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Doing Things That Matter Drive Gaines Family

Photo of Eva Saha talking with Joanna and Chip Gaines onstage at the 2024 IDDBA Show
Moderator Eva Saha talks with Joanna and Chip Gaines on the 2024 IDDBA Show stage.

Chip and Joanna Gaines grew their Magnolia empire from the seed of a small retail shop in Waco, Texas, that opened in 2003. Little Magnolia has since blossomed into a national home and lifestyle brand that includes Magnolia Market at the Silos, Magnolia Table, Silos Baking Co. and Magnolia Journal, as well as brand partnerships with Target and Anthropologie and a joint venture with discovery inc., Magnolia Network. Combined, the couple has authored 10 New York Times bestsellers and were recognized on Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in 2019. They sat down with Eva Saha at the IDDBA Show to cover a wide range of topics over 45-plus minutes, including their entrepreneurial path, how people with different personalities can coexist and even thrive and the driving force behind the decisions they have made in business and life. Here are excerpts from their session.

Saha: You didn’t start off being given a business or anything like that; you really started from humble beginnings. Talk to us about those beginnings.

Joanna: When Chip and I met, I worked at a tire and automotive center with my father.

Chip: She was the hottest bookkeeper in the history of tires … beautiful and smart.

Joanna: But there was this other part of me … if I didn’t do tires, what would I want to do? A bakery, a spa, a retail store. And all three of those I had honestly no business doing because I had no experience. I had gone to school for broadcast journalism, but those are my quiet dreams. Chip said, “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t go for that.” But I’m like, whoa, I’m doing this tire thing with my dad. And what if I failed?

Chip: Jo and I came from like the completely opposite upbringing. Very similar in I would say 80-90 percent of things. But then 10 percent are differences. In my family, you were always outside, somebody was always skinning their knee … pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Jo was brought up in an ecosystem where you really didn’t go outside, and if you did, there were multiple layers of clothes. I can almost imagine it was bubble tape or wrap. Maybe it was a boy/girl thing … bless your dad’s heart with three daughters…

In my family, we would evaluate businesses that we had started and failed and then we would have a meeting afterward and ask each other what did we learn from this failed business? Jo’s family literally had pages and pages of notes of businesses that they never were going to start, had no idea that they were going to consider starting them.

At business school, you know, I found out later they refer to these ideas as “business plans.” (He was operating three businesses at the time they met, including a wash-and-fold laundry service and a lawn care service.)

Chip: She thought I was the richest person … We were married happily for about a year, and I think the lightbulb started going off that I was not a wealthy person. All of these businesses are not for profit … these are all tax write-offs…

Joanna: So you fail? All of a sudden, that fear went away for the first time in my life. So I go to my dad. That was, to me, the hardest step, to say after 10 years – hey, Dad, I think I’m actually not going to do this. And of course, as my father would do because this is just his character, said, “I’m proud of you. What you’ve learned here hopefully you can take to any one of those three businesses.”

We decided to do the retail store, Little Magnolia, and opened it up in 2003.

I do want to share a side story about my dad. As I was weaning out of the Firestone Automotive Center, I was still scared of jumping and doing this thing because I don’t know anything about retail, about design. Chip said, “Hey, why don’t you start practicing? Take 200 bucks and see if you can double it with something.” My dad said, “Hey, I have this little showroom where the customers are waiting. You can put your stuff there, put price tags on there and then if they want to buy it, I’ll give you the money.”

So I went to this garage sale and found this wicker sleigh that was $5, and I bought it … I went to Hobby Lobby and got fake ivy and wrapped it around the top. Then I got a battery-operated Christmas light situation, wrapped it around it. All in, my cost was $14. I put a $28 price tag on it. And in my mind, I kept saying, if I can sell this stuff, OK, I’m going to do it. It’s the sign that it’s time.

I put it in the showroom. First week, nothing; second week, nothing. And I’d be like, Dad, what’s going on? Third week, he hands me an envelope with 28 bucks in cash. He said someone finally bought it. At that moment, I was like, “OK, I’m gonna do this.”

Well, a year after I told my dad I wasn’t going to take over the business, he ended up selling [it]. We were helping him move out, and in the attic, what did I find? My sweet father had bought (the sleigh). A lot of people are on that line of, do I move forward or do I not? Really think about the words and the power and the impact you can have on someone’s life by helping them take that first step.

Of course, I had Chip who was just like, if we fail, we’ll get up and figure it out. That helped me, but I also needed that one other sign. So just know that our actions and our words matter, and that was that thing that took me over the line to say I think I can do it.

Saha: That’s such a sweet story. You know, [Chef] Jose Andres was just here and he was saying that you really have to stay true to yourself. And clearly you were staying true to yourself, but you wanted some validation. Chip, in all of his standup comedy…great lessons about how what’s the worst that can happen, you can try, you fail, you learn from your mistakes. But … all the while entrepreneurship – and I’ve heard you say this – can sometimes be lonely. By now you have succeeded to such great lengths … What do the folks in this room need to do to expand their businesses, to bring their ideas to life?

Joanna: The first thing is obviously that first step. What I found when I looked back to all the things that we said “yes” to, there were so many more things that we said “no” to in this journey. I think for us, 21 years into this business, it’s not like it gets easier; it actually gets harder. We found ourselves having to go way back to the beginning – why do we do this? What’s the point of all this? And are we doing good work that matters? And that’s been our our filter throughout all of this, even through the last 10 years, when “Fixer” (Upper) started.

On the idea of expanding, it’s to ask yourself why. People will say, “OK, what’s next for y’all?” I don’t like that question. I think about what we have right now – how do we make it excellent? We don’t ever want to grow for growth’s sake. What’s the intention behind it? What lives can be impacted and changed if we grow? We started as a retail store that we evolved into home renovations, and then we evolved into this “Fixer Upper” thing 10 years after that. It’s staying open-minded but also staying true to the very thing that got you started…

Everything we do centers around this idea of home and hospitality…all the things that we are now as a company, at the end of the day, it really is about story. Whether that’s a product, a show, a magazine article, a home – it always has to start with story. And then from there, we can build … and we can get really passionate about it. It went from this 1,200-square-foot little building, to then … after the show (Fixer Upper), thousands of people were coming to Waco to come see us. They were waiting for hours in this hot Texas sun. So we found the second location, which was the Silos, and it was a mindset of “we have to now host these people really well when they’re over here at this tiny shop.” We weren’t hosting them well; people were fainting because of the Texas sun.

I’m always thinking about people coming to Waco, Texas, to see us. What can we give in return that feels like that was time well spent because they came to visit us? For us, that time well spent is something that we think about, whether you’re reading or watching or whatever it is, you’re interacting with Magnolia. We hope that you left inspired and felt like it was time well spent.

Chip: Jo and I’ve kind of been wrestling with this recently – why is bigger better? You know, what if it’s not? What if this is the best? How do you operate in this growth mindset that you’re describing, but also be able to be fully content when things are perfect, when they’re beautiful? … My personality is built where I have to have a lot of things going on simultaneously or I get bored.

But when we found ourselves with five kids, had a growing business, trying to accomplish really incredible things, we always stepped back and were like, “What is the most important thing on the planet to us?” And, for real, for Jo and I it’s our marriage and it’s our children. If we can’t make it to where we’re heading with Jo and I intact and our kids intact, then we really don’t want to go to that destination in the end. Not everybody’s supposed to make it through every gauntlet. Some gauntlets, you’re actually supposed to be wise enough to kind of step back away from.

Joanna: I was at the Silos a couple months ago, walking around the grounds, and I met a family from Germany, and then a couple from France and then a couple from San Antonio. That feels like it’s not real, that people would take time out of their busy lives to come and visit here.

And when we think about those people, we also think about our beautiful, amazing employees that have been on this journey with us. And when you have a more small-business mindset, it really is very practical. Treat your people well, be hospitable to your guests.

We want to know our employees, want to know why they come to work every day. Why do we do the work that we do? We want to do meaningful work. And for us, Magnolia truly is about making space for those meaningful moments in people’s lives and homes.

Everyone that shows up every day to work at Magnolia, they know that is part of their job, and we get to do this. And it feels like an honor that we get to do this with our guests or readers or viewers. We still are in awe that people are interested.

Saha: Why did you call it Magnolia?

Chip: I was in the landscape business so I knew [trees] well…

Joanna: And he was very athletic, climbing the trees…

Chip: So I’d be up in the tree, and I’d tell you the Latin name…

Joanna: So there was this huge magnolia tree on campus at Baylor. We’re just driving by and he was like, “I’m going to get you that bloom.” So he jumps out of the truck, he climbs this tree to show off his athleticism…

Chip: A magnolia bloom is incredibly fragrant. And it’s the size of a watermelon.

Joanna: Fast-forward a couple of months later, when you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to call a store. That story came up and I knew I wanted to name it a flower…I feel like it was right back to where we started … but as I was even thinking about this today, maybe it’s even more symbolic for me, because I feel like in the 20 years before I met Chip, my life was like, you know, how tight a magnolia bloom is, scared, but then once it opens, it’s like fully open and fragrant.

Chip: We have nearly 600 employees in Waco, Texas. And when you think about those people from top to bottom, I can’t imagine a better team to have accomplished all this stuff with us…It’s a lot harder to accomplish those great things without those great relationships. We preach this to our kids. Our oldest is 19, Drake, all the way down to a little 6-year-old baby (Crew). Your friends matter, your future spouses matter, your relationships, even in business, matter.

Your guest right before us (Chef Andres), we were just in agreement over here. This idea about us being better together, it’s just such a beautiful sentiment … there’s something about our company that we’re so thankful for – there’s people from literally every walk of life that exist as an ecosystem, similar to the one we’re looking at here. What it would look like if we all looked at the world exactly the same, and we all saw through the exact same lens?

Jo and I, because we come at most issues from such a different perspective, we’re convinced how boring would that be. No wonder our company made it – because we had so many different perspectives and so many voices speaking into these issues that were important to us. That, I think, made the outcome that much better. We’ve made every mistake in the book – I want to be super transparent in that we have not done it perfectly.

But when we look back in the rearview mirror, we’ve done it as close to perfectly for us as we could have, because we had so many different voices speaking into so many important issues that it allowed us to see things very, very clearly as opposed to in a vacuum to where you and your best buddy that see the world the exact same come to this solid conclusion and then you get in the real world and you’re like, no, that conclusion was not fully vetted.

Saha: Any last words of wisdom that you would like to impart?

Joanna: In a room this size, I think we can all agree that every one of us has a unique offering and gifts that we can give to the world. For me, every day is like grounding myself in who I am and what I’m here for, which then allows me to do the best I can on the other side of it. So just really honing in on that – why are you here? What is your gift? What is your offering? And then how can you offer it to the world in your own unique and disruptive way? I hate saying this because it sounds so cliche, but as I’ve seen my kids growing so fast, I want the work to matter.

Chip: Jo and I are both as guilty as anybody, but we’ve noticed over the years, as social media has evolved and developed, how quickly you can scroll your way through an hour or two of your precious time and look up almost like a zombie and not even realize what has taken place. You really did trade something, which is your valuable time, for literally nothing – there was no benefit, there was no gain.

Jo and I have become passionate and have practiced this habit over the last 10 years: If we’re going to trade something, it has to be for something that matters, something that’s valuable, and by value, I rarely mean money or something monetary … when you think about our business, rarely have we done a business solely for the purpose of we thought it was going to generate a lot of money. And then the money came as a supplemental benefit; it was this beautiful, additional blessing on top of it.

[Related: Six Guiding Trends Include How Food Influences Tech Of Today, Tomorrow]

About the author

Treva Bennett

Senior Content Creator

After 32 years in the newspaper industry, she is enjoying her new career exploring the world of groceries at The Shelby Report.

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