The idea: A luxury jewelry start-up that disrupts the engagement ring industry by creating a unique ring for every client. Designed from scratch, manufactured, and sold only for that single proposal, it tells a couple’s personal love story. The start-up will compete with Tiffany, Harry Winston, Cartier – hallowed names of the jewelry industry that have captured the hearts and eyes of women everywhere for countless generations.
Will it work?
So far, the signs are looking good. Since founding his eponymous jewelry company four years ago, Zameer Kassam has sold over 600 unique pieces commemorating engagements and other once-in-a-lifetime milestones in people’s love stories. (And to our knowledge, most of those couples are still together.)
I asked Zameer about his thoughts on what’s made him successful and trends in the luxury goods industry overall.
- It’s all about personalization. Every piece of jewelry that Zameer Kassam sells is unique. “We only create pieces that tell stories,” he says. Every stone, every setting, every detail, visible or not, communicates something sacred to the woman wearing the ring and to the man who designed it for her. Consumers are looking for more than a premium brand or the latest trend – they want something that reflects their individuality and sets them apart.
- Know your real audience. Traditional jewelry companies target the woman, and haul the man through an intimidating, miserable process to reach their end customer. For Kassam, though, the man is just as important. In Kassam’s business model, the man is an integral part of the ring design process, giving input on what design elements or themes are symbolic of the relationship. For example, a ring might incorporate a stone from the bride’s birthplace, or be engraved with the date of the couple’s first date. In this way, the ring allows the man to give his bride a unique and deeply intimate message about what their love means to him.
We also discussed what current HBS students can learn from his experience.
- The summer is a time to take risks. Whether you think you know what your passion is, or whether you’re not sure if you’ve found one – this is the time to do something outside of your comfort zone. Kassam himself took an unpaid internship with De Beers LVMH, which turned into a full-time offer and ultimately helped him discover his passion for jewelry design.
- But it’s also not the last time to take a risk. When Kassam realized that De Beers wasn’t going to be his dream
job, he quit and lived on a friend’s couch for seven months while figuring out his next step. It was during this time that he helped a friend design a ring for his upcoming proposal and realized that he could build a viable business selling bespoke engagement rings.
- Take advantage of your time at HBS to really, genuinely connect with people. “Thinking about my greatest supporters, clients, advisors – these are all people I met at HBS,” Kassam says. He spent a lot of time getting to know not only his classmates, but also professors who helped him shape his career vision. The first professor that Kassam reached out to was Rob Kaplan, who helped him identify early on that his real passion was designing jewelry and creating the element of surprise that would “sweep her off her feet.” Over the years, Kaplan has remained one of Kassam’s most trusted advisors, helping him refine his business strategy over time and holding him accountable to his initial vision, despite the operational challenges and industry noise.
Another Professor who contributed to the early stages of building the company was Frances Frei, who taught his “Managing Service Operations” class. For a class project, Kassam outlined his initial vision for operating the business. She, in turn, gave him one of the lowest marks in the class. “She helped me see that while it was my dream, the business model I was envisioning wasn’t going to profitable or fundable. Without her feedback, I might have gone down a path that wasn’t as unique or valuable as I thought it was.”
When it comes to getting to know his classmates, Kassam reflects, “I never imagined when I was sitting in Spangler, hanging out with friends, that it would result in future clients and advisors for my company. Even so, “I wish I had spent fewer weekends in New York and more weekends in Boston. I think about all the people I didn’t meet – and who they could have been. You get more out of the community by engaging with people who are completely different from you; the beauty of HBS is the diversity, so enjoy it while you are here.”
Finally, we discussed how to make the most of a summer internship at a start-up.
- Work with people who inspire you. Start-ups are hard work. Look for someone who will make you want to wake up at 6am and work on problems – from big, strategic questions to tiny, operational details – together until midnight.
- Be tactical. In a bootstrap environment, someone who can execute is more valuable than someone who can strategize. Outline 2-3 tangible objectives for the summer so that you can measure your success by the end, and then be open to getting your hands dirty and doing whatever it takes, however irrelevant to your job description, to make the company successful.
- Leverage HBS. Unlike in a traditional internship environment, start-ups may not have the perfectly scoped project or module that will be the measure of your success by the end of the summer. But you can increase your contribution by leveraging your HBS network and experiences – more likely than not, you may have access to classmates, professors, alums, or even cases that can uniquely add value to the startup.
Tiffany Zhou is an RC (Section J!) from Phoenix, Arizona. Before HBS, she worked at an education nonprofit in San Francisco and in management consulting in New York. This summer, she will be diving into the world of start-up retail to learn about e-commerce and building new consumer brands.
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