Ariel Gordon Maffei on Balancing it All
After the first night I spent in her presence, I was convinced - Ariel is a super woman. Not only is she a fun-loving friend (the kind who breathes life and humor into any situation), she also happens to be a creative force, founder of an incredible jewelry line with a cult following (I have this beauty and it makes me happy every day I wear it), and it makes me happy every day I wear it), a loving mother and committed activist. She makes you wonder, "how DOES she do it all, and all so well!". I am so thrilled to have Ariel as part of our world and am constantly learning from her rich and multifaceted approach to life. Her insights on everything from running her business to balancing work and motherhood are ones I cherish. See below for her thoughts on being a busy mother / doer and for photos of her and her sweet babes.
10 things I’ve learned owning a business for 10 years
1. They don’t call it work for nothing
Like most things in life that are worthwhile, owning your own business is exhausting in every possible way. There are no shortcuts to get where I am. The hours are long, the stress can be high, the work can be grunty, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is very dim. For the first few years of AGJ, I couldn’t afford to hire anyone (I also still had a full time job) so I had to roll up my sleeves and dig in. I was doing all of it - production, shipping, customer service, pr, web development, photography, photoshop, etc, etc. I even had a fake ‘accounts payable’ email address so I could play a little good cop/bad cop when I had to wrangle late payments from stores. The late nights and long hours that I put in were well worth it to grow the company to where it is today.
2. Tame the beast
90% of what I do on a daily basis is running a small business (customer service, accounting, marketing, sourcing materials, pr, website maintenance, product photography, graphic design, order fulfillment, styling photoshoots, HR, negotiating shipping rates, etc.). When it’s all floating around, sometimes I can feel paralyzed with the immensity of it all. This is where the Virgo in me really shines… there is no one here to tell me when things are due or what projects I need to be working on. For better or for worse, I am the master of my ship. While in the abstract that sounds liberating, the truth is that it can be super daunting to know where to begin. I use various programs to keep me organized (some of my faves - Slack to chat with my team and make sure emails don’t get bogged down; Airtable to keep track of to-do lists, new design samples, wholesale orders, and a bunch of other things; Google Drive to have all my documents synch to the cloud company-wide; LastPass to keep all my passwords secure and accessible). I just start at the top of my to-do list and work my way down. Before you know it, I can start to see the light.
3. Knowledge is power
Everything that I’ve done in my life has led me to where I am now. For a little context: My first job out of college was for a marketing firm founded by Caroline Graham who was a titan in the magazine world. She was the West Coast editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Talk Magazine under Tina Brown (if you don’t know who Tina is, look her up). She taught me so much about marketing, PR, event production, proper etiquette, and so much more. Then I went to work for a PR firm producing gifting houses at award shows and film festivals. Needless to say, that left a lot to be desired. During this time, I took some jewelry classes at a local jewelry school in Santa Monica to escape the hectic pace of the industry. This led me to the Revere Academy in San Francisco, where I learned metal-smithing and stone setting (The Revere Academy sadly closed in 2017 but it was one of the only places at the time you could go to have a comprehensive course in jewelry fabrication, soldering, wax carving, casting, gemology, stone setting, etc., etc. It's so hard to see its era come to an end. So many great jewelers got their start there). Once I moved back to LA, I sent my resume to every jewelry designer in the area (from Caroline I learned to be fearless and to this day I can cold call anyone) and ended up working as the right hand to Maya Brenner for 5 years. She taught me tons about how to run a small business – from making line sheets to sourcing materials and everything in between. I launched my own line, Ariel Gordon Jewelry, in 2009 and haven’t looked back. Flash to the present day and I’m super proud that I have the skill I used to make all of the jewelry myself at my dining room table in my Santa Monica apartment. I quickly reached a delta where that wasn’t scaleable and I now have a super skilled team of craftspeople in LA who do all my fabrication. But having the intimate knowledge of my materials and how things are made informs so many of my design decisions. That foundation guides all the conversations I have with my vendors. It gives me confidence when I’m in a workshop full of old men and I need to navigate a production hiccup with them because I know my materials so well. Knowledge truly is power.
4. Just say yes
I feel like success begets success. It radiates outward. There is a groundswell that starts building and once you have a little bit of momentum it sort of takes off. As your clientele and network of people starts to expand, so do the opportunities that come your way. Game recognizes game. Go along for the ride. Say yes. Take the risk. Follow up with the girl you sat next to at that dinner. You never know what door those conversations will open. All of the collaborations I’ve done were born out of relationships with women who were friends first. Running a company can be isolating so it’s important to reach out into the void and see what comes back in return.
5. Just say no
2 years ago my family moved to the Bay Area for my husband’s work and to be closer to family. The AGJ team and all my production still happens in LA. The result of this move is that I travel back and forth. A lot. Sometimes twice in one week. As a mother of two young kids who runs a company based in a different city, I’m learning I need to set boundaries. My most precious commodity is my time and I need to protect it. While rapid growth sounds validating for my ego, slow and steady is much more sustainable. Climb back in the box, Ego. My priorities are shifting. Five years ago success looked like my jewelry being worn by celebs and being on magazine covers, big store orders and lots of schmancy dinner parties. Today (with a company that is many times more profitable than it was 5 years ago), I’ve shifted the balance. Success looks like a weekend with my kids where I don’t pick up my phone to look at email or social media. Success is relative to where you are in your life. That doesn’t mean I’m not ambitious anymore. I’m just evolving things so they work for me, not the other way around. And if that means some things fall by the wayside, then that’s ok.
6. Say it loud say it proud
Recognize you have a voice. Use it. Loudly. As a conscious consumer, I know I want to spend my money with brands that have values that align with mine. I know some peers who own businesses who are afraid to speak up about politics for fear that it might affect their bottom line. To them I say - it’s a luxury to stay silent and not everyone can afford that luxury. My name is on the door and I want my brand to stand for the values that matter to me. This company is deeply personal and I feel a moral obligation to speak up about causes and policies that are important to me. If that doesn’t align with a customer, then I am fine with that too. In a broader sense, I don’t want my kids to see me as a woman who works so hard to just make pretty things. I want them to know that I stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. I want them to know that I vote. I want them to see me advocate for policy reforms that affect our society. I want them to know that my company supports a whole network of families and artisans. We are all members of the same broad community and need to take care of each other.
7. Lead by example
Be nice. To everyone. In my office, I try to make a subtle point of taking out the trash, sweeping the floors, grabbing the coffees. I want my team to know that nothing is beneath me. As an extension of that philosophy, I’m extra nice to all the ancillary people we interact with (our janitor, our parking lot attendants, our door guys). I bring treats to my production team when I know they’ve been crunching to get an order done in time. I give a solid holiday cash tip to my UPS guy because he’s forever coming back at the end of his route for those last-minute packages. These people help make our world go round and I want them to know how much we appreciate them. Good relationships are sustaining. Empathy for your employees and vendors and customers is how you build trust and respect. It’s how you motivate people to want to engage with you.
8. There's no time like the present
You will always be refining and tweaking. Nothing is ever FINISHED. Don’t wait until you’re 100% ready (otherwise known as paralysis). Put it out there and know that you can (and will) shift things once they are alive. Your imagery could always be better, your website will always need revisions, your packaging might not be what you envisioned. It’s ok. It doesn’t need to be. Everything is ever-evolving. If you wait for every tiny detail to be perfect, you’ll never launch. Have realistic expectations of your mental and financial capacity and give yourself permission to “revisit this project next year.” Also be sure to celebrate your successes as they happen, before you move on from them. It’s inherent to the nature of work that every big project takes so long to complete that by the time it’s done you’ve already moved on to the next big project. The downside of this hamster wheel is that if you don’t stop spinning every once in a while and bask in your accomplishments then their impact slips away and starts to lose resonance.
9. You can't always get what you want
The myth of having it all is counterproductive. That doesn’t exist. We all have all the balls in the air. Sometimes they drop. I’ve learned that I need to compartmentalize myself in order to give proper attention to what I’m doing. I’m the worst version of a mom when I try to parent while sending an email on the sly (I’d probably be yelling at the kids while shoving a video in front of them and sending an email with a bunch of typos). I’m the worst version of a businesswoman when I’m trying to have a conference call while chasing a kid at the playground (I’d probably miss some important info and not know it because a kid fell off their scooter). Don’t get me wrong... I’m great at multitasking and work at a quick clip. My nickname is ‘fast and dirty.’ But there is really only so much bandwidth to go around. So I try to divide up my time clearly - if I’m cooking dinner, on a call, at the park, with my husband - whatever it is I try to give it my true attention. Be present. It ultimately makes me more efficient and everyone else has a better experience. Me included.
Sometimes life throws you a fucked up curveball. When my first child Luca was only 6 days old my own beautiful mom was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away a short 3 months later. I’m so lucky I got to spend those 3 months together with her and Luca. But it was a cosmic nightmare… tending to a little newborn baby while also tending to my mom as she became more ill and frail. Changing his diaper. Changing her diaper. Becoming a mother and losing my mother in the same moment in life was a true test. She was my best friend and her strength as a woman inspired me to stand tall for Luca. Even though her death was devastating I knew I couldn’t fall apart. I had to stay solid and take care of this little new person who was counting on me.Luca is now 5 and my daughter Mia is 2. I live in a new city, in a new house that she’ll never see. The hardest part now is seeing all the little moments in life that she’s missing out on, moments that I know she would have loved to see. I have to surrender to the sadness of those lost moments. I can’t get them back but it definitely makes me appreciate my present more. Experiencing this kind of tragedy definitely puts things into perspective. I know it sounds corny, but we need to chill out and enjoy the journey. Pause and smile. Recognize the happy moments. No one knows when they can be snatched away.And if you’re unhappy in your situation, do something to chart a new course. You are the architect of your life and you control your destiny. It’s up to you to build the life that you want for yourself. It’s all so precious.