The challenge with perishable products

In March this year, I packaged about half the hotel pilot order for our all natural shampoo and conditioner products. The conditioner was a brand new product that met the pilot’s needs, but we didn’t have time to work out a preservation system in it before I had to order the printed tins with the ingredients list. Given that all of the products were scheduled to be used within the next month, that didn’t seem like a big issue at the time. Yet, there’s the challenge with perishable products.

When the pandemic hit, the pilot was put on hold. Fast forward to today, and I’ve been living with the stink of something crossed between lemon toilet bowl cleaner and a dirty cat litter box. Sitting in the corner of my office were those boxes of old conditioner.

Knowing the shelf life risk, I realised by month five that I would have to redo the entire pilot order if it ever got the green light again (which it did). Still, I couldn’t bear to throw these unused tins away which is why they were still there stinking up my office.

So this week, I’ve taken hours of my time to open and wash each of the 1000+ tins so that I can take the aluminium packaging to be recycled. Unfortunately, I can’t get the smell out of them, and therefore can’t reuse them – loss of money and lots of time.

Empty used tins to be taken to the recycler
Empty used tins to be taken to the recycler

Such is the challenge with perishable products. At least our current version of the conditioner now has a preservative in the recipe to last a bit longer.

Expanding the Harvestcare line

There’s a natural sunscreen brand that I know about in Australia. Despite being around for a few years now, they still only have one product. I find this unusual as I’m always asked by customers about expanding the Harvestcare line, and I find it hard to say no. That is until I made up some clear rules to help decide.

As an example, a friend asked me this weekend about adding an all natural cologne/perfume line especially since the industry mark-ups were known to be high. Most people do not realise that Body Shop actually started this way in the UK with their first store. However, I said no.

Today I made some candles from essential oil and beeswax as a Christmas gift for a friend. Someone asked if I plan to sell these on Harvestcare too. I said no.

Making candles
Making some all natural candles as a gift for a friend

Other friends have asked me to make household cleaning products like furniture polish and floor cleaner. While I admit that I still sell the alcohol spray that I made in response to Covid before I developed the criteria, my answer is no for future cleaning products. And I’ll only sell the alcohol spray until I run out of the very expensive ingredients I bought months ago.

Criteria for Expanding the Harvestcare line

So, what’s my criteria for expanding? It goes back to the mission of reducing plastic waste. The reality is that most cleaning products come in recyclable containers. Furthermore, candles are not found in plastic since the packaging could melt. And as for scents, most of the times they come in glass bottles.

No, I think that if I were to expand the line in any direction I need to move towards cosmetics. This hard-to-change industry has only recently started to really offer “no animal testing” offerings. The mark-ups are also known the be high with branding built even more on the packaging as what’s inside. Right now, I’m not aware of any brand that has recyclable packaging.

So here lies both an opportunity and a challenge. If I do make such products, where will I sell them as my current stockists will be unlikely carriers? This is probably where I need to have the retail space and body bar on the factory before I can really make this work. Still, by have our mission up front, at least I know where to expand the line next despite all the other requests.

De-stress through options

Most people will agree that 2020 has been a stressful year. For us locally in Canberra, not only have we dealt with the pandemic, but with bushfires and a damaging hail storm that still has roofs under repair. Still, if there are any lessons I’ve learned, it’s the ability to de-stress through options. What do I mean?

Focus is overrated

Almost every business guru will tell you to become focussed and good at one thing if you want to be successful. For me as an entrepreneur, I found that practice to be very stressful. For about 18 months, I put all my effort into The Refoundry to not only build a business, but to also create an income for myself. While I learned a lot, my savings account took a serious toll.

Option of three things to eat
We all love options!

Then, I started doing consulting work again – this time independently. And I can honestly say that it was the best thing I ever did. No longer was I putting all my hopes into the next recycled plastics idea or hotel deal for Harvestcare. Suddenly, I could breathe again because the personal financial stress was no longer there even if I was working way more hours.

Consulting also gave me my confidence back. I remembered that I’m actually good at a lot of things. It’s just the size of my current business has me in my weak spots. This is something that I will get through as time evolves, and I can bring on more people to help.

Options reduce risks

Finally, dividing my attention reduces my risks. I don’t have to beg for investor money right now. If I can bootstrap my business, I will. When it gets to the appropriate size where I can no longer grow it without outside capital, I’ll consider investors then. For I didn’t start a business to instantly have a boss.

Keeping this financial independence will also allow me to build the company more slowly, but with less risk. A products-based business like The Refoundry was never going to be an Australian Silicon Valley media story. That’s just the way products business are because they are cash flow heavy until you can create sufficient scale. So, now with income coming from consulting work, I am very relieved that I won’t have to depend on a pay check from the business.

My lesson learned therefore is a singular focus for me on anything is too stressful. Whether it’s a singular client, a singular investor or a singular source of income – why put all my eggs in one basket? I personally de-stress through options, and I don’t see the need to focus if options reduce both my risks and stress despite a bigger workload.

The Art of Rest

It occurred to me the other day that I had not gone more than 30 minutes outside my home city of Canberra, Australia since I went to New Zealand last Christmas in 2019. As someone who usually travels overseas 2-3 times a year minimum with countless domestic trips, this is truly been a weird year. But now as we get to the end of 2020, I realise I need to learn the Art of Rest.

Why Art and not the Science of Rest? Because it were just science, it would be easier. I would get my 7-8 hours of sleep each night. I would work less than 45 hours a week. I would get in 30 minutes of exercise every day. If I left it up to science, my life should be somewhat predictable. However, as an entrepreneur, it just doesn’t work that way.

Rest as an Entrepreneur?

Instead, I have to work when the opportunity presents itself. I don’t know if or when it will land. I don’t know if I’ll have two consulting projects accepted at the same time when I get a large order for Harvestcare. I don’t know if my hotel client will give us a contract that starts a chain of massive operational activities.

Over the weekend, I reviewed more than 700 pages of enterprise architecture standards and supplemental information so that I could submit two IT consulting gig proposals on Monday. Was it the way I wanted to spend the weekend? Of course not! Who would? Still, I know that effort would put me in a better position to hit the ground running if they accept my proposals (and of course a lot of much needed cash).

stack of papers
Some of the hundreds of pages of enterprise frameworks and standards I reviewed over the weekend.

Of course, this hasn’t been my only working weekend this year. I’d say 80% have been. I also did three all-nighters this year to meet schedule deadlines – something I haven’t done since my old consulting days, but predicable since I’m once again doing consulting work as a side hustle.

Art of Rest

Since I turned in those proposals two days ago, I realise now that I probably won’t have anymore consulting work until the new year. And it feels…strange. Suddenly, my days are not filled with back to back to-dos and meetings. Instead, I can actually work on the business full-time at my own pace.

With this influx of free time, I’m finding that I’m actually less productive in all areas of my work and life. Instead of working on important business tasks, I’m wasting time sleeping and browsing the internet. It makes me feel incredibly guilty. But then, I had a thought…

Maybe, I need to give myself a break. Maybe I actually need all this sleep and mindless activities to recharge for the next surge of work. Just maybe, I need to learn the Art of Rest.

Harvestcare market stall

Lessons Learned about Markets

So far, I’ve done two small physical markets for Harvestcare: one indoor and another outdoors. Plus, I’ve done the virtual Handmade Markets for all four of their pre-Christmas events. Already, I have a few Lessons Learned about Markets from these experiences even though the big physical ones are still closed due to the pandemic.

Lessons Learned:

  • Know your market demographics – Suburban markets haven’t been that great for me though I’ve certainly done better with my products than other stalls. Everyone says that my products will sell with a younger, more environmentally conscious consumer at the physical Handmade Markets. So, hopefully they’ll be back on next year.
  • People buy what they can test – my biggest seller at the Markets has been the orange hand balm as I have it out with sampling sticks. It smells amazing, and so it’s hard for people to ignore it once they try it. My bottled products on the other hand have barely sold, and I have way too much stock right now as a result.
  • November is still too early for Christmas Markets – I didn’t sell but a few gift packs in all these markets. Instead, the attendees are still buying products for themselves.
  • Make sure to have products at different price points – I had products from $8 to $50 for sale at these markets. The biggest sellers were around the $20 mark.
  • Use the Markets for market research – I had plenty of feedback during the markets including that I should charge more for my products because they look amazing, and I needed a normal lotion. Yes, still working on that one!
  • Consider the Markets as a branding exercise for a new business – I knew that I might not recover the cost of the registration fees when I signed up. I had to take that risk though and considered it as a branding exercise. For the more people that see my logo, the more likely they’ll take a chance on it when they see it at a stockists’ store.

What to do with leftover stock now?

Since I have so much leftover stock from the Markets – especially in bottled forms, I need to ramp up my sales activities to stockists or online to see if I can move them. The challenge though is that I have a different pump on the bottles than what was sold to retailers previously because of the 3-month stock shortage. Furthermore, I usually mail bottles with the pump separately because of leakage. So, I’d have to throw away a lot of used pumps if I change the selling model now. I’m not sure that I have much of a choice though.

Oh well. I’ll chock it up to lessons learned about Markets. At least I had the chance to practice before the big ones reopen – hopefully next year.

Harvestcare hotel tins

Second Single-use Hotel Pilot

Conversations with our hotel client have been really positive in the last few weeks. Right now, we’re looking at doing another single-use hotel pilot with one of their locations for a 12-month contract.

This will be a part of the hotel’s much bigger sustainable vision. And the good news is they should know if they’ll deploy this to all their properties soon after it starts.

The biggest challenge for us now is finding the cash to pre-pay for a year’s worth of packaging from overseas. The minimum quantities that we need to get to a reasonable price point is 20,000 units of each design. That’s 80,000 units of sitting inventory.

At least by doing just one hotel and not all of them at the beginning allows my soap maker and I to figure out how to scale productions and packaging with a smaller order. It’s obviously a bigger risk to an investor or bank if I ask for $500,000 for machines and packaging rather than just $50,000. So, this is very doable.

If we do get the larger contract, my plans right now are to spin-off Harvestcare as a new company and bring my soap maker on as a business partner to run our operations. This is exactly the incubator model I had in mind when I started The Refoundry. So, it would be great to get this first fruitful idea out there fully.

In the meantime, there’s a lot to do for this single-use hotel pilot including a decision about whether or not the hotel uses our State Circle brand or our consumer Harvestcare brand. If they choose the Harvestcare branding, it would be like free marketing for our consumer-size products. So, I really hope they choose that one as we’ll definitely sell more overall.

3rd Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day

Sunday was the third time that I organised Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day. I started this event in 2018 with a lot of help from regular users of the lake in our hometown of Canberra, Australia. However, not everyone knows why I started it.

Rubbish from Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day

That year, I left my job as CEO at RSPCA ACT. And rather than moving right into another job, I decided to take some time off and travel for a while. It turned into a four month sabbatical that took me around the world from Honolulu to S. America to the US and Finland and then Singapore before heading back to Australia for a few domestic trips.

All along the way, I always found ways to paddle – kayaks, white water rafts, stand ups, surfskis – basically anything that could give me a local experience on the water and a little exercise. And just about everywhere I went, I saw rubbish.

It was during this trip that National Geographic published the iconic front cover below and talked about the issues of plastic in the ocean. I bought the issue at one of the airports. Then, I saw it everywhere first hand in just about every body of water. Needless to say, the article hit me hard.

Plastic Iceberg cover

When I finally returned to Canberra, I had such a sense of duty to do something about this problem. So, after some research I decided that cleaning up Lake Burley Griffin made the most sense as I paddled in it every week. What I had started as an one-off clean and an educational message has now just completed our third year over the weekend.

Will Clean-up Lake Burley Griffin Day have a fourth year? I hope so. I just need a lot more support with the event planning side of it as the mission is still important, but I’m so time poor these days. So, we’ll have to see.

One day, I hope that we don’t need to do clean-ups. In the meantime, I want to send a shout out to everyone who has made this event a reality each year. After all, it truly does take a community to clean-up a lake as big as Lake Burley Griffin.

Hotel Pilot Progress

Today I met with the General Manager to discuss the hotel pilot progress for single-use toiletries, and where we should go from here. I was extremely worried after our “champion” within the business resigned recently, and therefore had no expectations especially when there’s still the uncertainty of COVID.

The only thing I knew for sure was that customers seemed to like the product based on feedback so far, and that my one Linkedin post about this pilot was getting a lot of traction.

Sample of customer feedback  card
Sample of customer feedback so far

So, I was pleasantly surprised when their GM still showed genuine interest in considering our products further.

Of course, they still need to do a detailed business analysis before making this decision as I know that we will cost a lot more than their current suppliers. However, they also would be the very first hotel in all of Australia (and probably beyond) to make this determined move to get away from single use plastic in this way.

How awesome would that be to start such a chain reacton in the industry!

In the meantime, I was really honest with him about what I need to do to make this happen too, and it all starts now with knocking on a bunch of doors to find the capital to make this a reality just in case they actually say yes.

There is obviously a lot of more work to do now. Still… here’s to the hotel pilot progress and my one idea that might actually achieve our goal of reducing plastic waste in a big way!

Recycled plastic workshop space

While I only had it for two months, I’ve decided to close down my recycled plastic workshop space for The Refoundry until I have more time to make these products.

The Refoundry Workshop 1,0
The Refoundry Workshop 1.0

To be honest, I suppose it’s more than time that I’m struggling with. It’s also the frustration with all the technical issues on the tiny projects. I need more time to learn skills like in woodworking or to find the right person to bring onto my team who already has them.

And I’m not in a position to do the larger products until I can find the capital for the machinery.

So, rather than taking up valuable space in my friends’ warehouse, over the weekend I moved the bigger equipment into storage. In the meantime, I can still make some things from home like I did before.

To be clear, closing this recycled plastic workshop space does not indicate that I’m done with this project line. I’m just taking a breather to reevaluate and learn more.

Hotel Pilot Update

Our hotel pilot has been running for about two weeks now, and feedback has been incredibly positive. So positive in fact that I’ve been pleasantly surprised, and I think the hotel has been too. Unfortunately, not everything is good news.

Our State Circle hotel amenities

This week, I’ve also learned that our “champion” within the company that helped us get this pilot off the ground has resigned. Given the uncertainty in this COVID world, I really have no idea where that will leave us after the pilot is completed.

I have a meeting with her boss set for next week. So, fingers crossed that all is not lost with her leaving.

I’ve actually thought about what I might do if we can’t secure a long-term contract with them right now, and my instincts say to keep going with the this product line regardless. It may just be that I need to wait out this pandemic.