Launched earlier this year by the sister co-founders, Heirlume is offering men a more convenient alternative to the dreaded afternoon spent going from jewelry store to jewelry store browsing for expensive items that their significant other might not even like. By complementing the behavior and patterns of men looking for that perfect anniversary necklace, Heirlume tries to simplify and improve the jewelry search for men search through their well-designed online store and its fine pieces from talented and up-and-coming independent designers all over the nation.
Given her extensive background in strategy and business development from stints in New York and Silicon Valley, Elaine is well suited to help grow and build an e-commerce startup in the lucrative jewelry business. Meanwhile, her sister Vanessa uses her expertise in graphic and communications design to handle the equally crucial creative side of the business. Together, they have built and released a site in just a few months that addresses and eliminates the numerous pain points that plague men when it comes to buying jewelry as a gift.
I got a chance to sit down with Elaine at 1871 last week to discuss the ins and outs of the newly found company she runs with her sister and the plans they have to shake up the jewelry e-commerce world, one satisfied customer at a time.
It’s very similar to how you have to be with investors, you have to be very upfront with the risk you are facing, so that’s what Vanessa and I did. We talked about the pros and the cons of being family and going into this together.
From my perspective, the pros are that we can be very open with each other. I’ve known her for going on 30 years, I know when she’s hiding something or nervous about something or feels unsure. The cons are that startups are very stressful businesses to be in, and stress can cause risks in relationships, so there’s always a risk that you might ruin a relationship with somebody.
We tried to establish upfront that our relationship is more important than anything we were doing, and I think the fact that we’re family sometimes makes that even easier to establish than two friends saying it because there’s no way we can really hide from each other haha. Two friends can say I’m writing you out of my life; two sisters, that’s much much harder to do (laughs).
We defined who gets the final say up front. With my background in the startup and business world, there may be a few more things that fall on my plate, but basically we carved out that anything that has to do with the creative branding side is in Vanessa’s court. When it comes to our customer and our product, we do it together.
Q: What makes you guys a good co-founding team?
The reason we wanted to work with each other was the fact that it seemed too perfect. Two people who get along, are family, and yet have such opposing skill sets. I’m a really big fan of working with somebody that compliments you, and isn’t necessarily competing with you. I do all the things she hates doing and she does all the things I hate doing. We decided upfront that going into business as sisters could be an asset for us, mostly because were going tageting a B2C fashion-oriented customer, and it makes for a fun and inspiring story.
Q: Can you talk a bit about being a young female founder of a tech startup and what resources might be out there for other females interested in entrepreneurship or looking to join the startup community?
I’m a very big proponent of supporting women in entrepreneurial roles. I think it is an asset, and I think too many women don’t use it to their benefit, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. As long as you hold a strong personality and can keep up with everyone around you, I think it makes you stick out a little bit from the crowd, and in the world of startups, sticking out from the crowd is good.
It can help from a PR perspective as well; there’s so many people looking to support women moving into the startup world. I haven’t found it to be difficult at all to work from a professional standpoint with men in the startup world, and I think more women need to see it as an asset.
There are plenty of formalized groups all about women and entrepreneurship but also I’m seeing lots of mother related resources as well. There are tons of groups in Chicago specifically, as well content community and blogs focused on female entrepreneurs. I’m part of a group called startup leadership program (SLP) here in Chicago; we have a 6 month class once a year where CEOs of startups are teaching upcoming entrepreneurs, and our class was 50/50 men and women, and I thought that was so great.
To me, its really growing. Just from being around 1871 you see more and more women, and I think that women have the right personality to run a company. At the end of the day, if you build the right company with the right people, a CEO’s job will become all people management and women can be very good managers.
Q: Moving more into a discussion about your jewelry e-commerce company Heirlume, what are you doing to get customers to become more comfortable with shopping for fine jewelry online and overcome the apprehension they might have of buying such expensive products without seeing them in store?
We focus on providing educational resources to our buyers through our online content strategy. Since we are targeting men who typically are less comfortable purchasing jewelry, we are building up a gift buying guide that will be a collection of resources for buyers. Part of it is educational, and we need to provide answers to questions like “why does this one cost $80 but this one cost $800?" or "what is the difference between solid gold and gold plated jewelry". The other part of our content revolves around gift buying and helping a buyer match the occasion to the perfect gift.
When it comes to buying fine jewelry online and getting what you pay for, it is something that we’re tackling head on. Places like Tiffany’s really focus on the in store experience, coming in and touching and feeling, but Tiffany’s is charging you three times as much as were charging you because of rent and other overhead costs, so we can under price all those competitors by going online. We offer free returns and free shipping, and you’re going to get a better price by shopping online. Convenience is a huge factor of shopping online because you don’t want to go store to store shopping for something that you aren’t too interested in.
All you really care about is getting her the gift that makes her say “This is awesome, how did you find this?” So we want to be that convenient partner for gift buyers so that they know they’re getting a good price as well as high quality and convenience.
Q: Could you touch more on the social voting tool, where the idea came from and what the response has been?
In our research, about 80% of guys, before making a purchase for jewelry, ask some other female what their opinion is and what they should buy. Usually it is done in the form of research online and then sending links and asking, “what do you think of this?” So really it’s a behavior that guys already do, and were just enabling it through our site.
We sort of think of our site as giving lifelines for guys buying jewelry. The first lifeline is our recommendation engine, helping you curate down to nine pieces your girlfriend or wife would like. The second lifeline is yourself, you have to use your gut and know what she likes or what she already has. The third is phone a friend, or our social recommendation tool. You invite her sister, your mom, whoever, through the site, asking them to vote. You log back in and can get the feedback and analytics all right there on which ones they loved and which ones they didn’t.
We have seen that men really like using it. It is a behavior that guys already do, so it’s not out of the ordinary, were just enabling it online.
Q: What is unique or different about the jewelry I can get using Heirlume?
We work mostly with independent jewelry designers. The supply side of our business is built around the fact that there are thousands of jewelry designers out there that design some beautiful things and are incredibly talented, but have little to no business sense. Their expertise is creating beautiful jewelry, but they don’t know how to build an e-commerce store, launch it merchandise it and sell it nationally. So we establish partnerships with them and help them sell their jewelry on a national basis. Our typical relationship comes with someone who isn’t building an e-commerce side themselves but is more focused on designing jewelry.
Q: Who are your biggest competitors in this space?
Tiffany’s is who were going after from a big perspective. They have a huge market share and we disagree with how they run their business just because everything is so overpriced, but they also have a very different strategy. Not too many companies besides maybe Blue Nile stick out in terms of online fine jewelry gifting. We’re working with up and coming brands so that you can get a great deal but also great quality and very unique pieces.