Pity party

Owning a start-up is unpredictable in the best of times. Now the Covid 9 pandemic has really thrown every one into pure craziness. A few businesses are thriving as people are panic buying and others are filling the luxury of time for people. As for my business, we’re a bit stuck at the moment, and I admit that I’m having a pity party today.

I was notified last Wednesday that the Tile Back team won the Trade Waste Hackathon. Congratulations to them on a great idea to take the left over new tiles from construction projects and turn them into gravel. The ACT Government may still be interested in my idea, but I’m not holding my breath as they’re trying to get us all through this crisis.

The trial on my cape made from recycled polyester went really well with my first hair salon. There were even additional benefits I didn’t even think about before like the fact that it kept the customer dry, and therefore the stylist didn’t have to wash so many capes.

I’ll be trialing it at a different salon later this week. The real challenge is whether or not I should invest in producing the product as most businesses have to tighten their belts to stay alive.

Now this morning, I found out that my hotel pilot will be delayed. There were no surprises really given the impact to the travel industry in the last month or so, but it’s still hard to hear. This is especially true when I just spent most the weekend preparing the order, and I have no idea when this opportunity will be available again. People are losing their jobs everywhere as businesses shut down.

Preparing first hair and body care orders.
Preparing first orders

I know that I’m so blessed to have accumulated a solid savings account that has allowed me to go for this long without a paycheck. However, now I have a room full of inventory that is stuck, and no income for the foreseeable future.

Truthfully, I’m tired and having a bit of a pity party now. I just can’t seem to get a real break no matter how hard I work to get this business off the ground.

Yes, I’ll admit that I just shed some tears, but to be fair to myself, I should feel sad and frustrated right now. Tomorrow, I will pick myself up and look again for more opportunities. Today, I’ll be sad a little bit longer as I mourn what could have been.

Business soft plastics recycling

I’m pitching tonight for a business soft plastics recycling program in Canberra. This is for the CIT Trade Waste Hackathon that’s been going for a few weeks.

I was originally part of a random team that was looking at solutions for excess new tiles from kitchen and bathroom installations. However, I realised that I would be of more value if I proposed something in my own area of interest – plastic waste! Fortunately, the organisers agree to let me pursue that project on my own.

So, I’ve chatted with two manufacturers that I know that make these types of things from recycled soft plastic, and will be pitching an idea to create a soft plastic stewardship program where the plastic is turned into bollards that the ACT Government buys back.

Soft plastic to bollards

I feel like the business case is pretty solid, but whether or not the ACT Government is serious about such changes and is willing to accept a buy-back scheme, I have no idea. So, for the moment I suggested a pilot with 1 tonne worth of plastic which will cost them about $5k.

We’ll see how things go tonight! Fingers crossed. With any luck, we could start the pilot pretty quickly for a business soft plastics recycling program in Canberra.

Coronavirus impacts

The coronavirus impacts have been in the headlines for a while, but now the stock market and currency exchange is starting to reflect the true cost to businesses. Unfortunately, my start-up is not immune either.

It’s taken three weeks to get a quote from an Australian freight forwarder to allow me to ship the packaging material that I need for the hotel pilot. They told me that they were inundated with requests from government for supplies like face masks that had to take priority.

packaging material
Our packaging material

Furthermore, since there are less flights in operation, more supplies are being set via ships. So, space is limited. I’m really running tight on my deadline.

The falling Australian dollar is also killing me as all Chinese prices are quoted in US dollars.

Fortunately, I did find a supply of the exact tins I needed already in Australia, but for about twice the price. I went ahead and bought as many as they would allow me to make sure that we can hit our order deadlines. Whew!

It will be really tight to see if we have the pre-printed tins in time, but at this stage, I will pay whatever price necessary to make sure that we meet our promises to our very first hotel customer despite the impacts to my bottom line.

How the coronavirus impacts my travel industry customers and future contracts will have to be considered in about a month’s time. Right now, I just have to get through the pilot.

First Harvestcare order

Yesterday, I just received my first official order for my big bottle, all natural hair and body care line called Harvestcare. It’s from my mates over at Local Press.

While they had expressed interest before, they didn’t actually put in an order, and I didn’t press for it since the hotel line has great priority at the moment. Nevertheless, it’s not too hard to sell these products too when I already have the base ingredients and only have to change the packaging.

The big challenge right now is with the cost of both the conditioner and lotion which is costing me twice the price of the other products. Furthermore, because there’s a massive bottleneck in the import process because of the coronavirus, I’m having to purchase packaging from wholesalers in Australia rather than direct from the manufacturer in China – i.e. twice the cost too!

So, while I won’t make much money (if any) on these first few orders of both Harvestcare and my hotel line, it’s still progress. And for that I am extremely grateful.

xero versus myob

Pain of choosing an accounting software

I’ve been managing all of my expenses in a spreadsheet up to this point. Now that it’s time to upgrade to a proper tracking system, I never anticipated the pain of choosing an accounting software. I just thought that I would automatically choose Xero because it was taunted as an easy cloud based software. I’d say false advertising.

Between my two business degrees, I’ve taken six accounting classes. As such, I’d say that I’m way above average when it comes to understanding accounting and financial statements. I’ve even been a Treasurer for two not-for-profits. Nevertheless, I didn’t find Xero to be intuitive at all.

In fact, it took me most of the morning to really understand that I would not be able to track my Cost of Goods Sold properly in their system because it can only manage inventory that is bought to resale. Therefore, it lacks the functionality to track direct costs if you are a maker like me i.e. how much does it cost to make one product?

Xero doesn’t have the built in capability. Instead, you have to consider adding an app which may be significantly more expensive than Xero itself, and even then I’m not completely convinced how easy that integration is between the two.

So, I’ve also signed-up to trial MYOB as my accounting software too. I have heartburn about this because we used MYOB at my last job, and customer service was painful. The software was also built as a server based solution rather than cloud, and so it limits my ability to review my financial statements on my multi-devices.

I did a quick search of other software options like Netsuite, but they are way outside of my budget.

The good thing about MYOB is that it does already have a proper inventory management functionality available for makers like me. To really understand it though, I need to spend more time on it as I had a Finance Manager keeping everything on track before, and I only had to review the reports.

If I can afford it, I’d prefer to find an accountant that can quickly get me set up and transfer all of my spreadsheet data into the system. Then, I only have to keep it up to date rather than spending so many hours just trying to figure out how to do this.

Ugh! The pain of choosing an accounting software when I really don’t have time! Still, I’m glad that I waited this long before choosing because I’d likely be stuck on Xero if I considered my earlier needs only.

Hotel Amenity Pilot is a Go

It’s a go for our non-plastic hotel amenity pilot! While I won’t make a dime from this 1 month pilot (and will likely lose some money), it’s worth it to test the solutions that we are considering right now.

There are so many little things to consider such as how easy it is to dent our aluminium tins. About half of the tins from one sample pack that came in via Amazon.com.au showed up with dents or scratches.

I’m also considering the labelling requirements. I want to print right on the packaging from the start, but it costs a lot more to do this with small volumes. However, using a compostable paper labels isn’t possible because it’s not waterproof – a “no no” in bathrooms where they might discard unused tins only because the wet label makes it look used.

Right now, I think I’m going to have to order two lots of tins. Some that are blank, and then I buy plastic labels to hand place on them. And others that have the printing on them from the start. This will allow us to test the printing capabilities during the pilot itself.

The buzz of winning work

It’s strange that when I used to win multi-million dollar contracts back in my IT days, it never gave me a buzz like it gave other sales people. I was more proud of the proposals I turned in that solved a customer’s problems, and therefore it didn’t mater it we won or lost to me even though I would only be rewarded if we won.

For this hotel amenity pilot, I’m excited even though it will likely cost me more than I make to do this. It’s the fact that a hotel is willing to take a chance on my crazy idea that can really reduce the amount of single-use plastic in hotels locally and nationally if I move fast enough. It’s the potential impact down the road that is giving me a buzz. How awesome would it be to literally change the hotel industry’s practices to benefit the environment!

plastic hotel toiletries

The price of non-plastic toiletries

I have another meeting with a hotel on Monday. This one is to discuss a pilot with some of my non-plastic toiletries with all natural ingredients. When I originally did the numbers, I thought that packaging cost was less than the ingredients inside of it. Now I know better.

I have actual bids now with exchange rates, transportation costs, duties, etc. It’s clear that the packaging will be just as expensive as the natural ingredients going into it, especially on smaller volumes. I would need to win an actual hotel contract with guaranteed volumes to be able to achieve any profit even if I sell it at twice or more of their current buying price.

I suppose the good thing is that I don’t think that’s an unreasonable suggestion for them to charge each guest an extra $2 per night to offset the non-plastic toiletry option. In discussion with hotels, some of them seem to agree with my theory.

I also have found a local manufacturing partner. They too would need to scale up to service a contract. Fortunately, they are a young company which makes it more doable than with one more experienced but unwilling to work on margins or try new ideas.

Everyone I tried to outsource the work to so far said that it was impossible to service the hotel industry from Australia with all natural ingredients at a reasonable price. In fact, one business said they could only do it for $2.50 an unit to me which is ridiculous when the average price online seems to be about 32 cents each to hotels now.

I believe it can be done, but I need to pretty much build out the supply chain myself and offer something special that can’t be easily copied by bigger players.

So, here I go trying something new with non-plastic hotel toiletries and all natural ingredients that people in the industry are saying is impossible to do for a reasonable price. If I’m wrong, I could either fail at the sales call or fail in the implementation. If I’m right, there will be a lot less virgin plastic in hotels in Canberra and elsewhere in the future.

It’s worth the effort to know.

Reducing plastic waste in hotels

I’ve been working on another project for nearly two months. This one is purposely designed for reducing plastic waste in hotels. As a natural wanderer, I usually take two to three overseas trips a year. I love exploring new places and food and staying in nice hotels.

So, when some of the major hotels made public commitments to reduce their plastic waste, I wondered what they would do. Many have opted to use dispensers or larger bottles.

However, I’ve never been a fan of these myself. For one, it’s too easy for people to tamper with the refillable bottles when they are staying in private rooms. Can you imagine the temptation for pranksters to put bodily fluids or something worse into those bottles?

It also doesn’t support the higher end brands who have worked so hard to build a certain feel. To me, a dispenser on the wall feels more like a locker room shower rather than a four or five-star luxury hotel no matter how fancy the bottles are.

Furthermore, many travellers like to take home the little hotel amenities as souvenirs from their holidays and perhaps to use them at the gym or while camping later. I personally stockpiled them for my own guests when I had a bigger home. It made their stay feel a little more luxurious then my normal guest bedroom.

So, what to do? I’ve already presented some alternative packaging ideas to a few hotels in Canberra, and they’ve been very receptive. If all goes well, I hope to get a commitment to run a pilot soon.

The main challenge for me right now is not the packaging, it’s the cost of all natural ingredients for the products themselves. While many hotels are not as concerned about what’s on the inside of the container, I am. I cannot with good conscious offer a product to reduce plastic waste and put something in it that’s not just as eco-friendly.

If I can overcome these cost barriers by doing more of the work myself or perhaps partnering with a local business (discussions still in progress), then I feel like we can have something ready to go as early as next month.

Fingers crossed! I need a few more things to line up first, but this idea to reduce plastic waste in hotels seems to have a solid customer demand.

Experiment #8: recycled plastic earrings

It was time to finally make something useful with these experiments. I have a good friend who loves crazy earrings. And so, I gave myself the challenge to try to make her a gift – specifically recycled plastic earrings.

To make this gift, I originally tried to use a pineapple silicon mould, but I wasn’t happy with the texture and the inability to see the “Canberra Milk” logo properly.

So, I decided to try to make something more natural using just an egg circle mould.


Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures during the process. After the plastic was melted, I cut the circular piece into four and remelted two of the best pieces to smooth out the cut lines.

Afterwards I bought some jewelry fixtures, drilled a hole in each, and voila! My friend love her recycled plastic earrings gift!

handmade recycled plastic earrings
Different types of recycled plastic

Experiment #7 – LDPE and PP

I’ve finally moved from melting milk bottle lids to trying out other types of plastic, specifically LDPE plastic bags and corrugated plastic signs from PP. And it’s definitely harder using my primitive equipment.

Polypropylene or #5 PP

There’s a local election this year, and I know that thousands of corrugated plastic signs will go to landfill unless there’s a recycling solution. So, if I can find a way to do this, I could do a good thing for the environment and really demonstrate the value in this discarded resource.

Election signs
Credit: Canberra Times

For the corrugated plastic signs experiments, I was specifically trying to maintain the original designs of the sign. That’s been tricky because I found it easy to burn the added ink in a convection oven. Furthermore, PP or polypropylene melts at a much higher melting point then the others and I’m finding it harder to get it to melt fully in my moulds.

Below shows my first experiments. The right “coaster” was obviously burned in the process. The one on the left wasn’t as much as I put aluminium foil over the top of it, but there are still solid pieces that weren’t full melted.

Failed PP experiments

Low-density polyethylene or LDPE #4

For LDPE, I’m trying to solve another problem that was brought up by my mates at Pushy’s Bike Store. Every bike and part that they receive comes in a plastic bag, and they have no way to recycle it.

It’s a good, clean source of mostly LDPE plastic. Furthermore, I reckon that just about every retailer in Canberra has the same issue. For Pushy’s specifically, I also asked them to give me some discarded bike gears and chains too.

My thoughts were that I might be able to embed the parts into the plastic to tell a better story of where the plastic originally came from.

Telling the story of these plastics

One of the major reasons why I have gone the extra lengths to keep the artwork on the plastic (from milk bottle lids to the signs) is to be able to share the story of where these plastics came from.

If everything is a single colour, few people will even know that it’s recycled plastic in an end product. If it comes in the typical multiple-colour tones that are the results of shredding the material without further processing, people may know it’s from recycled plastic, but they have no idea from what.

I want people to see value in this resource, and it’s much each easier to share their origin’s story if I can somehow keep the artwork when I turn it into a final product. Plus, how cool would it be if I can pull it off!