After she gave birth to her son, Sarah Paiji Yoo became inspired to cut out single-use plastics from her life. Before long, Paiji Yoo, who had worked for a startup studio that helped launch direct-to-consumer brands, broadened her environmental goals and decided to create a business around them. She set out to revamp household cleaning products, formulating concentrates in tablet or powder form that could be mixed with water in reusable bottles. She partnered with entrepreneur and supply-chain expert John Mascari to co-found Blueland, a New York City-based startup that would sell little cleaning supply tablets along with the bottles. First, though, they needed sustainable packaging for the dry tablets--a problem that almost devastated her company. --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin
It just didn't make sense to me that you need to go out and buy a whole new plastic bottle when you run out of multipurpose spray cleaner. And then, as a consumer, you also pay for packing and shipping water. So we decided to launch a set of cleaning sprays with reusable, refillable, high-quality, durable bottles that you truly can use over and over again forever. When you run out, you can simply fill our bottle back up with tap water and drop in one of our tablets, at which point it starts to effervesce. At the end of a few minutes, you have a full bottle of solution.
When we came up with the idea, we naively didn't realize how difficult a journey it was going to be. It took over six months to develop the dry tablet. In parallel, we worked on the bottle and packaging, but we couldn't test the long-term life of the tablet, or the packaging fidelity, until it was all ready.
We scoured the United States for the right packaging for the tablets. We wanted it to be made in the United States, with paper instead of plastic. Finally, we found one: a paper with a thin corn-based plastic-substitute lining that helps seal it.
We had reason to be hopeful: The material had passed our test with other comparable tablets. We put it into the stability chamber to replicate two years of wear and tear. It is a process where you expose the package to extreme heat and humidity. At the end, you take the product out and test it for efficacy. For that, you send it to a lab--but right away we could see the deterioration. There can be a color change, or there can be a smell change. We were really shocked to learn that it failed at the end of a month.
And so, at that point, it threw our whole concept and mission into question. We had a couple of scary weeks where we were just thinking wow, what was the point of our entire concept if we're going to have to package these products in single-use plastic? It was a huge bummer.
Also, we'd already raised money. We were fortunate to have raised about $3 million for a large seed round. But when that wrapper failed and we didn't have any backup options, we were definitely thinking, "Oh, my God, do we give it back? What do we do?"
The manufacturer we were going to work with suggested we start to look abroad for other packaging options. It wasn't something I'd wanted to do, but I did know that sustainability is more of a focus for some European manufacturers, so I opened up to it. He gave me names of a few people. It became a game of telephone. "Do you know someone?" "Do you know someone?"
The packaging we finally settled on is still paper-based, and I'm super excited that it's FSC-certified. That means even the trees that it comes from have all been sustainably maintained. Again, there is a plastic-substitute layer to it that provides a layer of protection. There's also a very thin aluminum layer. So thin that it's still compostable and biodegradable--but key to the packaging being effective in protecting our tablets.
The whole process was really hard--and we learned that we'd waited too long to run the test. Sure, it was an expensive test, but in the end the time we lost was more expensive.
It was a good lesson, in retrospect, for product development going forward. Since it happened, that's something we're always trying to highlight: "What are the riskiest assumptions we're making, and how do we try to address those things earlier?"
Another is: always focusing and figuring out what are the one or two most critical things we need to be doing. I think it's easy to want to do so much all at once, especially when you're an early-stage startup and there just seems to be so much opportunity--all of which seems to be additive. What's more important is not losing sight of the fact you're still a small team and you're still very limited in terms of time, resources, and certainly money.
Our plans going forward are to launch into new categories quarterly. So it will be important to make sure we can prioritize a handful of things that can have a big effect on the company.