Recently, at Sprout we were proud to celebrate our 3-year anniversary.
It has been a wild journey, growing from one to 18 employees, opening up offices in Copenhagen and Boston and currently selling over 450,000 pencils each month.
There have been ups and downs, of course. I have made mistakes, worked my butt off and my hair has started to turn grey. But you know what? It has been worth all the efforts and I feel so much wiser now than three years ago.
Summerizing my lessons, I have pointed out five important ones that I would like to share with you. Hopefully you will feel inspired and motivated to start a business or take the one you have to the next level.
1. The team – not the idea
People often think that the good idea is the main reason why a company has success. But this is not true. You can have lots of good ideas, but if you don´t have a team to back them up and execute in a smart manner, then the ideas are worth nothing.
One of the things that I have spent hours on when Sprout started to grow is hiring people. Finding the right candidates with the right attitude and skills has been vital in the initial phase of building up a startup. I have read through all the resumés and personally interviewed all the candidates for a given job in Sprout. The most important thing when finding the right person is the mindset. Since we are a startup with a passion for recycling and sustainability, you must show some interest in these topics.
But more importantly; you must be a team player and willing to help across the board at all times. I have been packaging pencils myself for our webshop at Christmas and so has everyone else in the team. Having a supportive team around you is crucial and my job is to make sure that everyone feels some kind of ownership of the success that we are experiencing in Sprout. If your employees are successful, so is your business.
Most important is the sentence I learned from another Danish entrepreneur : ”Always hire slow, but fire fast”. Meaning you should always be careful when hiring, but never hesitate if you realise you have made a mistake.
2. Passion – not money
This sounds like a cliché, but in my experience money alone cannot drive you to success. Of course making money motivates and makes you go that extra mile to achieve your goals. But if it had not been for my passion, then I would have given up more than once; especially in the beginning when times were tough and I worked for months and months without getting paid.
My passion has always been in the fields of corporate sustainability. From 1993 to 2006 I lived 14 years in Indonesia where I worked most of my time as a consultant helping big companies like Nike and Wal-Mart towards a more sustainable apparel production. I have always felt great satisfaction when I could see that I made a difference, even if it was just a humble contribution to make this planet a better place.
The passion for taking care of our environment and thinking in more ecofriendly ways is still what motivates me when I wake up in the morning. And no, we cannot save the planet just by planting pencil stubs, but we CAN make people a bit more conscious about how and what they consume. So; never let money be the driver, always go with your passion. Then the money will follow
3. Believe – don´t listen
When I first started up Sprout, everyone around me was saying: “oh what a neat idea, but it can never be big business”. Even my best friend told me to give it up and find me a paid job after the first six months when I had no salary and was struggling to provide for my self and my son.
At that moment it felt tempting to listen, but I had an inner belief in this project that I just could not ignore. So I decided to carry on and give everything I could for a period of another six months and fortunately things started to work out really well. If you believe in something then go ahead and don’t let people stop you no matter how realistic or convincing they might sound.
That friend is today an investor and invested millions in the business. Always believe in yourself and what you do. If you don’t, no one else will.
4. Storytelling – not product
Today it is hard to stick out on products and prices – the competition in most markets is very tough. Instead try to focus on your storytelling. People buy dreams, stories and feelings – not only products.
In Sprout we don´t just sell pencils. We sell symbols of sustainability. We sell the good feeling that you get when you buy something that you know is 100% biodegradable and produced under decent working conditions. We sell the pride of giving a product a new life and growing your own plants.
Storytelling has been a number one tool for us since the very beginning and it is because of all the good stories we tell that thousands of bloggers and media around the world have written about us.
5. Go international
Think international, not just local. We started out in Denmark where I come from and where our main office is located. Denmark is a rich country but it has a very small population with only 5,5 million people thus the market is very limited.
I soon realized that Denmark would be a test market in order to go international. If something works out really well in one country, it can often work out in other markets too.
Today less than 5 percent of our sales has to do with Denmark; our biggest markets are Italy, US, Germany, UK and France. In the US we opened up an office in Boston to successfully enter the American market. It is important for us to have a local team with the right contacts and a knowledge about how Americans think and act which can be quite different from Europeans.