Growing up in the Seattle area, Sam Franklin developed a love of the outdoors. But it was on a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia and Europe after high school when his entrepreneurial idea really started taking shape.
The Mercer Island High School grad returned to the U.S. from that trip determined to change the way people send and receive invitations to parties, weddings and other special events. Fast forward to today and Greenvelope.com is going strong, with the startup now boasting couples, politicians, law firms, wineries and others as customers.
And here’s the cool thing about it: The 21-year-old is running Greenvelope while studying business at Washington University in St. Louis.
Franklin spends his summers and holidays in Seattle, with the company donating a percentage of each sale to Washington state’s Mountains to Sound Greenway non-profit.
“I love the Seattle entrepreneurial scene and definitely see myself returning after I finish college,” Franklin says.
Here’s more from our chat with the entrepreneur, including some unusual sources of startup capital for the business.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Greenvelope provides a formal online invitation experience. With our animated envelope, our goal is to emulate the excitement of opening a traditional paper invitation while saving time, trees, and cost.”
Inspiration hit when: “I realized that millions of electronic invitations are sent through services cluttered with advertisements. Lacking traditional design choices and wishing to avoid advertisements, hosts of formal events had minimal online options. I wanted to fill a void within the landscape of current services by offering a formal, advertisement free web-product appealing to formal events.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrapped. For my first online business, I wanted to learn how to work efficiently on a small budget. After a few years of savings from a pressure washing company and delivering pizzas at night, I saved enough capital to fund the initial phase of Greenvelope. Bootstrapping is the best way to learn to “stretch-a-dollar.” Now, I have secured a loan to provide additional funding to help accelerate growth in the coming months.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Listening to the customer and adapting our product accordingly.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: Delivering our invitations in an interactive envelope animation. This makes the experience of opening a Greenvelope “special” and different from other services.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “When I started, I was so eager to get developing that I didn’t spend the necessary time hammering out the small details of the website. Consequently, it was difficult for my initial developer to know the scope of the project, which led to lost time. I have learned it is important to take the extra time upfront to plan, which will likely save time and money down the road.”
Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Definitely Jobs: I find inspiration in the attention to detail that Jobs gives to his product – no other company compares. I make a point to always pay extra careful attention to my product/website and continue to tweak the host and guest experience to make it as enjoyable as possible. Greenvelope will always be a work in progress, since I see endless opportunities to expand and improve the website.”
Our world domination strategy starts when: “I can’t necessarily dominate the world with an invitation company. By focusing on special occasions, I can tailor my product to more formal events. I hope to dominate this niche market, so that Greenvelope can make a difference on a large scale through my donations and saving trees.”
Rivals should fear us because: “We are small and agile. I am constantly rolling out new features so the product is always evolving. Greenvelope focuses on formal events and recognizes that weddings and other special occasions require attention to detail and formality.”
We are truly unique because: “I place tremendous importance on customer service. Customers appreciate an online invitation service where they can talk to someone on the phone to ensure the invitation is perfect for their special day. I find I learn so much from talking with customers – they share new ideas and it is fun to hear how excited they are about the product.”
The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “Assembling a team. Through freelance sites like Odesk and Elance, I have built a network of reliable contractors and part-timers, but I am currently looking to fill full-time positions in customer support, outreach, and sales, so I can focus the majority of my attention on product development.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Keep it simple. Discuss your ideas with people you trust. Surround yourself with talented people. Don’t be afraid to ask.”