Entrepreneur Spotlight: Jessi Burg

OWNER OF PEARS TO PERENNIALS

Pears to Perennials owner Jessi Burg, 35, never expected to own her own business, but it’s turned out to be a path to personal and financial freedom.

In 2015, Jessi was just scraping by. To pay her bills, she was juggling seven part-time jobs: running a preschool at a gym, babysitting children, working at a summer camp, leading field trips, teaching after-school science classes, teaching backpacking at a nonprofit, and working at a retail shop. Combined, she barely made more than $12,000.

“I got tired of never, ever having a savings account,” she said. “I wanted to make a livable income. I was approaching 30 and I had a savings account but nothing in it. Nothing saved for retirement. No house.”

Later that year, she took a full-time job at a non-profit that paid $32,000, believing that was the most she’d ever make. While she enjoyed the higher income, she didn’t like the inflexibility of a 9-to-5 job. Even when work was slow, she had to show up every day. Taking a month off for vacation – something she’d been able to do when working seasonal jobs – was impossible.

“I thought about quitting every single day,” Jessi said. “It felt like I had hit a breaking point. I can’t work in that structure anymore and if I want to not do that, I have to build a new structure.”

THE DREAM OF A NEW LIFE

“I didn’t grow up with a lot of positive reinforcement so having someone say you can do this was a big deal for me.”

Jessi’s dissatisfaction made her dream of starting a gardening business where she could help people decide what to grow – as well as how much – in their vegetable gardens. With her own business, she could plan her schedule around the work instead of around the dials on the clock. She could travel whenever she wanted. If she worked harder, she could make more money. And she could build a business based on her values.

“I thought: ‘How can I contribute to my community in a meaningful way and spend enough time outside while having enough money to not worry if my car needs new tires?’ It felt like there was finally a path forward,” she said.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2016, she told a friend about her plan to start a business. After that, she catapulted herself into research. In the evening after work and on weekends, she headed to the library. She voraciously read business guides, including books that appear frequently on business top 10 lists. She asked for advice from everyone she knew who’d started a nonprofit or program. One person recommended that she look into Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute (RMMFI), a nonprofit that invests in community members to create economic and social mobility through entrepreneurship.

By January 2017, she was participating in RMMFI’s Business Launch Boot Camp, a 12-week program offered three times a year in Denver and Aurora. Each program helps 10 entrepreneurs build a business plan and gain clarity on their path from idea to launch. RMMFI offers classes, mentorship, microloan access, and subsidized bookkeeping services to the entrepreneurs.

“One thing that’s special about RMMFI is they come from the approach that there are no bad business ideas,” she said. “There are businesses that aren’t fiscally viable but there’s no judgment about what the business is. When I said I’m thinking about having a plant business, RMMFI was the very first entity to say to me, ‘We don’t know you. We don’t know anything about you, but we believe in you to start this business.’ I didn’t grow up with a lot of positive reinforcement so having someone say you can do this was a big deal for me.”

PEOPLE WHO ARE JUST ROOTING FOR YOU”

“Kindness is something we need more of in the world. Kindness needs to be cultivated.”

RMMFI’s Business Launch Boot Camp consists of two business classes a week with other entrepreneurs-in-training and one weekly meeting with three mentors who share their expertise. The boot camp covered business basics, including:

  • Establishing key sales indicators
  • Setting and measuring goals
  • Determining target demographics
  • Deciding whether to set up the business as an LLC or sole proprietorship

During Jessi’s time in boot camp, instructors and mentors were available whenever she had questions. Jessi praises her mentors for asking great questions like “Why are you doing this?” and “How does this mesh in with your overall business goals?” Classes provided an “open environment” surrounded by classmates who could relate to her struggles as a future business owner, she said.

“In RMMFI Business Launch Boot Camp classes, you’re allowed to be tired. You’re allowed to work hard,” Jessi said. “You could show up at class and 50 percent of the people would say, ‘I’m exhausted’ and other people would say, ‘Me too’ and you suck it up and you keep going. In addition, you have all these people who are just rooting for you.”

TENDING TO HER GARDENING BUSINESS

“I feel like I’m finally living up to my potential.”

After graduating boot camp, Jessi evolved her business as clients began asking her to tend to their flowers and trees as well as their vegetables. Pears to Perennials now offers sustainable garden, landscaping, and tree care services in the greater Denver area. After expanding her focus, Jessi got set up with another RMMFI volunteer mentor for help tweaking her business plan.

Pears to Perennials has steadily grown ever since Jessi launched it in May 2017. In 2019, it brought in $250,000 in revenue. Jessi employs eight seasonal employees and two full-time employees. One of those full-time employees is a manager who handles day-to-day operations, freeing Jessi up to focus on business development and advocacy, especially for laborers and other business owners in the trades.

A big priority for Jessi has been making sure that her business reflects her values. These include:

  • Kindness toward customers – “We got so many of our early clients just by showing up when we said we would.”
  • Kindness toward employees – “One of my employees was 25 years old and didn’t have a ton of experience three years ago. We’ve taught her that she should expect to be treated well by her employers. I wish somebody had done that for me when I was 25.”
  • Respect for laborers and people in the trades – People in the trades are often left out of entrepreneur conversations, Jessi said. She aims to help change that by joining business groups, like Good Business Colorado, and making sure she shares their perspectives.

“Kindness is something we need more of in the world,” Jessi said. “We don’t spend enough time checking in on people just because. Kindness needs to be cultivated.”

What’s next? Jessi wants to write a book on the importance of treating clients and employees with respect. She’s also participating in RMMFI’s first-ever Pivot Accelerator Program, which is supporting business owners as they adapt to the new economic realities caused by COVID. And as a woman in a male-dominated profession, she’ll continue to defy expectations of what’s possible when someone is determined enough.

“I feel like I’m finally living up to my potential,” she said.