Co-founder and director of public relations of 31 bits
Photos courtesy of 31 Bits.
Here it is, folks. Living proof that it’s very much possible to launch a thriving, international, value-driven business with your closest friends on little-to-no business experience.
In the following interview, Alli Swanson – co-founder of 31 Bits – shares with us the humble beginnings of the brand, and how they’ve since created phenomenal impact in the world.
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The story behind 31 Bits is definitely an inspiring one. You were college students diving into entrepreneurship with little to no business knowledge, and ended up creating a remarkable business together. Can you share a little bit more about that transition, and what the origins of the brand looked like? Honestly, looking back at where we were when we first started and how little business knowledge we had, it’s truly a miracle that 31 Bits is where it’s at now! At the time, we were all pursuing different majors and dreams for our lives – none of which entailed starting an international business. But, as we began what we thought was just an “after school hobby” or another way to “give back,” we quickly realized it was becoming something far bigger. We were being asked to sell our jewelry at more events, we had stores asking if they could carry our products, and clothing brands wanted to partner together. We spent time meeting with professors and local businessmen for guidance, and upon graduation we decided we were all fully dedicated to 31 Bits. We’d trade off living in Uganda and living in the U.S., and a couple years down the line we were able to hire people to run the Uganda side of things. We now have a full-time staff in Uganda, and a full-time staff in Costa Mesa, California. Ironically enough, our office space is only a couple miles away from the University that started it all!
The brand has certainly come a long way since its “after school hobby” days! What was the biggest hurdle to overcome (either personally or as a team) for you during those earlier days? What helped? I think one of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome was just the mentality that we could do it. We were young and naive, inexperienced (and very poor!) college students. And we were trying to sell a product made out of old posters and magazines. It’s definitely not your typical recipe for success, and we had a lot of people telling us we would never make it. We used that negativity as fuel for pushing that much harder, and doing whatever we could to prove them wrong.
The model of 31 Bits is really unique. From my understanding, you’ve found a market for women in Uganda to not only sell their jewelry, but ultimately create a more sustainable life for themselves. Can you give us a better breakdown of how this process works? We are really excited (and really proud!) of our development work in Uganda. At 31 Bits, a woman isn’t just making an income – she’s welcomed into a community, she’s learning skills, she’s going through counseling and mentorship, and she’s empowered and able to dream for her future. Our beneficiaries go through a five year holistic program, in which they are paired with business mentors that help them begin and run their own small businesses. By the end of their time with 31 Bits, they don’t even need us anymore! We’ve had beneficiaries start produce businesses, restaurants, salons, etc! And once a woman leaves our program, we make sure to do regular check ups and evaluations with them, to make sure they are set to thrive in their businesses and communities.
“a woman isn’t just making an income … she’s empowered and able to dream for her future.
That’s such an incredible initiative. I see you’ve recently launched your Bali branch as well, which also has a great program there! What was the initial spark for wanting to create and provide this kind of value to your artisans? Not many companies are as invested into the lives of their staff as much as 31 Bits is. Since the beginning, our artisans have been the heartbeat of 31 Bits. Their well-being is why we do what we do! Over the years we have learned that our artisans’ needs run so much deeper than just a sustainable income. They need to know how to save the money they’re making, how to care for their families, how to build relationships in their communities, how to plan for the future and start businesses of their own. We have an educated team that spends time listening to our artisans needs, hopes, and dreams. We’ve had 43 women graduate out of our program so far – each of them are now successfully running their own small business. We couldn’t be more proud, and more amazed, that by an action as simple as purchasing a necklace, lives can literally be changed. That is what it’s all about!
31 Bits Bali
31 Bits Bali
Entrepreneurs will oftentimes advise against starting a business with friends, so it’s really exciting to see you all pull it off so well. Do some of those commonly explained conflicts ever occur at 31 Bits? What’s your advice to friends doing business together? This is a question that we get asked a lot, as people seem to have a hard time grasping that five best friends can actually run a successful business together… But we’re here to say that it is possible! Having traveled around the world together, experienced extreme highs and extreme lows together, and ultimately be a part of a bigger story together, we have no time for drama. We’re more like family than friends, and we have developed such a strong and unique bond that is truly unbreakable. When you’re part of a bigger cause, the small arguments and disagreements don’t hold as much weight. Over the years two of the original founders have since left the company, and we are still incredibly close. There were no hard feelings, it was just their time to move on! What matters most to each of us is that 31 Bits continues to positively impact others around the world – that’s ultimately what it’s all about!
“When you’re part of a bigger cause, the small arguments and disagreements don’t hold as much weight.
Running an international business with such a diverse team – with different cultures, backgrounds, languages, and age groups – are there ever any difficulties with team engagement and miscommunications? How do you ensure everyone’s on the same page? Communication can be tricky – especially with language barriers and conflicting time zones. Our team does an awesome job connecting with each other and figuring out how to keep miscommunications down to a minimum. In Uganda and Bali we have incredible translators that are able to communicate exactly what we need them to. Our international team has weekly Skype meetings, and travels back and forth often to ensure we’re always on the same page… but it definitely is a constant challenge!
From my understanding of the website, you’re the one responsible for managing social media? Can you share some of the major aspects of this role, and in what ways social media has had an impact on 31 Bits? Now more than ever, it’s important that consumers are connecting with brands in a personal way. Knowing who’s making your products, who’s managing it, and what’s going on behind the scenes creates a level of trust that is really crucial to brand loyalty. Which means social media is huge for 31 Bits! Whether it’s sharing stories of our artisans, new collections launching, celebrity collaborations, or just fun things happening at our HQ, there are so many stories for us to share. We’ll run exclusive discounts that are only found on our Instagram and Facebook, and we’ll share BTS videos of our HQ on our Instagram Story. We’ll promote special events and throw random giveaways, just to keep our audience on their toes!
One value 31 Bits seems to be a firm believer in is conscious consumerism. Are any of your efforts invested in educating customers on the importance of intentional spending? If so, how have you found it best to do so? We’re very transparent in how our products are made and who makes our products. Through behind-the-scenes videos and photos, we’re able to effectively share the impact this jewelry is having on the lives of our artisans. Our customers are able to see first-hand who made the jewelry they purchased… and suddenly it becomes more than just a necklace. It becomes something much more special. It’s a means of hope and of opportunity. People are always going to buy accessories, that will never change. But what we aim to change is their mentality towards their purchases. If jewelry has the potential to change lives, just think of all the good we could do in this world!
“Knowing who’s making your products, who’s managing it, and what’s going on behind the scenes creates a level of trust that is really crucial to brand loyalty.