Updated: Oct 30, 2020
Project Blu, the sustainable pet bed and accessories company has rocketed to success since its launch in May 2019. We caught up with CEO and Founder Geryn Evans to find out more about his startup journey.
What came first for you, a passion for business or passion for the environment?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. When I left university I did the corporate thing for a couple of years, but it wasn't for me. I ended up joining my family furniture business. The problem with the UK sofa industry is that in terms of sustainability, it is terrible. People are buying on finance and changing their sofas every 3 or 4 years with sofas ending up in landfill. During this time, I had my dog Ralph, a cockapoo. What I noticed, is when I was shopping for dog beds, basically they came into two categories. About 99% were cheap and poor quality, made in China and really bad for the environment in a number of ways, or, on the other side, they were made by local artisans. These were really good quality, but expensive and you couldn't really scale a business like this. A dog bed is essentially a small sofa!
After an initial pet bed venture we started thinking more about sustainability and looking at the environment and the impact that polyester and plastic have. We started to research how we can make the pet market more sustainable. We came across what Adidas did in collaboration with Parley, where they took the ocean bound plastic to make trainers, which was amazing. I saw that as a starting point of inspiration. Essentially we were able to replicate what Adidas had done, and we created Project Blu, launching in May 2019.
We started getting really good feedback from retailers and made the decision to put sustainability and the environment at the core of our business. Everything else built from there. So the answer is both basically, but it's ‘put the environment first’
What was the key motivating factor at the time you started your business?
If you look at how often you need to replace dog beds, potentially it’s one or two years depending on the colours and on the dog. The only way to get rid of them is by putting them in landfill.
As I was learning and understanding more about the existing market, I became aware how big the problem was. Most of the drive in sustainability is either in the food industry in the way of organic foods, or in fashion. People like All Birds and Patagonia were doing it well, but no one was really doing it for the pet industry. It is a big, big market and it has been dominated by mass produced products in China.
With the new beds we have coming out, we are aiming to create what we call ‘a dog bed for life.’ Essentially when the dog cover gets tired, the customer can recycle it and then buy a new replaceable cover from us for a fraction of the price and keep the bed. At the moment we are guiding customers to recycle fabric as you would recycle clothes; it is closed loop
How did you finance your business?
We bootstrapped it. It's a joint venture between myself and our partners in Tuscany in Italy. They’re one of the biggest pet producers in Italy. We (Geryn and his co-founder) both had existing businesses, so we just paid ourselves from the other businesses while we got it off the ground. Luckily for us, when we officially launched in May 2019, a lot of B2B customers paid us in advance which is unheard of.
The sales were really good. And then we had investment from Mars and RGA and a programme called Leap Studios. We had secured $200,000 investment which was a blessing as with COVID our production had to close for three months we had no revenue. We are back up and running now.
Did you have any initial challenges and how did you overcome them?
My background is product design. So I sort of enjoy the challenges, There are a lot of barriers to entry in what we do, including little things like warehousing & shipping. We had to get a recycled and recyclable vacuum pack bag so we could reduce the size of the dog beds for transport.
As we’re selling into Europe, you've got all the different languages. So you’ve got to make sure that all the marketing materials include all the different languages.
COVID was probably the biggest challenge because Italy was hit first. We didn't know when the factories were going to reopen so we had to find backup manufacturers in America and Asia as well because we have demand for Australia. But it doesn't make sense to send the beds from Italy to Australia. America is a big market for us. It doesn't make sense if the demand suddenly explodes to make the dog beds in Italy and then ship them to America as it takes about two months. So there have been some positives there.
We've decided to use Amazon as our logistics partner. There are huge pros and cons to that but we've got a strategic relationship with them where we're trying to improve Amazon’s sustainability as well which is great. The challenge was alternatively, to ship the goods internationally, if not using Amazon you'd have to have three separate warehouses with three separate rules. We have been impressed by Amazon. Anything we've asked them to do, they've done it. Amazon's main focus in the next 5-10 years is sustainability and improving it. They actually approached us which is incredible as we thought we were way too early for them.
What are your main revenue streams?
Our team in Italy focuses on the B2B market, distributors and large retail chains. We decided from the start that we wanted to focus on the DC (Direct to Consumer) side of the business because the revenue might be less but your profit is higher. Also, the value and the control you have of the customer and your own destiny is really high.
If you were to start from scratch, are there any changes you would make?
The idea only came into my head 18-19 months ago, so growth has been rapid to say the least.
We want to just keep driving the innovation and the change. We really want to be known as not just as, the anti-plastic pet company, we want to be known as the number one sustainable pet brand. So we're constantly innovating new products. We're working now on a new recycled leather range which is ready in the next couple of weeks. When they cut the cow hides there's a lot of scrap leather that's just thrown in landfill so we work with a company in the UK to get that waste and we break it down into leather so we've got recycled leather. Soon we will be able to convert fishing nets into plastic style products like litter trays and dog bowls.
Is it difficult to make a green business profitable?
Yes! It's hard. Customers are prepared to pay slightly more for a green product. Even if we've got basic economics, there's less sustainable materials out there than non sustainable. There are fewer manufacturers who can do what you want. So that will put your cost up. Investing in the packaging does cost more.
So if you have a D to C business, going through the direct distribution channel, supplying a distributor rather than a retailer, they've all got to make margin along the way, and you've got to make margin. It's it is pretty tough.
Do you have any top tips for those launching a green business?
1) Just put sustainability at the core and build around it rather than the other way around.
2) You have just got to be very careful because, for example, you could be supplying Walmart, turning 10 million a year and the buyer changes or they try and make their own version.
3) Shopify is amazing - you can link it up to Facebook into retargeting, plus it allows you to change the language and scale internationally as well.
4) Don't be afraid to make mistakes. When you hear about all the best entrepreneurs, they've all made mistakes and they've all had tough times. When I finished university I was a bit naive, I thought ‘that will never happen to me’ and yeah…..it does.
5) When you know you're onto a winner, you have to be cautious. There are so many what I call ‘snakes in the grass.’ So many people try and ride on the tail of your business and get a good deaI. I do think most people in the world are good but you do have to be very, very cautious.
6) Don't rush anything. Just take your time and do it properly.
What gives you the most hope for the environment?
It's so complex because you've got politicians and everything above them. What is inspiring, however, is that consumers are making sustainability a priority and they're acting with their wallets. I think if the consumer is demanding more and more sustainable products then big retailers and companies will listen because it's money for them. What that means is, it drives a change.
If people in some developing countries are beginning to realise the value in the plastic bottles they’d normally throw away and they know there’s value in the product then they will recycle it. It’s all about the closed loop. So even if we pay a premium for our recycled plastic from India, it’s because we know it’s been properly collected.
We’re not saying that Project Blu is going to solve all of these problems. But I hope we can inspire other entrepreneurs to make small dents and have a bigger impact.
When communicating with customers, educate them, rather than being aggressive with your messaging. Sustainability on its own doesn't sell, so you need to have a great product which is also sustainable.
I think working with Mars has also been great. If you consider what Mars has done- if you go on their website, it's all about sustainability, not really about the products. Some people could criticise you and say Mars or even Amazon have had a big negative impact on the environment. But I think by working closely with these big companies, you are going to make a small significant impact. We've been really impressed. They have been unbelievable to work with. They are really nice partners.
You can find more interviews with eco-friendly business owners here.