I found these adorable little smiling faces on a trip to Myrtle Beach, SC. When I read the accompanying card, I was hooked. They are such a simple thing, but the heart behind the project is amazing. A big part of that heart is Mark Borella, who is known as “The Seeds of Happiness Guy”. If you ask him what he does for a living, he’ll tell you this: “I change the world one smile at a time”. His smile, his happiness, and his excitement, are infectious.
If you watch any of Mark’s Instagram or YouTube videos, you see instantly where the smiles get their origin. When we talked, he told me, “My artwork is not serious, but I take my art very seriously”, and that he does. He loves to make people smile. He loves to make people happy. He loves what he does and it shines through. But he also works very hard to make sure that we all have enough smiles to give to others, to keep the Circle of Kindness going.
The Circle of Kindness is what Mark calls all of the people who give and receive Seeds of Happiness. When you give to someone, they give to someone, and the circle continues.
It was so much fun talking to Mark, learning about how the Seeds of Happiness began, and hearing some of the stories that people have told him about their own giving and receiving over the years.
(Interview originally posted in November 2019)
1) For those that have never heard of the Seeds of Happiness, tell us how you got started making them.
My wife and I have been together since we were 15 or 16. I taught her how to drive. We’ve known the lady that put us together since we were kids. That lady’s son was diagnosed with neuro blastoma when he was young. As he was going through treatments, I wanted to make a piece of art to represent him, to do something for the family. But I got blocked. I was so close to the family and the situation. Previously, as I was doing other sculptures and projects, I had the little leftover lumps of clay. So, I started making a handful of smiles, and I put them in a bowl in the studio. Our friend’s son went through his treatments, but didn’t do well. I got the call one day that he wasn’t going to last much longer. The family told me that I needed to come and say my goodbyes. As I walked out of the studio, to go to their house, I looked over and saw those smiles laying in the bowl. I grabbed them, blew off the dust, and went to the family’s house. When I got there, I told the mother of the little boy, our friend, “There is nothing I can say or do, but here is a handful of smiles. Maybe you can hold onto them until you get your smile back.” A few months later, she called me. She told me that she had kept a smile in her hand every day since I had given them to her. She said that those smiles in her hand were the only thing that she had to hold onto during that time. She said, “You need to do this for other people not just me”. I continued to keep the leftover clumps in my studio. I made them and gave them out to people when they needed a smile. I would give them to people and say, “Here’s a seed of happiness I hope it grows”. As time went on, I started getting more and more calls from people who were wanting the Seeds. So we put together a little website and started selling them.
2) What is your hope with the Seeds of Happiness?
What we are selling is the story behind the smiles; not just my story, but everyone’s story. These are making a huge difference in people’s lives. If I hear that someone gave someone a Seed, and I ask where it is now, they always know. If I ask them who gave it to them, they always know. We get stories all the time about how these smiles change people’s lives in all kinds of ways. People who have lost loved ones, people going through cancer treatments, people who are contemplating suicide. Someone gave them a smile and it made all the difference in the world. That one little gesture shows that they are cared for, that they matter. The people giving the smiles away are the heroes of the story; and that’s the way it should be. Someone told me one time that I had reinvented the greeting card.
3) What was your biggest obstacle when starting the business?
The business end of it all. One of things I figured out early on, even as a kid, is, if you’re not arrogant and you don’t think you can do everything, if you find someone who is better than you at something and you acknowledge that then you will go farther. I found someone that doesn’t suck at business. I also found someone who is better at detail painting. Learn to recognize your weaknesses, find someone who is better than you at it, and you’ll go much further.
4) Did you have people that thought you were crazy when you decided to make this a business? How did you deal with them?
I was already making a living on art in college; selling sculptures. I’ve never worked for anyone. The people that understood what I was doing knew it was a mission and they supported it. There were those that didn’t of course. That’s one thing about going to art school. You learn to deal with criticism. You learn your basics, how to do the actual art, and you also learn social skills. The biggest thing you learn is that you suck as an artist, someone is always better than you. This is not meant to be discouraging, it just is. No matter how good you are at something, there is always someone better than you at it.
5) I see on your “Meet the Team” page that you include a lot of people that most companies wouldn’t include. (I especially love that Munch, your doggie mascot and model is included) I think it is amazing that you are willing to share the spotlight and recognize everyone’s contribution to your products. Do you think this philosophy and practice has helped to fuel your success?
This is a team effort. Without the team, it wouldn’t be a success. Each year I give everyone that works for me an original piece of art that I create. One year I gave each person a puzzle piece. I told them to put them all together. Everyone laid their piece down, fit them together, and they made a Seed of Happiness. Next, I told one of them to take a piece away. I said, “Take one piece away and the whole picture is not the same.”
With Canterbury Enterprises, we employ 2-20 people a day. When they come to help us, it gets them out of their house, gives them and their caregivers a break, and gives them a sense of independence.
6) How important do you think it is for people to find what they love to do?
If what you do is something you have a passion for then you’ll do a better job. Believe in the magic of what you’re doing and you’ll do well.
7) How did you come to work with the teacher that “helped shape your love of sculpting”?
Growing up I was the dumb kid. I struggled in school. When I got to high school there was an art teacher, it was his first year teaching. This was before ADD and ADHD and all that was recognized as a thing. He said, “You’re not dumb, they just don’t teach the way your brain works”. He offered to help me with my homework. Later, he was going back to college for his master’s degree. He got my mom’s ok and I went to college with him, took classes with him. Along the way he saw the potential in my art and began entering it into contests. Because of him I was able to go to art school. Over the years, he followed what I was doing in art, he kept in touch. When he retired from teaching, I asked him what he was going to do with his time. He didn’t know so I asked him to come work with me at the studio. He’s been here ever since.
8) Each of your smiles is handmade in The Smile Factory, in Kirkwood, MO. Do you do factory tours of any kind?
Our studio is always open to the public, Monday-Friday 9-5. Sometimes people walk in and they are enthralled. Sometimes they walk in and are like, “this is it”. It’s a working art studio. The name, The Smile Factory, pays homage to Andy Warhol’s art factory.
Some interesting facts about the Seeds of Happiness:
They go through 3200 pounds of clay each month. One seed takes about 3 weeks to make and they make 40,000ish each month. And the card that comes with each seed is part of the art work. Because a Seed of Happiness is just that, a small piece of art that you can hold in your hand.
To learn more about The Seeds of Happiness, to see what Mark and the team are up to, and/or to purchase any of their products (including a lot of collectible items that are only available for a season), go to SeedsofHappiness.com, and follow them on Instagram and/or Facebook.
Thank you for joining me Mark, and to you and your team for all that you do each day to make the world a better place!