Circuit board jewelry, accessories & art

March 01, 2020
circuit board
Revenue: $12500 / month
People working: 1

Tell us about yourself. What business did you start?

I am 31 years old and am from Upstate NY but currently reside near Washington, DC. I create jewelry, accessories, art, and decor from broken electronics. This includes components like circuit boards, keyboards, wires, resistors, capacitors, floppy discs, and CDs.

My largest customer segment are scientists because they love that I create polished, stylish work from scientific waste and create work with science themes.

Dog tag jewelry Old electronics keychain Heart Jewelry
Circuit Breaker Labs's jewelry and accessories made from broken circuit boards

I hold a PhD in chemistry, so science is near and dear to my heart, and is what drives my designs. But as my journey using waste materials for art progresses, I’m reminded more and more just how important it is to consider where the things you buy come from and how you handle the waste you generate. I reuse as much as I can. To save paper, I don’t print invoices.

Circuit Breaker Labs started in 2006. This is a full-time business for me and has been since 2016 (not coincidentally the year I finished graduate school).

How did you come up with this idea? What’s your background story?

My childhood was full of art projects and creative people. Jewelry became my favorite medium and I was constantly learning new bead weaving techniques. I started to sell my creations as a teenager since I had made too much and thought it would be fun to start a business. I found a book about working with resin and turned my attention to experimenting with resin as a jewelry-making medium.

When I went to college for chemistry, I didn’t stop making jewelry. One day when looking around the lab, I found an old, unwanted computer and was allowed to take it apart. I discovered that I really liked the futuristic, techie looking circuit boards inside and started to cast them in resin. Once I started to show these new creations at craft shows, the overwhelming support of what I was doing was very apparent, so I kept pushing and creating new work.

Old electronics belt buckles Earrings made from electronic board
Belt buckles and earrings made from reclaimed electronic boards

Over the years, my brand transformed from beaded and beadwoven jewelry to resin jewelry to strictly circuit board jewelry. Once I settled into my unique style, my brand solidified and I became known as the "Circuit Board Lady". Now that I’ve been making circuit board jewelry for nearly fifteen years, I’m so happy I found a medium and subject matter that ties together my love of science and art so perfectly.

How do you design and make your product?

Most new designs start with inspiration from a movie, a photo, a real-life experience, a new supply purchase, or just a new circuit board. Sometimes I need to sketch what I’m doing, especially if the piece requires a custom fabricated setting or a complicated shape.

To cut circuit boards I use a computer-controlled router. A router is a device that uses a bit to physically cut through a material. Laser cutters on the other hand use light to cut. I can’t use a laser cutter on circuit boards for very many reasons, some of which have to do with the variety of components and chemicals in a circuit board. Therefore I use a router—it doesn’t create fumes, just dust. I still must protect myself from the dust, just like woodworkers do. I have to prepare the circuit board to fit properly on my router, clamp it in, and then cutting can begin. I create vector files that are converted to code that communicates with the router so that it cuts in the correct place at the correct depth and speed. There’s still an extensive clean up process after the fact so it’s not as "clean" as laser cutting but I’m able to create intricate designs that aren’t possible using hand tools.

Preparing electronic circuit boards for making art Jewelry metalsmithing Jewelry resin work
A few of many steps in the production process: preparing circuit boards, metalsmithing and resin pouring

In order for new designs to fit into my existing line, I force myself to stick within certain parameters (product types, colors, shapes, sizes, and using only electronic waste). Earlier on I thought these limitations would make it difficult to innovate but it actually forced me to be more creative and to learn how to work with things on hand (which is also a win for my sustainability efforts).

Jewelry design process sketch Amanda Preske working on her jewelry
Amanda's jewelry design process and fine detail work

Since you can’t take classes on how to make circuit board jewelry, I’ve had to develop my technique by combining techniques across multiple disciplines, including wood working, metalsmithing, and modern tool-based modeling and making (think laser cutters and 3D printing). As a former scientist, I’m incredibly prone to setting up experiments to figure out how things work and how to get them to work for my project.

Describe how you launched the business.

My first product was launched into the world when I was about 10. A friend and I thought it would be a great idea to create a catalog of crafts that we made so we could take orders. We asked family and sat out at the end of our street trying to find buyers. I think we got one or two orders from family so that was the end of our entrepreneurial adventures. It’s funny to think back to that because it took a decade of being a scientist to realize my real interests were in creating and selling art.

Once I realized I wanted to start my jewelry business, I started small by exhibiting at community events and craft shows. I created an awful business name (Beadwork by Amanda), built my own displays from insulation sheeting wrapped in fabric, and printed homemade business cards. I made $200 at my very first event and that’s when I discovered I was onto something and that maybe this time around it would work! A friend told me about Etsy, so I joined immediately. That was in 2006 when Etsy was in its infancy and not even close to being a household name. The community was small but supportive and with the growth of the internet, we were all excited to be a part of that.

Once my products and images began to reflect a consistent brand and message, my orders started to pick up.

Nowadays, I use Etsy, Amazon, and Shopify to drive online retail sales, and Faire for wholesale. Etsy still generates the most online sales but I’m constantly working on updating and building SEO for my website to drive traffic there. Etsy was tough going in the start, but when I started to settle into the line that would become Circuit Breaker Labs, sales started to pick up. Once my products and images began to reflect a consistent brand and message, my orders started to pick up.

How do you grow your business?

There are a handful of designs that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to retire because they’re just loved too much by everyone. But creating new work keeps everything fresh and creates new opportunities for custom work when customers realize the range of things I can create. Often I find that creating new work begets more ideas and more new work, which at times can be enough to create a new line. My entire line of framed original artwork was started because a customer asked if I could cut a circuit board from a project she was part of into the shape of Minnesota.

My sales eb and flow over various times of the year. There are times when I can expect a little break (hello June!) and months where I can barely take time to eat and sleep. My products make excellent gifts, so I always see spikes near Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day/Graduation, and the major year-end holidays.

About 40% of my annual revenue comes from November and December sales. I run email promotions and carefully curate my live events schedule to even out my revenue stream so that I still have cash flow in slow months.

How do you market your product?

I post multiple times daily on social media. My work is very niche so it’s tough to amass a following, but I’m experiencing slow and steady growth. It does result in sales and boosts my credibility so I think it is a worthwhile investment. If people see that I’m posting daily and chatting with my customers, it demonstrates that I’m a serious artist and that they can count on me being there throughout the purchase experience.

Marketing products that people don’t search for is very difficult. Generally, people do not know my line of products even exist, so I never see searches like “circuit board necklace” come up, so I have to get really creative about how I tag and title my products. People will search for things like “engineer gifts” and “scientist gifts,” so my strategy is mostly built around filling a customer’s gifting needs. On Shopify, I love that we have the option to include alt tags for images (basically a way of assigning text to images so they come up in relevant searches), we can control the SEO and text for products and pages, and we can apply SEO to product categories.

My current technique for generating more revenue beyond search and social media is two pronged: [1] Collecting and using online customer data and [2] converting sales and people I meet at events to online buyers. I collect emails from orders and those interested in ordering and add them to my list. For events, I encourage people to join my list, and also use the marketing materials through Square to reach my in-person customers after the sale. Together, they receive several emails a year from me about sales, events, specials, and anything else I think they would find valuable. I’ve found that people are most likely to click on a solid call to action, like a button that says “shop here,” or “shop the new collection here,” so I include one prominently in every email.

How do you keep your customers happy?

Without customers, we don’t have a business. I endeavor to treat every customer like family. Missing package? I’ll send another. Something arrived late? I’ll refund the shipping. Am I running behind? I’ll send a partial refund and let the customer know before it becomes a problem. I do all of these things before the customer asks if possible, which creates a relationship based on trust. I can afford to offer these things because there’s room in my pricing structure for it. My prices are the highest in the industry for what I do, but my service is exceptional. I think all of this together creates a fantastic customer experience.

Jewelry packaging and gift wrapping
Circuit Breaker Labs's beatifully packaged and gift wrapped items

Back when Etsy was just starting, I had read an article saying that we should hand write our thank yous. Ever since then, I’ve signed every single order, thousands and thousands of them, with a thank you and my name. I use a specialized postcard that has big, bold photos of my work and a brief artist statement, and space to handwrite a message. My unisex packaging features a circuit board design paper wrap, which customers love because it’s professional but not frilly.

What do you recommend to others who want to start a handcrafting business?

I wish I had realized sooner how important it is to look as professional as possible. A stranger is parting with their money and trusting you to follow through. As an artist, you have to convince people that you’re worthy of this risk. Your appearance, photos, policies, reviews, and overall image contribute to your brand and will determine if a customer can trust you.

Your brand appearance will determine if a customer can trust you.

When I decided I was going to shift and take my business full-time, I bought several books hoping for some wisdom. What I didn’t realize was that after years of running my business as a side hustle I had learned so much and was actually reasonably prepared to scale to full time. I did find that the most useful exercise was not from a book, but from filling out a business plan. It forced me to think about things that I hadn’t considered before, but it also reinforced a lot of the procedures and methodologies I had already instated.

Just because you’re running an arts business doesn’t mean you can dodge numbers. It’s really important to know all the costs, fees, and margins associated with your products so you can make good business decisions. After completing my business plan, I was most excited by learning how to forecast. This is an exercise that I complete once a year and revisit half-way through the year to make sure I’m on par. If you run out of an item at a craft show or can’t ship something quickly, you’re leaving money on the table or dropping your customer’s perception and trust in your business. By forecasting, I have a better grasp on what I have and what I need to make so that I’m not running out of products or supplies, and better able to stay on top of everything.

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