Tech entrepreneur and aviator Karen Morss reveals how even the environment in your own backyard can unexpectedly transform your work and life goals.
I have a lemon orchard on a south-facing slope in my backyard in Emerald Hills, California. The orchard encompasses forty trees, each named for a woman who inspires me. It has brought me enormous joy and satisfaction, lasting friendships, and the opportunity to start young ones on their way.
My original plan was to pay for my retirement by subdividing my three-quarter acre hillside lot and building a house on the lower level to sell. What I didn’t know was that the city had changed the subdivision rules. Back to square one, I had a big empty backyard and I loved Meyer lemons. So, in June 2004, I decided to plant an orchard.
Lemon trees need to set down roots and for the first three years we just picked the blossoms. I hired an eight-year-old neighbour to help me. She’s in college now and still works for me during her breaks. In 2007, we let the trees bear fruit and did they ever – that first crop weighed in at over 6,000 pounds. I didn’t have a website yet or any other business, but a friend was working at Google headquarters and suggested I bring the lemons to their restaurants. I called on the Executive Chef, with a sample bag and letter of introduction. They took 350 pounds a week for the rest of the season – it was great while it lasted.
The downturn of 2008 led to a regime change at Google and a different philosophy towards buying. But, by now, I had set up a website using Yahoo Small Business and a PayPal account. I sold to local, upmarket grocery stores and a select group of restaurants. The second year was scary, but we managed to build an online identity and reputation for great lemons and sold every lemon we grew. MailChimp proved to be an amazing resource for managing customer lists. Today, our mailing list takes in about 3,500 customers. When we send out our ‘Orchard Opening’ email in November, we are sold out for three months.
The key to success in this business, or any other for that matter, is to offer your customers the very best experience possible. For us that means growing the most beautiful, flavourful lemons using natural methods without chemical fertilizers, pesticides or waxes. It involves picking the lemons at their peak and packing them to survive the journey from my orchard to their kitchen. And replacing, no questions asked, any problem orders.
Early on, I set up a Facebook page for the orchard which lets me share recipes and ideas for using lemons. I also use the page to notify clients of weekly specials, such as out-of-season produce, and we now have about 2,000 followers. All of these marketing tools have been free or carry a minimal charge. That and the internet make setting up a home business easy and without costing a small fortune.
I also enjoy working with kids from my neighbourhood to lighten the load and give them their first jobs. One of my helpers, Sonya, does the mailing labels and packing slips. Andrea makes up our gift bags and her brother, Marcos, makes the boxes. I have help picking and washing the lemons too, but it is very much a small business and a work of the heart.
One aspect I enjoy most is working with other growers and mentoring women in the field. To that end, I set up an organization, the Meyer Lemon Growers’ Group, comprising five women growers committed to organic growing. We signed a pledge to our customers to use only natural, organic methods in the growing and production of our lemons. Since none of the existing organizations offered what we were looking for, we created our own and we each benefit by association with one another.
Starting a business in your fifties is no different than starting one in your thirties. Except you’re smarter and know the effort it takes to build a successful enterprise. The rewards come when you least expect it in the form of a thank you note or a Yelp review or Facebook comment that make it all worthwhile. My advice – do what you love and figure out a way to make it work. It’s never been easier to do than it is today as the resources are there for the taking. Good luck!
Karen Morss is an entrepreneur, an artist, a pilot, and an author, who lives in Emerald Hills, California. Karen started a software company in 1985 and remained in the tech industry for 25 years. In 1995 she started her own flight school, before founding Lemon Ladies in 2004. She has also released three award-winning children’s books between 2010 and 2014.