Donna Letier – Co-Founder of Gardenuity

Episode 169

Always so thrilled to have amazing entrepreneurs on #TheKaraGoldinShow! In this episode, I share my awesome conversation with Donna Letier, co-founder of Gardenuity. She takes us through the learning curves and challenges that shaped her journey and so much more. Lots of incredible tips to grow your garden and your mindset in this episode! Listen now.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be, I want to just sort of make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked out knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone, and welcome to the Kara golden show. So join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everybody, it’s Kara golden from the Kara golden show. And I’m so thrilled to have my next guest here we have Donna lightyear here for who is the co founder of garden nudity and garden knew it for those of you who are not familiar with it is this incredible garden company that delivers these beautiful little customized growing kits that really are matching customers with the best plants for their growing circumstances. And Donna is the co founder, as I mentioned, she has over 30 years experience in product development, design and retail marketing. She’s raised capital, which of course is always a hot topic for founders and people who are doing it right now. And like I said, she’s been in numerous businesses. So she has just so much education and know how and all of that which I know that we can all learn from. And she’s also spent time mentoring young entrepreneurs. I’d love to talk to her a little bit more about that. And we’ll let’s just get going and and talk to Donna. So welcome, Donna,

Donna Letier 1:56
thank you so much for having me. This is exciting.

Kara Goldin 1:59
So excited. So you and I were talking a little bit prior to going on air that you live in Dallas. And actually, Donna mentioned something to me that I’ve never really thought about because I’ve been a road warrior for many, many years, Donna lives in Dallas, and she can kind of hit both coasts, from Dallas and make them day trips, which I think is is pretty awesome. I never really thought about that. But I’m like that’s true. That’s a really great and plus Dallas is such an awesome, awesome place to be so very, very cool. So talk to me a little bit about little Donna, did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur? Did? Did you always Were you always a gardener? I mean, how did this get started?

Donna Letier 2:44
Oh my gosh, well, no, I’m not only was I not a gardener, I didn’t have a horticultural degree wasn’t a master gardener. We saw a void in the marketplace and thought we could really create an experience I like the will wellness industry. But you know, somebody asked me the other day, if I wanted to be an entrepreneur did I always know it? You know, I like to solve problems. Even as a kid I remember trying to make things better. And not being daunted by being the first to do something, you know, I was we lived in Alaska for a while. And I was the only girl on the hook on the boys hockey team. I mean, I you know, I just remember doing things and liking to solve problems. So it kind of came naturally to me and I love it.

Kara Goldin 3:28
That’s amazing. So prior to starting your company, let’s so you graduate from school, what did you do next, I

Donna Letier 3:37
went to work for Neiman Marcus. And that was such a great experience because they really knew how to create a customer journey. And Stanley Marcus, I think was one of the great Imagineers for retail. And so that was a really great place for me to learn. I remember interviewing there and the lady who interviewed me was six to and stiletto heels and scariest interview I’ve ever had to this day. But I learned so much. You know what I learned a lot about details and customer service. And, you know, I think you learn differently at different stages of your life, you know, in your 20s you listen with the idea of getting ahead. And then in your 30s you listen in a hurry, because you got a lot to do. But as I’m older now I listened with the joy of learning. And so it really was the right time to venture off into garden ot.

Kara Goldin 4:32
It’s so interesting. So your first job was with a major brand like Neiman Marcus. And you know, I think about this a lot my dad used to actually tell me that brands will always win. I mean, he was such a huge believer that you know to actually that consumers will always be attracted to brands, they may go and buy things that are cheaper. Along the way today. We call them private label, whatever but It’s so fascinating because I do believe that brands are just, I don’t know what it is about them. I guess it’s, it’s easier for the consumer to really understand what the what the promises and what the entire, you know, belief system is in some cases and and there’s a lot of trust there. So

Donna Letier 5:18
I think it’s the story behind the brand, right. Yeah. I mean, it’s you behind him. It’s you. I mean, I like to hear the customer stories, the founder stories, because it makes the product that much more real to me, and how can it fit into my life?

Kara Goldin 5:34
Yeah, I think that that’s, I think that’s so so true. So you, you went on from Neiman Marcus. And I guess you worked for one of my other favorites said, sadly, no longer stores, Barney’s that I was devastated. When Barney’s closed for sure. I was so excited when they opened in my hometown, San Francisco, you know, where I live? And then to see them close, it was just so devastating on so many fronts. So what was that like for, for you, you know, having kind of also grown up there, in some ways,

Donna Letier 6:10
you know, what, it was a great experience. For me. decisions were made when I was there differently than I was used to, I have always been kind of a data girl. So I like reading the data to help make better decisions. And it was family owned when I worked there. And so a lot of decisions were emotional. And so that was a really great learning opportunity for me to learn how family members work together, how decisions, sometimes you have to just go with the flow and and you know how to read emotion and kind of turn it to your advantage to use the data to drive the end result. So it was a great experience. I love New York, I love both coasts, having lived in both areas. And so you know, I had a great time, every place I’ve worked, I can look back on and think and thank the people I worked with, the people I worked for, and the product experience that I got to have.

Kara Goldin 7:10
So interesting. And it’s not to say that there probably weren’t challenging time. So in both of those roles, but I think looking back on what did you learn? I think it’s, it’s I always remind people, it’s, you know, you’re really missing it if you forget about those challenging times if you try and, you know, not think about them or talk about them, because I think it’s always an opportunity to learn and grow from your challenges, your failures, whatever it is.

Donna Letier 7:39
Yeah, that’s right. And when they opened, we opened the Barney store in Dallas, and it was right next to Neiman’s. And the Dallas female consumer had a different persona in fashion than the New York consumer. And so it was, you know, the the best example was, they were concerned because the shoe business was off. And I said, What, you’ve got all flats. Well, that’s what’s in stylists that I know that’s in style. And that’s what women in New York wear, but in Dallas, people are wearing heels. And you’re right next to Neiman’s. So we got to graduate them into the flat scene. And so it was just great learning curve I really loved. I’ve loved every place I’ve been.

Kara Goldin 8:21
That’s so interesting. And then you went into the publishing industry.

Donna Letier 8:26
Well, I worked for Yes, I and I loved it. I worked for borders, books. Okay, back in the day.

Kara Goldin 8:33
Oh, that’s so interesting,

Donna Letier 8:34
back in the day when they partnered with Amazon, you know, before Amazon was what it is today. And I happen to be an avid reader. So it was a great place for me is when Harry Potter books were launching their children’s music category was really growing. And that’s probably where I homed in on storytelling and creating the experience in a profitable way. Really, you know, it was great. I loved it.

Kara Goldin 9:01
What year was this at borders? Oh, my gosh, probably about five years before they closed? And was that? So? Was that the 90s? Or turn to? Yes, yeah, it was in the 90s. That’s so funny, because I ran a Noel’s ecommerce and shopping partnerships. And we the last category that I was trying to fill was with books. And this is 1996. And borders had said we wanted to create a borders bookstore. And they said no to us, and we could not they were not interested in working with America Online. And then I went to Barnes, Barnes and Noble and they said no. And so then I had heard about the sky up in Seattle, Jeff Bezos, who had started this bookstore. And so and he was definitely like, you know, the D list, right? Yeah, it was not. I mean, it was borders and Barnes and snowball where, you know, six of one half dozen on the right. That’s right. And, and so I went to Amazon and anyway, I have a crazy story there where, you know, basically I went to a warehouse and Jeff told me I was 15 minutes late, it was 515. And Jeff told me he couldn’t meet with me unless I could help him set up a bookshelf. And I said, I am the best bookshelf set or upper. I had never built a bookshelf before in my life, but he had his, you know, the pipes, the plastic pipes, I don’t know what they’re officially Yeah, where he was putting them together, he had just bought them at Home Depot. And, and, anyway, so I sat there and built for the next two hours, the bookshelves with Jeff Bezos and my other colleague. And, you know, it’s funny, because I’m in the middle of this meeting, I kept thinking, I wish we could actually do something with borders or Barnes and Noble, but they weren’t ready. And I thought maybe I do this temporarily. And then it’ll, you know, it’ll end up being, you know, eventually we’ll get there. And but I asked him like one closing question. I said, Why do you think that you’ll be successful against Barnes and Noble, and borders? And he said, Do you ever walk up to the counter at either of those stores and ask for a recommendation? And I said, Sure. He said, Do you read a lot? I said, I do. And he said, do they give you a recommendation? And I said, sometimes, but I mean, how could they know? All right, different books. And he said, the future of books. And, and everything else on the internet is recommendations. And this is 1996. Wow. And I remember thinking, right, and this is a story for entrepreneurs, because when you have a big idea, I mean, this is really this before search. Right? Right, you’ll search I mean, this before Google, is we were everything. And you know, and I remember leaving and getting on my Southwest flight and thinking, Okay, it’s a little rough around the edges. And I had to build bookcases and whatever, but he’s really smart. And, you know, and I, and so we did, we ended up working with them. And it was a tiny store. And anyways, Mike, my crazy book stories. So that’s cool. That’s a great story. There was a lot of fun. So getting back to your story. So Garden City, how did this come to be?

Donna Letier 12:34
You know what, it really starts with the mission for us. And the mission is to make gardening and gardening experiences accessible to everyone. So whether you’re in a high rise in downtown Manhattan, or a sprawling yard, in Santa Barbara, or you’re a marathon runner, or in a wheelchair, we wanted people to experience gardening. And I think that that certainly has some personal ties to me, my youngest daughter is in a wheelchair. And so I wanted I knew that gardening, through all the research did beautiful things from a wellness standpoint, mentally, physically, for, you know, for Alzheimer’s dementia, we also knew that it grew gratitude. And I think that there is a huge challenge globally with mental health. And I knew gardening was a way to tackle that. But people are afraid of gardening. And I think the sad is 90% of people on their first time garden attempt, they fail. And so it’s kind of like a four prong approach. When you get into gardening you want to we want to own and help the experience along the way, at every touch point. So, you know, how do you feel before you garden? How do you feel while you’re gardening? How do you feel during the season as you feel when you harvest and have that I grew that moment. So we’ve really defined the experience. And then we brought all the product in, which made it so much easier. You know, I I think anybody who works in a service industry for a while, you know, I was waitress, I was pizza hood. I mean, I lived overseas, and so I was, yeah, I think those kind of retail and service industry experiences make you better to define what the customer experience needs to be.

Kara Goldin 14:24
I totally agree. I absolutely agree. So you also talked about when you were explaining and reminiscing about your role at Neiman Marcus, how you learned about and at Barneys how different areas of the country might be thinking differently about certain types of merchandise. Obviously, in the case of gardening, you’ve got different zones. You’ve got different, you know, levels of gardeners as well. And what do you see is is probably the most For not only for, you know, the gardener, the gardener to be but also for you as a as a company and trying to figure this out for people and make those recommendations. Well, we

Donna Letier 15:11
knew that technology would play a big part of the experience. So we have patent pending on something called garden nudie match. And what we do is instead of just having somebody think they know what zone they’re in, most people end up failing because they plant the wrong thing the wrong time in the wrong soil. So we thought, let’s look at match. And I thought, well, dating sites are matching people all the time, why can’t we match people to plants and plants to nutrients based on what their specific needs are. So we before the whole experience starts, if you log in, in Arizona, at the same time you log in, in Maine, different garden options are going to pop up. So we only match you to what you’ll be successful planting. And that includes an algorithm that looks at predictive weather time to harvest, you know, even if the weather is great today, for me to plant tomatoes in Phoenix, I know they’re going to take 60 days to fruit, and it’s going to be too hot for them to pollinate. So I won’t be successful. So I don’t, we’re not going to perpetuate people saying See, I can’t make it work. Nothing ever grows for me, we’re not going to do that. So we only show you what you can plant at the time. And there’s some times that, you know, in Michigan in January, there’s nothing popping up. So we do have an indoor gardening experience as well, for a desktop garden. Well, I mentioned, you actually sent me a beautiful kit that was just filled with amazing little plants that even I couldn’t kill. So it was very, very easy. And I don’t know what you put in the little bottle, the little spray bottle that comes with it. But that that stuff is gold. I mean, it really, it was really, really terrific. So I found it incredibly easy, and actually just kept thinking about what a great gift for people to I bet you sell a lot of those for gifts. We do. And actually, you know, it, it’s we do a lot with corporate wellness, we do a lot with gift giving, because people realize that experiences matter. And I think they mattered before the pandemic, but they certainly are talked about more. Now, after we’ve spent time at home, and we’re looking for things to do and how can we nurture ourselves at home. So you know what the gift giving side, and the just doing side is all about the experience, we talk about the reasons we should all get a little dirty. And sometimes you’re a little afraid to try. And I think that gardening is actually it’s a great antidote for growth mindset. But it’s also a great thing for entrepreneurs, because you got to get a little dirty to get in there. You know, what’s the worst that can happen? If you make a phone call? They say no. Or they say, Yeah, you’re not right. And I and in my mind, I’m thinking, Well, I’m not right today, but I’ll call you next week. He got to kind of have some chutzpah in it. And I think I will say, being an entrepreneur, my 50s, then hoots book comes in handy that chocolate.

Kara Goldin 18:23
Yeah, I love it. That’s so great. So when you were thinking about building the company, so you know, you had this idea? And then what did you do next? What was kind of the first steps?

Donna Letier 18:35
We really built out the experience that we wanted. I mean, we said what is it that we want the customer to enjoy? What is the experience in the hole? I grew that moment, whether you’re growing a healthy child, a business, a bank account, it’s that I grew that joy, that is so rewarding. So we really mapped out the experience. Then we started meeting with technicians, and we started meeting with horticulturalists. I mean, we have, you know, spent countless hours with people who have PhDs in soil. We work with about 90 different family on farm partners across the country and telling their story and hearing their story. We really brought it all together, we have people on our team who put nutritional plans together for every single meal kit, all of the different meals that the plants need throughout their growing season. And I think the journey for me was us build the experience. Let’s get the product and let’s beta test, beta test, beta test, and we made mistakes, but it you know, when it comes together, and the community that you’re growing gets so excited that they’ve gotten to harvest something, because they’re like, oh, I’ve never been successful gardening before and they get this achievement is so exciting. And I think that it plays into so many different fields and we love it. We love what it’s doing for communities.

Kara Goldin 19:58
I love it, but that’s so great. So when you’re hiring people, so you’re a co founder, how did you find a co founder,

Donna Letier 20:05
Julie and I, she’s way smarter than me. She can, like, she’ll be coding, I can come up with an idea for an algorithm, she builds it. It’s not my skill set. And we have known each other for a long time. And we complement each other. So I met, you know, it was great for me to have a co founder who I have utmost respect for, and complete trust in. And so, for me, that’s what made the journey that much more enjoyable, because we could banter and bicker. But I know her skill set, and she knows mine. So we let each other run.

Kara Goldin 20:44
I love it. That’s great. Well, I think it’s so important. If you’re going to have a co founder to have somebody that has different skill sets from you. I so often, I think that that is, it seems like, you know, common sense one on one. But so often people will meet people, they both, you know, are really excited about an idea. And they look very, very similar on on paper, right? That right there skills are. And I think that that’s when the model really starts to break down where you know, you’ve got to have a Ying and Yang, and you’ve got to have that other person. And did you raise capital for the business?

Donna Letier 21:18
We did? And and just to finish answering other questions, I think with co founders or with your core leadership team, you have to be so aligned on values, right, you guys, everybody has to buy in on what those values are and what your core competencies are. Because that during bad times is going to get you through and that helps people make decisions when you’re not there. The businesses to run just fine. But yes, we did. We actually, I knocked on doors cold and said, I have this idea. And the idea I presented to the original investors is not exactly what we have today. We’re much smarter now. But I tell people, when I get to talk to young entrepreneurs, if you don’t look back at your first pitch deck, and you’re not mortified, then you waited too long. To get out there. And it’s and I’m I’m one of the ones who can look back and say, Oh, my gosh, what was I thinking? But literally knocked on doors. And we had some there was one family office who said, you know, he’s not investing in any startups right now. I know, I know that. But he has a history in retail, and customer experience. And he’s, he was one of the co founders of Container Store. And so I said, I just want to meet Garrett. And so I ended up meeting him and he came to my office and and the guy who had said with me that we he’s got 20 minutes, and he’s not investing. But he stayed about two hours and he’s on my board and he’s an investor. And I love never know, you never know, learn something from every meeting. And I think that’s, you know, I’m not afraid to i, i i’m not afraid. I mean, I know what I don’t know. So you can’t tell me some.

Kara Goldin 23:07
It’s so true luck that the guy that my husband and I have been married 26 years and the guy who he was my friend from high school, who introduced us they were in law school together and he still says to this day, I never would have put you to That’s funny. I know so you never know or you just have to we ended up being in the same room at the same time and the rest is history. So I always say to people like you never know all you never know that work and and see what happens and look this guy in vested and and also probably has a lot of great advice for you every day. Yeah. Which is which is absolutely so amazing. What was the thing you talked a little bit about, you know, your first step what was the thing that really surprised you? Obviously, you’ve had an amazing experience and, and with some incredible brands along the way. Obviously, you came from a different industry into this industry. What was kind of the biggest surprise about being an entrepreneur for you. Um,

Donna Letier 24:12
you know what, I actually think it has served me well not coming from the gardening industry, which sounds crazy to some people. But I came really with a customer perspective, not just said this is how we’re supposed to do it perspective. The biggest surprise has probably been how much it changes day to day. You know, you’ve got to be flexible. And I think I’ve learned how to be resilient by watching my daughter just live literally. And I think that helped me

Kara Goldin 24:48
as an entrepreneur, your daughter with special needs that you Yeah,

Donna Letier 24:52
yeah, she they said she wouldn’t live past five and she’s 23 and 80 pounds, really nonambulatory are very But she is the picture of perseverance. She just does not take no. And she just despite all the doctors, she is a survivor. And I think you kind of have to have that in your DNA to be an entrepreneur.

Kara Goldin 25:15
Yeah. And and just the curiosity and the belief. Right, right. I think all of all of those things along the way, it’s so, so incredible. So you’re you adapted during COVID? What was what was the biggest adaption that you needed to make? I guess, during during COVID,

Donna Letier 25:33
you know, what we are really, our core growth is b2b through corporate partners that we call channel partners. And so we had to quickly say, okay, they’re all sending their people home. So we’re not going to be going to do gardening workshops, and they’re not going to be getting their employees together to do gardening activities. So let’s turn to direct to consumer and focus on that, and just tell the story and let our customers tell the story for us. We had sent everybody home. So it was literally just three of us. In the warehouse, we converted our office to warehouse, and we just made it happen. I mean, it was really interesting. And then in about, I guess, June, the corporation started coming back to us. And we really embrace the zoom events, because, you know, there’s different trends happening in the corporate wellness world. And it used to be, you know, the culture is gonna, we’ve got healthy snacks, we’ve got a ping pong table, or, you know, we have afternoon cocktail hour on Friday. Well, now people are really looking for wellness initiatives. And gardening has become one of those top things. So we’re probably doing a zoom event with a corporate partner, like Salesforce, or Uber or Cigna, two or three times a day, our group is in front of them, because they’re bringing their teams together, or they’re using it to embrace and connect to their customers. But it’s all about growing together and growing wellness. So we really kind of found ourselves with our, you know, DNA being in the wellness space, coming full circle, and corporations wanting to embrace it, so that they could connect with their team members and customers in a little bit different of a way. And so whether it’s building a cocktail gardening, and having cocktails, and people actually build the garden with us, we ship them all to their houses, or patio to plate or we have a lot of growing greatness, kind of entrepreneurial events, where they’re just putting vegetable gardens together. And it’s really fun. It is fun to to get dirty with people you don’t know, right, and maybe they start bantering. And they have people who are meeting each other for the first time. And they’re chatting, and then they have these little competitions. You know, I think the regular pizza Zoo corporate event is kind of tired and stale. And so we’re in a good position to bring something fresh.

Kara Goldin 28:10
I love it. Well, we we do that we should definitely talk to you guys as well, because we’ve been doing that for our company. Yeah, throughout. And we’ve done lots of actually we just did a coffee one which was incredibly interesting that learning all about the different types of coffee and my friend over Helen Russell over at equator coffee, and her team did it for us. And another friend of mine who runs a winery did Brookes winery, and she has one of the it was the first organic recycling in the market. And she’s changed significantly. She has a whole backstory where her brother had actually passed away and she took over the winery. Never thought she was going to be in the winery. And now she’s you know, 10x the winery, and it has an incredible story to about family and passion and commitment and responsibility. Yeah. So anyway, it was, it was a lot of fun. So anyway, we should definitely talk about that as

Donna Letier 29:14
well as your whole team coming into the office now.

Kara Goldin 29:17
No, we are not. We’re probably going to start it coming in in September. But to be honest with you, we’ll probably continue to do these zoom events, because we just find that we’ve got a lot of remote people, about half of our 200 people are remote their sales people throughout the country. And we’ve got an office in New York and an office in San Francisco. But what we find is that it’s you know, it’s just a lot of fun for people to get together and we find that, you know, even the very senior people in the company and then the interns are coming on this client. And you know, we just laugh And you get to hear people’s personalities. And so it’s just a lot of fun. And my gosh, yeah, I mean, I’ll I’ll sit there on gold belly. Do you know that company? Yeah, yeah, we’ve been on. We did a pizza making. I mean, we have been so creative about this. I mean, we ordered from pizza place and Michigan. Anyway,

Donna Letier 30:20
that’s just fun. That’s, that’s a way to engage. Right? Yeah. If we could do a fun one, you know, accessorize your hint, a hint of accessory or something with with?

Kara Goldin 30:32
Well, I think that, you know, the whole idea of doing like a little miniature vegetable garden. I think that that could be really, really cool. Because I feel like that is sort of front and center with our employees too. So we’ll definitely talk more about that. So where can people find Carnoustie? also find you and hear more about everything that you’re doing? You know

Donna Letier 30:55
what guard, nudity, calm, and guard nudity is ingenuity in gardening. So it we on our website, we’ve also got a great blog called, it’s part of the website, and then LinkedIn, and Twitter and all those kinds of things. But the blog is full of it’s called the sage and is full of sage advice, not only just about gardening, but about life. So we you know what, it’s really a what we’re loving, is it, it’s a whole new way to look at gardening mean, and I think that it’s going to be something that really is impactful from a wellness standpoint moving forward. So I’m excited. Thank you so much for letting me be part of your your story.

Kara Goldin 31:40
Yeah, well, it’s a lot of fun that there’s so many learnings here, Donna, so I really appreciate you coming on. And everyone. Thank you for listening so much. We are here every Monday and Wednesday with incredible guests. And Donna is one of a few others, many others that we’ve had on that just every day I’ve just feel so grateful and blessed to have people like her on to just share their journeys and so many of their learnings and definitely if you have not bought your kit yet from guard nudity, go on and buy it and definitely grab a case of hint at drinkin calm or your favorite store as well. And if you haven’t had a chance to get my book undaunted, overcoming doubts and doubters, Donna was just sharing with me that she shared it with a whole group of her friends over the holidays are just so nice. And it makes a great gift for entrepreneurs or anybody who’s thinking about making some kind of change and definitely would love to hear from you as well on any of my social channels. So thanks, everyone have a great rest of the week. Thank you. before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where buy new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the book calm and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight? send me a tweet at Kara golden and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara golden golden thanks for listening