Written by Patty Rasmussen Wednesday, June 15 2011
Snapshot: Jessie Conners
Jessie Conners, CEO of Minneapolis-based Peppermint Park, a membership-based fashion and luxury brands e-tailer website, has a rags to riches story that might make Horatio Alger sit up and take notice. Throughout a sometimes impoverished childhood, Conners developed and maintained an entrepreneurial spirit that carried her into adulthood. At age 16, she managed 13 chiropractic clinics, earning close to $80,000 annually, which she then turned into real estate investments.
Her business savvy caught the eye of businessman Donald Trump and earned her a spot on the first season of NBC’s The Apprentice. In 2001, she published a book, Nightmare Nation, predicting the current economic crisis, especially with regard to real estate.
And in 2009, Conners moved into the online retail industry when she conceived Peppermint Park. The official launch of the Peppermint Park website took place in November 2010. Sales and memberships to Peppermint Park exploded after a mention in the February 2011 issue of O magazine. Today, there are close to 10,000 paid, active memberships. The company has moved to a 12,000-square-foot warehouse from its former 100-square-foot space.
Womenetics: Explain how Peppermint Park works. What makes it unique?
Jessie Conners: We have 350 brands on the website, and it’s not a flash sale. You have access to the website 24/7. You have to be a member, and you have to pay for your membership. It’s $9.99 a month, but anything else online – Bluefly, Gilt Groupe, HauteLook – can’t compare to us because we charge for membership. We don’t mark up the products anywhere near a regular retailer or even a discounter. We have some past season product, but most of our stuff is current season. You can see everything on the website even without being a member so you can decide at your leisure, “Oh that’s something I really want,” then become a member.
That was something that bothered me about other sites that asked for all your information up-front when you have no idea what you’re getting into.
Ours is a unique model in that you do have to pay, but you can also make money from the website. When you refer a friend, you get $10 into your account, and 10 percent of whatever your friend purchases for the life of your membership. So if you refer 20 friends and they’re all spending 100 bucks a month, you’re making money on the website. You can either buy more stuff or you can cash it out to your PayPal account.
Womenetics: It sounds like you’ve integrated an element of the best part of multilevel marketing – giving compensation for referrals.
Conners: Yes. I’ve been to a million of those types of parties and feel so obligated to buy something. The difference here is we sell stuff that women want to buy anyway. For example if you want to buy a pair of True Religion jeans and you were going to go to Macy’s and spend $188 for a pair, I – as your friend – would say, “Hey don’t do that. Go to Peppermint Park. You can buy True Religions for 50 bucks.” By referring you, I’m doing you a favor. I’m also making 10 percent of that purchase and $10 when you sign up. It works out really well, especially in this economy. It’s not marketed as a business opportunity. People are coming to our website to buy a Prada handbag for $400 instead of $1,500. If they refer friends, which is encouraged, they’re making money, too.
Womenetics: You have an amazing rags to riches story.
Conners: It’s different! I was born in Minnesota. My dad was a chiropractor. We lived a fairly normal life, and then when I was about 9 years old, my parents had a sort of midlife crisis. They stopped working, pulled us out of school, and we moved to Wisconsin and lived in a trailer with no running water or electricity for about five years. Then they moved us to an orphanage in Mexico where we lived for a year in absolute poverty.
When I was 15 we moved to Texas because we didn’t have any money, and my dad had to work. I got put back in school, which I hadn’t attended since 4th grade. We moved back to Minnesota when I was 16, and I tested back into the public school system there. My dad got his chiropractic license renewed, and we lived at my grandparents’ house. He asked me to do the marketing for him. I didn’t even know what that meant; I had to look it up in a dictionary.
I went door to door and did grassroots marketing and built his practice up to the largest practice in the state. My parents were able to move out of my grandparents’ house and buy their own house. Then I started getting calls from other doctors asking me to do their marketing for them. I was 16 years old, managing 13 chiropractic clinics, making around $80,000. I was definitely making more than most of the doctors I was working for. That’s why I decided not to go to college. I thought about becoming a chiropractor, but then I thought, “Why?”
When I turned 19 I started buying real estate because I was making a fair amount of money with my business. In 2004, I was 21, went on The Apprentice, and “got fired.” After that I began speaking on real estate investing, speaking every single week for six years, doing six to eight presentations a week all across the country. It was about two years ago that I felt kind of empty.
I had always done work-related things because I had to. We really were dirt poor. I sold porcupine quills, I sold chicken eggs. I was very entrepreneurial because I had to be. But it wasn’t fulfilling. I have a whole bunch of real estate, but it wasn’t my passion. I was wondering “What is my passion? What am I doing?”
Womenetics: How did you discover the passion?
Conners: I was flying back to New York from a speaking engagement in Salt Lake City, sitting next to an Indian woman. Usually I don’t talk to people on planes, but I struck up a conversation with her, and we chatted for the entire four- and-a-half-hour flight. We swapped numbers, and she gave me a book, and it was such a strange sensation.
I had an epiphany. I realized, “I don’t have any girlfriends.” This was the first interaction I’d had with a woman in years. I kept thinking about that. I was staying at the Sheraton, and the memory is so vivid, and it’s crazy to me that this is how it all started, but I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote the idea for Peppermint Park on a notepad.
Obviously I didn’t have everything, but it was basically that I want a community for women, where they can share with each other. I wanted shopping because that’s what we all love and what I loved doing in the rare times when I was with the few girlfriends I had.
I’ve always been the type of person who wanted a good deal and would head straight to the clearance rack. I’ve never understood why something was full price one day and 80-percent off the next day. Peppermint Park was born from that moment. It was a big idea, and whenever you have a big idea it can completely overwhelm you if you don’t break it into little pieces.
Womenetics: What was the first piece?
Conners: I had to find a name, and it had to be a good name because it has to be a website. I started looking at available domain names. You have to pay a price for a decent domain name these days, but I put together a list of about 15 names that weren’t too outrageously expensive. I sat down with my husband, and we went through the names. I look back at times and wonder, what was I thinking?
Sometimes in business you have to be naive because if you really knew how much work it takes to get started you wouldn’t do it. After we selected and purchased the name I began researching developers, programmers, and software engineers. That was hardest part – finding people who are capable of creating a really good website, not just a web designer. We didn’t just need pretty; we needed it to be functional. That’s been an ongoing build.
The next step was contacting vendors. But it’s all been such a blast. Now I have a team of 12 that works full time, we have a 12,000-square-foot warehouse, and it’s amazing, like a big family. I hire good people with lots of experience because delegation is very important.
Womenetics: I have to ask. What was the book the woman on the plane gave you?
Conners: It was a book of Buddhist prayers. I’m not normally a superstitious person, but it’s permanently in my suitcase.
Womenetics: What was the best piece of advice you ever got, personal or business?
Conners: Don’t ask opinions of other people when you’re first starting up. It’s not that they’re going to steal it or something, it’s that they’ll discourage you. With Peppermint Park, I told my husband, but otherwise I kept it a secret from my best friends, my family; no one knew I was doing it until it was ready to launch. I think it helps keep the energy focused on the idea.
Womenetics: What was the biggest takeaway you got from appearing on the first season of The Apprentice?
Conners: It really got me out of my shell. I hadn’t had any kind of exposure. I’d never been to New York. It opened up a whole new world for me. What I was doing at the time, running those 13 chiropractic clinics, I only did because it was in front of me. It wasn’t because I really wanted to do it. I think the show helped inspire me to realize I could do anything I wanted.
Womenetics: You launched a clothing line?
Conners: Yes, it’s called Cult Candy. We get a lot of requests from magazines that want us to find clothing that looks like what a certain celebrity is wearing. Of course we try to match it, and sometimes we match it and sometimes not really at all. I was thinking one day, “Why don’t we just make the stuff the celebrities are wearing, but make it so the average person can buy it.” So we have that and we also made a basic line, too.
Womenetics: How do you unwind?
Conners: Yoga. I do yoga every day that I’m in town and sometimes when I’m on the road. I go to a class.
Womenetics: Will it still be “you” in 10 years or will there be something else?
Conners: I think there are so many ways to grow this business. We’re looking at possibly testing cosmetics next year; eventually bringing children’s apparel on the website. There are so many places to go with it.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD, and Blue Ridge Country.