Minding Your Business

Minding Your Business

Every small business person is intimately familiar with the concept of wearing many different hats. My business card could quite accurately and honestly list my title as owner, president, designer, operations manager, webmaster, secretary, gopher, flunky or janitor. That's with three other people working here; the list used to be much longer. If you're running your own business, I'm sure you could make a similar list.

Just recently, while answering an email, I found those positions separating in my mind in a way they never had before. It led to a revelation in my understanding of what it really means to grow a business from an embryo to a thriving entity separate from oneself. It made me realize that you can't just wear different hats; you have to actually occupy each position separately in your mind, as well.

The question I was answering was from someone who was trying to replicate our European 4-in-1 Collar using his own rings. He was having trouble with the collar bunching up and wanted me to tell him what ring sizes I use and how they're laid out. And while the questions could certainly be considered a bit cheeky, given that it's my own design and we sell a kit to make it, the tone of the email was very nice and he obviously didn't see a problem with asking in the spirit of one hobbiest to another.

The problem is that this isn't a hobby for me, it's my business. In answer, I explained that I am Urban Maille's designer and spent many weeks, on the clock, working out the very precise ring sizes needed to make that collar. Urban Maille paid for my time to do it, owns the copyright on that design and retains the sole right to teach it. I went on to explain that, unlike many other companies, Urban Maille does not in any way limit your right to sell the item made from the kit or to make and sell as many more as you like, with your own rings or anyone else's, once you've purchased the kit that teaches the pattern. Most companies and even classroom instructors only grant the right to make a single item for personal use, not even allowing the sale of that single item. Urban Maille retains only the sole right to teach their own designs. I went on to say that respecting one's own assets while working hard to help customers become successful is such a completely fair and reasonable policy for any company that I have no problem at all respecting it.

I realized as I was writing my answer that I was speaking as an employee of my own company... and that's when I had the epiphany. I *am* an employee of my own company. Sure, I'm also an owner and I hope someday that pays off and yeah, I wrote the very policy I'm abiding by, precisely because it is fair and in the best interests of the company I helped to found. But he was asking me, as the designer -- a designer who is employed and paid to produce work that is owned by the company that pays me -- questions that I have no right to answer.

If I were paid to write code by a software company, that software company owns the code and I would have no right to give it away just because I wrote it. A chemist hired to develop a perfume does not have the right to give out the recipe for that perfume; it belongs to the company that hired him to develop it.

This all seems quite obvious in retrospect but I honestly never thought of it this way before and it really was like a light going on for me. Before I had a business, when I made maille as a hobby, I never hesitated to share anything with anyone who asked. When I went into business, a lot of the reason was because I was spending so much time teaching informally and feeling frustrated with the fact that I couldn't spend as much time on it as was needed to really do it well. Selling kits gave me a way to buy the time to really do it right and solved the problem of a hobby grown out of control. Yet all this time, in my mind, I never completely made the leap from designer working on her own to company employed designer.

That leap is bigger than it seems... and I'm guessing that I'm not the only one needing to make it. Most every good designer gets cheeky questions in her email or at her shows from people wanting everything from a list of sources to step by step instructions in how to do what you do. If you're making a business from what used to be your hobby, you're probably uncomfortable with those questions but feel bad if you don't answer them. It's nice to share; sharing is good and, if you began making jewelry as a hobby, sharing your sources and teaching what you know comes quite naturally. But if you were employed as the designer for some big House of Jewelry, you would know very well that you don't have the right to share your company's proprietary information. There would be some things you could share but you would know clearly where to draw the line based on the company's policies.

So here's where you make that leap. If you're building a business, you are the designer employed by a House of Jewelry. You are that company's primary asset and the fact that you own the company doesn't change that. You owe your own company at least as much loyalty as you'd give another company that employed you in that capacity. So what is your company's policy on sharing your designs? What's considered proprietary information and what is public domain? What's in the best interests of your company and therefore your future? Are you politely giving away your company's eleven secret herbs and spices or are you developing your company's assets in the form of a growing list of trade secrets? Have you really and completely made that leap from hobbiest to business person?

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