Don’t rush or put something out in the world until it’s the best version you can possibly offer at the time. Be proud of your products and the work you do. To the world, you are the brand.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Perry, a Bozeman, Montana, resident who became a social entrepreneur as a way to give back to her community and beyond. She started Jelt, short for Jen’s Belt, seven years ago as a way to remove plastic from the planet, offer employment opportunities to underserved women, and to demonstrate to her two sons that there is more to business than just making money.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Jelt is a social enterprise founded to give back to my community and to make a positive impact in society. After surviving a near-death experience and months in the hospital, I knew I needed to do more with my life to make my mark in the world and to improve the lives of others.
As a volunteer at a local non-profit, I could see how much businesses were able donate to charities and also saw the impact brands like Tom’s Shoes were having on the world, which inspired me to start my own company with a mission to give back.
As an active, busy person who hated belts, but clearly need one, as my jeans where sliding down everywhere I went, I decided to reinvent the common belt. I remembered the elastic rainbow belts I wore as a kid in the eighties, and improved upon that concept by making the elastic out of sustainable materials, adding a grippy inner gel to keep pants in place with or without belt loops and designing and ultra-slim profile buckle that won’t show a bulge under fitted shirts. Jelt belts are not only made from recycled plastic bottles, but they are made in Montana, providing opportunities for women living on remote ranches to claim their power through job security and their ability to provide for themselves, as well as their families.
We also donate a portion of every sale to organizations supporting veterans, kids and the environment. We are a 1% for the Planet member and are B Corp certified. Every aspect of our business is intended to be a force for good
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I first began Jelt, people asked me why the hell I wanted to make belts. They told me it was an uninspired idea that would never take off. However, I knew Jelt wasn’t just about the belts. Jelt is a social enterprise, which was a new concept seven years ago. My mission was to create a sustainable lifestyle product that everyone needed, manufactured in a way that empowers underserved women and then donate a portion of all sales to charitable causes. There will always be nay-sayers and devil’s advocates in life who try to hold you back from pursuing your dreams. The key is to trust yourself, believe in your ideas and follow your mission.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The funniest mistake was a costly one. Since I didn’t know anything about clothing manufacturing, I sort of “guessed” about sizes and colors. Well, the first round of super-striped, extra-small Jelt belts did not sell out so quickly (which is an understatement). Once I realized that most customers want plain black, simple belts in larger sizes, I started crushing my sales. I’ve come to realize that most people are very literal and buy practical products in plain colors. In other words, I needed to learn my demographic.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our company is so unique, yet so simple. To the outsider, it looks like we just sell elastic belts. Big deal. What is so special about that?
- We are one of the only belt companies who is a certified B Corporation, certified Woman Owned Small Business, and members of One Percent for the Planet. We truly use business as a force for good.
- We make a belt that is unique from any belt on the market today. Not only are Jelt belts made from recycled plastic, but they are designed with a grippy inner gel that keeps pants in place with or without belt loops. Jelt belts have a flat, low-profile buckle that won’t show a bulge under fitted shirts. The buckle is also metal-free for ease through TSA checkpoints and for the millions of people with nickel allergies.
- Due to our location at the base of the Rocky Mountains, our belts have evolved from a simple belt to wear with everyday jeans, to a belt that can be worn hiking, biking, skiing, golfing and traveling.
- We manufacture our belts in Montana, providing job opportunities to women living on remote, rural ranches and underserved areas to earn money for themselves and their families.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Maintain a strong company mission that you can stand behind and do not veer from that mission. It will forever guide you and keep you focused on your goals.
Also, learn to delegate so you can take a vacation every once in a while. You can’t be chained to a computer forever.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I didn’t start Jelt until I was well into my forties. I didn’t have the inclination to start my own social enterprise until I almost died from a ruptured appendix. Having a brush with death will make you re-evaluate your life. I swore, if I survived, I would do something great to leave a legacy. I just had convince myself it wasn’t too late.
I was, and always will be, inspired by my grandmother who started her career at age 53. She was Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University in the late 1960’s, then wrote and published 27 regency romance novels in her retirement. She was in her seventies when she began her second career as an author. Though she passed away many years ago, the Kindle version of her books often outsells Jane Austin on Amazon.
Her spirit and wisdom will always inspire me that it is never too late to fulfill your destiny, because if not now, then when? As she used to say, “Age is just a number, Jenny.”
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A good company is one that does the bare minimum to make a profit. There is no mission. There is no soul.
A great company uses business as a force for good. They are sustainable, treat their employees with respect by paying them “thrivable” wages and give back to their communities. Business is more than just focusing on the bottom line. It’s about making a positive impact on the world before you die.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Have a mission that your people will want to support.
2. Build a team who also stands behind that mission.
3. Constantly evolve your company towards growth and challenge. Adapt and don’t resist change.
4. Listen to feedback in order to finetune and refine your product, but don’t listen to every single request or you will burn out and stray from your original mission.
5. Don’t rush or put something out in the world until it’s the best version you can possibly offer at the time. Be proud of your products and the work you do. To the world, you are the brand.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful
Being a social enterprise, or “purpose driven business” is not just a catchy phrase used by Millennials to feel good about business. It is a mindset that every human is living and sharing this planet together. We have this gift of life on Earth, so how we choose to live it matters.
The world’s younger populations are realizing that and spending their money on businesses with a conscious. They are teaching their parents and grandparents to think in different terms. What does that company stand for? Why would you support a company that undervalues women and minorities? Why do you need more “plastic stuff” when the world’s oceans are being choked by plastic waste? These just a few of the types of questions and discussions happening all over the world by educated consumers.
So, as a business leader, if you can’t embrace the mindset of living humanely and running a sustainable company, then you are antiquated, which by definition, is not sustainable.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Reaching a standstill is a feeling I fight every other month. It is because I am being short sighted. I am looking at my profit and loss margins as immediate gratification and not long term, end of year goals. This is a trap that a leader should not fall into.
Instead, focus on long term goals and the hurdles you have already conquered. This can be achieved through an annual strategic planning meeting, where the year’s goals are set and actions are delegated. You can then refer to the strategic plan on a regular basis to see which goals have been met and which need to be addressed. This sounds so simple, but you will be amazed by how many goals are reached or surpassed, just because they were identified and assigned to someone for completion.
Setting these goals in the strategic plan and following through will not only help you focus on long term goals, but when looking back on the previous year, you can see how far you’ve come.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
First of all, I can’t begin to imagine what it is like to be in the restaurant or music venue industry right now. These businesses and other small brick and mortar shops are suffering tremendously during this pandemic. I fear our world will never look the same. So, any strategies I can offer would be practically meaningless to leaders in those businesses.
Jelt is primarily an ecommerce platform, therefore, our experience has been on a different scale than those businesses relying on foot traffic. That is not to say we have not suffered. We experience ebbs and flows of sales based on consumer’s feelings on the economy, politics and the world. We see surges and standstills in online traffic based on current events, the likes of which we have never experienced before.
Our strategy has been to stay the course. We never stopped marketing plans or advertising campaigns that were in place before the pandemic. We did, however, greatly alter their presentation, messaging and sentiment. It has been important for us to stay connected to our audience and relevant to what is happening in our nation.
We definitely rolled the dice by maintaining our pre-Covid marketing budget in the belief that this would someday end. We didn’t want to lose our momentum or our SEO rankings that took us years to achieve. We chose to stay in the mindset of the consumer, but invest in platforms and campaigns that aligned with the lifestyles and activities of a population dealing with Covid.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The most underestimated aspect of running a business is making sure to take care of your physical and mental health. You cannot lead if you are in denial about your stress levels. Anger and frustration will surface, which will affect the entire organization.
I have found that sports and exercise are the best ways to keep my mind and body healthy. I make time to play tennis, ski and take Pilates classes every week. I also have a trainer come to the office twice a week at lunch to train everyone in the office. It is a necessary break from sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
At Jelt, we have worked with several e-commerce coaches and PPC companies, some with great success and some were just a waste of money. What I’ve learned on this rollercoaster ride is that conversions come from:
1- A user-friendly, mobile-friendly website with fast load speed — Make sure your product is professionally photographed, with images that are sized/optimized for load speed, and highlight your best-selling products on the landing page. Beautiful photography is useless if the user can’t immediately understand what you are selling.
2- Quality traffic which targets customers looking for your product — Make sure you understand the keywords you should be targeting and have strong, unique content on your website pages with those keywords imbedded. Also, work on your meta-descriptions to make sure they contain your main keywords.
3- A checkout process that is quick, easy and trustworthy — Make sure your customers can use Apple Pay, Amazon Pay, Paypal and other options other than their credit card. The faster and simpler the checkout, the more likely a customer is to proceed with payment.
4- Offering free or simple exchanges and returns — Customers want the ability to change their minds, though you hope they won’t. Unfortunately, platforms like Amazon, have forced all e-commerce websites to compete with their policies. If a customer can buy your product cheaper and easier on Amazon, they will.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
It’s obviously helpful to get great PR and to be included in influential magazines, like Authority Magazine, but you cannot count on great PR exposure every day. We have to make sure we offer a high quality product, delivered quickly in attractive, sustainable packaging, and offer the best customer service on the planet. We also need to be true to our customer demographic and not change who we are because it’s cheaper, easier or trending.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
I tell my employees that the only thing separating us from big box stores is wonderful customer service. We stand by our products 100% and treat every customer like a new friend. We want our customers to be completely satisfied with their purchases and will do everything in our power to make sure they are. We email customers back right away, call them if they need extra help and offer free returns and exchanges. We are the full service Jelt workshop here!
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
We maintained social media platforms since our inception seven years ago. The first person I hired was a part-time PR/Social Medial Director, who is still my loyal employee. I believed that social media would be the most ideal way to advertise and develop our brand. I still believe that today.
I do, however, see the pitfalls and the “dilemma” of a social media. It is poisoning our youth and brainwashing our society. It is invading our personal information and infringing on our privacy.
What is a brand-driven, ecommerce business to do? Well, at Jelt, we follow the rules, and respect the platforms. We work hard to create content that is informative, amusing, interesting and accurate. We do not purchase “like” bots or followers. We just do our best to be an honest small business and hope that our real followers can see through any negative or slanderous comments.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I often make jokes that I could write a book about “What Not To Do When Starting a Business”. So, here’s a few things I recommend doing:
- Create a professional business plan.
- Get a mentor who aligns with your values, but will tell you the honest truth.
- Be ready to put in the time. It takes many years to develop a brand.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
This summer I was appointed by our Montana governor, Steve Bullock, to be a member of the Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force. The task force was formed almost eight years ago as a way to close the gender wage gap that still exists in our state, despite the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. The purpose is to educate business leaders about systematic payroll discrepancies between male and female wages, to train the female workforce to advocate for themselves and to guide young women into careers that have higher salaries. This task force could be eliminated under the new state leadership voted into office this November.
It is my goal and full intention to continue the Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force, whether it is funded by our state government or not. According to the most recent statistics, a woman in Montana is still paid 73 cents to the dollar a man is paid for the same job. The other night at the dinner table, my 77 year old father chuckled at my appointment to the Equal Pay For Equal Work Task Force and said in front of my teenage sons, “Equal pay will never happen.” I will do everything in my power to prove him wrong.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
About the interviewer: Jerome Knyszewski (Kenchefski) is the CEO of HeavyShift. Jerome serves as an advisor to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies as well as entrepreneurs who disrupt their industries and therefore tend to be targets of malicious online attacks. His company builds, protects, and repairs the online presence & reputation of many celebrities, products and beloved brands.