In today’s Silicon Valley rife with hype, Lily Kanter stands out with a refreshingly pragmatic, matter-of-fact mindset. Business basics have been the bedrock of her success as an entrepreneur for the past 17 years, and this comes as little surprise.
“I think accounting is the best background for people running a business. To understand financial fundamentals is crucial.”
Lily has been an entrepreneurial thinker since her youth, “always looking for an angle” as she puts it. Among other enterprises, she managed a candy stand and ran a roller rink (charging admission and all) in her basement. When asked where she got the startup bug, I was expecting an answer similar to many other founders: her parents. But not Lily. “I’m not sure where that comes from.”
Today, it turns out her biggest influence is coming from the other direction.
“My three boys — 13, 15, and 17 — have huge influence on me. They’re my Gen Z conscious. They get it. They’re going to vote with their dollars. My oldest has already spun out his own brand of t-shirts called No Limit Goods. He’s an amazing creative, and only a junior in high school. My middle son has taught me about packaging. The older two worked for me over the summer at our [Boon Supply] pop up in Mill Valley at the Lumber Yard. I love getting them involved.”
Momentum, Mission, and Margins
As the founder and CEO of Boon Supply, it’s all about the fundamentals. 50% of every purchase goes to the cause of the consumers’ choice, whether a non-profit from their network or a personal fundraiser. This means the magic hangs in the balance of the margins: “This business has to be so tightened down on margin, and have the right product mix.”
Given the mission-focus of the company, that product mix has to live up to the values: where it’s sourced from, the packaging, and what it stands for. Lily is “baking values into products” by selling posters, journals, and more with everything from character strengths to Nelson Mandela quotes — more specifically, items like lunchboxes promoting waste-free lunch, reusable zip pouches, and a vegan leather collection “which is on fire.” With sourcing, they are targeting “true offenders” like styrofoam in the box (“I got lectured by my 14-year-old son, and he was absolutely right.”).
“I spend 70% of my time on what makes sense from a values standpoint and on-mission from a sourcing standpoint. We’re not 100% there, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
Much of Boon Supply’s early momentum comes from Lily’s vision, her experience (despite her MBA, she tells me “I think I’ve learned everything from the school of hard knocks…”), as well as the company she acquired to get things moving.
“I’d always dreamed about the idea that you could democratize a cause-driven product company. [Project RED] was an enormous idea, raising money for the Global Fund, and I thought it would be so amazing to have a product company where the giveback was democratized. I’ve been dreaming about it since I was in the [Aspen Henry Crown Fellowship] ten years ago.
“I looked under the covers of Mixed Bag Designs, an e-commerce site that had given away $100M since 2009. We bought the company, kept the existing brand (MBD is still in tact for school fundraising), and redid the product assortment to be more on-trend, more on-brand, and launched Boon Supply June 2018.
We’ve given away almost $15M since — 50% of our topline.”
This isn’t Lily’s first rodeo. She co-founded and served as CEO of omnichannel lifestyle pioneer Serena & Lily for over 11 years, and teaches a class at the Stanford GSB based on that experience. More specifically, she explores how to lead through the many inflection points of a business — especially with people, and how it sets the tone for culture. “It can’t be underestimated. You have to handle people with integrity.”
“Now that I’m doing my second startup, I’m so far ahead of that,” she says with a smile.
Acquiring a business before launching a new one presented unfamiliar conditions for Lily, especially culture (“Inheriting a culture was new to me…”) and managing two locations, with customer care in Burlingame and corporate offices in Mill Valley. She’s fortunate to have one of Mixed Bag Designs’ co-founders still on as a partner. “Carol has been awesome — she knows this business, has been in it for ten years, and we work great together.”
Calibrating For Today While Looking Ahead
Despite her background in accounting, Lily is clearly a creative and bold thinker. She emphasized the need for her business to stay focused on the existing operation while “pressing the edges” 20% of the time — without doing so, she says, “I don’t think you can stay ahead.” She knows this type of thinking requires different skills from various team members, and has built the organization with it in mind.
“I admire process, but am known to leave a trail behind me. I am definitely fueled by creativity and innovation. What gets me out of bed is the shiny object and the brilliance of the moment. It gives me the shot of adrenaline every day — I’m all in. I have to surround myself with people who are good at day-to-day calibration of the business, and not make their lives too crazy.”
So what’s happening with that 20%? A subscription-based line of toxin-free personal care consumables, eco-friendly grocery bags, and total ownership of waste-free lunch to name a few. In the meantime, the emoji pancake pan is the #1 seller.
“My kids said ‘Mom, that explains your customer right there.’”