I raised $9 million to make e-commerce packaging more sustainable – Jesse Genet, CEO and Co-Founder of LumiFeatured

Hi Elphas! I’m Jesse Genet, CEO and Co-Founder of Lumi and a YC alum. Our mission at Lumi is to make the packaging supply chain data-driven and more sustainable. We raised our series A last year and I’m honored to lead a team of 50+ incredible people in our LA office.I started my first business aged 16 in my parents’ basement and became a CEO with employees in 2010 with my first venture Inkodye. I raised over $270,000 on Kickstarter for Inkodye whilst studying Product Design at the Art Center of College of Design. I’ve also featured on Shark Tank and the Home Shopping Network.Ask me anything about startups, fundraising, team building, crowdfunding, scaling a team, supply chain innovation, sustainability or anything else!
Wow you rock Jesse, very impressive journey. Has your success affected your personal life, as in having more people be intimidated by your journey? A friend once told me she had a really hard time keeping friendships after her success because people weren't able to handle how her life had to have boundaries and some responsibilities they couldn't relate to. Would love to hear what was your experience, given that you started your journey so early.
Hey Jelena,This is a great one and something people probably don't discuss enough. Generally speaking I got started on this path sort of early so I never felt like I had one set of friends from 'before running a company' and another set from 'after', but I've still experienced plenty of hard sensations around setting boundaries and being too busy/engaged in my work for a lot of people to understand. Unfortunately I have pretty binary thinking on this these days which might sound callous... There are people I find who inspire me and totally 'get it' that I'm so involved in what I do because they are similarly engaged in their work and people who don't 'get it' and I simply optimize for spending my time with those who do. I have developed some of my deepest friendships with people I see a few times a year actually, people who I could still call at any time of day or night because they really understand me. Time invested into a relationship does not always correlate with its power or value, it's critical to find people who value and respect the journey you're on. I don't have and couldn't handle having any friends who expect to see me every weekend to go to a movie or something. I have no idea what city I'll even be in the next few weekends... But I have a slew of strong female friends I see probably once a month to six weeks who I could also get together with at the drop of a hat if I said I really needed some chill time with them. No one in my life expects me to be on a certain schedule with them to prove that I take them seriously as a friend. I also try very hard to not be flakey, even though I'm extremely busy these days. Something as simple as making and keeping a time to have a drink with an old friend is important, respecting peoples time as you get busier can be hard but is crucial to good relationships as well.Not sure if this is helpful, but hope it is :)
I really appreciate the perspective - thank you for sharing this, Jesse! As a first-time founder, I'm navigating this "I'm so involved with work that I barely have time for everything else" situation and friendship has been an important aspect of my growth, so I learned a lot from your story. Thank you.
I today had to send yet another rejection to my friend to go and hang out (it's a very nice day today here in southern Sweden). It sucks, but finding those people who just get it is really important. Also when you do hang out, that you are really PRESENT for that short period of time and not disconnected. I also found that important as well.
Yes, 100%!
Oh it's totally close to my personal experiences as well and I do understand the sentiment of not being able to have a friend you need to dedicate your whole time to and optimising for people who get your grind, vibe and lifestyle. Thank you for sharing this so openly.
@jessegenet Jesse, thanks so much for offering your time! My question is two part:1. As an obsessed growth marketer, I love hearing growth stories. Put it simply, I'd love to know - how did you grow? What did acquiring the first customers look like? What are some things you had to think about or do initially? More recently, you built this incredible and visible brand around an arcane industry - shipping and packaging. Can you tell me more about when and how that came to be? 2. Diving a bit deeper, I LOVE that sustainability is a core part of your product. Packaging and shipping is such a core part of the modern human experience (starting in the US and growing around the world) and sustainability built into your product/industry impacts the world on a massive scale. As a behavioral science nerd who is curious about how people make decisions, I'm wondering - how did making sustainability a core part of your product affect your audience and customers? Did it drive them one way or another? Did you build your brand or frame things differently to affect audience perceptions?I've heard the Lumi story before and the things that stuck with me are your passion, your drive, your perseverance. It's amazing that I get to connect with you here!
Hi there! Thank you so much for these questions :)1. I'll be candid and say I that I don't have a crazy clever growth hack that Lumi used in our early days, we really just spent a tremendous amount of time with our customers, trying to sell them a variety of things they probably didn't need before landing on a group of solutions and things that they DID need. Perhaps one of the most powerful things we did early on though is actually choose a customer. I don't think this is discussed often enough... deciding on a core customer is very powerful. For us, a huge variety of companies in the world use a lot of packaging, but early on we decided that Lumi is being built to help ecommerce companies scale. That is a very specific customer choice that allowed us to build software and solutions just for them.2. Yes, this one is interesting as it relates to how Lumi is perceived. Sustainability is not only core to our philosophy but conveniently it's also good business! By picking this value early on we were able to weave it into how our employees prioritize things as well as how we talk to customers. By creating an expectation that sustainability should be considered at the outset I think that brands trust us to give them candid advice instead of trying to upsell them 'something sustainable'. This is a forever topic and goal at Lumi and we have a long way to go on it, but it feels integral now to our approach, not something that we pasted on to get brands attention.Hope this is helpful
Thanks so much for your thoughtful answers @jessegenet! I agree - As someone in growth marketing, I'm skeptical of silver bullet 'crazy clever growth hacks'. I love that the product growth was led by customers. It's so key to long-term growth. For the sustainability bit, I'm so grateful that you and your partner chose this as a value for Lumi. You're doing incredible work shining a light on how sustainability is good business, while helping the planet!Thank you again for your time. Means a lot!
Fantastic mission and great advice! Can I ask how you came to the decision on your core customer (helping e-commerce companies)? Was it based on data? Interviews? Field experience? Gut check? Market info? What did that process entail? Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!
Congratulations on all of the amazing work! Two questions:1. How did you set your goal for your kickstarter?2. What tactics proved most effective in driving donations for your kickstarter?We’re launching ours at the end of May!Thanks,KaseyCo-founder Bask + BeingMore joy, less stress
+1 on Kickstarter questions.I'm also curious: 1/ Did you have a pre-launch list of people that you targeted for the Kickstarter or did you start from scratch?
Hi Kasey! Thanks for your questions :)1. I tried to set the goal for my 2012 Kickstarter at the minimum reasonable level of cash I truly needed to fulfill my rewards, which was 50k based on my math. That made securing 250k+ of funding extra rewarding. I think its its important to keep your Kickstarter project 'a project' meaning it can't have the same funding goals as you would have to start 'a business' - it needs to be more defined and specific. My best advices is to crack a spreadsheet and determine what that minimum is (always add your actual margin for your product/service/idea to your math) and then try to set the goal from there.2. For us the most effective way to drive pledges was to tell our story in a compelling way that people wanted to share. Kickstarter is a human interest platform in many ways, people are taking out their credit cards to back people more so than ideas in many cases, so make sure YOUR story is powerful and front and center so people are encouraged to support you.Hope this helps!
You've mentioned in articles that Lumi was already a successful business when you decided to apply to YC, but you felt it was the right choice because you wanted to move the business more towards software. How did the YC experience turn out compared to your expectations and hopes going in? What was most unexpected/surprising about it?
I think there is no quicker way to getting a masterclass level understanding of how venture capitalists think and prioritize and what a startup ought to focus on in the first couple years than the YC program. It is not perfect and can be a frustrating experience as well, but there is nothing else I can think of that only takes 3 months that can give you a similar set of experiences, so that's how I think about it now.
Thanks so much for the reply, Jesse! That's great to hear, and an awesome endorsement of the program. We just put in our application so I was especially curious to hear your perspective on this.Was there anything out of "what a startup ought to focus on in the first couple years" that was particularly impactful for you, especially as someone who actually had already been running your business for quite some time? Did it make you reconsider, or confirm, any of the early choices you'd already made, or change how you plan to go forward with a more software-focused business?
I am a huge admirer of Lumi! I specifically love your YouTube videos, they were very helpful with my early stage packaging decisions. How were you able to convince large packaging manufacturers to work with you when you were a small company?Do you have any advice on negotiating down pricing and minimum order quantities?
Thanks Alanna! I appreciate your kind words. The manufacturing world is quite pragmatic and so its not so hard to convince them to do business with us when we're bringing orders to them. That being said, it's very complicated to run a manufacturing business and they are trying to optimize to keep their machines running and their employees employed so they have a lot of stress as well. The best way to get good pricing and reasonable minimum order quantities from manufacturers is to understand their equipment and help get them the orders that are optimized for their capabilities. Sorry to throw in a Lumi plug but this is essentially one of the core things that we're building, helping navigate that environment so the right manufacturer gets the right jobs and both brands and manufacturers are happy with the output.
I'd love to know how you keep yourself healthy and energized while doing all of this impressive amount of work! Any productivity hacks/tips/self-care principles to share?
Great question! It can be very hard. My biggest tip is trying to sleep enough because going through really long days on very little sleep often leads to some of the worst decision making ;)
I can't agree more. Thank you, Jesse! :D
What was the biggest adjustment when going to 50+ people? Were you able to maintain a positive, hardworking culture? How?
Hi Zoe! Great Q. The transition from 25 people to 50 was momentous not just because its double but because a 50 person organization is completely different to manage. I've found that one of the most powerful things I can do as a CEO as the company has been scaling is to take the time to write out my thoughts as frameworks so that priorities and ideas that I used to be able to spread at lunches or informal chats are actually somewhere where everyone can reference them, even if you started working at Lumi yesterday. I think that work ethic scales with an organization if you've hired well, but that the harder part is to maintain a sense of understanding where the company is heading and how to get things done quickly together, which is where frameworks can be very powerful.
In the bio above, many of your achievements are listed which is incredible. But we all know that in between those achievements were challenges and seemingly insurmountable struggles that you overcame. What was one of those challenges and what did you do to overcome it? In general, what is your advice to entrepreneurs who are going through a low point and aren't sure whether they should give up (because they simply can't afford to keep doing this without some income) or keep pushing?
Running a business is one big string of challenges with the very occasional punctuation of success and accolades. Often people assume the inverse and find the experience of running a company palpably more painful than they expected. I think there is a huge difference between knowing when to give up on certain idea vs giving up on running a business in general. I think you should always be prepared to reconsider your business, reconsider your approach, but constantly reconsidering whether you should be running a business at all is largely a waste of emotional energy because its exhausting. Now, you need to make sure you can afford your basic life needs and do everything you can to put yourself in a position to be healthy so you can live to fight another day running your company, so that is always a balance. But often there is an option or path to hitting pause or reconsidering a business idea instead of throwing out the concept of being an entrepreneur in general.
So exciting! My business is too small for Lumi, but I'm an admirer. Given your appearance on Shark Tank, HSN, and also the awesome Lumi videos, I'm interested in your perspective on using video as a signal boost and if you have any particular lessons you've learned about using video to sell your product.
I think that video is a very powerful medium and a key way to communicate ideas over the internet. That being said I really enjoy doing videos and making content so its sort of easy for me to say that it's a great idea, haha.
You are crushing it. Congrats on all your hard work and success! I had a question about the invention of a product like Inkodye. It's one thing to have an idea about a physical product, but it's another to actually create it. How did you go about taking your idea and making it into a reality? How did you find the product and go through physical testing of it before getting funding?
Hey Jade! So actually Inkodye was my company before Lumi and we didn't take venture funding into Inkodye. Inkodye was mainly brought to life through years of work with my co-founder and two big Kickstarter campaigns :)
Where did you get your sense of humor? ;)
Ha! Born with it!Also though I've really cultivated my sense of humor so I can use it to deliver frank feedback and observations in business. I'm not sure where the concept came from that comedy and business don't go together, I don't even know how I would handle being a CEO if I couldn't use humor to communicate and get through the day.:)
Would love to learn more about your mindset - - How do you plan for your short and long term goals?- What drives you to push forward and move through inevitable obstacles?- Is there anything that you contribute your tenacity and drive to? - Do you use any mindset tactics that help you see the right way to move forward and maintain momentum?Appreciate you and your time. Thanks for being such a light and example!
Did you know from a young age that you wanted to start your own company? How did you come up with the idea for Lumi and take the first steps to see it come to fruition? Thanks!
During your interview on The Art of Manufacturing Podcast, you quoted something you heard at a YC dinner: “The skills that got you to where you are today aren’t going to get you to where you want to go”. Thank you for sharing this quote, I love it and think it’s a great mindset to have!What skills got you to where you are today and what skills do you want to build to get you to where you want to go in the future? How has the answer changed since you first heard this at YC?
My question is on managing a growing team. What does your process look like for keeping departments, managers, and individuals working towards company goals? Do you set OKRs? What's the weekly or monthly cadence of checking in on those goals, and in what format? Thanks, big fan of Lumi.
Would love to learn more and see if you would be free when i come down to LA to speak to some of our portfolio women startups as well :)
Jesse – thanks so much for joining us. Excited to have you here and learn from your incredible experiences.As a reminder: this conversation is part of our ongoing series with people in the Elpha community doing incredible work.