Lifestyle

Q&A with CEO and Entrepreneur, Charu Swaminathan

Charu Swaminathan

Charu Swaminathan is the CEO and Co-Founder of Mishkalo, a Chicago based Tech Start-Up which is wedding registry for original art.

Can you tell our readers about your background?

I have both an art and technical background. I am a professional Indian Classical Singer and a Jewelry Artist and I have a Masters in Computer Information Systems. I teach music and I’ve worked full-time as a database administrator.

What inspired you to start your business?

The idea for Mishkalo started, interestingly, with a "Thank You" note I received from a couple. The note thanked me profusely for the thoughtful blender I had given them as a wedding gift. However, a few days later, I found the gift receipt. I had bought them a set of wine glasses, not a blender. That struck me as a double irony – neither the couple nor I remembered what the gift was. Perhaps because the couple did not need a blender or wine glasses; and I probably did not spend a second to think what would be an appropriate wedding gift for them.

This made me wonder what makes a good wedding gift. From my own experience and talking to a few couples, I came to the conclusion that a wedding gift should be meaningful, memorable and establish a connection between the giver and the wedding couple.

I had my 'Aha' moment when I visited the Art Institute of Chicago. I was so inspired that I came home and started sketching out my business plan.  Mishkalo was born!

Where is your business based?

Since we are an online business, we cater to a nationwide audience. Our artists are from all over the world.

How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?

Since this is a two-sided business, I started by first recruiting artists who created artwork that was aesthetically pleasing and appropriate for wedding gifts. Once I had a reasonable number of artists and artwork, I started a marketing campaign geared towards newly engaged couples who are our main customers.

What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?

Social media and networking with other wedding industry professionals have been very effective in raising awareness for Mishkalo and the unique registry that we offer.

What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

My original idea was to sell art online targeting wedding guests. The first roadblock was the objection that people raised ' What if the couple does not like the art I buy for them? '   A second roadblock was that the price of an original artwork is typically outside the price range of a wedding gift. Then I realized that I was looking at the business from the wrong end. I needed to look at it from the perspective of the wedding couple.

This change in perspective enabled me to go over both my roadblocks at once. Having a wedding registry where the couple chooses the art that they like and wedding guests pool together their contributions to collectively buy an artwork of the couple's choice.

How do you stay focused?

I am a planner and I try to divide my time between marketing, artist recruitment and customer acquisition based on the current business needs.   I need to always look at the big picture and prioritize accordingly.

How do you differentiate your business from the competition?

Our differentiation from other online art galleries are:

A:  Carefully chosen artwork that is appropriate for wedding gifts.

B:  Making the art buying experience accessible and enjoyable to wedding couples who are not necessarily art collectors.  Specifically, we help the wedding couples in choosing the artwork based on their taste, budget, and home decor.

What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?

We are trying to focus on offline marketing to introduce our customers to our new registry. We have participated in some unique wedding vendor’s shows and have displays in some local bridal stores. We believe that online marketing can generate interest but offline promotions can build trust and credibility for the business.

What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?

Stay focused and think a bit out of the box. You also have to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and walk through the whole process of buying your product to understand what they want.

What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?

I like to read some of the marketing blogs such as Jeff Bullas’s Blog.  He has some great insights into social media marketing. My favorite book is Gone with the Wind.

What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?

I think Canva is one of my favorite resource for creating great social media graphics and images. It is easy to use and you can create some pretty cool images to post.

Who is your business role model? Why?

I admire Sara Blakely who is the founder of Spanx. Her story about how she started and built her company is amazing and very inspiring. She was persistent, totally believed in her product and was willing to even embrace an embarrassing moment and turn it into an opportunity.

What do you have planned for the next six months?

In the next six months, I have plans to enhance our customer experience even more in using our website. I want to make this a truly enjoyable and memorable process for the wedding couples to create a registry, to be able to pick an artwork that they like with help from decorators and curators based on their tastes and home décor.

How can our readers connect with you?

Readers can contact me at charu@mishkalo.com or connect with me on LinkedIn. They may also contact me via any of our social media handles:

Twitter : @mishkalowedding, 

Instagram : @mishkaloregistry

Pinterest : @Mishkaloregistr

Facebook : @Mishkaloweddingregistry

Q&A with Branding Expert and Entrepreneur, Minling Chuang

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Minling is the Founder of Brand Fame and a geek about all things branding. Good thing too, because as a brand marketing strategist and mentor, she has worked with solopreneurs, small businesses, consulting companies, and big brands to market and position themselves so that they become eye-popping 'It' brand that turn heads.

She has 8+ years of experience in branding and marketing, working on top brands such as Nestle Toll House, Lean Cuisine, and Toyota. While at Nestle, she even launched a $54 Million product for Lean Cuisine that won Product of the Year.

Her passion is to help female small business owners uncover their unique message so they can rapidly build a list of raving fans eager to buy along the way.

Minling holds an MBA from Indiana University and a BA from the University of Southern California. She has also been featured on the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Thrive Global, numerous podcasts, and spoken at various conferences.

Can you tell our readers about your background?

After receiving my MBA, I worked at Nestle for a few years doing branding and marketing for the Lean Cuisine and then the Nestle Toll House. This really where I learned the intricacies of branding and marketing because at the time I also had an opportunity of leading the launch of new products for Lean Cuisine. One of the products I worked on ended up making over $54 million in half a year and won Product Of The Year. After leaving Nestle, I also consulted for other Fortune 500 companies such as Toyota, UBM, and Sumitomo Corporation as well as small to medium businesses.

What inspired you to start your business? 

It's been quite a journey with my business. Originally after I left Nestle, I didn't want anything to do with branding and marketing. I was burnt out. So I started an inspirational website and blog for a few years about helping people find their joy and passion. Working on that blog made me miss doing branding and marketing because I was essentially doing that for my own blog and I found that so many people have misconceptions about branding. Most people think branding is just about the logos, graphics, and website and I don't, based on my background and I have now made it my mission to teach solopreneurs what branding truly is and how to leverage it to truly stand out.

Where is your business based?

My business is based out of Los Angeles, California. I also started another business with a business partner and we are located on the opposite sides of the coast. She's near Tampa.

How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?

Again, my business came about in a roundabout way since I first started with an inspirational blog. But when I started my branding business, I sought out a mentor to guide me. I felt that this was uncharted territory for me, starting my own business, and I wanted to do it right.

What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business? 

There are two ways that I have raised awareness for my business. Because most of my business is based online, Facebook Ads have been one of the most effective ways to get cold traffic to experience my work and get to know me. The second way is to network and create partnerships. I love collaborating with others and have been on countless podcasts, guest blogs, tele-summits, live events as a speaker, programs as a guest teacher. This has helped position me as an expert in my field because I've been given a platform to showcase my knowledge. Collaboration is also how I met my business partner for my second business.

What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them? 

The biggest challenge I had to overcome happened in the beginning of my business. When I was first starting out, I had to figure out how to finance my business because I was making investments in my business but not generating any income. I had to get creative and learn pretty fast on what I needed to do to sustain my business. But I wouldn't trade that experience for the world because it taught me a lot about being resilient and persistent. 

How do you stay focused?

I focus on one goal at a time. I find that it's easier for me when I'm not multitasking. I choose a goal and finish that goal and then move onto the next one. 

How do you differentiate your business from the competition? 

My message and approach to branding differentiate my business from competitors. Many of my competitors talk about logos, graphics, and websites when it comes to branding. I always tell people that branding is more than these three things. And a lot of people resonate with this message when I explain why. I'm more interested in helping people find the heart of the brand through their message because this is what their audience will connect to.

What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business? 

I mentioned part of this earlier when talking about the most effective way to raise awareness for my business. But to get more specific, I have found webinars and challenges to be the most effective tactics to grow my business. Both webinars and challenges have helped me build trust with my audience quickly, even if they just found out about me within the last week. The reason why it's effective is that in my webinars and challenges I focus on giving a ton of value, which builds trust. People always tell me that they love my content and that it shifted their way of looking at their business. This method is more effective than straight promotions. Don't tell people why you are great, show them by providing value.

What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs? 

I have two pieces of advice. The first is commit to the long game of business. I see many aspiring and new entrepreneurs who have lofty income goals they want to hit in the first few months. And when they don't hit it right away, they give up. But to build a sustainable business, you will go through the bumps in the beginning where you don't see a return right away. Keep going. Keep learning. Keep growing. When you are committed to the long game of business, the short-term setbacks will make you stronger. And the setbacks actually help you refine your business. My business is completely different than when I first started and it took setbacks to realize what I needed to do in my business to have it grow every year.

The second piece of advice is to spend time nailing your target market and message BEFORE you invest in a website, graphics, or logo. I see so many people waste money on the visual brand before figuring out their brand strategy. With the large brands I've worked on, we never spent money on visuals until our strategy was validated. And that's what aspiring and new entrepreneurs should do first too. Get clear on who you serve, how you serve them, and make sure it's something they would want to buy before doing anything else. This is the foundation that will set you up for success.

What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?

I read a lot of mindset related books because I believe that our mindset is the key to our success. I really like the books "The Science of Getting Rich" and "Working With The Laws". Both books shifted my perspective on many areas of my life.

What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?

My favorite business tool has been Clickfunnels. It's a great tool to build marketing funnels and it's simple to use. I'm not tech savvy and I find it easy to navigate and create beautiful landing pages.

Who is your business role model? Why? 

I'm blessed to have learned from many mentors on my journey so it's hard to pick one mentor I love. But in terms of business role models, I'd have to say I admire Kardashians and the way they've built an empire. Yes, there's controversy over some of their businesses, but the reason I picked them was that they are great at running multiple businesses. I believe in multiple revenue streams and they have been able to do that with their business and also connect with their audience in a deeply emotional way. Love them or hate them, they are doing something right and it's interesting to watch how they've built their brand from a business perspective.

What do you have planned for the next six months? 

There are so many things in the works. First I have a group program, Brand Like A Boss that I run and will continue to run next year. It's all about helping new and aspiring entrepreneurs build a sustainable brand that makes money. Second, I'm working on creating more content for my business (videos, blogs, etc) to continue to provide value to my community. Third, my business partner and I are launching our new brand and programs. We successfully beta launched our first program together and will be re-launching it early next year.

How can our readers connect with you? 

There are a few ways to connect with me...

My website, brandfameschool.com, has a ton of free resources and a place people can contact me. Social media is also another great place to find me: FacebookInstagram

I also have a free masterclass on branding if people want to learn more about How To Build a Brand Like A Boss.

Q&A with Designer & Entrepreneur, AJ Woodruff

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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.