When she read “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, Ivka Adam, founder and CEO of Iconery, immediately identified with the archetype of the Connector. Connectors make things happen through people. They galvanize people and act as catalysts for change.
So it makes sense that the idea for Iconery, a curated online selection of fine jewelry, was born from Adam’s idea of creating an ideal online business model, one where you “don’t have to hold inventory but have the vibrancy of a marketplace.” A business that connected a marketplace model with e-commerce.
“I knew I wanted to build a marketplace where I was supporting designers and their passions,” the founder says. “My passion is to support other people’s creativity, and give them access to manufacturing in a vertical that is very capital intensive.” For instance, the cost of gold, diamonds and other gems, as well as the labor cost in stone-setting, is very expensive. From funding to manufacturing access, Adam knows the fine jewelry market is a difficult passion to pursue.
She took no shortcuts on the road to Iconery, and believes that entrepreneurs should actually wait until they are in their thirties to launch a startup. She bootstrapped the company, used up her entire savings, and moved home to live with parents. “I was 35, living at home, single. It’s a really tough place to be, and founder depression is real.” But she adds, “When you have twelve years of experience behind you, it’s so much more compelling to investors, they trust you. And you’ve made enough life decisions that you know how to make decisions quickly.”
Adam has always been incredibly thoughtful and strategic about her career, learning early that the road to success is paved with good connections. Home-schooled until high school, she went to a “ton of summer camps, where I had to very quickly learn to make friends.” She credits this as one of the experiences that has informed her networking ability.
While in business school at USC, Adam worked at three different startups. One of those was Cash Warren’s (Create & Cultivate keynote Jessica Alba’s husband) startup, ibeatyou.com. She also knew that she wanted a product management internship at eBay, but at the time eBay was only recruiting from the top four business schools. “I had zero chance of getting an internship there,” she says, “Plus no one ever does product management internships.”
But that didn’t stop her. She leveraged her product management experience at ibeatyou.com, and then “networked the hell out of eBay.”
What does that mean? She might want to thank mom for those summer camp experiences.
At the time Adam knew no one at eBay, so she did some research and found out that there was one recruiter who was going to be at the National Black MBA Conference in Texas. Adam hopped on plane and headed to the conference just to meet that one recruiter and get on her radar. She also went through all of her connections on LinkedIn to find an in. Through all of her networks she was only connected to two people at eBay, but they both happened to be product managers. “So,” she says, “I scheduled a 30-minute coffee with each of them.” She flew up to San Francisco, on her own dime-- the cost of all three trips was about a thousand dollars-- just to have those coffees. But another one her beliefs is that, “You have spend money to make money.”
“I got on their radar, I showed them that I was gung-ho eBay — I was a longtime customer, I knew the ins and outs of the site, and I had read up on everything.” When the time came for internship offers to go out, one of those coffees resulted in an internship in product management. AKA: she did the impossible.
“You can’t expect an internship to come to you.” she says, “You have to go out and fight for it.”
“I also believe,” she adds, “in putting all your eggs in one basket, instead of spreading yourself too thin.” She stays that if a company can see that you’re on fire to work there, it will feel real, authentic, and they’ll take you seriously.
Some of the best advice she ever got was during that eBay internship, where she was told “To set the goal to get to know two new people at the company every weekend.” That meant she was having lunches with VPs and coffees with a wide variety of people throughout summer of 2008. When offer time came in the summer of 2009, which she points out was “one of the worst financial climates to finish school,” only 5% of her graduating class received job offers. Adam got one of the top offers.
She credits the offer to building her network the prior summer. And by the time she was ready to leave eBay she had advanced from intern to Head of Mobile Marketing for North America, while simultaneously working as the Chief of Staff to the CMO.
“The big company experience is really important. It automatically gives you an incredible network. Because of my time at eBay,” she says, “I now know the CMO of Facebook. I know the CEO of One Kings Lane, and a ton of people at Pinterest and Google.” People she worked closely with at eBay are now leading teams and departments at other startups. She can ping them anytime. “It’s an automatic, built-in network.”
But even so, it wasn’t a straight shot to starting her own company. She moved to LA and was recruited by another startup, Modnique, which she joined as VP of Marketing and Mobile Development. In July 2014, a private equity firm bought the company's assets and laid-off all employees. When it happened, Adam was on a backpacking trip, trekking the John Muir trail in the Eastern Sierras. She was quite literally finding a different path without knowing it. “It was a bit of a shock to come off the trail to no job,” but it’s something she says is simply “the nature of business,” and has been an invaluable asset in starting Iconery.
She had the big company experience. She had the startup growth experience. “Between the eBay experience, which was a true marketplace, and Modnique, which was true e-commerce, I knew there were pros and cons to both business models.”
One of Iconery’s main strategies to lowering costs is using CAD design software to create a 3D model that is fed into the 3D printer, which in turn prints the model in wax, and that wax model is cast in metal. They’re using technology to reinvent an age-old industry, and the company is at the intersection of fashion, e-commerce, and the 3D printing technology.
Another strategy was making the deliberate decision to find a team of experts. She did a ton of research when building her team, cold emailing and reaching out through warmer introductions from past connections at eBay. The response was enthusiastic. The women she approached were excited about Iconery’s new take on the jewelry industry. Her team consists of an award-winning CAD designer, a woman who runs jewelry product development who has been in the jewelry industry for 40 years, and fashion industry veteran Andrea Linett, one of founders of Lucky magazine. “There are a lot of startups,” Adam says, “who think, let’s do this, we can be scrappy, let’s teach ourselves, and find young, cheap, talent. My team is a little more expensive than the average startup because we have incredible expertise.”
It’s the opposite of what we often hear: say yes and figure it out. It’s an approach that mirrors the kind Adam has taken with her entire career: strategic and thoughtful.
However, she always says it’s so important for startup founders to understand their limits when it comes to uncertainty. “If not knowing whether the company you work for is going to be around in another month freaks you the fuck out, you’re not a startup person. It’s sexy to be in a startup, but there’s tradeoff. Being at Modnique really tested me, and made me very comfortable in uncertainty.”
The business model was so compelling, and airtight, she knew she had to go for it. “I was looking to poke holes in Iconery, looking for any opportunity to find area of risk, and I had two other job opportunities. But I knew what I was aiming for.”
“I had other options and I powerfully chose Iconery.”
Arianna Schioldager is Create & Cultivate's editorial director. You can find her on IG @ariannawrotethis and more about her on this site she never updates www.ariannawrotethis.com
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