“Hey Lola”

Jessica Benassi McGhee founded “Hey Lola”, a Jewelry and Design company in 2003.  Handmade jewelry made of found and salvaged relics; Hollywood elite, Central Illinois brides, and everyone lucky enough to come across and buy her wares online have worn Jessica’s designs. Jessica has a brilliant eye for jewelry design as well as a passion for community building in Peoria. To meet Jessica in person, visit BLUE Bar, the Peoria Main Street establishment she runs with her talented photographer husband, James McGhee.  The place has with a flair for what’s different!  You’ll love the mosaic bar, “science club” beaker nights, cocktails in Smurf glasses and the turntable for playing your favorite albums. 

Name – 

Jessica Benassi.  Sometimes Jessica McGhee. I haven’t legally changed my name to McGhee yet, but it’s going to happen.

Business Name and Location – 

Hey Lola. Online location at www.loveheylola.com and pop-up locations which should include the Riverfront Market

What is your business’ mission? – 

To create and sell ethically made items, and to run an honest company that gives back to the community.

Where did the idea for Hey Lola come from? What does your typical day look like?

I started Hey Lola in 2003 because I made jewelry and I thought it would be fun to open a store.  Which it was, but it’s also a lot of work. My day used to include opening the store, cleaning the store, working behind the counter and trying to squeeze designing in between.  

My jewelry was the best seller in my store, so it started to become difficult to keep up with keeping new merchandise in stock, and being a full time employee. Because of this, I made the decision to close the retail location so I could put the majority of my attention towards the creation of new merchandise. 

So now, I wake up, put coffee on and check e-mails and sales.  Checking e-mail actually takes a little bit longer because I’m checking for two businesses (Blue and Hey Lola), a community association (Renaissance Park Community Association) and for companies that I handle social media for. 

The rest of the day is then devoted to photography of merchandise, editing of merchandise photos, uploading merchandise on to the website, or creating new merchandise. I can usually do that until it’s time to go in for my shift at Blue.

What’s one trend that really excites you? 

I’m excited about more companies using their businesses to promote good. TOMS shoes is the big one that comes to mind.  Now you have so many companies with a social mission, that TOMS has even created a marketplace for them - http://www.toms.com/marketplace, which is fantastic. 

If you’re in a position to start a company, you’re more fortunate than most.  Sometimes it’s hard to see that when you’re just starting out, and working 90 hours a week and living off Ramen noodles, but it’s absolutely true. If you can somehow work a spirit of giving back into your business model, then you’re a company that I want to support, and that I want to do business with, especially because I know how hard it can be to do that in the lean years.  

I love that more and more businesses are embracing this philosophy of giving back – that’s the most exciting trend.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur? 

I want to know how to do everything.  There are lots of things that I could hire someone else to take on, but I’d prefer to learn how to do it myself first, then pass it on to someone else when I can afford to. Things like photography, website design, social media, sales tax – those are all things that can be self-taught.  

I can’t imagine running a business like mine and not knowing how to do any of that. Knowing all of that means that I really get to control the face I put on for the public – it’s pretty much exactly what I want it to be. 

I’m not at the mercy of a website designer that doesn’t get my vision or a social media manager that doesn’t intimately know my business. On the flip side of that, of course, is that once I’ve handled something for so long, I have a really hard time letting it go. And at some point, I’m going to have to let some of these responsibilities go.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it? 

I was the General Manager of a really terrible club. Name a type of criminal activity, and it was more than likely happening at this club. Every time I tried to combat it, I was blocked by one of the owners. One night it got so bad that I thought to myself – “I have hit rock bottom. I don’t drink or do drugs, but I feel like I have just hit the bottom and I can’t keep going on like this.  I don’t want this life.”  

When I was 14 I ended up homeless and as a result, ended up a high school drop-out. I did get my GED, but I had gone to high school for maybe about 3 months and really had very little formal education. The feeling of insecurity because of my lack of education shaped everything I did and is probably one of the main reasons I kept putting up with horrible jobs. 

I figured the only way I could turn this around was to go back to school and major in something that would challenge me and force me to learn. So I picked biology. It was as difficult as I thought it would be – I had to take extra math classes just to get to a college level, I spent nearly every day in the math lab and in study groups, and my social life took a huge hit. 

But it paid off. I graduated ICC with honors. I won multiple scholarships at ICC and to Bradley. The fact that I not only could understand and solve equations that had always been foreign to me, but actually loved them, was empowering. It was this moment of, “I’m not an idiot. I can do whatever I set my mind on. I choose what happens to me.” 

That horrible job followed by those two years at ICC changed my life. I ended up leaving Bradley to focus on my businesses, and I’m ok with that. The education I did receive gave me the amount of confidence I needed to choose my own destiny.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently? 

I’m not sure that I would do anything differently.  I really love where I am now, and every step it took to get here was necessary. Each awful step was a valuable lesson learned.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do? 

Have a social media plan, even if it’s incredibly basic. Update your social media accounts every single day and always be positive. Always engage with your customers. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t. 20 status updates on Facebook asking people to buy something doesn’t always work, however 10 status updates asking people to buy something, plus two jokes, six pictures and a kitten meme might be just the right mix. Social media only costs time and the better you get at it, the less time it takes, and the more it works for you.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Blogging. True story – when I started blogging, I did it with the intention of creating a humorous blog, where I was the only advertiser. My hope was that I would generate enough traffic that some people would end up clicking on the shop ad, and they did. I write ridiculous blogs and photoshop pictures of owls onto my husband’s face, and somehow, it generates traffic for my online shop. I don’t update it nearly as often as I would like to, but it’s definitely been instrumental in helping grow my business. Example: http://www.thereisnojessica.blogspot.com/2012/05/more-excellent-life-coaching-advice-by.html

I also write a blog specifically for the shop, which also generates some shop traffic. http://www.loveheylola.com/blog

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Several years ago I partnered up with another business owner whose shop I had admired for a long time, before they closed.  They were looking to re-open and it seemed like combining forces would be beneficial to both of us.  I didn’t research this decision, I didn’t think about it very much, and I just trusted that this person was good based on my own experiences shopping with them in the past. 

A couple of weeks after we opened our combined shop, I discovered that my partner was buying their store merchandise from Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Dots, Marshalls and the Dollar Store. Original tags were torn off, fancier tags were attached and prices were raised significantly. Dollar store earrings became $10.00 earrings, $5.00 Wal-Mart scarves became $20.00 boutique scarves.  It was a devastating discovery. 

I pleaded with my partner to stop. The response was that it wasn’t a big deal, because “people want things from those stores, they just don’t want to be seen there.” I consulted an attorney, but there isn’t a law against being shady. My business was making more money than it ever had, and I’d never felt worse.  

The final straw was when someone came in and exclaimed, “I just love shopping at these little boutique stores, because you’re always going to find something unique and special.” She was holding up a necklace from Wal-Mart when she said this. At that moment, I elected to close my business and leave my partner to continue on without me.  

It was one of the most heartbreaking decisions I ever made, but the only one that I could have made given the situation. There were a lot of pretty ugly rumors that came out of that situation, but at the end of the day, I’m proud of my decision. I did the right thing.  

That situation taught me that I could make a lot more money by doing something that I wasn’t proud of, or I could build a business a little bit slower, but be proud every step of the way. I’m ok with all of the lean days, because I feel really good about Hey Lola and how I choose to run it.  

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I have a reputation for being confrontational, but I actually get freaked out about confrontation. I hate fighting with people, I hate disagreements, I wish everybody got along all of the time.  When I’m in any sort of argument, my hands are usually shaking. However, I also believe in standing up for myself and for what I believe is right.  My fear of confrontation loses in that battle every time.

What software and web services do you use?

I use Big Cartel, Wordpress, Bluehost, Blogger and Catalyst for my websites (there are a few). 

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Game of Thrones? No – I’m kidding – even though I love the series. 

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. The biggest thing that I took away from that book is the power of choice. Are you having a bad day? What are you choosing to focus on? Is someone treating you poorly? How do you choose to respond? What do you choose to do each day when you get out of bed? 

Once I embraced that, life got easier. Life became happier. It’s not a perfect philosophy – sometimes sadness, anger, fear, whatever, is going to take over and you might just need to roll around in that for a while. But you can always come back to choice.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Stephen Covey, of course. Michael Gerber (the E-myth). My husband – he and I are such opposites that every conversation results in a new perspective. One of my best friends, Chris Schaffner, who is an author and public speaker and runs an amazing resource site for addiction, bullying, depression, divorce, etc. called “Conversations on the Fringe.” (http://conversationsonthefringe.com/)

What do you love most about Central Illinois?

I love that I can walk or bike where I need to go, that I can have friendly conversations with strangers, that there is a real sense of community here, and a great group of people working incredibly hard to better themselves and the people around them through music, art, fellowship and community service.