After seeing the amount of waste created by single-use items caused by COVID-19, Miles Pepper and Martica Wakeman created re-fillable sanitizer dispensers made from reclaimed ocean-bound plastic and launched Sanikind. Backed by thousands on Kickstarter, Sanikind raised over $300,000 before its launch. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Martica shares the journey of managing a successful crowdfunding campaign and navigating logistical delays with manufacturers.
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The origin story of a sustainable brand born from the pandemic
Felix: Tell us about the invention of the product and the business.
Martica: It’s an interesting story. My co-founder, Miles, was worried about his grandmother who was in a nursing home in Oregon. Oregon nursing homes were the first place hit hard by COVID. That nursing home was going to run out of sanitizer. He contacted a local distillery, got them sanitizer within a day. It gave him the idea of trying to connect more people in need with these distilleries. There was this big issue, really a communication breakdown, of distilleries getting 10,000 emails a day. We need sanitizer, we need sanitizer. Hospitals, nursing homes, homeless shelters, nonprofits–they needed sanitizer the most to help the neediest, and they couldn’t get through. Distilleries didn’t know how to certify them, to make sure that they were the real deal.
With a team of volunteers, Miles put together a free platform to verify these nonprofits and those in most need, and then connect distilleries to them. It was really amazing. Once the supply caught up with demand, Miles thought of the idea of creating a sanitizer that was actually sustainable. It is such an unsexy wasteful industry. There’s no reason why it should be virgin single use plastic for two ounces of sanitizer. Not only that, but it’s a bit doomsday. We’re all tired of doomsday. To make something that didn’t remind you of the fear, even subtly, or of the pandemic, and was a cute, colorful, convenient way to keep safe and healthy while benefiting the planet.
He invented FinalStraw, which is the world’s first reusable collapsible straw. That did amazingly on Kickstarter. It raised almost two million. He knew how to test the desire for such a product, and had worked with ocean plastic before. He’d actually been to Haiti to a facility that employs people to collect ocean bound plastic and recycle it–upcycle is really the right term–and reuse it for our everyday needs. It was the perfect solution to the perfect storm. We launched a Kickstarter in June. Between Kickstarter and Indiegogo, we raised over $360,000 in pre-orders.
Felix: Did you only validate through crowdfunding, or was there another product validation period?
Martica: That’s where I came in. I have a lot of experience with testing with users, understanding stakeholders, understanding the branding, their lifestyle, and price points. We did a lot of testing with people in our community, and then incentivized people in our network to go outside of our circle to see what else was out there. What’s interesting is that I am 34. Miles and his other business partner at the time were 25. We had parents, relatives, and friends. We had an interesting look at the age group. What’s the price point? The goal was to understand a little bit more about what people wanted.
The nice part about Kickstarter is if you had the right skills–which we had a really great collective skillset–you could put a campaign together with very little risk. There’s a bit of a mathematical equation, making sure that you’re gaining interest and collecting emails so that when launch happens, you really get to go out of the gate with a bang. Making sure that you’re managing the community, growing the community, answering questions. There’s a nice way that you can really just low risk test the market in real time and see if people want this product. It proved that they did, which was really exciting for us.
Why you should reach beyond your network for product validation
Felix: You were able to test the product through your network. Was this a personal network? Where would someone go to seek out feedback from their target audience?
Martica: It really comes down to putting yourself out there. We did initial testing with our friends and family. You’re going to get a lot of false positives because everyone’s like, “Yeah, of course we’ll buy this. We love this. Great idea, honey.” You want to get away from your own community and your network. That means becoming part of other networks. I’m part of Women in CSR, “corporate social responsibility.” I’m part of a few other networks. Those networks have no interest in lying or being biased by any means. That was really, really helpful.
“There are a lot of mistakes to be made in a startup. There would be a lot more if we didn’t have people give us their input.”
One of our business partners works at Spotify and he was able to ask his network. We’re talking simply creating surveys that are asking the right questions. You’re not leading the audience. Asking the right questions, and then putting it on Slack channels. You can incentivize. Sometimes that makes a huge difference if you’re not getting a big response. We care about the environment, we were helping create jobs with distilleries by buying our sanitizer from them. We had an emotional tie here. People were really happy to help us out. It’s also the height of the pandemic, where people are really extending themselves to help people. We were really grateful for people’s input. It was really helpful. There are a lot of mistakes to be made in a startup. There would be a lot more if we didn’t have people give us their input.
Felix: I can see wanting to seek feedback from people who are not in your personal network, because they’ll be more honest. How do you make sure you’re seeking that feedback from potential target markets in ways that aren’t overbearing or intrusive?
Martica: If I didn’t believe in my product, I would’ve bumped up against that and felt like I was a nuisance. I’ve always come from, “hey, there are just billions of trillions of tons of trash in the ocean. This is an issue for everyone.” I come from a strong background in sustainability–I know what is happening. I feel really privileged to be able to help. It sounds silly at times. I’ve colleagues who are on the front lines of climate change, and it’s incredible what they’re doing. At times I felt a little imposter syndrome of, “oh, I’m just helping make sanitizer dispensers more sustainable,” which felt a little silly at times.
But the impact that we’ve had is millions of pounds of plastic taken from the ocean. We’ve employed people across different sectors. It feels nice to teach our audience and our customer about what sustainability really is, what carbon offsetting is, et cetera. I knew that from the beginning. I never worded anything as “give me information. I need to get this.” It was always about, “Hey, we have this idea and it could work. There’s a lot of positive impact that this could make right now. Before we go further, your input would be really valued. And we’re all ears.” A lot of people would take the opportunity to call us up and tell me about their thoughts, where they’d want to buy it, and what they think would work. That’s really valuable. Some really, really smart people would stop their day and say, “Well actually, well, have you thought about this, that.” Et cetera.
It comes down to context. It always comes down to context. For anyone at that stage, make sure that you’re wording things in a way that’s thinking about the audience and what’s in for them. My audience truly feels like they’re part of Sanikind because they are. We value their feedback and we thank them. We keep them engaged and enrolled. Some people never purchased our product. But some people have been with us since day one. They know that they’re valued. That’s why they’re still with us. Long story short, it’s like what’s in it for them. There definitely is something in it for them.
Asking the right questions to expose core use cases
Felix: It’s also important to be careful with the kinds of questions you’re asking, so you don’t mistakenly lead them in the wrong direction. What were some of the most important questions you asked, early on?
Martica: I utilized a lot of online resources. There’s just so much information out there of what are good questions, what are bad questions? I have spent a lot of time doing stakeholder interviews. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes leading the witness, so to speak. A lot of people could be convinced that it’s a good product, so make sure that you’re not marketing during your questionnaire. You need to ask more of what’s the problem, and is this a problem that’s worth solving? For some people, exchanging their plastic sanitizer isn’t a problem worth solving for them. They simply don’t care. Their problem is it’s convenience. They may be purchasing their sanitizer at a checkout line from who knows where. That’s okay. It’s really important to know that.
Try not to shy away from the questions that could be a little confronting. Lean into the problem more so than the solution. Solutions may sound great, but oftentimes, it’s a Steve Jobs quote of, “Your customer doesn’t know what they want.” He provided people with an iPhone. We didn’t know we wanted an iPhone. We probably knew we wanted a few of the aspects, but we didn’t know we wanted an iPhone. Look at us now. We can’t live without it. Looking at the problem and solving from there is where you can get a lot more helpful information.
“There’s a lot of data out there that supports that people will pay more for sustainable products, up to 25%.”
Felix: How do you make sure that you’re uncovering the right use cases? I can imagine certain pain points are more relevant to some than others. How do you uncover that?
Martica: There’s a lot of data out there that supports that people will pay more for sustainable products, up to 25%. Each industry we’ve seen has been taken to task with sustainability. Some are using it as an opportunity and some are just complying with new regulations. When we looked at what some of these use cases were and value propositions, sustainability was going to be a no-brainer for us. It came down to the other aspects. How high end did we want to make it? How much did we really want to lean into the eco-warrior persona? It’s really important to make a list of who your audience is so you can understand your product market fit.
There’s a large spectrum of people that care about sustainability to different degrees. S’well Water Bottles are a great example of someone that we’ve really appreciated. They’re sustainable. You’re not using a plastic bottle when you’re refilling a S’well Water Bottle. But you’re also not focused on sustainability. You actually care about the look of your S’well Water Bottle almost as much as you care about the sustainability, if not more. They lean into that. They don’t focus on sustainability all the time.
We looked at them, and thought, “huh, well, we can make new colors and we can lean into that aspect of their model, but we can lead with sustainability.” What other brand would be a great example of that? You can list where people are on that spectrum and then compare it to the sanitizer industry, and place yourself in a unique position where you have that unique selling point for your brand. That’s where you can differentiate yourself and look to see if there’s actually a reason for you to carry on or not. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe you need to pivot your idea.
Felix: What’s your take on sustainability as a trend, right now? I know we’ve had other sustainability focused businesses come on the podcast, and they’ve usually emphasized that while sustainability is important, having a superior product comes first.
Martica: I completely agree. At the end of the day, if your product doesn’t serve a purpose, then sustainability doesn’t really matter. There’s only so much that a person is going to put up with for a product that’s not working. We see that a lot in sustainable or eco-friendly beauty products. A woman cares about a product being sustainable, or “clean.” But if it doesn’t work, she’s not going to use it. That’s the general sentiment. Stasher bags, the reusable silicone. They replaced our Ziploc bags. Those are great examples because they work so well. Almost too well. Sometimes you can’t get them open. They’re wonderful. They’re colorful. They lean into being sustainable, but at the end of the day, if they didn’t work, we wouldn’t switch them out. We were really clear that our product needed to work. It needed to add value.
That’s where making our product convenient comes in. We have a clip to our little mini. It’s one ounce. It sprays 450 times before it needs to be refilled. Our refills come in aluminum, which is infinitely recyclable. There’s no virgin plastic in our company. Our packaging is plastic free. We offset our shipping. It’s in our DNA, but people like our product because they can clip it onto the outside of the bag. It looks cute. They can use it. It’s colorful. It’s especially a big win with parents. Having their child remember to use sanitizer at school. We have mothers flooding our DMs with all sorts of feedback coming in saying, “We put this on my son’s bag, and he absolutely loves it.” We knew there could be a possibility there, but we didn’t expect kids to love it so much. They really did. Being able to refill it–every time someone refills it, they feel good about the decision that they made. It’s a little bit of a pat on the back from the planet, and people love that.
Smashing crowdfunding goals through authentic content
Felix: What were the key things you nailed when putting together a successful crowdfunding campaign?
Martica: A compelling video is really important. That’s what Miles is incredible at. His first video with FinalStraw went completely viral. He spoke at the UN. They were on Shark Tank. It took off. If you don’t have that skill set, make sure that you hire someone or bring someone onto the team that can provide that. Know who your audience is to the best of your ability. For instance, with these surveys, or in other ways, you can make sure that it’s speaking to them. We knew that people really cared about making a difference, supporting distilleries, keeping the American jobs there, and about the plastic problem. At the time, everyone was talking about how COVID related PPE was causing a plastic crisis. Everyone’s takeout food. We leaned into those and made it a bit more emotional than most videos on Kickstarter are or can be. If we were to launch that same product right now, it would probably speak a little bit differently.
Go with your gut instinct and be yourself. People don’t take a risk on a company on Kickstarter for nothing. If you invest in a Kickstarter product, you aren’t guaranteed that you’re going to get a product back. You are literally investing in a company, and the company is saying, “Oh, thank you. We’ll send you a product.” If that product never comes to fruition, or if it comes to fruition three years later, so be it. You can’t get a refund on your investment. It is what it is. You are investing in an idea and in the team.
Being yourself and being a human to people who are willing to take a risk on you, to believe in you, you owe it to that audience. It lands a lot better because it’s hard answering to a lot of people who sometimes don’t even know that that’s the way Kickstarter works. They might say, “Hey, where’s my product?” When you’re a real person, it’s a different conversation than when you’re pretending to be a different brand, a different entity, too professional, having it all figured out. You don’t have it figured out, and they know that. Don’t pretend. It can all be conveyed in that video. You can lay the foundation for that authenticity.
Felix: In your Kickstarter video, what were some of the key product components that you had to feature to convey the brand and product story?
Martica: We already knew what the product was going to be. We had CADs of it, or a digital version. Miles made a version of it that we could use for pictures. You’re showing people what the product is going to be. That’s really, really helpful. It’s like an ice cream brand. People want to see what the ice cream looks like before they buy it. When they do, they’re more invested. That’s absolutely critical. Showing people it, how it could work. Obviously one aspect is that we were using a spray sanitizer, which we believed was better than using a gel, which can get all over the place. We showed that a lot. We had to fake what it looked like to spray from our bottle because the initial didn’t spray.
You want to be creative with showing how this is going to work. We took video from Miles’ trip to Haiti. Showed people picking up plastic. We showed distilleries and what it looked like to have people filling bottles with distillery sanitizer. We painted a picture. Those are the key points. We have great music, and keep it upbeat and moving quickly. Our attention span, as we all know, is limited. You have to capture people initially and grab them immediately.
Creating buzz ahead of your campaign launch
Felix: You mentioned capturing the emails of backers. Did you develop any ways of capturing emails of people that weren’t necessarily backers initially off of that crowdfunding campaign?
Martica: Yep. You can run ads. Running ads is basically saying we’re going to launch, come join us. Simply a URL that allows people to enter their email address to be the first to know when launch happens. You’re building excitement. You’re counting down the days, the hours, the minutes until launch. Then you really want to make sure that you are working with credible partners, there are different organizations that we partnered with that work with people who are Kickstarter backers. They have their whole email list. We’ll send out emails saying, “Hey, this product is new on the market, it’s going to come out tomorrow.” They’ll send those emails to the people interested.
The Kickstarter community is really small. I can’t remember the stat off the top of my head, but most of the people on the platform have invested in multiple companies. You really want to lean into that, and find the different organizations and partnerships that have that audience in their ecosystem. We had thousands and thousands of emails to launch with. We even pushed back our campaign a few weeks because of the time. We had the civil unrest with Black Lives Matter, and we really wanted to keep the focus on that instead of adding any noise for something comparatively as silly as a sustainable sanitizer. So we pushed back our campaign. Continued to hold back on ads.
We actually couldn’t talk about sanitizer on Facebook. Facebook was not allowing it at the time. Anytime we’d talk about hand cleaner, antibacterial anything, we would get taken down–even if we didn’t say the word sanitizer. There were a lot of hurdles at the beginning. It’s worth making sure you hold back and really get those email addresses.
“The crucial aspect or mathematical equation to having a successful Kickstarter in the hundreds of thousands is creating that early excitement.”
If anyone is interested in launching a Kickstarter, the crucial aspect or mathematical equation to having a successful Kickstarter in the hundreds of thousands is creating that early excitement. On the first day, we reached over $80,000 in pre-orders or investment. That then had a snowball effect. You need the snowball effect so that it carries on with its own momentum. Otherwise it can be extremely expensive. That is critical. You should wait and hold back and continue to earn those email addresses rather than trying to meet an arbitrary deadline where you may not have enough emails to create that snowball effect.
Felix: You mentioned working with organizations that really elevated that kickstarter kickoff experience. Do you have any lessons learned or key takeaways that you’d like to share about that experience?
Martica: Backercamp. They were wonderful. They’re the biggest organization, so I would start there. They definitely take their cut, but it’s definitely worth the cut. They’re wonderful. They will always be helpful and responsive from our experience.
Using PR to build your post-campaign funnel
Felix: What was the next step, after the campaign?
Martica: We closed our fundraiser with Kickstarter and moved everything to Indiegogo in early August. We started working immediately on our CAD on the product, and just getting it into production. At the time, there was a massive aluminum shortage. All these giant corporations, a cat food company, Budweiser, whomever, they were purchasing all the aluminum. We had a really hard time finding the right bottle size that we had promised. We also needed to buy our sanitizer. What was interesting was that the sanitizer we purchased from a distillery thinking we were doing this great service to distilleries, didn’t smell as good as a sanitizer normally would because it’s from a distillery. That was an interesting setback. Then, of course, shipping delays. Onboarding to a shipping facility took extra time. There was a huge backup. But we were really optimistic. Looking back, we should have said it would be several more months, but we ended up launching the first week of December 2020.
Felix: What was your marketing strategy to generate demand after the fallout of the crowdfunding campaign?
Martica: What was interesting was that we didn’t have a ton of products in hand early. What would normally happen is if you place a big purchase order, you’re going to get samples. You’re going to get what you need to send out to influencers, to take all your product photos. We didn’t have the luxury of that, due to this massive delay in shipping across the world.
When everyone was getting their product, we were getting our product too. We leaned into PR instead of having incredible marketing. It was the ninth hour of your holiday shopping. Back then–we almost forgot that Black Friday was huge–but back then people were still shopping, and they were used to shopping in person. When that was taken away from us and we all had to shop online, for the most part, we weren’t doing it soon enough. There were delays all across. We had USPS defunding. It was a mess, so we leaned into PR. We had a few massive hits that were really incredible for our sales and building our customer base. We were in Forbes, GQ, Men’s Gear, Green Matters. Since then, we’ve continued to have wonderful PR, which has been amazing for us.
Felix: What was your strategy for getting this PR exposure?
Martica: We hired Be Influential PR, and they worked with predominantly impact companies and a lot of Kickstarters. We knew them from FinalStraw. Miles knew the founder directly. We can’t say enough good things about them. They know their niche. They have wonderful relationships. They understand the startup life and how crazy it is. They’re wonderful people. We knew we were in good hands, and given we couldn’t create a normal launch and it was the last minute, they came through tenfold.
Educating the market to avoid the ‘greenwashing’ label
Felix: How do you build that trust with your audience, so they don’t think you’re just some other brand hopping on the greenwashing wagon?
Martica: This is really important, and it’s not a phenomenon that happens overnight. There’s no real one ad that’s going to do it, or one partnership. It doesn’t happen that way. We built an Instagram and email marketing funnel explaining to people what is carbon offsetting? Why does that matter with my shipment? We put inserts into everyone’s package that explains our impact. They might have noticed the impact when they came to our website and purchased a product, but we’re reiterating it throughout the process for them.
They know how much plastic we’ve upcycled. They know the amount of donations we’ve made to nonprofits. They understand that there’s no plastic in their shipping. We ask them to recycle. Our emails mirror that as well. Where do you add value for a customer? No one really knows what carbon offsetting is. I’d like you to know so that you choose my brand over the next that doesn’t have carbon offset shipping. However, I really would rather you understand what carbon offsetting is in the first place and why it matters, how it can help you. It isn’t a perfect band-aid for climate change, but it certainly does help.
We’ve taken the approach of educating our customers, adding value to them, giving them tips on how they can reduce their impact. Someone who’s a total muse of mine is Blueland. They have an absolutely incredible Instagram account that has little funny tips, and then some serious tips. One thing that’s important with explaining sustainability is making sure it doesn’t feel like the end of the world, like we’re all just doomed. A lot of the news can feel that way, can’t it? You want to make sure that it’s funny, it’s entertaining, it’s informative, it’s optimistic, and it motivates someone to take action rather than to feel fear. I was really, really quick to say, “We are not doing any fear-mongering, not the slightest bit.” And I think that’s to a fault. I almost could have leaned into, “Hey, Omicron right now is a real issue. Let’s keep each other safe.” I almost shied away from that communication, because I don’t want people to feel scared. It’s no way to live.
Felix: How do you build a profitable, sustainable business? How do you balance sustainability with profitability?
Martica: You’re always going to have to look at the numbers first and foremost and see what makes sense. There are a few certifications out there that you can get. Climate Neutral is one. There’s 1% for the Planet. We’re a member of that. 1% of our profits go towards environmental initiatives. It was founded by Patagonia. There’s different aspects, and each has their audience, their industry and what makes sense for the business.
I would make sure that you’re creating the right fit for your product. Not every sustainable initiative is going to make sense for you. Donating sanitizer has been something that we’ve loved to do. We don’t talk about it a lot, or even enough. It makes sense because we are a product that would help a lot of people and keep them safe. Donations sometimes don’t work for other companies. If you’re a predominantly focused tech company, or maybe you’re a jewelry brand, donations don’t make sense. You could if you’re a jewelry company. An idea that comes to me is formerly incarcerated women who want to apply for jobs. Give them wonderful jewelry that makes them feel amazing.
It’s what lights you up because if something doesn’t light you up, you’re going to get really bored of it, just like your business. If your business doesn’t light you up, it’s going to be a slog. That’s for sure. It’s something where I love going to a nonprofit, Project Open Hand in San Francisco. We donated about 120 gallons of sanitizer. It was so fun to be able to drive up and drop off a ton of boxes for them. They’re so grateful. I have loved volunteering for them, and it meant a lot to me.
For anyone who wants to have an impact, first, amazing. You are great and you should keep going and you have a huge heart. We need people like you, so keep going. Second, really take a moment to think about what’s going to light you up, and something that you can carry on and grow and be almost just as excited to grow as the company itself. Whether it’s within the value proposition of your product, or it’s just you being responsible for the fact that we’re all extracting resources from this planet to make our products. How are we being responsible for that? We all should be, and I think we all want to be.
Looking ahead: Building a business beyond pandemic needs
Felix: Sanikind struck while the iron was hot, so to speak, when the pandemic started. Do you have a post-pandemic plan, or any big changes to account for moving beyond pandemic generated demand?
Martica: When we first started, everyone thought that we were going to be in lockdown for six weeks, and this thing was going to be over and we’d all be fine. As we kept going, there’s bigger and bigger delays, shortages. We realized this was going to go on for a while. Again, people thought, okay, we’re just going to go through the 2020 winter, spring. Summer’s going to come around and it’s going to be gone. Here we are. It’s December in 2021, and we’re all sick, me included.
What we do know is people were using sanitizer before. It’s a very seasonal product. As we saw in the summer, when things opened up, when people were moving around a bit more and felt safer to move around, they didn’t. When school was out, they didn’t use sanitizer as much. We saw it reflected in our sales. It wasn’t surprising. As soon as fall started to hit, as soon as the school season was back in session, we’re now seeing Omicron, sales are up.
Of course we want the pandemic to end. For us, it’s great to see the sales and be able to think about how we can better serve both our sustainability mission with having people buy a sustainable product rather than virgin plastic. We also just get a lot of joy out of keeping people safe. When we think about after the pandemic is over, we know people are going to be using sanitizer more than they were before the pandemic. Probably not as much as that initial summer of 2020, but we’re not worried about it. We think that this is going to be part of our everyday life going forward.
Masks, I think that’s maybe a different story, but sanitizer is a bit more bulletproof. Because we’ve attached ourselves to sustainability as well, we can expand our product line in ways that make sense with our core values rather than trying to reach for other products. You see a lot of beauty lines now having a sanitizer. Bath and Body Works as well, they’ve got sanitizer. Everyone has sanitizer as a complementary product to all their other staples. Whereas sanitizer is our staples. Where we could go with it, I don’t want to create a skincare line or beauty product. That’s just not for me. But creating products that are more sustainable and solve our everyday issues, that’s something I can totally hop on board with.
Felix: What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the first 1.5 years in business that you’ll apply moving forward?
Martica: Oh my goodness. It’s a big question because there are so many things that I’ve learned. As a founder, you make so many mistakes. Hindsight is definitely higher than 20/20. If we could go back, my Lord. I have a resilience that I really appreciate. It’s grown, that muscle of resilience has grown. I have a lot more compassion for making mistakes. It’s almost like you get a bootcamp in failing and getting back up really quickly. Where you find your resilience is a lot in people’s feedback, and reaching out to your community and focusing on the good and focusing on what’s possible. I’ve always been an eternal optimist. Starting your own company is a bootcamp in testing that over and over and over. To anyone who’s out there and wants to pursue their own business, I don’t think you’re going to have a better personal or professional opportunity to grow. I say do it. You’ve got nothing to lose. I mean, you do, right? But pretend like you don’t, and just go for it.