Angela Parker: From Sweater Sets to Signature Pieces

oliveyew3If the key to success in any task is practicing more than 10,000 hours, then it’s no wonder Angela Parker’s jewelry company Olive Yew has gone from a small hobby in her den to an international business in just three short years. The artist, who has a self-described minor case of OCD, attributes her success in selling her designs to 80 boutiques around the world to her obsessive pursuit of perfection in everything she does. It was the very same devotion to an unfulfilling corporate job, where she was paid to master the all-powerful search engine optimization (SEO), that partially paved the way for her accomplishments with Olive Yew.

Growing up outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, Angela always knew she wanted to work in a field where she could do something with her hands. She studied sculpture in college at Appalachian State University and then, after graduation, got a job illustrating children’s books at a local publisher.

Although she loved that job, as it fulfilled her need to create, after 15 years and a promotion to creative director, she saw the writing on the wall: the print industry was not doing well and a small publisher like HighReach Learning was unlikely to make it. She was right but fortunately she had lined up another job – this time as a graphic designer at a large company: “I moved on to web design but never really liked it. I didn’t enjoy coding and I didn’t like working in a cube. I knew I had to do something more creative.”

As she was considering what that creative pursuit would be, her to-remain-unnamed company enrolled her in a web design class and also paid for professionals to come in and teach the designers SEO. The year was 2009 and, although not “new”, SEO was still being discovered.

“Although a Fortune 100 company, it was awful – the room we worked in was above the servers which made it hot in the first place. But also, the air conditioning would go out frequently, and the roof was made of metal. It was sweltering and we had a lovely dress code that featured sweater sets. But the one good thing I can say is they spared no expense in hiring the best and brightest to train us in SEO. It was painful working there but I learned a lot more than in any other company.”

After 15 years of broken AC and other challenges, Angela finally decided to make a change. She left the company, but continued on as a contractor. With a little more time on her hands, she signed up for a local metal smithing class: “I didn’t have anything in mind other than the fact that I wanted to make something – I needed to make something – with my hands.”

The class was not the kind of place to inspire the launch of jewelry empire: “It was held in a place that was part pawn shop and part jewelry repair store. It was in sort of a rough part of town, and there were bars on the windows, but they taught me the basics of what I needed to know and I loved it.”

oliveyew4 It was April 2011, and Angela was still committed to her SEO contract, but in her spare time, she started buying equipment and set up a little studio in her house. Four months later, when Parker was 39, she quit contract work all together and with a small personal loan, and the money from sales that were already starting to come in, she started making jewelry fulltime. For Parker, “fulltime” meant sometimes staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning crafting delicate cursive and block letters and the bangles made of rose-gold-filled and sterling silver that would become her signature pieces.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that these big changes come around the time when you’re turning 40 and for me it was definitely true. I had climbed the corporate ladder and gotten to the point I wanted to, and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t what I signed up for…it was meaningless to me. I had to do my own thing.”

Parker started slowly with a few styles. She could see the “internal eye roll” of her family and friends when she told people she was launching a jewelry business. “Everyone and their cousin seemed to be making jewelry,” Parker laughs. “So I just sort of trudged along and didn’t say much for a while.”

But Parker’s business training had taught her something critical. “You can make something all day long, but if it doesn’t sell, then it’s a hobby. If you think there’s a market for something, then there’s marketing for it that has to be done.” Fortunately, Parker found the marketing for her business just as much fun as the making of the jewelry. So during her days she spent hours crafting the metal, and then she spent just as many hours optimizing her site online, studying the analytics and figuring out how to improve them. “There were many 20-hour days. It was crazy and it was definitely hard on my family,” she remembers. “But it paid off.”

Parker, who had taken a personal loan from her husband to fund the initial start up costs, paid the entire loan off by December of the same year she launched. At first she was selling just on her website and in an Etsy boutique. But in December of 2011, a pair of her earrings was featured in a holiday gift guide in Self Magazine, and the rest is history: “Pretty soon I was up to five employees, and we expanded from the den to the dining room to the living room, and then my husband politely suggested that it might be time to look for a facility.”

The Self Magazine mention was indeed a boom for Parker’s “little jewelry business.” That article combined with a follow-up feature in Women’s Day “really started everything.”

Parker expanded her product line, and opened a facility to house her employees more comfortably. Despite the boom in sales, it wasn’t all easy: “Growing the business was a headache,” she says. “We had to go through several accountants, a few lawyers and others before we found the people that were right for us.”

Just eight months after first toliveyew2aking the metal smith class, Parker was able to replace her annual corporate salary. In two years, she quintupled her annual sales, and the next year she tripled them. Three years in, she is starting to breathe a little easier. For Parker, that means, only working 12 hours a day instead of 20. “I used to be a lot more of a workaholic than I am now. Today, I give myself the freedom to take mental health days just to do something else for a bit. But I do like to stay busy.”

Despite all her hard work, the rapid path to success in a creative venture that Parker adores surprised her but her staff even more. “It was funny to watch my accountant when I hired him. I could also feel him patting me on the head and saying, “Oh you and your cute little jewelry business.”

With three years of dramatic growth behind her, her accountant has taken notice. What’s next? “I have a number that I keep to myself where we’ll cap the growth. We’re close but we’re not there yet.”

Tips from Angela Parker

  • Look at your collective experience (jobs, school, hobbies) and how they can aid you in your new business. I majored in sculpture but wound up in marketing/design. Both help me daily in my current role.
  • Invest your time in marketing. You’ll be able to invest the dollars in it later, but at the beginning, you have to market your product to sell it. In this day and age, that means learning a little about SEO & SEM.
  • Follow the proper steps in setting up your business. If you have employees get a worker’s comp policy and all of the proper insurance & legal documents in place (business bank account, business license, etc.).
  • Finally, have a good lawyer & accountant to whom you can refer when questions arise.

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