Q&A with Designer & Entrepreneur, AJ Woodruff
A.J. Woodruff is the designer and co-owner of Respect The Chief, an independent jewelry line that celebrates the beauty in individuality. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in Fine Arts and Communications Design and received a secondary degree in Fashion Design from Parsons The New School for Design in New York City.
A.J. worked professionally within the advertising and fashion industry for over a decade before branching out to design her own jewelry collection. She resides in the Southern California Desert where design remains a integral part of her life and career.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I graduated from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with a degree in Fine Arts and a minor in Communications Design. I was originally recruited for engineering, but since early childhood, I have had a strong interest in Art. Upon graduation, I moved to New York where I worked for advertising agencies while attending Parsons the New School for Design where I received a secondary degree in Fashion Design. I worked in fashion for nearly a decade before switching to jewelry design. I consider myself a multidisciplinary designer, and I really enjoy all facets of the design industry.
What inspired you to start your business?
Timing had a huge influence on the start of Respect The Chief. At the time, I had been working professionally as a fashion designer for many years and really wanted a new challenge, but I didn't really want to leave the design world completely. I have always had an interest in jewelry design, and at the same time, my partner decided to learn silversmithing to create a gift for me. With his new found skills, and my interest in jewelry design, the stars just kind of aligned, and we joined forces to create our business.
Where is your business based?
The concept for Respect The Chief started in New York City, but the company was really born and raised in Palm Springs located in the California Desert. This location has really allowed us to be inspired by nature and take the time to focus on the business.
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
We took an unusual route to starting our business. We started out selling jewelry prior to really establishing our brand. We had no website, no logo, and no direct vision, but we wanted to first overcome the challenge of making some money to see if all the other steps would even be worth it. Luckily, we did make a profit the first month we were in business. If we hadn't, there is a good chance we may have quit right then.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
Although social media is great, I have found that the best way to raise awareness for my business is to physically be present. Although we currently operate as a web-based business, our customer really responds to our product as well as our story when they meet us in person. This means being present for markets, fairs, fleas, and pop-us as well as connecting with other stores. The personal connection is still an important aspect in business in order to gain trust and long lasting relationships.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Time and money have been and will probably always be the biggest challenges in entrepreneurship, and the two never seem to go hand-in-hand. In order to overcome this challenge, maintaining balance and being flexible is really important. Being able to cut back and look at cost saving measures is a skill that I quickly developed, but being able to ask for help may be the most crucial and beneficial skill in business when there isn't enough time to do everything on my own.
How do you stay focused?
It is very easy for me to become distracted with new ideas and new projects as my business grows, but deviating too far from the plan can sometimes be a hinderance to reaching goals.
The best way for me to stay focused is to plan out my goals as well as the steps I need to take to reach those goals. This allows me to look at new opportunities and realistically determine whether they will be beneficial to my short and long term goals.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
When I started designing jewelry, I was a bit frustrated with the available styling on the market. Trends tend to take over the fashion industry very quickly and a lot of products start to look the same.
Going into design and production our goal was to create a style that was not just different from what was available, but also something that I genuinely loved. Simply creating a style that is different sets us apart from the masses and the people who like our jewelry genuinely love the designs and aren't just looking for a different version of something they've already seen a hundred times.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
There are so many new and technological ways to market a business these days from social media, internet ads, working with bloggers/influencers and much more, but I have found that the best way to market my business has been to go the old fashioned way speaking directly with store owners, other jewelers, and the customers.
My goal is to create a presence for our business not just online but in real life and sometimes that means letting go of email, picking up the phone, and meeting with people in person to get the word out about our brand.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
My best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to work extremely hard and to remember that business growth takes time. Don't be too hard on yourself, and be open to adjusting yourself, adjusting your business, and adjusting yourself again.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
App - Instagram because I'm a glutton for beauty!
Blog - Messy Nessy Chic because that site is like opening up a treasure chest everyday. There is so much odd, unique, and interesting information there.
Book - This Book Will Change Your Life / This Book Will Change Your Life Again because they give you daily challenges to step out of your comfort zone and just have fun with life. It reminds me not to take life too seriously. I recommend you to buy it and try it!
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
Other people are the best resource.
Although every business is different, someone out there has had similar challenges and has also found solutions to similar problems. I am not afraid to connect with other people in my industry and ask questions.
Additionally, free sources like Google and Youtube can be a lifesaver. The answer to nearly any question you will ever have can be found between the two.
Who is your business role model? Why?
My mother! It seems like such a cliche answer, but my mom is truly a boss lady, and she has long been a business owner. She has gone through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship and without her experience, I probably would not have as much confidence in trying out a business of my own. She works really hard and gives me a realistic image of the work and effort needed to create and maintain a successful business.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
I have a lot planned for the next six months! We will be keeping busy with our own pop-up store located in Palm Springs. This is a great opportunity for locals and visitors to connect with us personally and view the jewelry firsthand. We will be designing and producing more one-of-a-kind pieces where customers will have to opportunity to purchase items that no one else will have.
We will also be participating in a separate pop-up in Venice Beach, CA where we will focus more on marketing and reaching new customers in a larger market.
How can our readers connect with you?
Readers can connect with us through our website at www.respecthechief.com where we provide updates on what we are up to and where we can be found outside of the world wide web.
Readers can also visit our instagram @respectthechief I read every comment and love connecting with customers.