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Reducing Plastic Waste By Dominating The Sustainable Paper Straw Market, With The Founders Of SeaStraws

Sometimes passion and opportunity meet at the perfect time. Antonio was at a restaurant with his friends when he noticed how much plastic waste was being created by the trash from just a few customers. He knew that this wasn’t sustainable and he decided to do something about it. Turns out the market was ready for a change.

In this live podcast interview with the founding team of SeaStraws we talk about how they quickly grew their sustainable straw business, receiving their first major order after just a months of operation. Having already helped another coffee brand grow the founder knew that branding and sales were the most crucial things to get right from the start, so he recruited his friends Echo and Sophie to start the business with him.

In this episode we dive into exactly how Antonio convinced his team to join him, and how they found incredible mentors and advisors to help fill the gaps in their team. We also learn how they closed their initial distribution deals, and why relationships are so critical in the early days. Lastly, we discuss what it means to run a public benefit company, and how the team’s focus on sustainability drives the decisions they make every day.

Show Notes

02:14 Today we have the founding team of SeaStraws. I’m going to let them tell you about what they are building here at NYU, but they started their business about a year ago. They’re going through the NYU entrepreneurial institutes summer launchpad program. And in front of me, I have Antonio Di Maglio’s, Sophie Kennedy and Echo Chan who are the three co-founders of the business.

03:35 Tell us how this idea came about and what actually led you to launch SeaStraws.

04:17 It all started with the mango pineapple smoothie that we would get at McDonalds and actually we used to call it the Aruba. I would say that there’s so much plastic that came with it. So combining my passion for hospitality with seeing those smoothies and also the fact that I used to go to the Jersey shore a lot as a kid. So those things made me aware of the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans from a long time ago.

05:07 What made you think that you’re the one to actually solve this problem? Of trying to reduce the amount of plastic waste?

05:14 I really liked the restaurant industry and was confident in my ability to succeed there. But this first step that I took was actually building out the team. And I think it’s super important to say that sometimes the people that you’re already working with or the people that you already know may actually be the best business partners and you’ve just never thought of it before.

07:27 How did you learn how to do sales in rose through the ranks to CRO, even at this startup, cause I think a lot of undergrads in college, they sort of give themselves the excuse of like, well I don’t know sort of how to do sales or I don’t know how to do this functional role in this company. And they kind of take a little bit of a back seat when it comes to the internships. What do you do?

07:53 I mean the CEO of our company really like armed me well with like a lot of leads every day. Like we were sending out hundreds and hundreds of emails every day and Sophie starting to learn this, now at SeaStraws.

08:17 The best thing that I learned actually when I first starting off was you need to talk to your customers. So I was able to talk to people, get calls scheduled super fast to really learn about how that worked.

08:54 So then back up to the spring of 2018 when you identify this problem and you decided to start the company. What was that first step that you took?

09:11 I knew that brand building was huge and I knew that I once worked with Echo, honestly.

09:27 Echo, what did Antonio say to convince you to join his team?

10:13 When Antonio came to me with this idea of, it was like the perfect combination of my love for the environment for the earth and the ability to use my creative skills for good.

10:23 Antonio, what was the idea at that point that you had, that you came to echo with?

10:39 I knew I wanted to paper straws cause I wanted to be sustainable and everything like that. So I presented to her the concept of building a brand. I told Echo to only take pictures of the white and the black ones because I wanted us to stand out and to really build something that was seemed serious and modern and elegant from the beginning instead of just being like a party thing that, you know, paper straws had been before.

11:18 Did you know who you are going to sell into?

11:22 Local restaurants were the first thing.

12:27 Since you were brand forward and you had identified that echo had those skills as a creative, then it kind of feels like it was a no brainer to get started with Echo.

12:35 Absolutely. It’s also important to note that I needed Sophia as well. So Sophie came into the project when we are at the point where we got our first lead. It wasn’t our first restaurant lead, but our first channel partnership lead, let’s call it. And it was from this organization called the Surfrider Foundation.

15:13 How did you know that a Sophie was a hustler and would be so on your team?

15:17 Well, Sophia and I actually did some work with the EU when we were in Florence. So we actually were on a climate change and migration, you know, study group.

16:36 You guys actually had real experience working together and seeing the output of the other person and the ethic that that person puts in and do their work 100%.

16:46 The fact that you decided to get into straws first, but was it an accidental choice that it ended up happening to be this thing where all these states are starting to ban straws, that you actually, you know, decided to go with straws as your initial product and that ended up fitting the timing in the market so well or was that deliberate?

17:06 I don’t think we were lucky, but I think we were definitely a bit precious.

17:43 How is it that large manufacturers of paper straws were not able to fulfill supply and you were able to find a supplier that could?

17:53 Honestly, I’m just good at Google. I mean that comes down to a lot of different things. With the supplier that we’re using right now, they were looking for a core partner to work with and we’re still their main core partner and we’re super excited to continue working with them.

18:25 Now this first supplier that you had, was there a minimum order size that you had to get?

18:33 It did require a bit of an upfront investment.

19:11 Talk about how that sales process evolved. How did you figure out what numbers you should hit? How did you formalize this into a real business?

19:21 So everything changed once we started with distribution.

20:48 What was the size of the initial few orders that you got and how did you get those first few in the door?

20:55 Our first order was I think 10 cases.

21:01 How much did you get paid for that? What was the revenue?

21:03 It was 160 per case.

21:12 Now a year later, what’s the average order size that you see through a decent size distributor that you have?

21:18 Well, even from that one, for example, like our way to sort it with him was 24 cases. So you know, his ordering actually increased 400% on a quarterly basis from the first quarter of our business to the last quarter.

23:27 What did you say to your prospects to convince them to use your product?

25:31 So we created legitimacy by partnering with nonprofits that have a brand, have legitimacy in the market and if they put their name behind us, then sort of everything falls in line.

27:54 So clearly you guys are focused on sustainability, you care about that, it’s part of your brand, it’s part of the decisions that you make for the business.

29:35 Speaking of revenue, can you tell us how much revenue you’ve done to date over the last year?

29:40 We’ve over 4.2 million straws at this point. Which has displaced over 3,900 pounds of plastic.

30:25 How are you guys staying competitive and then what’s the plan now to continue to grow you guys bringing on investors, you guys gonna grow the team?

30:33 We’re lucky enough to have received some investment from the quick capital accelerator program. And additionally, we won the NYU 300k challenge in the social venture track, which was a $50,000 grant.

31:46 Which kind of investors are more receptive and how do you think you’ve been able to convince them to actually make an investment?

32:17 So we’re looking for, we have been looking for people that have that CPG experience but are also willing to take a step back and say, okay, these guys are not going to have the 90 plus percent margins of a type company. But they are definitely an acquirable asset with a great brand and a lot of customers.

32:34 Would you say that brand has been a big reason why they’re excited about you? Or are there other aspects?

32:41 I think the brand is definitely something that’s scalable based on what we do right now.

37:22 What’d you do to attract those advisors and mentors early on?

37:27 So the ones that we got on when we initially needed an advisory board in the second or third month of the company, those were all school professors.

41:45 It sounds like you’re making a lot of the right decisions. I mean, look, entrepreneurship is supposed to be messy. Thank you so much for coming here

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