Al Sandimirova knew their jewelry designs made an impact when two women proposed to each other with engagement rings from their business, Automic Gold.
The New York City-based company, which designs and markets jewelry for the LGBTQ community, is only 6 years old — but it brought in $4.8 million in revenue last year, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It.
Many independent sellers of small goods rely on platforms like Amazon, Walmart and eBay to get noticed and sell their designs. Automic Gold’s growing popularity is backed by an unconventional strategy: ditching those major platforms and selling only on its own website.
Sandimirova, who uses they/them pronouns, ditched those major retailers in 2020 after deciding that the platforms’ commission charges — which added up to 30% of Automic Gold’s sales, they estimate — would be better off in employees’ paychecks.
“I would rather make less total revenue but have more profits and have more money to pay my employees who are right here in the community,” Sandimirova, 33, says.
But the decision didn’t stifle Automic Gold’s revenue. In 2019, its last full year with those online retailers, the company brought in $3.4 million. In 2021, its first full year exclusively selling jewelry from its online storefront, it brought in $4.8 million.
“Regular companies assume it’s harder to target the LGBT community,” Sandimirova says. “They don’t understand, and they make such stupid mistakes [because] they don’t hire members of the community [or] talk to us.”
Rather, Sandimirova says Automic Gold’s success comes from connecting with that core demographic personally. “It was really designing for myself: something gender-fluid or gender-nonconforming,” they say.
Here’s how they pulled it off.
Searching for outlets
Sandimirova named Automic Gold — spelled to include “AU,” the chemical abbreviation for gold, and pronounced like “atomic” — with “autonomy,” independence and freedom in mind.
Growing up in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, Sandimirova suffered through famine and economic collapse in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They broke multiple bones, including in their back, due to malnourishment — and spent two years paralyzed.
Tatarstan also wasn’t particularly accepting of the LGBTQ community at the time, Sandimirova says: After their parents found lesbian fanfiction on their computer, they sent Sandimiorva to a mental institution.
“They locked me up … to try to heal it away,” Sandimirova says. “I remember being giving a lot of pills and being held up there against my will.”
Sandimirova came to the U.S. on a student visa in 2009. But instead of going to Maryland, as the visa dictated, they decided to stay in New York illegally — partially because of the city’s large Russian population.
They found job through a Russian newspaper at a gold refinery, which paid $4 per hour, Sandimirova says. After a year, they realized there weren’t opportunities to advance within the company.
So, Sandimirova started a side hustle buying pieces of gold jewelry from the refinery’s clients, repairing or cleaning the pieces, and reselling them on eBay.
Growing a business
The side hustle wasn’t particularly lucrative, bringing in only a couple thousand dollars per year. And over time, Sandimirova grew uncomfortable selling the pieces of jewelry.
“Even though I had inventory of 30,000 pieces, all of them were too feminine or too masculine,” Sandimirova says. “I’m in the jewelry business and nothing I see, I want to wear.”
In 2011, Sandimirova was granted asylum and became a legal resident. They decided to learn how to make jewelry themselves, attending classes at the Gemological Institute of America’s New York campus.
In 2013, they started selling their own designs on eBay, bringing in $165,000 in revenue that year. In 2014, they branched out to Amazon and Etsy, and their annual sales jumped to $1.2 million.
In 2016, Sandimirova officially launched Automic Gold and hired their first employee. The brand brought in $2.2 million in annual online sales.
Sandimirova became a naturalized U.S. citizen the following year.
Mission first, profit second
Automic Gold’s annual sales grew to $3.4 million by 2019, but dropped back down to $2.1 million in 2020 — the year Sandimirova decided to leave those big platforms, and close their booth at a Manhattan artists’ market due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The drought didn’t last long. With the help of social media advertising, the company had its highest-earning year yet in 2021.
The increased interest came partially from the Black Lives Matter movement in summer 2020, Sandimirova says. Many consumers started looking for more inclusive brands, and Automic Gold had a track record of prioritizing members of the LGBTQ community, people of color and plus-sized models.
“[It] skyrocketed my business because people saw, ‘Oh, you’re actually sustainable and fair, not just using [diversity] to sell,” Sandimirova says. “I’ve been doing this for years.”
Buying gold to make the jewelry is Automic Gold’s largest business expense. Last year, the company spent nearly $2.3 million on reclaimed pieces.
Marketing is also costly: The company spent $580,000 on advertising last year. A majority of that went to Facebook and Instagram, Sandimirova estimates.
The company’s “next big business challenge” is becoming independent of the two platforms, cutting ties with two more corporations, Sandimirova adds.
But of last year’s $4.8 million in revenue, $66,000 is net profit. Sandimirova pays themselves a salary of $128,450 per year, and splits about $762,000 annually between 15 full-time and two part-time employees. The staff also got bonus checks at the end of last year, due to the net profit.
“I remember when I started my business, it was totally niche,” Sandimirova says. “Now, my competitors, who before only had feminine white girls as inspiration, include more masculine folks or plus-sized people. It’s nice, in fashion, to see.”
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