Written by Shawndra Russell | Photos by Anthony Harden
In just ten years, Melissa Clonch has seen her her gift basket business grow steadily, without incurring debt or experiencing setbacks. Her secret? Patience, precision, and confidence.
Working from home: It’s a dream for many people who want to have a more flexible schedule or avoid ballooning childcare costs. For Mills River-based entrepreneur Melissa Clonch, a former schoolteacher, the decision to start her business, Gift Baskets by Melissa, spurred from having twins. “I taught for 10 years, and when I found out I was having twins after already having one child, I knew practically my whole paycheck would go toward childcare,” she says.
As she brainstormed what kind of business she wanted to start, she first considered tutoring, but she kept thinking about the gift baskets she’d long been tasked with creating for years for co-workers’ birthdays, babies, or other milestones. “I’d always been artistic and organized,” she continues, “and I was most drawn to decorating the bulletin boards or doing art projects with the kids when I was a teacher. I was actually considering segueing into becoming an art teacher before the twins.” Instead, over the past decade she’s built a six-figure business that has seen solid growth every year.
Clonch started her business with just $3,000 in the summer of 2007. These funds covered her website, some equipment, and beginning stock, which she stored in the dining room, kitchen, garage, and any other nook where a few boxes could be stashed. “I’ve always tried to be very careful. No money owed, and when I purchase from vendors, I purchase outright,” she says. Her company has never had debt, even though her earnings from her first fourth quarter—unsurprisingly, the busiest time of the year for Clonch—only totaled $3,000. Yet she was undeterred, and this slow start pushed her to tap into the corporate business market so her business would be steadier year-round. Now, 70 percent of her business comes from corporate clients, while the remaining 30 percent are gifts to and from individuals for birthdays, thank yous, sympathy, anniversaries, weddings, and more.
For many years, Melissa was a one-woman show, recruiting her husband, Eric, along with her kids and mother, to help fill orders. “After about four years, my mom said, ‘That’s enough for me,’” Melissa recalls. When she launched the business, Eric was working for BB&T as a lender and manager before transitioning to a mortgage and money management role with Beverly-Hanks in 2010. “He’s so proud and pleased how the business has progressed, but at first he thought it should grow faster. It took about three to four years for him to say, ‘Hey, you might be onto something here,’” she says, laughing. “He’s also said he’s seen me come out of my shell, since I’m more introverted and he’s more extroverted. That’s why I like the design side of things.”
She’d never taken a single business class, which meant she had to rely heavily on resources she found online, including group message boards and seeing what other gift services companies were doing. Very few of these kinds of companies existed locally at the time, which gave her added confidence and narrowed her competitors to only a few businesses such as local florists. A big motivator for Melissa was the fact that “the harder I worked, the more money I brought in. When I was a teacher, I was on a lot of committees and often at work until 6PM, then I was doing lesson plans at home and every Sunday night.” Now, extra hours on the job mean extra income, with 2017’s sales expected to top $200,000, up from $150,000 in 2016.
4th Quarter Madness
While focusing on the needs of corporations proved to be smart business, 50 percent of her sales still happen during the fourth quarter. This percentage equates to over a dozen gift proposals for orders of 50-200 gifts, many for repeat customers or for companies that come across her online. From Halloween to Christmas, Clonch often clocks in 12+ hour days, with more than one all-nighter typically happening during the holiday season. Luckily, her mom and sister live nearby to help out with her kids, and her husband knows that he’s got to shoulder more of the responsibility during these hectic three months. “Last Christmas during an all-nighter, I thought, ‘I’ve created a monster.’ That’s when you go back to the drawing board and think about what can we do differently, what can I do better, or what can I change about the logistics to make things better.”
Part of making things better includes hiring more part-time staff during busy season, and she’s got several people lined up to help this year in addition to her full-time employee, Tammie Sullivan, who worked with her part-time, year-round for three years before coming on full-time a year ago. The two women both attended Appalachian State (where Melissa and Eric originally met), but they didn’t meet until they were both living in Asheville, through their kids. “Without Tammie, this year wouldn’t have been possible,” Melissa says, referring to the family moving into a larger home in Mills River. Now, they have a finished walk-in basement that’s been converted into an office, warehouse, and fulfillment space—a far cry from how she used to work out of the family’s dining room with products and packaging taking over their home. When things are running smoothly, they can assemble more than 100 gift baskets each day, and they often ship 50-60 gifts per day during this period.
Now, Melissa and company have plenty of space to work, and she’s “no longer the only one who knows where everything is because everything has a home.” Shelves of products line the back wall, while several long tables now provide a dedicated space for filling up the baskets and boxes assembly-line style. Near the doorway, Melissa and Tammie have their own desks, and a small “Office” sign greets delivery people and the rare client who wants to meet in person. Now, after 10 years, virtually no trace of her business occupies living spaces in her family’s home. “We can finally have people over during holiday season! In years past, you literally couldn’t walk in our house.” The big fear leading into this season was that the house and new office wouldn’t be move-in ready before the fourth quarter. “We purchased the lot two years ago and started building a year ago. They told us we would be in by March, but of course that timeline got pushed back to the summer. I told the builders we absolutely couldn’t have a move-in day during the fourth quarter, and they delivered,” she says, her relief evident.
While her family has experienced plenty of changes during the 10 years Gift Baskets by Melissa has been in operation, the industry itself has gone through some significant shifts. “About six years ago, people started wanting more locally-made products, and that ramped up even more in the last three years.” Now, 90 percent of what Clonch ships out are North Carolina products, with a majority of that being products made in Asheville and Western North Carolina. One of her biggest winners has been a wire basket in the shape of North Carolina that’s then filled with products made in the state. Nicole Rowland, marketing coordinator for Air Vent Exteriors, says of the state-shaped basket, “Our customers absolutely love it. They send us ‘thank yous’ for these thank you baskets!” Other container options include boxes, towers, and boxless, with a simple clear wrapping typically adorned with a pattern.
Gourmet food items are by far the most popular items, but she is always hunting for more gift-type items to incorporate among the edible selections, such as metal bottle openers and wooden magnets. Currently, she trusts 24 gourmet food purveyors, but in the beginning her options were much more limited. “There used to be only one local chocolate or one local cookie, but North Carolina products have exploded,” she explains. Price isn’t always the most important factor in her decision making, since plenty of her customers are willing to pay more for the best quality in order to impress whoever is on the receiving end of the baskets.
As her corporate client list continues to grow, she is venturing into South Carolina and Florida gift baskets, but she “wants to stay focused on locally-made Southern products” as much as possible. This widening focus occurred organically from the needs of clients like Air Vent Exteriors, who also own Greenville Awning Company in South Carolina.
Packaging is another aspect that can be a major factor when it comes to deciding between gift options. “It can be a dealbreaker because a lot of our gifts are open, and customers and recipients like to see the product.” Some of her clients opt to ship their own corporate-branded marketing materials to nestle among their basket’s goodies, and many choose to take advantage of customization options like adding their corporate logo to the bows or ribbons that adorn each gift. Clonch has an in-house printer for this upgrade, one of the many tweaks she’s made to the business that has proven to be a timesaver and selling point. Air Vent’s Rowland agrees, saying, “We rely on Melissa because she’s a small, local business just like us. Melissa has met every gift-giving challenge and timeline that we’ve ever given her, and she has done it with style and creativity. Plus, she makes the most beautiful bows!”
“Each order is special!”
Sometimes working with corporate clients means creating gifts for special people or promotions. One year on behalf of Wilcox Travel, she assembled a gift for Billy Graham. Another year, Nicholas Sparks’ publisher contacted Melissa to put together a North Carolina giveaway basket for one of his new book releases. While these special requests are memorable, Clonch says she truly enjoys almost every facet of running her business. “Each order is special in its own way! New products, new container, new customer. You’re helping your clients and they’re pleased; you’re putting a smile on the face of the recipient.” Eventually, she would like to hand over all the paperwork and administration work to focus solely on the creative aspects of her work, but she loves doing gift proposals and the research that goes into them. “It’s fun and a challenge because they have this budget, want this color, these types of products. It’s a puzzle.”
Clonch also wears a “Delivery Person” hat many days, another highlight of her work. “If we have local deliveries, I’ll do those early in the day–they’re really fun to do. Then, I come back and finish assembling shipments that must go out that day.” The rest of her time is spent working on gift proposals and lots of emailing, with the best emails coming from happy customers and happy recipients. Having control of her schedule is another huge perk. “I like to get up early to start my day, but I’ll take a break when the kids get home and then get back to it in the evening. Some people may not like that, but it works for us.”
As for favorite products, Clonch consistently relies on popcorn, barbeque sauces, honeys, and chocolate. Some of her local go-to vendors include French Broad Chocolates, Poppy’s Gourmet Popcorn, Smokin’ J’s Fiery Foods, and Wild Mountain Bees. (See sidebar, p. 61.) Coffee, sausages, teas, and other condiments like mustards and apple butters are also a hit with her customers and giftees.
After stints in Wilmington and Winston-Salem, the Clonchs returned to the Asheville area in 2002 since Melissa’s family is here and her husband’s family lives in Lenoir, located about an hour east of Mills River. They spend their free time outdoors as much as possible, hitting the trails, campgrounds, playing soccer, and biking. Indoors, Clonch has passed on her mother’s love of crafting, which of course was a major influence on her personally and professionally. Her father’s love of woodworking also made an impact on her business choice and creative instincts.
Of course, spending quality time with her three children and husband is a top priority, and she takes a week off at Christmas to reconnect with her family after being swamped for 12 weeks. Typically, she takes weekends off too, restricting herself to a few emails or texts but zero phone calls. The family also loves to cook together, and, unsurprisingly, watching the television program Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs’ dreams are made or dashed. “The business has been a great learning tool for our kids,” she explains, “and it’s been really rewarding for them to help out and see how it’s grown while they’ve grown.” Her high-schooler may join the team as an official part-timer soon, but, for now, they all continue to help out when needed.
Now that they’re settled in the new workspace, Melissa has her sights set on rebranding the business over the next two years to reflect their focus on corporate clients. “We started out so small! Now we’re thinking about a new logo, perhaps a warehouse space within the next three years.” She’d also like to add more employees to her roster and add more monthly corporate accounts. Currently, she has about a dozen corporate clients who task her with sending gifts out regularly, so adding more steady clients like these is another focus. One of these regular customers is Blue Sky MD, which trusts Melissa to create quarterly referral baskets for local providers. “We send these as a ‘thank you’ for remembering us to service the needs of their patient population. All the baskets leave lasting memories with each practice,” says Kristen Hunter, Blue Sky’s program director, adding, “Melissa is creative, passionate, and makes the baskets so personal each time.”
Of course, Melissa will continue to follow the slow-and-steady model that has kept her out of debt these past 10 years and helps keep risks to a minimum. “Most businesses like this fail within a year. You don’t want so much monetarily invested. I never would have thought that my business would have gotten to this point—it’s grown more than I ever thought it would.” She’s also seeing other gift basket companies work to add more products versus edible items into their offerings, so sourcing these kind of lasting gifts will continue to be important to growing her business. Luckily, lots of makers send her samples, so she can now spend less time finding new products.
Her advice for others interested in starting at-home (or other) businesses? “Never give up. After two years, I just didn’t think this was going to work, but I just did not give up.
“Even if things fail, even if they don’t go the way you planned, keep trying.”
Editor’s Note: If you’re intrigued by what you read about Melissa’s gift baskets and gift towers, make sure you turn to page 99 of this issue for a special offer on a gift tower stuffed with products from Western North Carolina artisans and vendors. And follow Capital at Play on social media —Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — for a chance to win an equally special gift tower created by Melissa. (Included are products from some of the vendors profiled in our Sweet & Savory feature this issue.)
Buy the gift basket on the cover for only $99 – a Capital at Play Special!
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