“It was a leap of faith,” says Dawson Ellis, speaking of his and his wife Madeline’s decision to start making jewelry full-time. Today, that leap of faith has paid off, and Mimosa, the Ellis’s growing line of Louisiana-inspired jewelry, is rapidly expanding beyond the South and reaching stockists across the country.
Just a few years ago, there was little hint Dawson and Madeline would be proprietors of a bustling manufacturing and sales operation that now employs five people. They met as students in a landscape architecture program at Louisiana State University. Neither had much awareness of the jewelry business world, but Madeline made basic beaded jewelry using beads she’d be given by her grandmother.
After graduation, Dawson started a lawn maintenance company with a business partner, and Madeline expanded her beading skills into designing with PMC clay and doing small-scale local fairs and markets, mostly as a hobby. Around that time, she took unpaid maternity leave for their first child and used the time to make supplemental money with jewelry for their young family.
Madeline’s business thrived, and eventually, she was able to leave her job entirely. As her family grew, so did her skills, her clientele, and the business. That’s when things really ramped up.
“About two and a half years ago, she was still doing PMC, and it was to the point where she was getting a lot of wholesale orders,” explains Dawson. “So to recreate something that looks consistent over and over and over again with PMC was really hard. So I was like, ‘You really need to learn to cast.’”
As it turns out, it was Dawson himself who would end up doing the casting. After further discussion about the best way to grow the business, Dawson decided he would learn to cast, and their family business was born. He accepted a buyout from his business partner, allowing him a cushion of time to get a handle on the challenges of the casting process. Since then, as Madeline says, “It’s been no looking back.”
We caught up with Madeline to ask her a few questions about how the business has grown so rapidly and how she and Dawson have managed the growing pains along the way:
When did it first occur to you that making jewelry could be your livelihood?
I had been doing it as a hobby, but when I took unpaid maternity leave for my first child, I was able to see if Mimosa could supplement Dawson's income enough to quit my job. We did well. I went back part time for about five months after the maternity leave and decided to quit altogether. It was a difficult decision to make—leaving the security of a regular-paying job—but once I quit, I never looked back!
What was your first work space like?
My very first one was a little compartmentalized Tupperware container my mom gave me in high school.
How has your work space evolved along with your business?
The work space has changed quite a bit and almost consistently with how the business has grown. I carried that Tupperware box through college. Once I got the day job, I took over the kitchen table. It was a mess, and I had to pick it up and unpack my box every time I wanted to work. Mimosa lived there ‘til we had our son, and then Dawson built me a little closet-sized space to work out of. It was everything I needed, and I could lock the door so my kid was safe from all the tools and supplies. It was like a cockpit with a desk on three sides. Only one person could comfortably fit in it, but it was exactly what I needed. Once Dawson joined me, we moved it to his workshop so we could have space for three people and casting. We eventually added a fourth person and a second story so casting could be downstairs and shipping and production could be upstairs. We are up to five people now, and I think we've got just the right amount of space. We actually toured Stuller right before we moved upstairs and borrowed a few of their order organizing ideas to use in the shop!
What were some of the early obstacles you encountered in trying to expand your business, and how did you overcome them?
Time! Always time. I was working full time at my day job, so I had to steal away any free time and use it on the business. I'd work late into the night, on weekends, etc. I was doing what I loved, so it was easy to say “no” to all the extracurricular things friends were doing. I overcame it by figuring out ways I could work on things in pockets of time and by not doing them start to finish. It feels so satisfying to sit down and make something start to finish, but I really had to learn patience and realize it would get done—just in little pockets along the way.
Who was the first person you added to your team and why?
Courtney Gay. She had helped me from time to time when I had my second child, Lillie. She is a jack-of-all-trades kind of person, so she was vital in the early growing pains when we all needed to be all things for the business.
What is your team’s makeup like these days—and how is that reflected in the way you work day to day?
My main role is to create new pieces. I spend a lot of time working on how to tell the story of the pieces I make and how to get the pieces and their stories out in to the world, but that might just be a long way of saying marketing! I work a lot of festivals, markets and shows. Courtney is still with us. She focuses on shipping and makes sure we all stay on task with what needs to be made. She also builds wax trees. Dawson is our caster. He builds the wax trees and casts them. He's also our carpenter, electrician, plumber, etc.! If we need it, he can build it. He works shows with me as well. Grace started this past June. She is learning how to cast and has been casting for a few weeks now. She focuses mainly on finishing the cast pieces. Greta started a couple months ago. She handles almost all communication through email and updates Etsy and Facebook. She helps build content for the blog and the newsletter and runs orders to our wholesale vendors as needed.
What was the role of social media in the growth of your business?
Social media has been vital to the growth of Mimosa. Like I said: most of our pieces have stories to tell, and I've been able to tell them from start to finish online. From the moment I'm inspired or start sketching something out to the end product, people are able to follow along and get a behind-the-scenes peek and see how it all plays out. It's been such a great tool for connection, either between us and the customer or our customers to each other, but it’s also been a great tool for showing what is going on around us. I've been able to use it as an interactive headquarters for what we're up to in real time. We give studio tours and show live casting so people can feel like they are right here with us. It's engaging and prompts questions they might not have known to ask before. The best part, though, is when we take it from online to real life. Sometimes, we meet our customers at a festival or something, and they pick up a piece and already know everything about it because they got to see it created from start to finish and saw it go from melted metal to a piece of jewelry!
You guys are mostly self-taught. What have been some of the best resources for learning along the way?
YouTube University, as the kids call it. Seriously, though—YouTube is just a wealth of information. However, you have to be careful. Just like anything else, there is a lot of good on YouTube, yet there is also a lot of not so good, but if you back it up with research and reading and asking people who know what they're doing, you can go a long way watching people show you online!
How do you see your business expanding in the years to come?
We're really happy with the size of it right now (the size of the shop, the team, etc.). I see us focusing on our skills and always improving. I don't necessarily see us expanding in size, but maybe expanding in reach. I'd love to see our work in more locations throughout the South. Our kids are small, so we may try to cut back on some of the shows that we work, or we may do fewer shows yet add in more out of town trips that could double as family vacations! I want our focus to stay on quality and content, and I want to dig deeper into the stories that can be told and the connections that can be made using jewelry as a catalyst.
Click here to read Mimosa's feature in our new January issue of From the Bench.