How Parenthood Sparked a Business

We recently hosted a conversation between Blueland co-founder and CEO Sarah Paiji Yoo and our newest moderator Chris Guest. They discuss how becoming a mom led Sarah to create a company that is reimagining how we consume household products to eliminate the need for wasteful plastic packaging. 

There’s More Than Just Water in Your Water

When serial entrepreneur Sarah Paiji Yoo became a new mom, she wasn’t looking to find her next business idea. She had made the conscious decision to step back from work to find a balance between being a new parent and being a businesswoman. But it was the very act of being a mom that gave her the idea for what would eventually become her company, Blueland. 

Sarah was horrified to discover how many microplastics are in the water she was using to mix formula for her baby — the very same water that we all drink. She discovered that all of the plastic we consume in society is ending up in our oceans and waterways where they’re broken down into microscopic microplastics that end up in our food and drinking water. 

So Sarah made the conscious decision to cut back on her own plastic consumption. But she quickly discovered that was easier said than done. Oftentimes, there aren’t any items on the shelves that give consumers a choice to opt for something more eco-conscious. From ketchup bottles to toothpaste to detergent, it’s all single-use plastic packaging. 

But rather than getting discouraged, Sarah got an idea. She realized that she could go beyond having an impact on her personal consumption, by creating products that gave all consumers a more Earth-friendly alternative.

Oftentimes, there aren’t any items on the shelves that give consumers a choice to opt for something more eco-conscious. Click To Tweet

An (Eco-Friendly) Lightbulb Moment

After learning about how much plastic we’re consuming as a society, Sarah became focused on packaging. She couldn’t help but feel that there must be better alternatives to all of the plastic we’re seeing on the shelves. However, her research into non-plastic packaging options quickly led to a dead end. She discovered that people are working on alternatives, but they’re not easy to come by and, at this point, they’re quite expensive. 

One day, the beginning of a solution hit Sarah. She realized the majority of products she was looking at were liquid, and “maybe if they weren’t liquid, then we could package them in something like paper.” So with the idea of creating alternatives to everyday products that have been distilled down to an easily packaged solid, Sarah and her Blueland co-founder John, began working on their first product idea: toothpaste.

For Sarah, toothpaste tubes are particularly problematic because their aluminum-plastic blend is almost impossible to recycle. So, even though neither Sarah or John has a background in chemistry, they began making toothpaste tablets in her kitchen. The idea was that consumers would bite down on the tablet a few times and then start brushing with a wet toothbrush. 

The two biggest questions they had were “would people be okay chewing their toothpaste?” and “would people trust — and switch to — a new toothpaste brand?” However, they knew they wouldn’t be able to effectively answer those questions if people didn’t use the product first. So they had fifty of their friends use the tablets twice a day for a week and then they collected their feedback. 

It was not good. 

Over 75% of the people they tested said they wouldn’t make the switch. This number was too high for them to justify moving forward. For Sarah, it wasn’t easy to accept. “I so desperately wanted to believe that it was a good idea,” she said, “I want to save the planet.”

“I so desperately wanted to believe that it was a good idea.” Click To Tweet

Reinventing the Bottle

Even though the toothpaste failure was discouraging, they were able to learn from it. From the beginning, they knew they wanted to create something that would maximize their environmental impact. That meant creating a product that was for more than just hardcore environmentalists. So they needed to find something that was cost-effective, easy to use, and could work as well as the comparable brands. Plus, their toothpaste experiment made them realize it had  to be something that would be an easy switch for the consumer. 

Eventually, they landed on cleaning sprays. Since the product is mostly water, it is more intuitive for consumers to mix the tablet with water in a bottle to create a cleaning solution. And with the help of their new head of R&D, they developed a set of cleaning sprays: a multi-surface cleaner, a glass and mirror cleaner, and a bathroom cleaner. They all come as dry tablets that you mix in a reusable bottle. But, what was that bottle going to be made out of?

Sarah originally envisioned the bottle as being glass. But in early testing, 80% of moms were adamantly against the glass bottle, citing it’s impractical and possibly dangerous around children. Aluminum was the next choice, but the opaque bottle didn’t test well either. Consumers wanted to see how the tablet dissolves and what the final product looked like. 

Finally, they partnered with Cradle to Cradle — an institute that works with companies to help maximize the positive environmental impact of the materials they utilize in their products — to find an upcycled, non-leaching, recyclable, and transparent acrylic material that had a high chance of being widely adopted by a majority of consumers. 

With their bottle and initial products in place, Blueland officially launched 100 days ago (as of this discussion). And initial reception has far exceeded Sarah’s initial expectations. They’ve already sold-out their inventory multiple times, are seeing positive engagement from their customers, and have even launched a new product: liquid hand soap, distilled down to tablet form, of course.

Since her early entrepreneurial days, Sarah has liked the Lean Startup methodologies and has utilized them multiple times in her career of launching successful businesses. She feels it helped simplify everything and liked the idea of running quick, easy tests, iterating, and pivoting. 

“Sarah and Lean Startup Co. are curious about your — our listeners and readers —  experiences applying Lean Startup methodologies to your own companies. We’d love for you to join the conversation and let us know, Tweet us at @leanstartup.

Did you enjoy this blog? Catch the full podcast here!

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