As part of my series about “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post-COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Smithberger, co-founder and chief seeder at seedership, a software company driven to elevate the visibility of the good small businesses do in their communities to help them grow. Smithberger took the entrepreneur leap in June 2018 after two decades in communications for global enterprises, public relations agencies, and a Silicon-Valley start-up. A year sabbatical spent volunteering and joining a medical mission abroad inspired her to seek a way to help make the world a better place. With seedership, she’s made it simple for small businesses to create and share their community story to expand their online presence and build deeper, more meaningful customer connections. When small businesses grow, so does their giving — creating stronger, kinder communities.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My husband, Ray, and I grew tired of the negative news and wanted to do something to help bring balance with more positivity. We started doing kind deeds or capturing others in the act and sharing those experiences on social media. By shifting our focus to kindness, suddenly it was easier to spot it all around us, even in our own family, literally. Within our own families we have several small business owners, and we started noticing how deeply engaged they are in their communities. Their giving is not limited to finances, rather they give their time, energy, ideas and leadership. Yet, for the most part, these kind acts go unnoticed. This is when we realized how we could best give back and make a difference: Elevating the visibility of the multitude of good being done by the small business owners in our own communities. Ray’s experience was in growing businesses, developing leaders, and building large-scale operations; and mine was in storytelling and uniting individuals around a shared purpose.
The seedership platform brings together our skills as well as our values. Ray was raised on a farm, thus the concept of planting seeds, nurturing them over time and sharing the results with the community. I have spent nearly twenty years training in martial arts where the path to success is determined by one’s contribution to the advancement of others. Our mission is to help small businesses benefit and grow from the good they do. Because as they grow, so does their giving and leadership.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
My last day at my corporate job was June 18, 2018. My first official seedership meeting was the week of July 9, with our software development group. We were going to kick off the partnership with a product roadmap and strategy sessions. For some reason, I had it in my head that I had to know software development, the intricacies of agile methodology and Software as a Service (SaaS) principles so I could walk the talk. I skipped my husband’s biannual family reunion to stay home and prepare for the meeting. Rather than spend a week at the beach, I was behind a desk cramming information as if studying for bar examination. I learned two things: I’m not going to become proficient on anything in one week; and that I should trust in the expertise of our partners. I didn’t need to speak code or be technical. I just needed to be able to share my vision for seedership and the value proposition we wanted to create.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I am currently rereading “The Second Mountain,” by David Brooks. It’s about seeking purpose in one’s life and work. In the book, Brooks describes the first mountain as a self-centered journey where we seek personal success through the accomplishment of specific goals. The second is where we strive to be of service to others, create community and deepen connections and interdependencies with others. For me, corporate life was that first mountain where I needed to prove to myself that I could achieve a certain level in my profession. It was a necessary journey and drove me for more than 20 years, but once I’d reached the goals I’d set, it became less rewarding and I found myself seeking something else to fulfill me. Letting go of that first mountain was tough. It shaped my identity, self-esteem and values. The book helped me reframe my objectives, enabling me to reset and become a student of life again, this time as an entrepreneur with a social purpose.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven” businesses are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My vision was to bring more positivity to the world and inspire kindness. Now, almost any time you turn on your TV or scroll through social media, it appears that the world is in a downward spiral. But there is an enormous amount of good happening every day in our communities by small business owners that goes unnoticed. The best part is that it’s genuine. They are passionate about giving back to the communities that have helped make their dream of business ownership a reality. My purpose is to help them grow through making the good they do more visible, accessible and transparent — so they can deepen customer connections, amplify their online presence, strengthen their reputation and build trust. People want to support businesses that give back to their communities, and they want opportunities to also contribute to making a difference. If the good small businesses do for their community in return strengthens their business, and if consumers purchasing dollars can also help them contribute to a cause they care about, it becomes a triple win: The business, consumer and community all benefit.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Strive for progress, not perfection. In a start-up, perfection is the enemy of progress. It leads to analysis paralysis. In that state of immobility, the overthinking kills productivity, creativity and self-doubt can start to percolate. It is better to keep moving and continuously evolve through experimentation and feedback. It leads to a better outcome, faster.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with them a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I have family living around the world and hearing their stories of how life has also changed for them keeps me focused on what we can do rather than what we cannot.
We’ve also gotten creative in staying connected. We’ve been hosting video conference calls that have allowed us to get together more often, and in larger groups, than we’ve ever been able to do before physically due to of how spread out we are.
We do virtual tours of one another’s homes, play board games, and have show-and-tell with pets, meals or even old photo albums. We’ve celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs and moves. In many ways it’s brought us closer together and helped us appreciate one another more.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We planned on introducing seedership into the market with the results of a national small business giving study we had commissioned. The survey was completed at the end of February 2020, and then the world came to a halt in mid-March. We weren’t sure our findings would even be relevant anymore. We were still making some outbound calls, and at the time many small businesses said they were temporarily closing, had lost their sales overnight and were concerned with keeping their employees. It was heartbreaking. Trying to introduce and sell a new concept didn’t feel right at the time. But when the initial shock subsided, what happened next was inspiring. Businesses of all sizes, especially our market of small business owners, stepped up to help their communities. And they were being much more vocal and proactive in sharing what they were doing, because bringing to light those in need of help enables others who want to help to also become involved. We’ve adapted our messaging and built a free tier to our software platform.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s important to stay informed of what’s happening, but I try to not become engrossed in it. I scan the headlines, read a few articles and listen to news in the car, yet the moment I start feeling anxious I stop. There are ways to get factual, data-driven information that may feel less alarmist from expert sources like the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. I also seek out positive, good news stories and share those with friends and family. One of my favorite go-to resources is the Good News Network, and I really enjoyed John Krasinski’s quarantine YouTube series “Some Good News.” Try to maintain a healthy balance of your positive to negative news intake, and have the perspective that while things are uncertain, tumultuous and divided, there are also many beautiful and good things.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the post-Covid economy will look like. But we can, of course, try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet, at the same time, the post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-Covid economy?
My area of focus is small business giving, so some of the greatest opportunities that I expect are for small businesses to create, share and engage their customers with their community stories.
- Small businesses have always given back to their communities, it is a part of who they are, but in many cases it has been subtle, understated support, because it has been done quietly from an owner’s desire to “pay it forward” and express appreciation, without appearing boastful. Now, there is a greater need to demonstrate care for their communities, let them know they are there to support, and invest in helping, their communities through this pandemic. Actions taken during crises help to build trust and reinforce brand values, so what they give back can no longer be a secret. It needs to be easily accessible and visible online.
- There is a greater need for transparency in giving. It has become the norm for businesses to state that community matters. They may have a listing on their website of the organizations they support and share the occasional social media post. Many now offer give-back programs, such as “buy one, give one” or percentage of profits go to a cause. So, how does a consumer differentiate between which one to patronize? Build trust by showing them the metrics behind your giving and sharing with them the end result. It’s less about how much you give, rather why you give, the consistency in which you give back and the emotional stories behind the giving.
- Creating opportunities to make it easier for customers to make a difference for the causes and organizations they care about. Right now, with social distancing, masks and quarantines, people are feeling isolated and are seeking ways to reconnect and be part of a greater purpose. Building community around your business by collaborating with your customers around doing good fosters loyalty and strengthens bonds.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I’d like to think that the sense of community and personal sense of civic responsibility that has been reignited is embraced and remains strong. We’ve seen immense acts of kindness and generosity of people coming together to help their neighbors and support local businesses through this pandemic. Businesses have pivoted and are forming new collaborations to combine their resources and expertise to better support the needs of their communities, and one another. That sense of unity, common purpose, and compassion for one another will help us emerge healthier on the other side.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-Covid economy?
While 2020 has been a difficult year for all, it has also been a year that we have all helped each other. I’m inspired by a deli that filled two semitrucks in two days for those displaced by the California wildfires, a cake shop owner who paid bills for her community, a restaurant who fed furloughed hospitality workers, or a car dealership that converted its space for mask-making production. We don’t want these stories to be forgotten, or the sense of community and compassion that has arisen to fade — so we built a free tier to our platform, helping to share these stories and doing our part to help small businesses learn how to create, shape and share their community stories.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
COVID-19 has accelerated the necessity to have an online presence. People are staying home, living through their screens and avoiding unnecessary risks. Small businesses need to build and enhance their online presence to be relevant, connected and top of mind. Their community story — how they are giving back and supporting their community — is a significant factor in their reputation and brand and should stay visible and easily accessible online. Their community story gives them an opportunity to show they care, build a personal connection and demonstrate their values in action. More than ever, people are also seeking ways they can give back, and sharing their business’s community story helps consumers understand how supporting your business helps them make a positive difference, also.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorites is that “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” It’s attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. I started martial arts 20 years ago because I was attracted to the physicality of it, but soon discovered it challenged my mental toughness and spirit more. I remember my first time participating in full-contact sparring. I was wearing head-to-toe protective gear and was waiting my turn. I was called into the ring, shook hands with my opponent and bowed. She looked sweet until the bell sounded, and she charged at me at full velocity. For 90 seconds, I allowed her to pummel me. I was in shock. During the break, I evaluated two options: Cry or fight. I was a bit too old for the first option, so I decided on the latter. My second-round performance was not good, but it was better because this time I tried. And that is the mindset I have always used in my training; how can I be better today?
By the time I tested for my first-degree black belt, I had grown accustomed to being physically stretched and facing the unknown. My small 5’ 2” frame felt strong, yet it wasn’t my body that had changed but, rather, my mind. When I tried new things, I relished the exploration. When my physical limitations were pushed, I enjoyed testing my willpower. These traits carried over into both my professional and personal life.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Your readers can follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook and @seedership on Instagram. If they are interested in learning more about how to grow their business through the good they do, and share their community story, we have a great resource center on seedership.com, full of case studies and how-to articles.