Elizabeth Greenberg, Founder of Non-Scents, didn’t always have an entrepreneurial drive. Her first year at college introduced her to the concept of entrepreneurship. She was taking an economics class that offered a winter course in Argentina called Global Entrepreneurship Adventures.
“I was 18 years old. A freshman in college. I had no idea what entrepreneurship was,” she admits. “My life plan was: Go to school, get an internship with a big corporate company sophomore or junior year, intern with them the next summer, and then get a full-time job with them and move up.”
INTRO TO ENTREPRENEURSHIP
The Global Entrepreneurship Ventures experience was life-changing for Greenberg. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, the class worked with Streema, an internet radio company. They were split into groups and given an assignment to add value to the company.
“There were no instructions or anything,” Greenberg recalls. “Just add value to this company. I remember thinking: So what does that mean?”
Greenberg says she got lucky. “I had a bunch of really great students working with me who helped me along in terms of explaining how to add value by looking at what the company does and figuring out how to make it better,” she explains.
“Once I had that experience, I realized I loved doing it,” she says. “I love working in this world of ambiguity with no constants, no certainty, just trying to make something better. It was so exciting for me. I immediately declared my double major in entrepreneurship and marketing.”
Greenberg’s entrepreneurship studies focused on four pillars entrepreneurship: opportunity recognition, identifying necessary resources, creativity and planning, and execution for success. “The fourth one was the one most people really struggled with—the execution part,” she notes.
DISCOVERING AN ENTREPRENEURIAL OPPORTUNITY
The concept for Non-Scents began in the spring of 2011 when Greenberg’s close friend was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“That’s when I found out you can’t bring live flowers into oncology, transplant, or an intensive care unit,” she explains. “This was interesting to me because I have many relatives who had gone through chemotherapy and radiation—but, because I was never the gift purchaser, I never knew this. And really there’s no reason anyone would have to know about that unless, unfortunately they were put in that situation,” Greenberg adds.
“People who are hospitalized in certain situations are just stuck in an empty hospital room. They can’t have balloons, flowers, or spa products because you just never know how something is going to react with the treatments they are receiving,” she explains.
Greenberg saw an opportunity—which she recognized as the first pillar of entrepreneurship. She decided to create a bouquet of paper flowers for her friend—her first arrangement.
“People in the hospital asked me: Where did you get that and how can I get one? They would tell me they ran into the same problem of now knowing what to bring when visiting friends or relatives receiving medical treatment,” she recalls. “The fact that there was enough interest from people kind of validated the idea.”
Greenberg spoke with some professors about the opportunity recognition. Together, they evaluated the idea, provided feedback and helped her figure out if it was something she should pursue.
Greenberg legally incorporated Non-Scents in the summer of 2011.
“I like to call the next couple years the research and development years, but it wasn’t just R&D for the product, it was also R&D for me launching a startup,” she says. “I was 19 with minimal education behind me in terms of the world of business and still figuring things out.”
Greenberg used that time to visit hospitals where she talked to nurses and patients to get feedback about her product concept, which helped validate her idea.
“By the end of 2012/early 2013 I was focused on figuring out how to give this idea real legs and a good solid foundation so it can keep growing,” she says.
“I launched the startup because there were people who were suffering and —sick people in really terrible situations who couldn’t have the little things. A pick me up, like a thoughtful gift, can sometimes can make a world of difference,” says Greenberg. “I started the company for those people—I wasn’t sitting there in my freshman dorm room saying: I’m going to be a millionaire!”
With regard to startup challenges, Greenberg says, “The hardest part has been figuring out for us how to market a product without becoming insensitive to what the market is feeling.”
Another challenge is marketing to what Greenberg refers to as a “very emotional” market. “It’s not a product you can push on people. The point really is helping people who are really struggling. When someone feels like they have no option, they have an option,” she emphasizes.
Non-Scents does most of its marketing through word-of-mouth, social media, and tradeshows.
“We have a ton of repeat customers,” says Greenberg. “People tell us they love what we’re doing and the causes we’re supporting. Then they end up bringing the arrangements out of the medical realm and into the every day.”
Social entrepreneurship plays an important role in Greenberg’s vision for the startup. She was first introduced to the concept when she was a senior in high school.
“Blake Mycoskie, Founder of TOMS Shoes, was at the University of Hartford giving a lecture. I had heard about him and I wanted to hear him speak,” Greenberg recalls. “That’s when I was introduced to the idea of social entrepreneurship—or the general idea of creating a business that also does some good and has a sustainable way of helping people and letting people help themselves. Not necessarily enabling, which I thought was really cool.”
In college, Greenberg did an internship at reSET, a non-profit organization that specializes in the social enterprise sector. “I wanted to get a feel for what they were doing,” she says. Non-Scents worked with reSET later in development when Greenberg’s mother, who is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at the startup, took some business workshops to prepare for the company’s launch.
Fast forward to Greenberg starting a company she never thought she’d found.
“Once the company actually became a reality, I knew I didn’t want to have a company that wasn’t doing something good—and it’s actually a lot harder to do good than you’d think it is,” she says.
Non-Scents did some experimenting and ended up finding a group of nuns who worked with women refugees.
“I would say about 90% of all of our flowers are handmade by refugee women in Hartford,” explains Greenberg. “We are not fair-trade certified, but we pay them in the same way. So when they give us a finished product we pay them for that finished product right away, whether or not the product sells.”
When she was in college, Greenberg had become involved with Net Impact, nonprofit membership organization for students and professionals who want to use their business skills to support a variety of social and environmental causes.
“They focus on the triple bottom line, so not just profit and social good, but also environmental sustainability,” Greenberg explains.
She factored this concept into Non-Scents and switched from using low-cost, Chinese-made papers to using papers from a fair-trade certified organization that uses environmentally sustainable materials to make papers.
Greenberg also places emphasis on working with nonprofits.
“We work with the Connecticut Children's Medical Center and have created certain designs that give back so 10% of all the profits from that specific design go to the hospital,” says Greenberg. “We’re try to give back in different ways. Unfortunately, we’re not big enough yet where can actually go out and partner with a bunch of nonprofits and say look we’ll give you a percentage of what we make every year.”
PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
Working with additional nonprofits is a future plan for Greenberg, as is setting longer-term goals.
When Greenberg reflects on her entrepreneurial journey, she admits, “I think part of me starting the company when I was so young—it was almost a naïveté of mine to think I could get this company to blow up in two or three years.”
She adds, “As I’ve gone out to tradeshows and hospitals, talked to people, and worked with nurses, I’ve gained more experience out in the market learning about the people we are actually selling to or providing for. And maybe I’m wrong right now—maybe four months from now we’ll need to reevaluate, pivot a little bit, change direction.”
Needless to say, Greenberg is happy to be on her entrepreneurial journey, whatever the pace.
“While I’m going to have to bite the bullet and say: Okay, instead of the two- to three-year accelerated growth curve, it’s going to be more of a five- to seven-year kind of thing, it’s something I think is a smarter move for the company,” she says. “It lets us spend more time refining company and possibly exploring a line of gift products.”
Learn more about Non-Scents at nonscentsflowers.com.