By Thomas Skernivitz
Cindy Monroe, the founder, president, and CEO of Thirty-One Gifts, relayed that message Wednesday to more than 200 attendees of the fifth-annual Female Entrepreneur Summit inside 700 Beta Banquet and Conference Center in Mayfield Heights.
Thirty-One Gifts sells fashionable and functional products that range from totes to jewelry to thermals. The Columbus, Ohio-based business is one of the leading direct-selling companies in the United States and one of the fastest-growing female-owned companies in the world. Products are sold through more than 102,000 independent sales consultants via home parties.
Established in 2003 from Monroe’s basement in Chattanooga, Tenn., the company is named after the Proverbs 31 chapter of the Bible, which celebrates hard-working women who are compassionate, gracious, and inspiring to their families and the people around them.
“We are in the people business. We are not in the bag business,” Monroe said. “Our brand has never been completely defined by the products that we sell. Our brand is much more about empowering our consultants and helping them find better lives for their families and for themselves. It’s about helping women reach their potential that they may not have seen before. We are more than just a company. This is so much bigger than the bag.”
That said, the bags at Thirty-One Gifts got really big … really fast. From the start of business in 2003, it took Monroe just four months to create product and launch the first catalog.
“Momentum is so important in any business and critical for a startup,” Monroe said. “If you don’t get that momentum, it gets so tiring. You’re struggling along. But if you start to get that momentum, a little bit gets you through the day, the week, the month. It gets you through the next year.
“You have to be quick, have to think on your feet, have to be quick at making decisions. You have to have speed in reacting to challenges. In a couple of short years, we had hit a good stride. That entrepreneurial speed continued and still continues today.”
In 2007 Monroe traveled for the first time to a facility in China that was manufacturing her products. She discovered huge surpluses of her items.
“This was perspective because I had placed the orders on paper, but to actually see the amount of product that we were expected to sell — that we had to sell because I was paying for it — was a huge ‘ah-hah’ for me. It was a very visual, physical moment, where I was like, ‘OK, God, you just expanded my vision. I think you saw this much bigger than I did, but I see it now.’”
The epiphany — validated by an annual growth rate of 300 to 500 percent — forced Monroe to move her company’s headquarters to Columbus in 2008.
“It was crazy,” she said. ““We had to build a building, build staff, buy machines, and build an overall infrastructure to support this business. We had to bring in the right people and had to create systems. We couldn’t have survived without all of the infrastructure we had built.”
Thirty-One Gifts not only survived but also thrived, thanks to the continued expansion and innovation. “Niche is a good way to start your business, but you have to grow beyond that niche. You have to find the next niche,” Monroe said.
Everything was going “what we thought was great,” when, according to Monroe, “the machine began to take over.”
“I still had my vision, but it began to fade,” Monroe said. “Not only began to fade for me but also for our organization, internally and externally. We were spending way more time on the corporate machine than we were on the mission and values and why I had started business. We had slipped into a stability mindset instead of a growth mindset. And that’s a lesson I hope none of you have to learn. We just wanted to get an order out every three days.”
In 2012 Thirty-One Gifts began experiencing its first decline in revenue. Eventually sales would drop from a high of $700 million to $500 million. “We were caught off guard. Not only were sales flattening but expenses had gone up with all of the machinery and infrastructure that we had built,” Monroe said. “It felt like I knew how to lead a business when it was growing, but i had never experienced how to lead a business when it was declining. Those were quite different skillsets. I began to question if I knew how to lead that business.”
Not that the public was concerned. In the midst of her company’s first downswing, Forbes magazine placed Monroe third on its list of top self-made women to watch, behind Jessica Alba and Sandra Bullock and ahead of Taylor Swift.
“It took me a long time to realize (the company’s changing mindset) because I was getting all of these accolades,” Monroe said. “But those aren’t what keeps your business growing. Those things support your business, but it takes a leader who is focused on their mission to keep your business growing.”
Today the business is thriving once again — aided by streamlining efforts and a return to its philosophical roots.
“I learned a valuable lesson — to stay hungry and motivated, not arrogant and entitled,” Monroe said. “It was time again to get back to the basics and regain control over our vision and mission that compelled us to start in the beginning; that compelled us to have so much growth in our first nine years.
“And I had to remember — because I had gotten a little corporate — I had to remember to act like a lady but think like a boss. People thought I was a little crazy, but this is the most fun I’ve had in the last five years.”