Today we sat down with Aaron Saks, the President of West Coast Seeds, a company whose purpose is to source and supply seeds of a higher quality than have been available to home gardeners by following traditions of organic farming and sustainable agriculture. West Coast Seeds is committed to supplying their customers with non-GMO and untreated seeds that align with their mission to repair the world. You can learn more about West Coast Seeds at their website here.
Listen to Aaron speak to the need for ethical growing, sustainability at West Coast Seeds, community work, and more.
What is West Coast Seeds and What's the Elevator Pitch?
We sell vegetable, herb, and flower seeds. They are non-GMO and most of them are organically certified. We sell other garden related products but we like to say that we go beyond seeds, we sell a lifestyle. Most importantly, we’re selling education. We want people to be successful in gardening and we also sell community. You know, we do a lot of donations within the community and a lot of work in regards to sustainability and creating sustainable products. That’s really our brand; we have an omnichanel approach where we sell through e-commerce, our wholesale network, and we have a small store here in Vancouver. To be honest though, I’m not the biggest fan of the elevator pitch. We like to get outside, we like to be active and I’m more of a stairs guy. By doing the stairs it gives you more time to give the pitch so I get to talk about what I like most which is our brand and business in general. I also get to be physically active so next time if we ever meet in person, we’ll do some stairs.
How has the importance and need for ethical growing impacted your company?
It’s been everything. I mean, our roots have come from non-GMO and organic principles- We were organic before it was cool to be organic, in the 80s when organic products weren’t the thing and when it was hard to find. This was really in our DNA and it’s really been everything for us; it’s not forced and it’s just who we are. We believe that our customers really appreciate that. You can buy seeds from the dollar store if you really wanted to but when you come to West Coast Seeds, you know you’re buying a high quality product and buying the biggest, baddest, strongest, healthiest seed. We’re also getting that educational component alongside it. It’s really been core to our DNA.
Rahul: Amazing, it sounds like its really a part of who you are rather than just a priority or a goal.
Exactly, it’s part of our mission as well so it fits right in.
Rahul: Actually, what is your mission if you don’t mind me asking?
Actually, our mission is to help repair the world. It comes from a Hebrew phrase and it’s been passed on through three different ownership groups so it really hasn’t changed. Maybe the wording has changed or how you say it but that again has been really core to who West Coast Seeds is.
Speak to how a business could take steps towards prioritizing sustainability, a charitable initiative, or another ethical-facing value as a core part of their company?
I’m happy to talk about it specific to West Coast Seeds. I will say that I’m not a fan of unsolicited advice so I’m not going to go on and say “This is what you have to do in order to run your business successfully.” I can only give examples from what’s made West Coast Seeds successful. For us, it’s been all about being natural. You know, when I came to the company – Again, part of the DNA was to help repair the world. It wasn’t something we had to build or develop. It was already inherent in the business and so for us at least, we’ve done things very organically in the way that we supported community and supported customers, and giving education. It’s all sort of happened naturally and for another brand, it may be more challenging to do so and they may need to work a little harder. That’s not to say we don’t work extremely hard at giving back and doing all the things that we’re trying to do in regards to organics and sustainability but for us again, it’s been a natural progression and so it’s made it a lot easier I want to say in that regard.
Do you agree that brand purpose (the reason why your company exists- your values and mission) is an essential factor for business success going forward? Why or why not?
I mean, I guess in business school that was always the first thing that they teach you. When you’re creating a business plan, make a mission and your values. I definitely didn’t believe that before and to this day, I’m not sure I necessarily agree for all businesses. But for West Coast Seeds in particular, it’s vital. We always say that we could sell anything; if we wanted to, we could sell shoes and shirts and we could sell whatever we wanted to sell regardless of what our name is. So, having this mission and having this vision and our value set enables us to choose what products we want to carry and it helps us to make those decisions as to what should our packaging look like, what should our packaging material be like, what should our facility be like, who should we be hiring, and all those types of things that are vital for us to make business decisions. At the same time, I can’t say that for Amazon it’s the same – I don’t know. I’m not a business guru by any means.
Rahul: That’s a completely fair answer. Even for us internally, I would argue that our mission really drives what we do so I understand. It allows you to communicate to every single person in your organization and get them that compass, not just for where we’re going but for how we make decisions and why we make decisions that way. I think you really articulated that really well.
Cool yeah. I guess in theory, everybody should be able to do every job. So having this vision and mission and value set enables people to do that with a skill set. At least it will gear you to the right answers if you have that value set and mindset around mission.
Do you believe that going forward, businesses will need to consistently improve their sustainable and charitable initiatives to drive growth? Or do you think that brand boycotting is just a trend? Why?
I have a lot of feelings and a lot of varied feelings around this. By no means is this going to be consistent at all. First of all I will say about Amazon is that Amazon has set the bar. Amazon is an amazing company in regards to the way that it operates; people use it for a reason because they are able to do things that other companies aren’t able to do. And so, do I agree with some of their business practices? Maybe not, but they have created an amazing product or an amazing company. Similarly, with Facebook there have been a lot of boycotts around Facebook. Do I agree with a lot of the things they’re doing? No, but at the same time, they have a product that people obviously want and need. I think as entrepreneurs and as small businesses, we can’t just sit back and blame these companies. We have to do our part to show value to our customers and to bring them to us to tell them why it’s important to support small business and why it’s important to buy local. We have to do those things better is one thing.
I will say that I do think that boycotting will continue. I think it will become a way bigger trend. As companies grow, there’s this challenge of small/local vs big business and I think a company that I really like is Shopify. They’ve supported small business yet they’re still the biggest company in Canada now so they’ve been able to walk that line very well while still supporting their merchants and small businesses. I think there’s ways that companies like ours can do that and so I do think that there will be boycotting and there will be situations where people will be supporting small businesses and maybe not supporting larger businesses. But there are ways that bigger businesses can walk that tightrope a lot better.
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Rahul: At the start of your statement, you regarded quite truthfully that the Amazon experience for consumers is excellent and people go there for a reason. But when you were bringing it back, you referenced one of my favourite companies, Shopify. They've actually democratized access to entrepreneurship and so a small business owner can come on and help deliver an Amazon-like experience but actually have a place in that ecosystem which is defensible and sustainable. That's a beautiful brand promise where there's that mutual coexistence. I think what you've highlighted is that it did drive some important changes in technology and consumer experience that other companies have had to follow but in terms of having a strong mission, Shopify actually does support entrepreneurs in a way that Amazon doesn't completely do because of their anti-competitive practices.
Well said. I mean it's interesting in that regard. You kind of had mentioned sustainability and charitable giving and it kind of goes back to what I said from the very beginning. As long as it's natural for that company, it fits really well. If it's part of your mission to give back, you should give back. I think you can go through a really dangerous rabbit hole of saying "we do something better than someone else" because there are tons of things that West Coast Seeds probably does that we could do better in regards to sustainability. There are, and we know it. We are trying to improve slowly but surely. It's not like we can flip a switch and all of a sudden be carbon-neutral. It's very hard and. I love watching Allbirds, their story is really cool and they've outlined their plans to get carbon neutral even though they're selling shoes which doesn't seem possible. It may take time but I think being open, not necessarily just about being sustainable or giving back, but about being transparent with customers. At least for us, being transparent with customers about what we're trying to do and always trying to strive to help to repair the world and striving to be better. That's really what we do and again, provide education which is huge. That's something that companies don't do I don't think very well that someone like Allbirds does amazing.
Rahul: That's awesome. Part of this small business interview form is it gives us an opportunity for you, the business leader, to be highlighted. And hopefully, your transparency and values comes through to the audience who consumes the media.
As a company heavily focused on your community and education work, tell us about your recent partnership with Dr Bonnie Henry and your seed donation program?
For those of you watching, Dr Bonnie Henry is our provincial health officer in British Columbia, an equivalent to a state in the U.S. She’s done an amazing job I think. We’ve been living in BC and it’s been an amazing place to live through Covid as we haven’t had too many restrictions. We’ve been much more open to be able to do things and our business remained opened pretty much through the entire pandemic. I attribute a lot of it to Dr. Henry. We have had a lot of negative feedback around our partnership with her and we didn’t know this was going to be a political statement when we came out with this packet but we can touch on that a little later.
We reached out to her in July of 2020 after she had such an amazing job and we had kind of pitched her on being on a seed packet to show her, her team, and their hard work and to be able to support a charity of her choice with 100% of proceeds going to the charity of her choice. I thought that was pretty unique and I don’t think many companies do necessarily 100% of proceeds and granted, it’s easer to do that with a seed packet than say, a $150 pair of shoes. I think it’s still meaningful and was a good pitch for us and was a good thing to show what we’re trying to do. We reached out and she accepted within three to four hours and we worked with her on coming out with a product. She wears bees pendants all the time and is known to support bees and that’s another thing that has really impacted our customer base, is supporting pollinators. It was a natural fit that does support pollinators and so we chose Cosmos and different colours because she has a pretty eclectic style. We thought we’d sell a couple thousand packets, which is a good product normally for us.
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We ended up selling out within two days, overselling within 5 days and we couldn't keep up with demand. I think we had targeted- a good campaign would be around $15 000 but we ended up doing $225 000 to date, which is a massive donation I think for a small business all things considered. It's been an amazing campaign for us and has been so fun to be a part of and has brought us a lot of attention while raising a lot of money for a very important cause during probably the time they needed it most. I think it's a model we can continue to do with supporting other initiatives as this world gets more and more crazy.
Rahul: It's tough to say that something as important as all of us such as public health would be politicized. The reality is, because of platforms such as Facebook and other places where people give in to social echo-chambers, divisive politics take place. That said, what you've done is nothing short of amazing. One, doing a lot of fundraising and awareness and two, supporting charitable initiatives and practicing what you preach. With sustainability, you show with your actions that this is something you believe in. First of all, congratulations on the success today and. I hope you have future success running similar campaigns. I hope that when more people hear that story, it brings more business to you. Ultimately what we're seeing now is people have more of a social conscience in terms of consumer purchasing and they want to know their money is going to a company that does right by them and the environment so you taking initiatives like this very publicly really validates that.
I think the one thing to note that we try to do is- when we do these campaigns or speak out on social media, we're very conservative in the way that we speak. But when we do take a stance, in this case we didn't realize we were taking a stance, we try to do it in the most positive way possible. We're not against anybody or here to say anybody's doing anything bad or wrong. We're just showing our support to one group let's say and so in this case, we've highlighted Food Banks Canada and they being able to obtain money from us and our customers which is so cool. As we speak out about other things again, we're just showing our support to one thing, we're not speaking negatively about another group. That's another thing, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Whether I agree or whether West Coast Seeds, this is the world we live in and we just try to focus on the positive and what we're passionate about and I think that's worked for us but I can't speak for other companies. and other brands.
How have the people within your organization contributed to your success? How are you prioritizing the creation of a successful team?
Our people are everything. I like to equate it to a plant or a tree, which is something we actually do. The roots are the most important part of the plant and so if I left and somebody replaced me, the staff would still be here and they would still be representing the company. I don’t think anything would change that much. The staff are really the thing that’s carrying the company and creating our identity. I can say that we’re trying to repair the world but I can’t actually do that myself. The team has to be able to do that and has to come up with the vision, which they have. So really, the team is everything.
How do we support them and how do we work with them to grow? It’s so hard, I will say it’s so hard. We have to dedicate – Throughout Covid, we had huge spikes in demand and we’re trying to figure out our operations. We’ve got craziness in ecommerce and wholesale and are trying to run around and do all this stuff. So really, we have to take time every meeting to talk about our people. Are they OK? Are they doing OK? How can we work with the to create standard operating procedures so they know how to do their jobs more effectively? How can we help all of them grow in their roles. and advance within the organization? How do we increase communication? There are so many tools, people, different departments, and people. We’re battling that constantly and our people are the most important thing so we have to allocate budget, time, to our people. We’re kind of always striving to improve in that regard.
Our culture is great and we have amazing staff but I think we have tons of room to grow. We have passionate gardeners, people who are passionate about sustainability and education. All. of this stuff that I talk about, it comes from them and we just have to harness that and help them to grow. How do we do that? Through a lot of work, a lot of money, resources, and trying. to make them the best they can be and ultimately, to make them happy. We want happy staff and. we want people who love gardening and have similar values. We want a diverse group of people working here but at the same time, we want people who value sustainability and organics. We don’t want people who are pro- spraying their gardens with pesticides but sell organic seeds.
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Rahul: Consistency in your values... it's interesting, your people help you proliferate your values because they show those values. How many people do you have at West Coast Seeds out of curiosity.
It spikes, so in our peak season we can get quite a bit of seasonal workers. But right now, we're at about 50. It's tough to manage, we're cross Canada now so it's a lot of work and without travel, we haven't been able to see a lot of them in a long time.
Rahul: These video calls are such the way of working in 2021
You know, I probably talk to them way more than I would've previously. We have a staff member in Toronto and I previously might've only seen him four times a year and call him a bunch but now I'm seeing him almost every day in video chats so our communication is there and it's getting better. I don't like to use any excuses; just because we can't travel doesn't mean we can't communicate.
Rahul: I completely agree and I think it's allowed people in different parts of the country to come together and feel more connected. Obviously, if you were working in a big city before and you got to see people all the time, maybe you didn't have that feeling of social isolation. But for others, who didn't have that sense of community and connection I think the cloud and some of these enabling technologies really shifted the landscape which has been nice to see.
True. We've done a lot of education events and we've been able to target customers we would've never been able to target before. Typically, we were unable to target people within a 50 mile radius to West Coast Seeds but now, we're able to target anybody but obviously, there are growing conditions that are challenging. But we have been able to do a lot of education in Canada, North America, and beyond.
What are some of your favourite plants or your favourite plant?
To be honest, I’m new to the plant game. People associate plants with seeds but we don’t sell house plant seeds although I think it’s a cool opportunity, we don’t necessarily do that. We do sell a lot of things that support indoor gardening. So on the backside of my screen, you can see my indoor growing tools and we’re able to grow vegetable, herbs, lettuces indoors 12 months of the year. We sell a lot of sprouting seeds. You see a lot of alfalfa sprouts at Subway per say, and you can grow those in 3-5 days and get healthy vegetables right there. We’ve been selling that and that’s been really popular and those are some of the products I enjoy.
From a plant perspective, I’ve got a struggling plant here that needs a lot of water. Snake plants are really good, they’re good for getting oxygen into your workplace and my sister has become somewhat of a micro-influencer, you can check her out @themindfuljungle.