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Uniquely Nevada: Gift Box Love is a business gem

Ashley and Ryan Houck, owners of Gift Box Love, located in the City of Nevada, IA/Photo by Marlys Barker


Ashley and Ryan Houck love to take their three sons on “day trips” in Iowa. Last Christmas, they gave the boys a Monopoly board of Iowa’s most iconic places to visit.

“We’ve always enjoyed our Iowa trips, because there are so many interesting things to see in Iowa,” Ryan said.

It’s true, Iowa is full of intriguing places and hidden gems. Many might agree that the Houcks, themselves, own one of Iowa’s most interesting business gems, Gift Box Love.

The City of Nevada, IA is home to this unique business that has an incredible story of becoming a success basically overnight as the pandemic of 2020 was starting.

“I had actually prayed for Ryan’s work (he was an appraiser) to have a slow period so he could help me with search engine optimization (SEO) on the website,” Ashley said. And just prior to the pandemic, Ryan’s business slowed up enough for him to help her with what was, at the time, a very new business. The Gift Box Love concept was based, quite frankly, on Ashley’s love of putting together and giving gift boxes to friends. She especially liked including candles and hand-written notes.

This wasn’t Ashley’s first business venture, but it has become the family’s most successful business.

Eight years earlier, 2012, Ashley first stepped into the online business world when her youngest son was 3 months old.

She had a cousin who was selling stamped jewelry on Etsy, and Ashley picked her brain, because she wanted to make a little extra money. “My goal was to make enough to cover piano lessons, soccer, and things like that.”

Ashley did online research and came up with a plan of repackaging and selling colorful drinking straws, which weren’t available yet on Amazon or in stores. Under the name Fancy That Love, she’d buy 20,000 straws, repackage them in packs of 25, and list on Etsy. Straws were so low cost, she added, that if it bombed, she wasn’t out much.

“My original goal was to make $500 a month… I think we made that in like the first two days,” she said with her husband nodding in agreement. “I was like, ‘Holy cow, this (way of selling on Etsy) could be something.’”

“Her hidden talent,” Ryan said of his wife, “is finding trends and knowing how to make them work.”

They made a lot of money until the straw trend started to wane.

Her next idea for Fancy that Love was to sell temporary tattoos for bridal parties, a trend that was gaining huge popularity.  “We were doing so well that we thought, maybe we could both work together and do this. We had hired hand models, the whole works,” Ashley said.

But after only seven months, their photos and all that they were doing to promote sales on Etsy, was being copied by someone in China. “We were actually losing to our own product online, and it’s very hard to go after (someone in China),” Ashley said.

She was hooked on being in business, hooked on the online business model, but needed something more stable. She started researching and thinking about what that business might be, and it was while shopping for things to put in a gift box for a friend that the idea of selling gift boxes hit her.

“I bought a candle making kit from Hobby Lobby to make candles, and they didn’t suck,” she laughed. She began working on the other ingredients. In her mind, a gift box isn’t a gift box without a candle and matches, a hand-written note, a little plant, and maybe a sweet treat.

She started on Etsy with two basic gift boxes based on those items, the plant being a small succulent. The larger of the two boxes included the sweet treat – specialty caramels made in Minnesota. And the name of the business, Ashley admits, was strategically crafted for search engine optimization, while also including the word love, as her first business had.

Ryan was helping her with a few things just prior to the pandemic, and one of those things was to launch their first business ads on Facebook. “We went from selling 10-15 boxes a day to overnight having 400 boxes ordered,” Ashley recalled.

Then the pandemic hit; everything was shutting down except their business. Orders were flying in, and the Houcks took advantage of having their boys out of school, and teachers and friends who had spare time. They masked everyone up and were learning quickly how to get more orders out the door from a 300-square-foot building on their acreage northeast of Nevada. It was chaotic, but it was great!

The biggest challenge, Ashley and Ryan said, was finding the supplies they needed to keep their new business going at a time when it was hard to find many things. “We had to find a back-up for a back-up for a back-up,” Ashley said. Because of delivery interruptions, they sent Ryan’s dad to Minnesota to pick up their caramels and boxes.

By the end of April 2020, things were so busy that Ryan gave up his appraisal job, except for a few he’d agreed to do prior to that. “He was working 4 a.m. to midnight (doing both),” Ashley said.

Looking back, they both agree the decision for him to leave a stable, full-time job was nerve-wracking, and they’d have probably hesitated more if they weren’t so busy with their business. But with business growing quickly, it was a decision they needed to make, especially with a feature in Better Homes & Gardens magazine happening that same month.

“That (reaction to the feature in a national magazine) was beyond bonkers,” Ashley said. “We had to shut off our website for a couple nights, because we couldn’t keep up.” The print feature was followed with a national news television interview.

Talk about hitting the big time while going through a pandemic! It was unplanned brilliance. Everyone was trying to find ways to reach their loved ones and doing pretty much all their shopping online.

The Houcks rode the pandemic wave all the way to May of 2021 and say that it was after Mother’s Day 2021 when they noticed a slight dip in orders as people returned to in-store shopping. Still, they were seeing profits and business has continued to be good.

They’ve learned a lot, they say, about how to plan for and work through busier times like Christmas vs. slower times.

They’ve added to their line of gift boxes and now have around 20 options for people to choose from.

They’re working on their website and will, in the near future, have that site as the only place to order their product.

They’ve hired the best marketing people they can find, employing Pinterest, Facebook, and Google marketing specialists.

And a year ago, they moved into a building space – on N Avenue in Nevada (the former Chitty’s Garbage main office building) — that is much better space for their work flow.

They considered other communities for their headquarters. “A year ago, I would have said there’s not much difference, but now, we’re so grateful we chose Nevada, because of the support from the community and the downtown,” Ashley said. The couple wants to start jumping in and getting more active in the community. They recently joined Main Street Nevada, which they are excited about.

The Houcks, who met while they were students at Iowa State University, finish each other’s sentences at times and give off energetic, loving vibes as they talk about their business and their life together. They say working together is one of the things they love the most about how their lives have changed since 2020.

“I grew up in a farming family,” Ashley said, “and I always saw that my parents and grandparents were each other’s best friends and co-workers, and I thought that was so neat. And like that, with our business, our children can work alongside us.”

Ryan said as all of this “success” was happening for them, he and Ashley took the time to read a book about “what is success for you?”

“We stopped listening to what success is to everyone else,” he said. “We focused on what is the number of boxes we need to sell each day to have balance for our business, our home and our family. We’ve scaled back a bit and found our sweet spot.”

And one more thing the Houcks are immensely grateful for — the family and employees who have helped them make the business what it is today. “We have a really good team,” Ryan said. “They make this so easy.”


A few more fun things to know about the Houcks:

  • They’ve been married 19 years
  • Ryan is originally from Radcliffe, Iowa
  • Ashley (Huhn) is a 2000 Nevada High School graduate who majored in “housing and the near environment” at ISU. She said it’s no longer a major, and she never worked in that field.
  • Ryan graduated from ISU in 2003; Ashley in 2005
  • Ashley is always thinking about new business ideas, and her best ideas come to her in the shower.
  • The couple owns two AirBNBs in Ames.
  • The Houck family includes three sons: Tucker, Cy, and Bryce
  • The Houck family enjoys boating, and taking one-day and/or overnight trips to places in Iowa. They also love online karaoke!


A few more fun things to know about Gift Box Love:

  • The most popular box ordered contains a tumbler, a succulent, a candle and book of matches
  • The top three holidays for Gift Box Love are Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. Other big purchasing events include retirement gifts, teacher gifts, birthdays, and anniversaries.
  • Gift Box Love has seven full-time employees in addition to Ashley and Ryan.
  • Ryan’s mom has been a big candle pourer for the company, which makes its own candles and bath salts, and has begun working on personalized photo gifts.
  • During its first summer in business, Tucker Houck, then in fourth grade, made $1,000 by earning 10 cents a box for folding boxes, all while listening to Harry Potter audio books.
  • Gift Box Love’s biggest order was a 7,000-box order for a company for employee gifts. Prior to that order, their biggest was 350. The 7,000 order was a challenge that helped them learn to have systems in place for handling larger orders.
  • Ashley’s favorite thing about Gift Box Love is being part of someone’s story as they tell their loved ones that they love them. While hand-written messages take more time, it’s something Ashley is adamant about doing with their gift boxes. “That is a non-negotiable for me. I want that ink and pen to happen,” she said. They hire extra handwriting help at the busier times, like Christmas.

–Written by Marlys Barker, City of Nevada

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