Eco-cleaning supply startup Blueland’s founder on meeting supply and demand when your competitors can’t

June 15, 2020, 11:00 AM UTC

This is an installment in a special series, Startup Year One, interviewing startup founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

Sarah Paiji Yoo has been a serial entrepreneur for the past 10 years, having launched companies like handcrafted Italian shoemaker M.Gemi, kids clothing label Rockets of Awesome, and mobile shopping app Snapette. 

“I always loved the opportunity and challenge of building a new company, brand, and products from the ground up, but when I became a new mom, I developed a deep-seated desire to do something more personally meaningful,” says Yoo. “As a result, I took a break from work when I became a mom to step back and rethink how I wanted to spend my time and make an impact on the world.”

During that time, Yoo became passionate about curbing household waste and single-use plastic consumption. “That’s when I realized that I could have a much larger impact, beyond my personal consumption, if I could provide consumers with more choice,” she says.

Yoo cofounded Blueland last year, and the startup just hit its first birthday this past April. The timing couldn’t have been better. With the outbreak of COVID-19, cleaning supplies are among the hottest commodities of the year. And Blueland has seen a huge spike in sales since late February, and the brand’s Instagram following has increased 33% since March. While the company won’t disclose specific dollar sales figures at this time, Blueland says sales have increased by 250% over the four-month period from February to May, versus the prior four months (October 2019 through January 2020).

The brand’s streamlined, pastel-hued aesthetic might have fueled the Instagram love, but Blueland’s sales bump had help—or more like Blueland could help consumers when its competitors couldn’t. When grocery stores and local retailers were seeing their shelves cleared dry of basic household necessities, including Clorox and Lysol products, many people turned online for anything they could find.

Still, these shoppers aren’t the typical eco-conscious consumers who care about their carbon footprint, but they are now buying eco because it’s available. In an effort to retain these new customers that have been turned on to the brand for convenience rather than mission, Blueland has had to change how it speaks to these newcomers, who aren’t as driven by sustainability as the company’s target demographic. 

CEO and cofounder Yoo spoke with Fortune recently about her first year in business, building a loyal customer base, and what life during and after the pandemic might look like.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Blueland cofounder and CEO Sarah Paiji Yoo
Courtesy of Blueland

Fortune: With the pandemic shutdowns and working from home, not only are consumers more concerned with buying cleaning products but they’re also spending a lot more time at home. (I’ve heard from many friends and colleagues saying their homes are cleaner than ever, for this reason.) With that in mind, how does Blueland stand apart from legacy brands as well as other up-and-comers?

Yoo: We definitely are seeing that people are cleaning more than ever and more interested in purchasing our categories of products online than ever before. We do believe that many of these changes in consumer behavior are here to stay. We’ve heard from our customers as well that they have a whole new perspective on cleaning, and many are cleaning both their hands and surfaces around their home longer and more frequently.

Because consumers are cleaning more frequently and doing the cleaning themselves, they also seem to have become more discerning and interested in what products they are using. We’ve received a lot of questions from consumers wanting to understand how our nontoxic cleaning products work and why they are effective at washing away germs without the use of harsh, toxic chemicals.

To maximize our environmental impact and drive widespread adoption, it was important to us from the very beginning to flip conventional notions of “eco” on its head—to most, it means more expensive, less effective, and more work. Our tablet refills are just $2, so that consumers can actually save money with our solution, versus buying a brand-new plastic bottle of liquid cleaner. Our products have also been proven in tests run at independent labs to outperform the leading competitors.

And lastly, our products are convenient and easy to use: simply drop a tablet into a bottle filled with warm water. After a few minutes, you’re ready to get cleaning. From an environmental perspective, our products are the only cleaning products that come packaged in compostable paper.

“I decided to cut back on my plastic consumption, but then I realized how it was to do as a consumer, that so many of our most everyday products seemed to come packaged in single-use plastic,” Yoo says.
Courtesy of Blueland

How has technology shaped the development of Blueland, whether it be the influence of big data or social media?

Technology has powered communications between our geographically distributed team as well as global supply chain and has enabled us to work together quickly and effectively. In even the world of COVID-19, we’ve been able to continue our work as a team and with suppliers and manufacturers and even creative partners effectively through a mix of video communications, Slack, email, and collaborative tools and platforms.

Technology also powers our robust data and analytics tools and approach, which enables us to create better products and deliver a better experience for each of our customers and prospective customers, by helping us distill down and find relationships and trends among thousands of variables.

Technology has also powered our community, especially on social media. We’ve grown to almost 160,000 Instagram followers in just one year. It continues to be the most important marketing channel for us—to both reach new customers organically as well as engage with our existing customers every single day. 

What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced in the past year? What surprised you the most?

The biggest hurdles for us continue to be related to creating products that have never been created before and reinventing an industry that hasn’t historically been set up to put the planet first. We have been working on our two newest products—powder dish soap and dishwasher tablets—for over a year. In this process, we’ve had to create brand-new manufacturing and supply chains, convince ingredients and packaging companies to create custom solutions just for us, and create over 100 iterations of these two products before landing on the final formulation. 

“As a new mom, I did a lot of research into the water I was using to make my son’s baby formula. I was horrified to learn how many microplastics from our oceans and waterways were now in our food and drinking water—the same water I was using for my son’s baby formula.”
Courtesy of Blueland

What kind of feedback have you received from your customers, and have you (or will you) apply that feedback to how you sell your products in the future?

We have a very robust and open dialogue with our customers, which we encourage through social media, email, and customer service interactions. It helps us get valuable real-time feedback for our products, messaging, mission, and other activities and enables us to make better and faster improvements.

This year alone, it’s led us to make changes to our packaging, offer subscriptions, and helped shape our product pipeline. Since we launched, our customers have been asking for dish soap—it’s the number one requested item and has been requested more than 5,000 times via Instagram comments and DMs [direct messages]. On June 16, we’re thrilled to launch two plastic-free forms of dish soap: a powder for hand washing dishes, and a dry-form plastic-free dishwasher tablet.

Obviously, amid the coronavirus pandemic, consumers’ purchasing habits and practices are going to change. How will Blueland adjust its business plan for the immediate future?

We’ve continued to focus on how to make it increasingly convenient to purchase online, including our subscription offering, which we introduced during the pandemic. We’ve also increased our focus on highlighting the efficacy of our products and showcasing the test results we have from third-party labs that show our products work extremely well and outperform leading brands. 

Previously, we were much more focused on our eco and nontoxic messaging, but I believe that going forward, consumers will continue to be also very interested in efficacy.

All Blueland products are nontoxic, and like other non-antibacterial cleaners and soaps, its products are advertised to be effective at removing germs from skin and home surfaces.
Courtesy of Blueland

At the same time, how does a shutdown of this nature affect the future of the business, from product development to raising capital?

Given we sell hand soap and cleaning products, we’ve been in the small minority of businesses that have seen an increase in demand from consumers during the current crisis. In order to meet this unexpected demand and service our customers in a timely manner, we have shifted much of our marketing team over to fulfillment and customer service. Our team has been all hands on deck, willing to wear widely different hats for the time being, as we are very grateful that we are able to serve a real need at this time. 

And despite the increase in volume and pressures on our operations, we have actually decided to take steps to slow down some of our processes to keep our team safe and de-risk longer term disruptions to our operations. For example, we instituted split shifts in our warehouses to reduce the number of team members working at any given time. 

This period has highlighted for us just to what degree various parts of our supply chain are stretched. As air freight costs increased six times over during COVID, it was more difficult for us to increase our volume of our bottles, which are manufactured in Asia, versus our tablets and powders, which are manufactured in the U.S.

It has not impacted our approach to raising capital. We kicked off this year focused on building a financially sustainable business that can be profitable at our option in the near future. We continue to make strides toward this goal to not be dependent on outside capital. This decision early on in our life cycle and prior to COVID-19 has certainly alleviated some of the pressures that would have come to our business with this pandemic.

Looking beyond the post-pandemic era, which could be anywhere from a year to a few years from now, how do you plan to grow Blueland and what do you want the business to look like five years from now?

We’re thrilled to continue to grow Blueland into a household name. Our goal from day one has been to reach as many households as possible and to have the greatest environmental impact on the planet. In five years, we’ll have introduced a range of sustainable, nontoxic products not only across household cleaning but other categories as well. The Blueland home will be filled with beautiful, reusable, permanent vessels that can be refilled easily and affordably and delivered right to your door.