Glassybaby grows with a little help from Jeff Bezos
Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos was so impressed by Glassybaby founder Lee Rhodes, he invested in the company.
Seattle Times business reporters
Why does Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos own a significant chunk of a small Madrona glassmaker known for supporting charitable causes?
Apparently, he thinks it can become a $100 million-plus company.
Glassybaby sold $2 million worth of decorative glass cups last year — at $40 each — and expects to do about $3 million this year after signing long-term deals for retail space in downtown Bellevue and Seattle's University Village.
Despite the recession, it recently expanded to the East Coast with a New York City store and opened a temporary location in Portland's Bridgeport Village.
"People are very passionate about Glassybaby, and I think that's what attracted him," said Melinda Lewison, of private-investment firm Bezos Expeditions. "We think it can get there," she added, referring to the $100 million-mark.
Glassybaby was born in 1998 after Lee Rhodes, a local mother of three, learned that she had lung cancer. She bought her then-husband, Emery Rhodes, glassblowing lessons as a stress-reliever. Soon, his votive candleholders began stacking up in her Washington Park garage, so she sold them to friends and donated the proceeds to charities that support local cancer patients.
"It got really big, and finally I said, 'I've got to get these out of my house,' " Rhodes recalled.
In 2004, Glassybaby took over the old Vitamilk building near Green Lake. It captured national attention a year later when Rhodes appeared on the Martha Stewart Show, and its Web site was bombarded with more than 500 orders.
Glassybaby had been in its current Madrona location nearly a year when Lewison called Rhodes to introduce herself on behalf of Bezos. Rhodes remembers thinking, "Why in the world would Jeff Bezos be interested in Glassybaby?"
Bezos said in an e-mail last week that what attracted him to Glassybaby was "the story and authenticity of the founder. Lee's an incredible, inspiring entrepreneur."
Rhodes asked for a sit-down with Bezos, and they spent an hour together at the Madrona shop.
"We don't want to take over the world. We want to give money away while also making money," Rhodes said. "I wasn't sure how Jeff Bezos would fit into that."
In summer 2008, Rhodes agreed to sell Bezos a 22 percent stake, finding him a "great listener" and "genuinely interested in my company and the brand." Neither Lewison nor Rhodes would disclose how much Bezos paid, though estimates suggest it was somewhere between $1 million and $5 million.
Glassybaby sells a single product — handblown, slightly rounded glass cups — but in hundreds of colors with such whimsical names as "snow" (white), "smooch" (pink), and "Saturday morning" (blue). It regularly donates $4 of the $40 price tag to cancer-related charities.
The company employs 70 people, including 30 glass blowers in Madrona. Former business consultant Steve Heuring joined Glassybaby as CEO a year ago after meeting Rhodes through a mutual friend.
"I really wasn't looking for a job, but one thing led to another, and I got hooked. I thought the business was amazing," Heuring said. "People were placing orders on the Web site, and in the 'special instructions' box, they were writing these wonderful, heartfelt stories about what Glassybaby meant to them."
Rhodes, who's been cancer-free for eight years, sees a bright future for Glassybaby. Next on the horizon: a same-day delivery service, with "bouquets" of glass cups rather than flowers.
"Flowers are a $16 billion industry," she said. "I just want $1 billion of that."
— Amy MartinezTidbits
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Retail Report appears Fridays. Amy Martinez covers goods, services and online retail. She can be reached at 206-464-2923 or email@example.com. Melissa Allison covers the food and beverage industry. She can be reached at 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Retail Report is a look at the trends, issues and people who makeup the dynamic and versatile retail sector throughout the Puget Sound region. Every Friday with Melissa Allison and Amy Martinez. Send tips or comments to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.