How does your grow?

For a Net start-up trying to seed the world with its brand, it grows with a different business card for every season and a Chia Pet-inspired billboard.

Published May 18, 2000 4:00PM (EDT) is cultivating an Internet start-up at Miracle-Gro speed -- and using some amusingly kitschy, if wasteful, marketing to seed the world with its brand.

Take the company business cards: They change every season to display a timely flower or fruit. Right now, they are brightened by a bold red tulip, but soon they will switch to a yellow sunflower for summer. In fall, employees proffer pears and in winter, workers hand out an amaryllis, a holiday flower. Even summer interns are issued the other three seasons, a glitch that can't be fixed since the flowering quartet is printed en bloc.

The seasonal swing also goes for company letterhead and other mailings; stationery for the virtual garden center amounts to a literal mountain of dead trees. Not to be too environmentally incorrect, however -- the company does print its cards with soy-based ink on 30-percent-recycled translucent vellum.

Sundie Ruppert,'s art director, came up with the concept and defends the seasonal cards in the name of branding. "People who are gardeners get it," she says. "They want to collect all four." Passing out four -- when you can get by with one -- can't be good for the balance sheet.

More green is flowing to these days -- revenue for the most recent quarter reached $3.2 million, an increase of 236 percent -- but losses almost doubled to $11.4 million, a Jack-and-the-beanstalk leap from $5.4 million in the same quarter last year.

The flowering business cards were certainly not part of the original idea, planted in the summer of 1995 by founders Jamie O'Neill and husband and wife Lisa and Cliff Sharples. Fresh out of the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, the threesome searched for (in MBA-speak) a niche market with a fragmented supply chain, and ultimately a way to cash in on the blossoming e-commerce craze.

The determined entrepreneurs had just discarded the idea of an online bead empire, when Lisa Sharples let her mind free associate. It jumped from "beads" to "seeds;" and so the group began researching how to build a business around avid gardeners. "They've become gardeners by fire," Ruperts says, an ironic compliment on their budding agricultural prowess.'s small excesses don't end with business cards. At the company's headquarters in Austin, Texas, employees drink out of mugs in the shape of flower pots and the receptionist sits under a 15-foot hanging carrot sculpture. even went so far as to build a "living" billboard on Highway 101 through the heart of Silicon Valley. A "Chia Pet meets Martha Stewart topiary," the billboard uses creeping fig vines to spell out (Installing the greenery and its own custom irrigation system boosted the billboard's cost by $10,000 to $15,000, according to Eller Media, the company that rents the billboard.)

But lately the billboard's looked a bit under the weather. Like the company's stock price, perhaps it's wilting under the pressure. You know, it's not easy staying green.

By Deborah Claymon

Deborah Claymon is managing editor of CNET television, a weekly technology business program on CNBC.

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