A handcrafted piece of art, imbued with the spirit of giving. A simple but effective tool that helps children--and parents--get better sleep. An affordable, sustainable solution to Third World medical problems. These are the ideas that propelled three businesspeople to the top of the heap in the past year, earning them Entrepreneur® magazine's Entrepreneur of 2011 Awards.
From thousands of entries, Entrepreneur editor-in-chief Amy C. Cosper and vice president of marketing Lisa Murray, along with The UPS Store's vice president of marketing Michelle Van Slyke and PR manager Becca Andrews Hogan, narrowed the field to 15 finalists. Readers voted on their favorites at Entrepreneur.com. And now, at last--here is who the judges and you, the readers, selected.
Our Entrepreneur of 2011 is Lee Rhodes, founder of glassybaby. Her artisanal candleholders have struck a chord with consumers, starting in Seattle and expanding nationwide. And her mission of leveraging her success to ease the struggles of cancer patients makes her a rarity: a businessperson in both head and heart.
Adam Nelson, our Emerging Entrepreneur of 2011, has leapt to the aid of sleep-deprived parents everywhere with the Good Nite Lite. A behavior-modification device that teaches children when to stay in bed and when to get up, Nelson's invention has captivated kids and captured the attention of medical and parenting experts who promote the health benefits of proper sleep.
Finally, our College Entrepreneur of 2011, Gabrielle Palermo, is working with three of her fellow engineering students at Arizona State University on G3Box, a company that aims to transform abandoned or decommissioned shipping containers into portable medical clinics for use in developing countries and disaster zones. Their outstanding work represents the future of entrepreneurship: a winning combination of innovation, philanthropy and environmental responsibility.
Entrepreneur® Magazine's Entrepreneur of 2011
Adversity can spark great moments of clarity. It was during a difficult time for Lee Rhodes, founder of Seattle-based glassybaby, that inspiration struck for what would become a flourishing business.
Glassybaby specializes in handblown glass votive candleholders produced in more than 400 rich colors. When Rhodes speaks of the "soul" of her candles and glass, it's not just smoke and mirrors. Subtle variations in shape, size and hue are testament to the artisanal quality of glassybaby's creations, each comprising three layers of glass and needing four glass blowers to produce. The product's roundness and heft--each weighs a pound--lend a tactile appeal. "You can feel the gorgeous color and the weight of truly handmade American craft," Rhodes says.
The business was born in 1998, after her then-husband brought home a colored vessel he had made in a glass-blowing class. Rhodes, who was suffering from lung cancer, dropped in a candle and became mesmerized by the chromatic light. "In my mind, like the other treatments I did, it contributed to my healing," she recalls. "It makes you step back and relax and take a deep breath."
Rhodes hired glass blowers and started giving away the votive holders; then, seeing their popularity, she began selling them out of her garage. In 2003, she opened her first studio and retail space; the company later moved to its flagship in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood, where 70-plus glass blowers now produce 500 candleholders per day. Rhodes has two other stores in the Seattle area, one in New York's West Village and a thriving online presence.
The votives, which sell for $40 each, are popular in restaurants, as "an individual piece of art on each table," Rhodes says. Additionally, she rents them out in large quantities for events. Glassybaby also has a version of its product for use as drinking glasses.
The business keeps growing. In 2009, sales rose 25 percent; a year later, they were up 50 percent. For 2011, sales are projected to increase another 50 percent to $6 million.
For Rhodes, more sales mean one thing: more giving. Glassybaby's philanthropic mission--donating a percentage of revenue (not profits), mainly to programs that help cancer patients with lifestyle requirements not covered by health insurance--was built into the business plan from the start. The company currently donates 7 percent of sales and aims to bring that figure to 10 percent. In total, glassybaby has contributed more than $650,000 to about 100 small and large organizations, including the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, which has a "glassybaby fund."
That spirit of giving has helped draw fans, including Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. He approached Rhodes in 2008--he must have the wrong number, she thought--and now owns 20 percent of glassybaby.
Rhodes believes Bezos and others are drawn to what she calls "experiential retail": seeing the product made, knowing its story and the human element behind it. In Seattle, glassybaby is well-known, but in New York it's a different story. Sales in the store there, which opened in 2009, have been "disappointing," Rhodes admits, citing location, the lack of a studio where consumers can witness the glass-blowing process and the fact that New Yorkers, traveling by foot, don't wish to carry heavy items. However, the market has been "very lucrative" in terms of online sales, and Rhodes hopes to move to a new location in the city, with better foot traffic and a factory.
Meanwhile, she has no plans to diversify her product line. "There's something to be said for sticking to what you're good at," she says. "We make one thing really, really well."
Carolyn Horwitz is executive editor of Entrepreneur magazine.