The "traditional" goals of business don't appeal much to seller Luke Winter, who says too many companies are concerned with "dollars, metrics and profitability at all costs." Instead, this owner of three small businesses is focused on doing right by his customers, the local community and Mother Nature.
Through Woodzee.com, a 1-year-old venture that makes and sells wooden sunglasses, Winter hopes to inspire shoppers to be more aware of their environmental impact, while demonstrating that successful business and social responsibility can—and should—go hand in hand.
"I love creating new products and creating a company that stands for something more powerful than just producing products," he says. "We make wooden sunglasses, but more importantly, we try to promote sustainability and, basically, doing the right thing."
Woodzee grew out of an idea by Tom Patton, now Winter's business partner, to make sunglasses out of wood. The concept of selling a recyclable product manufactured from natural, renewable resources hit home with Winter, formerly a college geography major, who is passionate about the planet.
We want to awaken customers' consciousness to how we all tie into nature. We need to take care of what we've got before it's too late.
Patton's initial design was "very raw," but with Winter's experience in retail, they collaborated to refine the product and within a few months a business model was born: Make money while also making customers happy and keeping the planet healthy.
In addition to the Woodzee.com website, Winter also sells Woodzee products in his Chico, CA, retail shop, Trucker, and his eBay Store, Trucker Deluxe.
Giving back to nature
While many brands claim to be eco-friendly, not many can actually back it up, but Woodzee does. Sustainability is ingrained in the business. Not only are the sunglasses are made from recyclable wood or bamboo, the packaging is designed in a triangular shape to use the least material possible, and is made of 50-percent recycled paper, printed using soy ink.
Plus, for every pair of Woodzees purchased, the company donates a portion of the proceeds to a nonprofit tree-planting organization. Woodzee contracts with nonprofits on each continent and, as a way to promote a "healthier relationship between style and nature," Woodzee buyers are asked to choose where in the world they want their donations to go.
"We want to awaken customers' consciousness to how we all tie into nature," Winter says. "We all need to take care of what we've got before it's too late. I've been on this earth 41 years and I've seen a drastic change in my time. So I'd like to educate people to do the right thing."
Before Woodzee, there was Trucker, a men's apparel and accessories shop located in Chico's downtown shopping district. Winter opened the store in 2003, using a home-equity loan to get the business off the ground.
In 2006, Trucker expanded to an eBay store, and both continue to be successful, though separate, operations.
While the brick-and-mortar team provides personalized service, online employees are more detail oriented, and able to provide 'virtually instantaneous' response times
There was never a question in Winter's mind about the need for an online component to the business. "Having both gives you flexibility," he says. "I like having the online business because I can reach customers worldwide, and build a brand much more quickly.
"But I enjoy the traditional aspects of retail, too," he continues. "I like actually talking with my customers; I like interacting with them, giving them a tour of the product and having them try it on."
Outstanding customer service is a cornerstone of both the online and brick-and-mortar operations, but the definition of this differs between the two. While the brick-and-mortar team takes an informal and personalized approach to serving shoppers, the online employees have to be much more technical and detail oriented, and able to provide "virtually instantaneous" response times, whether answering questions or shipping orders, Winter explains.
A labor of love
Being self-employed is a labor of love, the seller says. There are constant new challenges to face and sales to keep up with, plus accounting, shipping, designing new products, blogging, outreach, photographing items, writing descriptions, and building trade-show booths and store displays.
His wife is also an entrepreneur, and with children at home, it can be a struggle to balance the daily demands, though family always comes first, he notes.
"The hardest part is doing everything, and doing it to the level of expectation that I want for the business," Winter says.
"But if you love it, it's not work; it's fun. And I love what I do," he adds with a smile. "I don't get out of bed thinking how much money I'm going to make; I get out of bed thinking about what cool new products I'm going to make, or what new customers and friends I'm going to make. That's what inspires me."
I get out of bed thinking about what cool new products I'm going to make, or what new customers and friends I'm going to make
Condensing the design cycle
Collaborating with Patton to create new design styles is one of Winters' favorite aspects of the business, but the back-and-forth process with the factory the two use to make their items had become frustrating and time consuming, Winter says. Through his son's high school, he learned of a 3-D printing process that lets the two partners work out the design kinks and create 3-D samples of their items to send to the factory, drastically cutting time to manufacturing.
They now work closely with the school's architectural printing program to make samples, and students get valuable hands-on experience working with a local business—something Winter finds very rewarding because it will benefit the community for many years to come. In turn, he donates money for scholarships and supplies to help keep the program running. That partnership is "probably the most exciting thing" that has grown out of Woodzee, he tells us.
Growing the product line
As Woodzee grows, so do the ways in which the company aims to give back to the world. For one thing, a new package is in the works with wildflower seeds embedded in the paper, so buyers can plant these in their gardens. For another, Winter and Patton are looking to expand their product line to include sunglasses made from recycled metals, glass and plastic and, ideally, all Woodzee products will eventually be made from recycled materials.
Further down the road, Winter hopes to expand the donation program to organizations dedicated to preserving wildlife and helping orphaned children. Ultimately, he wants to travel the world and work with these organizations personally.
"I'm a geographer at heart," he says. "I want to get out there and see the world, and see how my company is helping worldwide and how the world is ticking."
Visit Woodzee.com and Trucker Deluxe on eBay.