Tyson, Alex, there's an equivalent of a garbage trucks’ worth of plastic getting dumped into the world's oceans every second. By 2050, there's going to be more plastic in the ocean than fish. I want you to take us back to when you were in college and came up with this idea to tackle what I believe is one of the world's biggest problems by starting BIONIC
Back then the idea wasn't as clear as it is now. We were designing backpacks and sleeping bags. In designing that, for the most part, we were borrowing things from the brands we liked and making our own collage of a brand out of it. That wasn't enough to do real business. We started to find other ways to make our products stand out and we stumbled on another brand we looked up to who is making only knock around fleece jackets out of plastic bottles. We naively asked, “Why isn't everything made from this? That would be great if we could get a tent or a sleeping bag made with recycled bottles.” That's when our a-ha moment happened and we decided to make a backpack brand made of recycled bottles. We decided even to take it further than that and to make a component brand around that idea. It wasn't until about a few years into doing it, we decided to take the single-use plastic concept in our products a step further and including stuff that was getting to the coastal and marine communities.
Before you started with the recycled and the path you're on now, you were creating backpacks and sleeping bags before this and you pivoted and incorporated that in. Are you guys campers? Where did the inspiration for backpacks and sleeping bags come to be?
My partner and I are born and raised in Manhattan. You always want what you don't have. We have friends and relatives who lived in places like California and Boulder who the outdoors lifestyle was a part of their life. I was jealous of having an environment where you got to use a Gore-Tex
boot or you needed a parka. We were way overdressed to be living in the city but we were into the gear. Through the gear, we got into the lifestyle. It became fashionable at a certain point but at a certain point in doing this, we were sticking out in the middle of Manhattan and wearing these bright parkas and crazy mountain boots many years ago on concrete.
I thought I read that your mission now is you recover plastic pollution found in marine and coastal environments, is that the case? Are you not taking plastic that's on the streets or other forms of plastic? Is there a coastal tie in here or marine thing going on?
The purpose of us trying to embed plastic in our products was to try to help this growing problem. Initially, we were getting most of our plastic from developed nations like Japan, Canada and the US. While recycling and it helps overall, we wanted to get more to the heart of the problem. We decided to form relationships with NGOs in places with no infrastructure where the threat was a lot greater. We're set up in the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica in a beautiful part of the country that doesn't have recycling and waste management infrastructure. We've extended our supply chain from the beach shores all the way to our end products produced in Asia.
I came across the statistic that you guys at one point had recycled over two million bottles or pieces of plastic. What is that number at now so people can get an idea of the scope of what you've been able to do?
The last time we put a stat out like that was at the beginning of us doing this. I'd say we were at least tenfold since then.
I want you to break down or explain what an NGO is for people that are unfamiliar. Do they collect the plastic and then you have a deal to go pick this plastic up? How does it get to you that you can do your thing?
The specific NGO we work with is called Waterkeeper Alliance
and it's been around for quite some time. They've been around protecting water since the ‘60s. The plastic part of their work was brought to life through us and other NGOs who collect plastic. It usually goes into landfills or they have to find a third-party to take it and recycle it. Usually that involves landfills because these are in developing nations. We've decided to create a system that was more sustainable where these NGOs rely on donations. We're buying this plastic off of them and we hope to continue this cycle as we continue to bring on more clients.
I assumed they would give you the plastic for free but you have to buy the plastic from them?
They're doing the work of mining it from the coasts and the marine environment which is no easy task. From there they’re sorting it because there are degrees of impurities in the plastic that we have to be mindful of and which product streams they go into. It's not just picking it up and putting it in a bag. It’s understanding the health of the plastic you have in your hand and what product stream it could go into. It’s pretty involved.
I want you to break down NGO. What is that acronym?
NGO stands for Non-Government Organization that works outside of the government to help things that benefit everyone and they rely on donations and charity to exist.
How does it go from plastic to a sleeping bag, a shirt or a pair of pants without getting super technical because I know you guys are geniuses? From a super high level, how does that even take place? How does it go from plastic to yarn?
It's a process that's been around for a while. What we've done is integrated a bit of a sustainable environmental component to it. What happens is that in these places that don't have the infrastructure to take care of the classic pollution problem, there are beach cleanups going on. There's a collection on the shorelines going on all the time. Our business is in this touristy place that generates a lot of plastic waste or they generate a lot of recyclables. We collect all of that. We collect all types of plastic. We collect metal cans, aluminum cans. We collect glass. This is all taken into a stream at our recycling facility. From there, it's all sorted. It's sorted into different types of plastic. There are a few different classifications of plastic. Not all of them can be made into yarn. The first step after sorting, you have to divide what can be used for fabrics and what can't be used for fabrics. There's another stream of plastic we use that can be used for hard plastic goods. Something like a cell phone case or sunglass frame. With the plastic we use for yarn, it's called PET.
With that PET plastic we have several different classifications we divide that into. That gets sorted. That gets chopped up. It gets washed. It gets melted into small strands that can be then spun into yarn. This yarn is woven or knitted into a fabric that can make a t-shirt or woven into a fabric that can make a pair of jeans. From there, according to the specifications of whatever partner we're working with, whatever brand we're working with, we make this fabric, we make this material and we send it off to them. They'd cut it up, make it look nice on everyone and then you get to buy it. One additional thing that's a great benefit and the reason why we stand out in this market is that we're able to trace that piece of plastic all the way from where we collected it on the shoreline right through to the garment.
What you're doing is big. You've been doing this for quite some time. I want to take us back. We've got a lot of entrepreneurs in our audience, folks that have an idea and want to take it. When you got started, how did you go about it? Did you go raise funding for this? What was your launch strategy to get this up and going?
We didn't go the traditional route of trying to raise capital because this idea is a work in progress. There's nothing perfect about taking a diminishing piece of material and trying to turn into a high-quality one so to stay clean to the piece, what you're raising money for around to get someone that trusts you is hard. We had to figure out a way to work and do the R&D for ourselves. The time it takes to raise money, taking away the time we needed to get ahead with what our brand was about. I don't suggest this for everyone but because of the type of business and the time we were trying to break through, we didn't have the luxury of going from office to office pitching our ideas. Those were the times we needed to get a brand which was willing to take something that wasn't perfect but saw the bigger vision of trying to create sustainable products. Using my pitch time in there where it's like killing two birds with one stone. I got their buy-in because they believe in the R&D we were doing in one way and they’re buying in and placing an order.
At the beginning of doing this, it took a lot of startup help from these companies. Not necessarily startup capital but we didn't have the relationships with the factories to roll out what we wanted. We'd have to go in with a letter of intent from a brand saying, “These guys are committed to ordering this from us. Will you help us get to this point and we'll pay at these terms.” There have been a lot of situations like that for us and we're considering raising money. We could speed things up but we have a system. We have a model that we could say this works. We can definitely bet against this but before it wasn't like that.
You essentially were going in and you were selling the idea, you were selling the vision even before the first yarn, the first fabric was created. Did I get that right?
Yes and no. It wasn't 100%. It wasn't at a point where you could take it to scale. The idea was there. Through us developing it to where our resources could take us, you were able to have a conversation and build on it with the understanding these brands had access to mills that could modify and make it better. We probably came into the industry with our product at 50%. Through the strategic partnerships, we were able to develop it to a viable product in this industry.
You had a prototype or you had proof of concept there, you went out and sold it. The big question on everyone's mind in our audience is how did you get past the gatekeeper? You worked with some rather large brands and they weren't the brands they are now. Still, you got to get past the gatekeeper in order to pitch him on placing an order. How did you guys go about doing that?
I always say luck is a huge part of it. Luck aligned with being annoying and showing up at places like trade shows without the proper credentials. Luckily being around where you could look up someone online, hunt them down and put yourself in their pathway. We did that at a time when we couldn't afford to buy plane tickets for the chance opportunity to get this person whose appointment book is packed out for the day. We must've done that enthusiastically fifteen times when we had no business doing that. Having that determination is what gets you there but you have to look at those as your path to that one yes and that's what we saw. We were saying no for now. Go get it. We'll keep coming back to them and that was our attitude. It still is to this day.
Would you say that was one of your biggest challenges was getting past the gatekeeper early on? Were there some other challenges you were facing at the same time?
The biggest challenge was getting our own funds together to produce the idea because 90% of the times people were into it. They liked the idea of our company and they liked what we were doing. They liked us as people. These were people who had jobs and they only could budge with much. If we couldn't meet the way their system worked, we lose out on opportunities. There've been tons of great people who wanted to give us a chance. We didn't have the right manufacturing or we couldn't produce the line of credit to take the production from beginning to end to plug into whatever opportunity could have been given to us. The problem hasn't been getting big companies to buy in. The problem is being able to deliver and keep up with the pace of turnaround that these companies wanted. We're pretty fortunate to be in our position because usually people are not even trying to hear our idea, but for the most part, everyone was open to us.
I found in the entrepreneurial journey, some call it the struggle especially in the beginning. There's always a story of we came close to not making payroll, or if we hadn't done this deal at this time, we would have shut the doors. Do you guys have any of those stories early on in the career? Do you have anything like that come to mind?
It feels like we're always on hot coals all the time and I've gotten used to that stress level in dealing with our business. I wouldn't even call it stress level because that's the kitchen we're in. That's the heat we brought onto ourselves but the rewards on the other end of getting past the difficult points every time this happens take us higher and higher. I'm conditioned to that and I have a high-risk tolerance. I'm not sure I'm the right person to ask the question to.
You've gotten used to it. You've accepted it. There is a level of that for a lot of entrepreneurs out there. It's spot on. I want to highlight some of the partners that you have such as Cole Haan
. A lot of people have a desire whether it's the names I mentioned or brands like that. How do you find good relationships? I’ve got to imagine there are some other well-known brands that you decided this isn't the right relationship for us, even though they're a big name. How do you find and select the right brands and the right partnerships?
We invest a lot of energy in thinking through who the best partners would be. There’s so much deep thought to project that out in the world and it ends up coming back to you. I can't tell you how many times we would sit on thinking about a brand that we wanted to come to us and the next thing we know is rolling in our inbox. We don't have a big staff where we can make sales and fly around the world to meet up with people. It's based on people wanting to buy our idea because we're not sellers. If you're not buying it before you know about it then we don't have a chance. I'd like to think we were lucky enough to come up with a brand that hits all the notes that people are interested in and trying to be a part of the sustainability movement. When they enter the right words in the keyword search, we pop up. If everything goes right, we could satisfy their needs.
When you take so much care as Tyson does and we all do to uphold your brand and to make it strong, then that will come through. The partners that you want will be receptive to that as well. They'll see that there’s a strong brand they can be partnered with that won’t in any way tarnish what they've tried to build for their own selves. Making sure you have some integrity to your brand that you don't do things because maybe you need the money early on or something along those lines. It does take a lot of sacrifices to do that. This goes to your previous question about when do you feel you're in hot water? When do you feel you were close to something not manifesting? Keeping the brand first and foremost and for us, it’s our mission as well. Keeping on a mission as a front runner, it makes all the difference in the world to the strength of our brand.
You guys are great at finding good partners whether that's brands. My understanding is you've partnered with the local government in Costa Rica. Tell us what that partnership is? How do you even get to partner with the government?
It's been a long journey. I remember the first meeting with the municipality in the town that we’re operating in was a few years ago. We were waiting outside of the offices. They were seeing different people with different grievances in the province. Some people were coming in. They're talking about plumbing or wastewater issue, gray water issues. Some people were talking about the roads. We had it on the agenda that we wanted to make a recycling plant because there was no recycling. Everything was going to the dumps. As we got in there, our local partner on the ground started speaking. I said a few words at that meeting as well. I felt a little bit out of my depth because I was in a brand new country. My first language is Spanish, but I felt overwhelmed by being there, by them allowing us this opportunity. After we posed our idea that we wanted to take over that particular job of the municipality because we see that there are other things the municipality has on their agenda that might seem more pressing to the voters.
They were extremely receptive to it. Immediately they offered up some land and we had an original recycling plant or a sorting facility on municipal grounds that they offered. Eventually, we moved from that space but they understood there was something that a private company could do to try and help something that would benefit all the citizens. We explained and showed some of the products we would be making with this plastic and they were extremely receptive. It was like talking to a brand. There's not a lot of difference between a government agency that's trying to do the best thing for the people and maybe a brand that's trying to make the best product for people.
Are there any other countries you guys are working on you could speak about that you've got your eye on to partner with?
We don't have anything set in stone but we’ve been putting out feelers. We have few people through our relationship with Waterkeeper Alliance which has 300 chapters across 35 countries, and their focus is protecting water. We use those relationships to try to form partnerships in the ground and one of these 35 countries or one of these streams or chapters to redo this thing. In summits and gatherings of the Waterkeepers, we've been able to meet people from Thailand, Hawaii and Tibet and propose the idea of showing them what we're doing in Costa Rica. Everyone seems receptive and down. It's a matter of us figuring out how to staff up and get everything going on the ground there. We also have to pick a place that's strategic to where our supply chain is.
I want to stay on this theme of partnerships. You've got an incredible partner in GoDaddy and we've been fortunate to benefit from GoDaddy as well getting guests on the show. I'm a personal user of it. You're part of their Make the World you Want
campaign which inspires people to take an idea, make it real and they grow it online. Our mission here at WealthFit too is to inspire people with ideas to go launch businesses and make a difference in their world and in the lives of many others. A lot of people want to partner with big brands. How did this relationship come to be? Say it in the context that someone might be able to take what you're saying, leverage this and go create relationships. Can you explain how it all got started with GoDaddy?
It was happenstance. The way the original communication started with GoDaddy was through a message. Tabby at GoDaddy sent us a message through our website. She tried to get in contact with us. We're always overwhelmed by the responses that we get on our website. She also tried to send us a message on Facebook. I can't even stress how fortunate it is. We were able to see it and we were able to get in and speak to her as they were closing the campaigns. We were one of the last ones to come on board. The reason why this happened is that they saw something in us that they saw it in themselves maybe early on or that they believe in wanting to promote. That is about going after an idea and making a change in the most important ways that you can by staying true to that idea.
When someone's searching online the sustainability movement, there are keywords, there are things you guys pop-up for. I understand that GoDaddy has helped you with that. What have they done? How do they help you compete online?
GoDaddy's thing is about empowering entrepreneurs and helping them be successful online. Most entrepreneurs like me aren’t super skilled in being able to create a digital profile that competes with the most successful businesses. With the GoDaddy tools, you're able to compete at a Fortune 500 level while also being a startup company and not having to depend on your own skills to create a strong social media presence. You could work with GoSocial
to create a third-party satellite team that helps you with engagement, coming up with post ideas. They also help you with search engine optimization. I wouldn't know where to start to do that. Now, I'm learning all about it. I still wouldn't be able to do it. There’s so much to think about. There's already a bunch of things to think about outside of doing what you do as an entrepreneur that you don't realize until you get in there. Besides managing people, the certificates you have to file for, the upkeep of all these licenses and then there are generating fresh ideas for your business. If you add in maintaining your digital profile too, that's undertaking that no one who starts a business is ready to deal with. Knowing that a company like GoDaddy can take some of the burdens off your shoulders has been amazing.
I want to take this to all the entrepreneurs out here because what we're talking about is having a presence online, having a good digital footprint. What do you think those that are in business, maybe they have a charity or thinking about starting a business. What do you think they should know about social media, digital presence and all the things you've learned having such a great partner?
About having a strong social media presence, that's the way the world moves now. If you're not on social media, you do not exist even as an individual. Individuals are becoming brands themselves. Having those tools available to you is a complete game-changer, but it's not even a game-changer in the traditional sense. It's a game initiator for an upcoming business or an idea. It's something that is completely indispensable. It's as important as the idea itself.
What channel has been the most responsive for BIONIC? Is it Instagram because you can show certain products? Is it Facebook? What channel sticks out to you as having been effective for your particular business?
I'd say the two most effective in our hand, things that have gone down have been Facebook and Instagram second. More business has come through Facebook than anything. More business and press opportunities and Instagram is valuable. I can't say we've gotten business from it yet but I'm sure our brand is growing because of it. There's more engagement on Instagram.
We found that to be the case too. We get business from Facebook, we get our audience, but Instagram is a brand play for us. I'm not saying that's it for everyone. I wanted to get your take on it.
It also goes hand-in-hand with the nature of your business. People want to see what we're making. People want to see what we're doing. People want to see where we are in the world and on the ground difference in how that's making a change in the world. Instagram is a greater platform for that for us. Specifically for another brand, it might be Twitter because Twitter is like a place for the snippet of ideas or the bud the flower grows from.
I also think that because it was overwhelming, I allowed myself to discriminate. If I thought, “That's too complicated. I don't want to deal with that.” I can't believe I'm alive in this era. I'm crazy for not wanting to milk every digital corner there is. I don't care if there are a thousand people in that platform, if they're willing to follow me and click a link, then I have to say, “I should do it.” Instead of being 80 years old and regret not using Foursquare or whatever it was, why not go for it?
That hits me hard because I was a holdout on Instagram because I was so used to Facebook. It was easy and then I felt clumsy and awkward on Instagram. I've gotten over it. I'm still awkward and clumsy on it.
What surprised me is how open people are to new ideas. Part of the entrepreneurial struggle is creating this thing that's holding you back or, “They don't want me to get there. I have to fight my way through it like Rocky.” You get into a meeting and people have been cool. People want to see, especially in the business we're doing, from the surf company to the furniture companies, it's been open arms. Not because our idea is cool, but in general there's a new age where people are open to things. If they don't understand, they want to collaborate and discuss different ideas. It feels like a good time to be an entrepreneur especially with all the digital tools and ways to connect with people around the world. This is the best time ever to be an entrepreneur.
What's next for BIONIC? What are you both most excited about?
It’s an expansion in every sense of the word. I'm excited about opening up a new recycling plant somewhere else or expanding our operations in Costa Rica and taking in more material, doing more with everything we have. Expanding with our digital presence, it's something we'll be able to do working with GoDaddy, with the team we have there looking out for us. Expanding our breadth, our reach, informing more people about what we're doing. There are still a lot of people that don't know who we are. There's still a lot of room for growth. I feel that will always be the case but growing, expanding and showing.
Alex, Tyson I want to move us into WealthFit round which is essentially my fancy name for rapid-fire questions. What’s been your most worthwhile investment?
It's been dealing with the people locally where we're working, making a difference in their lives and seeing how something we started all the way over in New York manifested 3,000 miles away. It's making people's lives better.
What's that investment you don't want to talk about? What’s that misstep you made?
Buying Ethereum too late.
When you're not buying Ethereum too late, life is great, you feel on top of the world and you’ve got some money to spend, what is your guilty pleasure spending? What do you splurge on?
Music equipment, MIDI keyboards even though I haven’t had the time to use it the way I want to. I like watching tutorials and making music but I haven’t found the time to do it. I still surf the internet for equipment but Alex is a little better than that. He’s making stuff.
We were musical over these parts and there is a creative aspect to everything we do. I do buy too many VSTs, Virtual Synth Instruments and constantly buying stuff. I'm like, “I’m definitely going to get this and use it.” It's piling up.
What have you become better at saying no to?
Definitely better at no across the board.
Anything that puts the mission at risk that doesn't seem true.
I’m like a counter, I’m super defensive. I know when to keep things in a way that I didn't understand before.
Were you always that way? Were you a guy that said yes to a lot of things?
Not yes but in starting a business, you're afraid to shut any door because you think that could be your chance. You're willing to even comprise or walk through a situation that doesn’t feel right because of the possibility of something being on the other end. From the jump, if it doesn’t feel right, I wouldn't even risk it.
Alex, it was you that said you were overwhelmed by being in the presence of the local government like it was such a big thing. I attributed that to a new situation. Some people may say fear. With fear and self-doubt being a big thing that stops people from achieving their goals, what do you do when you feel that creeping in, that uneasiness, that anxiety being in a new location? What do you personally do to overcome that?
One thing I do is consider that we are all human. We all make mistakes and we’re all trying our best. For the most part, we are trying our best. Ill-intention is rare. You never run into that when you're in the space we're in. You never run into people that want to do bad for bad sake. I remind myself that people are generally leaning toward good but I'm always leaning toward good. It’s always my intention to do my best to represent myself, our company and everything we stand for in the best way I possibly can. I remind me of that first and I say, “The sooner I get this done, the better job I do, the sooner I can get out of here.”
Tyson, do you have anything to add there?
I will do a better job at keeping that in mind. That's a good point because sometimes you get caught up in the heat of the moment that you forget that, “We're all here because we're trying to make the environment better and we figured out this cool way to do it.” I got frustrated at times.
I'm always interested to ask this one because I'm always looking for the hack or the thing that's going to help me perform. Does either of you have any secret, special routines or rituals that you do that you start your day off with or if you're off you do this thing and it helps you get back on track?
I like to do Muay Thai. I get punched in the face sometimes. Muay Thai is great for that. It keeps me on point.
He’s amazing at that thing, at the physicality of life. I think that physicality translates to having a strong mind. My approach is a little different. I wake up super early in the morning and I make tea. I am in complete silence and I'm not getting punched in the face.
I'm shocked there because you're both musicians but you're the music guy. I would have figured music with your tea in the morning.
I appreciate you being on the show on this special day. I love the mission you're up to and I have been grateful that you are doing what you're doing in the world. I believe we need this big time and it's obviously evident because of the success of your biz. For folks that want to keep tabs with you, maybe figure out who are the partners that you're working with that they could go buy and be a part of the sustainability movement. Where can folks best keep tabs with what you are up to?
Thank you. I appreciate what you're up to in the world and the game that you're playing. I appreciate you sharing it with our audience here at the show.
Thank you so much for having us, Dustin.