Inspiration and the Power of Letters With Zymbol CEO Dane Short
While some people get into entrepreneurship on purpose, others stumble onto it accidentally. That’s what happened with Dane Short, the CEO of Zymbol, and his family after they uncovered an intricate secret hidden within his mother’s unique pendant design.
foundAUSTIN: What’s the big idea behind your business?
Dane: It was originally a doodle that my mother had done. A couple years ago she was doodling, and she wrote down the phrase, “Love is all you need.” In the design she stacked each letter over the next and then she put a peace sign on top. So her doodle created this really cool looking symmetrical design that she sent off to be cast as a love and peace pendant for herself. When the pendant came back, she took it off at one point. When my sister and I saw the design sitting sideways, we noticed a K popping out of it. Since there’s no K in the phrase, “Love is all you need,” it got us curious and motivated us to look for more letters within the design. As a family we ended up uncovering the entire alphabet and every number, all hidden in plain sight within her original doodle.
Once we discovered the entire alphabet, we developed the symbol into a line of inspirational jewelry. The concept is that when you wear or gift a Zymbol, it can mean and represent any message that you want because it contains every letter of the alphabet.
fA: When did you start Zymbol?
Dane: We started doing this fulltime in 2009. My mom drew the doodle a year or two before, but for a while it was just like, “Well, what do we do with this?” She was wearing it before we even knew there was an alphabet in there, so it didn’t really become something that someone was allocating as a job until 2009.
fA: Who are your clients?
Dane: Anybody who likes to wear jewelry with meaning. We originally had a target … it was kind of funny because the company and the doodle all came about when I was in my senior year getting my degree in marketing. So, I was really school-based in regards to finding a target market and doing a SWOT analysis. We set up exactly what our target market was going to be, which was women from the ages of 35 to 65. We just thought they would wear it the most, but once we put it out there and started selling online, we would be at a conference and a nine-year-old boy would come up and think that it was the coolest thing in the world because he could find all the letters and we would make it in different colors. He would love it and want to wear it because it had his dog’s name in it. But then there’s also the 90-year-old grandma who wears it because it has all the names of her grandchildren or some special memories in it. So, initially, we targeted the soccer mom, if you will, and it’s expanded out over the last six years to so many more demographics than we would have ever imagined. We’ve had over 60 people tattoo it at this point. Which is awesome!
fA: Do you have an ideal client?
Dane: It’s a story-driven product, so this just sitting on a shelf in a store without a story behind it doesn’t necessarily represent anything—it’s confusing. You don’t really know what it is. The ideal client is someone who hears the story, understands the concept, and understands that they could send out this piece of jewelry and have a positive impact on somebody’s life. They could send it to their nephew because he’s going through a tough time. They could trace out on the message card, “Time heals,” for him. So, it’s not necessarily that there’s an ideal age, sex, anything like that for us. It’s really someone who understands the concept of empowerment and wearing this kind of design that can change and evolve with the person.
fA: How does one decide that they’re going to go onto QVC?
Dane: Originally we just submitted to their online form. Got nowhere with that. Later we found out that they’re getting about 70,000 products a month submitted on that portal, so it’s really hard to get seen. We met some different people at conferences who knew someone that knew someone and we ended up filming this minor celebrity promo thing with Zymbol in Florida, and the host was also a host on Home Shopping Network (HSN). She took the product to pitch it to the buyer and it got shot down because I wasn’t there telling the story. After it got shot down, the host who’d presented it said she knew a rep that worked for QVC and made that introduction. When I got into contact with the QVC rep, I told her that I wanted to fly out to Philadelphia and be in the meeting with the buyers. That worked out and they ended up liking the product. They tested us online for a while; we actually had to win a vote to get on through their Sprouts program. We were voted on, sold online for a year, and once sales were looking good they gave us a shot on-air, and we did really good on our first airing.
fA: How did you go from making five or ten pendants to manufacturing fifteen thousand?
Dane: We had to jump over the pond. A lot of that is because China can handle the volume whereas a lot of places over here don’t want to make 15,000 to 20,000. Working with QVC you can sometimes get better quantity discounts and everything overseas. So, that’s kind of where we’re at. We’d love to make everything out of Albuquerque, and hopefully we can do that someday, but everything that’s sold on our website is made in America.
fA: How did you fund your company? Did you get investors?
Dane: It started out through just friends and family. A lot of our sluggish growth over the first couple of years may have been based on not taking in a huge influx of money. I wrote a 28-page business plan, submitted it to my family with X amount of money that I thought I would need to run the first year. Once that got approved we started testing things out and going the wholesale route and getting nowhere, then we were able to make just enough in sales to keep on going along. So we haven’t taken on the big, “We need a location, I need to hire employees.” We’re trying to run as thin as possible for as long as we can.
fA: What do you consider your top strengths that are crucial to your success?
Dane: Being able to handle failure. I‘ve heard, “No,” way more than I’ve heard, “Yes.” Way more than I’ve heard, “Yes.” And I think of the Thomas Watson quote, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.” That’s the formula, and I believe in that because if you’re failing twice as much that means you’re at least swinging the bat twice as much and you’re doing twice as many things. I’ve seen some buddies get derailed too quickly. So, you know I’ve got thick skin. It’s tough to get this across in a phone call, but there’s just been so much rejection and we’ve persisted through. But you know, QVC was the Super Bowl for us and we ended up getting there. We keep on going.
fA: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Dane: We intend to impact millions of people’s lives in a positive way through Zymbol. We want to expand our brand and product line, becoming a lifestyle brand like Life is Good. We would love to continue with QVC, expand our line out on there completely. On the other hand, we would also maybe like to go the route of direct sales. I’ve been thinking about getting reps that we can train on the story and have them start selling it. Zymbologists is what we would probably call them. So, we would like to get a couple thousand foot soldiers out there that we personally train on how to tell the story and then they can reach out to their friends and family and have it spread, at the same time doing QVC. But we would like it to be an internationally recognized symbol.
fA: What’s the most difficult lesson that you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
Dane: Nobody cares about your story. We’re a part of this group of entrepreneurs and the guy that runs it calls your company or your product your dolphin. Everyone’s walking around with their dolphin saying, “Look at how pretty my dolphin is. Look at my business.” Each entrepreneur just wants to talk, talk, talk. And the person they’re talking to just wants to talk about their business. Everyone has so much going on in their lives that initially, even friends and family aren’t interested. In my case, I was telling people really close to me about this and they didn’t care. They thought it was ridiculous. I was a football guy in high school and now I’m selling jewelry. So there was some push back on that, which can be tough because in my mind I have it all mapped out—I see where it goes. When we’re selling at these shows, almost every time, at least one woman will get choked up just hearing this story about my mom. I don’t think I’ve mentioned our program yet with children’s hospitals, but every quarter we pick out a children’s hospital and we get the kids acrylic pendants and booklets so they can trace out inspirational messages once a week for a year. I’ve been in those hospitals and have seen the impact that it’s had on the kids, so I’m super excited about it and see what it can do and what it can be. And then you go to someone you really care about and tell them about it and they’re just like, “Meh. It’s kind of terrible.” Or, “That’s not going anywhere.” It probably ties back into that whole kind of failure/persistence type thing. I mean I think those two questions are aligned in that sense. But you’ve got to be persistent. I mean that’s what my Zymbol represents. Persistence.
fA: What do you love about being an entrepreneur?
Dane: The freedom. Freedom is fantastic in that … it’s almost the freedom of creativity and being able to control your own destiny and not really having a ceiling. When I wake up in the morning I don’t have to think like, “I’m going to this job and if this is how much I make. This is my salary, and here are my max-out bonuses.” Entrepreneurship blows that ceiling off, so the sky’s the limit, which for me is what gives me the motivation and the ambition to try to do as much as I can in the time that I’m here.
fA: What drives you?
Dane: Impacting people’s lives in a positive way, like the first time that we were at the Pecan Street Festival. This couple from Australia, like a middle-aged couple, they heard our story and she was kind of tearing up a little bit. For some reason they just loved the story of my mom and the whole concept of Zymbol. Each of them bought a bracelet. It was 10 o’clock in the morning, right when Pecan opened. They left, then came back at 11:30 a.m. and he had it tattooed on his arm and she had it tattooed on the back of her neck. Big tattoos. I have pictures on our Instagram.
Over the last couple of years now we’ve had over 60 people tattoo it, which is massive. We don’t know what it means to them; you’re responsible for your own message and you’re responsible for your own Zymbol. So, knowing that we can touch people like that and the work we’ve done in the children’s hospitals … I mean these kids get the booklet and the pendant and they’ll trace out, “Never give up,” “Hope,” “Love,” “You’re a warrior,” I mean, it’s like really personal-type stuff. Knowing that we’re doing that and that we have the ability to reach so many more people, because it’s multilingual, that’s very much a driving force.
fA: What’s the best advice that you ever received when you started your business?
Dane: My marketing professor, who kind of helped me write my business plan, instead of saying, “Oh you’re one of my students and you’re going to start this business and everything’s going to be great,” he got me ready to face a lot of failure, and I keep on going back to that. He’d started some companies and he said, “Listen, if you’re going to do this you need to thicken up your skin and you need to know not all of these accounts you’re calling on and the people that you approach with this are going to like it. So you need to toughen up and get ready to fail a lot.” That’s the same theme I keep on going back to, but it’s just crucial in my opinion.
fA: Do you have an exit plan?
Dane: We’re committed to making this work for years to come. We want to start getting reps and growing that to Stella & Dot type levels. We want to keep the company and we want to grow it and turn this into an internationally recognized symbol. So, we don’t intend on selling it off or anything like that.
To see the pendant and purchase your own, visit www.zymbol.net.