INTERVIEW: Jessica Herrin, Stella & Dot

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The Stella & Dot founder discusses her brand expansion plans.

Stella & Dot launched in the UK in late 2011, offering women a conduit to run their own business hosting jewellery parties at home or acting as a stylist for the brand. Stella & Dot founder and chief executive Jessica Herrin tells Kathryn Bishop about plans to push further into the UK and Europe while looking after a global team of stylists and hostesses.

Sipping from a take-away coffee, eyes dazzling and smile wide, Stella & Dot chief executive Jessica Herrin personifies what many of today’s businesswomen aim to be. She looks the part, is a great storyteller but most importantly, Herrin knows her stuff. She’s been there, done that, launched an award-winning business and is now working with women and men across the world to build its name: Stella & Dot.

In turn, Herrin says, the company allows individuals to run their own jewellery business to fit their lifestyles. Stella & Dot works to a concept that has been compared perhaps unjustly to Tupperware parties and the army of Avon ladies that traipse the cul-de-sacs of the UK.

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While it is easy to use those examples to explain how Stella & Dot functions – its hostesses run parties for groups of women to shop its jewellery collections in the comfort of their own homes, while its stylists are on hand to personally help customers select items to match an outfit or for an event, each taking a cut of sales – its product is unmistakably more glamorous and its approach contemporary.

Having soft launched in the UK in late 2011 with the aim of bringing 500 stylists jobs to the UK, the business is now poised to make a deeper push into the UK and Ireland, in a bid to make Stella & Dot quite literally a household name.

Sitting down with Professional Jeweller, Herrin speaks enthusiastically about where the UK arm of the company is at present. “It’s been almost three years since we launched here and it has been unbelievable, going beyond our expectations,” she states. “This stems from our product being something women love and having a really a broad range with a high level of style and aesthetic, alongside our method of personal styling which, being a mix of high-touch and high-tech, has gone down really well.”

This high-touch, high-tech concept is the company’s way of being both personal and digital in its approach to sales, something Herrin describes as “very blended”. A customer could spot something they like at one of its jewellery ‘trunk shows’ held at a hostess’ home, and then head online to buy it at a later date if they wish. Or they can discuss products or gain style advice digitally through one of its stylists, who will recommend customers which products to wear for certain occasions or to match particular outfits.

So how do the roles of hostess and stylist work? “My mission was to democratise entrepreneurship, as the reason people fail at the start of business is not having the capital to invest,” Herrin explains. “As a result, our stylists are independent business owners who work with Stella & Dot part-time. I refer to them as side-preneurs, as many of them work with us on top of a full-time job — 70% of our stylists do — but they earn up to 35% of the amount of Stella & Dot jewellery they sell, whether through a trunk show or online.”

Hostesses will be given free pieces of jewellery to add to their collection based on the success of their event, and can host as few as two 90-minute events a year – the company says it has no lower quota to fill in terms of number of events, just asks for enthusiasm and belief in the business from its hostesses and stylists. A stylist can launch with Stella & Dot with an investment of £169, which includes £300-worth of jewellery samples of their choice, look books and order forms. Additional jewellery samples can be purchased at 50% of their RRP.

Despite these low-level entry costs, the company reports the average stylist spends about £600 upfront to get started, receiving extensive training. Stylists take about 25% to 30% in commissions on core products, while earning free business supplies and additional jewellery samples each month.

For Herrin, the product itself is central to the appeal of Stella & Dot. “We have to make sure the product deserves [to be marketed], because when I started doing this I would never go to my girlfriends and say ‘check this out’ if I didn’t believe they’d love the jewellery,” she says.

The business’ jewellery is designed by chief creative officer Blythe Harris who joined Stella & Dot in 2007 having previously worked at De Beers, LVMH and with fashion retailer Banana Republic. Harris is not only responsible for sketching out ideas for the brand’s jewellery ranges, but also its wider accessories lines including scarves and handbags. “She has studied jewellery in India and Mexico, she’s a painter and a sculptor and now runs our New York and San Francisco design studios,” says Herrin; driven female figures appear a must- have throughout the business. “Blythe starts work on our collections a year in advance, attending runway shows in Paris for inspiration, so it takes a full year for the designs to come to life.”

With its evolving array of product – new season lines include stacking bangles, crystal flower collars and hoop earrings – how does the company plan to push its jewellery to wider consumers and make its concept mainstream? This is a pertinent question as Herrin comments that, having spent a few days in London prior to us meeting, she was yet to spot a single woman wearing a piece of Stella & Dot jewellery.

What does this mean to her, knowing the business has had roots here for a number of years? Her answer is simple: that the business’ infiltration into the UK and Irish markets needs work – and that market share (along with necks, wrists, earlobes and fingers) are there for the taking. “The goal is to see people and spread our mission about creating flexible entrepreneurship for women and for men,” Herrin says. “I know it takes a few years for people to understand [the concept] and after that it will catch on like wildfire, but I know our big UK growth spurt is ahead of us.” And of the comparisons to Avon and other home-selling concepts? “I see us as very different,” Herrin asserts. “It’s about reinventing retail and social sales by combining an online, mobile and personal service.”

As with any new business or shopping concept, challenges arise and in her own words Herrin says she hit “100 a day” when Stella & Dot was in its infancy. But each hurdle has been a step in the right direction. The company reported UK turnover of £6m in 2012, which climbed to £8m in 2013. It now expects UK turnover to grow in the current financial year to £10m. To keep growing, leadership is high on Herrin’s agenda. “I’m excited by our leadership development [in the UK],” she says. “It’s my biggest passion. We recently hosted a sales incentive trip to Portugal, taking our top stylists with us. We sat around the pool but we talked about business strategy, marketing and growth. The better our leaders are, the better we do in coaching and development.”

Europe is next to take centre stage as Stella & Dot plots to grow its stylist count to more than 4,000 across Europe in the next 12 months, adding 250 in Germany, more than 1,000 in the UK and 400-plus in France. “We’re really looking at our next phase of being pan- European and how to address the EU as a whole,” Herrin says. “We want to establish the business in multiple languages; we’ll move into Austria through our presence in Germany, for example.”

Herrin says she created Stella & Dot initially to enable women to earn money of their own and enjoy the time spent earning it; as a result, the core elements of running a business are taken out of hostess’ and stylists’ hands to free-up their time to sell. “My inspiration is there are a lot of women who want to run a boutique or an Etsy business but the reality is all about production, shipping, paperwork,” Herrin explains. “But with Stella & Dot all of that is done for them and so the stylist or hostess can enjoy the personal element of the business, being the face of the company. Because we do everything else, her profits are high because her time is spent very efficiently [and we] ensure she can effectively market her business and get customers.”

With Stella & Dot touted as a side venture to a person’s main role or job, it also teaches its stylists and hostesses how to best manage their time and finds these new skills regularly spill into other areas of their life. “Most of us don’t feel like we have enough hours in the day, so our time management training really means something to [our stylists and hostesses],” Herrin explains.

And she should know. In the 11 years since Stella & Dot made its debut (when Herrin hosted her own trunk show in Texas, with pieces she had designed), the company has grown year-on-year. It has expanded into markets including Canada, Puerto Rico, France and Germany, won a spot in the Inc. 500| Fastest Growing Private Companies in the US list, hosts about 171,000 trunk shows each year and hit annual sales in 2012 of US$200 million (£117m). Musing over why the business has been such a hit in its first decade, Herrin’s smiles broadly again: “It’s the success of our stylists and hostesses, our story is not ours — it’s theirs.”

This interview was taken from the July issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.

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