Interview with a Bonsai Tree Entrepreneur

in Entrepreneurial, Internet related jobs, Jobs you may not have heard of

1

Read as Ashley Carrier talks about his cool business of selling Bonsai trees and accessories online.  You can find him and his business at www.BonsaiOutlet.com.  You can also find them on their Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview.  

What do you do for a living?

  • · I am a businessman with a passion for the art of Bonsai.bonsai tree
  • · I’ve always been entrepreneurial. My dad has always worked for himself in the construction industry. I liked the independence he enjoyed.
  • · At the University of New Brunswick, (UNB) the Canadian Government recruited me to teach small businesses how to use email / Internet. I also worked part-time as a teachers assistant and started my first web development business – Create–A-Page. It paid the rent while in college.
  • · After graduating, I worked for several companies – always in marketing. I learned a lot of valuable experience and travelled. I was sent to places like Mexico, Chile, China, etc.. To market the products I was managing.
  • · I moved from Canada to the US in June 2000. I was looking for new opportunities, and Kronos Incorporated (an HR management company) hired me as a Product Marketing Manager. I helped launched their successful Biometrics Time & Attendance time clock, and other software applications. I worked there for 7 years. (It’s where I met my wonderful wife!)  I learnt a lot from this company and I worked for wonderful bosses.
  • · While working at Kronos, my wife got me a bonsai tree for my birthday. This is where both my passion and my entrepreneurial streak kicked in. I started another business called Bonsai Outlet.com  I couldn’t find affordable bonsai gardening tools or educational information for a novice to help me keep my gift tree alive.
  • · Still not ready to go on my own, I left Kronos in 2007. I started consulting and took on a 3-month contract (part-time) that lasted 2 1/2 years. During that time I launched another business called 190west. To make Bonsai Outlet successful, I had to market the commerce website. I learned everything I could about SEO and online marketing.
  • · My old VP friends quickly realized that I was good at optimizing websites so they hired me, through 190west to optimize their corporate websites, products, and services.
  • · In 2010 I was ready to jump in with both feet. My wife was employed and had healthcare insurance; since we have two children, healthcare insurance is important.
  • · I rented office and warehouse space so I could manage both businesses from the same location. 190west needs cleans offices and Bonsai Outlet needs warehouse space. I moved several times as the business grew, every time costing more in rent and utilities. Every jump made me nervous – but this is what entrepreneurship is all about.

How would you describe what you do?

In one word, Everything! I have employees to help support both businesses, and they’re wonderful. Great people is what makes businesses. But ultimately, no one is as passionate about your business (products & services) as you are. I live and breathe my businesses – ask my wife. We can be on vacation and if the website goes offline, I’m on the phone.

I enjoy what I do and it’s very rewarding. But I don’t have the luxury of saying that I’m only going to focus on marketing today. I try to block off time for certain tasks, but in reality, I focus on what needs attention. After my family goes to bed in the evenings, I focus on the medium – long–term strategy. I research new ideas, exchange emails with potential partners, write mini-plans, etc… I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What does your work entail?

You can often find me in a suit & tie shipping products. I’m hands on, because I enjoy it. I call customers, I process returns, and I mix soil bags. It’s becoming increasingly more difficult as both businesses continue to grow.

I understand that I provide the most value to my businesses when I’m not filling bags of soil, but I still enjoy being hands on. I spend a lot of time on the phone strategizing with 190west customers. Every client is a new boss with different business goals. Being “the boss” is demanding. So when I get a chance to stand in front of a fill station, in the warehouse, it’s downtime.

What’s a typical work week like?

Our clients do not visits the office or warehouse, but I get up every morning, get dressed, and I’m at the office by 8:30am. I leave at 4pm to pick up our son & daughter from daycare. My day resume at 9pm when the kids go to bed.

When I’m not offsite with clients, I start off my day by looking at the financials. I’m looking for trends and opportunities. Then I’ll call my colleagues and follow up on milestones. I also spend a lot of time calling customers, vendors, partners, and suppliers. I’ll pay bills, look at our analytics, send invoices, write down cost cutting ideas, and look for ways to grow the business. It never stops. When my office day ends, I’ll call designers, developers, and colleagues on the drive home. I want to know is our designer is on track with next weeks newsletter, talk to the developers about enhancements and milestones, talk to vendors and ask why items haven’t shipped, etc… every day is full.

In the evenings, every evening at 9pm, I drink an espresso or latte.  I take out my iPad and I read articles from various business magazines like Inc or Fortune, for inspiration. I look at customer service emails and start thinking of ways to grow my business or solve business problems.

How did you get started?

Bonsai Outlet began with a well-intended Birthday present. . .

2001                                                            

Inspirational Spark: Ashley received an indoor bonsai tree as a Birthday gift from his then girlfriend (happily, now his wife, Kristin). Jade Trees have a high success rate with rank beginners, and mine thrived, piquing my curiosity in the art and science of bonsai

A period of intense interest and research into everything bonsai began. Being an international business grad, I  also investigated the commerce aspects of my new hobby

2002

I interviewed local experts and overseas friends living in Japan and China to determine which tools are essential; relied on international business contacts; made the plunge and began  importing the company’s first Bonsai tools and supplies. The first shipments arrive, and (surprise!) hundreds of tools begin filling up the garage. Do we really need so many tools to take care of the little trees?

A new website was populated with quickly-written product descriptions, sometimes with terminology switched around (and soon corrected)

A friend and I began shipping the tools and supplies from my garage, with their first sale on March 25. (Many great enterprises have started in garages! –think Steve Jobs.)

Partnerships with several growers were established to supply beautifully-trained bonsai trees and to ensure they are healthy

Original jade bonsai tree continues to thrive 

2003

Building the Sterling Reputation of Bonsai Outlet: After my partner departed I go solo and rename the fledgling company Bonsai Outlet.
Bonsai Outlet website re-launches June 2003

People show up at the house to buy tools from Bonsai Outlet!

Bonsai Outlet is building a following for good tools and gaining a reputation for great customer service

Individuals and bonsai clubs start to know and ask for the Bonsai Outlet brand, and sales increased monthly

Original jade bonsai continues to thrive, and I discover a passion for tropical indoor bonsai trees

2005

Bonsai Outlet’s reach builds: I ship products to every state, people and clubs start to know who we are, as sales increase monthly

Bonsai Outlet is added to the American Bonsai Society Vendor Registry

Wedding bells

Original jade bonsai continues to thrive

2008:

Growth of Bonsai Outlet: Bonsai Outlet is regularly importing tools and supplies by the container-full from Japan and China

Operations moved to a 1,500 square foot warehouse in Westminster, MA

Original jade bonsai still thriving, Ashley’s passion grows and his collection now numbers about 20 trees

2009

Bonsai Outlet is thinking of the greater good: First discussions about an online educational community

2010

Learning2Bonsai, an online educational community is launched on BonsaOutlet.com as an interactive Q&A, an interactive chat, archived, searchable articles and a community of bonsai people.

2011

Bonsai Outlet celebrates ten-year anniversary! 50,000 healthy trees are safely shipped.

Customer recognition of tool quality and excellent customer service provided causes second expansion. Operation moves to 5,000 square feet of warehouse in Fitchburg, MA

Bonsai Outlet Facebook business page launched

Original jade bonsai still thriving

2012

February 21 Dave’sGarden.com announces their Garden Watchdog Top Five Awards and includes Bonsai Outlet in their Bonsai category!

Bonsai Outlet continues success by strategically merging with the JoeBonsai.com operation who was interviewed by the Martha Stewart organization and by and Southern Living.

Tinyroots™ Bonsai Tools, a brand of performance-based luxury tools, and Bonsai Outlet becomes the first U.S. retail importer of this premium brand of precision tools.

Original jade bonsai still thriving

What do you like about what you do?

Let’s face it! I don’t have much time to bonsai garden anymore, but I enjoy the freedom that running my own business gives me. Every day is a new challenge. I never watch the clock or surf the internet waiting for 4pm to arrive. In fact, I schedule a reminder to make sure I don’t forget the kids in my busy schedule.

Because I’m passionate about my products / and the service we provide, it translates into what I do.

I also enjoy the freedom. In the summer, I reserve every Friday morning for golf with a group of business owners. It’s not a normal 40-hour work week (more like 60-80 hours), but I can take off in the afternoon and play with my son. I like being in control of my destiny, but it can also be a daunting challenge.

What do you dislike?

If you sweat the small stuff, you won’t make it. Not every battle is worth fighting. My rules are fairly simple. Customer service is a priority. And I want every item to ship as quickly as possible, but never longer than 48 hours. I shop online and I hate waiting for packages.

The buck stops here. I’ve aligned myself with like-minded business owners to help me answer questions or think through ideas. I work when things need to get done, and that includes weekends. I remember the 9-5 corporate days, but I wouldn’t change anything.

How do you make money/or how are you compensated?

I make a good living, but I never entered the business thinking I had to make a specific figure. Maybe that’s the wrong way to think of it. My wife makes good money and we have daycare for the family. I take risks daily but I’m employed and will continue to be employed if I work hard.

I pay myself a weekly owners draw.

How much money do you make?

My total compensation is directly related to our sales. This year I expect to pay myself in the $100,000 range

How much money did/do you make starting out? 

Not a lot. When I started BonsaiOutlet.com (as a hobby) in 2001, I re-invested all the profits for a long time, purchasing more inventory, re-designing the website, streamlining the delivery and so forth, in order to build the business. I went an entire year without any compensation from my start up, but at that time I was still working full time in corporate world. I wanted to have the best website, the most inventory without borrowing money from the bank or from friends. I saved and re-invested all the profits. I’d do it again the same way. World Class customer service, answering every email, every phone call, and great products is what helped us to build our reputation and to grow to where we are today – one of the largest bonsai retailers with more than 50,000 healthy trees safely shipped (so far!) in eleven years.

What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?

I have an International Business & Marketing undergrad. Does it help me with my business, of course! I think my experience in the corporate world has given me a lot of structure as well. More importantly, you need to have a plan, and work your plan. Expect that the competition will replicate and copy what you do. You need to understand sales and marketing to adapt, you need to understand basic financial information to ensure you’re profitable. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Hire a bookkeeper to help you with profit & loss. Talk to other business owners in like or unrelated industries and don’t be afraid to execute ideas.

Stay true, make friends with your competitors, be aggressive, and remember, the customer is ALWAYS right.

What is most challenging about what you do?

The customer is ALWAYS right – customer service can be challenging. I enjoy talking to people about bonsai gardening and the products we offer, but not everyone calls to buy something. With more than 50,000 trees sold, some people call to say they want a replacement tree – five years after their initial purchase, because they didn’t realize it needed to be watered, etc. Now that’s a challenge!

What is most rewarding?

The cards, emails, and voice mails we receive from happy customers is a reward in itself. Going to a trade show and having someone say “I know you!”. Being able to do what I enjoy and providing for my family. I’m new to the area we live in now. To meet other business owners, I joined BNI and the chamber of commerce. That has helped me tremendously. Not from a sales perspective, but I’ve been able to network with other business owners, find new sources for products, a new lower cost warehouse, learn how to insure my business, and trade experiences and war stories.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Do something you’re passionate about, not only because of the financial opportunities. If it’s something you enjoy doing, etc… it’s not a job. You’ll enjoy going to the office every day. Work your plan. Some days will be harder than others, but keep you head up, take a day off, etc…

How much time off do you get/take?

I can take any day off that I want, but I don’t. In the summer, I take every Friday morning to golf with my friends but even that is an exchange of business ideas. I’ve taken a week-long vacation now and again but I always bring my iPad, computer, and iPhone and always get a little work in – when the family is asleep. I’m not a micro-manager, but I want to know how things are going at the office / warehouse. What were sales like today, did the email campaign release as expected, did we remember to ship Mr. Smith the gift for his wife, and so forth. Vacations are different as a business owner. A couple years ago, we rented a lake house. While everyone was enjoying their leisure, I was responding to emails – that’s okay, I don’t mind it. But your significant other has to be understanding.

What is a common misconception people have about what you do?

Selling bonsai trees is pretty cool. People always asked how they’re kept small, etc… but they think it’s a small mom & pop business. They don’t think that we can ship hundreds of orders per day. Friends & family think that I’m in the backyard pruning trees.

What are your goals/dreams for the future?

I don’t think Google or Facebook will be interested in buying a bonsai gardening business, so it will likely become a family business. We continue to grow organically and by acquiring other bonsai businesses. I would eventually like to hire more strategic colleagues and a General Manager so I can spend more time watching my kids grow. I flew to Florida with my son last year (he’s 3) and he loves to fly. I’d love to show him (and my infant daughter) the world someday.

What else would you like people to know about your job/career?

Be passionate and true to yourself. And Good Luck!

1

Helped or inspired? Leave a comment!
You can also ask questions and answer them in the comments section as well.

Previous post:

Next post: