From One Woman Show to Ten Person Team – feat. Gennie Livingston of Eco Collective

July 6, 2021

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We get it – building a team can be scary. If you’re looking to expand your creative biz you might be asking questions like, “Where can I find my soulmate business partner (and bestie!)?” or “How can I find and vet team members?” That is why today, we’re bringing in our girl Gennie Livingston of Eco Collective to chat all things team building. Listen in as she gets real about the challenges she faced when expanding her team and hear about how she worked through the kinks. Plus, find out what it means to live sustainably and learn why Gennie is so passionate about it!

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How did your passion for sustainable living begin?

Gennie 5:00

My love for sustainability, I think, you know, I’ve had a lifelong connection to the ocean and in my mind, that’s sort of where I started to care about the planet because everywhere that I’ve sailed, you know, I do competitions, like I’ll do nationals up in Canada or a world in like the middle of the country or something.

And so. I see the different impact of, you know, our lives and the amount of plastic that we use on the ocean because I’ll, I’ll sail past it floating there, you know, but that, I think, has just been my whole life. Like I’ve just enjoyed being outdoors. I’ve kind of had that love for like natural beauty products or natural foods, you know, always been like a little bit of a hippie, but I think, you know, you’re right.

It was after college. I got into minimalism actually. Okay, I totally want gateway trucks. I did this thing called the men’s game. I don’t know if you guys remember when bloggers would like very publicly catalog their projects on Instagram, but don’t they still

rated feeds really hit mainstream. It was this game for 30 days, you know, on day one, you get rid of one thing and on day two, you get rid of two things and so on for an entire month. And you post that on your Instagram. So this was the era of minimalism on Instagram. And I think through that, I discovered zero waste just as a way to simplify your life.

And I think I literally loved that. You had to, you know, you, you didn’t need to run as many errands. Like you could make your own things. You had refillable items, you know, It just kind of clicked for me. It made a lot of sense, but I think it was also really inspiring. Like for the first time I felt like I had an actual traceable impact on sustainability.

You know, it wasn’t just some far off idea of plastic and manufacturing suddenly it was okay. I can do things to make less waste and to have, you know, a lighter life on the earth.

I remember watching a water bottle documentary in college that literally flipped my world upside down. And then I haven’t basically haven’t shut up about it ever since like the only plastic water bottles. I think that I have even bought one in the past. I don’t even know. I just don’t buy them ever.

And, but when the Texas weather disaster happened, I was like, oh, well, you know, I need some as a backup for safety purposes, but otherwise yeah, really ever. And if we do get Gatorade or something, then I’m reusing yeah. As water bottles and wills kind of tease me for it, but it’s, I can’t help myself.

Well, it sticks with you for sure. And like the history of plastics and one use plastics is like something that I’ve also been passionate about because. It was after the world wars. And like, you probably know some of this Jenny, like, and I think we are even talking about some of it when we grabbed coffee, is that after the war, they were mainly manufacturing plastics for like, The airplane and like weapons purposes.

And they had to come up with a way to make it mainstream so that they’re rubbing along the way. So they introduced like one use of plastics for like a stay at home housewife because you wouldn’t have to clean up anything after dinner. You could just throw it away. And now the world is ruined and now we’re here we are.

Can you define the difference between sustainable living and zero waste for our audience? 

Gennie 10:52

 so zero waste is like, the definition is simplifying your life by reducing your waste. And I think with sustainability, it’s a much broader picture. And you’re looking at, you know, all of the impact of, you know, everything in your life, not just the amount of trash that you make.

And I think for me, it’s never been about zero. I’ve never been one to keep my trash in a jar. We always laugh about that, you know, but for me, it’s been more about that positive and empowering approach that you can take. And because for us now, I think zero waste was kind of niche when it started. And now it’s becoming kind of a norm, like companies, even regular cleaning companies, for example, are sort of feeling the pressure to say, oh, these are recycled plastic bottles and it’s ocean safe and biodegradable, you know, and it’s really cool to see that become like the bar, not the goal.

And so I think for us, we’ve kind of zoomed out from that and we’re saying, yeah, of course we’re going to have sustainable packaging and really good ingredients, but also how can we focus on the self-care side and putting the joy back in this so that people don’t feel guilt every time they want to get a cup of coffee or, you know, take vitamins that come in plastic or something like that.

Did you always know you wanted to be a business owner? 

Gennie 15:40

I always imagined owning my own design firm. One day I was, you know, interior design was my dream for so long and I did work in that field for a few years and loved it. And I thought, for sure, I would end up opening my own design firm.

I’ve always kind of been like a natural leader or at least really enjoyed that, you know, being the ideas person and, and leading a team. But I was, you know, working for someone else at the time at a really small firm. You know, wanting to do something a little bit different, even though I really did love my job at the time.

So one day I wrote down all of the qualities that I wanted to look for in my next boss. And I was reading them to a friend who was a fellow interior designer. And she was like, so you want to work for yourself?

I was like, you’re right. And I was like, yeah, I want to work for myself. So I think that shift happened for me at the same time. You know, starting the store, I always say, was kind of a happy accident. Like I just loved researching zero waste things to try, you know, some of the classic zero waste things are like a, uh, you know, a reusable water bottle or a reusable safety razor with like blades.

You can swap out, you know, there’s so many different things that you can try. And so in getting really, really into doing these things for myself, I realized. So many friends, I think I can hear your sweet cat in the back.

As I started doing these things for myself and making these swaps, I had a lot of friends who were really interested in it and thought, you know, oh, that’s really cool. Like a, um, a solid, dry shampoo or refillable skincare, you know? Um, they saw these swaps as easy and fun. But figuring out what would work for them was a huge barrier.

Yeah. Like people weren’t familiar with what sustainable products would work as well as natural as normal ones and maybe, you know, ways that they could save money instead of spending more. And I just realized there was that huge access barrier. And so. My original vision was wanting to put all of these things in one place.

So people can discover them without spending all the time of research and all the money trying 18 different natural deodorants that don’t work, you know? 

As you started to grow your team, what were your major paint points?

Gennie 26:30

At first it’s like, you know, uh, scary to even like being on the other side of the interview table, but it’s become really fun. We’ve like, sort of over the years gotten to have it be a really fun experience when we’re meeting someone new and, and really know pretty soon right away.

Whether they’re a good fit or yeah. We’ve been really lucky. We had some amazing people work here. I know for us, it was honestly just like the financial aspect of growing a team. It was totally worth it, but we didn’t even pair ourselves in the beginning in order to grow our team and have more people and more perspectives on our side.

And I think that’s worked really well because everybody has kind of. Had something to offer and been able to grow their role in different ways on the team. But it’s also hard. One of my favorite people, Sarah, who we had here for so long, she left just like last winter. And she’d been with us for, I think, about two years.

And so it was kind of heart-wrenching to have like one of your, you know, really almost close friends, as well as coworkers. And she, you know, you always sort of wished that people are going to be. You know there forever, but she left to start her own business. And that to us is like the most exciting thing in the world.

Like there’s nothing we love more than like starting their own businesses and, you know, being in support of that. So it was a really sweet departure, but you know, it’s hard. It’s like you meet these amazing people and I think you just want to work with them forever. Yeah. Yes. Right? You’re like your mind.

I know no one ever talks about how hard it is to have these transitions or letting go or they move on. Like, they’re always like this. Hi, here’s how to hire somebody. But what about when they choose to move on or something like that? Having those conversations. We work really hard to have open communication, but our team is so much bigger.

So fast a year ago, it was just four of us. And now it’s 10. And so having the team grow that quickly, I have had some learning curves as an owner and as a leader to say, like, how am I going to lead this team really well? And how am I going to, you know, uplift all the voices here and, and just learn to have that like honest feedback and open communication, because.

It is hard, you know, to kind of like set the pace and set that workplace culture. But I think we’re getting to a, to a, really a good place with that and that, you know, it’s, that’s, that part is a lot of work. Yeah. Yeah, for sure. Cause all of a sudden it’s like, you’re not worrying about just yourself and one of the person or just herself in a coworker.

It’s like, how are we facilitating a positive environment? Or like what’s the culture of our business, right? It’s this living, breathing thing now that it has. Yeah, and that was a lie. It was one of the biggest reasons. So, so I had a retail store and then we got a warehouse for our online shipping. Once we sort of outgrew being able to ship from store and.

Fast forward to this spring, we actually closed the retail store. But part of that decision was us wanting for like our team to be so happy in their roles and like choose what they do, whether it’s like, you know, a creative role or an operational role. We wanted to have them here and really contribute in fun, new ways, um, and be really invested.

And that’s been really rewarding to see people doing things they love, like writing or photography or video. Um, that’s been just like a huge game changer.

You’ve recently made a huge pivot at Eco Collective, from having an in-person boutique to being exclusively online sales with a warehouse. Can you talk about the reason behind this transition?

Gennie 30:19

you know, it’s super nostalgic because I loved having a store. We never even had time to like, make it the, you know, the perfect thing or to be there every day because having the online store kept us really busy, but especially in the last year, we always joke that we sort of accidentally trained our customers to shop

the dynamic. And we had to kind of rework a lot of our packaging. You know, we, we sell like refillable skin and haircare in. And we sell it in Mason jars and people just come refill their Mason jars. And so we had to figure out, okay, now we need maybe recyclable packaging or packaging that is compostable, you know, that we can ship in and.

It’s been some major growth and changes around here, and they’re still changes coming in our packaging. But I think, you know, a part of it is that we feel this freedom now because we have barely scratched the surface of getting to design our own products and like really do privately. So like make our own collections in-house that are our perfect formulated skincare that like, we really believe in that we’ve researched or doing that for hair care.

And so that feels totally wild. It’s like this fresh new chapter. Um, and I think it’s keeping us all really inspired. So before, would you say that so much of your time was spent kind of managing the store on an operational front? That it was like you weren’t getting to pull the curtain back on the scenes and really you didn’t get the opportunity to dive into the business and it in a different way, because it was like trying to focus on making that work.

Elisabeth 32:03

Like didn’t one of your co-owners ask you something like, “well, what would happen if we just had a warehouse?” and you were like, “I don’t think that’s ever crossed my mind before.” ? 

Gennie 32:13

Yeah, it never crossed my mind because in the beginning I wanted a store and that is, you know, that felt like success in its own way, because it was special. We built a community.

We had this beautiful store on a corner in one of the most popular neighborhoods and it was magical. Jelly. I was like, what in the heck? Like, you know, like one, a corner of our college town, essentially where it was like my dogs, like that was my first dream. Right. I would have been happy with that.

You know, I would have been happy if it was just me working that retail desk every day. And I think that’s the thing is like success doesn’t look like one thing, you know, a lot of us have one dream, but we don’t see what’s past that dream. And so it’s been really freeing for me to see, like now I have this new dream, which is, you know, designing our own collection of things.

Our own products. And so that’s been really special. Like, you know, because with the store, I’m not going to lie. It’s hard having a storefront. It’s a lot of overhead. It’s a lot of staffing. Um, you have to keep the shelves stocked, you know, whereas with the website, you’re very dynamic. You’re very adaptable.

You can change things quickly. You can market things and tell your story, however you want. And. But you don’t get that engagement, that in-person connection with your customers and with your community. So it is harder because you get into like website design and, you know, manufacturing products and designing like labels and boxes.

And it’s hard. It’s kind of hard, but I think there’s more room for growth online. And so for us, yeah, there’s just been different parts of our story, but I think, you know, we could have had a lot of time. Different chapters. And so, yeah, this one has been exciting, but I never saw it coming

How do you and your co-owners handle hiring? What do you look for in your candidates?

Gennie (37:10)

So I think, you know, the, for the most part, what I’m looking for during an interview is someone that has the passion, but also has a perspective that we don’t have.

They can speak to something that we don’t have a background in, or we don’t have an understanding of, and I think. You know, getting just a multitude of opinions and views into the warehouse has been really cool and kind of gives us that ability to, to speak to more people. And so also I think someone that can really roll with the punches and, you know, because sometimes we will put aside every project to be like, oh, we’re, you know, we’re closing the store and we’re, you know, or we’re reworking the entire warehouse or we’re launching new products.

And so it’s really fast paced. Not in a way that is going to cause you to burn out or like is exhausting, but just more in a way that’s like, okay, keep on your toes. Like, what is fresh? And what are people like, like loving right now in the beauty world and in the wellness world and what are the trends?

And so I think I look for someone that can be a mix of, you know, wanting to create within our vision and wanting to like own their role and really, you know, Kind of take on new projects and, and expand and, and help us grow in a way that we couldn’t have without them.

Now that Eco Collective has grown so much, what is your role within the company? What are your team members roles? 


So the roles right now, I’m like president, creative director. My co-owner Summer is more CTO. Mari Mar is more operations.

Then for the roles with all of our team members, we have one gal that’s kind of my marketing manager and she does in-house photography. And I think for her role, we’ve sort of added things like she’ll do her designs, email newsletters, and then now she’s focusing more on photography.

We do try to stay dynamic too, to what people are enjoying. And then we also have a copywriter. So somebody that writes for the blog for the website, product descriptions, email campaigns. That’s yeah. That’s kind of like a new thing for us. And it’s been huge because a lot of what I usually did was like writing all those things and there’s so much, you know, writing and copy.

And so, yeah, that’s been really special having somebody that’s such a good writer on our team. And then we have a warehouse manager and we have two digital media assistants. So they do video that one of them is starting to learn how to edit our podcast. But just a lot more marketing. So it’s interesting.

We’ve seen a shift to a lot more marketing with closing our store and going online. Yeah. But then everyone’s also sort of speaking up in brand meetings and helping us pick packaging and fonts and colors, you know, so very collaborative. But, uh, but they do have defined roles. Okay. That’s helpful from a logistics standpoint, this is just like me being curious.

And I don’t know, cause you’re a creative director. Not necessarily like operations, but wonder what you guys are using to run payroll and like bookkeeping accounting. Do you have somebody in the business doing that? Someone outside? What? So  has been doing all of that, but we’re slowly starting to hire out like bookkeeping and accounting.

What is your main focus within the company for the rest of the year? Any 2021 goals you want to share, business-related or personally?

Gennie 48:20

So I think our biggest focus in the business is this transition to becoming a sustainable self care brand. Um, so you know, some of them. Products that we have, we’re sort of curating our selection. So we’re getting rid of some things. We’re bringing new ones in and it’s a huge shift. And so we’re trying to communicate that to our customers with a lot of honesty and transparency and maybe even show a little bit of the behind the scenes.

Like this is what it’s like working at a small woman owned startup. Um, and this is what it’s like to, you know, design new products that are still earth-friendly. So I think really telling that story in a very personal and behind the scenes way. Um, that’s kind of what’s really exciting me. And then we’re also in the middle of that rebrand.

So we’re, we might be picking a new logo, new color scheme, new fonts, like it’s yeah, really. Really, but the little, the little way I know we will, we will, it’ll just be like, you know, slightly more illustrated.

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