Regina-based entrepreneurs Dave Luba, Arthur Kononuk, brothers Kalen Emsley and Derrick Emsley and their cousin Stephen Emsley built a successful company on a simple business model: for every item sold through their online store, the company plants 10 trees in regions in need of reforestation. Since launching tentree in January 2012, the company has planted more than 15-million trees from the sales of their sustainably-manufactured clothing and accessories. And they have no intention to slow down.
Built on the philosophy of bringing positive change to the world, tentree has embedded social good into their business strategy and strategically leveraged e-commerce and social media to build a successful business. Arlene Dickinson put it best when she met the group on Dragon’s Den in 2012: “They are social entrepreneurs to the 10th degree. They are the real deal.”
We spoke with the tentree team to learn more about how e-commerce plays a role in serving customers around the world.
What inspired the concept behind tentree?
Derrick: tentree grew out of an observation. Kalen and I were spending a lot of time outdoors in Hawaii – hiking, surfing, hang-gliding – and we realized we had so much to be grateful for. We wanted to step up to protect our environment, and saw a space for a Canadian company that gives back to this cause. We coupled this passion with our background in business and interest in lifestyle fashion. And in 2012, tentree was born.
Kalen: Observation inspired the concept but it was opportunity and insight that got us to where we are today. We recognized a growing trend towards shopping in support of a cause – among Canadians, 80% want companies to improve the communities in which we operate, according to a study by Havas Worldwide. When you shop with tentree, you’re not only buying a great t-shirt or hoodie, you’re contributing to global environmental health. That’s something our customers can feel good about.
tentree started as a small business in Saskatchewan and grew to an Canadian e-commerce success story. What did it take to get there?
Dave: It took a whole lot of determination, a strong digital aptitude and overwhelming community support to make tentree what it is today. We started by selling 100 t-shirts to our friends and family in our hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan. There was such a feverish demand that we expanded to fulfilling orders through our Facebook Page and quickly realized that if we really wanted to make something of this passion project, selling across Canada and the world, we would need to build an e-commerce website. We launched our online store through Shopify and started processing payments with PayPal, which meant we were able to instantly accept orders and payments from customers around the globe such as the UK, Germany, France and Australia.
Stephen: Taking your business online is simple, but when it comes to generating sales through e-commerce there are a number of barriers to customer purchasing that we – and any small business owner for that matter – need to address. The first is building trust in your online business. This can be done simply by displaying trust and security seals, or offering a satisfaction guarantee. The second is optimizing your checkout. Shoppers – especially mobile-savvy millennials – are searching for a seamless buying experience, so if they get stuck in purchase process they’ll quickly move on to another online store. To do this, I’d encourage you to reduce unnecessary steps in the checkout process, make sure your website is optimized for mobile shoppers and offer trusted payment solutions like PayPal that allows customers to pay in a way that suits them best.
Arthur: tentree’s success is rooted in selling online. We generated international recognition and interest through a strong – and largely organic – social media strategy. E-commerce enabled us to start selling to international shoppers. Bringing the business online is what levelled the playing field for tentree. We were no longer a small business selling to our friends and family – suddenly, we were competing in the big leagues with big box retailers and major lifestyle brands.
What are some of the challenges you faced – or currently face – in the online selling landscape?
Dave: While our social impact story is fantastic on the business side as with every entrepreneur, we face some tough challenges. We’re competing with really big brands. To ensure our products and our content stands out from the rest, we have to constantly adapt what we do. Our team pays close attention to what’s working and what isn’t. Whether it’s a t-shirt or Instagram post, we pivot our approach in real-time so we’re not losing out on customer acquisition, engagement and ultimately revenue.
Stephen: Many small businesses highlight website development and management, accepting payments and shipping as barriers to launching an e-commerce website. Rather than trying to tackle these pain points alone, we’ve surrounded ourselves with really solid e-commerce partners like Shopify, PayPal and Canada Post. Teaming up with web development, payment processing and shipping experts, has allowed us to reduce the amount of time required to create and manage an e-commerce website, leaving us more time to focus on big picture ideas and growing our business in a way that differentiates us from our competitors.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs who are looking to launch their own online business?
Kalen: First, know your audience. Understand what they want and where they want it, and develop your business strategy around those insights. For instance, if you’re targeting a younger demographic – social media marketing and mobile optimization is key. From the get go we recognized our target customer’s appetite for social media and made sure to focus our efforts there and quickly adopted immerging channels like Instagram, which is currently one of our top website traffic drivers. Second, be nimble. The landscape is constantly changing, and businesses need to change with it. By paying close attention to shopping behaviour and industry trends, you should adapt quickly if you want to grow sales and keep your customers engaged.
Stephen: One word – search. As a marketing guy, I’m fascinated by the tactics brands leverage to attract new customers, and search is my latest obsession. Search marketing is the process of gaining visibility and traffic from search engines through paid and organic efforts. It’s what helps shoppers find content and products on your website, so it’s worth investing to ensure your business shows up as a top result. A few simple ways to enhance your search engine optimization (SEO) is adding concise metatags and descriptions to your website, using relevant keywords within content and getting other sites to link to your business – like media, partners or influencers – as Google favours websites with credibility in the online community.
Derrick: This piece of advice might seem obvious, but I want to bring it back to basics. There are so many resources available to entrepreneurs and business owners in Canada, and they are wildly underused. Whether it’s support from government agencies, tapping into a grassroots organization like Startup Canada or leveraging free software business solutions, using the resources available to you is what’s going to propel you forward.
Elizabeth Prowse is the Head of Small Business Marketing at PayPal Canada. She leads a team that is dedicated to delivering content and solutions to support Canadian small business owners throughout their entrepreneurship journey. Visit paypal.ca more about how PayPal can benefit your business.