My Business Wouldn’t Exist If I Hadn’t Gone on Maternity Leave
Blueland’s founder on the reality of building a brand.
Published Jan 7, 2020 12:00 AM
What does it take to shake up an industry? In New Voices, we spotlight and celebrate the female founders who are changing the way we live, shop, and style our homes, one bright idea at a time. In their own words, they share the major milestones and less-than-shiny moments—from prototypes gone awry to seeing their first product “in the wild ”—that make it all worthwhile.
Think about that spot under your kitchen sink, the shelf in your garage, or that corner of your pantry shelf. As Sarah Paiji Yoo discovered, wherever you stash your cleaning supplies, you’re sure to find a not-so-inconsequential amount of plastic. Enter Blueland, Yoo’s environmentally conscious cleaning brand (that also happens to look pretty chic on your countertop).
A serial entrepreneur (she launched her first company, Snapette, in 2011, and went on to help found direct-to-consumer brands M.Gemi and Rockets of Awesome), Yoo had decided to take a break from the 24-7 startup lifestyle after she gave birth to her son, and during that sabbatical, she had the idea that would change her career forever. When she eventually brought Blueland to fruition, Yoo wasn’t just building a company—she also hoped she was doing her part to help save the planet. These are the instances that defined the journey.
I Had a Lightbulb Moment When I Wasn’t Looking for One
I ended up taking a sabbatical to spend more time with my son. Being a first-time mom, there’s a lot of pressure today to breastfeed, which I did exclusively for 11 months. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. When I finally started transitioning him to formula, I took it very seriously and started looking into our tap-water quality. I was pretty horrified to learn that no matter what we do, all of our drinking water is contaminated with microplastics. That just killed me—the fact that I had raised my son, feeding him with my own body for 11 months, and now I was mixing formula with water that contained plastic. It hit me that I personally wanted to do more to cut plastic consumption.
I looked at my multipurpose cleaner, which I use multiple times a day, especially with the baby, and I thought, Wow, that product is definitely 95 percent water. I wondered that if it were a dry tablet or a powder instead, it could be packaged in paper instead of plastic. That was my lightbulb moment. I thought, Why can’t we give the consumer what she actually needs? She could add her own water at home and use the same bottle again and again.
Despite Stumping 50 Manufacturers, I Kept Going
I thought, Okay, I want to make the cleaning spray tablet, but it’s never been done before. It was a long and very often scary process because there was no road map. There were no assurances that once we did the research and development that there would be a guaranteed solution on the other side. We talked to more than 50 manufacturers to see if they could make it—and they had no idea how to formulate the product. They were looking to us to bring the formulations to them.
My cofounder, John Mascari, and I had no chemists in our network, and having no science background ourselves, we were swimming in the dark. We’d try to get anyone who might know anything on the phone with us, and that person would provide a little more guidance and potentially introduce us to someone else. We popcorned our way into finding the right person and getting a better sense of what would be doable.
I Had the Opportunity to Cut Corners—But I Didn’t
We made a lot of decisions for the planet that a conventional company probably wouldn’t have made—even when we knew the consumer wouldn’t necessarily realize it. Cradle to Cradle is the most comprehensive environmental certification program in the world, and we’ve paid the organization a pretty expensive retainer monthly from the very beginning, because what we knew was that we didn’t know everything. We need to get every single manufacturer that supplies anything to us certified by them.
Early on, we were using three paint manufacturers for the paint on our bottles, and it turned out they couldn’t provide the documentation necessary for us to get the certification. We ended up having to switch to three new U.S.-based suppliers. It was an interesting decision because, as a marketer, I knew that the consumer would never ask us: Where did you get those paints on your bottle? But John and I decided we could not compromise values like that unnecessarily.
I Tested Our Products Again and Again
I learned the importance of doing less and doing less better—really focusing on what’s important. Otherwise, you end up burning out, which is definitely easy to do, especially in the startup environment. We prioritized getting our formulas right, and I stand by that decision. If our cleaners did not work well, the customer was not going to come back—and from past experience, the best form of marketing is an amazing product and an easy experience.
A Fan Stopped Me on the Street
One of the biggest things I love about being direct-to-consumer is having that intimate relationship with the customer and being able to get real-time feedback. No one’s products are perfect right out of the gate, but you can succeed by quickly and effectively iterating on that input.
I’ve interacted with so many people on Instagram. I personally ran our brand account for the first five months, responding to every comment, every DM. I still have my notifications on and see every one that comes through. Our most exciting interactions have been [with] superfans, people who are so excited about Blueland. We’ve had a few message us to ask if they could come by our offices on their trips to New York City. I’ve even had a person come up to me on the street, telling me she loved our products. It’s crazy how small the world is right now.
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