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Burpee: sowing the seeds of business

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As a career option in the late 1800s, the U.S. seed industry stank. Because you can’t look at seeds and tell if they’re good, vendors were notoriously unreliable, selling seeds that were old, of dubious origin, and mixed with stones or weed seed. There was no recourse if a field of bad seed yielded nothing.

Into this scenario walked Washington Atlee Burpee, who loved plants and botany.

He recognized two things:

  • If he wanted to succeed in this business, he’d have to do something completely different: put customers first by ensuring good seed.
  • To ensure quality, he’d have to make the business more scientific.

Inspired by the pioneering geneticist Gregor Mendel, Burpee had started breeding poultry at age 14. And while still in medical school, he launched a chicken-breeding business. As an incentive to buy the birds, he also sold corn for chicken feed.

Using that corn for both feed and seed, the farmers started asking Burpee for other vegetable seeds.

Burpee then did something revolutionary: He guaranteed satisfaction with his seeds for a year or the buyer could get free replacements.

He knew catalogs would be his main form of marketing, so he wrote most of the vivid plant descriptions himself. He hired artists for illustrations, became the first seed vendor to use photographs, and also offered cash prizes for the best slogans (“Burpee seeds grow”).

Carrying through on his love of botany, Burpee created the first hybrid vegetables by crossing different species. He set up a testing facility, Fordhook, where Fordhook lima beans were developed.

Burpee managed his fields by walking around. He traveled about 30,000 miles a year in search of new veggies.

By the time he died, Burpee was receiving more than 10,000 orders a day.

— Adapted from “Entrepreneur W. Atlee Burpee,” Dan Moreau, Investor’s Business Daily.

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