Money Does Grow on Trees
By Megan Michelson
Yan Campbell was out on a hike near his home in South Lake Tahoe, California, in 2006 when he started noticing the massive 6-inch Jeffrey pinecones that were scattered all over the ground. People might buy these large, beautiful pinecones if they were available online, he thought. So Campbell, who owns and runs his own web design and marketing business, built a website that weekend — pinecones.us — and them promptly forgot about it. A few months later, he checked back on the site and realized that it was at the top of search engines and that orders were flying in. Now, Campbell, 38, sells about 100,000 pinecones each year, employs a staff of pinecone collectors, and does about $20,000 in gross sales.
How do you collect 100,000 pine cones?
With a permit from the Forest Service, we usually opt to get pinecones right out of the forest where they have not been trampled or driven over. I collect the smaller orders myself, but I have a small team of pinecone pickers who collect larger orders for me. I have some clients who order 50,000 cones at a time and that’s when my team really comes through. An order of 50,000 cones takes my team about one to two weeks and will fill an entire 50-foot cargo truck. It creates jobs and makes a profit.
I sell most cones around $20 per dozen, so that it’s worth the time to collect and package them or $1 each for larger quantities. Sugar pines, however, are so large, messy, and hard to get to that I sell those for $10 each. I once sold a 16-inch long sugar pine for $40. Of the $20,000 I make in gross sales, that amounts to about $5,000 profit. It’s just a part time hobby and since I don’t actually collect all of these cones myself, my biggest expense is payroll. Interestingly enough, because the business is in complete autopilot, it’s actually more profitable per hour than my regular job making signs and graphics.
What’s so special about Lake Tahoe’s pine cones?
There is a large variety to choose from and they are larger than most other regions. Jeffrey pinecones are large 6-inch to 8-inch pinecones and they’re everywhere in South Lake Tahoe. Every year, 10,000 residents throw away bag upon bag of pinecones. That’s a lot of pinecones.
Who exactly buys pine cones online?
I’ve sold cones all over the world. Ranging from Ralph Lauren stores in Hong Kong, a nursery in Toronto, a women’s halfway house in Florida, a school in San Francisco, a wedding in Minnesota—these cones are in demand pretty much anywhere. My favorite story was from the halfway house looking for giant sequoia cones for a prop for a speech encouraging the women to start small like the 1-inch cones and grow big like the 300-foot tall sequoia. In other words, take it one day at a time. It was inspirational and each girl received one of my cones.
Is there a certain time of year where you see a spike in sales?
Yes, most of my volume is done in the fall, before Thanksgiving and Christmas.
So money does grown on trees.
Yes, apparently it does.