Thrive Market's Founder Turned His Passion Into A Successful Business. Here's What You Can Learn From Him.

"Doors open just by being very committed and having followed through and sticking with it."

Serial entrepreneur, Gunnar Lovelace, has successfully built socially conscious food, fashion, and technology companies. As co-founder and former co-CEO of Thrive Market — an e-commerce startup that delivers healthy foods, personal care, and cleaning products at wholesale prices — he helped raise $111 million in funding last year. So, it's safe to say Lovelace knows a thing or two about scaling a business and making a positive social impact. 

Recently, we caught up with Lovelace to find out how he transformed his passion into a successful business and his advice for others trying to do the same. Here are five tips we learned from him.   

Gunnar Lovelace 
Gunnar Lovelace 

1. Have genuine passion for what you're trying to do. This can be your best defense against quitting when things get tough.

Lovelace's passion for food, health, and activism stems from childhood. 

As a Latino immigrant who came to the United States as a child, Lovelace saw how hard it was to access healthy food options when money was scarce. "I grew up really poor with a single mom. I saw how hard she worked to make healthy choices and [experienced] a lot of survival trauma very early on," he told A Plus. 

His mother later remarried and his stepfather ran a food co-op out of a commune in Ojai, California where Lovelace grew up. "I got to see firsthand the power of group buying as a way to make food more affordable and build community," he said. "And, having grown up so poor, I was interested in making money, but also in doing good."

With such a background, it's no surprise Lovelace became a self-proclaimed "die-hard activist" in college, passionate about entrepreneurship and social enterprise. Even though he sometimes had to dumpster dive for food as a full-ride scholarship student, his passion for giving all people access to affordable, healthy food drove him to carry on, and eventually create Thrive Market. 

Similar to Costco and BJ's, Thrive Market charges an annual membership fee ($60). It operates on a one-for-one model, so every paid membership sponsors a low-income family in need of membership. This ensures that those who can't afford a membership will still have access to healthy foods. 

"What's been so exciting about the mission of Thrive Market and democratizing access to healthy food, and selling healthy alternatives at the same time as conventional equivalents for the first time in history, is that it is that it is such a scalable, organizing principle. It doesn't matter who you are, where you are, what you believe, or what the color of your skin is. People inherently want to feel good in their bodies and they want the same things for their children. It really brings people together in a powerful way," Lovelace said. "If you really believe in what you're doing, it's important that you stick with it and there's this beautiful situation where you get all sorts of unintended consequences. Doors open just by being very committed and having followed through and sticking with it, and so, I think whenever I talk to entrepreneurs I always advocate for, first and foremost, really finding something that you love to do because that gives you the fortitude to stick through it when it gets tough." 

2. Find a small scale way to test your business idea in the market.

Lovelace first got the idea for Thrive Market thanks to his attendance at Burning Man, an annual festival centered around art, community, and self-expression that takes place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. 

"I've been organizing camps at Burning Man for years and I set up wholesale buying accounts with the brands that I love personally for a camp I was working on about five years ago," Lovelace explained. "After Burning Man I saw a bunch of my friends who said, 'Can we keep buying these brands at wholesale prices?' And I was like, 'Wow, I should test this out.' So, I ran a bunch of Facebook events where people could buy a particular brand in a given week at a wholesale price and the shopping events were oversubscribed. I wasn't making money of it, I was just doing it because I was interested in it as a sociological test." 

But that experiment showed him that people were clearly interested. They wanted the option to buy premium organic products at the same prices as conventional products. "The next thought was, "How can we make a more scalable version of this?" 

3. Identify your mistakes and learn from them.

"I used to be a horrendous micromanager in my previous companies and just did not understand the importance or the power of finding smarter people than oneself and getting out of their way so that they can do what they do better than I can," Lovelace said. "I have three other co-founders and they're just the most brilliant people I've ever worked with in areas that they're experts in. I've really had to let go of a lot of my control and that's been a huge challenge that really got in my way very intensively in early businesses, but I feel like I've made a lot of strides in this business. The truth is, if you're really trying to do something to scale, there's just no way you can have your hand in everything." 

4. Finding great employees is only half the battle. The rest is keeping them.

"The key to success is really attracting, retaining, and nurturing incredible people." 

5. Don't let other people's doubts become your own.

When Lovelace and one of his co-founders, Nicholas Green, were out fundraising for Thrive Market, they were rejected by over 50 of the top venture capital firms. "Ultimately, it was the best thing that happened to us," Lovelace said. 

Why? Because it caused them to bring on over 150 trusted bloggers and micro-influencers in the health space. These bloggers successfully helped to build up Thrive Market's content marketing thanks to their ability to authentically communicate to people in niche communities the company hoped to target.  

"The thing I always tell people is just never accept 'no.' If we had accepted 'no' in the first 70 venture capital meetings that we had, we wouldn't have made it. In doing something that you love, it doesn't really matter if you get 'no's,' even if they're coming in heavily," Lovelace said. 

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