Interview with Co-founder Rachel Connors
What does Yellow Leaf Hammocks do?
Rachel Connors: Yellow Leaf Hammocks is a social enterprise dedicated to two important objectives: sustainable artisan job creation and awesome relaxation. Each of our hammocks is 100 percent handwoven and directly supports high- wage job creation in rural Thailand. Just as importantly, these hammocks are beautiful, stylish, and ridiculously comfy.
What inspired you to start this company?
RC: We were born out of a “vacation inspiration”! My co-founder Joe Demin was on an epic voyage through Thailand when he first discovered a handwoven hammock outside of a tiny stilted hut on the Andaman Sea. He had always been obsessed with finding the perfect hammock, but none of the ones he found in American shops were comfortable enough or designed to his standards. He was so excited about the hammock outside this hut that he asked a million questions and learned that it was handmade by an endangered hill tribe in northern Thailand. He got permission to head up to visit the tribe, convinced a cabbie to drive him 600 miles out in the jungle to their village, and left that day with a handshake deal to distribute the hammocks in America.
Joe was most inspired by the realization that hammock weaving had empowered the tribe to begin pulling themselves out of poverty. For decades, charity and band-aid solutions had not been able to make a real difference in this marginalized community, but the weavers had discovered their own solution and all they were lacking were sales channels to the outside world. We started out selling the hammocks at local markets and fairs, sharing the story, and feeling amazed at how the products and impact resonated with people. We had enough success with those first events that we decided to launch an e-commerce website, leave our jobs, and try to expand this job-creating opportunity.
What Are Your Top Three Lessons From Running a Mission-Driven Business?
1. Go For It! Don’t waste time killing yourself over creating the perfect website or a pretty powerpoint. Just get out there, start talking to people, and start selling your solution. I guarantee you will go through dozens of iterations of your messaging and you will never feel like your website is “done.” But you can only improve by sharing your story, getting feedback, and gaining supporters. All that time you are spending worrying about a font could be spent helping people!
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask. My co-founder Joe is much better at this than I am. He is not afraid to walk up to anyone from a magazine editor to Fabio (true story) to share his ideas about Yellow Leaf Hammocks. He will negotiate better terms with vendors or pitch crazy partnerships that end up becoming amazing assets. I am learning all the time that I have to be a little more pushy in order to build the best business possible and to lobby on behalf of our weaving families. People love to be a part of something that’s creative and that’s creating a positive impact, so invite them in.
3. Stay Lean As Long As Possible. We stayed completely boot strapped for years. We reinvested the profits from every sale into the business and made some hard sacrifices to maintain control of our vision. But now that we are growing and have more funding available, we are still sticking to that bootstrapped mentality. One of our mentors, Tom Chi of Google X, advocates for “rapid prototyping,” which is basically the idea that you should fail small and fail quickly to get to a better idea. We joke that we made big mistakes with small amounts of money as we started out - but now we can make fewer mistakes with larger amounts of money as we grow. The first thing you should do is not go out and raise $1 million by giving away control of your business. The first thing you should do is go make $100,000 from your idea.
Do you have any metrics on the impact that the company has made so far?
RC: Our most important metric is job creation - that’s the foundation for all the rest of the change we are able to create. Over the past year, we have grown from employing about 75 weavers to creating jobs for more than 200 people! Every time we create a weaving job, we can divert a whole family (including the kids) from slash and burn agriculture, help break the cycle of debt slavery, and ensure that 100 percent of their children can go to school instead of working in the fields.
Additionally, we have helped dozens of weavers through financial literacy training and helped them build their first savings accounts through our Kiva partnership. We help make sure that every weaving family has full Thai citizenship and access to public services (schools, public health, etc.).
When you create enough jobs, it has the effect of pulling the entire community out of poverty and empowering people to build the future they dream for themselves.
What is one of your favorite stories from Yellow Leaf Hammocks?
RC: One of the things that has been amazing is going back to Thailand and seeing the changes that are taking place on the ground. We will come back and see that people have tile floors in their houses where there used to be dirt or watch kids start to outgrow their parents because they’ve had better childhood nutrition. It makes everything we are doing in our San Francisco office feel more tangible and provides that boost of energy that you need to keep making it happen.
You point out that Yellow Leaf Hammocks is not a charity. Why do you prefer to run the organization as a for-profit business? What insights do you have regarding the benefits of running a venture as a for-profit business rather than a nonprofit?
RC: The number one reason we launched as a for-profit business (and a certified “Best for the World” B Corp) is financial sustainability. We believe that a market-based, mission-driven business is the best way to ensure the long-term viability of this solution.
There is definitely a place for charity and aid in the fight to end poverty, but that can only go so far. Donors can dry up, causes can be forgotten, and it can be hard to get all of the scattered pieces of the puzzle in place in order to truly overcome poverty in a community.
By running as a business, we force ourselves to be results-oriented and ensure that these artisan jobs will be available for the long haul. Our weavers are empowered by doing incredible work, instead of being ashamed and reliant on handouts.
We also think it’s important to put product first. We have the most gorgeous designs and the best construction of any hammock out there. This shouldn’t be a product that people are buying out of guilt - this is what you buy when you want to own the best, most comfortable hammock in the world - and the social impact is the icing on the cake.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of starting their own mission-driven business? What mantra should entrepreneurs repeat to themselves over and over?
RC: I have two signs above my desk. One says, “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome” and the other says, “Hustle.”
The first one is to remind myself that what we are creating is amazing. It is literally life-changing for thousands of people, and I should be excited and emboldened by that every single day. It’s a huge responsibility, but also the best job in the world.
The other sign is to remind me that big ideas are nothing without execution. Those moments when you get to hug a proud mom with a great new weaving job or jump on a stage to share your story are few and far between. What this all boils down to is making things happen, which is far from glamorous! It’s hard work and sometimes (gasp) boring, so make sure you remember that social entrepreneurs make spreadsheets, too.
What is your vision for Yellow Leaf Hammocks moving forward?
RC: We are just getting started! Our goal is to support 1,000 artisan jobs by 2018. That’s the big number circled in our heads for the short-term.
We just took on our first small round of funding, so we are dedicating that to growing our wholesale business and introducing some cool new products in 2015. We’re in talks for some more really cool partnerships, so hopefully there will be some announcements on that front soon.
We envision this brand growing to embody the full scope of the “hammocking” lifestyle that we believe in. There are not a lot of companies out there that can offer a fun outdoor lifestyle, a commitment to conscious living, and a direct social impact.
We also want to be mentors, friends, and role models to other job-creating social entrepreneurs. We want to stand as proof that it is possible to build a profitable, positive company without any special connections, insider knowledge, or rich uncles. If young people have a choice between going to work for a big consulting firm or a tech giant versus bootstrapping an impact start-up, we want to be there giving them the thumbs up and telling them to go for it!