Four-year-old JJ had been rejected from seven foster families when he landed at the home of Sam Walker and her husband, Daniel Conrad, therapeutic foster parents in Oklahoma City.
“He was doing OK,” Walker says, recounting the story to a group of fellow entrepreneurs gathered around the table at a local accelerator, StitchCrew. Each entrepreneur was sharing how their ambitions first took root.
We knew she was offering a softened rendition of JJ’s behavior. A traumatized young child acting out justified pain is a force of nature. “He was still struggling,” she said simply.
That year, she and her husband decided to give JJ an over-the-top Christmas, a big tree, presents, the works, hoping that it might cheer JJ up. After the season was over, she found him crying by the front window, his eyes on the tree they’d tossed to the curb.
“Christmas will come back,” he said. “We loved that tree.”
Why do people throw away what they love? Why do parents throw little boys away, too?
Around the table, a few of us were in tears as we realized what was going on in JJ’s mind. Walker had realized it. After she thought about, she had to agree with JJ that the way people treat Christmas trees wasn’t right.
“We recycle,” she thought. “Why can’t we find a solution that better aligns with our values?”
That’s when the Green Tree Project was born. It’s in its third year of operation, and had $80,000 in revenue in 2019.
The company enables buyers to pick their trees online for $100 – $275. Then it delivers potted trees of various sizes (with lights or without) to your house, picks them up again after the season and donates them to local nonprofits, which plant them. During the off-season, it delivers trees for weddings and celebrations.
About 25-30 million Christmas trees get thrown away each year, according to the Sierra Club, and while the options for growing them responsibly and recycling them are increasing, using potted trees seems a better option – if it’s viable.
The Green Tree Project has not been easy.
“A primary struggle has been finding someone who will play fair with me–a woman with a unique business model in the ag industry,” Walker explained by email later. “In the first two years of operation I had trouble with being quoted one price by text or by email (my name being fairly gender neutral — Sam), and then arriving to collect my trees and having the price go up as much as 15%. I had trees that I had tagged for Green Tree Project be sold out from under me several times to more traditional/male owned businesses.”
This year, for the first time, she hired five contractors to help with the deliveries during Thanksgiving week and the week after. Now, she is working on a licensing model, so that nurseries could use the platform she developed to offer the service to their customers.
“Green Tree Project will provide the playbook, find the partnership local nonprofits, identify the best variety of tree, and then build out their territory on our digital platform,” she said.
Meanwhile, the story has a happy ending, Walker told the entrepreneurial crew. She and her husband adopted JJ and his four siblings. He’s doing better now and they hope the impact of the pain in his early childhood will continue to recede.
Elizabeth’s note: A company’s birth story works when it resonates with the intended audience. You’d have to be inhuman not to be touched by this one, including JJ’s revelation and Walker’s response to it. Walker’s story also worked well for a media pitch because of its broad appeal and because it was authentic to Walker. A pitch for a different audience, perhaps of investors, might have focused more on the number of trees thrown away or the number of nurseries looking for more revenue.