Editor's note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2020 Best Industries report.
When Jon Bostock and Alex Reed left their executive roles at Big Ass Fans, they had one criterion for their next venture: The industry had to be boring. Having worked in the ceiling fan business, boring was familiar--and they knew it also offered an opportunity to inject some excitement into said industry.
"We said, if we're going to go do something, let's take a leap," Bostock says. "Let's go solve some pretty significant issues."
Today, the entrepreneurs are co-founders of Truman's, an e-commerce startup they launched in 2018 that's focused on reducing the amount of plastic in household cleaning products. The Louisville, Kentucky-based company sells nontoxic cleaner concentrates that can be mixed with tap water in reusable spray bottles.
Truman's is one of many companies trying to break our addiction to single-use plastics. As people become more aware of their consumption habits--and their impact on climate change--startups have been quick to capitalize. There's everything from reusable tote bag makers like Lotus Trolley Bags to green companies like TerraCycle, which is partnering with retailers through its Loop program to provide reusable containers for a variety of consumer packaged goods. Blueland, which makes a concentrate product similar to Truman's but in tablet form, launched last April.
The U.S. sustainable packaging industry grew to $52.9 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach $77.6 billion in 2027, according to Research and Markets. Fueling this trend are new regulations: Single-use plastic bags have been banned in California and New York, while Maine, Maryland, and a handful of large cities have banned styrofoam containers.
"We think more innovation in this space is ultimately a good thing," Reed says. "If we can collectively move the market in a more sustainable direction, we're achieving our goal."
Reinventing the spray bottle
Reed and Bostock's search for an industry to disrupt began in grocery store aisles in 2018. The co-founders noticed that their local store had more than 50 different cleaning products, most of which came in single-use containers. Sensing an opportunity for disruption, they started brainstorming potential solutions. Their research led them to look at sustainability-focused food corporations like Starbucks and Chipotle, where employees would mix jugs of concentrated cleaning solutions with an appropriate amount of water. "It would make no sense for them to ship a product that consists of 98 percent water and uses a lot of plastic," Bostock says. "It's a huge drain on the supply chain."
He and Reed knew making consumers buy jugs of concentrate wasn't realistic, and they didn't want to create potential friction points by making customers do any measuring or mixing. So they partnered with a cleaning company that makes concentrates for commercial spaces to create four formulations: kitchen, bathroom, glass, and floors. Then they designed reusable spray bottles and small concentrate-filled cartridges to fit into them--and only in a certain way, to reduce the chance of customer mistakes. Each cartridge is nontoxic and biodegradable, further reducing the impact on the environment.
Today, a Truman's starter kit, which comes with all four products and their respective spray bottles, costs $22 on the startup's website. Customers have the option to sign up for a subscription service at a discounted rate.
To coincide with its product launch, the startup posted short videos on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn showing how the products work. All got considerable traction, and the company's website received hits from more than 120 countries in the days following. While the company won't disclose revenue or sales numbers, it says it has tens of thousands of subscribers and one-time customers. In September, it closed a $5 million funding round led by Henkel, maker of cleaning brands Dial and Purex.
Not the traditional way
Bostock says that Truman's plans on rolling out new products in the next three to six months. It's also considering paths to brick-and-mortar retail, but only if the company can do it in an environmentally conscious way. "We don't want to have a product with a long supply chain where it sits in distribution centers and then sits on the retail shelf and there's no education for the customer in-store," Bostock says. "We're discussing options with retailers, but if it happens, it won't be the traditional way."
Rethinking entire supply chains is an approach environmentalists applaud when it comes to making consumer products more sustainable. "What may be more effective and meaningful to help fight ocean plastic pollution and our waste crisis is to not focus on merely swapping one material for another, but taking a deeper look at how and why we consume products," says Kelly Cramer, director of program management at GreenBlue, a nonprofit dedicated to helping organizations use materials more sustainably. "We hope more and more companies look to concentrates."
Meanwhile, the Truman's co-founders are riding the wave of environmental consciousness, while not positioning themselves specifically as a green company.
"If you build a great green product but only 5 percent of the market cares about it--the very eco-conscious people--then your overall impact is limited," Reed says. "So that's been our approach: We want to make a very positive impact on the environment, but appeal to people who aren't necessarily consciously trying to do that."