In our brand spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with Jonathan Claasen & Steen Christensen, the founding partners of The Jonsteen Company. The Jonsteen Company sells awesome trees and grow kits, is based behind “The Redwood Curtain,” on the Pacific Coast in Humboldt County, and has been in business since 1992. Shop trees here.
Abound: Why did you decide to start this business? Why this business and not a different one?
Jonathan and Steen: We love trees, art, the parks, wilderness, promoting nature, teaching, and being involved with something real and experiential that can change people’s lives and communities for the better. And we like business.
It all comes together in Jonsteen. What a privilege to be involved with amazing trees and putting living, growing things right into people’s hands! We’ve been learning about trees and tree growing ourselves over the past three decades, and the more we learn, the more we appreciate trees and the more we want to share!
This company grew out of a friendship and what’s become a lifelong pursuit and appreciation of trees.
Abound: How did you make your first prototype? What changes have you made to your product since then?
Jonathan and Steen: At the time we first started in the early 1990’s, our trees, mainly Coast Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), were grown by commercial timber companies.
We are right in redwood country, so the trees were being grown here already for different purposes. Our challenge was to combine the live seedlings with creative, interpretive packaging which utilized both good science (to give the trees a shelf life without care and help them travel safely) and an artful, high impact presentation (so people couldn’t resist these baby trees and their amazing natural histories!).
We wanted live trees to go to places and into markets where live products such as ours had never been before! We wanted to bring trees to the people, not just green thumbs and master gardeners, but everybody else. Over time, we began nursery operations of our own. Now, our nursery is like a living library of many of the world’s coolest trees!
We also diversified our products, adding an ever-expanding line of “Grow Kits” to our offerings. These seed germination kits were a great complement to the live trees, and perform great when offered together. The Grow Kits have become a natural alternative for customers who are reticent to buy a live tree for whatever reason, maybe they are on the road for a long time, traveling internationally, or want to stock up for future gift giving or an event.
Abound: How do you make your product? Yourself? A manufacturer? What’s your process like?
Jonathan and Steen: Nature makes our products, which is why they are so cool! We just get to talk about them with a lot of enthusiasm! [So, the point is that the tree (or plant or flower) is the thing and what we’re all about.]
Our trees are grown in our nursery. Our seeds are collected by us or our longtime seed-collecting friends. Our packaging is designed in-house. Everything is assembled, produced, and shipped from Humboldt County.
Abound: What’s your day to day like? Do you have any favorite and least favorite parts?
Jonathan and Steen: As the business grows, we “founders” find ourselves in ever-more “administrative” roles. We aren’t handling every seedling ourselves anymore, that’s for sure. Thankfully, we have around 14 helpers now in our nursery!
Hearing “tree stories” and fielding tree growing questions from customers has been part of our daily existence since the beginning, and that’s something which continues and which we truly relish. Now, that we’ve been in business for several decades, the stories we are getting back from customers about their trees are pretty incredible. Pictures too! People are so very appreciative. It’s humbling.
Abound: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
Jonathan and Steen: We started small, and did other things for money on the side while Jonsteen grew. After about three years, we got an $100,000 SBA loan, wrote a grant for a cheap lease on a one-acre parcel of fallow federal farmland, built a greenhouse, and developed some of our first grow kits and POP displays.
Abound: Where was the first place you started selling your product?
Jonathan and Steen: Muir Woods National Monument (All hail this beautiful tree-dedicated park!)
Abound: Where do you sell your product now?
Jonathan and Steen: Our trees and grow kits can go anywhere and everywhere! Our trees and grow kits are available in some of the world’s great natural history museums and botanic gardens; in many national parks; in museums, garden shops, and nature stores, kinda the places you might expect.
But we are also in some unexpected places: mom and pop corner stores; urban luxury hotels; the National Cathedral, the White House Gift Shop; and even Disneyland!
Abound: Where would you love to sell your products in the future?
Jonathan and Steen: Anywhere and Everywhere! Trees are the best thing any business can sell right now. Clean air and clean water machines! Good for people’s mental health in every single community everywhere.
With a ten buck tree or grow kit sale, any merchant can change the planet and change someone’s life! Our packaging and total support for our products make them no more trouble to sell than a bar of soap or t-shirt. We take trees to retail settings where they have never been before, and we do it successfully.
Abound: Do you have a favorite product? If so, which one?
Jonathan and Steen: This is like choosing among children! But, among many “favorite” tree species, consider the Giant Sequoia. This is a prehistoric organism that has been on earth for millions of years, was once wide-ranging, yet today has become incredibly rare and localized to about 80 “indigenous” groves along the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevadas.
This tree can grow all over, and can eventually reach sizes that are nothing short of breathtaking. Old growth giant sequoias are towering gnarled spectacles reaching almost 300 feet into the sky with massive, pillar like red-clad trunks nearly 40-feet across! The trees are ancient emissaries from another time. To be among them is to be in nature’s cathedral.
So, imagine the thrill of having a baby giant sequoia of your own, maybe one you grew from a tiny seed or seedling. You’ve started a living legacy that could enhance the planet and become a landmark in your community for 3,000 years or more. This is the great experience we can bring to folks with the help of other like-minded tree merchants!
Abound: What’s your marketing like? Is social media an important part of The Jonsteen Company? If so, how?
Jonathan and Steen: Trees and tree education are the most important parts of our business. We don’t advertise or chase people around with pop-ups online. We focus on having great trees in our nursery and great information about species and tree growing practices readily available online.
We email folks who ask us for information about what’s going on in our tree nursery. Generally, folks interested in trees find us. We use cool art in our packaging and marketing, because it’s reflective of the beauty of trees and of the parks. We stay in touch with customers by phone, email, social media, however they want.
Lots of folks out there share fantastic tree pictures and shots of sprouts emerging from seeds. It’s great to be connected, but our focus is mostly on getting people outdoors and off the computer and into some good real dirt! Our message on social media is probably something like: “Get off of social media and go plant a tree!”
Abound: What are some of the most frustrating challenges and/or moments you’ve had with The Jonsteen Company?
Jonathan and Steen: The usual money/growth/cashflow/exploding paperwork problems that all entrepreneurs deal with.
Abound: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with The Jonsteen Company?
Jonathan and Steen: We count every tree planted as a victory, every blooming flower as a win! But there have been lots of notable moments in our history. For instance, we helped the great Lowe’s Companies give away 1 million trees on Earth Day in 2011. All in one day! That was our biggest tree event ever.
Hey Corporate America, who’s next?! We have had our products highlighted in some really nice ways too in the media, including somehow being discovered by ABC World News Tonight. Check it out!
Abound: What advice do you have for people who want to sell a product?
Jonathan and Steen: Be passionate about it, or sell something else.
Abound: Is there any business advice or quotes you’ve heard that you think about often?
Jonathan and Steen: Yes: “Multitasking makes you dumber.” That’s bad news for any entrepreneur! After 28 years of multi-tasking, I don’t know why that comes to mind so often these days.
Abound: What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
Jonathan and Steen: It’s an alternative lifestyle. It’s freedom. It’s the American dream. And, for us, it’s the opportunity to support trees, to earn a living while doing good work that enhances life!