How I Started an
Ethical Home Decor and Jewellery Business
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! My name is Caitlin, and I founded the ethical home decor and jewellery brand Zeal Living in 2015. The heart of Zeal Living is to provide a place for design lovers to connect with the work of talented artisans across the African continent. Every piece that I source is of the highest quality, made with passion by artisans who are treated with respect and dignity, and paid fair living wages.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
The origin of Zeal Living is a bit of a winding road. Looking back, however, I can see how all the pieces fell into place. I am originally from Johannesburg, South Africa – I grew up surrounded by incredible African innovation and talent. My family emigrated to the US when I was 9 years old. When we arrived, my father founded a group of stores that specialised in running shortly thereafter.
While I was in college, I worked in the Boulder store where I obtained a true bootstrap Master’s degree in customer service. Our ethical business model was built on getting to know our customers well and making sure their experience was tailored to their needs – which was a very valuable lesson.
After graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in Fine Art (my life’s passion), the ‘Great Recession’ hit. I stayed put in my position at Boulder Running company, and during that time I was promoted to help create an eCommerce arm to the business.
Years later, my father sold the business and retired, and my personal life was ready for an overhaul. I thought it was the perfect time to take a risk. And with that, I decided to combine my passions and skills and create an ethical brand that celebrated design through the work of talented African craftspeople, whose work I had never seen in the U.S.
Zeal Living was born in January of 2015 after an exploratory trip home to South Africa. Initially, I expected to source from artisans all over the globe. It quickly became clear, however, that I had an advantage with South Africa and Eswatini – where my family lives – so that is where I decided to begin.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
I think the biggest challenge at the beginning was pushing through the moments where I doubted my abilities. It took courage and hard work to do the research and take the leaps of faith I needed to take to be able to launch the site.
Though I felt good about running an eCommerce site and confident in my ability to choose the product, I knew absolutely nothing about importing product or how to be a product buyer. Luckily I was quickly connected with people who were willing to help, and I learned not to be shy to ask for it. As the business has evolved, the challenges of working with artisans have become apparent. Because our products are ethical and handmade, long lead times are common.
I’ve also encountered a laundry list of challenges with logistics. Rainy seasons, material sourcing challenges, language barriers, limited internet access for some artisans, and freight forwarding challenges to name a few. However, I strongly feel that working with artisans is worth any extra hurdles that come up, so I’ve pushed through and learned through each of these challenges.
Though I would love to say it’s foolproof now – something new is always popping up! This season’s spring collection is delayed in some cases by flights being cancelled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. This is something that none of us could have imagined. Through it all, the importance of keeping the focus on the ethical nature of our brand, the artisan’s wellbeing and a strong reliance on flexibility has kept Zeal Living going.
Who is your target market?
My target market is primarily women, between the ages of 27-45, who love design. My ideal customer understands the value of investing more into a piece that truly empowers an artisan. They are women who love to travel and learning about new people and unfamiliar cultures. They also love curating their home with storied pieces that set her apart.
As my business has evolved over the years, I’ve also come to realise that retired men and women are also an important part of my target demographic as they too love and appreciate quality, unique home decor.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
The most successful advertising for me has been word of mouth in the form of social media, in-person markets, and my customers spreading the word about my business. After that it is Google Adwords, specifically shopping campaigns.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
With Zeal Living I work hard to bring truly unique, ethical product to my customers. As well as items that already have a market demand without great existing supply. My Bamileke Juju Hats are a great example of this. As for customer retention, the best approach to keeping customers engaged for me is email marketing, without question.
Though I have not always been consistent, this year I have been working on sending weekly emails to my customer list. Some of these highlight new products, but many of them tell artisan stories or teach my customers how to use their Zeal Living products in their homes. This year’s efforts have paid off with a big increase in return customers.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
I am a one woman show. I set my own hours and my own schedule, which is one of the biggest perks to this job!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
My site is on a Shopify platform which runs very smoothly. I’ve added several apps to my site to allow reviews, integrated email marketing, make returns simple, design pages, and several others. Over time my systems have evolved, and I’m always looking for new ways to streamline.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
I think the most important lesson has been to trust myself and the greater purpose of what I am doing. Zeal Living is a very purpose-driven business in that my mission is not just to sell ethical products, but to support the small cooperatives of weavers, glass blowers, woodcarvers, beaders, knitters and jewellers who lift themselves and their communities out of poverty through their work.
I strongly feel that the work is not about me. I am a conduit of the empowerment of others. Because my “why” is bigger than myself, in moments when things get tough I’m way more motivated to keep going. Trusting my instincts and pushing through the fear has been huge for me.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
My favourite part of being an entrepreneur is the freedom and independence it gives me, by far. I am very grateful that I can set my own goals and limits, and that I have the flexibility to have the kind of lifestyle I want.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
I love entrepreneur life, but its not without challenges. The uncertainty of income can be a big worry at times, but I would not trade it.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
For books, I would suggest You Are A Badass at Making Money by Jen Sincero – it’s not specifically business related but it helped me remove some subconscious blocks I had about making money.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
It has really worked for me to learn flexibility with my business, so I intend to keep that up. I would love to scale up and grow larger so that I can work with even more artisan groups and am considering going more global with artisan producers.