Small Business Spotlight: Ekolu Designs

Hi friends! Today's my first time posting to this new blog, and I thought I'd start off with something a little different. I'm SO excited to welcome my long time friend (by long time, I mean from the hairy legs, bushy eyebrow days...oh wait...that's today - for me anyway). Kaili Poliahu is the uber stylish creator of 'Ekolu Designs where she makes impeccable beach jewelry. She just launched a couple months ago, and I wanted to capture those very early weeks of a business in infancy. Though we grew up together on the Big Island, she now lives on O'ahu with her husband John and baby girl Brooklyn. We recorded a FaceTime chat about the beginnings of business, figuring out family time and work time, pricing and more, and I transcribed it (cleaning it up a bit to make it easier to read). Click on the photos to view the listing. Enjoy!

Oceandrop (teardrop) Freshwater Pearl Earrings and Matching Necklace, 14k Gold Filled or Sterling Silver

The last time you and I talked, you told me you were thinking of sewing something to sell. And you’re the most stylish friend I have, so it’s no surprise that you went into jewelry instead, but I wanna know, what made you pick jewelry?

Over a year ago, beach jewelry came out and it’s been super trendy and I thought, “Oh my goodness that is so easy to make.” I took a jewelry class in 7th grade, so I thought “I can totally make that. What these people are selling, I can make that!” So the only thing that held me back was “How do I find all the shells, because I have Brooklyn how do I go to the beach?” So the thought was always in my mind, I even got all the supplies. I had everything. And of course I was thinking....”Ok should I go more into sewing? Because I sew? Or should I do this jewelry?” So I was really tossed. And when I meant sewing I also meant clothing or something. But I think the easier route was jewelry because it’s so easy. I look at something and I think “I can totally make that. Why should I buy that?” That’s ultimately the reason why I started making jewelry, because instead of paying for it, I could just make it. And I can make it exactly how I want it. THAT’S what I want. I would look at a necklace and think “Oh that’s super easy to make, but I don’t like this. I would do that. So now I can create whatever I want.

I know what you mean. That’s exactly how I started designing stuff. I just thought “I can make that!” I didn’t want to pay someone else to design graphics for me, so I taught myself. Some people don’t want to do it themselves, so they hire someone.

Real Jade, 'Mommy and Me' matching Infinity and Heart charm Bangles, thick 14 Gauge 14k Gold Filled or Sterling Silver

Let’s talk about what you did to prepare before you launched.

Ok. I did a lot of research. Before I began even making, I spent...I would say I would go to sleep at about midnight/one in the morning. We would go to bed around 9 right? I would stay up several hours and during the day just researching. What’s popular? What’s trending? I would look at other peoples’ sites, and not really get ideas but more so be like “Ok I DON’T want that look, or I like how she’s presenting herself, that’s where I wanna hit towards. So I did a lot of research. I’d say several months just looking things up, not even creating anything, not testing anything out. I would just look online, and my main purpose was so that I could get an idea of who I wanna be, how I wanna present myself to the general public? And once I decided “Ok. I want this look,” that’s when I started. I started very small, creating my name, the font, like, to the very “T” I wanted everything to just look professional. Coming from me, professional. You know I don’t know any web design, I don’t know ANYTHING about business to be honest, but I did everything on the computer, I looked around and gathered ideas of how I wanted to come out, and so I spent a lot of time thinking, not just saying “Oh I like that color let’s do that.” I really thought about the process of everything, all the way down to my name card, how I wanted to present that. Just all the little details.

You’re on Etsy. Did you look at any other sites or any other places to sell or was Etsy where you always wanted to start off? I looked around, but I didn’t spend much time looking around because I knew if I started with Etsy, everybody goes on Etsy. You know? Etsy’s just popular. It’s like Facebook or Instagram. Everyone goes there. You don’t hear of these other little sites. It’s like Skype or Facetime. Everyone knows about that but you don’t hear of other sites. So I knew that if I went straight to Etsy...everybody who goes on Etsy, they keep clicking. You know it’s like Pinterest. You just clicking and you find and eventually you’ll land on something. So I knew the best way to get myself out there was to go with something that was popular first. So maybe now that I’m on Etsy I like it. I may venture somewhere else later, but it’s been going really well for me.

How long has it been now since you launched? I count launch date from when I saw your new Instagram handle? Yes. That’s how I count it. I started the Instagram maybe a week before, or two weeks...I can’t remember. Maybe a week before. But it was just to get things up. You know? Like I did Etsy maybe a week before I came out, but I did that so when people look at my stuff there’s a variety. I really want, when people land on my page, or they hear about me, they have options, not just like, “Oh there’s two things?” You know? “That’s it???” So I started everything before it actually came out. But I think it’s been two months maybe? At the most? Maybe less than two months I think. It’s so new you know, like last night I got my first international sale. And I’m like SUPER excited, like “Oh my gooness! Someone on the other side of the world wants my things!”

Yes! That’s the best feeling. I just wrapped up a project for a shop owner in Finland, and it’s just cool to work with someone so far away.

So what has been your greatest challenge so far? There’s two things: Working around Brooklyn’s schedule is the HARDEST thing. Since she’s the only child she’s very clingy, and literally wants me to do everything with her, unless she’s with John or my inlaws or my parents. I think those are the only people she really takes to. So, I can’t do anything when she’s here, when I feel like I have so many things to do. So my greatest challenge with that would be trying to focus on her, and not CONSTANTLY running my mind on jewelry. Being MENTALLY there with her instead of just physically there with her. So that’s one challenge. A lot of my creating is done in the evening. Once John gets home he takes her out, they go exercise together, and that’s when I try and pump out as many things as I can, or when she naps but a lot of my work is done at night time. I think I kinda like that more because that way I can actually be with her. You know? Because she grows so quickly. I don’t want this business to take over being with her.

The other greatest challenge would be to stay original. There’s so much of the same product out there. How do you keep on top of everything else? How do you stay unique?

3 Stacked Beach Bangles Connected by 3 Floating Hearts, 14k Gold Filled 14 Gauge

Yeah that’s is REALLY saturated market. It’s so, so popular. But you came out really strong, and your last giveaway got a great response.

Yeah it really did and that was my actually coming out. I came out to other people besides family and friends. You know Facebook is just family/friends, but this came out to the public.

What’s been your greatest challenge so far? What are some things you didn’t plan for?

This may be silly, but one thing is handling returns, not because of the product. One customer wanted her item shipped overnight because she wanted it by Easter. So there I am, and I only do standard shipping. I don’t now how to overnight, I don’t know the process of that. So that was a big ordeal. For the most part everyone’s been very generous. A lot of people don’t know their bangle size. So that’s been something where I have to be repetitive. They need to be sure about their size because everything is made to order. EVERYTHING, so once I make it it’s finalized. But other than that it’s been very nice.

So, where do you get your supplies from?

Everywhere. I order a ton online, from every place possible. Shells are local, I have suppliers on the island. Some I hand pick. I have a collection since John and I got married. So I use those shells. Those are more special though because I hand picked them.

Gold Dipped Coral Statement Necklace, 14k Gold Filled

Have you figured out how to pay yourself yet?

No not yet. Not with money (haha). I’m still trying to break even because I put out a lot of money. I make in return, double that but then I put out money again in supplies and because it’s genuine gold and silver, it’s expensive. Just to give you an idea, if I bought the metal, let’s just say it cost $10, I would probably price it at about $25-$30. Other people would be at $40-45, but I price it $5-$10 less than these bigger people because I’m not as big as them. So when I put it out I’ll get half of that, but then all of that goes straight back to getting more. So I’m still trying to break even.

Yeah. That was the tough thing for me about doing a physical product was breaking even and making a profit. So for me doing design work ended up being more profitable because I’m not putting money up for a physical product. I’m just spending time. But that’s a challenge I don’t think I was ever able to figure out - the right system. So I guess that’s something you’re gonna have to figure out as you go along.

I am. My prices stay pretty consistent, but I do have these random secret sales where I go online and drop it for a week or so and then put it back up. When I get big orders I have to replenish what I used, so that makes things fluctuate. But I am hitting pretty close to where I want to break even. So...I don’t pay myself.

But you will. You will because like you said, quality is important.

It’s SO important. I wouldn’t say I waste a lot of money, but I do waste some money because if I’m making something, and it doesn’t come out exactly how I feel it should, I’ll toss it. I can toss something that costs about $7 in a matter of minutes. You form it, it gets ruined already, because I don’t want to send something out there that looks a mess, or half a job. Right because that’s your name, that’s your business

I’m sure people appreciate that.

I hope so. I received a very nice compliment from one of my first orders. Because of her posting my product on her instagram, a lot of her followers followed me. And her comments you know they blew me away because they were just so kind and generous. She said “It’s nothing like my other bangles and you know I have a lot of bangles but she keeps it thicker...” and used all these terms that people use. So it really touched me because I spend a lot of time. I mean if I were to go through the process, I can make something in about 10 minutes - you know - a regular bangle with a few charms. But I probably take a good 20 minutes because I sit there and I take my time. I eye it out a good five minutes. You know the process it takes longer but I wanna make sure it’s perfect.

That’s awesome. That’s how it should be done.

You talked about how you balance your work with caring for Brooklyn, but how about John? Do you guys feel like you get enough time together?

I think we do because he helps me. We have this system. During the day I’m with Brooklyn. When she naps that’s when I prep orders. I cut things, I get things ready and that’s also time where I think of new designs. So I have that time. When he comes home and takes her out, he gives me a good hour to create. Then we have dinner and then that’s when John and I spend time together and he helps me with my jewelry. He does little things that he can do - help prepping and stuff like that, and all the time Brooklyn’s there with us. She either watches Barney or plays with her toys, but we’re all there together. That’s when John and I get our time, and then at night time she goes down, I finish up a few things, and then we’re in bed and that’s where John and I have our personal time. It’s working for us now. I think what makes up for the week is I don’t work on weekends. I treat it like an actual office job where weekends are strictly for family, unless it’s for a special order but other than that we spend Saturday and Sunday as a regular family.

It sounds like you have a good thing going and having John being so supportive I think makes all the difference.

I don’t think I could ever do this without him. To be supportive like you said, to even allow me to take a big chunk of our money for the starting costs. He is the backbone to ‘Ekolu Designs.

Too bad he can’t really enjoy the product himself right? He can’t wear it...

He helps. He gives me ideas, runs ideas by me...

Yeah...maybe you could do tie pins or rings for men or something

Eventually I do want to venture into the men’s department. Not jewelry, but maybe some items like clothing accessories that men can wear. It’s just ideas right now.

 Well whatever you do I’m sure it’s gonna be fabulous. You’re so talented. So, that’s about it. I think that’s a good note to end off on. Thank you!"

And there you have it! Isn't she amazing? I hope you enjoyed my first interview. Thanks again to Kaili for sharing her experiences with us. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and here's her Etsy shop one more time. Aaaand, as an added bonus for making to the end of this post, get 5% off your next purchase with coupon code EDMAHALO.

photo credit: Kaili Poliahu