Jennifer Meng: Founder of Ready-Made

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Today’s interview centers on Jennifer Meng, a woman whose willingness to follow her calling is a wonderful call to action. She’s the founder of Ready-Made, a delightful jewelry brand that sets a new standard within the jewelry industry besides being incredibly wearable. From her love of storytelling, to the legal field, to running Ready-Made, Jennifer has learned to live by her own code. So keep reading to learn from her so that you can too! 

Let’s jump in! What is your official job title?
When I talk to other people I say I’m a Founder, but I think my role is really a Brand Builder and a Creative Director.

Can you tell me the story of your career so far?
It’s been a very interesting path and it has a lot to do with how I grew up. I’ve always been very interested in art, writing, and story-telling. I collected objects and was a very imaginative kid. But I didn’t have the guidance to turn that creativity into something productive, into a career. I majored in Art History and English and when I graduated and started looking for my first job, I was like, “Ok, I have to be serious here. I have to find something that I can transfer my writing skills to, but be taken seriously for it.” And I thought, “The legal field.”

I ended up in a corporate law firm [in Taipei, Taiwan] for two years. I grew up in Taipei, that’s why I went back when I graduated from Wellesley. Work there was really different from that creative freedom of expression. I really enjoyed the rigidity and that corporate seriousness, that ambitiousness that comes from being in a competitive environment. I was very dedicated—I took the LSAT and got into law school. But during this arduous process of applications I realized, “You know, I don’t think I wanna do this.” The information you work with in the legal field was so different than the storytelling I had aspired to for all of my life.

It was during this time that I met Jeff [her partner] at a high school reunion. He’s a designer and was thinking of starting his own business (and he did—check out Inventery!). By observing him, I saw that you can actually take your creative vision and transform it into something commercial. That was the guidance I always wanted all my life, and I finally figured out that combining my love of art and storytelling with the structure from the legal field was very suitable to building a brand and a business. That’s how I arrived at Ready-Made.

What pushed you to give up law, a more stable career, to start your own brand, a career that has more ups and down?
When I was at the law firm it was very extreme hours. When I had that little extra time, I’d write a story, or I’d paint. I [also] realized that with all the time I was committing to working with clients and writing in a very structured way, I was losing [my] creativity. I wasn’t writing stories the way I used to. It scared me because my parents and my bosses were telling me, “Work really hard now, and enjoy life later,” but I feel like for creativity, it doesn’t work that way. If you wait too long—you lose that drive. I didn’t want to make that mistake.

What is something you do to foster your creativity so you don’t lose it?
After I started this brand I realized that when you’re in the business of creativity, you only use a small percentage of your creative potential because most of your time is spent on making sure your business is stable first so that you can continue to harness your inspiration. I think being in this industry is enough to allow you to be creative. I’m always talking to a lot of content creators, photographers, make-up artists, seeing how they’re inspired and hearing their stories.

Did you take out a loan, use savings, or fundraise to start Ready-Made?
It was all savings. After the law firm, I was able to use money earned from that to start a vintage jewelry brand, and with that [money] I was able to start Ready-Made.

How was that? Putting so much on the line can be scary.
Putting all that money in? It was very scary. But I think I’m very lucky because I have Jeff, and he does the exact same thing, so we’re able to split rent and help each other out with personal expenses, especially when we were first starting out. That’s the realistic side of things—having someone who can help with bills when you’re feeling low, and vice versa. Having that partnership definitely helped.

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Something that makes Ready-Made so special is your approach to jewelry. You use sustainable materials, it’s affordable, but it’s really good quality. How do you explain this unique stance within the jewelry world?
Dealing with vintage jewelry taught me a lot about the disparity in quality and different metals. It also made me realize that the vocabulary around jewelry is very confusing: gold-plated, gold-filled, vermeil. Does it tarnish? Silver oxidizes, but if you polish it then it becomes bright again… It’s very confusing. And the market is so saturated. There’s fast jewelry, high-end, and more middle. There’s also more hand crafted and artisanal, like Etsy.

But no one really talks about the materials that transparently. I didn’t want to spend all this money on fine jewelry, but I wanted something that was worth my money. That’s why I started taking applications from the medical field and the industrial field to make jewelry that truly is affordable but is skin-friendly and really can survive the everyday –water, sweat, accidental tugs and bangs, and all. Although the metals and ceramics I use are definitely harder to work with, it’s not a super complicated procedure, but no one’s been very hard-set on using it for a jewelry brand.

What do you think makes a good creative director in relation to your manufacturers?
Number one is definitely communication. And number two is consistency. If you’re always doing something the same way and your priorities are the same across the board, people will take you seriously and they will make sure that everyone goes through with them. The third is being empathetic, because things do go wrong. It happens. Something I hear a lot about overseas manufacturing is “I was lied to,” or “They took my money and I didn’t get a great product!” It does happen, but it’s not because someone is out there to get you. Sometimes it’s timing, there are also a lot of environmental, political factors involved with factories overseas, so it’s about being empathetic and knowing that everyone’s end goal is to actually create a good product.

How do you come up with designs?
For me, it’s what I want to wear. I don’t like to think that much when I roll out of bed, I just wanna throw on some jewelry. I admit I’m not a mood board person. In line with my childhood, I’m focused on storytelling—I focus more on the mood, I don’t really focus on the visual. For jewelry, it’s always “how do I wanna feel about these shapes?”

Do you have help at Ready-Made or are you a one-woman show?
I’m a one woman show. Jeff helps with the digitals [digital rendering of Jennifer’s designs], and I help his brand with the copywriting. But it’s easy to be a one-person show in e-commerce these days with the number of available tools. I have a developer for the website and I have seasonal interns that come in and help a lot, but in terms of leading the branding, the design, even the packaging design, the manufacturing, and creating the assets, it’s just me.

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Can you walk me through the process from having the idea to shipping it out?
First, a feeling or mood or shape comes to mind, and I have to draw it out to communicate with the manufacturer. I’ll hand sketch and Jeff will transform it into a 3D file that we’ll then send to the factory. A lot of manufacturers can work off a 2D picture, but I really want complete control over my product, so we send a 3D file, and they’re able to turn it into a mold and make it directly.

After the back and forth with the manufacturer (sending over checklists, how-to’s, things to be careful of), we put the order in. Depending on how much we’re producing, a few products or an entire collection, I might fly to the factory to make sure the process goes smoothly. If I stay in LA, production takes about one month. [That’s also around when] we start planning the photography and the branding behind that product or collection. Once we get the product, we do a final quality check and report any deficiencies or defects to the manufacturer so that they know next time. We photograph and measure it, upload it onto the website with dimensions and descriptions, and launch. It takes about four months from the beginning to the delivery, if there are no delays.

How do customers find you?
I run targeted advertisements and those have been successful with brand awareness. A lot of my customers also find Ready-Made through Instagram. I work with a lot of influencers, specifically those under 10k [ten thousand] followers. I find it to be more personal and I get to know them better. They’re at that ideal number of followers where they’re authentic, confident, and professional and have a lot of activity on their posts. In short, people trust them. Since I’m putting a lot of spending into ads, I have to balance that out and spend less on influencers and instead build long term relationships with them. So far, it’s been working because customers come when influencers post.  

What are some things you want people who are starting their own business to know?
Don’t underestimate the power of an accountant, no matter how small your business is at the moment. Accounting is complicated, and while you can do it on your own, you should focus your time on other things, things that you’re good at.

Another thing is to filter the information and advice you receive. Most people won’t take the time to understand your business and goals, and a lot of people can’t differentiate between different kinds of businesses and may offer irrelevant advice. If you take every piece of advice or even spend time thinking about each one, it can get confusing or even depressing, and the most dangerous thing is to lose focus.

Do you get feedback from customers, and if so, do you listen to it?
I get a lot of feedback from customers and I listen to them every time. It’s valuable because I can build better products based on what people say. I get moms who tell me that they like how the chains are indestructible because their small kids pull and tug. Our pieces are very fade-resistant, but one customer told me her ring faded from wearing it to hot yoga every day for a week. Now I know that that combination of heat and sweat, seven days a week, is going to eat away at our coating faster than anticipated and I can make our plating stronger.  

Customer feedback also helps me be a more universal brand in terms of pricing, but also accessibility. When I first launched, I had ring sizes 5 to 8, but I received emails saying that that wasn’t good enough. Now I know that sizing is going to be a priority because I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t wear my jewelry. We’ll be offering size 4, 9, and 10 in a month.

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As a female, non-Caucasian business-owner, have you encountered any obstacles?
There have been some challenges. A lot of women want to get together and help each other out; I think that’s great. But sometimes we don’t realize that while we’re all women, we might not [see] that our businesses are so different that we can’t really collaborate. When a lot of support is encouraged, you have to be sure you spend time trying to support each other efficiently.

Another obstacle is that since I’m Asian and my products are made in Asia (Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China), there’s that challenge of breaking down the first impression that somehow I’m okay that my products are unethical or low quality. I’ve had to take control of the narrative – great products certainly come out of Asian factories that treat their employees well, I’ve seen it first-hand. A good product all comes down to great art direction and quality control. Like I mentioned previously, no one wants to band together to make a bad product.

What’s your least and most favorite part of your job?
My least is probably social media. It takes a lot of time and you get absorbed. You have to reply to messages and comments, and keep track of influencers’ lives. Your mind has to be so nimble and your responses fast and varied. My favorite part is having control. Full control of a company was never something that appealed to me, but now that I have it, I can see why some people strive for it.

What’s a mistake you made that people should learn from?
Don’t delve too fast into paid services when you’re such a young brand because too many things are changing. Next week you could be focusing on an entirely different message. If you’re paying for services from an established PR firm or advertising agency to market your brand, you will need consistency to get the most out of your retainer. It’s also emotionally challenging because you feel inconsistent and you’re always having to explain your reasoning and ambition. Doubting yourself is the last thing you need!

How do you spend your daily life with Ready-Made?
In the morning I’m answering emails from customers and packing up orders. From twelve until the end of the day, it’s working on the brand, thinking more long term.

What are dates you need to keep an eye out for as a jewelry designer?
As a jewelry designer in e-commerce, Black Friday/Cyber Monday is the holiday. Valentine’s Day is almost irrelevant now, in my opinion. Women buy jewelry for themselves; waiting for that one time of the year now seems unbelievable. I don’t even advertise it as Valentine’s Day—it’s Galentine’s Day, for your girlfriends! I really think it’s great that women have taken control of the jewelry industry in their own way. Jewelry’s an identity, an extension of who we are. I like how things are turning out!

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self:

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Has this interview awakened a dormant dream in you that you put aside for your “sensible” ones? Then we’re glad you read what she had to say. Even better, come back next week to hear how to follow your gut!

(Photos provided by Jennifer Meng)