Jessica Herrin: “I Feel Like I'm in the Happiness Business”
The founder of Stella & Dot discusses leadership, emotional intelligence, and an "angel in a cowboy hat."
Jessica Herrin is the founder and chief executive of Stella & Dot, a jewelry maker that sells its wares online and through over 10,000 independent, in-home sales reps dubbed “stylists.” Herrin founded the company in 2003, offering both made jewelry and a do-it-yourself jewelry-making option. She honed in on made jewelry only in 2006. Previously, Herrin cofounded WeddingChannel.com, an online wedding planning resource guide and registry sold to TheKnot.com for $78 million in 2007. She received her B.A. from Stanford in 1994 and then attended Stanford GSB.
In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?
Democratizing entrepreneurship by providing a flexible entrepreneurship platform for the modern woman.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A former board member told me if I wanted to run or build a large company, I should first work at one. I had only worked at tech startups before Stella & Dot, so I went to work at Dell. It became a continuation of business school for me. I learned more about managing people at a larger scale. I would not have had exposure to that side of business operations if I had only worked at a “Wild West” startup.
Another valuable piece of advice came from a cab driver in Texas. He was an angel in a cowboy hat. I was interviewing for my first job out of college and had a mountain of student loan debt. I had a job lined up in New York at an investment bank that would have paid me a lot of money. Meanwhile, I was on the way to an interview with a startup in Austin, which would offer more potential upside but at the cost of a lower salary and a greater chance of failure. I was torn between paying off debt or doing what was more authentic to who I wanted to be.
The cab driver looked at me in the rearview mirror and said, “Honey, what are you worried about?” I explained the situation. He told me to think about the best- and the worst-case scenarios. Then he asked, “Would it be worth the possibility of the best upside to go through the worst-case scenario? In other words, if the worst-case scenario of failure isn’t that bad, then go for the bigger opportunity without fear.” The worst-case scenario would have been that I would lose my job. I figured if that happened, I would still have my education and could always go back to get the safe job. So I went for it. I have never regretted the decision, and I still use that decision framework in my business and career.
What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?
The most valuable lessons I have learned came from being immature as a first-time entrepreneur at WeddingChannel.com. I didn’t yet have the emotional intelligence that comes with life experience. My biggest lesson was that I can’t expect everyone to do and think what I do and think. I’m a hard driver who wants everything done more, better, faster, now. When I was 24, I micromanaged everyone. If we were working on a website redesign and thinking about where something would go on the page, I would say: “upper right!” I learned that enabling other people to come to their own conclusions enables them to be happy and independent and self-sufficient. When I first started out my priority was to deliver things, but I learned that you do not build anything special by just delivering. Now I try to grow my company by growing people.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?
The first and most relevant thing I can say is that being an entrepreneur must be your calling. It sounds lofty and grand but building a business takes so much commitment and effort. Only if you love it can you levitate yourself over the obstacles that stand in the way of creating a business. You need to be mission-driven and authentically connected to what you do. It’s a heavy question, but if you are going to commit your time and your family’s time and other people’s money and your life to something, you should not just pursue it because it makes money. You should do it because it is uniquely suited for you. In retrospect, WeddingChannel.com was right for the time, and it was commercially exciting, but it wasn’t my purpose. With Stella & Dot I feel like I’m in the happiness business. I bound out of bed every morning for the opportunity to do it all again.
What inspires you?
The success stories of our stylists. We just had our national sales conference where we bring thousands of our entrepreneurs together and celebrate their accomplishments. I get overwhelmed with joy and emotion every time. It is so inspiring to know you are part of a chain of events that helped these women, and a few good men, become happier. Our stylists have many different backgrounds — doctors, lawyers, teachers, sales reps, etc. — but we’ve all come together. Many love their careers and layer Stella & Dot on top, but many others never knew what it was to do what you love and get paid. They made career decisions because they thought it was the right thing to do, not because it was a path to happiness. They were left with a feeling of: Is this it? Now these women are thriving. They exude joy and inspire other people.
Every one of our stylists has a story. There is one ex-PR exec that had been home raising her three children for the last eight years. Then her husband became ill with multiple sclerosis and was unable to work. Without skipping a beat or losing control of her schedule, she launched with Stella & Dot and now earns over $200,000 a year. We have teachers who tell us they earn more money in one month as a stylist for Stella & Dot than in three months of teaching. They tell us their teaching jobs were demoralizing because they do not feel recognized. In contrast, we celebrate and send flowers when they achieve. We know how to say thank you. There are other women who have military husbands who are deployed abroad. The women they met through Stella & Dot help them in more ways than one. They are in the delivery room with them, making meals for them, building a community. It’s truly inspiring.
What is your greatest achievement?
I am really proud of my two children, Charlie and Tatum. I believe if you are born in the U.S. you have won the lottery, but you should never take for granted the opportunity you have. You need a hunger for greatness to keep our country great. I do believe my kids recognize that. They know that nothing comes without hard work. When my eight year old came with me to Glide Memorial to serve meals to the homeless, she was the hardest-working person in the room. I’m proud that my children are kind.
What do you consider your biggest failure?
I believe you have to fail fast and be proud of your failures. If you don’t fail often, you are not trying hard enough. At WeddingChannel.com we raised a lot of venture capital. I didn’t want to do that again and make glossy, expensive mistakes. I was committed to boot strapping Stella & Dot out of my living room. I constantly experimented and iterated. In the very beginning Stella & Dot was built around do-it-yourself jewelry kits. It turned out there was too much complexity. At events, stylists were so focused on instructing people how to make jewelry that they were not able to earn very much relative to the time and effort put in. By focusing our trunk shows on ready-made jewelry only, stylists boosted sales and earnings.
Another failure in my earlier career was in hiring. I made the mistake of falling for what I call a “job-shaped object.” Those tend to be senior executives from big brands. They look like a job and smell like a job but they don’t actually do a job. They tell people to tell other people what to do but they don’t do anything themselves. They look like the answer, but often the only answer is “hire a mission-driven great athlete and promote from within.” An athlete is a utility player. They have high intellectual horsepower and can figure out anything even if they have not done it before. There are a lot of people with great functional skills but it doesn’t mean they belong at your company.
How do you come up with your best ideas?
Usually while running or on vacation. It clears my head and leaves space for creativity. My best ideas come when I distance myself from day-to-day operations. It gives me fresh perspective and energy.
What values are important to you in business?
Our company manifesto says it all — it’s available online for all to see. It’s about following your passion and being authentic to who you are. It’s about creating something tremendous because we focus not [only] on what competitors are doing, but rather on giving customers something delightful beyond anything they’ve imagined. It’s about never resting on our laurels or being afraid to take risks. Staying agile, nimble. Recognizing that every day is day one. Operating with heart, integrity, and authenticity.
Most of all, I value people truly pursuing their passion. I only want people to work at Stella & Dot who feel like it fits into their life’s mission. Life is way too short not to love what you do, why you do it, and who you do it with. You can’t wait for some event to be your payoff. When you wake up each day, you need to ask yourself: Is this my best purpose? Do I love where I live, who I know, what I do? So often we do things because it is an esteemed position to take, or because we need to simply pay the bills. I respect paying the bills, but you should stay on the quest to do that while doing something you love, too. Many Stanford alumni will have earned the ability to be selective. You need to ask yourself: Am I doing what I truly want to do, or just what others expect me to do? When I started making jewelry in my living room people thought I was crazy. I thought, “Yes I am! But who cares — I’m on my path to happiness.” I believed enough in what I was doing to drown out the doubters all around me.
What impact would you like to have on the world?
Everyone wants to make the world a better place. My role is to help women feel more bold, empowered, and joyful. I want to help them create their own financial independence and community. I want to help women live their best lives.
What was your first paying job?
I scooped ice cream at Baskin Robbins when I was 15. My assistant manager tried to make me go on a date with him by threatening me that a “no” meant I would have to do more than my rotation of mopping the floors. He would give me the worst clean-up job each time, and the “easy” counter-wiping task would be for others. I laughed, quit, and got another job the next day. Never settle and work for a jerk.
What is the best business book you have read?
Michael Porter’s Competitive Advantage. It is a great “business basics” book. It stuns me when business people lack the simple mentality of a merchant: make something people want to buy for a lower price than you can sell it for. Know what the customer wants and deliver it. Sometimes people make things too complicated. The bottom line is: If you want to sell a product, it either has to be better or cheaper, and if you want to build something sustainable and grand, it has to be special and much, much better!
What businessperson do you most admire?
I am inspired by the late Steve Jobs for his fierce commitment to his vision, as well as Jack Welch in terms of management philosophies and people development. Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook has done incredible work to advance women as leaders.
What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?
The emergence of social networking. It has completely transformed the way we communicate and interact with people. It changes everything. It’s as if you assumed the world was flat and now it’s round, and you have to re-chart every course.
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