For those familiar with green products, ECOBAGS have become a staple. Sharon Rowe founded the company in 1998, with the simple mission of eliminating plastic shopping bags in the United States. Her first product was a Classic String Bag, a “simple, lightweight, expandable cotton net bag of the type used in Europe for generations.” Today, ECOBAGS is a B corporation, a member of Green America, and a leader in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The company offers a 240-piece product line and enjoys over $2.2 million in sales each year.
Rowe has built everything organically and, unlike most entrepreneurs giving startup advice, emphatically promotes the benefits of creating what she calls a “Tiny Business.”
Rowe writes about her journey and business philosophy in her new book The Magic of Tiny Business: You Don’t Have to Go Big to Make a Great Living(Berrett Koehler Publishers, May 2018), which hits the shelves this month. Using the success of Eco-Bags Products, Rowe distills a step-by-step process for building a profitable, sensibly scaled, sustainable venture that doesn’t compromise your values or take over your life. She shows readers how to test a concept, and manage money and priorities, while staying true to the “tiny” movement ethos. The following is an excerpt of our interview about her business, her path, and her new book.
Harrison: What inspired you to write the Magic of Tiny Businesses?
Rowe: I had a thought process for a long time that went like this: “If I did this so can anyone else.” I started as an actress, pieced together a living, and then launched a business to create the change I wanted to see in our culture while making sure I could also make a living. I did it because I wanted my own platform, and I wanted to be in charge of my own time. When I started, I wasn’t called an entrepreneur. If anything, I was called crazy. It was pre-internet and I had a new baby and…you can fill in the blanks.
Fast forward to 2018: I had successfully created a business that is recognized as a thought-leader and change-agent in our society. I built a category that didn’t exist — reusable bags — and sparked a movement. And I did it responsibly. Now that’s called radical transparency. In 1989, I called it being practical and humane.
I came to realize that what I was doing was way outside the norm. After years of work, when I joined the Women President’s Organization, To become a member, you had to have a business making $1-3M depending, on the type. I felt like a total poser. I didn’t go to business school, I didn’t have a business background, accounting, or a marketing degree! The other members were curious about me. They asked: How did I take so much time off? And get so much press and attention? Why wasn’t I as stressed out as they were? What, in short, was I doing differently?
So, why did I write this book now? I got a call from a friend’s daughter. She was interested in creating her own business — and frustrated by all the conventional business books she found. She said they were unapproachable, dull and mostly written by men. They didn’t reach her, or meet her need for solid information.. I know there are a lot of people out there — a lot of women — who think starting and running a business will suck the life out of them instaed of giving them a life with some magic. I wanted to debunk the cultural myths around “go big or go bust.”
Harrison: This book encourages people to build “tiny businesses.” How do you define that — and why do you encourage it?
Rowe: “Tiny” is a business approach. It’s a way to frame and structure a business to be profitable as well as support the kind of life you want for the present, as well as into the future. Take the “less is more” tenet of the tiny house movement and blend it with the Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, where mindfulness is at play. Small business is generic. It defines the size, number of employees, etc. Tiny business is different: it’s a laser focus approach, a curated approach to creating what you want and how you want to get it. It’s about getting really clear on your WHY, in order to inform how you do everything. It’s about saying “no” to pressure to scale, unless you want to go that direction. In short, it’s about making your work life work for you!
Harrison: When you talk about the “tiny” approach, what does that mean for marketing and how might it differ from other approaches?
Rowe: The “tiny” approach to marketing can be described as both guerilla and lean. We are always evaluating how to make things simpler and friendlier. We have always had a high tech/high touch approach. This translates to being good with data, and still answering the phone to talk with customers. “Tiny” is where trust can be rebuilt for business. It’s very relational. I’m not saying that every transaction has to be ‘touched’, and we do get a lot of flow-through online business. But we take the time to develop and support our customers. In many ways, “tiny business” as a concept is a return to Main Street, but through a different lens. I grew up in a family-owned Army and Navy retail store. It’s a lot like that, where intimate understanding of our customers is a big part of our success.
Harrison: You say that a tiny business is a lean business. What is a reasonable amount of money for someone to invest in a tiny start up?
Rowe: I think you can start with an idea that’s free — and test it. It all depends on how you want to grow the business, the initial set up costs. It’s industry specific. Starting a restaurant is significantly different than starting an Etsy shop. It also depends on your access to capital, both social and financial. I started with about $2,000 in 1989. I built my business over 28 years, but along the way I raised two kids, put them through college, bought a house, etc. Not everyone has that same kind of persistent, patient approach.
Harrison: If you could only share one piece of advice with potential founders, what would it be?
Rowe: Start. Figure it out. Enjoy the ride — the ups and downs! Business is an art. It’s about problem solving, with skin in the game.[“Source-forbes”]