How This Teenager Turned Her Childhood Hobby Into a Global Business
When Bella Weems was 14 years old, she wanted a car -- despite the fact it would be two years before she could legally drive it. Many of her friends were older, and they were passing their driving tests. Moreover, a friend had let Bella drive a very old white, stick-shift truck on some land the family had. When she told her parents, they told her she’d have to pay for it herself.
Bella turned to babysitting but after months of caring for kids, she only had $350 to show for her efforts. At that rate, she thought, she’d never save up enough money in time. Again, she expressed herself to her parents, noting the frustrations of labor-intensive work for low pay. Rather than suggest a second job or offer money in exchange for completing chores or maintaining a particular GPA, her mom and dad offered to match the money she saved from babysitting so she could start a business.
She went looking online for ideas and settled on jewelry -- specifically, customizable lockets -- for a simple reason. “It’s something I found fun and interesting,” she says, explaining she and her mother would go to a bead store on the weekends, long before they ever thought of turning a profit from accessories. Picking a name for the business was done in a similar fashion. When her mom asked her to think of what sort of things she liked, Bella thought of owls. Good, her mom said, what else? Origami was another thing Bella enjoyed, so they put the two words together and Origami Owl was born. The women liked that it sounded both whimsical and wise. Bella says the same is true of the partners’ business dynamic: “I’m the whimsical side; [My mother] is the wise side,” she says.
To get the ball rolling, Bella held "parties" at her house where friends and family could come and purchase separate chains (between $12 and $22), lockets (between $14 and $46) and charms ($5 each) that they could put together to create pieces that told their individual stories. Bella, for instance, wears a locket that holds a cameo charm in honor of her grandmother, along with a sunflower charm and a cupcake charm because she loves these two things.
After positive feedback from the partygoers -- who doubled as advertisers by wearing the lockets around -- mother and daughter team set up shop in a mall kiosk in November 2011. They sold an estimated $60,000 a month during the holiday season, but more importantly, customers sent them around the country as gifts. Soon the Weems were fielding calls from different states from people looking to buy more. “They thought we were this big company already, not just two people in a mall kiosk,” Bella says. It was time to launch a website.
As the business grew, their plan expanded to include "Independent Designers," or people to host their own parties and sell jewelry in exchange for free Origami Owl items, discounts and commissions. (They also have a special program for 12 to 17 year olds, or "Owlettes" to start their own business.) For $149, Origami Owl sends a starter package that has a sample of the jewelry they offer -- everything from charms to lockets to earrings -- to show prospective buyers at the parties, along with their own personalized ecommerce Origami Owl website where they can set up their shop. They have more than 60,000 independent designers throughout the U.S, and the company also has roots in Canada. Next up: possible expansions into Mexico or Europe and more jewelry collections.
The business currently offers seven lines, with one being for Mother's Day. The “Core” collection, for instance, focuses on the minimalist trend in jewelry and can be used for layering. So rather than telling the story of the wearer, this line is intended to attract what the wearer needs most. The business also formed a partnership with Swarovski, which brought bling to the custom-designed stainless steel pieces and Origami Owl’s collection now also includes patented concepts, like the design for the heart locket.
Now 18, Weems has evolved, just as has her business has. Her mother points out the communication skills and confidence Bella has gained as a result of her company. When asked what she’s learned, Bella says, “I’ve learned to surround yourself with people who inspire you and want to lift you up, because you tend to act like your friends," she says. "Surround yourself with positive influences. Go after your dreams, no matter how old you are. Believe in yourself.”
Of course, monetary success doesn’t hurt either. The company now does hundreds of millions of dollars each year in sales. This leaves Bella free to consider options for college (she was offered a spot in Arizona State University’s business program but also has an interest in writing and music), but it also allowed her to achieve the first, smaller goal she had when this started. Bella now drives a white Jeep she’s named Alice, simply because Alice in Wonderland is her favorite movie.