As a business owner, I wear a lot of hats: accountant, head of HR, IT support, etc. However, I think the marketing director cap is the largest of them all. It’s the role that constantly has to be worked on, analyzed, tweaked, and planned. Plus, the landscape of marketing and marketing effectively is continuously changing from one day to the next. As soon as I think I’ve mastered a platform or a new tactic, things change, and I’m back at square one again. Even as a seasoned marketer, one would think I have this role on autopilot. But there’s just so much to know!
So, I aim to continually educate myself to stay relevant in the marketing realm. I came across Sue B. Zimmerman through the website Creative Live. If you haven’t heard of Creative Live, it’s a fantastic platform that offers online classes taught by the world’s top experts. Most of the courses are centered around creative industries: photography, graphic design, and other crafting and maker topics. They also have a wide variety of business-related classes, including social media.
Considered the Instagram expert, Sue B. strives to teach others that marketing online is doable, no matter your age or experience. After following her for a while, I invested in her Ready Set Grow program. Designed for business owners, it’s a course that teaches the basics of the Instagram platform and dives into the fundamentals for growing your account with potential customers. Since our Instagram channel receives the most interaction daily, I was eager to start.
One concept that’s taught early is the idea that Instagram isn’t just a posting platform. It’s a place to get to know others, spark actual conversations, and engage more than just a superficial “Come look at my page and buy from me” vibe.
Reaching out to random strangers to say, “Hey, I really resonated with your post,” or “What a cool photo!” might seem insignificant or time-consuming, but in reality, it could be an opportunity to learn about someone, or something, new.
Such is the case with my interview today with Emma Barnafo, founder of Innate Expressions®. Also, in Ready, Set, Grow (RSG), I discovered her page by following the dedicated hashtag associated with the RSG program. As the proud aunt of a new niece, a photo of her adorable crochet baby gift set (blanket, the tiniest booties, or an optional matching beanie) stopped me in my scroll. So I commented, “These are so cute!” Nothing crazy, but I wanted to let her know that I saw her post and that her products are really freaking adorable!
Almost immediately, Emma responded. She didn’t just routinely click the heart next to the comment, signifying that she saw what I wrote but chose not to respond. Not that that’s a bad thing, but there was something about acknowledging that I took the time to look at the photo and type out a response that resonated with me. And it was appreciated.
I got to know Emma and her business a little more from that point on. I commissioned her to make some dinner chargers for our luxury picnic setups. Two sets, one in rust and the other in chocolate brown, are stunning and perfectly constructed. Working with her was easy too. She clearly communicated where she was in the process, what to expect from her, and what materials she thought would best suit my request.
I’m now the proud owner of two sets of gorgeous hand-crafted dinner chargers. However, what I was thrilled to discover, even more, was an incredible business owner who proudly wears all the hats. And, she takes pride in making each of her customers feel like a friend. In the short time I’ve known Emma, I can confidently say that she’s one of the sweetest and most genuine people I have had the pleasure of knowing. She has a way of making you feel joyful and calm, even when you’re discussing complex and often frustrating topics such as marketing and social media.
So please scroll down to read more about my new friend and local revivalist, Emma Barnafo. Not only is she the queen of crochet, but you’ll be inspired by her creativity and insight as she continues to build and grow Innate Expressions®.
Scroll down for my interview…
Emma, please tell me a little about yourself.
I was born in Ghana, West Africa, and lived there until I was 2. Then, my family relocated to the U.K, where my dad pursued his Ph.D. in Mining Engineering at Imperial College London, and my mom worked as a nurse/midwife in South West London.
I briefly returned to Ghana during my adolescence, to attend secondary school. I moved away again when I was 19 and came to the United States, where I attended Michigan State University. I graduated with a degree in Biochemistry/Biotechnology and a specialization in Microbiology. However, upon graduation, I relocated to the East Coast of the United States because of ideal job opportunities in the Life Sciences arena.
I now live in Alexandria, Virginia, and work in Bethesda, Maryland.
Is Innate Expressions® your full-time job?
No, not at all! I work as a biologist focusing on Malaria Vaccine Development for my full-time job.
Wow! What a completely different set of skills and way of thinking compared to what is needed to run your business! Why did you start Innate Expressions®?
Hmm, that’s a loaded question. Kindly allow me to preface the answer to your question by saying that on one extreme, I love science, and on the other extreme, I love to create.
In between both extremes, you will find my happy median. I call it “my Eden.” Innate Expressions® is my Eden. It’s my ‘place of escape,’ where I’m free to create and just be authentic me!
Now, to answer your question…
As I mentioned above, I moved around quite a bit during my formative years. Although I consider that a fantastic opportunity and actually had an amazing experience, I never really stayed anywhere long enough to ‘fit in.’
Oh, I had friends alright, but I never quite fit in.
Along the way, I picked up bits of culture and different accents from everywhere I was blessed to ‘experience.’ So, without even trying, I stuck out like a sore thumb!
I spent the greater part of my youth trying to find a way to blend in until I realized I didn’t need to anymore. I simply recognized that I was, and had always been, unique and eclectic. THAT is what makes me amazing!
With that realization, it became apparent that the world was full of young Emma’s who just really ‘wanted to belong.’
Innate Expressions® is my way of telling them that:
- They are beautiful just the way that they are;
- That true beauty emanates from within;
- That we are each gifted and unique in our own different ways;
- That one size doesn’t have to fit all and that;
- Self-love/self-care are not selfish, and therefore they deserve good things too!
Through my handmade pieces, which are unique, timeless, functional, and of high quality, I would like the young Emma’s of the world to express their individuality via style. Whether it be with winter accessories or home décor!
Basically, at Innate Expressions®, individuality rules…. Hence my tagline, “Be you, do you.”
The story about how you started your business is very unique! But I’m curious, how do you balance both careers?
In my opinion, both jobs require similar character traits. What I mean is…
I must be extremely meticulous, dependable, accountable, communicative, and transparent in vaccine development. And since quality is of the utmost importance to me at Innate Expressions®, it makes sense that I employ similar character traits in the daily operation of my business too.
For example, to determine the best yarn to purchase for a custom request, I need to know HOW my customer plans to use their final product. So I simply ask! Primarily, so that we are on the same page. However, secondly, it allows me to determine the best texture, weight, durability, etc., required for that specific request.
Do you have a specific time-management schedule?
As far as time management goes, I haven’t had any challenges so far. I believe that the main reason for this is that I learned to compartmentalize very early on. I execute my day job tasks during my day job hours and Innate Expressions® tasks every other waking moment!
Basically, I’m always busy… but because Innate Expressions® is my “happy place,” I consider the balancing act a win-win.
I love that you’re always thinking about your brand with everything you do. You clearly understand how a brand is more than a logo. Instead, it’s an entire experience and feeling (something we truly value as well)! Can you explain your brand to our audience and why it’s so important to you?
Well, I CHOOSE to offer an experience rather than to just sell.
I value relationships with people, and I also value time, both mine and others. I respect individuality and believe that everyone deserves the best of everything. So, I simply ‘rolled’ all of my values together via my brand, thereby creating a solid foundation that drives my decisions and is the basis for the experience I aspire to create for my customers.
My brand isn’t just my name or logo. It’s a representation of me. I am my brand, and my brand is an extension of how customers feel when they interact with me, receive a product, or view my Instagram page.
Ultimately, my hope is that you find Innate Expressions® to be a warm and cozy place where you can shop, find things that reflect your interests and personality, and where you can feel comfortable and safe. And if you should purchase something, I want you to feel like “this was made especially for “ME”… because it really was!
How has your heritage influenced your brand and your products?
I am a proud West African woman who also happens to be eclectic as a result of the experiences of my youth. So, I tend to infuse some of my pieces with a little bit of each culture that I have acquired over the years.
For instance, in the ‘Random Finds’ section of my shop (towards the bottom of my homepage), you will find a few pieces like West African fans and Krobo bead bracelets. Over time, I hope to create and curate more unique pieces that reflect my culture, but they will be strictly one-of-a-kind offerings.
How has Innate Expressions® evolved since you first started?
When I first started Innate Expressions®, I shied away from custom requests because I wasn’t sure customers would understand the time needed to make ‘the perfect piece.’
However, as I began to re-evaluate my brand, my company’s values, and the products I sold, I discovered that Innate Expressions® was best represented via satisfying custom requests.
As I mentioned before, I value individuality, and you can’t embody that characteristic if you make it your mission to cater to the masses. So, I ultimately adjusted my way of thinking, and today my brand reflects that.
In addition to custom orders, I create unique, timeless, and functional, high-quality accessories, including (but not limited to): winter accessories (scarves, hats, ear warmers, etc.) and home decor pieces (XL throws, blankets, candles, boho placemats, etc.). These items allow my customers to express their individuality through style, color, and/or design.
Will you expand your offerings in the future?
For a long time, my products were strictly seasonal winter accessories. However, offering those items during the warmer months doesn’t make sense; therefore, I recently expanded my product line to include home accessories.
Currently, Innate Expressions® Home consists of candles, XL throws & blankets, boho coasters, and dinner placemats. My business is still in the building stage, so I’m taking my time to stock the shop while I focus on custom requests. When it makes sense, I’ll slowly create new items, expand product lines, and evolve the brand.
Be sure to follow me on Instagram or Facebook to keep up with existing and new product launches. And please bookmark the Innate Expressions® website and blog, as further information will be announced on those platforms as well.
What do you think makes your brand and products unique compared to companies creating similar item?
First of all, individuality is at the center of what I create. So apart from my signature pieces, I intentionally make a limited number and a limited edition of items through mini collections. These collections are retired once they’re sold out, and I create something new. Even if the new item has a similar design, it will only be offered with a different color scheme, for instance. This way, all of my customers, bespoke or not, will have an opportunity to possess a unique Innate Expressions® product.
Secondly, I never use other people’s patterns. Instead, I freestyle my creations, writing down my process as I go along. Once I’m done, I evaluate the results and define my own pattern.
Why do I do this?
Because if I’m ever asked about my designs, I want to confidently say they are 100% mine and not someone else’s. Now, there might be only one way to make a scarf or a beanie, but even so, my technique may be different. Not following a pattern, for instance, allows me the freedom to create genuine one-of-a-kind pieces for my customers.
The third thing that makes me different is that functionality is a driving force for my products. For example, I know that not everyone has the same hair type. For some, it’s thin and straight. Others, it’s thick and curly. My ribbed beanie is deliberately designed to adjust to the different hair types and hairstyles (like wigs)! The ribbing allows ample stretch to accommodate your hair type or style, also ensuring that tension headaches are ‘not a thing’ due to a beanie being too tight.
I also design my beanies with a removable pom-pom. If a customer doesn’t want to sport a pom, I want to give them a choice to take it off – instead of grabbing another hat. So, my poms are detachable. They can be taken off or added back on at free will.
Lastly, my communication style is crystal clear with each customer, especially with my custom requests. I set and manage expectations so that my clients are always in the loop. Good things take time, and because my orders are handmade and often personalized, there’s a longer turnaround time. My clients understand this, and they know that it will be worth the wait when they receive the final product.
However, for those who do not want to wait, I have a few ready-to-ship items available in the shop as an option.
Is there something you’re most proud of when it comes to Innate Expressions®?
I am most proud that Innate Expressions® is now an officially registered trademark.
The trademark process is long, complex, and confusing. I initially tried to register my business name through a generic website, believing that the process was quick and easy. However, that couldn’t have been further from the truth, and my application was denied by the USPTO.
I actually came really close to giving up on my business name altogether. But, I decided to hire a trademark attorney who handled my re-application with the same business name, and my trademark application was ultimately approved. That experience taught me to allow professionals to do what they do best. It is usually more productive, less stressful, and ultimately cheaper in the end.
Some might wonder why I decided to go through the process in the first place. The answer is simple…I believe in my brand and my products. So I wanted to protect both to the best of my ability.
There will always be copycats; however, with trademark protection, a copycat product will always be recognized as just that… a copy or an imitation!
By trademarking my business name, I get to use the coveted ®. Trademark protection allows me to include the registered symbol after my business name and attach it to anything I create: my products, my patterns, my website, etc., and it will be protected because they’re considered Innate Expressions® beanies, Innate Expressions® patterns, or Innate Expressions® website.
Anyone can crochet a beanie. Heck, they could use a similar pattern, color, or even replicate a specific detail, but the question would be….”Is this truly an Innate Expressions® beanie?”
The simple answer? If it doesn’t have a label attached that clearly states Innate Expressions®, then no, it is not!
Copycats can’t legally include a label marked Innate Expressions® to a product. That would be considered a copyright violation. So just know that when you purchase one of my products, you can always check for a label marked with my registered trademark Innate Expressions®. If it’s there, your product is legitimate and handmade by me.
Wow! That’s incredibly smart and wonderful advice! We appreciate you explaining that to us. Based on your knowledge, would you recommend all business owners look into a trademark?
It depends on the business and what the business owner’s goals are.
Are you looking to build a brand? Or just sell a few thousand pieces?
If you would like to build a brand or a legacy around an idea or product so that it will last, then absolutely, positively yes! However, in that case, I suggest that you apply for trademark protection as soon as it is feasibly possible. That way, you can use the symbol™ in the early stages of your business as your application is pending with the relevant agency. Usually, once you sell a few products or services, it will offset any costs you incur.
What kind of challenge or challenges have you faced with Innate Expressions®?
Getting the word out about my business… Especially in the beginning, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to transition from a hobby to a legit business. And because I couldn’t make up my mind, I wasn’t fully committed.
However as time passed, and my priorities changed, it became clear that I did want Innate Expressions® to be a legit business and that I didn’t need a lot of followers to consider myself successful. I just needed the RIGHT followers.
Social media and marketing are constantly evolving, and I’m still learning every day. However, with this shift in mindset, my marketing approach changed. Things became more apparent with my brand and what I wanted it to offer. That helped me attract an audience with similar values… my ‘ideal’ customers.
Now, time is my most significant challenge. It is a rare commodity. Balancing a full-time career with running a business can be taxing. And I have a 19-year-old son (turning 20 this August). It can certainly be a lot to juggle at times.
BUT, I’ve always been an overachiever. I have almost always known what I wanted and where I wanted to go. Whenever things become too overwhelming, I simply grab some tea (I consider myself a tea connoisseur), a candle, my blanket, and a book or a movie. I take some time to rejuvenate before starting again.
Your Instagram page is very much in line with your brand. Calming, genuine, creative and comfy. Do you have any advice for others on how to be themselves and not become overwhelmed by the social media aspect of their business?
Thank you…. Everyone’s journey is different and unique to them, so it’s imperative that you first recognize where you want to go.
Here is that question again….What is your goal? To build a brand? Or just sell?
If you want to build a brand, you need to define or redefine your values and represent them. Remember, YOU are your brand. NOT the products you sell and NOT your logo…YOU! So, how can YOU accurately represent your brand if you don’t really believe in or like something that your brand represents or promotes?
Be genuine… it’s easier. And be kind to yourself. Competition can be brutal.
Honestly? Just “Be you, do you!”
Do you have a favorite part about owning your own business?
Innate Expressions® is an escape from the chaos of today’s world. When working on a new product or a custom request, I can just be! Free and flowing … just like a butterfly! (Which is why I chose it to be represented in my logo)
I also value and appreciate all of my customers. The majority actually become friends in the long run. I nurture these relationships, continuously learn from them and grow alongside them.
I don’t want to be the next big thing.
I’m genuinely happy as I am while making a positive difference.
Do you have any advice for others who might be just starting their business or might like to one day?
Certainly! I would say, keep the following in mind:
- Life is not a race, and we all travel on different roads. Recognize that!
- Be kind to yourself.
- Be, do you! We are all unique in our own ways. Own yours!
- Invest in yourself. Each year I treat myself to something new. I like to learn, so it could be a new online course on social media or a new business or crochet tool. Doing this keeps me motivated and evolving.
- If you need help, ask. There’s no shame in it!
- Hold onto the why. Why do you do what you do? Remember that daily.
- Treat all advice like a new book. Some books you start reading right away, and some you put away for later.
Emma Barnafo, Innate Expressions®
Questions, comments or feedback on this article? Comment below or contact us! We would love to hear from you. Curious why we love our local revivalists and support small businesses so much? Read 6 Reasons We Love Supporting Small Business.