All Isabella “Bella” Weems really wanted was a used car. That desire set in motion a chain of events that led to the Arizona teenager spearheading what is now a multi-million dollar enterprise that she may someday control. When she finishes school, that is.
Weems, now 17, is founder of Origami Owl, a custom jewelry company whose direct sales business model turns would-be entrepreneurs into salespeople and evangelists. The company, which she founded in 2010 at age 14, generated $24 million in revenue in 2012 and this year expects to reach $250 million, according to the company.
Origami Owl takes on independent associates – known as “designers” – who buy products at a discount and then peddle them to others for a marked up price. One of the favorite points of sale are “jewelry bars,” or private parties at someone’s home or another venue operated by a “hostess” (the hostesses get discounts and some free products too). The company has about 50,887 designers.
In a sense, what Origami Owl is offering is a canned small business that could appeal to would-be entrepreneurs interested in making a few extra dollars. That motivation is really what got Weems herself started in the first place.
At 14 Weems announced that she felt a car would be an appropriate gift for her 16th birthday, but was told by her parents, Chrissy and Warren, that she should earn her own wheels instead of relying on their funding. They suggested she start a business.
“I started researching and looking for ideas,” she told FORBES. “The locket’s been around for a long time and I thought, ‘well, what if you could make a locket with charms?’” Weems asked her parents to match the $350 she’d earned for babysitting, which she then spent on wholesale components to make her lockets. She quickly leveraged her network of friends to find buyers. “We started selling our product at house parties and boutiques and selling at any jewelry show we could. The product started selling itself.” In 2010 Weems opened a kiosk at the Chandler, Arizona mall in time for Black Friday shoppers.
The company adopted the direct sales platform in 2011 and generated about $280,000. The following year revenue took off like a rocket, multiplying 86 times.
The growth for Origami Owl is dramatic and its revenues impressive but those figures are tempered by the company’s need for components and a large personnel roster to keep business flowing. Though the firm won’t disclose profit margins, as of this writing there about 373 employees, the majority of which work in warehousing (the firm just set up an 80,000 square foot facility in Chandler where components from China are assembled before shipping). According to CEO Robin Crossman, employee numbers fluctuate tend to fluctuate.
On the sellers end, it’s possible for designers to find that it more difficult to make money selling the jewelry after they’ve depleted their list of personal contacts and local boutiques. Continuing to maximize profits takes serious hustle.
Speaking of hustle, Weems is not alone in her jewelry business and has a cast of close family and business minds behind her. The Origami Owl executive team includes Weems’ mother, Chrissy, who is co-founder and worked with her on the company’s product design team. Nowadays she plays a supporting role.
(Christian “Chrissy” Weems, has a touch of notoriety to her past: in 2011 she pleaded guilty to computer tampering for hiding evidence in the case of Susan Brock, an Arizona woman convicted of three counts of sexual conduct with a minor who Chrissy Weems had then mistakenly felt was innocent of the charges, a spokesperson for Origami Owl confirmed. She was sentenced to one year of supervised probation).
Other family members helping Bella Weems build her business are uncle, John Weems, who is vice president of IT; and also an aunt, Jessica Reinhart, who has helped out in marketing. Her other uncle, Jeff Reinhart, was COO. The family owns the company but the company will not disclose equity percentages.
Crossman, who had previously acted as a consultant with the company for several months early this year before becoming CEO in May, boasts a resume that includes Amway Global, Home Interiors, Suzanne.com and The Longaberger Company. The direct sales veteran seems to be building Origami Owl to scale. In her short tenure she’s hired several key people, including COO Kevin Raulston, an operations man with experience in direct sales, fast-growing companies and family businesses looking to go pro.
Other hires include vice president of creative, Tom Rascati, whose past includes stints at Avon, Cutex, Ultra Beauty and Bond No.9. Other additions also hold backgrounds in direct sales—Origami Owl’s bread and butter. Further strengthening its machine is a new IT platform that will give the company’s indepdendent “designers” more tools to run their own business (rather, sell Origami Owl’s products). “This is where they’ll order their supplies,” Crossman said. “They have all their training, we have webinars, we have videos, we have product sheets that tell what the specifications are, what the selling points are.” The platform will also remember a jewelry bar guest list, track sales and maintain records. A mobile app is on the way.
Weems herself is taking a practical, measured approach to assuming control of her business. So important is it that she learns about her company from the ground up that she’s taken on the role of intern at her own enterprise. After school she visits the company HQ and helps out and, in the summer, spends time in each department. “She’s definitely hands-on but we want her to have as normal a life as she can and to have the opportunity of college,” Crossman explained.
How did Weems’ dream of getting a car work out? The founder that started it all is the proud owner of a white Jeep which she acquired in 2012 and named Alice.
Follow me on Twitter @KarstenStrauss