If the craft of beadweaving took the form of an animal in the Aesop fable “The Hare and The Tortoise,” it would definitely be the tortoise. The technique requires the use of a needle and thread, or a beading loom, to connect tiny beads the size of sesame seeds into elaborate necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Projects may take hours, days, or even weeks or months, depending upon the detail or size. It seems fitting, then, that a company centered on this craft was not an overnight success.
Jill Wiseman fell in love with beads in 2001 when she started taking classes at a local bead shop. By 2004, she knew she wanted to leave her secure, high-paying job as an administrative assistant in a software marketing department for a beading career. Fourteen years later, Jill Wiseman Designs has grown from one person working at home, to four additional employees in a 3,350 square-foot warehouse full of beads and tools in Austin, Texas.
Her old tech job had proved to be the perfect training ground for a small business owner, as she had learned skills such as travel and event planning and budgeting. To an outsider, Jill’s career path might seem clear and certain, but Jill remembers, “I still look back and am surprised at how sure I was that this was the right thing.”
Photo by Korey Howell
The right thing actually turned out to be a series of things as Jill transitioned to a bead-centered life. Under the name Tapestry Beads, she started by selling project kits created by other designers while working part-time at a local bead shop. Over time, she started teaching her own elegant, classic jewelry designs, gradually moving from local and regional gigs at bead societies and shops to national ones such as Bead Fest and Bead & Button. She published her jewelry instructions in magazines. In 2012, she published a book, Jill Wiseman’s Beautiful Beaded Ropes, as part of Lark Crafts’ Beadweaving Master Class series.
Everything seemed to be humming along, but then in 2013, the bottom dropped out. Her income was down by half. Jill notes that while there was a general downturn in the bead world at that time, her income also suffered from having released 24 projects in her book, plus 6 projects as part of Beadwork magazine’s “Designer of the Year” feature. She says, “They [the customers] didn’t need to buy any kits or take classes from me!”
Parisian Lights bracelets by Jill Wiseman
Photo by David Orr
The warm feeling is reciprocated. Jill has been amazed by her customers who now circle the globe. “I’ve had a woman in Zimbabwe send me a photo of herself on her wedding day, wearing a necklace she made as part of her bridal apparel from one of my videos. Honored does not even begin to describe the emotions.”
This is not to say that it’s been smooth sailing since 2013. Jill’s biggest business challenge was moving from being a solo entrepreneur to having staff. “I had to learn to delegate and let go,” Jill notes. “I still struggle with the typical small business scenario of having far too much to do on any given day. But I’m learning to guide myself better via project management, rather than do whatever strikes my fancy that day.”
Selling beads in volume — especially tiny seed beads — has also meant some organizational challenges. Jill says, “I always joke that a beader’s true hobby is organizing and reorganizing.” In the warehouse, she groups like things together, favoring labeled, clear pull-out shoe drawers from The Container Store that stack together. “I’m a very visual person, and if it’s behind a door or in a box, it might as well not exist for me,” Jill says.
Jill Wiseman teaching in the classroom.
Photo by Chloe Menage
During this stressful time, Jill learned to knit from YouTube videos. The experience not only helped her fall asleep at night, but it also reminded her of the frustrations of being a beginner. She resolved to launch her own YouTube channel with project tutorials and product reviews. By that time, she’d gained so much personal name recognition that she decided to change her business name to Jill Wiseman Designs.
The process of growing her YouTube channel proved transformational. “Within months, I segued from selling mostly kits and patterns online to selling beads and tools,” Jill recalls. Six month after launch, she was finally able to move the business out of the house and into an office. Two years later, the business expanded to a space twice the size.
In 2018, Jill was awarded a Silver Creator Award from YouTube, an honor given to those who surpass 100,000 subscribers. Obviously Jill’s honed teaching skills and considerable knowledge of beadweaving played a large role in her success. But it’s clear from the enthusiastic and sometimes hilarious comments (one viewer jokingly blames Jill for making her so addicted to beads that she ignores her husband) that there’s something else at play. Jill seamlessly weaves stories of her personal life with her beading instructions, recounting the antics of her dogs, the wry observations of her mother June, who works with her, along with the inspiration for the project at hand. From the response to the videos, it’s apparent that many students consider Jill not just a teacher, but a friend.
View of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic during a trip she hosted for beaders overseas.
Photo by Jill Wiseman
The business continues to grow, sometimes in unexpected ways. Jill never planned to travel internationally for business, but when a former bead store owner Jill knew years ago asked her to host a trip, she agreed. In August 2017, Jill took fifty people on a beading trip to the Czech Republic, a country well-known for their glass beads. The group toured bead factories and took classes with Jill in between sightseeing expeditions. More trips are planned, including one to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China in March 2019 and Italy in April 2019. Not only do these trips allow Jill to connect with beaders, they also allow her to buy beads directly from the factories at reduced prices. As a result, Jill has created some special, limited-edition kits with the unique vintage beads and crystals she finds.
Future plans for Jill Wiseman Designs include adding regular Facebook Live broadcasts and expanding to other jewelry techniques, including stringing, knotting, kumihimo, and simple wire work. Jill has also recently launched a monthly bead project subscription box. With all her activities, it’s still easy for her to name her favorite part.
“Getting new beaders involved in the industry is hands down the best thing about my job. I love to see their excitement and joy when they realize they can make beautiful, personal jewelry themselves.”
As long as there are beaders in the world, there will always be a new beading path for Jill to explore with them.
Michelle is a writer and jewelry designer living in Colorado. She sells her handmade work online and in selected U.S. shops. She is the author of Unexpected Findings: 50+ Clever Jewelry Designs Using Everyday Components. To see Michelle’s work or contact her, visit www.michellemach.com.