new and/or custom products, order materials, manage our website and Etsy, converse with potential advertising and social media partners, develop advertising partnerships, post social media pictures and messages, stamp nameplates, cut out products, dye products, sew products, apply adornments, photograph products, edit pictures, package orders, deliver orders to the post office, input accounting information, and vend dog and horse shows. The list goes on and on. Having all of this to do between one and a half people (since my husband also has a full-time job) can be really overwhelming. Because we are trying so hard to have our business take off, we sometimes don't make enough time for the more important things in life. Once we get a little further in to the year, we hope to be able to add one more member to our J&B team and help everything smooth out.