Imagine having an idea so big that it changes the way we live and betters the world… Meet Blueland, a company that’s disrupting what’s under your kitchen sink and the way you clean your house.
Sarah Paiji Yoo went from Harvard Business School to investment banking, launching multiple startups to Blueland.
A purpose driven company that’s reimagining cleaning products and the way we consume plastic. Sarah’s mission is to eliminate single use plastic and become a company that lives in every household.
We talk about her journey and how this idea came about (spoiler alert: there were multiple ideas before this one), the process of bringing something into the world that literally didn’t exist and the moment that Kim Kardashian tweeted about the company 3(!) times after seeing it on Sharktank.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Yeah, so Blueland is eco friendly cleaning products brand, and we are on a broader mission to eliminate single use plastic packaging.
And so effectively, what we've done with our first set of products is we've taken, you know, traditional cleaning sprays like a multiservice cleaner glass, a mirror cleaner or a liquid Hanso, which is typically over 90 percent water and typically also bought in a new plastic bottle each time. And we shrunk those down into these tablets that are about the size of like a quarter and packaged in paper instead of plastic. And the thought is our system is sold as a reusable, refillable system. And so you purchase just one set of bottles. After that, you never have to buy or throw away another plastic bottle again. And when you need more products, you can simply fill them up with water that you already have at home and drop in one of our tablets and make a full bottle of cleaning solution or a full bottle of hand soap. So, yeah, that's the premise of Blue Land. And our hope is to really do that across a range of other cleaning products and a bigger vision, certainly across other categories as well. And the idea for Blue honestly came about completely organically. I have been a serial entrepreneur, but the point that we came up with the idea for Blueline, we weren't necessarily looking for a startup idea. Know the journey really started when I became a new mom. And so it's not coincidental that we've been working on Blue Land about the same number of years that my my son is. But I became a first time new mom and I just became a lot more conscious about what was in his food and his water and what I was using to make his baby formula.
And in making his baby formula, I was doing a lot of research around tap water quality as well as if bottled water was potentially better than safer than tap water. And I was pretty horrified in that research just to learn that regardless of bottled or tap, that our drinking water just contains all this micro plastic, like hundreds of pieces of micro plastics. And I started to finally connect the dots between all of our plastic consumption and how it was now showing up in our food chain as well as in our water supply. And yeah, that's when it really hit me. And I kind of just made a personal commitment to cut back on my plastic consumption as an individual. And it was just an interesting journey because in that journey I found that it was so hard, as well-intentioned as I was, that as just the regular consumer, I just had no choice. You you walk into a grocery store or pharmacy like everything comes packaged in effectively, single use plastic. And yeah, that's when I decided that I could have impact far greater than my own personal consumption if I could find a way to give consumers more choice and provide products that I came in reusable packaging or packaging alternatives to to single use plastic. So that's how the idea for Boulard was initially born.
And when you kind of had that realization that you wanted to create something that was doing good for the world and you wanted to reduce the plastic, what was the light bulb moment that you thought, OK, I'm going to start with cleaning products? And and also then what happened?
Yeah, absolutely. What came next? Totally.
So it definitely wasn't a straight line journey at all.
You know, my co-founder, John and I, we'd been talking a lot about my journey as a new mom. He's also a serial entrepreneur. We were both very interested in having an impact on the world, sort of beyond just building a new company. And when I brought up this issue, we were we went to a lot of different kinds of solutions. And we actually cleaning products was the last category that we arrived at. Initially, we threw ideas around everything from like Bulc refills, think like shampoo and body wash and conditioner. And we were like, can we convince retailers to have these big vats of big barrels of liquid and convince consumers to have buy these bottles glass bottles and bring them back each time? But as we had ideas like that, we either wrote them off because we're like, that's just not realistic. Or we would go out to friends and survey them on the ideas. And so we explored everything from that to, you know, at one point we were deep down a path around toothpaste tablets before that became more of a thing. So as you can imagine, like three years ago, that was a very unknown product in toothpaste tubes. Certainly bothered me a ton, given they're just not even recyclable and yet learned to make toothpaste tablets in our own kitchen and distributed to tablets like 50 frenzies for seven days.
And, you know, just try to be really honest with ourselves, try not to fall in love with ideas, try to be open to the honest feedback that people are giving us. So that is one where 70 percent of our friends came back saying they would not switch to this product, that it just was hard to explain, but it was just too weird and too different of a behavior. So we cross that one off the list. Yeah. And then we ended up really falling in love with the idea of starting with with cleaning's, because we want to start a new category that was easier for people to switch in to, like we had seen a lot of efforts go into like shampoo bars, refillable deodorants, toothpaste. But we found that those categories for people are are harder ones to switch into, like, you know, especially for females with shampoo, like oftentimes like we have very specific hair goals or needs that we're trying to meet. And deodorant obviously has a very high performance threshold and it's really hard to get a natural deodorant. Right. And so we like the idea we're cleaning products. Again, just the barrier to switch wasn't as high and we just love that. It was so intuitive that you look at like a Windex or your multiservice cleaner, and that's clearly mostly all water.
And the idea of adding tablet's water was very intuitive for people.
Yeah, it's so interesting because I often hear people have the light bulb moment and they they know what they want to do straight away. But you guys really went down that exploration of like pivot this way, pivot this way until you found something that you will like. Yeah, this is like viable. We can build a business starting in this category and and interviewing your friends and that kind of thing. Just so fascinating.
I want to talk about how you met John Mascha and how you navigate finding a co-founder and working out what that relationship looks like.
Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, John, there were quite lucky to the extent that we known each other for about ten years and we had also had a working relationship together. And so John and I initially met in business school ten years ago. So we were both at Harvard Business School. We were in the same what we call sections. So a section is like a group of 90 people and you pretty much take all of your classes with that same group of 90 people for during your first year of business school. So you get quite close to that group. And so we were in the same section and we were actually in the same friend group as well.
We went on spring break together as well. And during our first year of business school, I ended up actively working on my first startup, which was a mobile shopping app and ended up not returning after my first year because I ended up raising some venture capital that summer after my first year and decided not to continue and not to graduate.
And so John obviously continued with the school and graduated and, you know, postgraduation. He actually also sort of jumped into the startup world with his own company called Bundoora. And so at that point, we were both running different stories myself, a mobile app, and he was running a consumer products company, so Juice and T brand for nursing and pregnant women. And so we were doing that. And about one year into his journey, he asked me to join his board of directors, which was great. And I was really excited. I had been really excited about what he'd been working on, had been staying close to his process, and so was excited to join in a more formal advisory capacity on his company. And so was on the board of his company, Bundall Organics, for a couple of years.
And sort of through those years, I sold my first company, started a few of others, and yeah, the stars just aligned right around. When I became a new mom, I decided that I did want to step back from the startup work that I was doing, because I think at that point I'd been about eight years in. And as much as I still really loved early stage company building, I think that rush and challenge purely of bringing a new brand and product to market wasn't quite enough for me. And I think I was looking for some more deeper personal meaning in my work as well. And so I ended up taking that pause and during that time ended up working more closely with Jon on his business and helped him sell his company, which was an exciting process. And yes, it then just turned out that his company sold. We were both at that point kind of like open and exploring and also just spending a lot of time talking about some of the experiences. I was having real time as a as a new mom and some of the areas where I thought women could certainly need the help or areas that I thought had nearly become interesting to me as a new mom. And yeah, that's kind of how we organically ended up working together just because we were talking a lot and we had very complementary interests and experiences as well. You know, my focus and I even just historically had been definitely more of the consumer facing side. So like marketing, digital product, brand and Jon's interests lay more in on operations, supply chain fulfillment. So, yeah, it just again, it happened a bit organically, but it was nice that we knew each other quite well. And we had also had that professional working relationship prior.
Yeah. And a lot of trust. I yes. Yeah. So you guys, you have the idea you land on what you're going to create, do you then go out and raise capital. Do you look for someone to help you develop the products? What was the next phase of bringing this brand to life and actually figuring out what to do.
Yeah, yeah. So the next step was trying to figure out how we were going to make the product and just figuring out if that was even feasible, because at that point there was no other tablet on the market, like a cleaning tablet had never been done before.
So it was a more obvious question for us. Was that even doable to create a tablet that would dissolve in water and be an effective cleaning solution or make a hand soap? And so, yeah, at that point, we were just and there's no roadmap for these things. And so I think what advice to folks out there that want to start something and don't know where to start? That's a completely normal feeling. And, you know, we just turn to like the normal, like the obvious places. We were Googling a lot. We were Googling for names of of cleaning manufacturers. We were trying to get in touch with chemists. Yeah. And we were just pretty much just trying to be on the phone as much as we can, trying to trying to get an understanding and getting feedback from experts in this space to see if if this was at all possible. And we pretty quickly learned that there wasn't an existing manufacturer that was just going to be like, oh, yeah, we know how to make that stuff or we've made that stuff before. We can make that for you. Everyone was saying that we'd had to come up with our own formulation. And so it became pretty apparent that we would have to find a chemist of our own and sent me every step of the seemed like an impossible task.
Like at every point it felt like we should have said, OK, like this is not doable. Like when we had like 20 manufacturers tell us, like, this is not possible. Right. Like when you have these manufacturers saying that, you know, these cleaning products are liquid, all of our ingredients are liquid, like, how do you expect us to make that dry? Like we don't even own tablet machinery or, you know, at that point, I feel like we could have taken that as a signal of like, OK, we try we are like, this isn't doable. But at that point, we realized that these manufacturers can help us. We need to find a chemist and that a. Seemed like another impossible task because we like John and I had no chemists in our network and there's no place you can just go to to find these chemists. And so we just then just turned to LinkedIn and was just searching for chemists that seemed to have relevant experience and then just called reaching out to them on on LinkedIn by direct messaging them. And we had it was like a list of hundreds of chemists, but we had them electron shot by first priority, second or third priority.
And then we also didn't want to like message to many chemists at the same company at the same time because they might talk to each other. And so we had to like kind of like pass it out. But, you know, there definitely is no secret sauce or road. I think it is just going out there and doing whatever you can to try to figure it out.
Wow, that's crazy. And so you found a chemist to help you develop the products then?
I imagine that's also really expensive to develop a product that you're essentially inventing or that you have invented. Yep, yep, yep. So you then raise money.
Do you want to talk about that journey a little bit and what happens in that process of you guys starting to work with the manufacturer and bringing this to life and funding the process?
Yeah, yeah. So, you know, honestly, if we had the option to do all of this for a long time without raising money, I think I would have been really fantastic. I think with our business idea, there was going to be quite a bit of upfront R&D as well as quite a bit of money we'd have to put down to get some of this manufacturing started. And so it was clear pretty early on that we would have to raise outside capital. And that's that was really hard given that we didn't have a final product yet. And so I think luckily, you know, John and I were in a more unique position where we had been sort of serial entrepreneurs and had each sold companies that had a set of investors that that made us and trusted us. And so I think the process was still certainly not easy, but it was probably easier than it should have been otherwise. But I also say that, look, that even though that process took us six months, like we'd been building those the relationships that I trust over the course of like five plus years, I ended up, I think with fundraising. I'm just a big believer in momentum, I think is really important. I think especially when you're in a situation like ours where there isn't a product to be shown and there certainly isn't traction that you can show.
A lot of investors, understandably, are going to look for social proof and are going to want to know, well, who else is investing right and are they reputable and credible. And you're going to get that question. So if you're going to fundraise, I'm just a big believer. You have to like like go fast and cover a lot of ground versus stretching it out, because I think what you don't want to do is go very slow and then have people ask, like, well, who else is in? And you have no new names to show for it. Or and when they check in again two weeks later, still have no new names to show it. And so it kind of was a speed game for us. And we made it pretty efficient. And I just had one trip out to San Francisco to like one sort of two day trip, was able to meet with probably about 20 different firms and individuals while out there. So it was pretty efficient and otherwise were based in New York. So we're able to connect with a lot of folks easily there. But I also think I would just really reassure people that it's also normal for nothing to happen for a while. It's because it usually takes like the first person, right? The first major person to say yes. And then being able to circle back to a lot of other people and say that this person's in or one's that person's in. It's it's a lot more interesting to other people because at least they know that someone else repeatable is interested. So that that piece is normal, too. Because I did I did feel like for a couple of months there was there is no movement outside of everyone saying like that. This is great. It's a great idea. It's really exciting. You keep us updated. And it wasn't a no, but it wasn't it wasn't a yes.
And you have some really high profile investors. I read Justin Timberlake, part of your your board or an investor in the in the business.
Yeah. And Kevin O'Leary with the the shotting deal, which is obviously just so amazing. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the Shark Tank episode and what it's been like since that ad and working with Kevin O'Leary specifically since then?
Yeah, yeah, jeez, I know, I mean, going on Shark Tank, like, seriously was a dream come true. I feel like a shark tank's been on the air for about 11 years now. So it really had coincided with my own jump, my initial jump into entrepreneurship and sort of my life and in startups.
And it always been sort of a dream of mine to to if I were working on the right type of business to go on Shark Tank. And so we still can't believe that that we were able to have it happen. And it just align so much with our mission of really trying to be in every household in America and aligned well with the product positioning for us. Like we worked so hard to get our price points very low, like the two dollar a tablet refill was something that we just didn't want to launch or compromise on. We want to make sure that this product could truly be an accessible product in a mass market product. But yeah, I mean, that whole process, though, was it was was definitely frightening to some extent. It was very nerve wracking, but it was incredible. I mean, it's definitely led to an absolute step change in our brand awareness. And it's afforded us so many opportunities. It's already reran once on ABC. We have another rerun coming shortly.
In our first rerun of that episode, Kim Kardashian actually caught the episode. Yeah. And she tweeted about saw it. I saw it.
It was crazy because we were already excited that it was rerunning nationally and we were all standing on standing by and we saw a huge spike in sales. And then during the episode on top of that, Kim Kardashian tweets not just once, but three times in a row, like she just kept going to our incredible, incredible surprise. And so it's it's been a great journey. And, again, really grateful that we've had have had that opportunity and they've been so supportive. And Kevin as well has been fantastic. Like we we truly didn't know what to expect. And honestly, I didn't expect very much like going into Shark Tank thinking, like if we did get an investment from one of those investors. I just I just figured it surely had them having done this for 11 season, having invested so prolifically across so many businesses, I always wonder, like, how can they really be able to carve out any time or focus for for these companies? But he's been incredibly accessible. We we text or talk probably once every week or every two weeks. He's very engaged. She's always thinking about us when he's out talking to the press, he's really down to do it, do anything. I mean, we we even ended up shooting a TV commercial with him that's been running for the past few months.
And he did it all for free because he was just he's he's just so excited to be supportive in in any way that he can be. Wow, that's so cool.
Yeah. Has he made back his money on the royalties yet? He actually is very, very, very close to it at the moment.