Our guest today is Ashley McCormick, the founder of Asha, a lifestyle accessories brand she founded right out of college. Always an entrepreneurial spirit, Ashley was inspired to turn her hobby of making jewelry into a business after a chance meeting with the head of Chanel Fine Jewelry while studying abroad in Paris. Deciding to start a business during your junior year of college requires a determined mindset and the ability to adapt to any circumstance. Listen to Ashley’s advice for college age aspiring entrepreneurs and how she overcame the unique challenges young people face in starting their own business.
Sam: [00:00:12] In 2018, 100,875 fashion brands shut down and in 2019 that number was up by approximately 53%, and that was before the pandemic. Ashley McCormick decided to become an entrepreneur while still in college, working with a Parisian jeweler while studying art history at the Sorbonne. Ashley started Asha right out of college. Today, it’s expanding beyond jewelry into accessories and apparel. Ashley, it’s such a pleasure to have you with us on the show today.
Ashley McCormick: [00:01:08] Hi Sam, I’m so happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Sam: [00:01:13] So actually, let’s start at the beginning. What was the motivation that started you down an entrepreneurial path?
Ashley McCormick: [00:01:22] Well, I’d have to say that I’ve always sort of been entrepreneurial ever since I was a child. So I think I’ve sort of always had it inside of me. I used to sell, you know, paintings sort of from door to door in my neighborhood when I was little. And in eighth grade, I convinced my mom to buy me a sewing machine so I could make ribbon belts and sold them on the beach that summer. So I think I’ve always sort of had it in me and I would say I’ve always sort of been inspired by my mother. She was such a glamorous and still is a glamorous woman. She had an incredible career in advertising. And I’m sort of looking back, I think I was just inspired by how she was as a woman: strong. You know, the strong working woman. And she also had incredibly gorgeous jewels. So I sort of remember, you know, all of these gorgeous gems that she had from Costume, Chanel to Verdura to Seamans Schepps to jewelry she collected in her travels to Europe, you know, Italy, Spain, Brazil, et cetera. So I think looking back, I wanted to create jewelry that was as beautiful and glamorous, but sort of at a better, more accessible price point. So that sort of was the inspiration behind Asha. I wanted to make gorgeous jewelry that was well made with accessible price points.
Sam: [00:03:01] I love that about your mother. I think, you know, mothers are so important— probably the most important role models in our lives. And it’s wonderful when you can draw inspiration in life and work from them.
Ashley McCormick: [00:03:14] Absolutely. I think as a mother myself now, I see how important it is to show our daughters that it’s wonderful to have a career and work. And my mom gave me that gift. So, again, you know, so lucky and grateful that I had her as this incredible role model to inspire me.
Sam: [00:03:37] Very well said. One of the things enabling new fashion brands is the death of brand loyalty and consumers wanting to buy brands that are ethically sourced and with greater green material content. And at the same time, with online shopping, return rates can go as high as 50 percent. And so the costs of that are obviously a challenge. Do you feel any of these trends have affected Asha and how if they have?
Ashley McCormick: [00:04:08] Yeah. So I have to say that I’m pretty lucky because I’ve been able to sort of avoid these trends. We really feel like a small company, as a small brand, that our customer loyalty has only strengthened. I think Instagram has also sort of been a huge factor there because we’re able to communicate directly with our consumers in terms of sustainability. That’s obviously a very big trend. Very important customers really want to buy into brands that are, you know, sourcing and producing ethically with jewelry. It’s a little bit more difficult but I would say that my creations are forever pieces, they’re heirlooms. So while we’re not producing with recycled metals, let’s say at this point, we are creating jewelry that’s not thrown away, it’s not dispensable, especially our fine jewelry, they’re forever heirlooms that can be passed down to future generations. And I think that that’s one of the best examples of sustainability.
Sam: [00:05:16] So true. So, Ashley, I want to take you back to your desire to wanting to start this business. So you decide you’re gonna do this. You’re embarking on this path right out of college. What were some of the first things that you did to turn the idea in to sort of a prototype and then eventually the business?
Ashley McCormick: [00:05:41] Yeah. So while I was an art history student at Georgetown, I studied abroad my junior year. And at that point, I had already sort of been making jewelry for fun in my college dorm room. I had shown one of my art history professors one of my pieces. She loved it. She wanted to buy one. And she really sort of encouraged me. And she was Professor Prelinger, really just one of the most influential teachers I had. She impacted me tremendously. So that was sort of a huge vote of confidence to keep going with this little sort of hobby that I had started. When I studied abroad in Paris, I ended up meeting the head of fine jewelry for Chanel at this dinner party that I sort of ended up at with my roommate. And he very graciously decided to help me and offered to introduce me to a goldsmith right off of Flats London, which is the jewelry capital of the world. So it was then that I started making my first pieces. All in French, I love language, so it’s sort of thrilling to be able to combine, you know, my creative jewelry passion with language. So my junior year in Paris, I had my first pieces made. I got back to the States. I found production. So it really was by the end of my senior year that I had found production. I was sort of up and running as a business. I was conducting trunk shows on the weekends. I would fly back to New York. I had sort of a light course load that senior spring. So I was able to travel and meet buyers and open accounts. So by the end of my senior year, I really had this business up and running. I had accounts I was selling to Calypso, which sort of in 2005 was like the IT store. And now it’s no longer which is crazy. But I was selling to Henri Bendel, another sort of incredible place to sell. Saks and a bunch of other boutiques. So by the end of my senior year, I sort of thought, I’m just going to try this because I was making money. All my friends were interviewing for jobs, and I sort of was like, I’m going to try this and do this and I’ve sort of been doing it ever since and never looked back.
Sam: [00:08:07] I loved that. You know, this has really been on our minds of late because we have a number of college interns working with us. And one of the things that they’re all saying and feeling at the moment is that in the sort of aftermath of this pandemic and the economic implications, more and more of them are interested in entrepreneurship. And, you know, there aren’t as many, both role models as well as resources around for them to, as you were able to on your own, you know, really demonstrate the initiative to go out and learn and build sort of the beginnings of your network. And then actually get this business off the ground during your senior year of college. I mean, that’s amazing.
Ashley McCormick: [00:08:58] Well, I have to say that I had some internships in college at Tommy Hilfiger and he’s been a major influence and a mentor in my life. So I did have some experience in fashion with these internships one summer. So I interned for him for three summers. One summer was in PR and two summers were in design. So I did have that experience, but I never worked for anyone else, you know, officially.
Sam: [00:09:27] But that’s so great, right? Because you made the most of your summers, in a sense, built a really strong relationship that has carried you, you know, through your career and had that experience sort of under your belt before you started.
Ashley McCormick: [00:09:41] Yes. That was lucky.
Sam: [00:09:44] Lucky and thoughtful. I would say we sort of make our own luck.
Ashley McCormick: [00:09:50] It’s true luck is sort of an interesting word, right? I think it’s really the intersection of being prepared and a little bit of luck and serendipity.
Sam: [00:09:59] That’s exactly right. So, you know, what’s interesting to me about your business is it sounds like you started selling through Calypso, which, by the way, was one of my favorite stores. I was so sad when it closed. And Bendel and Saks and others. But now you’ve built what seems like, you know, kind of a sizable proportion of a direct to consumer business. Tell us a little bit about that evolution. And, you know, was that conscious, did it sort of happen as the brand became better known?
Ashley McCormick: [00:10:34] Yeah. Well, it’s interesting you mentioned Calypso because that’s part of the story. One of my biggest sort of learning lessons early on, really about a year into the business was diversification. So I basically had all my eggs in one basket with Calypso. Christiane Celle, who’s incredible, who’s the founder of Calypso, placed my first order with me while I was a senior at Georgetown. It was $10,000. I sort of like was so joyous and freaking out, kind of like, how am I going to do this? How am I going to get this order to her? But of course I did. I made it happen. And that $10,000 order evolved into almost like a $300,000 business in a couple of years.
Sam: [00:11:24] Amazing. Did you have an external producer when you were fulfilling that very first $10,000 order?
Ashley McCormick: [00:11:32] That very first order, I had findings that were being, so like casting, so clasps that were the ones I had designed in Paris. They were being, those were being produced for me. But I was like stringing and wire wrapping a lot of those first pieces. The collection has definitely evolved from then. But those pieces were definitely handmade by me. But the point of what I was trying to get to is that, you know, diversification turned out to be a major learning lesson because, Christiane, Celle took a majority investment in the business. She got a private equity firm involved. Long story short, she ended up exiting, management changed, my buyer changed, and all of a sudden they were not investing in my collection like they had been before. And I remember that moment when they sort of let me know that, you know, they’d be ordering less. I just, like, freaked out. I didn’t know what I was going to do. This was sort of the majority of my business at that point. And from then on, I decided that I would have to diversify my stores, my sales channels. I started to focus on my online business. I also, you know, decided that I had to make sure that my factories were diversified. So diversifying my production has been hugely important during this pandemic because I’ve been able to continue to receive deliveries and work on new products. Anyway, so diversification has just been a huge lesson learned early on. And I’m grateful for that lesson. And it really has led to a huge sort of focus on my online business.
Sam: [00:13:53] Yeah, I mean it. It’s so interesting how when you’re going through it, you never know how these experiences are going to shape you. Right. But like, who knew that we would have a pandemic? Who knew of the kinds of supply problems it would create for so many brands who have really struggled to get products through this time? And it’s great that you were well positioned because of some of those early experiences.
Ashley McCormick: [00:14:20] Yes. And at the moment, at that time, you know, it was crushing. I thought I was going to lose the business. But I guess the lesson for, you know, entrepreneurs is you can have these difficult moments, but they can really yield incredible lessons for the business. So, you know, stick through the tough moments because they may really help you in the long run.
Sam: [00:14:43] Totally. What did you think about in those early years, you know, so many entrepreneurs talk about this where they build the initial customer set in their business. You know, in your case, you diversified beyond Calypso, which was such a critical customer for you. But how did you think about scale and how do you continue to think about scale? You know, is it sort of a number of new customers, is it the number of stores that buy from you and sell your product? How were you thinking about it back then and how do you think about it now?
Ashley McCormick: [00:15:24] Well, I think one of the things that I’ve sort of stood by is a path to steady growth. I’ve never taken investment aside from some seed money that my parents gave me the first year of business. I think slow and steady growth. There’s something like sort of underrated about that. I think that that is a fine path for many business owners to take. You may look at some businesses that get investment and are sort of overnight successes. And that’s great. That’s amazing. And that’s one way to scale. But my sort of strategy for growth has just been steady growth. We have invested in our online business with digital marketing and what we think is a beautiful website with a lot of functionality.
Sam: [00:16:23] I love your website, by the way. I think the aesthetic is so sort of clean and true to your brand and consistent throughout. And, you know, it’s very easy to navigate and kind of a great buying experience.
Ashley McCormick: [00:16:35] Thank you.
Sam: [00:16:38] So, Ashley, as you look back, you’ve been at this 14 years now. What are some assumptions you made when you started the business that you revised further down the line or even pivoted entirely away from?
Ashley McCormick: [00:16:56] That’s sort of I don’t know if we should include this question. I don’t have a good answer to that.
Sam: [00:17:02] Okay, okay. Well, we can come back to it if you think of something.
Ashley McCormick: [00:17:05] I’ve sort of put the idea of diversification under that. And I talked about something that you see that you think I should talk about-
Sam: [00:17:17] So one of the things I was thinking about was and I don’t know how in the timeline of your business, I don’t know how recent or not this is, but at some point, you made a decision to go from jewelry to bags. I think into clothing more recently. Right? Like, was that always sort of the plan in building out the brand or did you think you were going to stay with jewelry at the beginning?
Ashley McCormick: [00:17:42] Well, it’s really always the plan to sort of create a lifestyle accessories brand. So I don’t take that away from-
Sam: [00:17:51] Okay, so why do we talk about that? So instead of instead of assumptions that changed. Why don’t I phrase the question as over time you’ve diversified the business further from jewelry to other things. And so tell us a little more about that.
Ashley McCormick: [00:18:09] Yeah. So I still remember sitting in front of my art history classes in Paris and I was writing notes about the paintings, but also daydreaming about the business. And I remember sort of saying, okay, my senior year, I’m going to focus on jewelry and then the next year I’m going to start bags. So it really has always been sort of part of the plan to create an accessories brand. And, you know, we’re now, I’m starting to dip my toes into clothing, which will launch this summer. But I think I always had sort of the bigger vision that went beyond just jewelry.
Sam: [00:18:48] Fabulous. As you think about the brand. What are the brands that you compete with? Who do you consider, if not competition, you know, kind of role models as brands that you might aspire to and, you know, if it’s competition, how do you think about differentiation?
Ashley McCormick: [00:19:10] Right. So I have to say, there actually aren’t that many brands that are doing what we’re doing at Asha. So we have fashion jewelry, fine jewelry, handbags. We’re getting into clothing and we really cover a large spectrum of price points from, you know, 95 or 125 to $8,000. So there really is no one out there that’s doing exactly the same thing. But I do admire and look up to women like Aerin Lauder and Tory Burch, who have really built incredible brands around their lifestyles. I also have tremendous admiration for Kendra Scott, who is kind of the girl boss of jewelry. She’s built an amazing empire in our space.
Sam: [00:20:03] So interesting. Yeah. I mean, the brand that came to my mind was definitely, Aerin, as I thought about yours. So that’s super interesting.
Ashley McCormick: [00:20:10] What a compliment, thank you.
Sam: [00:20:13] And I’ll have to learn a little more about Kendra Scott, which I don’t know.
Ashley McCormick: [00:20:18] Oh you definitely should. She’s incredible. Also something to be said for single working moms who have just really sort of grinded to to create, you know, these businesses.
Sam: [00:20:32] Has that been difficult? I mean, it’s a lot, right, to run your business. Be a mom. It’s hard to do it on your own.
Ashley McCormick: [00:20:41] You know, I think back to my mom, I saw her do it. So it’s not anything that I complain about. But I also sometimes think the more you do, the more you do. But I love what I do. I have a very deep passion for it. So that sort of fuels me. It never really feels like work.
Sam: [00:21:03] That’s great to hear. So last question, Ashley. What are some lessons that you feel you’ve learned that other entrepreneurs can benefit from?
Ashley McCormick: [00:21:15] So I would say being nimble and being able to pivot sort of at any moment is critical. Any day in the business might be filled, you know, with handling different issues in production or managing employees, payroll, packaging, accounting, customer service design. I mean, it sort of runs the gamut. So you kind of have to be ready to pivot at any moment and sort of be resilient in that sense. And then I would say just do it. Like if you have an idea. Don’t spin wheels. If you really have that passion that gets you up every day. Just start somewhere, because I think a lot of people sort of feel that they’re not ready or they need to do X, Y and Z. And I think as an entrepreneur, as a good entrepreneur, you just have to put your idea to work.
Sam: [00:22:12] That’s so true. It’s a principle we really are big believers in here at Ideamix. You know, I think throughout university and college education and from working at big companies, we all kind of learn this goal of perfection. And I think the first thing you learn in entrepreneurship is that that doesn’t exist. And you’re always working with limited resources, with a time constraint. And you’ve just got to get it as good as you can get it rather than perfect.
Ashley McCormick: [00:22:45] And it’s okay to fail, it’s okay to, you know, start something and then realize that maybe that’s not the right product or idea or whatnot and just go back to the drawing board. And if you wake up every day with that sense of passion because you need that, because you will work, you know, at odd hours, all hours, and you definitely need that sort of fire to keep you going.
Sam: [00:23:13] How do you, in the moments when you want it, what do you look towards to find your motivation and inspiration?
Ashley McCormick: [00:23:21] Gosh – travel. Travel and wanderlust and art and culture and language. I mean, all of that inspires my creations.
Sam: [00:23:50] Alright, here’s another fact you need to know: a more global marketplace, an increasing online and smartphone access are expanding the size of fashion and lifestyle brands and the sector in general. Thanks to Shopify for the data cited in today’s show. Ashley, love your esthetic and style and we’re thrilled to have you here at Ideamix radio today.
Ashley McCormick: [00:24:12] Thank you so much, Sam. That was so fun.
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