Jen Kennedy of HoneyBug: “Caring for your customers”

Caring for your customers. Our customers come first, hands down. No ifs, ands or buts. We are honored to have our dream jobs because our customers allow us to. One of my favorite stories happened when we were testing with a delivery provider. As with most betas, something went wrong and even though someone ordered […]

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Caring for your customers. Our customers come first, hands down. No ifs, ands or buts. We are honored to have our dream jobs because our customers allow us to. One of my favorite stories happened when we were testing with a delivery provider. As with most betas, something went wrong and even though someone ordered same day delivery, the delivery provider wasn’t able to fulfill it. Well, that didn’t stop our Operations Director who personally drove miles away to hand deliver the order because she refused to disappoint the customer. This is just one of hundreds of things our team has done to make sure a customer is always happy with their HoneyBug experience!

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Kennedy. She started HoneyBug to take the guesswork out of baby and kids gifting. As a mom of two, her family’s schedule was constantly overflowing with birthday parties, baby showers, baptisms and more. With a career of her own as a marketing executive for a billion-dollar brand, finding the time to select and wrap the perfect gift for each occasion became next to impossible, and she found herself shopping for generic toys, clothes and other baby items at major retailers just to keep up. HoneyBug was founded to make gifting for newborns, babies, toddlers and kids easier, more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Absolutely and thank you for considering me for this series. I’ve been a Senior Level Marketing Executive for over 17 years and have held almost every role possible within the marketing world. Most recently I was the Chief Product and Innovation Officer at Jack in the Box. I grew up about 10 minutes from the Southern Border in San Diego, CA, to a SWAT officer father and school librarian mother. In 2015 I had my first child while working as a Director of Product Innovation and three years later I had my second. Shortly after my daughter joined our family, I launched HoneyBug (her nickname) and it’s been a wild ride since then.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Every single day has its challenges — but I have never considered giving up. One of my mentors gave me the best advice about being a founder, and it drives me daily: “Having a start-up means you have to be OK with having a lot of near-death experiences.” Truly, I have never heard someone describe being an entrepreneur in a more accurate way. Each and every day is a roller coaster — you experience high highs and low lows, but if you can remember that all these lows, these near-death experiences, are a part of the journey, it completely takes the power away from them. Now, I will say, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pivoting and walking away from something if it’s not working. I had another start-up about 10 years ago that just wasn’t working, and if not for walking away from that brand, I would have never founded HoneyBug. Being a founder is all about intuition. The most successful founders intuitively know when to fight and push, and when to call it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I might be too deep in to see anything funny about the mistakes right now, but I’m obsessive about finding a lesson in each of them. One of the biggest mistakes we made early on (and perhaps something I will laugh at one day!) was continually running out of product and having poor supply chain processes. We have over 1700 SKUS and customers can make their own custom baby gift boxes, but it was like a game of Whack-A-Mole when it came to inventory. One day something would come in, and we would realize we ran out of something else. Or, we ordered the wrong thing. Or, we didn’t order enough. Or, we ordered double of what we didn’t need. Boxes, product, shipping labels, toilet paper, you name it, we ran out of it. We are finally implementing systems that have improved our logistics, and now, we never run out of the same thing twice. We learned our lesson!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I truly think it’s the company culture and our dedication to our customers. While we have these amazing products that people love, I’m prouder of creating a culture where the team feels cared for and respected, and that our customers know we will do everything in our power to fix issues when they arise. Additionally, I’m proud that we support minority and female-owned businesses, companies that source ethically and brands that give back to our communities. Anyone can come up with a great product, but not everyone can have a great culture or mission.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

The old saying goes, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” While that sounds cliché, it’s 100% true. Throughout my career, I have never been as happy as I am now — nor have I worked as hard as I do. I work around the clock, and I never think twice about it. Even when I’m burnt out, a few hours of a sleep and a glass of wine will fix it. That was never the case for me before. Start-ups are a grind and you have to be doing something you love or you’ll implode very quickly.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

You are absolutely right! Without a great support system your success is deeply limited. Especially as a woman and mother, having a partner who supports you and is willing to shoulder the burden is beyond important. My husband (who is a successful businessperson in his own right) manages the kids and the house just as much as I do, not to mention he helps pack orders on the weekends and does odd jobs around the warehouse. Without him, there is no way HoneyBug would have ever gotten off the ground.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

A good company is a brand that makes money selling things, a great company is a brand that makes money by improving things.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Caring for your people

I have had some incredible bosses; I have had some terrible bosses. Ultimately, those bosses that supported and nurtured what made me unique (and dare I say weird) got the most out of me. For me, hands down, a great company is one full of happy, smart, silly, creative, loud and irreverent people. Come as you are, we want you here!

2. Caring for your customers

Our customers come first, hands down. No ifs, ands or buts. We are honored to have our dream jobs because our customers allow us to. One of my favorite stories happened when we were testing with a delivery provider. As with most betas, something went wrong and even though someone ordered same day delivery, the delivery provider wasn’t able to fulfill it. Well, that didn’t stop our Operations Director who personally drove miles away to hand deliver the order because she refused to disappoint the customer. This is just one of hundreds of things our team has done to make sure a customer is always happy with their HoneyBug experience!

3. Caring for your partners

As a female founder, supporting female-owned companies is so deep to my heart. Such a small number of companies are female owned, so we go out of our way to buy, test and support female-owned brands and makers. We got our chance, and we want to help them have theirs.

4. Caring for your brand

Great companies have great brands. As a brand marketer, protecting, honoring and respecting your brand is something I will never negotiate with. I won’t send out a sloppy email “just to get it out” and I won’t compromise work because “it’s good enough”. When it comes to our brand, it’s either perfect or it’s not.

5. Caring for your future

Great brands see the bigger picture . They see 10 years down the road and they plan for the future. Never, ever protect the short term at the sake of the long term. Decisions are investors, partners, legal matters, finance, employees and have long term impacts. You have to get it right.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

This is something that is mission critical to me. Conscious capitalism is the belief that you can elevate humanity through business. I have always believed this, whether you’re on the cutting edge of science — or selling baby gifts like us. Having a purpose, a true and deep reason to get up in the morning, is what makes a business thrive. For me, it’s about the people. I have worked for companies that didn’t inspire, and that feeling of depletion trickled down throughout the lives of their employees. I want HoneyBug to be a place where employees are inspired by their daily work, and in return can trickle that positivity through their communities, interests and families. The impact on the world when people are happy and inspired is limitless.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

I know this feeling very well coming from the food industry. Five percent of disposable income goes to food for decades. No more, no less. It’s a zero-sum game of trading customers between products and brands. When one brand wins, the other loses. That is business in general — sometimes you’re on top and sometimes you’re not. Stay focused on your north star and don’t get distracted by the noise or doubt. Recalibrate and go.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

You have to be realistic. Especially during COVID. Don’t pine over past results, or metrics you used to hit. All that matters is how you weather the storm and set yourself up for the future. As an e-commerce brand, we have been fortunate enough to remain open during these tough times, but we are always working toward laying the foundation for 3–5 years out. Be it new systems, processes, technologies, products — we’re rarely looking at just the months ahead of us, which also helps us to forge forward on a daily basis

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

It’s often underestimated how much tenacity and grit is needed to run a brand. Especially a start-up. As an executive at a mature company, you have tons of perks — administrative support, large teams, agencies, partners, firms, budget. Simply put, you have a lot of freaking help! That’s not the case with start-ups, which means, if you don’t do something, it won’t get done. So, you have to have the grit to just keep going and know it will get easier at some point because of the foundation you’re laying each and every day.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

The obvious ones are great creative materials and great products, but the one often overlooked is INVENTORY. We found early on that people loved our brand and our products — and when everything was in stock, sales were great. Once we dropped below a certain level in inventory, so went the sales.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

I think as a marketer-led company, converting via good product and a great brand was easy for us, and the logistics are what caused our pain points. But, there is only one way to grow a trusted and beloved brand and that’s through consistency and putting the customer first.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a “Wow” Customer Experience?

You are reading my mind! We are only in business because of our customers, and we must never forget that. They are honoring us with their hard-earned money. So, don’t take them for granted and don’t lose sight of the fact that they’re CHOOSING us. Trust them with the respect they deserve. We have all had terrible experiences with brands, and if you remember those when you interact with your customers, it will guarantee you don’t make the same mistakes

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

As an e-commerce brand, social presence is non-negotiable and important to our success. With that being said, more mature brands often wrestle with this because being authentic is uncomfortable to them — they have a team of 40 marketers in a war room crafting the perfect tweet. I find that purpose-driven brands don’t have that concern as much, since being genuine and authentic is core to their missions and saying something misaligned with their brand is less of a risk.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Listening to the wrong people. I have a very small group of mentors and advisors that I trust and listen to. Early on, I was told “you should really listen to this person” or “you should work with that person” and found myself in uncomfortable conversations with people that didn’t care about my success or the success of the brand, but rather themselves. Sadly, especially as a woman, you get underestimated by the start-up world and people think you need “help” despite your years of experience or successes. I told myself early on that I would only trust and listen to those that I would genuinely want to hear the good AND bad from. There is one person that has always been this for me in my career, my former CEO at Jack in the Box and mentor — Lenny Coma. As a textbook example of a Purpose Driven Leader, he encourages me to be myself and to lead as I would lead — not as someone else would lead. He has conveyed the same message to me for 12 years and never once changed it. Those are the people you should listen to, not anyone else.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My goal in the short term is to be able to start funding micro-loans and offering business advice for minority and female-owned businesses. Helping people bring their visions and dreams to life would be the greatest professional accomplishment I could ever dream of. If not for those who opened the door for me, I wouldn’t be here — and sadly, it wasn’t easy. There is a network of people who succeeded because they had the right connections, went to the right schools, knew the right people… I want to make achieving your dreams more egalitarian, especially fundraising.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Follow @shophoneybug on Instagram and Facebook

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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