January 04, 2016
Noonday Collection: An Artisan Revival The Rise of Fair Trade in Direct Selling
by Beth Douglass Silcox
Photo above: Noonday Collection sources its fair-trade jewelry and accessories from artisans all over the world including Ethiopia, Rwanda, India, Vietnam, Ecuador, Peru and Guatemala.
Headquarters: Austin, Texas
Top Executives: Founders and Co-CEOs Jessica Honegger and Travis Wilson
Products: Fair-Trade jewelry and accessories
2014 revenue: $11 million
Raise $40,000 and bring a small Rwandan boy home to Austin, Texas. That was Jessica Honegger’s mission five years ago—a daunting task faced by so many wishing to adopt a child internationally. But Honegger brought an entrepreneurial business background to the effort. She discovered that social entrepreneurship, based on selling fair-trade jewelry and accessories through a direct selling business model, could be a winning opportunity for everyone involved.
Today, Noonday Collection, run by Co-CEOs Honegger and Travis Wilson, is one of the fastest-growing, privately owned enterprises in the country, with 2014 revenue standing at $11 million and a three-year growth rate of 5,512 percent. Their jewelry and accessories are handmade by artisans in 13 countries with the company following strict guidelines as a member of the Fair Trade Federation. They have just over 1,000 active direct selling Ambassadors (those who have had $500 in sales in the last three months) and more than 60 employees. They’ve moved three times since 2011 and now occupy 12,000 square feet in Austin.
“Not only are we selling products, but we’re selling products with a story. There’s no more powerful place to storytell than sitting around another woman’s living room.” —Jessica Honegger, Founder and Co-CEO
A Ugandan Beginning
It was 2010 in Uganda, where the trajectory of Honegger’s life changed and Noonday Collection was born. On a trip to visit friends serving at a local orphanage, she and her husband, Joe, not only decided to grow their family through adoption, but also crossed paths with Jalia and Daniel, two talented jewelry artisans who would become the conduit to making their adoption dream a reality.
Jalia and Daniel created beautiful and stylish jewelry accessories. They had big dreams of employing others in their community to do the same, but they needed a marketplace for their goods. Honegger, who considered herself an activist of sorts since she was a teen, understood that entrepreneurship was a sustainable solution to poverty. She’d seen it work a decade earlier as a Food for the Hungry volunteer assisting Bolivian artisans. So standing there on Ugandan soil, Honegger’s past merged with her present. She could provide the marketplace Jalia and Daniel needed and simultaneously raise the funds necessary to grow her family.
It was Jalia and Daniel’s handmade jewelry that Honegger stocked and sold at her first cash-and-carry trunk show at home in Texas. “We gathered together, and I realized that not only did people want to come and support this adoption, but they also were asking about the story behind the products and wanted to know about the community that was making these products in Uganda,” Honegger says.
Afterward Honegger set to work pulling together a photo shoot, gathering additional products, creating a name and a website and filing appropriate paperwork. Women reached out from around Texas and as far away as Washington and Tennessee. They wanted to be part of Noonday Collection, and they liked the idea of raising money for an adoption. “Within a few months, I realized that this was more than a fundraiser. This had the potential to really be a business,” Honegger says.
|Indian artisans share their experience of working with Noonday.||Noonday’s products with a purpose have attracted a distinctive Ambassador community, one that has a passion for helping others.|
Noonday Collection recently ranked No. 45 on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America and was No. 3 of the 50 fastest-growing women-led companies in the country.
|Founder and Co-CEO Jessica Honegger visits with Vietnamese artisans she partners with who make Noonday’s jewelry.
Sales were more than brisk, they were soaring and keeping up was difficult. Honegger needed finance and operational help. She needed to know if Noonday was profitable per se. So she turned to Travis Wilson, the husband of a longtime friend with expertise in finance and marketing and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
A decade prior, the Honeggers and Wilsons shared a meal near the Indian Ocean with no visions of Noonday Collection. Wilson ran a micro-bank in Maputo, Mozambique, under the umbrella of a larger international development NGO. That organization loaned money to women in rural villages to alleviate poverty through entrepreneurship. The Honeggers happened to be visiting a local orphanage.
Fast-forward more than a decade, and Travis and Suzanne Wilson relocate to Austin, where Jessica and Joe Honegger are real estate agents. The Honeggers help the Wilsons find a house, and the two young families grow to be closer friends. Each time they meet socially, the intensity of Noonday escalates, as does the Honeggers’ stress and excitement.
“I’d come to Austin with the aspiration of being an operator in an entrepreneurial way,” Wilson says. “Jessica knew that I had a mission orientation, an impact orientation, having lived in Africa and done the work that we were doing there. We both had that lens. And it all came together at the right time.”
Honegger lived the power of direct selling from that very first trunk show, when 70 women squeezed into her home. Wilson was less familiar, but trusted Noonday’s numbers. “Then the lightbulb came on for him, and he realized that this had the potential to be a viable company. That’s when we became business partners,” Honegger says.
Early on, the pair relied on complementary strengths and interests, long days and long weeks to figure things out. “We were able to get so much done on our own without having to hire out, which was super important,” Wilson says.
Ambassadors of Social Entrepreneurship
By 2011, Noonday Collection was no longer exclusively a fundraiser. It was a business with a flair for fashion, committed to social entrepreneurship and with a field of dedicated Ambassadors ready to tell the Noonday story.
“Not only are we selling products, but we’re selling products with a story. There’s no more powerful place to storytell than sitting around another woman’s living room. It’s really not just another opportunity to style, but an opportunity to catalyze women so that they feel a part of something bigger than themselves,” Honegger says.
Noonday attracted an interesting niche audience from the beginning because of the company’s give-back component to families raising money for adoption. When an adoptive family hosts a trunk show or someone else does in their honor, Noonday gives 10 percent back to that family. The company has celebrated and supported 1,600 adoptive families so far.
“It’s a very passionate community of women who are really go-getters, so in a way it was like my target audience and I didn’t know it,” Honegger says.
Not only did that niche audience host trunk shows and buy Noonday products, but also some amazing and pioneering women jumped aboard as the first Ambassadors, representing a business model never before used for fair-trade goods. Wilson recalls that so deep was their commitment and belief, Ambassadors forged ahead without a comp plan, direct selling website, catalogs or selling tools.
Ambassadors earned 20 percent commission at that time and still do. Monthly sales bonuses and awards that raise commission rates based on lifetime sales are now in place, as is a new intranet tool for posting announcements, collateral materials and training. Last year, the company instituted a well-received team structure, which they plan to build on in coming years.
The product with a purpose combination was powerful and attracted a distinctive Ambassador community that embodied Noonday’s mission. “They are women who are very much driven by a desire to make an impact by the work that they do,” Wilson says. “The Ambassador opportunity is more than an income opportunity, more than some sort of personal or professional development. It’s really an opportunity for them to be leaders in their communities, to have global focus, and to make an impact there.”
Many of those original Ambassadors remain, and today nearly 20 percent of Noonday Collection Ambassadors are adoptive moms that fit within the company’s overall demographic of churchgoing mothers between the ages of 25 and 40. These women embody the biblical Scripture for which the company was named: Isaiah 58:10, “If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like noonday.”
|Ana is a Guatemalan artisan who is able to help support her family thanks to her partnership with Noonday Collection.
Fully engaged Ambassadors had a story to tell and they did so on social media, growing the company organically at a time when social media was free. Trunk show attendees, who previously had made charity purchases of fair-trade goods, were buying Noonday jewelry because it was legitimately beautiful and they wanted to wear it. “I think that was a definite advantage,” Honegger says. All sorts of people picked up on the message and spread it around cyberspace through Facebook posts, reposts and blogs. “People were just so generous,” Honegger says.
Digital marketing on a zero-dollar budget grew the company and gave them a wide breadth from the get-go. “I got to be friends with a bunch of people who ended up becoming huge social media influencers,” Honegger says. “One of the biggest influencers had 500,000 people following her on Facebook. So you get a few of those people in your camp and it’s really a domino effect.”
But blogging became saturated and Facebook began billing, so Noonday nimbly adopted Instagram. “That’s been our fastest-growing platform, and it’s really fun because it’s so visual. We’ve been able to re-gram and create different hashtags,” Honegger says. She’s particularly proud of #noondaystyle on Instagram getting over 10,000 posts recently.
Instagram’s visual format works because of its storytelling capability. “You’ve got not only these women who are posting pictures of themselves—selfies—with their Noonday on, but also we’re telling stories that other people want to engage with,” Honegger says.
Honegger and Wilson travel the world extensively, cultivating relationships with the artisans who make Noonday products. They take the world along on their travels, using Instagram, Facebook, blogs and even Periscope’s live-streaming capabilities to connect customers and Ambassadors to the hands, faces and lives of the people who make their products.
This nurtured relationship with its artisans is why Noonday holds itself to a high standard following the principles of the Fair Trade Federation, which promotes fairness in international trade and utilizes fair trade as a strategy for alleviating poverty and developing sustainability practices. Committed to the purpose of creating opportunities for the economically and socially marginalized, Noonday requires the same adherence from its artisan suppliers as well, asking that they maintain fair wages, provide safe and empowering work conditions, cultivate environmental stewardship, and strictly prohibit child and force labor.
Scaling Artisan Businesses
|Ambassadors have the opportunity to travel as well as spend time with local Noonday artisans.
Wilson says that Ambassadors and even hostesses are drawn to Noonday’s purpose, but their customers tell them that products drive sales. Currently, Noonday works with artisan businesses in countries such as Ethiopia, Ecuador and India. In the collection, there are Peruvian embroidery, Rwandan textiles, Mayan weaving, Vietnamese horn jewelry, and Guatemalan beading, alpaca knits, silks, paper beads and even pod art.
Noonday’s branding, conceived early on by Honegger, created a beautiful aesthetic and product entwined with meaning, and Wilson believes it’s one of the reasons the company has experienced rapid growth. He says sales grew from $1.4 million in 2011 to just under $12 million in 2014. Noonday Collection recently ranked No. 45 on the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America and was No. 3 of the 50 fastest-growing women-led companies in the country.
But rapid growth has its challenges, especially for a company that is committed to handmade goods. “It’s challenged us to be really clear about what we’re trying to accomplish, in what time, and to be intentional about how we end up building,” Wilson says.
So Honegger and Wilson spend their time on the ground, meeting with their 30 artisan businesses and investing in those relationships that they have cultivated over the years. This allows them to have custom-designed pieces, as well as observation over fair-trade standards and the ability to partner with artisans that share Noonday’s mission.
Artisan businesses are commonplace in many of the countries where Noonday artisan partners are located. Art is part of their culture. But these artisans are poor, sometimes former street prostitutes, who are trying to survive. While a lot have the business leadership that can facilitate growth and meet product demand, some do lack business acumen, so Honegger says, “That’s part of our value proposition of what we’re doing. We’re coming alongside these businesses to help them scale.”
That’s not to say it is easy, but for Noonday’s original Ugandan artisans, Jalia and Daniel, it is working. They now employ 100 artisans in their workshop and 300 more in their community. All told, there are 4,000 artisans making the Noonday Collection products that are so popular with U.S. consumers, with the largest of them supplying 10,000 pieces a month or about 100,000 a year. The impact of the jobs created reaches some 20,000 artisan family members.
With a year of internal growth—one that doubled the corporate team and created support and development infrastructure—behind them, Noonday Collection wants to reach deeper into the U.S. market. While they do business in all 50 states, their recruitment comprises informal meetups hosted by Ambassador groups. “So far, Noonday isn’t opportunistic about these meetups,” Wilson says. “We’re looking to be more intentional and strategic next year.”
To avoid “hockey stick” growth from a company perspective, Wilson says, “We’re constantly trying to calibrate between different levers we can pull to accelerate growth, while building and developing the supply chain to make sure that one doesn’t outstrip the other.”
Naysayers, even well-respected direct selling industry professionals, believe Noonday’s supply chain must change to succeed because artisans won’t be able to keep up with demand. But the founders say they are not discouraged by this unique position they are in. The real goal is helping to lift artisans out of poverty, empowering Ambassadors and supporting adoptive families. The growth is a by-product of what they can do for others.
“Travis and I are extremely committed to our mission, which is building a flourishing world through creating meaningful opportunities,” Honegger says. “Ultimately, it’s work and jobs that we’re creating in these really hard places where typical companies don’t really want to work.”