On the latest episode of Atlanta Small Business Profile, host and small business expert Ted Jenkin connects with Anna Balkan, CEO of Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Galley, one of Atlanta’s premier artisanal jewelry providers.
Ted Jenkin: The story you’re going to hear today, you’ve got to stay seated to hear this today. It’s Anna Balkan. She’s a jewelry designer and she’s also the CEO of Anna Balkan Designer Jewelry Gallery. I got it all out in one sentence there. You can see a little bit about her gallery right there in the background today. I have been so impressed just getting to know you better about your story, Anna, that entrepreneurs, many of them, literally start with nothing. And you came from New York City, you had $100 in your pocket. How did you get this business started?
Anna Balkan: Well, actually I had to get to New York City first. So you’ll hear my accent throughout this. It’s a real thing, I’m not Southern. So I’m former USSR and I immigrated here at the ripe age of 20 by myself with $100. That’s the only amount they let you leave the country with. And I came as a political refugee. So, I think the refugee topic is always going to be hot with me. So yeah, so $100 in my pocket. The streets of New York, concrete was painful to hit. I hit it every day looking for a job. I didn’t speak a lick of English. And somebody told me how to say, “I’m looking for a job,” which in a lot of languages the sequence makes no sense, the wording. So I had to write it on my hand, and I had to go door-to-door and like, “I am looking for a job.”
Anna Balkan: So yeah, the journey’s been fantastic and challenging, and looking back, it was absolutely what I needed to go through to build my character, built respect and knowledge and understanding of other people. Because when you don’t have a place to live, you have these random people just let you stay with you. And it was immigrants. The immigrants took me in and gave me shelter. I was able to go to college. As a political refugee, they actually help you get an education in the system. So I worked, I went to college, and that’s kind of where the journey kind of took me. I will tell everybody, “College degree is very important because you’ll learn how to learn.”
Ted Jenkin: We have people that’ll be watching today that are thinking about starting a business. And it’s scary. What did you learn in the early years that, obviously, you’re a seasoned entrepreneur now, but what did you learn in the early years that you had to push through that you could share with other entrepreneurs that they’re probably going to face?
Anna Balkan: So, first of all, if any of you read, or haven’t read yet, Paulo Coelho book, The Alchemist. I think everybody needs to have that. But there’s two books you’ve got to have, Paulo Coelho, Alchemist and Simon Sinek Start With Why.
Ted Jenkin: Great book.
Anna Balkan: Oh yeah. Both books give you such a fundamental understanding. So, as an entrepreneur, one of the biggest things that happens at the beginning, they call it beginner’s luck. And I know every single entrepreneur experiences it. You either have an idea, and all of a sudden, you started running into people like, “Oh my God, let me help you.” So you have that beginning, almost this godly path, like, “Oh my goodness, this is your path. Go on it.” But then there’s a point of tests, a fundamental test. And corona is one of those tests for many of us. But we always have that point where if you dive off the diving board, you’re flying at first, it’s awesome, you pushed off. And then you get in the water and you go deep.
Anna Balkan: And you have to hit the bottom and you have to have the strength of character. It’s not just mental strength, but you have to have such a belief in yourself to push off the bottom. And once you push off, I feel from that point, you’re untouchable as a business. You cannot be intimidated or terrified, you got it.
Ted Jenkin: Now let’s talk a little bit about your business because one of the things I find very interesting is that buying jewelry, in general, can be challenging for people, both men and women. But you actually say that a lot of people, they make mistakes, right? Because they don’t choose the right jewelry for their skin color or their skin type. What’s your process in designing jewelry for people?
Anna Balkan: I always love to talk about, men are so easy to use as an example. So, when you see public speakers or our president or any news anchors, what do to have on? Some sort of tie and you notice that. And what we don’t realize, there’s very expensive consultants that will tell you what tie, what pattern, what color, what that will say to the world about you as a leader, as a presenter. But when it comes to jewelry, we don’t think that way. So, when you see somebody for the first time, and let’s say, it’s somebody who’s trying to sell you something, somebody who is trying to show you what they’ve accomplished, “Hear me because I have a level of authority and knowledge.”
Anna Balkan: And let’s say you have a beautiful outfit on, but there is nothing here or there is a little something that’s just lazy jewelry, or you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. For women, we don’t realize how much we look at this portion, how much of this section is being judged and evaluated right away. So, the easiest way to do jewelry, and that’s how I structured my store, is you buy jewelry, the colors and shapes that go with your skin tone, with your complexion, then you can wear it with everything. We can teach you how to style it, but start off with the right colors.
Ted Jenkin: Anna, with everything that’s going on with the coronavirus, has anything changed in your supply chain in finding gems that may have come from different countries and it was very easy to get before? Is that harder now? What’s changed in the business that way?
Anna Balkan: So a lot of factories all over the world had to do the same thing as we did. So, I’ve been working with the same factory for 15 years. I’m a big believer in building relationships and keeping them. So, at six in the morning, we usually have a WhatsApp because they’re ending the day in India and I’m starting here. So, the challenge that they had was they had to shut down. They actually were not allowed to leave their houses at all. So they couldn’t even work from home. A lot of supply chain has been at standstill in my industry for three months. So yeah, it definitely was impacting, but it was the same time that all of the demand has stopped. We took a very deep pause as a handmade artisan jeweler and handmade manufacturer.
Ted Jenkin: And how did you end up choosing Atlanta as a hub for the jewelry company? There’s a ton of cities that are out there. Obviously, Atlanta is a high-growth city, but why Atlanta to really make home base?
Anna Balkan: Well, Atlanta was one of the three cities that I selected. When I graduated with a degree and accepted a job with Anderson Consulting, which is Accenture at this time, they actually give you, they have offices all over the world, so you can pick three locations and they will honor it. And I flew through Atlanta and I just was amazed, it just felt right. And Atlanta feels very diverse. So, Atlanta and New York and San Francisco were three of my choices. And I will tell you, I am incredibly grateful for Atlanta. Whatever you want to experience, you can create it in Atlanta. There’s these groups, you want to feel more international, you find those groups, you want to feel more city and culture, you can find those groups, or you want to go grow some vegetables, and you can do that.
Ted Jenkin: Well, I love your enthusiasm and your optimism. All entrepreneurs need to get that energy when they run their business. So, how do you market to find new clients in your business? Has the internet changed the way that you do business? Is it appointment only? I know it’s done a number of different ways in the jewelry business.
Anna Balkan: Oh, wow. This is probably the most timely question. Internet has always been some sort of entryway into expanding your clientele. And one of the books I mentioned, Simon Sinek, Start With Why, he very clearly articulates the difference between loyal clients and repeat clients. And the fundamental difference is a repeat client will just spend money, you have a sale, they’ll go next door and buy something on sale. But loyal clients are the ones who are there with you through thick and thin. And cultivating that is a very important aspect. So what happens with internet, all of a sudden, you are the brand, you are the person, so they’re no longer just looking to buy, “Oh, this is pretty.” They want to hear who you are. And internet changed my world, especially with corona and being, finally, not just a picture and a brand name and the product, I was a real person. I would talk to people. I would make goofy jokes. I promise I’m funny. So yeah, it’s amazing what we can do. Last week, I shipped to Singapore. Who would have thought that my client base will become international almost overnight?
Ted Jenkin: Well, I feel when people watch the program, you are proof of the American dream, that no matter where you are, what your situation is, where you were born, that there’s such an opportunity in our country to be an entrepreneur. What advice would you have for people out there that are thinking about starting their business?
Anna Balkan: So there’s two things you’re going to face. There’s two challenges. One of them is going to be financial. You’re going to question everything. No matter how much money you start with, there will be time of sort of a crossroad of regret and questioning. So financially, you got to be prepared. You got to have your absolute bottom, “I will not go below this amount.” And for me, it was, “The day I go below $10,000 in my savings, I am leaving.”. But the other one is very important. And the second one is all about mental. You will have mental challenges and struggles and you will be pushed to the limit. With corona, I’ll tell you right now, I lived through Chernobyl.
Anna Balkan: I was there. I was five hours away from Chernobyl and corona reminded me of the same fears and same insecurities, we’re all going to experience some sort of PTSD, some sort of fear. We’re all going to have this devil on our side, like those neighbors or friends that are going to tell you, “Oh my God, quit. This makes no sense.” Your mental perseverance, your mental commitment to you, is so important. I can give you tricks how to cultivate that. I’d be happy to provide that kind of to-do list how to get there, but that is going to be the two things you’re going to have to focus on, financial and mental.
Ted Jenkin: Well, this is great stuff today, Anna. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom. Congratulations on pushing through during the coronavirus here and continue to be successful as an entrepreneur here in Atlanta. And, folks, you heard this key point that Anna made in our interview at the end of today, mental perseverance. No matter what’s happening to your business, remember, there’s always a way to be successful and continue to grow top-line revenue. The idea might not come to you tonight, it may not come to you tomorrow, but if you keep on talking to other entrepreneurs that are going through those same experiences, you too can press through this and continue to be a successful entrepreneur. I’m Ted Jenkin, small business expert, right here on the Atlanta Small Business Profile.
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