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The Uncommon Life

Uncommon Personalities: Meet David Bolotsky

April 11, 2014

UncommonGoods Founder & CEO David Bolotsky

David Bolotsky, UncommonGoods Founder & CEO

My Hometown is…
New York, New York

My childhood dream was…
To create a sanctuary for unwanted animals and to start a business to pay for it. I became a vegetarian when I was 11 and volunteered at a nature center caring for rats, raccoons, ferrets and birds. And I spent several years working at an animal shelter in high school and college.

As a kid I caught the entrepreneurial bug early, starting a baseball card business when I was 10. I also had a paper route and later began my own lawn mowing business, Dynamow.

Something I value most is…
Independence and looking out for the underdog. I encountered a lot of bullies as a kid. That led me to want to be self-reliant and to look out for others who don’t fit in with the status quo.

In college I…
Studied a little bit of everything. My major was political science, though I also took history, English and business classes. I also ran the campus record store, Slipped Disc, where I was paid in vinyl (the equivalent of $0.60/hour).

The most interesting place I’ve visited is…
India. While there are cosmopolitan cities and big businesses, there’s also so much that’s unique. Early in 2014 I travelled there with my wife and our young sons. We had the opportunity to visit a village near the foothills of the Himalayas where some of UncommonGoods’ wooden objects are made. It was moving to see first-hand how our purchases support a generations-old craft and help boost the entire economy of the village.

Dave Meeting Artisans in India

Dave meeting artisans in India
I founded UncommonGoods because…
I learned about the Internet in the mid-90s and thought it was the most exciting new development I’d ever seen. I was a research analyst covering the retail industry at the time and began writing about investment opportunities in Internet retailing. Pretty soon, I decided I’d rather be building a business than writing about one, and so I began looking for an idea.

I visited the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington DC in 1999. It was packed with shoppers and when I asked them why they were there, many talked about looking for products that spoke to their individuality, as opposed to mass-produced items they’d find in the mall. In talking to artists, I saw how the Internet could provide a more efficient venue to showcase their work 24/7, instead of just one weekend in April in a single location.

I got the idea for our name when…
My wife still jokes about the weeks of interrupted sleep we had while I was searching for the company name. I had a notebook by the side of the bed, and every time I had an idea at night, I’d turn on my flashlight and start jotting away. Or I’d run into the other room and fire up the computer and our 56k modem to see if someone had already taken the name.

The hardest part about starting the business was…
Nearly running out of money in 2001 when the so-called “Internet bubble” burst and funding dried up for start-ups. We had to shrink from 35 to 5 people and while most folks left voluntarily, I still had to let a few people go. It was very tough to fire someone for making the mistake of believing in your vision. I vowed to do everything in my power to avoid getting in that position again. Since then, we’ve taken on no debt and have grown at a sustainable pace.

Since founding the company I’ve learned…
How much I have to learn about just about everything. It has been humbling, exciting and gratifying. Much harder than I imagined, but also more rewarding. Perhaps the biggest insight is the positive impact we can have on people’s lives – our team members, our customers and our suppliers – when we do things well.

My favorite thing about running UncommonGoods is…
That we are constantly working to improve our impact on the lives of our workers, suppliers and customers, as well as minimizing our environmental footprint.

The Uncommon Life

Help Us Let State Officials Know that NY State’s Min. Wage is Not Enough to Live On

February 6, 2013

Dear New York State UncommonGoods Customers:

As you know, UncommonGoods, since its founding, has pursued the goal of running a sustainable business. We seek out goods that are handmade, recycled and organic, and print our catalogs on recycled paper approved by the Forest Stewardship Council.

But to us, “sustainability” means more than just being “green.” We believe true sustainability starts with integrity in everything we do. Being a founding member of B Corporation is one example of that philosophy. So is our Better to Give program. Integrity and care in our dealings with you, our customers, is another. And so is providing a living wage to our employees.

At UncommonGoods, we pay all our workers, including people who are just here for the holiday season, well above the minimum hourly wage. That’s because New York State’s current minimum wage, $7.25/hr, is too little to live on.

I, along with 80% of New York State voters, feel strongly that all of our state’s workers must be paid a fairer wage, asap. We’ve gone 6 years with zero increase. 19 other states have higher minimum wages than New York. If minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1970, it would be $11.15 an hour.

A vote about raising New York’s minimum wage, and automatically adjusting it to inflation, is coming up soon in the New York State government. Signing one of the below petitions could truly make a huge difference to a great number (hundreds of thousands) of your fellow New Yorkers.

I’ve written up my thoughts on the issue in this piece:
http://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Yearly-minimum-wage-hikes-help-everyone-4209844.php

If you agree, please let our state officials know that New York State’s lowest-paid workers need a raise to help get them out of poverty.

Business owners, sign this one. (The signatures of business owners will have the most impact on our politicians.)
http://businessforafairminimumwage.org/New-York-Minimum-Wage-Statement-2013

Individuals, sign this one.
http://action.groundswell-movement.org/petitions/raise-the-new-york-minimum-wage

Thanks for reading, and, I hope, for signing. Please share this message with other NY State businesses that you think would want to support this.

Dave Bolotsky
Founder and CEO, UncommonGoods

If you would like to do more, contacting your local state senator will have a real impact:

Find my New York State Senator: http://www.nysenate.gov/senators
(Enter your address and it finds yours.)
You can also Google “Twitter Senator (add their name)” and find their Twitter feed.
Ditto for Facebook.
For example:
https://twitter.com/dianesavino
https://www.facebook.com/SenatorDianeSavino

To contact the Governor:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Tel: (518)474-8390
Email: gov.cuomo@chamber.state.ny.us
http://www.state.ny.us/governor
https://www.facebook.com/GovernorAndrewCuomo
https://twitter.com/NYGovCuomo

If you’re interested in reading more about minimum wage, this website is chock-full of clear and understandable information: http://raisetheminimumwage.org/.

The Uncommon Life

Mr Bolotsky Goes to Washington

November 29, 2012

I had the opportunity to visit the White House this week to meet with President Obama, Vice President Biden and their economic team. As the founder & CEO of UncommonGoods, I was one of 15 small business leaders asked to participate in a discussion on the Administration’s approach to the economy and the fiscal cliff.

It was a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, despite the formal setting. When Vice President Biden entered the Roosevelt Room, everyone rose and stood at attention. Laughing, he told us all to sit down – he wasn’t the President. Later, when the President entered, everyone rose again and the President introduced himself to each of us. I had an opportunity to let him know that my wife worked with his late mother and I showed him the UncommonGoods catalog. The President browsed it, admiring many of our products. I let him know that 50% of what we sell is US-made, including a handmade Sea Serpent sculpture that I suggested would look great on the White House lawn. He told me it was a non-starter – “Bo would be too scared of it.”

When we got down to business, the President reassured us that he was committed to working out a reasonable compromise with the Congressional leadership and that we should not expect a repeat of the 2011 budget battle. He also emphasized his commitment to extending the middle class tax cuts, while allowing tax rates for those earning above $250,000 annually to expire. Our group then had an opportunity to give the President suggestions and ask him questions.

When my turn came, I encouraged the President to use his bully pulpit and Federal procurement policy to encourage businesses to take a “triple bottom line” approach – where people and planet are emphasized, along with profit. When the discussion turned to income inequality, I suggested that we raise the minimum wage and peg it to inflation, so that it does not remain a political football. I also volunteered that our country would be well served to have fewer folks in the finance and legal professions and more in the general business sector. Finally, I asked that the Federal government assert leadership in the battle over sales taxes for internet shopping. I suggested that consumers be required to pay sales tax for internet transactions, an issue that is being hotly contested on a state-by-state basis.

Out of courtesy for my peers in the meeting, I told him that I would be happy to share my 9 other ideas with his team after the meeting, which I did. At the end of the discussion, Vice President Biden asked me for my business card, and told me he’d be in touch. I’m curious to see where that goes. I spoke to another Administration official who assured me that not only would a continuation of the middle class tax cuts be part of the initial budget deal, but that there would also be some reductions in government spending in order to help us get closer to a balanced budget.

While we face tough challenges ahead, I was encouraged to see our government officials engaging in open dialogue with a diverse audience from across the country. For now, I am back at my desk, dreaming of alternative decorations for the White House lawn this coming spring.

The Uncommon Life

Care to Air Design Challenge

July 2, 2010

Care to Air

A few years ago, a neighbor moved out of our apartment building and gave us her washer/dryer. Instead of doing our laundry in the building’s basement, we could now do it at home. But there was one catch: our building prohibits the use of dryers. To solve that problem, we decided to keep the washer, pass on the dryer and become air (aka line) dryers with the help of a couple folding metal racks.

It’s a little more work, but I enjoy it, much in the way I like composting or cooking.  It’s a welcome contrast from my digital existence and makes me feel a bit more grounded.  It’s also a household chore that my sons can participate in (with only a limited amount of grousing).

Last year, I read an article about  a non-profit called Project Laundry List that was fighting for people’s right to line dry their clothes.  Apparently, some towns ban line drying for aesthetic reasons.  Project Laundry List’s founder Alex Lee is an environmental activist who believes in the energy savings of line drying.  It makes a lot of sense, since line drying gets the job done in 24 hours using zero fossil fuels.

In talking to Alex about his efforts, I learned about the current “Care to Air” design challenge being sponsored by Levi’s and Myoocreate. The Care to Air contest challenges people to design “the world’s most innovative, covetable, and sustainable air-drying solution for clothing.” Levi’s is offering up a $10,000 prize for the best design, and they are doing this in conjunction with their new product care labels that instruct customers to cold water wash, air dry and donate the jeans to Goodwill when they’re done with them. UncommonGoods was invited to participate in the design challenge and help judge the winning entries next month.  Ultimately, we hope to be able to bring one of the designs to market.  If you’ve got an idea, please visit  Myoocreate to submit. Good luck!

The Uncommon Life

Bike to the Future

May 19, 2010

Bike Week

These days, I spend most of my time at a desk, pecking away at my keyboard, talking on the phone, and sitting in meetings.  But twice a day, I get to be free, riding through the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the industrial corridors of Brooklyn.  And, to boot, when I commute, I save time – it’s actually quicker than the subway.

When I moved to NYC in the ’80s, I biked quite a bit – my favorite ride was out to Fire Island at the crack of dawn, before the beach traffic kicked in.  I also liked riding in the city, especially up to Central Park, though a cab hit me once and snapped my bike frame in two.  Fortunately, Frank’s, my local bike shop was able to replace the frame and it’s served me well ever since.

In recent years, there’s been a biking revolution in NYC – thanks to the work of the bicycling advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, and the visionary Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan.  Bike lanes have cropped up throughout the city, across the Manhattan to Brooklyn bridges and on many streets, making commuting by bike a bit safer.

There’s a lot of debate about “sharing the road.”  With a limited amount of public pavement, we need to decide how to allocate this resource between pedestrians, cyclists, cars and buses.  The car has been the king for many years, but now people are wondering if we’ve got it right.

So get out this Friday, ride your bike and show your support for cycling –  May 21st is National Bike to Work Day!