Reuse and recycle is a message we hear over and over, but how many of us actually do on a regular basis? We know that paper can be revitalized for new paper products, that plastic bottles can be turned into fabric, and that many other materials can be repurposed into new clothing and accessories. The ingenious recyclers of this world constantly surprise me with their innovation and capability to turn trash into something useful. I just never thought elephant waste would be one of those products. Tun Sukonthamarn and her husband Michael Flancman prove that even the least appetizing of resources can be not only useful, but environmentally friendly. I hope this interview inspires you to look at the waste around you and see what treasures you can turn it into.
What was your inspiration or what necessitated you to begin this adventure? A combination of things inspired us to start this business. Asides from wanting to start our own business by leveraging my familiarity with Thailand and my Canadian husband’s familiarity and contacts in western markets, we loved the concept, happy nature of the products and the marketing challenge that manufacturing a product made from poop would present! We liked how the focus of our products would be sustainable and we were inspired more broadly by the opportunities of developing additional alternative, non-wood, tree-free papers in the future.
What steps did you take to create your business? We started off small with a very limited product range, developed a nice display and signage to help sell the product and tested it at one account in Canada that we thought would be an ideal retail outlet for our products. We offered very reasonable pricing (too reasonable actually), told the account that we’d take the product back if they didn’t sell and then we waited to see what would happen. The positive feedback came in fast and we ramped up quickly from that point.
What obstacles were you forced to overcome? Mostly the obstacles were related to planning and determining the risk level we were comfortable with during the ramp up phase. After all, we weren’t certain that one successful test in one account would translate to wider success in the market so we were most concerned with how to establish a scalable production facility that would minimize our risk and inventory planning in North America. These risk were amplified of course when the recession hit. We knew our products weren’t a necessity for consumers but we also were convinced that there was a passionate niche market for our products regardless of the state of the economy. We modified our product mix and focused on developed less expensive, smaller items that everyone could afford and we manufactured less of the pricier expensive items. Navigating through a downturn with mixed signals from the market is tough but we have tried to keep our focus on the long-term to help steer us.
What were the hardest problems to solve or actions to take? Personally, juggling family life and the business was/ is a challenge. We’ve had three kids since we started our business and we like to be closely involved with them so managing our time and scheduling is important and poses a great challenge. This probably means our business hasn’t grown as fast as it may have if we didn’t have kids but we’re happy with the trade-off. In terms of my relationship with my husband, well, we’ve both had to learn to understand and appreciate each other’s approach which can be very different coming from different cultures.
What must you do to stay operational? Have a few good, key, trustworthy people in supervisory roles and watch the business everyday closely. It’s tiring but rewarding and it does get easier if you can retain your staff and have low turnover.
Who, if anyone, helped you succeed? My husband is my partner and can apparently sell anything – including paper made from poop! He’s great at marketing and he’s takes the lead on the extroverted stuff like sales, PR, product design and development. He has been critical. Having said that I’m responsible for the day-to-day operations, production, administrative, and managing the staff…equally as critical! Perfect partnership.
Do you have any advice for readers who want to get involved or start a similar business? My general advice would be do something that you can get passionate about. It takes a lot of energy to stay motivated day in and day out when running your own business and it helps tremendously to know that your focus is on something important and of interest to you.
Buy your own eco-paper at PooPooPaper.com …This interview is from a book that includes 15 other amazing people who are creating positive change. You can read the full book and buy a copy for you or your school at Bookemon.com
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