SO SHE DID DIARIES #3: JENNY MUSTILL FROM RUBY RUTH DOLLS

My third instalment of the So She Did Diaries is with Jenny Mustill, artist and founder of Ruby Ruth Dolls based in Brighton. It’s likely you’ll have seen these dolls somewhere, be it in a local independent shop, on an instagrammer’s social feeds or even in Madame Tussaud’s (thanks to Zoella’s love of Jenny’s creations, Ruby Ruth dolls reside next to Zoella’s wax work in London). If that’s not what success looks like, show me what does!

Jenny started the business officially back in 2009, although she’s been creating for years before that. She even worked with Damien Hirst for a while before she started up Ruby Ruth and is clearly a really talented creative.

What I love about Jenny’s work is the kooky designs and the sense of humour she applies to the characters she creates, from Shirley who has run the cloakroom at her local nightclub for the past eight years  to Burt who is always the first one to start a conga line at a party  – she gives them all stories and once you know them it’s difficult not to fall in love with them. They make lovely handmade gifts, not only do they look great, but they also use recycled charity shop jumpers giving them a purpose too. I have recently bought one for a friend and I have my eye on several for my new house.

 

I spent a lovely evening with Jenny in her amazingly colourful and quirky workshop quizzing her on how she started up, how to deal with negative self-talk and going out of your comfort zone. We also discover a mutual love for Button Moon. I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

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How is everything going with the business at the moment? 

It’s going really well, it’s expanding and it’s super busy. I feel a bit like I’m on a hamster wheel that’s going really fast to be honest, but it’s exciting at the same time!

You are pretty much a one man band, although you’ve recently hired some support three days a week, how do you manage everything on your plate?

I do everything from taking commissions to making the dolls and the social media for the brand too. It feels like I’m spinning a lot of plates to be honest! I’ve definitely spread myself too thinly, but I think of it as though I’m laying the foundations for all the essential parts of my business. There’s only so much you can do by yourself, now it’s getting to the point where I need to delegate in order to scale and grow. It’s been such a learning curve!

What’s been the biggest thing you’ve learned? 

Taking on staff felt like a big thing. Working out how to teach someone else how to make the dolls was difficult. Communicating that properly was tricky in the beginning, but so worth it now.

Did you always want to be your own boss?

It was never something I 100% set out to do, but it just sort of naturally occurred to me over a number of years that that was what I wanted to do.

Do you enjoy it?

Yes and no! I don’t think I knew how challenging it would be, but maybe it’s a good thing to go into it a bit blindly. I know it’s not how everyone does it. I don’t think I could go back to working for someone else now though.

A lot of people I interview for this talk about their success being a happy accident. They feel their way and sort of don’t realise they’re doing OK until they’re in the middle of it. Does that sound familiar to you?

Yeah, it was a sort of natural progression for me as the work started to pick up. I definitely identify with that.

What was your ‘She Believed She Could So She Did’ moment? Was there an ‘I’m doing this’ point where you remember it turning from a hobby to a business or was it different?
It was a bit more organic than that as I started out on market stalls before working with Damien [Hirst] for a few years. Then, when I was able to, I started focusing on the dolls. It just sort of naturally happened that I could work for myself as I could support myself just through the dolls.
You started with the market stalls, which helped you work out which fabrics and designs worked – are you a big advocate of the ‘test and learn’ approach? 
I think that’s a really brilliant way to work out your audience, how much people are willing to pay and things like which character is the most popular for example. You can’t put a price on meeting customers face to face, and hearing what commissions they want etc. I think markets are a brilliant way to get to know your audience and test your work.
You’ve had huge success with many high profile stars including Zoella and Hannah Michalak endorsing the brand. What have been your ‘pinch me’ moments since you started out? 

It was great when Elle Decoration contacted me and wanted to feature me, that was a pinch me moment! And when Zoella started buying them and posting them on her social media feeds – that was brilliant. She just bought them herself from one of my stockists Pussy Home Boutique in Brighton. Another pinch me moment was being approached to do an animation which I am incredibly excited about! Those three things together have been real ‘pinch me’ moments.

I bet you couldn’t imagine all of these things happening when you first started out on the stalls – that you’d have your work on display in Madame Tussaud’s for example!

Not at all! The Madam Tussaud’s project was another pinch me moment actually. It’s funny when you look back at how much that’s happened. Exciting stuff in the past, and hopefully exciting stuff ahead too.

That’s definitely what it looks like from the outside! 

Thank you!

Vlogger Hannah Michalak has four of your creations that are always popping up in her vlogs and on her Instagram… 

[Jenny shows me a tiny doll, about the size of a finger.] This is what they used to look like in the early days, much, much smaller! This is the type that Hannah had in one of her vlogs ages ago and a viewer got in touch to tell me. She must have bought it about 12 years ago in one of my London markets.  I sent her some of the bigger ones you see in her videos today.

Have you always used charity shop material for the hats?

They used to be 100% be made from my old clothes, it was a great way of using up old stuff and recycling and using interesting fabrics.

Did you teach yourself to sew?

My mum did.

How many do you make a day?

It depends really- the busiest time is the run up to Christmas.

Brits are known for being rubbish at accepting praise, do you find it hard?

I don’t know, I guess I don’t find it easy really! It’s great to have some affirmation and be recognised for your work, it’s really, really lovely. I really struggle with interviews and PR though, but even though it’s really out of my comfort zone it’s something I need to do.

You’re definitely not alone in that feeling, I talked about this a lot with Katie Kirby in her interview about how cringe worthy it can be to self-promote and put yourself out there. Even me clicking publish on a blog post to my friends feels hard!

Yes, it’s scary! But I think it’s also quite exciting to feel challenged like that too. I’m excited to put more of myself into the brand too, which I haven’t done for a really long time. I’m trying to bring a bit more of me into it “I’m making this” – it’s not just the characters, I’m behind the scenes too.

And that’s challenging but will hopefully be rewarding…

Yeah, definitely. But I think it’s really important to do scary things as much as you can.

Do you ever battle with any negative thoughts? Especially when you were starting up? Any limiting thoughts?  

Oh my God, all the time! Yes! Constantly. I’m so often giving myself grief about stuff, my internal monologue can be really harsh. But again, I think that’s something to keep overcoming and it’s also human nature. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, you know, especially when you have to cover some many areas of a business I sometimes think “Well look at what you’ve done since this time last year.” And tell myself I can do it again and even better. When you force yourself to look back and take stock it can be really exciting. You’ve just got to remain vigilant to the negative inner voice!

Do you get nervous when you put out a new idea? The new cats for example? Is it nerve-wracking showing new work? 

Yeah, it’s always nerve-wracking if something isn’t going to be popular, you’re just putting your ideas out there to be judged. That’s one thing I love about social media, that instant feedback. It’s almost like being at a market except it’s not face to face. I love doing polls on Facebook where people can give their opinions and help me name new creatures. I like being able to interact that way with customers.

Your social profile and the way you interact is so vibrant. You have such a lovely following. 

Thank you!

Where do you get your best ideas? Especially for the brilliant stories that each doll has?!

They have just sort of evolved really, some of them are based loosely on people I know. Some characters have really humanistic qualities whereas some are more surreal. I’ve always been interested in weird characters, outsiders… and space – I’ve commented before about how much I love Button Moon, and would watch it growing up. They’ve just evolved really.

(At this point I confess to owning a Button Moon DVD and we have affectionate chat about 80s TV shows…)

Do you ever get creative block?

No, the opposite! I feel like there’s not enough time in each day to get my ideas out there! There’s so much I want to do. I feel the pressure of that, I just want to get them out although it’s a good pressure. I’d rather that than sitting there wondering what to do next!

Where do you find your calm in all of this? 

It’s super clichéd but I really like Bikram yoga. I feel totally relaxed after that, and I feel like I’ve pushed myself, my skin feels nice, it’s lovely. That or going to the pub with friends.

Who’s been the biggest support along the way?
My family and friends. And customers! I’ve had a lot of really lovely things sent to me from people who collect the dolls. I’ve got some amazing paintings, stories and photos from customers!
Is there a phrase or mantra you use to keep you motivated? 

Get on with it! What are you waiting for? Don’t listen to negatives, focus on the positives and find what you really love doing. I know this is another cliché but I think just getting on with it is a great bit of advice.

Did you have any hesitation setting up Ruby Ruth? 

No, not really. I just love making stuff. I’ve always had a drive to make stuff, and as the dolls escalated after that it was just a natural progression.

If someone is reading this with an idea but don’t know where to start, what would you say? 
Again, just do it. Just be as confident as you can in your idea. I’m not sure this answer is enough but it was the best advice I gave myself when I was starting out. I still haven’t done a business plan! The only advice I can give as a creative business is to just get on with it. Do it! Find a way, if you have that passion, find a way and work hard. Work really, really hard at something you really enjoy and have a passion for and you should see the benefits. It might take longer than you think!
Great advice. What’s next? 
I want to make the dolls even bigger in size. I’d like to do a Kickstarter campaign to create dolls that don’t even fit inside buildings and have them living in sets together, all made out of recycled materials.
And then a new collection of dolls, I have started to design fabrics that will be exclusively for Ruby Ruth designs. Watch this space on launch dates for those, everything takes longer than I estimate!
And the animation, although I can’t say much about that.
I’m also going to start running workshops where people can learn new skills alongside me, and make their own creations, I’ll be putting something on social media about that later this summer.
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And with that, I leave Jenny putting the finishing touches to the new giant creations she was packing off to a customer that night, and as I walked home I couldn’t stop thinking about how humble and passionate she was. She has built her empire from scratch and is such a talented artist but so unassuming at the same time. Her advice is simple: don’t overthink, work hard and stretch yourself. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, Jenny for the no frills advice, I can’t wait to see where you take the brand next.

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