I first met artist Laura Bruland of Yes & Yes Designs in May 2012 at TechShop in San Francisco when she was a one-woman operation. To make her vintage jewelry pieces, she first draws 2D images on a computer and then cuts them out of antique book covers using a laser cutter. Because each book is unique, the same design can look radically different when made out of different book covers.
As an avid reader I was intrigued by the fact that she took old discarded books and turned them into jewelry. OK, I slightly cringed at this, but the results are beautiful. At the time she was able to run her entire business out of TechShop. No overheard, no employees. Just her and a monthly membership.
Move forward seven months and she’s grown her business from six stores in San Francisco to 23 around the world. She went from being a one-woman show to having a business partner/employee and her own laser cutter. The video above is from my first interview back in May when Yes & Yes Designs was more of a side project.
Laura Bruland showing a few of her pieces.
You’ve gone from six stores to 23 world wide. Could you describe how you got to this point?
Well, previously I had been approaching stores one at a time, but I can now produce enough to go to trade shows and take larger orders from many stores at one time. I’m now in stores across the world, and online as well, via ModCloth and myFootprintStore.com. I’m actually in the process of preparing to go to POOLTRADESHOW (a fashion trade show) for a second time. That has really been the catapult for me: you just get to meet so many more retail owners, and make an exponential number of connections. I had been only selling at craft fairs and a couple local shops before, which I still do, but I’ve been able to expand my relationships beyond just the individual. I wouldn’t have been able to keep up without my own laser cutter–or a helper for that matter!
How has having your own laser cutter impacted your business?
To be honest, it’s made it possible for me to take Yes & Yes Designs from a side project and turn it into my main occupation. Not only can I make more products, but I can make them on my own time, from the (admitedly, uninsulated) “comfort” of my garage. It has become very easy to experiment and play around with new ideas. As a result, I’ve got a few new items in my line- cufflinks, new earrings, and a few forays into wall art. In a way, I think the commitment that comes with making an investment to get a laser cutter led me to really want to get the most out of my machine, and really have fun using it!
Have you faced any challenges from purchasing a laser cutter that you didn’t have to deal with when you were at TechShop?
Luckily I haven’t had too many issues yet with my laser- knock on wood! I try to keep an eye on the cleanliness inside the bed and on the lense, to keep it performing as well as possible, which is more of the staff’s role at TechShop—so that’s new. I’m still not 100 percent sure I’m cleaning the lense the right way, but I haven’t broken it yet either so I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.
The settings are a little different than I was used to. I think because my exhaust fan only has one machine to worry about, and it’s so close to the laser (and therefore more powerful) that I can get away with using more laser power without lighting my pieces on fire. Not such a bad “problem” to have though!
Do still use TechShop?
I’ve been taking a little bit of a break from TechShop… but only because I’ve been so busy! Besides running Yes & Yes Designs, and working at a cafe on the side, I also play roller derby with the Bay Area Derby Girls. I do have a couple class coupons that I need to redeem, so I’m not planning on staying away forever. Eventually, I’d love to use the ShopBot and the embroidery machine, but mostly for personal projects.
You’ve added a new employee/business partner. What are a few challenges you faced when adding staff?
Well, my “first hire” was my boyfriend of seven years, Julien Shields. When I took him on, it was a little scary, but we eased into it. He was going on summer vacation with an afterschool program he worked at and rather than finding a “real” job for the summer, we decided to put him on a trial period with Yes & Yes. We wanted to make sure that we could survive without that income without starving, and without wanting to kill each other. I have a tendency to micro-manage, which I really, really tried to keep in check, but even so, I didn’t trust Julien to make any big (or small) decisions without me for a while. He kept on having ideas about ways to improve the products or the workflow, some of which I didn’t really think would work so well, but he tried them anyway. And in the end, I’m really glad he did. He’s come up with some genius ideas…and I thought I was just getting an extra set of hands! Now that I’ve come to view him as more of a partner, I think it’s allowed him to really step into more responsibilities and ultimately bring more to the table. It was challenging to let go of that control at first, but it’s really made Yes & Yes stronger in the long run.
How would you describe your journey into starting a business?
So many of the steps that I have taken with Yes & Yes have been leaps into the unknown. I think if you believe in your business and are inspired by it, others will be too- which is ultimately one of the most important things. That being said, I originally started making a completely different sort of jewelry when I first started out. In the end, my first attempts at jewelry weren’t as fulfilling or original as I had imagined they could be. Eventually I found my muse in laser cutting books, but it certainly wasn’t my first idea. I only stumbled upon it through my frustrations with my previous work. In other words, it is perfectly natural to fail… and what you learn just might lead you to a greater success.
Stephen is an engineer who joined the dark side when he got his MBA in an effort to help startups. For more info on starting your own hardware startup, check out Stephen Murphey’s blog.