10k Hours

Malcolm Gladwell made the 10k Hours Rule famous in his book Outliers. The Rule essentially says that it takes about 10k Hours of deliberate practice to obtain world class expertise. Personally, I find it frustrating in business.

I’ve accepted this Rule in sports (more than 10 years as a paddler) and even learning a language (currently in my 3rd year of Spanish classes). However, for some reason I feel like I should be going faster and better with my business – especially with the recycled plastic products.

Maybe it’s because I already have so much business experience, but the reality is that I only have about a year in the recycled plastics industry. I get incredibly frustrated that I’m not progressing with my ideas and experiments the way I want to do so. And I admit that I beat myself up for so many mistakes and failed projects.

Bucket of recycled plastic mistakes and shavings
Bucket of recycled plastic mistakes and shavings!

I have plenty of mentors and YouTube videos, but the latest set-backs have convinced that me that I need a “teacher.” Given the lack of such teachers in Canberra, I’ve decided to learn how to do more things with wood. Therefore, I joined the local Woodworking Guild. Just maybe by learning from masters in this area, I can translate that to my plastic experiments.

In the meantime, I’ll just have to remind myself that it will take years to achieve 10k hours to master these new skills. For my ambitions and networks alone will not allow me to move any faster on the learning curve.

More mistakes

How many mistakes can I possibly make on the same products? Let me count the ways.

As this is the first product that I have ever made from scratch myself to resell (the others were designed by a contractor), I don’t think I could possibly stuffed up in more ways.

Some of the lessons this week:

1) If I’m going to use unrefined (raw) ingredients, I have to be able to expect variations.

If you can see the whiter bits in this block of unrefined shea butter below, you’ll know that I had to change my recipe to accommodate it. This also means I didn’t know that I had to adjust for this until AFTER I made a batch because it takes a while for the product to settle.

Long story short, more money, lost time, and lost ingredients, but this unrefined version is still better for you.

Unrefined shea butter
Unrefined shea butter

2) Not all boxes of the same size, are actually the same.

Below shows to bamboo boxes side by side. I bought them from two different retailers to act as display boxes for my new hand balm products. However, you can see the box on the left can easily hold six tins, while the other one can only hold five because of how they are made.

Two boxes of the same size cannot hold the same number of tins
Two boxes of the same size cannot hold the same number of tins

3) Yellow orange to you is not yellow orange to me

I have been struggling with getting the colour right for our peach flavoured lip gloss as it looks too much like the watermelon colour that I’m using. I hope that the third order is the charm as I reckon that their formulator must be coloured blind as they all look almost the same.

Can you see the difference below? I struggle to do so.

two lip gloss containers that are supposed to be different colours but are not.
Which is peach? Which is watermelon?

4) More mistakes with labels

The labels have finally come in, but the backs of the lip gloss are hard to read. This is my fault as I was in a hurry to redo them, and I squeezed the lines to make it fit with a 6 pt font when I had to reduce the label size to fit the smaller sized tins.

Unfortunately, it’s just going to have to be good enough. Luckily I only ordered 100 units, and I’m hoping that the new blank labels and laser printer will allow me to become less dependent on suppliers for these in the future.

New product labels are hard to read

Despite all of these issues, I managed to get my first order to a retail customer on Monday. It wasn’t without other mistakes, but it was pretty good for my first go as a product maker.

If I make it too hard for business partners

I’m starting to get feedback on the product designs from the manufacturers. Even though I told them that it was only meant to convey an idea of what I had in mind, I think they are evaluating the designs as already fit for manufacturing because I sent them CAD files.

I’ve asked for a phone call with one of them in the morning. I have a feeling that I’ll need to jump on a plane and spend a day with each of them to get the information I need.

I would have done this already, but I didn’t see how I could get competitive quotes this way. I still can’t, but maybe by meeting their teams and seeing their factories I can choose a partner and go on from there. Right now, I risk losing their interest in my business if I frustrate them too much.

Feeling naive…

What happens if there is a raw material shortage?

I learned an interesting fact yesterday when I was speaking to a potential manufacturer of my plastic products. We were talking about the preferred material.

I told him how the mission of the company required the main ingredient to be recycled plastic, and that I was thinking HDPE would be the right type for Product #3. Because I need that particular product in a white colour, he said that there was only limited supplies of that kind of recycled plastic – the kind that comes from milk bottles.

The funny thing is that used milk bottles are everywhere. The only reason why there might be a local shortage of recycled plastic pellets used in the manufacturing process is because there hasn’t been enough of a demand for those companies to make it. Therefore, tonnes of milk bottles are landing in the landfills every year instead of being recycled.

This is precisely the problem that I wanted to tackle when I started this company – to create a demand for recycled plastic here in Australia. Wouldn’t it be great if my products were so popular that they had to recycle more used milk bottles to meet my needs?

Guess What Mom? I Started Another Business!

I finally told my parents last night that I started another business. I wasn’t trying to keep this news from them. In fact, I was surprised in our conversation when I realised that they didn’t know.

Living across the world from them means that I only see my family twice a year if I’m lucky. And, lately, our joint attention and conversations have been paid to my new nephew.

My parents, particularly my father, have always been supportive of my entrepreneurial spirit. However, their own livelihood is dependent on me now. So, I can’t afford to go broke at this stage in my life.

After that video call, I felt compelled to look at job ads again. Am I being stubborn and selfish by not just taking a job? Am I actually putting my new business at more risk by working on it full-time now rather than starting it as a side-hustle?

Most people would say yes. However, when I look at all the jobs being advertised, I can only picture a life of uninteresting, frustrating work and long days.  Yes, I get paid well when I do work for others.  However, the kinds of roles I usually have are all-consuming for me.  That’s one reason why I have rarely been able to job search while still employed – I just can’t focus on both activities at the same time.

If I took a job now, I feel like I would be taking the easy route and basically give up on this dream –  accepting a life of “good enough.”  I wouldn’t have the time, energy or headspace to start a business like this if I did go back to work for others. 

No! Despite the risk, right now I just have to push ahead and know that I will know the answers when I get to the next major decision points. I can think about all the things that could go wrong. BUT…

What if I am right?

When Start-up Costs are High

I realise now why so few people go into manufacturing products – the start-up costs are huge! Service-based and information-based businesses can largely be started with little capital. Even my previous tea company only needed about $5k to get started before I had a batch of products to sell.

My ambitions to do something with recycled plastic this time is far more expensive than any business I’ve ever tried. Sure, I can buy something from China and private label it for minimum costs, but I wouldn’t be fulfilling the purpose of the social enterprise (to reduce plastics going to landfills and waterways by making great products out of Australian recycled plastic).

How much am I talking about? Well, the design and mould costs alone for my simplest product is estimated to cost $30k. This is before I even have one product to sell.

While 3-D printing has definitely revolutionised the cost of prototypes, the process itself is not ideal for mass production or even performance testing of products that must have some level of strength or rigour.

Therefore, in order to make more robust and mass produced items, moulds still have to be made in a material that is significantly stronger and can withstand greater heat than the product material itself i.e. plastic.

Having these costs upfront is useful as I can more accurately assess risks and cashflow. At the same time, I can’t afford to fund all these moulds myself with only the savings I put aside after selling my investment property.

I always think that roadblocks are God’s way of telling me to pivot or shift directions.

I’m going to have to rethink my funding model to make it happen. Maybe, I go ahead and pay for the full design and product prototypes and see if I can somehow pre-sale or crowdsource cash to pay for the moulds. I may also be able to afford one mould if I can get a local government grant in August to start this project. Having the prototypes ready will be useful to convince people that the idea is worthy.

Any advice from my readers?

-Tammy

Found My Tribe

A few months ago, I spoke to a friend about my desire to do something in the circular economy. That is – turning waste like single-use plastic into something of value.

I’m passionate about keeping plastics from going to landfill and waterways, and I thought there was a business opportunity. However, most of my research at that point had been done via internet searches, books and conferences.

“How do I move forward?” I asked her looking for advice.

“We need to find your tribe,” she said.

She knew about an environmental idea hackathon where they needed mentors. She suggested that I volunteer. So, I did.

The hackathon itself wasn’t that useful for me though I do hope I provided some business value to the teams. They planned to announce the winners the following night at the organiser’s monthly networking event.

Even though my job was done the day before, I came along to the presentation. There, I ran into some of my old IT contacts and met other really interesting entrepreneurs that were excited about their work. I knew instantly that I wanted to spend more time with these people.

Last night, this memory came back to me as I attended the monthly networking event for this group again. We had just listened to a dozen or so entrepreneurs pitch their ideas and needs. These people were interesting. They were excited about their work and ideas. They were optimistic and moving forward. These were the people that wanted to change the world – just like me.

I’ve found my tribe!

Fast Eats Big for Breakfast

I was recently reading the Thankyou social enterprise story in a book called “Chapter 1.” One of the quotes that was repeated over and over again was the ability for a young, agile company to beat larger competitors with their speed i.e. “Fast Eats Big for Breakfast.”

Don’t get me wrong as my business isn’t even eating burnt toast yet. Still, when I look back to our start so far, I can see that we’re actually moving really fast now that I’m fully committed.

The first time I spoke to a potential investor about my idea was in a casual conversation was just two months ago – 3 April 2019 to be exact.

I applied for an ABN about three weeks later (23 April). Then, a fortnight after that I received some market research feedback that loudly confirmed the need for my products (6 May).

Late Monday, I received the CAD drawings from my designer (an uni student). And today, I just submitted them to one of the two Australian manufacturers that I am considering. I’m just waiting for the NDA to be signed before I send them to the second company.

I also confirmed today with Social Traders that my business model would qualify for certification under their process as a for-profit, social enterprise.

When I saw a friend tonight at a networking event, and I gave her an update she remarked about how much I have done since the last time I saw her. The reality is that I feel like this product development process is taking forever, and I’m always waiting for something to be done by someone else.

Looking back at my journal entries, I realise now that perhaps I’m being a little too hard on myself and others. Still, if fast beats big for breakfast… I don’t see a good reason to slow down now!

Personal Life vs Professional Life

I think one of the most obvious differences between most jobs and being an entrepreneur is the blending of personal and professional life.  It’s not always easy to tell where a work day starts or ends when you own your own business.

In this way, I suppose that it’s similar to the job requirements of the CEO role I had at my last job.  However, since I work primarily from home at the moment, the roles are greyer than ever for me.

From a useful perspective, I noticed almost immediately when my 17 year old cat started showing signs of a health problem yesterday afternoon. It prompted me to take her to the vet right away. The vet knew me from my previous job, and before I knew it we were talking about my new business as the first product line deals with animals – blending the lines again.

Thankfully my cat is feeling better now after the vet visit.  I lost a good part of the afternoon worrying about her, but was able to make up for the lost time by working into the late night.  To be truthful, that too isn’t much different than my last job.

Maybe a work/life balance really is a myth.  It’s just called life.

Learning, always learning

Most people know that starting a business is risky. You have to move fast because cash-flow is king. Therefore, everyday that I have to wait on something is another day that revenue isn’t coming in.

Right now, I still have a bottleneck with product designs.  Unfortunately, a large part of this delay has been to my own ignorance and lack of talents.

Back in my old career in IT, if you wanted new software or even a website developed, you provided the designers with a Word document that outlined the business requirements, functional requirements, and what technical specifications you knew.

For my product designs, I first sent a 4-page word document on 8 May to a Brisbane prototype design company I had been talking to earlier.   They got back to me a few days later, and we discussed it over the phone.

Much to my dismay, the owner of the company didn’t appear to understand it and said it would take upwards of $10k just to design it because of all of the research involved.  I understood at that moment that I must not have communicated very well because I had already done a huge amount of the research.  What to do?

I stood back and finally realised that product designers generally deal with pictures, not words.  So, the designer couldn’t understand the complex requirements I sent him because it was different than what he was used to in his business.  This is a bit of a problem when I can’t draw.

I realised then that I needed more help and begged friend to get involved who was way more mechanically oriented than I was.  After discussing my ideas, he talked about channel connectors and earth-grounded magnets which were more likely to be the terms that a product designer would understand. He even sketched out a few of the more technical components.

The next day, I was planning to somehow redraw these ideas into a more structured format for my Brisbane designer, and was procrastinating on what seemed like a mammoth task.  Fortunately for me, I randomly told another friend in passing about the challenges with designing a new product from scratch, and he recommended an university student that had done some work for him.

A week later, and we are almost done with converting my easiest product idea into CAD. It still took longer than I had anticipated to get this simpler design done, but at least we’re almost there.

Now, I can only hope that the Brisbane company is happy to work in this manner to develop the prototype as they normally make at least part of their income through the design process itself. Fingers crossed. Otherwise I have to find another company which will take more time.