The Most Important Lesson Learned
When I book a guest on the Faithful Career Moves podcast, I have specific questions in mind. In this case, I wanted to know how Debbie Thompson became one of Etsy's top jewelry sellers. I wanted to know how she built the business, how long it took to make a profit, and how her life changed. (Of course, I also wanted to know how she saw the Lord's hands in the process.)
So, that's how the interview started.
But when we finished talking, the thoughts that lingered in my mind had nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of the business. Instead, I reflected more on the emotional side of this journey. The success of Tom Design belies the mental and emotional challenges Debbie overcame to create it.
Like the engraving needle touching metal for the first time, this interview only scratches the surface of the past 16 years. Still, I promise it's long enough to leave a mark. Here are just a few of the lessons that have stayed with me:
- Be Flexible. Debbie didn't set out to be a jewelry designer. She planned to sell photography at an art market and only made earrings as a backup plan. When customers bought the earrings instead of the prints, Debbie bought more beads and made more baubles. That is the first of many times this entrepreneur adjusted her business to meet demand and circumstances.
- Be Partners. When Tom Design Shop became profitable, Debbie's husband quit his job, set aside his career aspirations, and went to work for her. (He started out making bangles.) When they needed to move the business from their home to a commercial space, the Thompsons created alternating schedules so they could both care for the company and their kids.
- Be Creative. After having a baby, Debbie found herself lost in new motherhood, living in a new area, away from her support system, and suffering from undiagnosed postpartum depression. Making jewelry and starting an online business helped her rebound. The same thing happened when she delivered her second baby, only worse. Creating new designs somehow pulled her through again.
- Be Thankful. In Debbie's words, "There are things that happen just at the right time that shouldn't have happened. I think, 'Oh, my gosh, that was an answer to my prayer.' I'm constantly asking, asking, asking. I think it's also so important to thank, thank, thank, because just like your kids constantly asking for something, it gets hard. It gets draining on you. After I recognize and see the hand of God, I'm so thankful, and I thank Him."
Though Debbie struggled with each transition in her life, the inspiration to keep making and selling jewelry played a significant role in her healing. That blessing alone would have been worth building the business. But as the success of Tom Design shows, God's plans are always bigger and better than we can imagine for ourselves. Since we can't see what he has in store, all we can do is follow each prompting received and trust that He's working in the background for our benefit.
That is the lesson I never want to forget.
After I see the hand of God, I thank Him.
I'm constantly asking, asking, asking.
I think it's also so important to thank, thank, thank.
- Debbie Thompson -
Download the Transcript
The Journey to Becoming an Etsy Top Seller
Guest: Debbie Thompson
Shelley Hunter: You're listening to the Faithful Career Moves Podcast. I'm your host, Shelley Hunter. This is the place where we talk to people who have found the career they were born to do and recognize God's hand in the process.
Welcome to episode 29 of the Faithful Career Moves Podcast. Today I'm talking to Debbie Thompson. She's the founder of a jewelry company called TomDesign. I'll put links to her site and the Etsy shop and the show notes, but if you're anxious to take a peek, click over to TomDesignShop on Instagram, that's T-O-MDesignShop.
Now, this is a story of adaptability and being responsive to the market, family needs, and the spirit. I promise you'll be inspired by what this faithful woman and her husband built, for a business and for their life.
Here's a quick thought I had. I often read the family proclamation. For listeners not of my faith, that is a statement issued by the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There's a section in there that reads, by divine design fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.
“Help one another as equal partners” is my second favorite line in the proclamation.
My first favorite is a topic for another podcast, but for now, I just want to point out how well the Thompsons are following this council. I find it inspiring. Let me say, this is actually a story about adaptability and partnership.
Now, one other note, when Debbie mentions her sister Allie, that's Allie Zeyer, the fine artist I interviewed in episode 27. Have a listen to that one as well, both grew up in the same home, surrounded by art, but each took their talents and interests in different directions for different purposes.
This episode is another testament to me that God knows what we need when we need it. I might add not a moment earlier.
Listen to this story of adaptability and partnership.
I ask Debbie to start us off with what she does for a living.
Debbie Thompson: I make jewelry for a living. I've been doing it for 16 years, which seems crazy to me. It seems like I started a year ago, but it's been 16 years. I started in college and we just built out our second studio. It's like 2,400 square feet and beautiful and everything we've ever wanted. We have 12 employees right now. Last December, we had 33 employees for Christmas.
Debbie: We are one of Etsy's top jewelry shops in the US, we're in the top 10. That's where we are now, but it did not start that way.
Shelley: Yes. How did it happen?
Debbie: Way long ago, 16 years ago, Allie, actually, my sister who was on before she was doing an art market in St. George, Utah. I decided to tag along, I was doing photography at the time, studying photography and art in college and I thought, "Well, I can sell my photography prints, but what if nothing sells?" I got nervous about that and decided, well, maybe I'll have a little tray of jewelry.
I taught myself how to make jewelry, took like $20 to the craft store, bought beads, made earrings, and it turns out I sold only earrings and none of my art prints sold. I came home from that market, just so excited, lit a fire inside of me that I could make something and sell it and have that reward.
I went and bought more beads. I learned how to make more jewelry. I started doing markets up in Provo where I was, and found all the markets I could and little stores that I could get into. I was also an elementary art teacher, and by the end of like three years of teaching, I decided to go three-quarter time. I backed off teaching and did more jewelry. I was making more with jewelry than I was as a teacher. I thought, "Oh, I could really do this."
A few years there in the beginning, it all fell into place, but then after three years, my husband and I had our first baby, he decided to go back to law school. We moved from Utah to Northern Idaho. We had a new baby. I was a new mom, new state, new everything.
It was like a shock to my system. I just thought, "I don't know what I'm doing as a mom." I'm in this new place and I left all of my markets and my little stores I was in and just fell into almost like a depression. Maybe it was postpartum depression. I didn't really quite notice it at the time, but jewelry was there. I thought, "Well, I'm going to get back into jewelry. I'm going to try to put everything I have up online on Etsy."
It took a lot of work, but I put everything up online and Etsy started to pick up. That's where my online selling really started is that transition period from moving and becoming a new mom and trying to find my way again.
Shelley: When did it become a serious business, beyond a creative outlet or a side gig for you?
Debbie: Those first three years, Mark and I were both working full-time. I was a teacher, he was an engineer, and we went back to school, then our income totally stopped. It was just whatever I could make with jewelry and living off of savings or loans. It still was a hobby then, but by the third year of law school, Mark's last year, we moved again to finish his last year in Boise, Idaho, and we had our second daughter and it was again like we had a baby and we moved and I was like, "Why?"
Shelley: Here we go again.
Debbie: It brought back all those feelings again. From the first, everything's new. I know it was second baby and that postpartum depression sunk in even more with my second. I didn't know what it was. There was a turning point. I remember laying in bed thinking, "I just want to give this all up. I'm down with jewelry. I have a new baby. I'm not feeling myself anymore, maybe I need to change. Maybe I just need to give it all up."
Then I opened my phone and I got this email from one of my suppliers with these new supplies, these little initial charms. I thought, "Oh, that is so cute. I want to do that." It lit that fire again.
I got these little initial charms and started making personalized jewelry, and that just changed everything. Sales started to pick up. I started doing these deal sites, which was a huge turning point also. I had a friend that her mom did a deal site and sold hundreds of these little chalkboard banners. I was like, "How did you know how much to sell?" Her brother had said, "Just put up a crazy number of items you want to sell. If you sell that many, then you'll figure it out. If not, you tried."
I said, I was going to sell 500 initial necklaces and they all sold within a couple hours.
Shelley: Are we talking Groupon or something?
Debbie: Yes. It's jane.com, was the deal site.
Shelley: Oh yes.
Debbie: That was crazy. It just pushed me to step it up to really work hard and just gave me another progress again. At that point, I changed everything and I started doing personalized jewelry and we were still that last year of law school, Mark was finishing, but personalized jewelry was taking off. It took him a while to find a good job, but by that time I was consistently doing those deal sites and selling hundreds every time. It was a lot of work that was just me and Mark would've helped, but he didn't find a job for a while, but jewelry had stepped up and he didn't really need to find one right away. We were living totally off of jewelry at that point.
He did find a job in Idaho Falls, so we did move there. I added on more personalized jewelry, more styles. It kept growing every year, every month. He worked as an attorney for one year as a divorce attorney, he hated it. By that year, jewelry was making more than he was. It was like, "Well, just quit." This helped me. We were making everything out of our home in this spare bedroom, and then it moved to the basement. After three years of living in Idaho Falls, it was like, I could live anywhere. We moved back to St. George, where it all started, where that first market was and we decided to get the business out of our home and into a studio.
Our first studio was 1,100 square feet. We thought it was huge at the time. We'd never grow out of this space, but we actually grew out of it after three years there. We've been in our new studio now for six months.
Shelley: The transition's remarkable, but I got to ask, what has this been like for your husband?
Debbie: We wondered what family and friends would think if they thought we were crazy, but they could see our successes and what we were doing. I think it all made sense to them. He's been totally fine with it. He doesn't need huge accolades or things like that. Just as long as we're driving and successful, he's fine doing whatever. He was first making bangles.
To go from being an attorney to making bangles was like, what? We still get some laughs when we tell people, but now he's one of our main engravers and he takes over the engraving side of the business and the taxes and managerial stuff.
Shelley: What I find interesting is that you probably would not have moved your business online as early as you did, had you not been moving around for his career.
Debbie: I thought about that a lot. If we hadn't ever gone and moved away, I'd still just be doing the market. There are definitely certain times when it pushed me to change and adapt. Moving to Idaho for the first time forced me to get things online. Then having that second baby and going through a depression, forced me to just look at things differently and find myself again.
Shelley: What advice do you have for somebody who wants to create something to sell like that?
Debbie: Do a lot of research, find out what's already out there, and then make yours different. Make yours special in some way, set yourself apart. I recently opened up a second Etsy shop. It's a dog tag shop because we have these five engravers that we use all five during Christmas, our busiest time but two don't even get used during the rest of the year. We're getting a dog. I'm going to start a dog tag business. I searched everywhere else, what are people already doing? How can I make my tags better quality, better design, better everything, better photography? That actually took off. I'm very surprised at how well our dog tag shop has done.
Always do your research when you're coming out with a new product, how to make yours different and better and unique.
Shelley: How do you think your background in fine art and photography has played into your success?
Debbie: Oh, hugely. In college, I studied art with an emphasis in photography. I also minored in business, which at the time, I just had already taken some classes. It was only a few more to minor in business. One of those classes was an entrepreneur class. Often I think back to that class and the stories that were shared. How people push through hard things. I'm like, "Oh, this is exactly like that class." I do all of our own product photography. That's one of the things we get complimented on the most is that our photography is really great. I didn't see that at the time in college but those classes and courses in that route is exactly what I'm doing right now.
Shelley: If you're doing anything online, photography is everything.
Debbie: Yes. It's the thing that sells. Some people don't even read the description. They just look at the pictures. That's what sells, is the photography.
Shelley: What a gift. What kind of adjustments did you have to make as a family? I'm assuming that you go into the office. How does that work for you and the kids?
Debbie: In the beginning, when we didn't have an office, it was working during nap time when the kids were asleep or on a movie. Sometimes we have a babysitter come over. When we moved out of the studio, I was really scared to do that because it took me away from the home, took me away from the kids. I felt a little guilty, but it's what we needed to go to work and to put in those hours and make those hours count while there. For the past two years, Mark and I have had this schedule where I work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the studio, and he's home with the kids. He works Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, and I'm home with the kids. We just had our youngest go to kindergarten this year. There's a little bit more freedom now where we can change some days around if we need to. All of our employees come in when I'm there on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and maybe one or two come in when he's there to get some extra work done.
Shelley: It sounds ideal.
Debbie: Yes. It's been a journey to get where we are, but it's ideal. The Saturday situation, he can come and go with that if we need to do something at the family. He can work later to get his work done or come on Monday morning, but it is ideal.
Shelley: For people listening, 16 years ago is when this started. Not to lose sight of the fact that this was not overnight success.
Debbie: Oh, yes, years and years. When it became a business, that was really just seven or eight years ago.
Shelley: What haven't I asked you about the jewelry business before I get into the questions I ask all of our guests?
Debbie: There's one part of our business that is pretty special to me, and that is our handwriting engraving. We added engraving about six years ago. We can engrave a date, a location, a name, whatever, but this handwriting engraving is so special. It's a deeper meaning to our jewelry. It's memorial jewelry. It handprints to put prints engraved onto a necklace or a bracelet. We'd have customers tell us these sad stories of, "My brother just passed away or my grandmother passed away." I felt grateful to make them something.
My mom passed away three years ago, and I made my first handwriting jewelry for myself and for my family members. We all wore-- sorry I don't want to get emotional. We all wore our handwriting at the funeral. I came home and got back into work after this experience. Those stories kept coming in and of our customers losing loved ones and us making that jewelry. I felt a deeper meaning, a deeper connection. I say, "Oh, I understand you. I get it. My mom passed away, too. I wear her jewelry all the time." That part of our business is pretty special to me. Then going through what our customers have gone through when they get a memorial piece, just makes all of them more special.
Shelley: You tell me about a leap of faith you had to take to get where you are now.
Debbie: There's been a few. That first leap of faith, when I was a teacher and I went to three-quarter time instead of full-time to make jewelry work, that was a little bit of a leap of faith. Pushing through the depression with having kids, that was a leap of faith. Then also my husband decided to leave his job, that was a huge leap of faith. We actually do this and make it work. I think that put us in almost a survival mode. Like, this is it. We've got to make it work. We've got to keep going. We've got to keep up with the trends. Those few turning points, I think were a big leap of faith.
Shelley: What is an unexpected blessing, though, something you couldn't see for yourself in doing all of this?
Debbie: Mark being home with the kids is definitely one. They have a relationship with him that they wouldn't otherwise have a deeper connection with their dad. He's been there. I hope that will build and they'll be able to find husbands and families with the same dedication as a father. Another one is that some of my employees have become really good friends. I wasn't expecting that. In the beginning, when I was making the jewelry with the employees, I don't do that now as much, but it would just be me and one other person, and we just talk and get that connection and make that friendship. They've all moved on, but I've stayed friends with them. They're some of my best friends. I'm really grateful for that. I feel like they were placed in my life at the right time and I need them.
Shelley: I love that. How have you seen the hand of God in your career?
Debbie: Every day I'm praying constantly for me to know what to do in my business, to know how to best spend my time, to make it the most successful I can. I'm also praying for our employees. I'm praying for our suppliers. I'm praying for our shippers, and I'm praying for our customers, especially at the really, really busy times. It's very stressful. I pray for our customers to be understanding and all just works out. 99% of the time it works out. I see that God is answering my prayers and is guiding me.
There's things that happen just at the right time, and it shouldn't have happened. I think, "Oh, my gosh, that was an answer to my prayer." I'm constantly asking, asking, asking. I think it's also so important to thank, thank, thank, because just like your kids constantly asking for something, it gets hard, it gets draining on you. After I recognize and see the hand of God, I'm so thankful and I thank Him.
Shelley: I love that this on the surface, could just be a story about business and jewelry. It's so much more. It's about connections and the people you work with, the people you sell to, your family. There's a lot of relationship-building going on with this business.
Shelley: Debbie, before I let you go, how can people find your shop?
Debbie: We are on all the social media platforms at TomDesign shop and we have our website tomdesignshop.com and our Etsy shop is just TomDesign.
Shelley: Thank you so much, Debbie, for being on the show.
Debbie: Yes, thank you.
Shelley: I love that so much. If you're going to ask, ask, ask, we have to remember to thank, thank, thank. What an amazing journey with so many pivot points. Looking back in a short 20-minute podcast, the story seems like a series of quick, easy, happy answers. "Oh, I'll just make jewelry or I'll do a deal site and send 500 necklaces across the country or my husband, he'll just quit his job."
None of that would be easy in the moment before the outcome is known. All of it would be so much more challenging when coupled with postpartum depression. I'm grateful that Debbie shared that important detail. For many women building a business or doing something crafty, would not be a way to fight depression, but God knew it would help Debbie and her family survive the moment and ultimately thrive in a business that would be so much more than just making jewelry.
The last thing I want to point out is that the seed of this business and a way to heal had been planted years earlier when she did that first market. Debbie could have come home from that event, disappointed and down on herself for not selling her photography, but instead she got excited for the win.
As a Clifton strengths coach, I can't help but recognize a talent for adaptability in Debbie. Being adaptable to the market led her to expand into different products and new ways of selling them. Being adaptable to her husband's career goals and challenges ultimately led to building an amazing life and business that benefits the entire family. Being adaptable to the spirit guides her daily decisions.
It makes me wonder if there have been times in my life when I have resisted more than adapted, just delaying what eventually needed to happen for me. Anyway, something to think about. Thanks, Debbie, for sharing your story and thank you for listening.
Thank you for listening to the Faithful Career Moves Podcast. If you want to know more about how to connect your natural talents and abilities to job opportunities and business ideas, then visit our website at faithfulcareermoves.com.