In our fourth podcast, Hatchit catches up with Jacquelyn Rodgers of Greentop Gifts to talk about the inspiration behind her e-commerce store, the uniqueness of her clothing and merchandise line, and how she's managed to grow it from a small family startup to an emerging brand. You can listen to the podcast or read a transcript of the interview below.
Elizabeth: Welcome to Hatchit, the digital asset marketplace for Internet entrepreneurs. I'm Elizabeth Wilcox. Here today we are speaking with Jacquelyn Rodgers, CEO of Greentop Gifts. Jackie founded the niche e-commerce store in 2016 after having begun making Christmas products with more inclusive and diverse representations of race and culture. Greentop Gifts has been featured on NBC News, People Magazine, O The Oprah Magazine, and many others. Welcome, Jacquelyn.
Jacquelyn: Thanks for having me.
Impact of Covid on Business
E: We're both kind of talking to each other remotely still. It's Covid right now. I would love to start with kind of where you are right now and how the pandemic affected you with respect to your business. Has it been sort of a help to your business or have you had to pivot or shift at all?
J: Well, I'll say 2020 has been our most successful year, in spite of Covid and how it's affected everyone and people's health and families don't want to make light of that, for our business, but it definitely has been our most successful and profitable year. And I think I would attribute most of that to the fact that I quit my job in February of 2020 and started working on the business full time. But we definitely have made some pivots along the way and adjusted the way we go about marketing products and shipping products. So I'd definitely say we pivoted in the past year for sure.
E: And what exactly is your focus right now with respect to your business?
J: Our focus right now is scaling and growing our audience. We definitely want to get into some larger mass retailers. Working on some of those conversations and discussions now and making sure that our operations are streamlined to handle that type of growth. So those are kind of our main focuses at the moment.
How It All Began
E: And you began after the birth of your son at age two and you decided that you should start to make or could start to make Christmas gifts? Is that how it began?
J: Growing up, my mom was like crazy Christmas holiday. She celebrated everything. There were Christmas trees in every corner of our house. She painted angels and figurines to look brown like our family. And so that was like kind of a lot of the inspiration behind Greentop Gifts. And when I had my son, I knew that I wanted him to see images that looked like him at Christmas, too, because my mom really did a lot of that, and the products just weren't there. I decided that I was going to make my own wrapping paper to wrap his gifts with the black Santa Claus. And my husband kind of chuckled at me and it kind of started as just something I wanted for him. And it grew into a business and there was like a void in the market and other moms wanted it. So definitely started as like a passion project for my son but turned it into a company for sure.
E: And was it an online business from the start?
J: Yes, we started out e-commerce and we have a few small independent retailers that we partner with now to sell our products in, but we're mostly e-commerce.
E: And so how did you initially sort of market?
J: We started with kind of an About Us video that kind of told the story and showed me like looking in stores and cutting the sample paper and billing papers. And it kind of just told an awesome story. I can't take a lot of credit for that video doing so well. I have a sorority sister who is like an Emmy Award winning editor and works in the news.
And she shot the video for us and edited it. And I think she's a great storyteller. And so she really was pivotal in, I think, packaging it just right. And we posted it on Facebook and we posted it on Instagram. And I wouldn’t say it went viral, but it got a lot of views and people shared it and people really connected with that for their children to see representation and their memories of Christmas. And from there, I think it just kind of took off and the orders started to come in. I would say most of our marketing was through digital ads on social media.
Media and Publicity
E: And that I see that you've got a fair amount of media and press. Did that generate some press? And if so, I would imagine that would have been kind of instrumental in gaining some traction.
J: Definitely. I would say we've had a slow and steady pace for that. Year one, we picked up some local press and then year two, we got featured in Oprah magazine and Gail's section of the products and things that she loved. And so when you're featured in Oprah magazine, that kind of helps pick up other media outlets. And then NBC News, the first year picked up our product and did like an online piece.
And that is when, like, my phone was pinging and I was like, oh, people want this. And then from there, we've gotten you know, this past year, Beyonce had a woman-owned grant that she did. And we were recipients of that. And Visa and iPhone women, and so we had some really great partnerships and grants that have really helped give our business a spotlight for sure.
E: Did you have a PR person working for you? I mean, how do these people even find out about you through this video?
J: Through the video and then I had another sorority sister that works in PR full time, and we were her pet project. She kind of did some work for us for free, and wrote some press releases for us and sent them out and helped us get some interviews and press early on. And then two years ago, we hired a full PR agency to help us with pitching and getting a gift guide. But it's kind of they've all kind of, I would say, snowballed onto each other and been really great wins and Clarence has been to Oprah’s house during Christmas. I've never been to Hawaii to her house, but he has.
E: Clarence is your son?
J: Clarence Claus is the character we call him. Some of the sweatshirts, Gayle and Ava DuVernay and Oprah's family members were wearing them for Christmas, so we got to see it on social media. It's pretty cool.
Marketing and the Network Effect
E: It sounds like, in the early stages, your network was really important to you when you were building your business?
J: I would say we definitely relied heavily on our network. My background is sales. At CPG, I worked in sales and my undergrad degree was in business marketing. I would say a mix of using the skills that I had in corporate and then really using our network. My husband and I both went to historically black colleges and so we relied heavily on our HBC network and reached out to friends that worked in fields that we thought align with things that can help us with the business – two of my sorority sisters, one in PR and one that worked in video.
We relied heavily on going to historically black college homecomings and passing out flyers in October about our product that was coming in December. And we wore Christmas shirts in October. If you were at a tailgate, you see somebody in a Christmas t-shirt, you're like, what the heck? We really relied a lot on that market because it was our core demographic at these homecomings and football games. And we passed out buttons and stickers and flyers to kind of generate a buzz. We definitely relied heavily on our networks, which I think is something at first, a kind of a scary thing to ask, but I've got more comfortable with asking.
E: Yeah, interesting. And it was really in the initial stages, a lot of grassroots marketing. I mean, it was sort of, for lack of a better word, sort of guerilla marketing, you know, getting on the ground and wearing your Christmas shirt in October. And people kind of looking at you, giving them a flyer, showing them samples, and then growing from there.
J: Yes. There was no big marketing budget. We were on a shoestring budget for sure when we started it.
E: And you say “we” a lot. Who is the “we” and who was the “we” originally and who is the “we” now in terms of your business?
J: When we started it, my husband and I co-founded it. He has a finance background and I have a marketing and sales background. And so I think we're a good balance for each other, because whereas I'm all creative and excited about everything, he's strictly like, what is the return on this? And does this make sense financially? We balance each other out a lot. And then from there we had a friend that helped with PR and now our team has kind of grown and expanded. We have a social media coordinator that manages our community online.
We have two graphic designers and illustrators that help us create new products that we're working on. And we also have a person that manages our PR and then our warehouse that manages all of our fulfillment orders. We’ve definitely grown from the two of us packing orders in our garage to now having a team of people in a warehouse that pack orders for us. So those are ways we have scaled and to be very thankful that I don't have to pack the boxes anymore.
E: Are you just Christmas focused still or have you expanded your target and sale time?
J: We are launching some new items that we're super excited about in the next few weeks that are not just Christmas. So birthdays, baby showers and graduation. And there's a lot of moments and celebrations that still don't have a lot of diversity. And so we're expanding. Our society is multi-cultural and I think kids want to see themselves in textures and skin tones and facial features or freckles or gaps or braces. And there's a lot of kids that don't see that representation when they look on the shelves and we want to provide that. So, yeah, we're expanding and I'm super excited about these new products.
E: So that's fantastic. And you mentioned when we began, you were talking about the pivot right now. So that might be a part of the pivot, but also in terms of how you're distributing, is that a part of the pivot right now? And what other facets of your business have shifted over the last 12 months?
J: Yes, I would say one of the first things where we pivoted was when we realized early on that the postal carrier shipping carriers were experiencing delays. And we tried to move our launch of Christmas products up. Our family pajamas that we sold in typically November, we moved those up to October to allow people to order early and to help to kind of mitigate that delay that was coming with the shipping carriers. I think that was kind of the first pivot. It was just really marketing Christmas much earlier.
A lot of retailers do that, too. And so that was kind of the first pivot. And we also started to sell masks, because we have to wear a mask or we're encouraged to wear a mask, we should say. And so we started selling masks with Clarence Claus on the face and then we've been selling some since then that have Greentop Gifts on them. It's another way and another product that we thought consumers still needed. And it was a way to be festive with your mask. And then since then, we know that we want to gain a larger audience. So we're interested in retail. We are looking at retailers and testing that out and looking at ways we can continue to scale our business. And as far as the birthday and the graduation, baby shower, that was kind of always on the plan. I won't call that one a pivot. But that's just kind of new product innovation in our products.
Juggling a Full-time Job and a Startup
E: When you first began, it sounds like you were working full time when you first started the business. So you'd be working in the evenings and you had a two year old obviously at that time. How could you have done that? I mean, it sounds like your husband was working full time.
J: It was so much fun. And I felt like I had a battery in my back because I wanted the product so bad and I was excited about it that it didn't feel like work. It was fun. And so I literally would work from home and then I'd travel to see customers with my day job. I was traveling a lot and we have a great village that I can't not mention. We have great support from my mom and my dad and my in-laws. They were super helpful with helping us with our son. But for most days, I worked eight to five. I'd get off work, pick my kid up from daycare, and then we would do dinner.
My husband would come home. We'd get our son settled for bed. I'd spend a little time with my husband and then I would literally work until one, two or three in the morning on the business and respond to emails from manufacturers or from people during the day and take photos of the product, upload those to the website, creating ads. I did it all in the very beginning. But it sounds crazy when I say it now. But at the time, I just wanted it to happen and to see the end result that I was so focused on it. And then occasionally my husband would tap me like, please close your laptop and go to sleep. But yeah, it was a lot of late nights and weekends for sure.
E: Well, and looking back at that time, if you were to say the reason why I was able to get it from a startup that I worked on from five until 1:00 in the morning to where it is now, what would you say are some key factors in that?
J: I think the passion for wanting it for my son, knowing the other moms wanted it. I read this quote a long time ago about ideas have expiration dates. And after hearing that, I knew that I wanted to get it done as soon as possible, because I didn't want someone else to get to market with something similar or for the time to pass or the interest to pass. And I was really adamant and determined to do it. And I just felt like there was a need for it and I really wanted to see it through. So, I think that was pretty much it.
Working on a Startup with Your Spouse
E: Yeah. And how's it been working with your husband? I imagine that probably has challenges and I would think there are some aspects or some principles that you integrate. You do this, and I do that, or we don't talk about it at dinner or you mentioned how your husband would say turn off the phone. What would you recommend if one is starting a business with a spouse or a partner? What are some takeaways?
J: My first takeaway I would say is communication and understanding when and how to communicate with your spouse if you run a business together. I've known my husband for almost 18 years, so we dated for a long time and then we've been married for 11, he'll probably say that I said that wrong, but I think it's 11 years. And so because of that, we know each other pretty well. But I learned I wake up at six and five when we get up and I want to discuss my list in my brain that I wrote down from the night before. I have like a list of things I want to discuss, from accounting to marketing to a change we're going to make in shipping. And he doesn't want to talk at that time. He wants to talk at 11 p.m. at night when I'm ready to now go to sleep.
And we had to figure out, OK, these two times don't work because I'm exhausted and then you're just trying to brush your teeth. So we have to find a time during the middle of the day, where we can kind of set a time. We make appointments and schedule times. OK, this is when we want to sit down and these are things we want to talk about, because we know that both of us are not engaged at our prime times. And so I really found that to be super helpful. And then knowing that sometimes we will say, OK, we're going to dinner, but tonight we're not going to talk business. We're going to just pretend it doesn't exist. And this is just going to be our family dinner.
And now we have a two-year-old and a six-year-old, and our kids now will tell us, like, put your phone down. They are part of that checking in now and making sure that we're engaged in family time. But it can be difficult. I think that's the biggest thing. And knowing, his lane is more finance. And I try not to interject with that. I mean, I might have questions or give my thoughts, but we know our lanes and where to defer. He's not going to tell me, ”I think you should go with yellow instead of teal”, he's not going to go in my lane like that. So it comes with time, but communication first.
E: Is he full time on this business as well or does he still have his day job?
J: He still has his day job. He does his day job. He checks in and wants to participate in certain parts of it now because his day job is super busy. And as our business is growing, I can't schedule a lot of things around his schedule. There's a lot of it where it's kind of shifting and changing.
E: What do you see in your perfect world? Where do you see this business ultimately going?
J: In a perfect world, I see this business growing into content and licensing and children knowing our characters and products when they are in stores or they see them on television. And we become like a household entity of a Disney or a Hallmark that is like the ultimate goal for our brand. I have so many ideas and products that I want to create for kids that I think are missing. And so now it's just getting the capital and moving with speed to successfully launch them all.
E: That sounds like possibly a multimedia kind of business.
E: Interesting. So maybe radio and television and books and all sorts of things.
E: I would think there is an opportunity right now, particularly with home schooling and parents really working with their children very intentionally and given, as you say, the lack of diversity in representations of America and who we are as a country, that there would be an opportunity there. Have you sort of noticed that at all over the course of the last year in terms of what parents are asking for?
J: For sure, I would definitely say we lost in 2016. And I've always, as a parent, be really intentional about the images that I show our children and the books that we buy and all of those things. I really want them to see, you know, diversity and I think it's not just important for black and brown children. I think it's really important for all children to see that diversity, especially at a young age. And
I think 2020, really, George Floyd’s death and just 2020 brought that to a forefront. His loss of life should have never happened, of course. That's such a sad moment. But I think out of that, there has been conversations, some more authentic than others – phone companies and brands – that are really trying to make change. And so I definitely have seen a shift and a spike in our business from that. And I think it will continue. I hope it continues.
Where "Greentop" Came From
E: Well, it's been really fascinating talking to you. And I can see and understand how your company has been such a success. I mean, what a need we have. One last question for you. Was that Greentop just because of a Christmas tree or is there another story behind that?
J: There's another story. My grandfather had a restaurant bar in Hillsboro, North Carolina that was called Greentop. And it was at the time a place where African-Americans could go and drink. And one of the only places of its kind in the county at the time. And it was a source of celebration. And I obviously could never go there. But I heard fond stories from my dad who shined shoes there as a kid and my dad's friends that talked about memories from Greentop. And so it was kind of our family's first start in entrepreneurship. It's just an ode to that legacy.
E: Wow, what a great story. I love it. Well, I'm glad I asked.
J: I'm happy you did too.
E: When I saw the name, I thought maybe it's just because of the Christmas tree and the green top of a Christmas tree, but there's got to be more to it than that. Thank you so much for talking to me today. It's been fascinating and wish you the best of success, both as a business owner and as a mom and a wife. And you've got a lot of hats and really amazing that you have accomplished what you have already. So best of luck to you and thank you so much for talking today to us.
J: Thank you.