Routinely schedule activities that break up the monotony that can sometimes set in at a workplace; make the workplace as fun as possible. Employees usually spend most of their day at work, make it as fun of an environment as possible. Employees look forward to these spontaneous, fun changes and it gives them something to look forward to and brighten up their work week. We routinely order lunch for employees on random days. We’ve noticed that employees look forward to this impromptu break and it increases moral and general happiness among our employees. It also allows management to directly interact with employees in a casual environment improving the relationship and level of trust between management and employees. This also leads to a higher rate of employee retention; when they are submersed in a happy, positive environment, they want to stay there long term.
I had the pleasure to interview Mitesh Popat. Mitesh is a visionary that has integrated technology to bring an innovative spin to the agricultural industry. Born and raised in South Africa, Mitesh’s childhood was spent immersed in a culture that celebrated cultivating some of the best quality fruits and vegetables in the world. As a life-long vegetarian, Mitesh was always fascinated with trying new exotic fruits from around the world and incorporating them into his plant based diet. After moving to Orlando, Fl., Mitesh attended high school in the USA and went on to complete his Bachelors of Science degree at the University of South Florida in Tampa. After completing college, he obtained a series 7 license and began a successful career at a fortune 500 company in the financial sector. In 2007, Mitesh saw a void in the gifting industry, people were sending gifts such as flowers and gift baskets to commemorate occasions, yet these gifts only lasted for a couple days, not long enough to commemorate an important event. He realized that fruit trees made the perfect gift to commemorate an occasion since they are long lived and they bore fruit yearly, it was like sending one gift and the recipient receiving a gift of fresh, healthy fruits every year. Mitesh along with his wife Vernic Popat left their corporate careers and co-founded PlantOGram.com, an exotic fruit tree gifting company. They traded in their European luxury vehicles for a used, white, Ford work-van and began going door to door selling and installing fruit trees. As technology evolved, they moved the business solely online and created a virtual fruit tree nursery that ships over 200 types of fruit tree gifts, one of the largest selections of fruit trees in the country. Mitesh also pioneered an online option called “pick your trees” where clients could sit in the comfort of their home and browse and select the actual individual tree that they want to send and have it shipped right to their front door. Mitesh’s philosophy is that everyone should be growing at least one fruit tree so that we can achieve a level of sustainability for future generations. PlantOGram.com now ships fruit tree gifts both in the USA and as well to locations worldwide. Mitesh now focuses on growing the PlantOGram brand into a global household name.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was working at a fortune 500 company, the usual long hours stuck in the office the only outdoor time I got was looking out my cubicle and watching everybody outside and life passing me by. Working long hours, I never got to see my wife by the time I got home it was just in time to have a late dinner, go to bed and start the same routine day again. I felt as if I was living in the movie Groundhog Day. Being a lifelong vegetarian and being sustained on a plant based diet, I loved to be outdoors in the garden getting my hands dirty growing as much of my own food as possible. Fed up of my work routine, one day my wife and I decided what if we could take our passion of planting fruit trees and being outdoors and turn it into a sustainable business. We sold our European sports cars and got an old rusty Ford work van, cashed in our savings, traded our Italian designer fashions for overalls and PlantOGram.com was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’ve had many amazing and inspirational stories throughout the last decade with PlantOGram.com. One in particular that stands out was an interaction I had with a client a couple of years ago. When my wife, Vernic Popat and I founded PlantOGram.com we would go out and personally install plants in client’s yards. Back in 2007, we had got a call from an elderly gentleman named Rajesh from India who was visiting his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren in Orlando for a couple of months. He had seen our work van driving around with our mango tree magnetic stickers on it and thought it would be a great idea to purchase one for his family before he returned to India. He had specifically asked for an Alphonso mango tree variety since that was the most popular variety grown in the region of India that he was from. We went out and installed the tree which was about 5 feet tall at the time. Rajesh was very kind and polite, it was an excruciatingly hot summer’s day and he had brought out ice cold homemade lemonade for us and even invited us to stay for dinner which we regretfully declined since we had additional installs scheduled for that day. He still packed us a to go plate of food for us to eat while driving to our next install. About a decade had lapsed and in 2016, I was at the Mall of Millennia in Orlando with my family enjoying lunch and a lady had approached me and asks if I remember her. In that moment I was clueless and she could see I was having a hard time placing her. She said about 10 years ago you planted a mango tree at my house that my father-in-law had purchased for us, and I then instantly recalled her home and Rajesh. She went on tell me that shortly after Rajesh had gone back to India he had passed away, I offered my condolences and expressed what a kind soul he was. She then told me that the mango tree that I had planted was now huge over 15 feet tall and produces several hundred mangos a season, her kids who were teenagers now enjoyed climbing in the tree and picking the fruit. She said her kids refer to the tree as “Dada’s” tree which means grandfathers tree in Hindi. Every time they eat the juicy mango fruit she said they always think of Rajesh and the great times they had with him. At that moment I grasped the impact that PlantOGrams were having on families. Hearing her story brought joy to my heart, this was exactly why we started PlantOGram, to give a gift that will provide memories for a lifetime.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently in the infant stages of a project that will directly benefit younger children and schools. We will be teaching and planting fruit trees at various schools to incorporate a healthy lifestyle and a love for nature in school children from a young age. We believe that planting a solid foundation of love for trees and nature will spark a lifetime of interest in children and will transform neighborhoods, one child at a time and one tree at a time. This will also inspire children’s interest into where their food comes from and ultimately they will make better meal choices throughout their life.
Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?
A staggering number of people are unhappy at work because they lack job satisfaction and feel generally unappreciated in the workplace. They have no interest in the job that they’re doing it’s simply a means to a paycheck and sustaining their families. Most employees are also seen by their employer as simply a number or a resource, there’s no individuality, employees feel that there’s a huge disconnect and level of mistrust between them and the employer. Employees are not passionate about what they are doing and they don’t have a work space to keep them challenged and make them feel appreciated.
Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?
Unhappy employees impact work productivity drastically. Discontented employees are generally unproductive employees. When an employee is unhappy they are constantly distracted and not focused on the current task or client and as a result efficiency and client service is low, detrimentally impacting company productivity. Company profitability is also adversely impacted by dejected or under- appreciated employees, low efficiency costs the company time and adversely impacts customer satisfaction and client retention which ultimately leads to lower profitability. Unhappy employees also equate to unhealthy employees. There is a strong correlation between workplace stress and being constantly immersed in a seemingly hostile work environment and the health and well- being of employees. Employees take this added stress and burden home and it manifests by taking a toll on their health, both physically and mentally.
Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?
1. Culturally there seems to be a general sentiment of distrust of management by employees. Managers need to keep the lines of communication open and have a system in place so that feedback from employees can freely flow from the bottom up. Overtime, this transparency in communication will bolster the level of trust in the workplace.
At PlantOGram.com we routinely send anonymous surveys to employees so that we can gather first hand feedback on what is working and what areas of the workplace need improvement. This also allows us to gauge the level of interaction that management is having with employees as well as a consensus on the trust level that employees feel towards management.
2. Listen to employees; allow employees to voice their ideas/opinions about how certain aspects of the workflow process can be improved. Employees are on the ground level doing a certain task multiple times, they often find a more efficient way at completing tasks. By listening to their invaluable input it makes them feel connected as part of a team and more importantly allows them to feel appreciated by the company. This also may lead to increased efficiency and profitability for the company as a whole.
We used to use a mechanical taping machine to tie green plastic ties to the branches of the plants to keep them straight and attached to bamboo stakes. We assumed this technology gave employees an advantage and simplified their task. To our surprise, our employees gave us feedback that this machine was more time consuming and showed us that they would attach the green tape roll to their belt loop on their pants and they could pull and tie the plant much quicker. This led our employees to be almost 30% more efficient in this task and also saved us a considerable amount of money in not having to purchases staples and other resources for these taping machines. By acting on the employee’s feedback they felt appreciated and it also increased profitability for the company.
3. Incentivize employees by recognizing and rewarding them for exceptional performance both on an individual as well as a company level, this makes employees feel appreciated and more connected to management. Being recognized leads to feeling appreciated and is a proven method to motivate employees to perform at their peak level. Being recognized and rewarded for their effort will increase employee’s overall level of workplace satisfaction, happiness and long term employee retention.
We routinely monitor our employees and when we see that they are taking initiative and are going above and beyond what is required of them we first recognize their initiative and then reward them with spontaneous little bonuses. Sometimes we give them gift cards to restaurants or even let them leave a couple hours early for the day as a reward for their exceptional performance.
4. Routinely schedule activities that break up the monotony that can sometimes set in at a workplace; make the workplace as fun as possible. Employees usually spend most of their day at work, make it as fun of an environment as possible. Employees look forward to these spontaneous, fun changes and it gives them something to look forward to and brighten up their work week.
At PlantOGram.com we routinely order lunch for employees on random days. We’ve noticed that employees look forward to this impromptu break and it increases moral and general happiness among our employees. It also allows management to directly interact with employees in a casual environment improving the relationship and level of trust between management and employees. This also leads to a higher rate of employee retention; when they are submersed in a happy, positive environment, they want to stay there long term.
5. If your business model permits, allow employees some level of individualism in the workplace. Everyone is unique and wants to express their own identity, allowing a creative outlet for this energy in the workplace makes employees happier. When they feel appreciated, it also improves employee retention.
At PlantOGram.com we used to play “elevator music” around our plants but as per employee feedback they wanted to listen to music that energizes and pumps them up. As a result, we allow employees to play their own music at a reasonable volume level when doing basic tasks such as watering or weeding plants and we immediately noticed an uptick in positive sentiment. Employees were playing music that pumped them up and their positive energy was infectious, permeating all levels of our workplace, from the plants to the clients that received them.
It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
There is a general level of mistrust between employees and management, as a society we can give a greater volume to the voice of the employees which will improve communication. We can listen to feedback from the employees to make the workplace culture more upward flowing. By simply listening to employee input the workplace can become a much happier place for everyone. We can also focus on the fact that everyone in the company is on the same team. Both management and employees alike have a common goal and purpose, achieving this goal is beneficial to everyone in the company.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
My management style is akin to a bamboo plant, firmly rooted but I always have room for a bit of flexibility so that I can sway in the wind without breaking. Being a firm manager is important so that you can ensure a high level of efficiency for the company as a whole and garner the respect of employees. However, I always have some flexibility since I understand there are often unexpected circumstances and events in life. I always try to place myself in the employee’s situation and see their point of view before making any decisions.
I was on the verge of firing an employee that was constantly late to work, usually 2–3 days a week; little did I know that she worked a 2nd job at nights to support her family and put her kids through college. After considering all her extenuating circumstances, I made the decision to help her out by having her come in at a later time in the morning and leave later. She is now able to sleep in and is one of our most productive employees and is never late any more due to my flexibility with her schedule.
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 about that?
My wife, Vernic Popat has been my rock in our entrepreneurial journey. Her assistance, persistence and level headedness has been an integral part of the success of PlantOGram.com.
About 3 months into starting this business my wife and I were having our routine low cost taco bell dinner. It was one the hardest days of our entrepreneurial journey. It was the middle of summer almost 100 degrees outside and I had walked through several neighborhoods and knocked on several hundred doors and did not sell a single tree. To compound matters I just had an irate homeowner give me a verbal assault and that’s putting it lightly. As we sat at that Taco Bell devouring our .99 cents bean burritos I was frustrated and fed-up. I was ready to throw in the towel and go crawling back to the security of my desk job and my wife gave me a come to Jesus meeting. She reminded me why we started this journey and how this was only one rough day of probably many more still to come. She told me we are never looking back no matter how hard it gets, we will make it through! I finished my bean burrito, wiped off my self-pity and got right back at it. Throughout our entrepreneurial journey, whenever I started to drift away, my wife was always the captain of our ship and ensured we stayed the course regardless of how rough the seas were.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am proud that PlantOGram.com is positively impacting the lives of families daily by getting them to spend more time outdoors enjoying delicious, healthy, home grown fruit creating a true farm to table experience for them. We have also used the success of PlantOGram.com to give back and assist foundations and people that are changing the world for better. Part of the proceeds of plants such as the Carambola tree goes directly towards Nancy Davis’s Race to Erase MS foundation which is finding a cure for multiple scoliosis. We also provide fruit trees for the Give back homes foundation which provides homes for low income families. Our fruit tree gifts add a level of sustainability to their new homes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Time and tide wait for no man” this is a quote that my late grandfather Parsotam Popat as well as my father Pravin Popat had engrained in me since I was a child. This quote has had profound implications on my life. Our current business climate is extremely fast paced and many people, including myself, spend way too much time talking and strategizing about the changes that they want to impact on this planet. This quote serves as a constant reminder that every journey begins with a single step, so taking action is imperative. I don’t try to overthink things, I just get started, take the first leap of faith and get to work and everything else usually falls right into place. There is no better time than right now. When clients ask me when’s the best time to plant a tree, I always reply with the quote, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago but the next best time is right now”.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
I want to inspire a movement to help everyone on this planet take the first step and plant any type of fruit tree. In a couple of decades we will need to increase our food production by over 50% to keep up with population growth, if everyone takes the first step and plants even just 1 fruit tree we will be well on our way to making this planet sustainable for the next generations.