By Tom Reed
Reprinted from The Leader, Summer 2000, Vol. 16, No. 3, NOLS 35th Anniversary Insert
They had a Visa Gold card with a big credit limit. They had a garage and they had some entrepreneurial training. But they didn't have any money. Cliff Sharples, 36, remembers those early days in 1995 when he and his partners--wife, Lisa, and friend, Jamie O'Neill--were living hand to mouth in Austin, Texas, trying to start an Internet company from the ground up. "We gave ourselves a time limit that we were going to figure things out between August and Thanksgiving and if we didn't get it going by then, we'd pack it in," says Cliff.
"We are not typical computer people, so we wanted to take the technology available and instead of setting up a tech company, do something for real people," says Cliff. Lisa came up with the idea of a gardening company, a proposition that Cliff and Jamie immediately thumbed their noses at. But, once they looked closer at the possibilities, they decided to give it a whirl. "We came up with a business plan and went to investors," says Cliff. They got their first term sheet from one investor for $750,000 the day before Thanksgiving. Today, Garden.com is the leading supplier of gardening information, technology and products. The company employs 290 people and completed its Initial Public Offering in September 1999. It trades on the NASDAQ as GDEN.
"It's been a wild ride," says Cliff, who serves as CEO of the company. Cliff attributes much of his success as a manager and leader of a business to his ability to get along with people, to build teams, to hear issues and to make decisions. These are things that he first learned when, at 18, he enrolled as a student on a spring semester in the Rockies at NOLS. "I took my NOLS course in the semester before college and it definitely made an impression on me," remembers Cliff. "I can't really remember much about college, but I remember my NOLS course, all phases of it, very well."
One of the lessons that really stuck was the dynamic of the team concept on the semester, he says. "We had a very diverse group, all the way from me at 18 up to someone who was about 40-something. There were definitely a lot of different styles and some people who didn't get along that well."
As the semester progressed, two very different factions emerged, remembers Cliff. "I was right in the middle and got along with everybody, so I had to span both groups, and that has definitely become a style that has stuck with me and become really useful. Leadership is all about making decisions and seeing both sides when there are some stressful situations. You need to do that in business. This is something that really stuck in my mind from NOLS and still sticks with how to run a company and build teams.
"We got into a couple of bad weather situations that put a lot of stress on us and I really learned that you have to listen to people, hear the sides, come up with the solutions and then make a decision. You can't screw around waiting, you have to make the decision. It's like that in business too."
Cliff's semester in the Rockies was divided into a general section, a climbing camp, a winter section, a canyonlands section and a caving camp at Wind Cave in South Dakota.
A day caving still is very vivid in Cliff's mind.
"Two of our instructors and me and one other guy decided to do a really long section in the cave. We went in at sundown and just had a wild day of caving, saw some incredible things, and we lost track of time. When we came up again, there was just an incredibly beautiful sunrise. I can remember thinking that it was just living for the day, no future, no past. I think living for the day is the mark of a good life."
Not only have such moments rubbed off on Cliff, but some lessons from NOLS have also extended to Garden.com, he says. "I was new to the whole minimum impact philosophy when I came to NOLS," he says. "It definitely raised my consciousness on how I was impacting the environment."
Garden.com is very proactive in doing business in an environmentally sound manner, says Cliff. Product packaging is environmentally sensitive, the company has an aggressive recycling program, and works closely with non-profit organizations such as American Forests to increase public awareness of the importance of growing things. "We are in a position to be a leader and to help people think more about the environment and the outdoors," says Cliff. "For a lot of people, getting into the outdoors is getting out into their garden. We want people to do more gardening because it's good for the environment to be growing things."
Right after his NOLS course, Cliff says he really got into mountaineering, climbing in Wyoming, Washington, and South America. These days, he notes he and Lisa and Wescott, their 2-year-old son, aren't getting away as much as they'd like, but "the craziness of this industry is never going to go away, so we need to make sure we get away now and then.
"There's maybe another NOLS take away," he continues. "When you are in a stressful situation, it's important to not get personal. The three of us (Lisa, Jamie and Cliff) can be in a meeting and yelling at each other and then leave and say, "'Well, what are we going to do this weekend?' or "'What are we doing for dinner?' It's important to keep that in perspective and not let this business affect our personal relationships."
Garden.com has taken that philosophy seriously. Cliff notes that there are eight married couples who work for the company and workers are allowed to bring in their dogs, set their own hours and have other activities going on such as yoga classes during the day. "Business is personal, it's a personal expression of us," he says.