We love finding local businesses that share our customer-first philosophy—like Bamboo Collective, a bamboo consultation and licensed plant nursery in northwest Seattle.
We interviewed founder and owner Jon Schlueter about his company’s business model, bamboo’s rise and benefits, and the accident that put Jon in a wheelchair but sowed the seeds of the now-booming and beloved Bamboo Collective.
Real Estate Gals: When did you start Bamboo Collective?
Jon Schlueter: Bamboo Collective is heading toward its tenth year and is exponentially growing—despite zero advertising and minimal online presence.
I think Bamboo Collective’s enduring strength (in addition to quality plants and consultations) is our commitment to turn people into lifelong customers. Customer satisfaction and ethics mean more to me than the money. What I enjoy most of all is sharing what I know and fulfilling other people’s excitement and expectations about bamboo. I judge success by the customer referrals and positive reviews that we work hard to get.
REGals: What makes it a “collective”?
JS: Bamboo has a cult following, if you will. There are local nurseries, clubs, forums, societies, events, and opportunities around the world. Bamboo has a strong social aspect, and I’ve met so many like-minded bamboo enthusiasts and veterans in the scene. It’s all of that spirit that I’m trying to capture and honor in the name Bamboo Collective.
The name also evokes our spoke-wheel business model. In the center of the wheel, you have our customer-focused bamboo plant nursery. We’re surrounded by and connected to a ring of like-minded bamboo suppliers, installers, collectors, and enthusiasts.
- bamboo.org is the official bamboo society page.
- bambooweb.info is an exhaustive bamboo resource and forum.
- There are regional events, as well. Reaching out to us here is a great way to get initiated with bamboo. Ninety percent of my client interaction is knowledge sharing and teaching about bamboo with the associated project in mind.
I’m fortunate to enjoy business friendships with the highest quality suppliers, and I get to work with some of the best experienced bamboo landscapers in the business (thank you Miles, JT, and Meg!).
REGals: How/when did your own love for bamboo grow?
JS: I’ve been involved with bamboo regionally for 20+ years. In my twenties, I was working at Outdoor Research and spending my weekends mountain climbing. A friend was working at a pioneering bamboo nursery in Redmond and had me along to help on a job, and after that—I really got into bamboo. I started spending weekends installing and learning how to maintain groves. I became knowledgeable about all the different varieties and applications via direct experience over the ensuing years. That friend and I started a successful venture and even won a booth display award at the Home and Garden Show.
But fifteen years ago, I fractured my neck and put myself in a wheelchair. I’m in such a different headspace now than I was then, but basically—I was depressed and didn’t know what I was supposed to do in life anymore. It’s hard to adapt to wheelchair life, especially early on. In retrospect, it was easier to climb Mt. Rainier than it was to adjust to the new daily routine—I have gigantic respect for anyone living a semi-normal life post-injury.
After the accident, I went all in on exercise-based rehabilitation. I spent the following few years focused on trying to walk again, and I eventually had to face the fact that it was going to take a while for that to happen. To fund my out-of-pocket physical rehab therapy, I held an event to sell bamboo. It was good for me to reach out to some old bamboo friends in the business and do something reminiscent of normalcy. The plant sale was a minor success, and it gave me a window of distraction to focus on. I started holding weekend bamboo sales and generating a clientele. That was the genesis of Bamboo Collective, and the dream continues today.
REGals: What do you personally appreciate about bamboo?
JS: I like how equally versatile and evocative bamboo is. There are so many kinds to admire and enjoy, and I’m always looking forward to the next growth season. I love how bamboo blows in the wind and how it can turn a yard-space into an evergreen private oasis.
My passion for bamboo continues to chart upward with each satisfied customer. I genuinely care about each of my customer’s unique situations and what they hope to accomplish with bamboo. I want bamboo to be a positive experience, so I spend as much time as needed to educate and advise my customers about the best options for them. I’ve never had to talk anyone into it.
REGals: I’ve known some people have trouble with bamboo spreading farther than they want it to—what are some simple strategies for keeping it contained?
JS: As a proprietor of bamboo, I have the responsibility to help prevent the out-of-control scenarios that running bamboo is known for. I have a fundamental understanding of bamboo’s various growth habits and the appropriate applications of bamboo’s 100+ available varieties, and I’ve successfully given consult to thousands of customers.
For instance, the little Pleioblastus plants they sell outside local grocery stores are some of the worst types of bamboo to errantly plant in a yard. There’s a general misnomer that black bamboo is a clumping bamboo, when in fact it’s a running timber bamboo that initially “sleeps.” I personally wish bamboo wasn’t sold at nursery and garden centers unless there’s an expert on hand.
To prevent any unwanted running or spreading, Bamboo Collective offers raised corten-steel planters in custom sizes, in-ground root barrier installations, and wood boxes. We also specialize in non-running, clump-forming (clumping) bamboos, and we always provide pertinent advice to give customers peace of mind that their bamboo is contained.
Bamboo isn’t for absolutely everybody or every application, and you’re wise doing some homework and having a personal interest in bamboo before you plant it. Almost always, the bad experiences you hear about are caused by people who planted bamboo without any professional consultation. As it’s important to remember that, just like anything else, few bad experiences tend to drown out all the positive ones.
REGals: Is bamboo’s popularity increasing in Seattle? I’ve noticed it more and more in recent years.
JS: I’ve watched bamboo’s popularity rise since the late 1980s up and down the coast and everywhere, really. As I mentioned, I’ve never had to push bamboo on anyone. People have grown up with bamboo by now, and enough of them are curious, like, admire, love it for a myriad of reasons that it’s safe to say bamboo has a built-in audience.
REGals: How has the pandemic affected your business?
JS: Our business has been fortunate over the last year. Bamboo is unbeatable when it comes to near-instant privacy, and when many people found themselves confined at home, privacy from neighbors is exactly what they wanted. Few other plants can block out at newly constructed, three-story rectangle that stares into your backyard.
Bamboo also adds ambiance. A single ceramic pot livens an empty patio or small deck. It can make a small space feel life-giving and restorative.
As far as my daily work goes, I’ve spent every day of the pandemic outside, healthy, masked and reasonably distanced from customers. I helped hundreds of people last year add living privacy and ambience, which hopefully improved their mood and made this past year a little more bearable for them.