Tsilli Pines: Building a Business Based on Tradition

Photo: LyleGregg

A ketubah is a wedding contract — part of the traditions that make up a Jewish wedding ceremony. It guarantees the rights of the bride and outlines the responsibilities of the groom. The ketubah is typically hung in the home of the married couple and, as such, is usually a beautiful piece of calligraphy. Beautiful as a ketubah can be, however, they tend towards very traditional designs. When Tsilli Pines was planning her wedding, she simply couldn't find a ketubah with a modern aesthetic. So, she designed her own. From that small start, Pines has built a business on creating modern ketubot.

"We wanted something modern, and couldn't find a piece that was quite right for us, so I ended up making our ketubah. A friend of mine asked me to design hers, as well, and I started thinking that other people might also be drawn to what I was doing." Pines' business, New Ketubah, sells through shops handling Judaica products, as well as online.

Pines' work stands out when compared to the traditional styles of ketubot (the plural of 'ketubah'), attracting customers who want to honor tradition but also have an appreciation of modern design. "My ketubot are contemporary in their design, and they each have a handcrafted element. I sew into the paper to finish the design, which is unusual for these pieces. I'm trying to reach people who are looking for something outside of the illuminated manuscript style of many of the traditional ketubot. The couples I work with are drawn to a cleaner, simpler look, but still want their ketubah to be a celebratory ritual object."

A Business Built on Tradition

Pines comes from an artistic background, with 10 years of experience as a graphic designer. "For most of that time," she says, "I worked with a small design studio on large-scale web projects. Every client had a new and interesting business challenge that we were trying to help them solve, so I was exposed to a lot of business thinking, as well as design thinking. I also got involved in some of the leadership in the studio and had the opportunity to see how a small business operates from top to bottom."

Those experiences provided Pines with a starting point for creating her own business. She started small, working part time on the business while keeping her job as a graphic designer: "My business, New Ketubah, built up slowly. For the first two years, I worked with one shop in very small volume, which was great because it allowed me to ease in, learn, and smooth out my process. In 2008, I launched my website and there was a swell of interest."

With the growth of her business, Pines was able to move into working on her own projects full time. With that shift, she's launched a few other projects. One is her Judaica line, Alef Betty, which includes posters Pines has designed. The new line allows Pines to build on her existing customer base. While a couple may only need one ketubah, the Alef Betty line ensures that Pines still has more to offer customers. It also builds on her own interest in moving forward as an artist, building a long-term career based on her creativity.

A Business Built on the Web

While you might expect that a couple looking for a traditional wedding contract would start with their local community, Pines has had incredible success with marketing her work online. "Knowing that people were increasingly looking for their ketubah online, I did focus on how to make myself most visible there. I decided early on that blogs would be the best way to raise awareness about my work. I already followed a lot of design and wedding blogs because I was interested in their content, so I wrote a very simple email introducing myself politely, with a few images of my work. The response was wonderful and helped me get ranked in key search results."

For business owners selling something other than Judaica, Pines' strategy will still work: "The main strategy was to think about where my audience was hanging out and reach them there." One of her newer projects, like the DIY ketubah kit, also builds on her success. "I see my various projects as connected because they all feed on each other. Some of my work is focused on product development directly, and addresses a specific market need. Other projects are more content-driven — they keep me fresh creatively, and keep the conversation going with my audience. One project reinforces the next."

A Business That Grows

Pines chose to strike out on her own at a time when many people were focused on keeping the jobs they had. She's worked through the economic downturn with creativity, saying, "It's important to think creatively, rather than reactively. I've found it useful to separate decisions about my core business from the pressure to monetize everything. If business is slow, I try to pick up separate freelance work so that I'm not making important decisions based on anxiety. It gives me the space to think about long-term dividends on my efforts, to be more strategic in working toward where I need to go next. In the long run, this has led to more clarity and growth because things unfold naturally."

With a growing business and a new product line, Pines is looking to the future in a business where tradition is typically the main concern. She's found a niche that allows her to work as an artist, take on interesting projects, and create pieces that have deep meaning for their owners. That's only going to continue, if Pines has her way: "Fundamentally, I want to continue doing interesting work and making pieces that have meaning for people. My experience so far has been that new opportunities arise at every turn and that being open has allowed me to go in the most interesting directions."

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