How MacRebur Turns Rubbish Into Roads

We recently hosted a webcast conversation between Toby and Elliot focused on how the desire to solve two real-world problems – removing plastics from our oceans and fixing deterioration in our roads –  turned into one big idea.

Don’t have time for the full webcast now? Catch the webcast highlights and tips from their conversation in our companion blog below.

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Elliot Susel’s conversation with Toby McCartney, you may download it.

Combining Two Real-World Problems To Create One Smart Solution

When Toby McCartney went to his daughter’s school assembly featuring a presentation about “what lives in our oceans?” the last thing he expected was for it to make him an entrepreneur. But when it was his six-year old daughter’s turn to speak up, instead of answering with fish, turtles, or whales like the other children in her class, she said, “plastics.” It was one of those moments that made Toby take pause. “I [didn’t] want the next generation growing up in a world [where] it’s expected that there will be more plastics living in our oceans than fish themselves,” he says.

That desire to make a change happened to fall right in line with another big problem affecting people throughout the world: road deterioration and pothole problems. Toby recalled time he spent volunteering in India where he observed locals place landfill plastics in potholes and melt them down with diesel fuel to seal the holes. This got him thinking, “what if there was a way to take these waste plastics to mix them in asphalt?”

Now the CEO of his company MacRebur, Toby spoke with Lean Startup Co. faculty member Elliot Susel in a recent webcast about the trials and tribulations of entrepreneurship and what he’s learned along the way about pursuing big ideas.

“I didn’t want the next generation growing up in a world where it’s expected that there will be more plastics living in our oceans than fish themselves.” Click To Tweet

Three Friends, a Pub, and a Big Idea

To get started, Toby took his idea to fill potholes with plastics to his two friends, Gordon and Nick. “It took a bit of convincing,” Toby says, “[…] but they came on board.”

They spent the next 18 months meeting in pubs to discuss ideas, learning more about waste plastics, and self-funding laboratory tests to see if they could get something that worked. “To be honest, it was a labor of love before we even thought we could sell anything,” Toby reiterates, “it was more ‘is this possible?’ rather than ‘can we make money out of it?’”

With very little experience in chemistry or the world of road construction between the three of them, they had to overcome a pretty large learning curve to make the idea come to life. Starting out, they relied on Google searches and patent applications to see if anything similar was being done anywhere else. They came up with nothing. The door for them to pursue the idea was wide open. “I thought, ‘Well, this is either really good news or really bad news,” Toby says.

Driven by the want to fix two real-world problems – removing plastics in the oceans and the need to fix potholes – the two problems eventually morphed into its own solution: making better, more durable roads out of plastic.

Turning an Idea Into a Reality

Before they found a formula that worked, the project was more of a self-funded hobby – admittedly a big hobby – with with each of the three friends ultimately investing somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds each “Some people spend a lot of money on hobbies like golf and fishing,” Toby says, “I don’t have any of those hobbies.” And the friends became more focused on the idea of doing something that actually makes a difference for their kids and for the next generation.

That thought kept them motivated as they pursued patents and upwards of 800 lab tests to try to find the exact mix of polymers and plastics to make their idea work. Eventually, one did. Toby still remembers the excitement of hearing the news over the phone.

But finding a formula that worked was just the first hurdle. Now what?

“I have a simple theory that wherever you find the pain and can provide a gain for that pain, you have an audience,” Toby says. The biggest pain for his customer base is usually financial. “If you can make your products cheaper than your competitors, then there’s a gain.”

MacRebur’s plastic product did just that. Made from waste plastic, it acts as a super glue to bind stone together. It’s a cheaper alternative to bitumen, the oil-based binding agent used in most roads today. Plus, Toby’s product lasts longer, meaning less maintenance for companies, saving even more money in the long run.

But all of that didn’t mean anything if they couldn’t sell their invention. “We had to educate [our potential customers] before we got to sell,” Toby says. Since this was a new product, new customers had to be informed about not only what the product was, but how it helped them solve problems they didn’t even know they had. But Toby chalks that up to the nature of starting a business in today’s world.

“I have a simple theory that wherever you find the pain and can provide a gain for that pain, you have an audience.” Click To Tweet

What it Takes to be an Entrepreneur

Whether it’s environmental or social, Toby believes that “the future of small businesses…is to do good and to disrupt for good.” That also means customers are going to need some education about what it is that is being disrupted. It’s not only part of launching a successful business, but being a successful entrepreneur.

“The whole title of ‘entrepreneur’ is […] to disrupt for good and to create things that make life easier, make things better, help us progress as human beings.” But that’s not to say it’s not hard work. It takes grit and persistence. Toby often thinks back to his old school motto, “nihil sine labore,” which is Latin for, “nothing without hard work.” He takes it to mean there are no quick fixes in life. If you’re not prepared to do the hard work, you’re not prepared to be an entrepreneur and, “you should go and get a job.”

Toby would know the hard work it takes to be an entrepreneur. When he and his friends were just starting out and it was still in the “hobby” stages, they were putting in full time hours into the project while also maintaining full time jobs and being fathers and husbands. The company struggled through countless hurdles and failures. Fortunately, all three founding members of MacRebur follow the belief that, “there is no failure, only feedback.”

Toby likens the process to getting from point A to point B in a plane. It’s often not as easy as people think and many times, when a business hits turbulence, they decide to stop. “I think if you can take the feedback and can move through that turbulence, there’s always a way around it, under it, through it. There’s always a way to get to that end destination.”

Love and the Five Principles of a Successful Business

Still, even with hard work, passion and determination, there will be naysayers, warns Toby. “Be prepared for everybody that you know […] to tell you that you your idea is never going to work.” But if you can break through that and find the persistence to keep pushing through the failures, you can succeed.

Outside of hard work, Toby’s advice to anyone pursuing a new business is to follow five principles of business:

  1. Get people to know you. This is your marketing. Go to a marketing expert and get your name and product out there.
  2. Get people to like you. This is an often skipped step, but people need to like you if they’re going to give you their money.
  3. Get people to trust you. Liking you isn’t enough. People have to trust you if they’re going to trust your product.   
  4. Get people to buy from you. This is the goal. But it’s not what makes you most of your money. That’s the final step…
  5. Get people to refer you. Then all of the money you’re spending on the first principle can reduce because you’re now being referred by your customer base.

Ultimately, to create a successful business, you have to love what you do, almost to the point of it being like a real relationship or love affair. “If you can spend [as] much time as you do with your business as being with your partner, the person that you love, then you’ve got a good chance of it being a success.”

Thanks to Shannon Lorenzen for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.