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The Real Story & Timeline of Ecoternatives

The Real Story & Timeline of Ecoternatives

For those curious, here is the real timeline and story of Ecoternatives:

Edit: At first I was going to write something brief, but this became a bit more like a journal entry, and pretty close to the the full story of Ecoternatives

At least as much as I wanted to write down.

Pre-Ecoternatives:

I grew up in Hawaii near the ocean, where I always felt a sense of connection and appreciation to it. I was also able to witness, first hand, how global warming and our plastic crisis was effecting it. 

I also went to a high school that offered a great environmental program, and outside of school, I started volunteering for an environmental organization to try to be part of the solution.

In terms of my actual high school schoolwork, I usually got good grades, but also had a deep frustration with it. I always felt like the work I was doing wasn't having an impact on anything, anywhere.

I was someone who was good at learning outside of school, and thought that school was getting in the way of my education - as funny as that sounds.  

I also worked a good amount: cleaning pools, working on cars, and investing. You can read a bit more about me in our about us or in my university's press release here.

Starting A Business, Month By Month:

It's July 2020, and I just finished my first year studying Economics at Cal Poly. But I found that I didn't really love everything that I was studying. I was 19 at this time.

August 20': My little brother asked me why sustainable products are so expensive if they’re better for the planet.

September 20' I started building the world’s most affordable eco store.

December 20': I took a quarter off school to read as many books as I could on both marketing and building a valuable business. I knew if I couldn’t create "just another online store" and expect people to come to it.

January 21', I spent $3,000 on eco friendly products and stored them in dressers in my bedroom. My first product ever was a bamboo toothbrush from a local supplier in Hawaii.

February 21':  I was told so many times that you shouldn’t compete on price, so I forced myself to pivot.

March 21’: I Launched A Store That Donates As You Shop

I launched replacedplastics.com, a store that donated 50% of its profits. I called it a profit-for-purpose store. Each product showed you how much purchasing that product would donate, and you could choose the nonprofit you wanted your donation sent to.

Next few months: I tried every single way to market my business without any paid advertising or capital behind me, I had to get creative.

Here are just some of the several things I did:

  • Tried to partner with nonprofits
  • Sent 100+ bloggers commission links
  • Emailed 100+ 'ecofluencers' partnership offers
  • Paid eco theme pages on IG to post about my business
  • Posted on public forums and Reddit
  • Partnered with campus clubs
  • Tried giveaways with big brands
  • Hired an intern to test out Pinterest
  • Created videos for other brands that linked to my store
  • Emailed local newspapers, magazines, and news stations to feature me
  • Used google ads to advertise
  • Attended popup fairs

The list goes on… but nothing was yielding results that could actually get Ecoternatives to scale.

I came to the means that I couldn't get people's attention, because I wasn’t solving people’s real burning issue: that sustainable products were too expensive.

Although a store that donates as you shop is a great, feel-good idea, it wasn't working out.

This is when things really changed, because it's when I realized that the status quo isn't the best rule book for everything. I get that you shouldn't compete on price, but in this industry, where it's the largest burden, it needed to be done.

And no one was doing it!

Edit: I want to note here, that I didn't start achieving "price" at the expense of quality or ethics. Which naturally, made things harder. As one of my mentors told me: "I've just never seen this done before". But that's how every great business starts.

June 21': Aidan Rebrands, Ecoternatives Is Born

I changed the name from Replaced Plastics to Ecoternatives because too many people were spelling Replaced Plastics wrong. And I thought Ecoternatives was a better name.

However, people are now also spelling Ecoternatives wrong, so I didn't quite solve that problem...

From here on out, I started "competing on price" pretty poorly.

For example: I loved these recycled trash bags and thought everyone should know about them.

My company was too small to purchase them wholesale, so I would purchase them at retail prices, and then sell them at the same price I got them for. Just because I thought people would love them, and they were a great product.

I did this with a few other items as well. It seems crazy looking back, but I needed to do it to get people's attention.

90% of my orders were local deliveries at this time, so I would hand deliver just about every order, for like $4.50. 

This is one of the first deliveries I ever did (during Covid-Era) to a friends house, they had me take a photo with some of their products after.

The next year:

I had to go back to California for school, but all of my products were in Hawaii. Because I was a one person team, I couldn't ship out products or do much work. But I was okay with that, I spent the next year learning about things like:

  • How to build a brand rather than a store
  • I read tons of early case studies of successful brands and marketing campaigns done by other startups
  • Did an incredible amount of research on every single sustainable product and company out there. And learned a lot more about raw ingredients and sustainability. I can't emphasize this part enough haha.
  • Did lots of competitor research
  • Spoke with 100's of customers online, through phone calls, and zoom about their current frustrations shopping sustainably (I wanted my store to cover all bases)
  • Learned a lot about consumer decision making and irrational behaviors humans make
  • How to grab peoples attention through copywriting and the art of storytelling
  • Lots of behavioral science and psychology
  • How habits form
  • How to create an outstanding shopping experience and become a "purple cow" (if you see a black and white cow, that's normal, but if you see a purple cow you're going to tell everyone about it, and it's probably something you won't ever forget.)
  • Conversion Rate Optimization
  • User Design & Experience
  • Ways to increase Average Order Value & Customer Life Time Value
  • The ins-and-outs of paid advertising

The list goes on... but I went a inch wide and a mile deep into lots of aspects about sustainability and unorthodox business.

July 22': TikTok 
I was never a fan of social media, especially not TikTok. But I finally downloaded the app and started experimenting with it.

One of the videos I made blew up, and I woke up to about 100 orders I had to fulfill that day. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get them all out the door before my local USPS closed because people are so used to Amazon's 2-day shipping.

TikTok was crazy because for the first time in social media, it didn't matter how many followers you have. If you have a good idea, and package it in a viral way, the algorithm will get it out there.

September 22': Getting A Fulfillment Center

I went to Europe for 2.5 months because I had bad travel jitters. During this time I knew I no longer could ship products out of my house in Hawaii, so I started working with a fulfillment center in Texas.

I chose Texas because it was in the center of the US so carbon emissions and prices on shipments would be the lowest.

Being this picky about a fulfillment center made the process a lot harder, but it's really the thing that differentiates Ecoternatives from other stores. We have to do a lot more research, testing, and work on the backend of things if we want to build an incredibly cost-efficient business.

I'll give you one small example of this: instead of purchasing "filler" for our packages that I would send out in Hawaii, I shredded boxes we would receive our inventory in, and used that for filler instead. 

I also forced my little brother to help me:

January 23': Open for Business 

I opened my store up for business again, and started hiring creators to post on our TikTok profile. However, capturing attention can be a very hard thing to do, and we weren't getting where we needed to be.

So I started making some more of my own videos when I had time off from school (I was a senior now), and we couldn't keep up with the demand that followed.

The top comments I would get were from people not believing that my prices were going to be actually affordable, or that I was running a legitimate business. It was quite funny:

I even found this reddit post online about someone asking if my store was legit:

But the people that did check out, would put me out of stock. I didn't get any outside money to start Ecoternatives, so it was hard to buy enough products to always be in stock.

At this time, I also finally got a lot of data from real customers on my site, and used that to further improve it.

June 23': I Graduated & Got Into A Startup Accelerator Program

I was chosen as one of 8 businesses to work in California for 12-weeks, receive a $10,000 grant, and be mentored by some of the smartest minds.

We got to meet with the head of design at Adobe, head of user experience at Google, one of the first employee's at Apple, etc!

I was working long hours every day, but it was what I was looking forward to for years. And for the first time, I didn't feel alone in my work. Everyone else in the program was also 21-23 years old, and was taking a huge risk just like me.

Side note: it's common knowledge that 90% of all startups fail. It's a scary statistic that we were all aware of. We didn't know which of us would be in that 10%.

Anyway, it was the first time I could talk about Ecoternatives, and the people I was talking to could understand those ups-and-downs, hardships, and mental stressors. Previously, I wouldn't talk about my business much - in fact, many of my friends still don't really know what I'm doing.

From the program, I learned a lot about entrepreneurship, legal/HR/tax things, pitching to investors (was a requirement to learn, but never my goal), customer acquisition channels, and lots more.

My biggest take away though, was that I learned how to put systems, operations, and hires in place to make my job easier, and offload some of my work. 

I finally started to work "on" the business instead of "in" it. And for the first time, it was easy to get people to help me work on it.

You see, before my business gained traction, I would literally pass out fliers around campus.

And drop in on random upperclassman business/marketing classes to pitch my idea - hoping to find a cofounder or intern.

The people who were interested, would never stick around. Although they loved the idea of Ecoternatives, they didn't love working on it. 

But the funny point is that now, since I've gained a bit of traction, I've probably had to turn away over 200 job applicants. And before, people wouldn't take my fliers haha.

The Stressors:

Although the accelerator was a great time, it was also an incredibly difficult time. You have to understand that throughout all these years, I didn't know (and still don't know) if my business would be successful or not.

"but Aidan, you have customers right?" 

Yes... but there are a LOT of random costs to running a business, and I still don't make any money from Ecoternatives to pay myself (and probably won't be able to for a while). Startups often don't pay their founders until they start making 1 million+ a year in revenue.

The accelerator also had a need to help build the next multi million dollar business... why else would they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into this program?

And that meant a lot of pressure.

At this point I had spent $30,000 of my savings, reinvested all the money Ecoternatives made, and made thousands of sacrifices worth of weekend trips, fun days and nights with friends, and time with my family.

At this same time, here are some real things I was told:

"You're a great marketer! You should focus on doing that for another company instead, you could make a lot of money"

"A marketplace is just about the hardest thing you could have chosen to build, believe me I've tried"

"I've thought about your business a lot, and really can't understand why people would purchase from you".

My head mentor for the summer even told me that he didn't want me to pitch at the end of the program's investors showcase - unless my pitch very drastically improved. 

(I did end up pitching, and had "one of the best pitches")

But know that for every harsh piece of feedback I got (which I am very grateful for because it helps), I also got good feedback.

Still, I don't know if I would have done everything again, if I knew in 2021, what I know now. 

October 23': Finished my Business Program

By October, I hadn't done any real marketing in months.

In fact, I had about 7,000 email subscribers, and haven't even sent out one newsletter to them.

That's because for the past few months I still wasn't happy enough with our website, systems, products, and underlying business. 

I took a break and started traveling around Australia by van, and working virtually.

Only in January, did I get to a point where I wanted to start driving traffic to our again.

January 24': I Started to Market Again

My sales were slowing, and I didn't know if my short traction was a fluke or not. 

I started rehiring a team of content creators, and also hired my friend who was a great media manager to train them this time. But short form content creation can be really hard, and it again, wasn't as successful as it needed to be. This is not the creators fault, they did the best job they could in their circumstance.

Up to this point, I preferred to stay on the operations side, because I didn't want to become the face of Ecoternatives. But I realized that's what I had to do.

Thankfully I had some good help on the operation side of things though, so it made it easier. Shout out to Messiah!

February 24': 2 Million Views From 7 videos

I started to post some old slides that were in my drafts, and the next 7 that I did, generated us a sum of ~2 million views. I was sold out of products again, and at the same time my fulfillment center told me they were closing.

I was so so used to these issues though, that it didn't even bother me.

Today I'm:

- Developing an Ecoternatives app after tooooo many requests

- Building a subscription box feature into our website after months of wanting to do this!

- Further expanding our product line, and am at the point where I can make sure we never go out of stock again.

- Reaching out to customers and making sure everyone is more than happy with our products. And we're testing new ones.

- Finding a new fulfillment center.

- Publishing 15 blogs from 3rd party testers reviewing ~100 top zero waste products I sent them.

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