Turning Misfortune Into Success

The founder of glassybaby started her company when she was struggling with cancer, in an effort to give hope to others.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
March 01, 2012

Lee Rhodes is a shining example that one person can make a huge difference in the world. Back in 1995, she was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer and went through three bouts of intense chemotherapy. On her frequent visits to the hospital, she would befriend fellow patients in waiting rooms, many who couldn’t afford basic needs such as electric bills or bus fare.

During the third incarnation of her cancer, Rhodes, a Seattle resident, was sitting in her kitchen on a cold January night in 1998 with some friends. Her husband at the time had just come home from a glass blowing class with an orange-red vase he’d created. Without thinking, Rhodes placed a lit votive candle into the vase. What happened next would change the course of her life.

“The vessel just glowed, it was magical to see,” she says. “I was completely blown away by it. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.”

The sight gave Rhodes a renewed sense of peace. She wanted to share that feeling with others, so she started speaking with glassblowers around the Seattle region about creating small, handmade glass vessels that could double as beautiful pieces of art and sources of comfort and inspiration for people going through hard times.

The idea caught on quickly and soon friends, neighbors and relatives wanted their own vessel. Rhodes decided to launch a company around the product with the mission of giving back 10 percent of her revenues (not profits) to charities that benefit cancer patients, just like the ones she befriended in waiting rooms.

“From the beginning, the company was all about giving money right off the top,” she says. “It wasn’t about the product, it was about giving back. We still believe in that mission to this day.”

Rhodes (pictured) named the company glassybaby, opened a store in Seattle and let word-of-mouth marketing take its course. Today, glassybaby is a smashing success with three stores in the Seattle area and one location in New York City. The company has a tremendous following; the shops regularly have lines wrapped around city blocks to get in. Each glassybaby is made by hand in the U.S. by four professional glassblowers.

Consumers not only buy glassybabys to commemorate hard times in life, but also to celebrate happier times such as birthdays, weddings and graduations. Lighting a glassybaby, according to Rhodes, 49, is an experience and instills in a person a sense of calm and memory.

We met with Rhodes to chat about her background, her company and her plans for the future.

Could you tell me a little about your background?
I’m from Boston and went to boarding school in New Hampshire. After high school, I came out to the University of Washington to be a rower, but didn’t finish school. Instead, I went to work at Nike in their merchandising department and then got married. I now have three children.

How are you feeling now?
I’m healthy as a horse.

Why do you think glassybaby has such a loyal following?
It’s because I’m not selling a product. I have a vehicle that when you put a candle in, it makes you calm and happy. It formulates a 30-second part of your day that you can fill with goodwill and positive energy and simple thoughts, and we don’t have a lot of that in our lives.

I also think I am selling an experience. People love and want to touch it and be part of it. We are selling a memory builder, a life experience and a simple kind of magic that gets to the heart of your heart. I don’t think many companies do that.

How many people do you have on staff?
We have 115 employees.

How many glassybabys do you have in your home?
I have about 50 or 60. I keep all of mine out together. I always have the pallet changing.

How much money did you give away last year?
We gave away $323,000 last year—which is a lot of money when we aren’t asking anyone for anything (according to the website, the company has donated more than $862,000 since 2003). The more we make, the more we give. Last year, our revenues were around $5.2 million. We are on par to hit $8 million this year.

What accounts for such impressive growth numbers?
It’s all word of mouth. We grow organically. Our customers are sisters and brothers and uncles and fathers of people who’ve experienced glassybaby.

What are your plans for the future of glassybaby?
I’d like to compete with the flower industry; people would send glassybabys instead of flowers. After all, we don’t waste water, we are made in the U.S. and our packaging is recycled. I think there is room for us in the memory-building, sympathy-building world where people could send bouquets of glassybabys.

We are also looking to open more stores. We are looking [in] San Francisco right now. We also think Chicago, Austin, Cleveland and Charleston would be great. We do really well in markets where consumers feel like they discovered us.

What advice can you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Stick to your mission. Even in the years we didn’t make money, we gave away revenue. That said, we’ve made mistakes when listening to others' ideas. We lost a good chunk of money outsourcing the manufacturing of our products, for example. But that was a learning experience, and now we manufacture in the U.S. Sticking to our mission has really helped throughout the years.

Photo credit: Courtesy company