Getting Back To Basics: Lessons From My Interviews

When I first started social venture labs, I drew inspiration from companies who were classic examples of triple bottom line organizations like Burt’s Bees and Life Is Good. The owners of these kinds of companies went from living out of their cars or without running water, to earning over several hundred million while including communities as part of their focus.

Over the last several months, I have had the pleasure of meeting with many small businesses and learning what makes them tick. There are several lessons we can learn from leaders like these. The most important are BOTH mentoring and menteeing.

No one gets where they are today without the help of others. Each business I spoke with mentioned someone special to them who helped shape the direction they chose. That’s important to the soul of a business. It’s also important to continue seeking outside opinions, developing advisory councils and always making time to look ahead.

Espresso Shot Insights

  • Seek a better way for yourself or your family
  • Focus on your definition of what is important in life
  • Learn as you go, get comfortable with risk
  • Don’t identify with a particular lifestyle over being true to their core values and beliefs
  • Give back to your community

1. Seek a better way for yourself or your family

  • In 1984 Roxanne Quimby was a divorced mother of two children living on thirty acres in rural northern Maine, in a small cabin with no electricity. Tres rugged.
  • Brothers John and Bert Jacobs developed the ever-evolving lifestyle brand of cheerful clothing and outdoor gear began as a two-man mobile T-shirt business (they operated out of a van).
  • After serving ten years in the Air National Guard doing electronics installations Stephanie Toler decided to get her college degree. While going to school (and in the reserves), she waited tables but was looking for a more reliable income—relying on the kindness of strangers (tips) has too much fluctuation; she started a cleaning service.
  • Looking to keep up with mounting medical bills but not interested in working with another start up—Jody DeVere committed herself hook, line, and sinker to As is often the case the company was born from necessity and circumstance addressing a core need in the market. It was part of the economic solution to a family challenge.

2. Focus on your definition of what is important in life

  • The Life is Good brothers found this to be true as well “What gets us up in the morning is that someday we are going to have a fundraiser that raises a million dollars in one day!” Bert says. “If we can be a business for profit and turn that profit into helping people, that’s what has us revved up right now.”
  • Maria Hines of Tilth knows that man is not an island. In life, you can’t get anywhere worth going alone and Hines mentions her staff with great respect. “All of us working toward a common vision really inspires me and I think it’s important to do what you can to make everyone that you are in contact happy.” So much attention to the relationships she comes in contact with goes a long way in creating a place she and her staff enjoy coming to each day.
  • Roxanne Quimby believed that living simply exemplified her philosophy that money is a resource, that it is meant to “do things.” It is not a way of living life. With Burt’s Bees, Roxanne found a way to make a living by living her values – spending time with her children, celebrating a love of nature, and having an outlet for her independent artistic side.

3. Learn as you go, get comfortable with risk

  • Owner of Tilth Maria Hines, “If I had it to do all over again, I would do the same thing. ….but if things weren’t going well, I would not put everything on the line, like my house.” Hines paused a moment and added, “It was a big risk and happened to pay off.
  • Burt’s Bees had grew from a $200 a weekend crafts fair/flea market business into a multi-million dollar corporation through attention to details like packaging, positioning and product diversification. There was a lot of fear in growing the manufacturing from an old school house she and Burt rented for $150 a year but seeing the work pay off financially, socially and personally was very satisfying for her.
  • Rick, of Pangea Organics, started his business with funds from his local Nest Egg and just recently turned the corner of breaking even. For everyone who has not experienced that yet, he can in fact confirm for you: Angels do come and sing, the sun shines more, and everyone smells of freshly cut grass. Ed McMahon does not appear with an oversized check though. So Rick plods along like everyone else, but with a lighter step because HE is The Man he is working for.

4. Related to risk..don’t identify with a particular lifestyle over being true to their core values and beliefs

  • Having a clear vision of the kind of life you want to achieve is the surest way to path to getting there. After leaving his secure job in a technology company, Rick Riehle started Pangaea Organics. While working on his current business, he thinks about what he’d like to do in the future. “I have lots of things I would like to do. I would like to get the company to a point where I can be flexible to do other things, like to teach liberal arts related subjects at a college. I also want to be aware enough to move on and not suffer founder syndrome.
  • Many people try to keep one foot on the dock and one on the boat, but Sarah or Sweeriot, went in full force – from the beginning the business comprised 100% of her income. Starting in 2005, she began modestly and now makes a comfortable living – like most small business owners, she works 7 days a week. “There is no balance in entrepreneurship 🙂 and I’m probably not fairly compensated, but that’s bootstrapping.” Like many people starting a business, Sarah established a deadline for making a living off of the business as a forcing function for initial growth.
  • Burt’s Bees philosophy and policies are aimed at social responsibility and they engage only in environmentally friendly practices.

5. Give back to your community.

  • Life is Good’s Bert and John are less motivated by the sales of their T-shirts now, but by what the T-shirts enable: contributing to sustainable programs. Because going public or selling means that the charitable giving part of their business would decrease in emphasis, they agreed early to remain private. Impacting the lives of children has had more meaning to them.
  • Stephanie Toler of Sage Clean is looking to incorporate a more Social ROI to her balance sheet by starting to the measure “social” metrics she and her team invest in the community. Her plans for the upcoming fiscal year are to donate 4 cleanings per month to recipients of her local Volunteer Chore Services program (VCS). Their mission is similar to Meals On Wheels, providing services and keeping seniors in their own homes.
  • Maria Hines of Tilth buys from local businesses, keeps the cash in the community ecosystem as well a ensuring the freshest ingredients. Everything Hines buys is green—from the paint on the walls to the wood for the deck (managed by the FSC); she can track the lumber back to the village it came from. Hines also has a passion for education and gives lectures on topics like dish composition, and sustainability and organics.
  • With every move she is asked to manage, Liz from Seattle Organizing Works has to figure out what to do with items families no longer want. Liz works with the following charities: Project Cool for Back to School, Northwest Hope and Healing, The Sharehouse

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