One founder was this close to going broke before her then two-year-old business turned the corner.
The other was a successful Silicon Valley executive who, searching for the meaning of life, had the luxury of taking a year off as he ventured forth on his quest.
But as different as their stories are, both Christina Stembel of Farmgirl Flowers and Ken Jacobus of Good Start Packaging, have one thing in common--they share the conviction that being successful in business, and doing good while you work, do not have to be mutually exclusive.
“I caught what I call the business ‘bug’ when I moved to San Francisco in the middle of the dot-com boom,” recalls Stembel.
Knowing she wanted to create a business that both solved a problem and gave back to the community, Stembel started hosting informal focus groups to test her ideas.
“Some ideas for businesses were more practical, like iron-on suit pockets for women, and some were a little zanier,” she laughs, providing the example of a “fact checker” for online dating sites.
But it was Stembel’s day job in the Alumni Relations department at Stanford University that provided the “aha!” moment, which led to the genesis of Farmgirl Flowers.
“We were working on tightening budgets, and the floral spend was incredibly high,” she recalls. “As I began to research why, I learned that the e-commerce space for online flower delivery was shrinking, when nearly every other business was growing by leaps and bounds.”
This was a startling revelation for Stembel. But as she considered her own flower purchasing experience, using the then-leading flower delivery brands, she could see clearly how the combination of too many options and lackluster delivery was negatively impacting the space.
“I’d spend my lunch break looking through hundreds of options,” says Stembel. “Rarely, if ever, did they arrive to my mom [to whom she frequently sent flowers] looking like they did on the website. The gorgeous, all white arrangement I’d selected would be delivered full of dyed, Kelly green daisies.”
And the seed for Farmgirl Flowers was sown. Stembel came up with a business model that would offer customers fewer, yet better, options for online flower delivery, while also sourcing product from American flower farmers.
And with no inventory to buy up front, she could get the business off the ground using her life’s savings of $49,000, which afforded her freedom from relying on outside investment.
Stembel gave herself two years to make Farmgirl Flowers work. She was running perilously up against her deadline and had $411 left in her bank account when she accepted a late delivery request - “I needed every penny I could get my hands on!”
“I was headed to my car, arms full of flowers. A few women walking in my direction excitedly stopped me and asked if I was holding Farmgirl arrangements. It was the first time I’d had a customer recognize my brand. I was floored.”
Stembel got into her car and cried.
“Things were still tight--very tight--but that moment helped me realize things were moving in the right direction.”
And turn around they did. In 2019, Farmgirl Flowers is on track to do around $33M in revenue. A disruptive e-commerce business that started in Christina Stembel’s dining room has grown into a 150-plus person operation working out of a 30,000-square-foot warehouse.
Ken Jacobus, founder and CEO of Good Start Packaging, was as much a Silicon Valley veteran as Christina Stembel was a newbie.
While Stembel always knew she wanted to be a business owner, Jacobus never had a huge hankering to be the guy whose signature appeared on the paystubs.
“I had a career in advertising and television and ended up going to high-tech and Silicon Valley for about 17 years,” Jacobus recalls. “I had a pretty successful sales career, with lots of international travel, but I felt kind of empty, like I wasn’t really having a positive impact on the planet.”
Jacobus has always cared about the environment. And it was at a green building conference--a personal area of interest--that he heard social justice entrepreneur, author, and news personality Van Jones speak on social and environmental justice.
“His words just spoke to me. So, I called my wife and said, ‘I’m out.’”
With the support of his wife, Jacobus gave himself a year off to figure out what he wanted to do next.
“I was really fortunate to be able to explore a lot of things that I was interested in, and I knew I wanted to do something I could bootstrap--something where I felt a real connection to other business owners.”
Jacobus started researching the restaurant industry’s impact on the environment and realized what a large problem single-use plastic currently is.
Jacobus started learning about innovative companies that were making plant-based alternatives to traditional single-use plastic. He quickly learned that they had a challenge in marketing their products to small businesses (including restaurants) and getting those products to market.
“I saw an amazing opportunity to help solve that problem and, at the same time, really help small businesses.” Despite knowing nothing about the business of packaging, Jacobus was hooked.
Good Start Packaging was born in 2008. “I went door-to-door. I talked to restaurant owners around the San Francisco Bay Area to learn about their challenges as small business owners.”
And Jacobus learned that the expectations of B2B wholesale packaging customers is generally very low.
“They’re buying from old-school packaging companies and are all about low cost and delivering lots of stuff. I thought there had to be a better way. I’ve always believed that beautiful food deserves beautiful packaging. I wanted to add value.”
Around the same time, Jacobus realized that restaurant owners frequently face operational challenges because they don’t typically have a lot of business experience.
He hit upon an innovative hybrid approach: use his e-commerce business, with its access to thousands of restaurants, to offer his customers insights into how to be better restaurant owners.
“So, it was a different kind of approach than a lot of packaging companies had, and it resonated really, really well.”
Good Start Packaging’s unique value proposition--to effectively serve as a marketing bridge for its restaurant clients--paid dividends. “In the past 10 years, we’ve had growth every year, and our business has grown 80 percent just this past year.”
As different as their business origins are, Stembel and Jacobus both acknowledge the role of their Capital One Spark credit cards in helping to grow their businesses.
Says Stembel, “I use the Spark Cash credit card on the majority of my business expenditures here at Farmgirl. Capital One’s tools have helped me manage cash flow as a small business owner but, more than that, I’ve been able to reinvest the unlimited, two-percent cash back rewards into my business.
“The rewards have helped me to invest in more digital marketing and, in turn, increase sales, especially during typically slow periods, like summertime.”
“We call our company Good Start,” says Jacobus, “to try to be a little humble. To suggest that any of us are perfect from an environmental or social perspective is, I think, misleading.”
But anyone can make a start--a good start--as both he and Stembel have done in very different ways, but with equally inspiring results.