Big-Time Biz Couple: Jessica Tata & William Knopp

While in Austin for SXSW, I (Sharon) had the pleasure of meeting maker Jessica Tata of Son of Sailor. Not only is she super talented with a great eye for making beautiful jewelry, she is a smart and savvy business lady who is also the nicest person! Her business, which she started with her husband, found success early. We asked her about it and why collaboration has been so important.

Q) So for background, what is it that you make and tell us a little about your business?
A) I am Jessica Tata and my husband is William Knopp, and we are the creators of Son of a Sailor Jewelry + Supply.  We create handmade jewelry and accessories for men and women from our Austin, Texas based studio. We began in May 2011 when we decided to put some of our handmade jewelry on Etsy. We figured it would be fun to see if we could make a little bit of fun money selling the things we were making. Very quickly it became clear that we'd need get serious about it to meet the demand we were receiving! Good problem to have, I suppose! After a year and a half of a lot of growth, we decided to add the Supply line so that we would have a forum for the myriad of other items we wanted to make. It's been fantastic having both outlets for our creative goods. The biggest struggle is finding time to execute all of the ideas we have. 

Q) How did you get into making what you do?
A) William and I have always been creative together---it's just something that we have always shared! The first day we spent together after meeting, we ended up doing art projects on the floor of my San Francisco bedroom floor. William was visiting a college friend who happened to be my roommate, and she had to work that day. I invited him along on my Monday ritual of thrifting and art supply hunting, and the remains of the day were spent collaborating on little projects. I didn’t have any idea at that time how telling that day was. Jewelry and accessories ended up being some of the more marketable things that we were making together, which I suppose allowed our recreational creativity to turn into a business. We're finding more and more outlets for different kinds of products as we grow.

Since that day we have continued to create things together at every turn of our relationship. It only makes sense that it translated into a business. It's also an amazing thing---being able to work creatively with the person you love---that we try to never take for granted. 

Q) You are big into working with others for maximizing your resources as a small business. What are some ways this has really worked for you? 
A) Owning a small business can be scary. As partners in both business and life, William and I are lucky to have one another to lean on and confer with. But when you look at the burgeoning world of small maker-oriented businesses that are becoming more and more prevalent, I think we're all a little bit more connected than it seems. The success of Son of a Sailor, and any other small maker business, is hinged, in part, on the success of our species of business as a whole! 

I believe that banding together with other like-minded businesses is one of the best and most rewarding things we can do. Many people are protectionist about their own business and unwilling to share ideas and energy, lest it be to the detriment of their own success, but I think it's the complete opposite. I think that being a positive force and a supportive peer to other businesses causes us all to be lifted up. 

The most rewarding side effect of being a collaborative and cooperative business is that I am so happy with the kind of business that we are. I really treasure the opportunities that I have to help other people. Any time that I can be of assistance to a fellow maker, giving advice or support, I feel a tremendous sense of happiness. In turn, we have many wonderful people around us that are willing to lend a hand, give advice, and be supportive of us at every turn. It's reassuring to have allies when you're forging your way in this big arena, and it's also rewarding to help others.

At risk of sounding too idealistic, I feel like we're in a unique and privileged situation. We have managed to earn a living doing what we love. As we build a business that we are striving to make sustainable and real, it doesn't make sense for us to do so on a foundation of isolation and fear. Instead, we're trying to build our business as a part of an uplifting community where we realize that there is room for all of us to succeed alongside one another. It's far more fulfilling to me to own that kind of a business than any other. 

Q) Tell us about the Maker Co-Op and why you started it? 
A) Everything about that last answer leads directly into this one!

As we've participated in various markets and craft fairs since we began, we made friends with many of the other makers. In fact, when it's really busy, we tend to see those friends more than our non-work friends! After Renegade Craft Fair in Austin last summer, a few of us decided to go to happy hour after the show. It quickly became clear that we were all conferring with each other about different aspects of business. How do you handle large retailers approaching you? Are you a sole proprietorship or an LLC? Do you license your work? What do you do when someone rips you off? Clearly we were each other's support group!

That night we decided to form a Co-op. And it is, essentially, a support group. Currently, we are 10 different makers that are all Austin-based and we get together monthly to talk about different aspects of our growing creative businesses. While we all run our businesses autonomously, we have really begun to identify specific instances in which we are stronger as a group! From exhibiting as a group to pooling resources and talents to accomplish different projects, we are sort of like the Voltron of makers! Alone, we're good at a few things. Together, it's almost like we're good at everything! Maybe that's an overstatement, but we definitely realize the power of collaboration, and it's been very rewarding so far. Also, we're a pretty fun group of wonderful ladies and gentlemen!

Q) What advice would you have to other handmade businesses that are looking to start a partnership like that?
A) Figure out what it is that you'd like to accomplish. We began sort of organically, and different makers have different interests. We're working right now to identify what levels of involvement people can have. Some folks enjoy the camaraderie, others are interested in large-scale projects. There's a way to organize a group like this that caters to all levels of membership, but we're in the process of figuring out what that is now! If you set out to start something like the Maker Co-op, it would be super handy to have this at least outlined before hand. 

Additionally, keep the group small--at least at first. I'm the type of person to invite everyone to the party, but in this scenario, I understand that it pays to have an intimate group at the onset. It's not that we're being elitist or picky about who can join, it's just that we understand that the larger a group becomes, the less manageable and effective it is without great organization. We are in process of figuring out how to add new members, but we realize that all 10 of us could easily find 10 other makers that we respect and admire, and then it's instantly a huge group. So, while we figure out our trajectory, we're keeping it very tight knit. With a more clear path we'll be able to add more inspiring makers to the fold.

Q) Like many makers, you were recently copied by a very large manufacturer. Can you talk about why you handled it the way you did and how you've made changes in your business to protect yourself? 
A) This has been a hot topic for Son of a Sailor and our fellow makers. I find myself hard-pressed to find business similar to ours that hasn't had their designs appropriated by another business, both large and small. It's tricky, and it's difficult not to take personally. 

We've had big-box retailers appropriate our designs, fellow small designers that have done so, as well as a manufacturer in China that took one of our hand-painted leather keychain designs, began manufacturing it and selling it in bulk (they even stole our photographs and watermarked them as their own). It happens on many different levels, and it's infuriating every time! Frankly, though, it seems anywhere from difficult to near-impossible to do much about it. 

In terms of the logistics of taking legal action, it boils down to a few key points. First, creative copyright is extremely difficult to achieve on every unique design that makers, like ourselves, create, and even more difficult to legally enforce. Small changes to a design, like switching from a lobster clasp to a snap, can cause a design to be different enough to not infringe on the copyright, even if it's otherwise just the same. Secondly, though, even if it's clear that the copyright is being infringed upon, it's extremely expensive to pursue. In the case of the large big-box retailer, it's a sort of David and Goliath scenario. We have little to no monetary resources for this sort of thing, and they have tons. With the Chinese manufacturer you add the international aspect, and can feel like spitting into the wind---even if we could win a copyright battle, it would be pulling teeth to get them to deliver on a settlement. 

It can be overwhelming. We are trying to learn more about different organizations that are interested in copyright protection for makers and artists, and I am not giving up on finding additional ways to protect our work. As we grow, we won't stop finding ways to fight blatant copyright infringement. Additionally, I believe the internet and word-of-mouth is increasingly becoming a force to be reckoned with. I recently wrote a blog post questioning a large retailer and one of their designs, and received a tremendous response. While we didn't achieve a resolution to the issue, there was a flood of support from our friends and family and fans, as well as folks that weren't previously familiar with our brand. I think that people are becoming more interested in giving their money to companies that have integrity and morals rather than greedy corporations. I like that trend, and think businesses should have conversations about both companies that promote and uplift small designers and take advantage of them. Let's get it all out in the open.

There is a danger, though, of these issues having the potential to suck a lot of valuable time and energy from small designers. As we've encountered more and more of this, William and I decided to try to remain focused on what we do best: design. We don't have time enough in the day to get all of our ideas out in the open as it is. So our goal, in the face of copycats and ripoff artists, is to remain one step ahead. We will continue innovating and creating and designing new things, and that will always keep us ahead of those without original thoughts. 

Q) Where can people find your stuff?
A) All over! It's all on our website, of course (, but we're stocked in stores around the world. Check out the Stockists page under About on our website to see if there's a store near you. You can also follow our blog or subscribe to our newsletter to find out when we're coming to a fair or market near you!

Q) Anything else you'd like to share?
A) We're still constantly amazed that we get to make things that we love, and that people want to buy those things. It's a great journey that we're on to make our business sustainable, a home to employees that are supported well, and where we make things by hand that make people happy. Thanks for being a part of that journey!