Company: Yellow Leaf Hammocks
Entrepreneur: Joe Demin
Location: San Francisco, CA
Website: Yellow Leaf Hammocks
Twitter: Yellow Leaf Hammocks Twitter
Facebook: Yellow Leaf Hammocks Facebook
YouTube: Yellow Leaf Hammocks YouTube
Flickr: Yellow Leaf Hammocks Flickr
Joe Demin may be the Yellow Leaf Hammocks’ Chief Relaxation Officer, but he is about much more than just finding a great place to take a nap in one of the comfortable hammocks his company produces. As one of the new wave of socially conscious entrepreneurs, Joe Demin has found a way to do good things for both a disadvantaged society and the environment, while providing a quality product that people actually want to buy.
During a trip to Thailand in 2010, Joe Demin happened upon the most comfortable hammock he ever had the pleasure of laying in. This one act lead to a chain of events that culminated in the founding of Yellow Leaf Hammocks. In this installment of Talking Small Biz, Joe talks about his entrepreneurial journey, including how Kickstarter helped him fund his latest product, and how small businesses can actually be socially conscious, and profitable, at the same time.
The name Yellow Leaf Hammocks refers to the Mlabri tribe of Southeast Asia, who make your hammocks. How important was it for your company’s name to be tied so closely with those that it is also helping?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: The name spoke to me from the very start. Not only does it tie into our mission, but I think it also calls to mind a lot of what our brand is about – capturing our appreciation of nature, our love of bright, cheerful colors, and the light-hearted cheeriness of the hammocking lifestyle! I think that as our mission leads us to expand and grow in the future, it will be incredibly powerful to capture the history and origin of Yellow Leaf within our brand name.
You went from having a corporate career to starting a company with the purpose of helping a disadvantaged society build a better future for themselves. That is quite the change in career path. Was helping make the world a better place something you always wanted to do, or was it a revelation you had after your trip to Thailand in 2010?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: I’ve always believed profitable businesses could also do good in the world. I think I felt the same frustration a lot of people feel with the irresponsibility and greed of massive corporations damaging our economy, and our environment. But I think that the moment I jumped in a hammock in Thailand was a huge turning point for me. After hearing the story of the Mlabri People, and seeing that something as straightforward as creating a good job could be responsible for a whole host of social change, through hammocks, we are stopping toxic slash and burn deforestation, sending kids to school, helping people lobby for their civil rights, creating healthier communities. I think that after seeing an opportunity like that to change the world, there was never a chance I was going to walk away.
Yellow Leaf Hammocks got its start in Boston, but you moved the company to San Francisco in 2011. What prompted the move?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: We drew a lot of inspiration from my roots in Massachusetts – we wanted people to be able to jump into a hammock and have the same feeling you had when you head down to Cape Cod for the summer, like all your worries just drift away. Ultimately, though, San Francisco is ground zero for the social enterprise movement. If you were a writer in the 1920s, you went to Paris. If you’re a social entrepreneur in the 21st century, San Francisco offers a vibrant, inspiring community, and the network and support to rapidly amplify your impact.
Yellow Leaf Hammocks is one of the increasing number of socially conscious companies that allows individuals to make a difference by buying a product that they might desire or need. While someone might not be into donating to charities, they certainly like the idea of purchasing a product that they can actually use, and the fact that it is helping someone might not be at the forefront of their mind at the time of purchase. Is your typical customer one that is looking for a way to help someone less fortunate, or are they just the average Joe looking for the best hammock?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: That’s a great question and it reaches right to the heart of what we are trying to achieve, which is to reframe “socially conscious shopping.” I think what’s exceptional about our weavers is that they have adapted their traditional weaving skills to make something that’s stylish and useful and luxurious – regardless of the mission behind it, these hammocks are a viable, free market product. In our marketing and branding, we are product-oriented, not mission-oriented.
But on the other hand, the cool thing is that the mission and products really are inextricably linked. Our weaves were designed with the help of a Swiss textile engineer, and their comfort can’t be replicated by a machine, so the artisan craftsmanship is inherent to the quality of the product. No matter the reason behind your purchase, to some degree, you are going to be building a connection with the person whose family you are supporting by relaxing in your hammock.
Bottom line: If someone is shopping for a great hammock, they can’t do better than Yellow Leaf. Our proprietary weaves are extraordinarily comfortable and strong – not to mention “anti-flip”. People love our stylish designs and the fact that they can custom design their own hammock. For our strength, beauty, durability, and comfort, our customers absolutely love us.
The core of the company is centered on the Four Pillars of Sustainability. Essentially, you want to create positive social change in an environmentally and socially sensitive manner. This is opposite the typical corporate mantra of profit first; environmental and social consequences second. More small businesses seem to be shifting their values towards ones that align more with yours. While profit still needs to be a factor, do you think that the typical entrepreneur can benefit from being more socially conscious?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: For me, this is the first company I’ve ever started and I just can’t imagine doing it any other way. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but it’s definitely something that’s built into our DNA as a company. It seems like it must be incredibly easy to build a company that cuts corners, degrades the environment, devalues its employees, but I would never feel proud of a penny that I earned that way.
It’s definitely more of a challenge to do the research, to find ways to incorporate sustainable practices into everything we do. But in the end, it’s completely worthwhile. I’m up to that challenge because I want everyone in our community to feel like they can trust us, and feel wholeheartedly excited about everything we are doing.
I think that companies who are willing to put forth the effort and lay the groundwork for true sustainability are going to be the ones who people look to, as we all try to create more good in the world.
Most entrepreneurs have heard of S-Corps and C-Corps, but Yellow Leaf Hammocks is a B-Corp, or benefit corporation. This is a brand new type of corporate structure that has only been adopted by a few states in which public benefit is put on par with the benefit of its shareholders. Instead of concentrating solely on shareholder profit, a B-Corp is designed to benefit society, as well. This is a great concept, and one we should all hope will really take off!
As a B-Corp, Yellow Leaf Hammocks is one of a growing number of socially responsible companies putting public good ahead of corporate profit. Are you able to use this status as a selling point for your products, or is the public not aware of what a B-Corp is, so this doesn’t have much of an influence on your customer’s buying decision?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: Becoming a B-Corp has been absolutely invaluable to us in terms of the community of entrepreneurs and the partnerships we’ve been able to forge. I would recommend it to any social entrepreneur, not just for those opportunities to connect, but because the B-Corp assessment really helps you dig deep into your business and look at the impact you are having, and continue to find ways to improve.
B-Corp is a new concept to a lot of people, but they catch on to the idea really quickly, and I definitely think it helps validate us in the eyes of new fans. It can be hard to weed through all of the cause-marketing and green-washing out there and feel like you can trust a new company to really be doing what they promise.
Hammocks tend to be a seasonal use item. It is hard to enjoy swinging between two trees when there is snow on the ground! To help customers enjoy their hammocks year-round, you have decided to expand your product line to include a stand that allows use of a hammock inside, or anywhere a suitable tree can’t be found.
To help fund the prototype, as well as start up production of the stand, you decided to set up a KickStarter project. (Kickstarter is a way for individuals and companies to fund all types of projects through crowd funding.) It seems like a great way to raise some capital, without going the traditional investor route. Tell us a little about your Kickstarter experience, and why you chose this funding method.
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: Kickstarter was an amazing experience. It was exhilarating and exhausting, but ultimately really rewarding. From the beginning, we knew Kickstarter was the perfect way to fund-raise. We have been bootstrapping every step of the way, so there is not any extra money laying around to invest in this type of project. But we really want to avoid taking on investors because we want to maintain control over our social mission, and be able to send as much money back into the community as possible.
It was immensely gratifying to see our friends and family show their support at the beginning and then watch as the idea spread via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and word of mouth. We got pledges from as far as New Zealand and Singapore! We are still staying in touch with backers and keeping everyone posted as the stand moves toward our official launch.
I would warn people thinking about launching a campaign that it is really like having an extra day job on top of starting your company.Think long and hard about whether you have the time and energy to do both at once!
Kickstarter seems like a great way to not only raise some capital, but also to get the word out about your company and its mission. Yellow Leaf Hammocks received some great PR last year when your Kickstarter campaign was going on. Was this the intent, or was it just a nice benefit?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: The press we received during the Kickstarter campaign was amazing! We are immensely grateful to the media folks who helped us spread the word. We don’t work with a PR firm or anything like that, so all the stories you saw were just a result of people connecting with our products and our mission.
The timing of the campaign was just a result of wanting to have the stand available by spring, but once we realized that November and December had the built-in opportunity for Christmas shopping, we were really able to ramp up our outreach.
I think the lesson we learned was that if you want to get people talking about hammocks in the dead of winter, you need to give them something to talk about!
Below is the video from Yellow Leaf Hammocks’ Kickstarter project:
What challenges do you face dealing with an overseas source for your hammocks?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: Oh, man! Well, again, the fact that we are working internationally is built into the DNA of Yellow Leaf as a company. It has the potential to get a little crazy at times, though. Our operations partner over there lives on a remote tropical island, and our production force lives in remote jungle villages, so the time difference is the least of our many challenges! Despite that, we’ve worked really hard to streamline communications and operations, mainly because excellent customer service is something we pride ourselves on.
On the other hand, one of the really cool things about working within this developing micro-economy is that you can see real change happening at an accelerated rate. The villages had never had a post office before, but due to hammock weaving and sales, they were able to lobby to have one built. Now, that post office is employing other people in the community, which is a perfect example of the kind of ripple effect we hope to have.
Your company is global, with hammock production in Thailand, and your sales operation based in San Francisco. How do you use technology to coordinate the efforts of both the manufacturing and sales side of your operation?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: Some days, I feel like an iPhone commercial. It really is like a mobile office for me! I have Skype on my phone for late night calls with Thailand, I can update our site directly from my phone, too. Sometimes, I even LiveChat with customers when they have a question outside office hours. Mobility is a huge help for us as we try to run a lean operation with excellent customer service, and our technology helps us stay connected with customers and partners.
Because we really care about building connections and sparking creativity, we also try to incorporate a lot of non-tech touches. For example, with every order, we send along a Polaroid of the weaver. We encourage our customers to send us their pictures and stories, which we have up in our office as motivation!
As a child, were there any entrepreneurs in your family that may have served as role models which inspired you to become an entrepreneur yourself, or are you the first in your family to be an entrepreneur?
Yellow Leaf Hammocks: My family actually emigrated from Russia to the U.S. when I was four years old, so everything we created in the U.S. we started for ourselves. From a really young age, I knew that I had to make things happen for myself. My parents encouraged me to be self-sufficient and to go after what I wanted, which has definitely served me well in building a lean, innovative start-up!
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
Read more Talking Small Biz interviews with other entrepreneurs to learn what they are doing.