Rob Conley was a member of GVSU’s CEO club in 2005 when he started Beanilla, now the largest online seller of vanilla in the country. Conley was at a CEO Club International Conference in Chicago when he met another CEO Club member from Australia who gave him a handful of vanilla beans imported from Papua New Guinea. Conley turned around and sold the beans on eBay for $6 a piece, far under the usual retail value.
“Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world,” says Conley. “A vanilla bean at the grocery story is $12-$13.”
While still attending GVSU, Conley learned how to write code, and built www.Beanilla.com. He started sourcing high quality vanilla beans from different farmers all over the world and selling them online from the bedroom of his apartment. Shortly after, fellow GVSU CEO Club member Brent Reame became a partner in the company, and Beanilla has been growing ever since. In 2013, Beanilla moved into a 8,000 square foot warehouse space in Rockford, MI and now has 10 full-time and two part-time employees.
Relationship building has been an important part of Beanilla’s success and has enabled Conley and Reame to launch Spice Jungle, an online retailer of herbs and spices, in 2015.
“We built these relationships with either the farmers or various agents that speak the language in various countries,” Conley said. “And some of these farmers offer a variety of other spices.”
In a flooded market, Conley says that what sets Beanilla and Spice Jungle apart is an emphasis on aesthetics; a clean, well-designed website with engaging copy, stylish photography and a recipe blog. All of this has helped build a worldwide customer base, from West Michigan breweries to home consumers around the globe.
“If someone wants a single vanilla bean and it costs a couple of dollars we will ship it for free,” say Conley. “If they want 500 pounds of vanilla beans, we do that to.”
Beanilla and Spice Jungle
Conley graduated from GVSU in 2006 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Information Systems.