Why not spice up your corporate gifting game with a little something special? Denver entrepreneur Elisabeth Vezzani, together with co-founder Leslie Lyon, have founded Sugarwish, a sweet startup that allows customers to send birthday, holiday, and corporate treats.
The company is an innovative alternative to corporate swag. They offer a personalized experience where customers can instantly send a gift invitation through messaging apps including Slack, Facebook, and Snapchat. Its customer base includes Microsoft, Twitter, and Capital One. Sugarwish has grown exponentially in popularity over recent years – who knows how big things will go next?
The sweet idea behind Sugarwish
“I was working, doing business development, sending clients gifts and thank you’s and there weren’t cool options and nothing that I could deliver electronically or instantly that I felt proud about sending.”
Sugarwish began as a conversation between Elisabeth and Leslie about the lack of clever gifts. Elisabeth was tired of sending common gift cards to customers and was looking for more fun and customizable gifts. She teamed up with Leslie, who was working at Ralph Lauren at the time and often remembered the fun of visiting a candy store during a break. Both women believed that they needed a way to make gifts that were fun to give and would get receivers excited about. The two immediately settled on candy and agreed that it was a festive and fun item that everyone could enjoy. Elisabeth however noted, “It wasn’t so much about the candy, but the joy it brought in the middle of your day.”
The business is based on a simple concept: the giver purchases a candy box from the Sugarwish website, Sugarwish sends the recipient an e-card, and the recipient can pick out any candy they want in the gift box on the website. The candy box is then shipped to the recipient, who gets it in three to five days.
The recipe for success
Elisabeth believes that their relentless effort in constantly developing ways to up their game and creating better gift ideas plays a big part in Sugarwish`s success. They recently started offering The Sugarwish Select, where recipients can choose from candy, popcorn, and cookies first or even pick a little bit of everything! With this option, recipients get to choose from all the different flavors and varieties to create their own awesome and delicious snack pack. How cool is that?
In terms of the reality of being an entrepreneur, Elisabeth admitted that she didn’t have the slightest idea about what it takes to run a company. That didn’t stop her though. “Since you have the passion for your business, you’re willing to do whatever it takes,” she said. Something she has learned over the years is that when she’s part of the business, she makes it her job to stay curious, insert herself, and learn as much as she can.
Elisabeth also shared that her partnership with Leslie has helped the business grow and be successful. While Leslie is mostly in charge of the detail of the operations, Elisabeth takes care of PR by appearing in podcasts, doing interviews, and speaking in front of audiences. She expressed, “Having different strengths, I think, is the recipe for success or it has been for us.”
How the pandemic affected their business
“I think the pandemic and everyone being on their computers at home, different addresses, people looking to deliver happiness in any way possible did accelerate us.”
The pandemic has changed consumer behavior forever and forced everyone to change the way they shop online. Perhaps one of the most pressing concerns facing marketers and business owners today is how to maintain a superior customer experience when supply chains are affected and the timelines with third-party logistics companies are uncertain.
Unfortunately, Sugarwish was not safe from it either. Elisabeth said it felt “Very uncomfortable. Very bad. We pride ourselves on customer service. We pride ourselves on fast delivery.” But amid shipping delays and issues, they remained optimistic and figured out ways to respond to these challenges.
Plans for growth
Sugarwish’s “choose your own” concept is definitely a cornerstone of their brand – and this has certainly resonated with their customers. To keep their client base engaged and use them more than they currently do, they email market and utilize Google advertising and Facebook marketing. Elisabeth said, “We definitely have seen success in many different channels and we’ll continue to explore.”
They have also been focusing on expanding the corporate side of their business. Last year, they spent an enormous amount of time and energy to make their corporate gifting platform seamless and customizable. They now have thousands of companies that use Sugarwish to motivate and congratulate their employees, thank their customers, and celebrate their partners.
Sweet happiness, delivered! We’re excited to see what’s in store for Sugarwish too! Listen to our full conversation on this episode of the Fascinating Entrepreneurs podcast.
Transcript from Podcast
[00:00:00] Elisabeth: Having different strengths, I think is the recipe for success or it has been for us. And also just a sense of humor. We laugh through the pain a lot.
[00:00:12] Natasha: Welcome to FASCINATING ENTREPRENEURS. How do people end up becoming an entrepreneur? How do they scale and grow their businesses? How do they plan for profit? Are they in it for life? Are they building to exit? These and a myriad of other topics will be discussed to pull back the veil on the wizardry of successful and FASCINATING ENTREPRENEURS.
I’ve written a book. A memoir that starts with my challenging upbringing, with all the twists and turns and inflection points, including saving my company due to the pandemic. It will be published this year. So please go to natashamiller.co and sign up on my mailing list so you’re the first to know when it’s available.
I met Elisabeth, co-founder of Sugarwish a couple of years ago on a cold day in Chicago. We were both attending the same event industry conference and her company was a sponsor. When I first laid eyes on their whimsical candy display, I knew their product and service was going to be. I think it actually already was at that time, but I was just discovering it myself.
I spent a bit of time with Elisabeth at dinner that night, but today I get to talk to her about her entrepreneurial journey so you can hear it too.
[00:01:37] Elisabeth: I think I’ve always been someone who wants to come up with an idea and see it through and try something else out, or try to figure out a problem. And this one was a very simple missing link.
I felt is just a clever, easy way to send a gift that allows the receiver to pick. So I was working, doing business development, sending clients gifts and thank you’s and there weren’t cool options and nothing that I could deliver electronically or instantly that I felt proud about sending. So my co-founder’s name is Leslie Lyon and we were talking, she had worked in New York and then from working at Ralph Lauren at the time, they’d go and go to the candy stores on the corner and pick a little of this and a little of that. And it wasn’t so much about the candy, but the joy brought in the middle of your day. And we thought if we could capture that and replicate it and bring it to people’s iphones, just that experience and capture it somehow, that would be the whole point of gifting.
[00:02:50] Natasha: And when did you make that leap from your corporate job to opening?
[00:02:57] Elisabeth: We worked on it for about a year while I was still doing my corporate job. And then when we did launch it, it pretty instantly felt like it had legs. And we saw the fun thing about Sugarwish is you send an email, a text, send it to someone on Slack or social media and they get to go on and pick their favorites. Like our virtual treat shop.
[00:03:25] Natasha: My favorite is by the way…
[00:03:27] Elisabeth: What’s your favorite?
It is the Boston baked beans.
Oh yeah, Boston baked beans. One of those things, you don’t have that much, but when you do, why are they so good? But when we launched it, we saw 10 people in a row get a Sugarwish and turn around and send a Sugarwish before they got the gift but just from the interactive experience. And then we’re like, okay, we have something that is exactly what we were trying to deliver. It’s the happy feeling at your phone at your desk and then the icing on the cake is when it shows up in beautiful packaging and the things you picked.
So you get double happiness moments. One when you receive it on a picking and then you get it again, when it gets delivered.
[00:04:17] Natasha: Yeah. It’s like a double ended bookended happiness gram.
[00:04:21] Elisabeth: Right. And that whole thing that, waiting for Christmas is more fun than Christmas. The anticipation’s there so you get it instantly.
You get the message from whoever sent it. It’s the fun thing. We always like to say, like the fun part of shopping, but just the picking without the checkout and the shipping costs, all that’s been taken care of. And then you’re also waiting for it to show up.
[00:04:44] Natasha: Yes. I will attest to when I send them out as thank yous, I get a response back from a lot of people saying, “Oh, this is great. I’m going to use this.” It should be affiliate marketer for you.
[00:04:58] Elisabeth: Yeah, we can be.
[00:04:59] Natasha: Oh, is that a thing?
[00:05:00] Elisabeth: It is.
[00:05:01] Natasha: Did you know what you’d be faced with as an owner leader of a company after you came up with this great idea, leaving your corporate job as BizDev? Did you know what it took to run a company, hiring, firing manufacturing?
[00:05:17] Elisabeth: Of course not. No.
[00:05:20] Natasha: Insurance, payroll, benefit..
[00:05:23] Elisabeth: No. The fun, it was such a good idea and let’s do it.
And I love design and I love creativity. I love all that stuff. And along with it comes like you said, insurance agent. Just the day to day is more the things that don’t give you total joy, you’re not necessarily fantastic at, or want to spend your time doing. But since you have the passion for your business, you’re willing to do whatever it takes.
[00:05:51] Natasha: And how did you learn? How did you learn how to do the things that you have to do to run the business?
[00:05:58] Elisabeth: Honestly, think that’s one of the coolest parts about having a business is that it’s just everyday. I can’t imagine the things I learned in the last nine years, just every aspect of the business. You’re part of it. So you just learn so much and I don’t know exactly recipe for how I learned it. Just inserting myself and being curious and making it my job to learn as much as I can.
[00:06:25] Natasha: Did you go to business school or have you taken courses or do have advisors and mentors that help facilitate when you need help?
[00:06:34] Elisabeth: Sure. So no to business school, but I definitely try to get advice from, I feel like everyone has a lesson to teach you and every business owner I love to learn about the walls they run into, the things they’ve done. We did an accelerator where we had mentors and classes. That was very valuable. And the people we’ve met through that. At every networking or event we go to, particularly, I met you at one and found out about different avenues, different people have taken, and I’m always curious and wanting to learn what successful business.
[00:07:13] Natasha: How do you manage and balance the tasks that you do with your co-founder?
[00:07:19] Elisabeth: So I just saw a quote yesterday. For successful partnership, you almost have opposite skills and we have opposite skills. She’s been in charge of operations detail. You couldn’t pay her all the money in the world to go out and talk or be on podcasts in front of audiences. I love it. So having different strengths, I think, is the recipe for success or it has been for us. And also just a sense of humor. We laugh through the pain a lot.
[00:07:52] Natasha: I’m so glad you have a relationship with your business partner like that. So am I correct in assuming that you’ve been in business for nine years? Interesting. When I met you about three years ago, let’s call it. It felt like you were brand new.
[00:08:08] Elisabeth: Yeah, the first year though, I’d say we were doing all the pre-work or handle website. But we are a totally different company today than we were last year. Like so many things we’re doing right now are brand new and we’re excited about. And so-
[00:08:21] Natasha: You were just getting into the event industry.
[00:08:24] Elisabeth: We were, that was like a totally brand new thing.
And that was one of the first events we showed up.
[00:08:31] Natasha: And you guys put on a good show. Did you find that vertical events was impactful to your company? Or did you learn that it wasn’t as strong as other?
[00:08:44] Elisabeth: It was impactful for sure. And just with not necessarily, face-to-face now that Zoom and interactive events.
But just personal, just having personal connections, I think can make all the difference in the future of your business. So we ended up getting a really great client from being involved in that, and that kind of was another thing that brought our business to another level. And with having a big client from an event, then we are able to create some things for that client that then we were able to use and grow the business.
[00:09:19] Natasha: Is that how you moved from- not from, but how you added cookies and popcorn to your business?
[00:09:26] Elisabeth: A little bit. But knowing that once we have some clients that we enjoy working with, which we have lots of we love, and they ask “We love this method of gifting. If you have more things, we can do it with more.”
So really catering to our clients and staying fresh, giving you more reason to work with us and us to work.
[00:09:48] Natasha: So it looks like you grew six X last year.
[00:09:54] Elisabeth: We were growing at a nice little clip, 50 to 60% a year. We were happy. I think we were a little bit on the front end of the gifting, where it was a paradigm shift to the way people get particularly letting the receiver pick.
So some of the barriers in the beginning would be like I want to hand them a gift in person. That’s I love your idea. I love them getting to pick. I’m going to pick four of them and hand it to them or send it to them. And just the old way gifting had always been done and little by little, it started to change and people are like, they’re on their phone all the time.
I should send them a text to their phone. That’s where all our business works on Slack it’d be great to send their birthday presents, where we communicate. And just I would say the Zoom explosion this year, we were hand-in-hand with that. Yes, you can do this podcast interview on Zoom. I can hold great events on Zoom.
I can gift online and deliver happiness instantly versus sending it in the mail. It’s showing up a week later, me having the wrong address.. And just people were like, this is better. And that’s really what.
[00:11:08] Natasha: Do you think the pandemic helped your business? Or was it already going to explode whether the pandemic happened or not?
[00:11:18] Elisabeth: I think we could see our trajectory was starting to accelerate at a faster clip. We’ve figured some things out. We added more products. Cookies was an amazing addition. And with cookies, it allowed us to offer the Sugarwish select where they not only pick what kind of candy, but the first thing they get to pick is what treat. And it just opens up so many more roads for us.
But I think the pandemic and everyone being on their computers at home, different addresses, people looking to deliver happiness in any way possible did accelerate us.
[00:11:56] Natasha: Okay. So one more question about the growth, because it’s really important to a lot of entrepreneurs that listen to this podcast.
So if you had to rewind and do 2021 again, and there was no pandemic, so you have six X last year, what would it have been? Had we not had the pandemic? What was your forecast?
[00:12:17] Elisabeth: Our forecast was to double. That was our forecast. We knew we were adding cookies, but we didn’t really know how to forecast it. And it wasn’t bringing dish that helped propel our growth as well with, but the Zoom culture helped to propel our business.
[00:12:35] Natasha: So I’m assuming you would consider your company a direct to consumer company?
[00:12:40] Elisabeth: No. We’re both.
[00:12:42] Natasha: Business to business? What is your model?
[00:12:45] Elisabeth: So we have obviously a website and everybody can send a Sugarwish, but we definitely have a platform that helps make it easy and delightful for companies to send gifts as well. So we do a lot of B2B.
[00:13:01] Natasha: So I’m thinking about how you must operate and having to warehouse all the candy, order it. I’m not sure if you make your cookies in house or not, but that isn’t something that’s manufactured necessarily like Nerds and Boston baked beans. And then you have the popcorn. So it seems like a pretty labor intensive service. Talk about that.
[00:13:28] Elisabeth: And each different product brings new challenges. So we always said in the beginning, it’s not about the candy. It’s really about the experience, but candy was such an easy, awesome way to jump into our idea, our business model. There’s so many choices you do just get it from retailers, brings back feeling of nostalgia for people to pick Boston baked beans or of honeys.
It just had so many things that worked well. When you do popcorn, it needs to be pop fresh and have tons of flavors. And so that adds just another element. The candy we always have prepacked and it goes out same day, but popcorn is being popped that day and then going out the next morning or later that day.
So it’s in-house so in the beginning, what we did is we bought it wholesale, but then what we ended up doing is working with a vendor, so to do it. And then that’s how we worked with cookies as well.
[00:14:37] Natasha: Would you consider acquiring a business like a popcorn vendor or a cookie business to facilitate a better margin and more control?
[00:14:48] Elisabeth: Yes. And we have talked about it and because it was the first time in our business, that things were not totally in our control.
[00:14:57] Natasha: How did that feel?
[00:14:59] Elisabeth: Very uncomfortable. Very bad. We pride ourselves on customer service. We pride ourselves on fast delivery. So a few things during the holidays with crazy demand and COVID and USPS issues.
[00:15:17] Natasha: Yeah, the shipping was not-
[00:15:18] Elisabeth: Shipping was a nightmare.
And so it was the first time really anyone was like, we got negative wall, it took three weeks. We’re like, it was USPS.
Soul crushing. Like normally it could be. “I’ll stay up all night. I’ll go in. I’ll take care of it for the client. We’ll do whatever it takes.” And just things out of our control felt bad. But part of growing more things are out of your control and now it’s fun to problem solve and figure out how we can.
[00:15:45] Natasha: You could be like Amazon and buy your own airplanes and then-
[00:15:49] Elisabeth: That’s next.
[00:15:51] Natasha: You heard it here.
[00:15:55] Elisabeth: We only need to make tons more.
[00:15:57] Natasha: The next question I have for you is, entrepreneurs are focusing first on revenue, which makes sense. And it’s glitzy and it’s fun and it gets you on lists like the Inc. 5000, et cetera, et cetera. But my question to you and every guests that I interview is, do you know the benchmark profit margin for let’s say, gifting company? Do you know that?
[00:16:23] Elisabeth: I don’t.
[00:16:24] Natasha: Okay. So some people know their benchmark and some people absolutely don’t. So I would say what would make your heart sing? Because there’s a big difference between, let’s say here’s the polar opposites. A SAS company versus restaurant.
[00:16:39] Elisabeth: Yeah, totally different. And we are a weird mix of technical product and price.
So we are both. We have similarities with a SAS company, and similarities with the restaurant. So we’re an odd bird and we don’t have that many people in that space who do both. So we try to be as, obviously we want to make money in business, but it’s gotta be price points that make sense and we can feel good about.
So we try to have a nice margin without a crazy margin. What will make our heart sing, it’s people are very happy with what they get and we make some money.
[00:17:26] Natasha: And how many employees full-time employees do you guys have? Right now?
[00:17:29] Elisabeth: We have a lot of part-time because we have a seasonal business. So we have different times where we have more people. So we’ve had up to 90 people, but equivalent full time. Right now, we’re at about 50.
[00:17:44] Natasha: That’s a handful to manage.
At this point then there’s a hierarchy and there’s management and there’s divisions and departments. Who’s managing that? Are you the visionary? Are you working in your business day to day?
[00:18:00] Elisabeth: I have been both, but we do use the EOS system though tracks. And like you said, so my partner and I, we are now designated the visionaries and Jason, who used to be our CFO into the integrator role. And we are in just doing countability charts, departments. All of that is happening as we speak.
[00:18:24] Natasha: That’s great. That’s like such a relief, isn’t it?
[00:18:28] Elisabeth: It’s a relief. And it’s also “Oh, let’s get there. Let’s get there.” And I think it’s really necessary for growth. And something I struggle with, not being hands-on is tough when you’ve always been hands-on for everything and knowing you’re almost harming your business if you stay hands-on.
So on a constant day to day, having a conversation with yourself yes, that seems like you’re helping, but that’s really hurting.
[00:18:57] Natasha: I’m so glad you said that way, because I think there’s a control factor that a lot of entrepreneurs feel and also an ego factor. And the truth is, absolutely, if you continue to do the things that you started doing, when you’ve moved into a different phase, it can really hurt the business.
And I haven’t really heard it said the way that you stated it. So I’m glad that you said that out loud.
[00:19:22] Elisabeth: I don’t think there’s guilt around it when you want to be like, “I just want to be helpful. I want to be the type of rolls up my sleeves. I’m willing to do anything.” You’re like, “I’ll take out the trash. I’ll do anything.”
And you want your employees and coworkers to feel you are that person, but then ultimately it isn’t helping them and keeping their jobs and growing the business if you’re doing the things you’ve always done. But it’s hard. It is hard.
[00:19:47] Natasha: Is there a one specific, big challenge that you’re working on in your business right now that you’d love to solve? There’s probably a few.
[00:19:55] Elisabeth: I don’t know if I have a big juicy one for you. One thing that we’re really exactly what we just talked about, really implementing this accountability chart and really living by it.
[00:20:07] Natasha: How new are you to EOS?
[00:20:09] Elisabeth: So we’ve done, for three years, we’ve been doing L10 meetings and then we do accountability in those meetings. Like we do the yearly meeting, we do the quarterly meetings, but we haven’t taken it to the next level and accountability charts for all the departments. And quite honestly, we weren’t big enough.
[00:20:26] Natasha: Have you mapped your whole P&L to different people to be accountable?
[00:20:31] Elisabeth: Right. So we try to map it all out and present it. And that’s hard to do definitely in the company that everybody is willing to do a lot, to help a lot of people and to be like, “Don’t help them, let them do that. You do this.” So that is our right now, is really just driving it throughout the business and really living by that model.
[00:20:53] Natasha: So having grown so much last year, how much are you hoping to, and willing to grow this year?
[00:20:58] Elisabeth: We’re trying to double this year. We have just the best team we’d be. We can do it and excited to add more people to our team. So double is what I’d say. And I think we’re on a really nice path to how to get there.
And we’re working with some fantastic companies and hoping to add value and make their life easier. And by that I hopefully earn their loyalty.
[00:21:24] Natasha: And in order to double this year, what is a strategy that you’re really leaning in on to make that happen?
[00:21:33] Elisabeth: It’s cliche, but just providing excellent service to our client base and really getting people to and companies to use us more than they currently do.
[00:21:44] Natasha: So how will you do that? Is it marketing? Is it advertising?
[00:21:49] Elisabeth: Sure. Yes. Yes. We have people assigned to the company is to make sure they’re having an excellent experience. We definitely email market, Google advertising, Facebook marketing. We definitely have seen success in many different channels and we’ll continue to explore just like the affiliate we mentioned earlier. So now we have somebody-
[00:22:12] Natasha: You could be rich by now, but I will be rich soon because of the-
[00:22:17] Elisabeth: But we now have someone in charge of affiliate non-profits and there’s just so many avenues and a fun part is seeing what works and what doesn’t.
[00:22:27] Natasha: If your mouth isn’t watering and you’re not hopping online right now to order a Sugarwish for someone, you were showing serious signs of restraints.
For more information about Elisabeth as well as a link to order a Sugarwish for someone or yourself we won’t tell, go to the show notes where you’re listening to this podcast.
For more information about me, go to my website, natashamiller.com. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you loved the show. If you did, please subscribe. Also, if you haven’t done so yet, please leave a review where you’re listening to this podcast now. I’m Natasha Miller and you’ve been listening to FASCINATING ENTREPRENEURS.