Gorjana’s History: Resiliency, But Only After It All Went Wrong
It was only in 2004 they had begun this business, if you could even call it that back then. They’d met years earlier at Arizona State, he the senior, she the freshman, though reconnected later in California, where Jason studied at Malibu’s Pepperdine School of Law and Gorjana worked in Neiman Marcus’ jewelry division.
“I remember, on our second date, I shared this spiritual thing that I’d never shared with anyone,” Jason says. “It was all based around the number 1/19.” He wasn’t certain why he felt compelled to tell Gorjana, or even what 1/19 truly symbolized. But the numbers had always meant something to Jason that he could not entirely place. It was then that Gorjana replied. “My birthday,” she said, “is January 19.”
There was a connection, that much was true, and Jason and Gorjana soon found they shared other things, too. In 2001, they were married, and not long after they both arrived at the same conclusion. They promised one another that their careers would be different than what the world might expect of them. “I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life,” Jason says. “But I didn’t want to just go get a job and be miserable.”
Gorjana had found something in jewelry, first at Neiman Marcus and later assisting a local designer in Newport Beach. The designer made beautiful pieces, but the average price of each was around $1,500. “I was 22 and thought, ‘I can’t afford this,’” Gorjana says. “I wanted to make stuff that I can buy, my friends can buy, and [that’s] just as beautiful.”
They had considered other pursuits before—perhaps they’d start a fashion brand, or found a men’s skincare line. But there was something there with jewelry that was accessible to them both. In 2004, they first began using Gorjana’s name as the brand and also on the packaging of their small line of debut rings and necklaces (Gorjana was officially trademarked in 2006.) “When we started out,” Gorjana says, “we really had no idea what we were doing.”
In the beginning, the company existed thanks to boots on the pavement and boutiques on the shore. Yet as they canvassed enough shops, setting forth over a wide swath of southern California, Jason and Gorjana began to get their feet underneath them. Within a year, 70 boutiques agreed to sell their products, intrigued to give a shot to this new brand of classic, unpretentious style that seemed to appeal to all customers by the coast—moneyed or otherwise.
One day, a boutique owner asked if Gorjana would be selling its jewelry in any big trade shows. The husband and wife looked at one another. Everything was new; there were no bad ideas. So in the early days of 2005, Jason and Gorjana scraped together everything they had then—$5,000—and entered Accessorie Circuit in New York City, one of the nation’s largest jewelry exhibits.
The indignities happened swiftly and in multiples.
First, Jason and Gorjana missed their flight across the country. Then, when they arrived at the hotel, their credit card was declined. “My mom had to call to do a credit card authorization form so we could stay there,” Gorjana laments. “We’re like, ‘Okay, what else could possibly go wrong?’”
A flight missed, a credit card declined, and inventory nowhere to be found. What else could possibly go wrong?
The next morning, they found out. A day before the show began, Jason and Gorjana visited the venue at Pier 94, along the Hudson River. In the expo area of the trade show, they learned that none of their products had arrived. Jason called UPS, who shared that snow in Ohio was holding up their goods. They’d be there Monday evening—that is, two days into the three-day show.
If that was to be the final nail in the coffin, if they were receiving a message from above to slump their shoulders and limp back to California, Jason and Gorjana were not yet willing to comply. The irony of it all was that, once their jewelry arrived, it was such a big hit—its buyers in New York finding the same appeal as its boutique owners in California once had—that the trade show ended in success. “We sold like $50,000 of jewelry, which was so exciting and so exhilarating,” Gorjana says. “It just felt awesome.”
This was bootstrapping. This was entrepreneurship at its least glamorous. And this next part, even in its retelling nearly a decade-and-a-half later, inside a chic office space in a sun-baked canyon of Laguna Beach, is enough to draw warm laughs and cold shudders at the memory.
“And then we got home,” Jason says, “and realized we couldn’t get the money to even make the orders. You’re like, ‘Oh, come on. Is this for real?’”
It was proof that, in business, sometimes the hits just keep on coming. But Jason and Gorjana showed they could take a punch. Back in California, they pleaded at the bank for more capital, even visiting again their local boutiques to sell whatever goods they had left in stock—via orders as small as a few hundred dollars each—until mercifully they could fill their Accessorie Circuit receipts.
“Early on, we learned if you want something, you’re going to have to push through,” Jason says, “Because challenges are going to come your way.
“We are very resilient. We said, ‘Let’s go. We’ve just got to make it work.’”
The Entrepreneur’s Challenge: Gorjana Learns to Ride the Lion
Jason and Gorjana were learning about the uncertainties of entrepreneurship. They found that the downs that always seemed to come before—and also somehow again after—the ups were now part of this new journey in their life
Nominally, they knew the way forward, but they were okay to renounce the idea that they’d ever know exactly how to get there and exactly when it would happen. “We don’t have a plan. We’re just on a path,” Gorjana likes to say. “But we can see where the right direction to go is.”
At the outset of Gorjana, they were not quite looking for a way to define their unsteady lives. And yet along came a story in the Sept., 2013, issue of Inc. Magazine. It was called, “The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship,” and you’d be forgiven if at first glance you were spooked. The article’s header illustration showed a barefoot man in underwear and undershirt, curled like a baby on a mattress cast out into a rolling storm at sea. He hugged his pillow tight, eyes opened wide to the dark skies above. He was a businessman, we were to believe. And he was helpless.
This maybe wasn’t Jason, and indeed it was not Gorjana, either, but in the piece was an anecdote that grabbed them both by the lapels. A man named Toby Thomas, then the CEO of a Texas-based infrastructure repair company called EnSite Solutions, shared his favorite analogy of what life in business is like: a man riding a lion. “People look at him and think, ‘This guy’s really got it together! He’s brave!” Thomas said. “And the man riding the lion is thinking, ‘How the hell did I get on a lion? And how do I keep from getting eaten?’”
Gorjana was struck by the familiarity of the idea. At many turns, Jason and Gorjana had fielded overtures that their business was a point of envy from friends, family, and onlookers. Even in the wake of their Accessorie Circuit appearance, the quintessential disaster-turned-triumph of this company’s history, it was easy to look in from the outside and remark how glamorous it was having sold $50,000 in jewelry at a single trade show.
Yet no matter what amount of perceived stability they appeared to show in their business, Jason and Gorjana returned over and again to an image of them atop the lion. They leaned into the instability of it all, learning to find comfort in the vulnerabilities that may drive other entrepreneurs to the brink. They didn’t yet hold all the answers they needed, but they were fine figuring it out as they went—so long as indeed they churned on.
“It was just this perpetual motion forward,” Gorjana says. “Why we’re here today is because we were able to bend and twist. Like, ‘Yes, this is working. We’re just going to keep going.’”