An experiment to make director’s chairs out of bamboo led Tom and Joanne Sullivan down an unexpected path. They share how they got their business Totally Bamboo started, and lessons they’ve learned over the last 20-plus years.
Tom and Joanne Sullivan, husband-and-wife business owners, began their careers as artists at street festivals, with Joanne hand-painting clothing and Tom as a woodworker. In addition to working festivals, they also owned a company in California that provided director’s chairs to film and television productions. Tom, who built the chairs, wanted to experiment with different types of wood. Bamboo was the hot “new” thing at the time, so he set to work on a prototype chair with bamboo flooring.
Unfortunately, Tom struggled with the medium, and how long it took to build a single chair out of pieces of bamboo flooring. So, he set the pieces aside, and moved on. But when his wife, who specializes in Chinese brush painting, came across some of the pieces he’d made, she suggested they turn them into a cutting board. “I’m not going to make a cutting board,” Tom scoffed. “That was my first high school project.” Joanne persuaded him to give it a shot, and the couple was thrilled with the result.
As the year’s holiday season approached, the couple started to consider what gifts to give family. Joanne suggested the bamboo cutting boards Tom had made. They produced a small batch for gifts, and decided to bring a few extras along to a local street festival they were invited to participate in. The response was unexpected.
“We’ve been selling product for a long time,” Tom says. “We never saw a reaction like we saw with these cutting boards. People lined up; they bought them one after another. I actually had to call Joanne up and say, ‘Bring the rest of the presents.’”
That’s how their business, Totally Bamboo, was born. The couple uses Moso, a variety of bamboo, because it is durable and attractive. They also say it is the best alternative to cutting tropical rainforests for their exotic hardwoods and thus better for the environment.
“It was a pivotal moment in that we realized that this is the product that people love,” Tom recalls. “It changed our whole trajectory in that we realized furniture is one thing, but everyone needs a cutting board. So, we went into housewares.”
Since their first cutting board sales, Tom and Joanne have expanded their product line to over 500 products, and have turned to selling in Amazon’s store. They list nearly their entire product line with Amazon and have had a lot of success, especially with their more niche bamboo products. “Amazon has helped us grow our footprint in localized product,” Joanne says, “For example, a customer who just moved to Florida from Kansas might want a localized Kansas product to remind her of home but wouldn’t be able to find something like this in a Florida retail shop. Amazon gives us instant access to this customer, while simultaneously offering a unique solution.”
It’s been more than 20 years since the couple founded Totally Bamboo, and they have had their fair share of ups and downs as business owners. They share tips and moments that have proven to be pivotal for their small business, and have helped them achieve longevity in their industry.
1. Learn how to be business people
Tom and Joanne had to face the challenge of learning how to operate as business people despite their background as artists. Initially, they were content with paying for supplies as needed for their work, but they soon realized that business was growing and they needed more help. “We found that you have to hire people smarter than you and skilled in different levels,” Tom says. “We are good at what we do, but we had to find people that were good with money and organization and all the other things that it takes to run a company. So, one good learning is just reach out and don’t feel bad about not knowing what you don’t know. Ask people and hire them if you can find them.”
2. Stay ahead of the curve
As the couple’s business became more successful, competition became a significant obstacle for them. This experience taught them a valuable lesson: they must constantly innovate and create new products. “We learned from our competition to stay ahead of it and not get overcome by it. Because after our first show, the second show we went to, there were 30 people knocking us off,” Joanne says. Tom continues:
It discouraged us so much. That’s really what made us grow because we always wanted to push the envelope, and we always wanted to develop new and better. And it got to be a standing joke that we developed everyone’s [next] product line, because each new year, they’d take our [current product line] for the next year. But it kept us on our toes. And to date, we have about 500 different products because of that.
To stay ahead of the curve, they use Product Opportunity Explorer which helps them research what’s trending in their product categories, and guides them on best practices for their product detail page content, or what’s missing in their product line.
3. Prioritize quality control of your product
The first batch of cutting boards was flawless. Then, the second container of cutting boards arrived and appeared to contain what looked like all of the rejects from the first order. Fearing for their company’s future, Tom and Joanne urgently requested that a factory representative come to inspect the shipment. Fortunately, the factory owner honored their request and replaced the entire container, saving their business from financial distress. “The one thing we learned is: quality control is paramount,” Tom says. “You want to always make sure the product is as good as you want it and as good as if you made each one yourself.”
4. Disagree with your co-founder, a lot
One of the couple’s strengths, according to Tom, is their ability to disagree on certain issues and argue their point. Sometimes their disagreements go unresolved, resulting in the creation of two distinct products. “But I think that’s also our strength because we’re never happy with the status quo,” he says. “We want to make the best [product] we can.” They both bring ideas to the table, and Joanne notes that Tom’s stronger technical background causes him to be more focused on how to achieve their ideas. Joanne, on the other hand, is more concerned with practicality and whether their ideas will work in a kitchen setting.
Once, the couple was collaborating on a teaspoon project. Tom was thrilled with the outcome, but Joanne insisted that it wasn’t a teaspoon. “If you’re making a measuring spoon, it has to be able to measure,” she chuckles. “And he’s like, ‘No, it’s almost right.’ I go, ‘No, it has to be right.’” Tom was forced to concede and go back to the drawing board. “Because of Joanne’s exacting quality,” he laughs, “they do measure now.”
Small Business, Big Moments is our new series, where we talk to Amazon selling partners about overcoming challenges and learning lessons in their entrepreneurial journey.