Why would two lawyers leave secure jobs with the federal government to launch a startup that was, at least initially, more crusade than enterprise?
Jay Sinha, who founded Life Without Plastic along with his wife, Chantal Plamondon, says they got the idea for the company after a health scare hit the young family close to home.
“A contributing factor to the creation of our business was a bad experience we had with toxic mould just before our son was born in 2003,” he says. “We were living in an apartment that was mouldy. When we discovered the problem, we moved immediately, but were both sick for the following year, which started us looking for ways to live more healthily, with fewer environmental toxins in everyday life. This included living with less plastic.”
But their search for more glass, canvas and metal substitutes for plastic quickly became an exercise in frustration. They soon discovered that while there were lots of places a consumer could buy, say, a thousand metal water bottles, there were not so many where you could purchase just one or two models such as the Klean Kanteen.
So in 2005, they created Life Without Plastic to source and sell earth-friendly products in small quantities. It was goodbye to plastic and hello to items such as fast-flow silicone nipples on Evenflo glass nurser bottles for babies.
They operate the business, which is now approaching seven figures in annual sales, out of their home in Wakefield, about 25 minutes north of Ottawa. The lower level is the world headquarters.
As an aside, I think this trend toward not only working from home, but setting up micro-retail enterprises in residential areas, should be keeping owners of shopping malls and office complexes across North America up at night. In fact, the City of Ottawa is currently studying the legalization of micro-retail, at least in inner-city neighbourhoods.
Life Without Plastic’s main market is the United States, which accounts for 85 per cent of sales, one-quarter of them in California. The company sells directly to consumers on its website and also has a thriving wholesale business that supplies more than 500 stores from its Ogdensburg, N.Y., warehouse.
Cracking the massive market to the south presented its own unique challenges.
“We had to create a platform for U.S. sales – we learned to deal with duties, brokers, middlemen, distributors, retailers and shipping,” says Ms. Plamondon. “The U.S. market is so diverse and difficult to penetrate because it’s really many different regions and sub-markets.”
She believes they have created a platform that other micro-retailers in Canada and overseas, especially Europe, can use to help break into what is essentially an opaque U.S. marketplace. Ms. Plamondon sees at least part of the company’s future growth coming from licensing this platform.
The issue of plastic debris infiltrating the earth’s oceans has been gaining traction in the media, with many celebrities drawing attention to the problem.
Musician Jack Johnson, for example, runs All At Once, a social action group that is pushing to ban plastic water bottles at concerts while encouraging fans to refill their jugs with tap water and bring reusable tote bags.
Mr. Sinha speaks passionately about the couple’s support for 5 Gyres, an organization aiming to eliminate plastic pollution in the five giant swirling ocean current systems. Non-biodegradable debris builds up in these large bodies of water, acting as a sponge for dangerous contaminants such as PCBs.
Mr. Sinha, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, met Ms. Plamondon at McGill University, where they both studied law and worked for competing student newspapers.
Before joining the government, he worked for a large Toronto-based corporate law firm and hated it. He recalls his final assignment this way: “We had one enormous company hire us to do background research to determine what their legal liability might be because they were shifting to entirely non-recyclable packaging. It never occurred to our senior partner to raise the question with them – whether this was a good idea. Our only job was to skirt existing legislation and help them avoid bad PR.”
The couple’s next steps include opening a distribution centre in Britain, which has an even bigger per-capita market for online purchases than the United States. From there, they plan to sell to other European consumers and stores.
Ms. Plamondon understands the potential of the European market, where consumers are not only highly aware of the dangers of plastic, but also willing to pay for sustainability.
“We expect better margins there than from our U.S. business,” she says.
Apart from the couple’s own activism, website and blog, Life Without Plastic doesn’t do much marketing, although Ms. Plamondon hopes to change that. She plans to do more advertising on social media channels such as Facebook, Instagram and Google to help grow the business and keep her three full-time employees, her bookkeeper, part-time graphic designer and tech guy busy.
But Mr. Sinha says that making millions was never the driving force behind the company.
“When we created this business, it was to achieve the goal of having more flexibility for our family and, hopefully, less stress as a result,” he explains. “More and more young people start businesses in order to improve their lifestyles; it is becoming a movement. What we have is a lifestyle business.”
A lifestyle and a mission.
Bruce M. Firestone is founder of the Ottawa Senators and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce.