Sunday, August 12, 2012

My Brain on Bytes and Pixels: Celebrating a Dozen Years Online

When I was a kid, I loved Surprise Balls. For those of you too young to know this childhood pleasure, it is a wonder of strips of brightly colored crepe paper, wound around and around into a ball, and along the way, small treasures tumble out and make you smile. It was easy to start, delightful to unwind, and bittersweet when you got to the end of it.

The internet has been one big surprise ball to me, with one difference: it just never ends.

I can't remember exactly when my love of photography and the written word morphed into a passion for all things online. I've always loved to write, and can thank my high school typing teacher for pushing me to write really fast. I was top of my class at 98 words a minute, a skill which serves me well to this day. I've always loved to draw and paint, but despite numerous classes and lessons, I abandoned the paintbrush for a camera which could capture the images I had in my head and saw through my eyes. College was pure joy: as a journalism major, I brushed up on my photo skills and spent many days and nights in the darkroom (like surprise balls, most darkrooms have been archived!).

Landing in the retail jewelry business was a fluke, but a lucky one. I photographed jewelry suspended in fishbowls or threaded onto flowers (a Cathy Waterman staple), and sent out postcards with clever copy.

The first camera which started my digital revolution was a Mavica and I may have been the first to jump to get one (buying new cameras has become a lifelong passion, even though my husband calls it "just another addiction"!) Images were recorded on discs called floppys, although I have no idea why a stiff piece of square plastic would have a "limp" moniker. With the highest camera resolution setting so that my postcards would not look fuzzy, no more than 4 images could be captured on each disc, so my stack of floppys was quite large. And Cathy Waterman was of little help when I brought too few Mavica discs to shoot her over abundance of merchandise.

Unwrap my surprise ball a bit and there it was right in front of me: The Internet, rich with websites. I had to have one of those too, and in 2000 I sketched out my desired 7 sections page by page and picked the third web company I interviewed . Coincidentally, it was the only one we could afford (we're still together after all these years!).


Our new website (we have since changed our name to was rich in imagery, but at the time, nothing was for sale, as no one was selling expensive jewelry on the internet at the time. Several months later, we offered 6 items for sale, and by the end of the year, had added our highest end which was Cathy Waterman. I couldn't tell Cathy over the phone (fear factor!) so I hopped a plane and watched her shocked reaction as she powered up her (quite slow) computer. "But Joanne! You can see my things!" (Added to the drama was Cathy covering her eyes with her hands).

Exactly the point. is our flagship now. We have undergone 5 major relaunches, and there are more in the pipeline. Last month our site was viewed in 186 countries, even though we now ship internationally to (only) 106 of them, with locals shopping on our site in their own currency. That's all great, but we still get the most pleasure  from answering the phone. Our web copy in 2000 describing our "ultimate level of service" hasn't changed a bit: "Imagine someone on the other end of the phone who knows the merchandise, and can even help you find pieces from previous collections."

There are many days lately when, even though our terrific staff is working and many hands are free to answer the phone, I dive for it first. It's a simple pleasure that none of my internet toys can satisfy: meeting a new customer, or chatting with an old one, asking where are you calling from and what is the weather and where are you traveling next, and yes, let me tell you more about the item you are asking about. (And when I get in over my head, such as knowing the exact stampings and sizings of Heather Moore or the rainbow of colored silk possibilities for Catherine Michiels charms, I can always say, let me put a Specialist on the line, since all of my Sales Gurus know every bit of it).


Facebook is fun, but Twitter's launch in 2006 which was not widely publicized was made for me. My first account was personal and my first Tweet in 2008 was: "signing up for Twitter..."; I have no idea why my second tweet was 8 months later. But then the floodgates opened and I haven't stopped since. In 2009, realizing that most of my Tweetable world was related to Ylang 23 (the kids were begging, "Mom! Don't Tweet about me!", I changed over to @Ylang23.

(Notable Tweets: 1. I obviously thought Adam Lambert should have won American Idol! 2. I was thrilled that Debra Messing named her favorite website.)


In 2008 I added another pastime: Polyvore. Wow, it was just like the bulletin boards of old and so much fun. I was honored to have been asked to host a Polyvore competition for "Stand Up to Cancer", since I am also a Breast Cancer Survivor, and just couldn't seem to create enough Polyvores to honor friends. Ylang 23 was also one of the first to install a mini-Polyvore directly on our site so that everyone could join the game. What was really a blast was hanging out with Polyvore founders Pasha Sadri & Jess Lee at a conference in NY. In another life, I might have taken a short detour and asked for a job.

Since then, there have been many new toys dangled in front of my face but none as inviting as Pinterest. A visual feast, it is fun to see what others are "pinning" and truth be told, I love making my own boards, whether they be personal or for Ylang 23.

During a recent vacation in California, something familiar caught my eye in a trendy coffee shop, a small bowl of Surprise Balls, which I had not seen in years. Knowing that my favorite Art Director was celebrating his birthday the following week, I just had to buy him one. No surprise, he had no idea what it was, but I imagine the learning experience was fun. We should all have as many surprises in life.

Last night as I was dozing off and checking tomorrow's news on my iPhone, I was shocked and excited to see that the Internet was about to gift me with