Lee Rhodes’ glassybaby is a rags-to-riches entrepreneurial story that makes people want to stand up and applaud. Despite being told over and over that her company would not work, glassybaby, a hand-blown colorful glass candle holder has now grown 40-50% each year since 2009 to a projected 2012 revenue of $8.5 million.
From the beginning, glassybaby donated money from sales to charities helping cancer patients. Rhodes remembered meeting people in waiting rooms who could not afford basic day-to-day costs like bus fare and groceries during treatment. Health insurance does not help with those needs so she wanted to help fill that gap. glassybaby has donated more than $950,000 from sales to charities dedicated to healing and helping patients with those costs during chemotherapy, by donating $4 of every votive sale back to charity. The company will be able write a check that will put them over $1 million this month.
glassybaby are made by Seattle artists in 400+ colors with names like hope, joy, frog hunting, wet dog, and happiness. Over 70 artists work seven days a week at their Seattle studio to create the glass votive and it takes four artists to make just one glassybaby. The attention to detail has paid off: glassybaby sales were up 40% last year.
Rhodes, a keynote speaker at the MBA Women International’s National Leadership Conference and Career Fair, was named Entrepreneur of 2011 by Entrepreneur magazine. She is the first woman to win the award.
Q: What does it mean to speak at the leadership conference?
Rhodes: “First off, I’m in awe of anyone who went out and got an MBA. I give it up to all the women who have gone down that path. I never thought business was going to be my path. I’m thrilled they want to come and rub shoulders with me. What an incredible group of women! Anyone who has taken their education to the next level I’m thrilled about meeting.”
Q: What does it take to keep glassbaby successful?
Rhodes: “What has helped me continue is that I see the frenzy. When we started glassybaby, I saw people lighting the glassybaby for me, then for themselves, and then other people. When you get around a glassybaby and you see it actually works – it makes you go to a place where you are sending incredible thoughts to someone who is sick – seeing glassybaby fit the niche and fill that role that serves people kept me going.
“Believe me – I don’t have the skill set to be running a business with $8 million in revenue. It’s just been people saying ‘Those make me feel exactly like you felt.’ It started as my story, built around me, but it has become everyone else’s story. As the community grows and expands, the business grows. Now I don’t feel like it’s me that’s keeping it going. I think it’s the community and the stories around it. There was never a moment where I said ‘Let’s take this big’ and I don’t think there ever will be that. It’s a simple growth of a community and the education that color and light make you feel better.”
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Q: What hurdles have you faced and what has helped you overcome those?
Rhodes: “We have a lot of hurdles. First, we hand make our product in Seattle. That’s very expensive. In this world, we have Walmart, Target and Costco; it’s impossible to think conceptually about a store than can sell one thing. That’s been a hurdle – getting people to understand that it’s not one thing. You come into our store, you light a glassybaby, you have an experience, and although we sell one thing, we sell 459 colors of one thing. There are millions of ways to put those colors together. We had to educate people that something that is handmade in Seattle has its own intrinsic value and connection. You can feel the people that made it. It’s not just a candle store. It’s an experience.
“If you have six different glassybabies, you remember the six different reasons you bought them. Every single one of these is a memory of something that happened. Our hurdle is to communicate all that in a sound byte or with a photo. But once people own one glassybaby, they are converted, which is great news because we don’t advertise. It is only word of mouth.”
Q: What skill sets did you look for when bringing in employees to such a personal business?
Rhodes: “The most important skill set is that people believe in our mission. We are all underpaid. The greatest thing is that everyone that works here has a firm belief that what we do is helpful. We still have a competitive edge – which I love – and we have fun on our team and want to win, but everyone does believe that the more we give, the more we help people. I never have to say to people ‘what are you doing?’ Everyone is a self-starter, so I guess that’s the first thing I look for.”
Q: Do you think all companies should give back or have a charitable program?
Rhodes: “What we do feels good, therefore we get great people working for us, and from that, we can run a really tight ship and a lean machine, because everyone is happy and we don’t have a lot of waste. We don’t have people that aren’t producing. I think with big companies, foundations are arms’ lengths away from the employees and it’s hard to start a giving program. I think even if you start a giving program to get more efficiency out of your employees, it’s worth it. Everyone wants to be part of it.
“In a 9-to-5 day, there’s not a lot that is inspiring. But when companies have giving programs, they are inspired by their own giving. It improves morale at a company, and I’m a huge believer in that. People will desire to do well and keep the company healthy and strong.”
MBA Women International (MBAWI) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of business women as corporate leaders, executives and entrepreneurs- enriching workforce diversity around the world. The 29-year-old organization serves four related client groups: female MBA students, female business professionals and entrepreneurs, universities, and corporate partners. At-large, MBAWI has 5,000 members, representing 52 countries, including 15 cities nationwide with established professional chapters. MBAWI has an on-campus presence at 75 different universities and colleges. The October leadership conference is open to both members and non-members.
– Alanna Stage, @AlannaTweets