Laura Jennings: The Giving Guide
By Heidi Mills
December 9, 2021
The entrepreneur has a 'Knack' for gifting
This story appeared in the November-December issue of Seattle magazine. Visit seattlemag.com/subscribe.
The best gift Laura Jennings ever received was a baseball
It couldn’t have cost more than $5, and Jennings wasn’t heading to the dugout anytime soon. But with the unexpected gift came a note from her husband, who wrote that Laura had proven she belonged in the big leagues. Jennings had just been promoted at Microsoft, and as she recalled, it was the perfect note at the perfect time in her career.
“It was just the most thoughtful gift,” Jennings says.
She hopes to regularly recreate the joy accompanying the perfect present through her online custom gift giving company, Knack. The 6-year-old Seattle business allows customers to choose each item to include in a gift box, and then add personal messages, photographs and even online videos through that gift’s unique web page.
“We’ve all had the feeling where we find the best gift in the world for someone, and it’s never about how much money we spent,” Jennings says. “It’s about a story or an inside joke or something unique to that person.”
Knack’s customers create a personalized gift by either choosing a preselected assortment of gifts, and then adding or subtracting items, or starting the gift box from scratch. Either way, Knack shopping begins by picking a theme, occasion, interest or vendors that share a certain ethos. You can browse gifts for a college student, for dad, for clients, for a birthday girl or boy, or for someone going through a hard time.
If shopping by an interest, gifters can choose coffee and tea, beer and wine, Seattle themed, or the ever-popular spa gift category, to name just a few. For customers who care where their dollars go, the gift box can start by choosing BIPOC or women-owned businesses, sustainable goods or products made in the United States.
When writing this story, Knack gave me the chance to see how its custom giving works by asking me to select a category and allowing the company to curate a customized surprise box. We are raising four active little boys and have a house filled with running shoes, bikes and camping gear, so I chose “outdoors.” A Knack curator came up with the rest.
The box arrived on my doorstep with a customized card with my name and Facebook profile picture on it, and a link to the gift’s own web page. The page contained a personal video message where a Knack employee told me more about the box’s contents. (If a friend, family member or colleague had sent the box, the video message would presumably be more personal.)
Below the video, the page included photos and information about each vendor, almost all of which are based in Seattle. I received Caffe Vita coffee, a MiiR travel mug, premium chocolate from jcoco, the book “Seattle Walks,” and soft fuzzy socks from Crescent Sock Co. Though I’d given Knack very little information to curate my box, all of the gifts were items our household would actually consume or use, and not simply regift or donate.
The idea for an online custom gift company began forming when Jennings and her husband took their four children to Barcelona, Spain, for a year abroad. Jennings discovered a chain of candy shops with the gimmick of “candy as medicine.” Customers chose a pill container of varying size and then fit as much candy as they could inside it. They could then select a custom label with different phrases in Spanish. The sequence of choices, Jennings mused, put the consumer in charge. As a career “technologist,” Jennings began thinking about how that could be applied to e-commerce.
Upon returning to Seattle, Jennings spent another five years working in technology and venture capital, all the while keeping the concept of Knack in the back of her head. In 2015, she launched the company from her basement. For Jennings, who keeps a framed sign in her office reading “Do Epic S***,” it was a chance to go for it on her own.
The first year, Jennings created a Knack pop-up shop at Pacific Place. Customers could either build a gift themselves from an assortment of items Jennings carried at the shop or pick up a ready-made package. A label bar, similar to the concept Jennings experienced back at the Barcelona candy shops, allowed shoppers to write their own messages.
Jennings hired a couple of anthropologists to watch shoppers and note what worked in the Knack pop-up. They discovered that the personal labels were hugely popular, which led Jennings to translate the concept to video messages, photographs and personal web pages. Shoppers also gravitated toward vendors with personal stories. A woman in Idaho made fingerless mittens from recycled sweaters, and customers loved the uniqueness of that gift. Jennings found another vendor on Etsy who had lost his job and used leftover crayons to make animals or space shapes.
“I don’t think I told anyone the crayon story who didn’t end up buying crayons,” Jennings says. “The stories are what make the gifts special.”
In Knack’s second year, the company transitioned to an online product. Some of the early vendors carried on with Knack, but some – such as the crayon guy – couldn’t scale their product as Knack grew. Early on, Jennings visited neighborhood trade shows and craft fairs to find vendors, and word of mouth provided connections in later years.
Knack seeks partners who have a mission or ethos, and either give back somehow through their sales or are women or minority owned. Jean Thompson, CEO of Seattle Chocolate and jcoco, says her partnership with Knack was a natural fit because both companies have a social mission beyond selling product. A portion of Seattle Chocolate sales goes toward food banks and other charities.
“It’s been a fantastic way to get our chocolates exposed to a broader audience of like-minded consumers,” Thompson says.
Eighteen months ago, Knack hired a buyer dedicated to finding Black-owned businesses for partners. Donna Moodie, owner of Seattle restaurant Marjorie and Miss Marjorie’s Steel Drum Plantains, says she and Jennings have had extensive conversations about how to support female and Black-owned entrepreneurs, like Moodie herself.
“If we want to shift the playing field, we have to make a concerted effort,” Moodie says. “I think with a company like Knack, that effort is sincere.”
Moodie is one of several vendors who say Knack’s direct involvement enabled them to scale their business. Knack sells Miss Marjorie’s Steel Drum Plantains in gift boxes. When Moodie and Jennings first partnered, Knack operated from the old Fran’s Chocolates building on Capitol Hill. Jennings gave Moodie a key and alarm code to the building and allowed her team to package chips and handle some of the brand’s paperwork there.
“She helped us get our product off the ground,” Moodie says. “From day one, she’s been really supportive.”
Another Knack vendor, Prosperity Candle, employs women refugees from Africa and Southeast Asia to create hand-poured candles. As Knack began buying tens of thousands of candles, Prosperity Candle needed seed funding to purchase raw materials. Jennings decided to invest.
“They know we are a small studio,” says Prosperity Candle co-owner Patsy Kauffman Barber. “It’s really important that we have support to pay our artisans and make the candle magic happen.”
Jennings’ own favorite product carried on Knack is Skinny Dipped Almonds. She discovered the mother-daughter team at a food show just as they were launching their product. As Knack has grown, so has Skinny Dipped Almonds.
Knack’s product lineup continues to expand. The company just launched a baby collection. Another more recent creation is Swift Gift, for customers who don’t know the home address of a friend, coworker or other contact. The gift recipient opens an email with a link to a customized page and a selection of gift boxes they can choose. Knack also launched a new way to gift recently called Knest by Knack that allows customers to email recipients a personalized gift web page filled with videos, photos, PDFs, weblinks and more.
Knack’s best-selling gift is Just Breathe, a spa collection with a candle, faux succulent, sea sponge and coconut soak. Spa and wellness products sell big year-round. Around Christmas, holiday-themed mugs, candles and chocolate bars become popular. The average Knack gift box costs $98, but spending can range from $40 to $200 or above.
While an online company was built to weather a pandemic, the Covid era has brought some challenges. Supply chain problems mean that Knack needs to take on more risk, order earlier and buy a larger volume of products. Jennings bought 18 months’ worth of packaging because she would rather have it sit in the warehouse than not be able to find it when needed. Knack expects to double its business this year over 2020, and at that level of growth, it needs to seek inventory long in advance.
Through the thousands of gifts it processes, Knack employees see all kinds of creative touches. Children sing Christmas carols in a personal video. A female customer once created a “get over your break-up” type gift box for a female friend, with a personal message saying, “Boys suck. You can do better.” It ended up inspiring a whole line of break-up gifts around Valentine’s Day.
Another Knack customer actually broke up with her boyfriend through a gift box. He was just graduating from college, and the note said something along the lines of, “Congratulations on your next chapter, but you are better without me.” The box was filled with office supplies.
Jennings still enjoys assembling gift boxes on the warehouse floor. At least once each shift, someone working the floor sees a photo upload that makes them smile. Those personal touches, Jennings says, define the gift box.