In Conversation with Lizzy Klein of mazi + zo
Describe your business in a few words?
mazi + zo is a direct-to-consumer fine jewelry company, based in NYC. We design for today’s customer who values high-quality pieces, elevated design, sustainably-sourced materials, and local production.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
After years in startups, I’ve learned a ton about what drives my passion, when and how I do my best work, and the environment I want to do it in. At mazi + zo, my goal is to build a wildly successful jewelry brand that holds true to my values and to work with people I really like.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I started my career as a PR intern for Marc Jacobs. Next I moved to merchandising at Guess Jeans, back when Guess Jeans were the height of casual cool. The fashion biz, however, was a lot less business-like back then. I was ready for a new challenge and landed at Time Warner’s very first e-commerce venture. I loved getting in from the start and seeing the direct results of my efforts. I’ve worked in startups ever since. I have 25+ years experience as a team member, founder, investor, and advisor. I’ve steered mostly clear of the fashion industry, but I’ve maintained a solid side-habit all along!
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
No. I always loved taking initiative and feeling ownership over what I accomplish. And I’ve always been a risk taker. But I didn’t recognize those were entrepreneurial traits right off the bat. In 2014, after leaving a big job at Seamless/GrubHub, I found myself interviewing for significant jobs at startups, but I just couldn’t get excited about the opportunities. I gave myself a little breathing room and it dawned on me that I didn’t want those #2 jobs because I was ready to run the show. Now I can’t imagine it any other way.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
I first launched mazi + zo, as a sorority jewelry company, so I knew exactly where to find my customers. Once we launched the site, my Kappa Alpha Theta intern (paid!) set up our IG accounts, so she could talk directly to her sisters. Our initial customers came through those conversations and DM we sent to each chapter. We also mailed postcards to every physical Kappa Alpha Theta house in the country. Once we had 2-3 sales a week for Kappa Alpha Theta pieces, we extended our line to include 16 more sororities (these are all licensed, btw). By Fall 2019, word was spreading fast in group chats across the country, and our customers weren’t just sorority women.
Unwittingly, we had developed a line that appealed to a much wider audience. And while we’ve expanded the collection considerably, our best selling item today is still our Double Star Choker Necklace, inspired by Kappa Alpha Theta’s twin stars (we also offer Delta Gamma’s anchors, Pi Beta Phi’s arrows, and Zeta Tau Alpha’s crowns!)
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
While my last business, SuperDuper, was a huge hit with consumers, it didn’t generate revenue. I built an iOS app that revealed the drugstore “dupes” for luxury cosmetics (i.e. identifying the Wet n’ Wild color that is EXACTLY the same shade as YSL’s Cyclades), which has incredible utility for the consumer and garnered amazing press, but limited my potential affiliate revenue to drugstore brand pricing— and who would buy Wet n’ Wild online anyway? The crucial mistake? I didn’t start with a smaller/cheaper test: I could have validated commercial potential by launching a simple Instagram feed (vs. the $30k in app development and time spent.)
I always advise entrepreneurs to start as small as possible, and I wish I’d listened to my own advice. So in addition to the reminder to start small, I’ve also learned to run my ideas past a variety of people, not just my cheering squad who will say “great idea” without pushing me to consider alternative approaches.
I’ve applied this learning with mazi + zo: I was confident we were on the right track, but I still hosted a trunk show/study break at Columbia University with our first prototype designs to confirm product/market fit. When every single attendee purchased a necklace or earrings (pre-ordered, technically), I felt secure we’d developed both an aesthetic and pricing strategy that worked for today’s sorority women.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
Building a fantastic network. I’ve worked with amazing people, and I am lucky to have the support of smart, creative minds who offer me perspective and advice, whether or not I think I need it!
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
I like to ask, “What was your worst job?” Responding to this tends to break through a candidate’s canned answers and gives me insight into the way they work, behave, and manage stressful situations. My best tip is to ask at least 2 follow ups or “whys” for every important question. For instance, if a candidate says she enjoys creating operational efficiencies, ask for an example. Then ask why she chose that particular project/opportunity. And why no one had done it before. And how she measured the outcome. And how she assured there weren’t any unintended consequences. You get the idea. I’d rather go deep than broad to learn how a person thinks than to hear about every single thing they’ve done.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Like most small non-essential businesses, we were hit hard by COVID-19. Sales slowed and our Long Island City workshop was closed by government order. As our collective attention moved from the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement and a growing political divide, marketing jewelry felt tone-deaf to me. I pulled back to focus on how I wanted to show up and support the issues that matter to me. That’s how our VOTE necklace came to be… I noticed a bunch of VOTE-themed tees on Instagram but nothing that I’d want to wear all day, every day, like our pieces. Our designer played with swapping V-O-T-E in place of sorority letters on one of our necklace designs, and we loved the look.
I also recognized the potential to raise some real money for an organization I love, When We All Vote (WWAV), which has a simple, non-partisan mission of increasing voter participation. We finalized the design, impatiently waited for our workshop to reopen, shot socially-distant photos, and launched our VOTE necklace in June. It gained immediate traction and WWAV reached out to see if we would be an official partner. We gladly accepted. In a lucky break Michelle Obama wore (another designer’s) VOTE necklace for her DNC speech. Of course, I wished she’d been wearing our design, but it was a perfect example of a rising tide lifting all the boats as Google searches for “gold vote necklaces” surged. To date, we’ve donated thousands to WWAV’s work. It’s my favorite piece yet. Our broader business and the sorority line picked back up in September, and we are already prepping for the 2020 holiday season.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
Right now, we’re in the middle of a branding overhaul to reflect our evolution from a sorority jewelry company to a fine jewelry company for everyone. We’re also working on a big product drop that works perfectly with the rest of our collection. All of our pieces are designed for both minimalists and “pile it on” types like me. It’s important that every piece we design mixes, matches, and layers with the rest of our collection. That’s how we’re simplifying styling. Our next product raises the bar on charm bracelets, allowing our customers to personalize their look in a way that’s consistent with our low key, high-style vibe.
In the coming years, I’ll continue to listen to our customers for what they want. And I hope they want what I want: 1) a jewelry line with pieces that are scaled for a plus-sized customer, 2) and unisex line, and 3) a luxury brand to showcase our design director’s genius creativity and talent.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
I’m confident that thriving in these crazy times has prepared us for whatever challenges lay ahead.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
That the world would be on fire in 2020. But I don’t know what I’d do with that info aside from buying a lot of gold before the price skyrocketed this year!
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
I have a consistent gratitude practice that grounds me. After I meditate each morning (which is maybe grounding for me and maybe not; jury’s still out), I text a dear friend with a list of five things I’m grateful for, big or small. No matter how crazy things have gotten in the world, I always feel better after doing that, and I get bonus pick-me-up after I receive hers.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
I don’t buy into the binary work/life concept. Do unfun things like unloading the dishwasher count as life? And do fun things like imagining new charms count as work? While I do work long hours, I’ve also had some of my best professional breakthroughs/problem-solves when I’m absorbed in a movie or an art project. My best tip is to work with people you really like, so the crappy parts of work still include connection and laughs.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I make award-winning noodle kugel, I’ve written a novel (unpublished), I’ve sold my artwork, and some of the best days of my last 5 years have been in prison.
I volunteer with Defy Ventures to coach incarcerated entrepreneurs-in-training in a rigorous “CEO of Your New Life” program. Watching the guys at Wallkill Correctional Facility develop business ideas, brave it through a pitch competition, and ultimately cross the stage to receive a certificate from Baylor University was a highlight. I look forward to returning to in-person programming once COVID-19 is under control, and even more forward to putting an end to the crisis of mass incarceration.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
1. Scheduling *everything* – At the end of each work day, I plot the next day’s activities on an actual calendar (rather than a list). Adding a task with a time block assures there’s enough time to focus on my top priorities, and that includes personal stuff like working out and spending time with my favorite people and animals. If the day starts looking too tight, I juggle time blocks to stay focused on what’s important. The key is to block out time for informal stuff like paying bills or taking a walk. Putting everything on the calendar creates awareness of the tradeoffs I make when I take an extra meeting. I always add a little slush for the inevitable unexpected task or interruption, and for my frequent underestimation of the time required for a task (answering these interview questions, for instance!) In practice this process doesn’t always work as well as it should in theory. I often revise my calendar mid-day, but the planning does help me end the day feeling on top of things, so I can unwind at night and then jump right in the next day with focus. Morning is my best brain time so I like to hit the ground running.
2. DND – Digital distractions are my kryptonite. Social media notifications, incoming order alerts, and group texts easily derail my “schedule everything” approach so I turn on DND on my phone and/or laptop for a few hours in the morning and afternoon to stay focused and productive.
3. Avoiding news overload – I want to stay on top of world and local events, so I read the NYTimes every morning and then do my best to “ostrich” the rest of the day. In today’s crazy times, I cannot afford the non-stop distractions of 24-hour news.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
Owning my outcomes, living my values, and making a contribution. Day to day, I decide where to commit my energy and I pay attention to the ROI of my activities, on both a business and personal level. I also appreciate the luxury of choosing every single person and vendor I work with to make sure mazi + zo is a positive work environment. Bigger picture, money = power, and I hope to make a pile of it to support the organizations I believe are working to improve our world.