Peeling Behind Jonas Umbrellas
Josh is there on the left smiling while in a school in Uganda. He is the heart of Jonas Umbrellas, a company focused on bringing clean water to school children in Uganda through selling limited edition umbrellas.
We met digitally. Isn't that normal now? After only a couple messages we found a handful of things in common -- namely we are both willing to message strangers on the internet, we like bandanas, and we deeply want to love people well.
Can an umbrella change someone’s life?
Yes. I would have laughed at you 3 years ago if you asked me that.
But, today I can honestly say that an umbrella has changed the lives of 3,000 students and countless community members. That's insanity.
An umbrella can change lives.
How did Jonas Umbrellas begin? Why umbrellas?
I'll give a quick abbreviated story.
It began after a trip to Uganda. I was in Uganda before a consulting trip to Rwanda. A friend of mine and I we on an adventure to raft the Nile River - boda boda, cabs, public bus, you name it. Anyway, after a long day on the river, we pulled our rafts on shore, and I saw a little boy in no shirt and dirty, tattered pants filling a jerry can the size of him in the river. I asked my guide what he was doing.
He responded saying the little boy was collecting drinking and cooking water for his family.
I was in shock! The same water I was just throwing food scraps in, the same water I was peeing in all day, that murky bacteria infested river was his water source. I went home with a desire to come up with a way to help Uganda, and Jonas Umbrellas was born.
Umbrellas came about because that summer it was terribly rainy in Boston and I was tired of looking at boring Umbrellas. I thought they could be way cooler and maybe make a difference in the world.
There are only a couple of the bicycle print umbrellas left? Is there a vision for new designs? What is your source of inspiration?
Yay! There aren't many left - which is exciting. We have done a few corporate event designs. But the original idea was to coordinate with artists or other creatives to allow them to be a part of the umbrellas through design. We have a collaboration for the next umbrella that I'm really excited about. It should be a real hit!
To speak to how other business owners can learn from this:
Relationships in this digital age are everything. Cross marketing is more important than ever and strategic collaborations can really benefit both sides.
How did your previous jobs and work experience prepare you for success at Jonas Umbrellas?
I dare say they didn't.
Nothing can really prepare you for starting a company than just going and doing it and learning as you go. I mean don't get me wrong, understanding corporate culture, how to navigate communications, and business knowledge all came from previous work; but, nothing can prepare you for creating something new. That's why there are so many people preaching "Do" these days.
It's true, you can't plan or be prepared for starting a company.
Once you start something you realize there are no rules, you create the rules and the opportunities.
No one knows what they are doing; it's all made up! So that should give you some comfort to know that anything you do isn't wrong, let your results speak for themselves.
You have an amazingly beautiful product and strong Instagram presence, but where do you find your marketing drives the most sales? Why do you believe that is true?
Well, Instagram has been a big driver of sales for us for sure. Our presence has wavered much to my dislike over the last year, but we've been focusing on other more internal business processes.
Anyway, my thought is there is no one platform.
Be on as many as you possibly can and be as active as you possibly can. You never know when one platform will add a new feature that connects with your demographic and if you abandon one or avoid it then you are putting yourself at a disadvantage.
I think Facebook ads are an essential marketing technique that everyone needs to get with. There is just far too much demographic information within their ads platform to ignore it.
I'd say utilize Instagram to establish a visual identity, utilize the messaging, and hammer Facebook ads; if you had to choose.
As a “give back" company how do you wrestle between the non-profit and for-profit divide?
It's not hard for me really. I started this company with the mission of helping a cause I care about. All of my decisions are made based on that goal. Don't get me wrong I want to make money - that is for sure.
I want to have a sustainable company that can sustain me and create sustainable change. Did I say sustainable enough?? Haha.
My thoughts around for profit companies for change is that they are the future of the "non-profit" world. So it is something that doesn't seem intuitive now, but it will be harder to explain and combat as it becomes the norm.
What most excites you about the Jonas Umbrellas’ story as of today?
I mean what is exciting for me is that Jonas could cease to exist tomorrow and it has still drilled two wells and helped over 3,000 kids receive clean water.
It improved education and women's rights. I succeeded. That takes a lot of pressure off. I just am not satisfied with those results. We got one and I was like, "Okay cool one, but I'll be happy when we get two, that'll mean we are real." We got two and I was like, "Okay two. Yes! But, I think we will actually be legit when we do three." You see what I'm getting at?
I'm excited because we have had success, but now that I've seen the impact I'm hungry for more.
You were recently featured in a great write up by Inc. what does it take to be recognized by such a big publication? Did you re-read your email response to them a million times?
It really doesn't matter. Yes it does something for your credibility and it can even drive traffic and excitement around your already avid followers, but it doesn't do much for sales.
Sales are on you having a great model and company.
I never reach out to magazines or publications unless I have a specific collaboration I want to happen. If you do your job. If you put in the time on building a good company the press clippings will happen. Don't worry about the press to get the customers, worry about the business and the press will company. If that makes sense?
What daily discipline is most essential to your success? Which do you need to improve on?
I am always working on 3 to 5 projects at once. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I spent all my time on one. And then I realize it's just not me, I like to keep myself in a lot of things to keep a creative flow and reduce boredom or frustration.
It's about understanding my strengths and making my weaknesses an asset as well. Staying focused would be helpful though.
What is your biggest pet peeve?
I'll say the biggest thing that bothers me is when someone from a developed country usually America DMs me and says. "I wish I could do what you do" or "I wish I could travel" or "I wish I could start my own company". It makes me actually upset and mad.
First, it makes it seem like it was easy for me. Like I had a magic wand or a magic 8 ball that gave me all the answers or a money tree that just grew 50 dollar bills for me to pick every morning. That's just not true.
And second, ANYONE can do ANYTHING they want!
I understand the real and important socio economic issues, institutional racism, and all people don't start on the same playing field - I very much get that. But, holy crap the internet has given us so much knowledge and opportunity. If you actually want something and you aren't actively trying to get it, your just sitting around "wishing it" because "you don't know how", I'm sorry, but you are just lazy. That's harsh, but it should be exciting.
You can do anything you want! Anything!
Going back to a few questions ago, that's why I can't focus. I see all these awesome ideas and adventures; I want to do them all!