Emma Cohen’s time in Thailand exposed her to the effects that single-use plastics had on the ocean. She spent most of her days there cleaning up the washed-up plastic waste on beaches. Emma was so moved by this experience that she returned to school and completed a Master’s in environmental management and sustainability from Harvard. After working for over five years in sustainability research, Emma poured herself into developing a collapsible and portable stainless steel straw and launched FinalStraw in 2017.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, founder and CEO of FinalStraw, Emma Cohen shares how she built a cause-focused business and grew it into a financial success.
I never did any business school training...You just kind of dive in and start making mistakes and hopefully, you can surround yourself with people that can help direct you in the right way.
Insights shared by Emma Cohen of FinalStraw:
- Luck needs preparation for your idea to take off. During the development of FinalStraw, it seemed like the timing was perfect with cities passing legislation to ban single-use plastics and social media’s focus on the effects of plastic waste on our oceans. But for Emma, this interest has been with her for years and she ensured to keep up to date with environmental news with setting up Google alerts.
- Have a balance between product and education. If Emma had it her way, the communication sent to customers would solely be focused on environmental education but she knows that showcasing the product is also important, especially during key sales and holiday periods but for plastic-free month in July, the communication is only on education.
- Let actions speak for themselves. Prior to launch, Emma had predictions on which color schemes will be popular and also customer feedback on features that they felt were important but sales trends proved otherwise. It’s important to pay close attention to customers’ actions while planning for future products and launches.
Felix: Today I’m joined by Emma Cohen from FinalStraw. FinalStraw is the world's first collapsible reusable straw, annual revenues in 2018 of $5 million and was started 2018 and based out of Santa Barbara, California. Welcome, Emma.
Emma: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me, Felix.
Felix: Yeah, excited to have you on. So take us on this trip that you took to Thailand and what you discovered when you were there.
Emma: Yeah, so I was in Thailand and there for a few months and I was on these beautiful, amazing remote beaches and would walk down, and it was crazy because I couldn't take more than a couple of steps without picking up a plastic straw. So I created this routine, and every morning I would go out and I would walk the beach and I would collect straws and by the end of my trip I just had handfuls upon handfuls of straws and it just really hit me there that they don't have the waste management infrastructure to deal with this pollution, and then if the straws are ending up in the beaches, they're then traveling out to the oceans where they are breaking down into microplastics and getting consumed by the fish, which bioaccumulates up the food chain and into us. So it was kind of this really hard-hitting time in my life where I saw the direct impact of plastic pollution and how it's affecting our ecosystem, and that was really when I swore off plastic straws.
Felix: Right, so you obviously were impacted by this. You saw the impact on the world and of course also on your immediate life. You wanted to make changes here. So what made you take that step towards just seeing this problem for yourself and actually trying to build some good organization some kind of business around solving this problem?
Emma: Totally. So that trip was a super formative trip for me. Before I went, I was kind of just not really applying myself the way I generally do. I was making jewelry and just kind of making enough money to get by. And it was on that trip I read a quote, and the quote was, "With increased privilege comes increased responsibility." And so the combination of reading that quote and then seeing the devastating effects of plastic pollution, I immediately went home and completely changed my life. I moved back in with my parents and started applying to grad school and got a waitressing job and was just like, "This is the turning point in my life where I need to do something different."
Emma: I got into Harvard and did my master's in environmental management and sustainability and got a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory in waste minimization and worked there for five years, and then was ready for something new and different and wasn't really sure what it was. And then the stars kind of just aligned and I ended up starting to work on this project and didn't have any clue where it was going to go, but just loved it.
Emma: It's really fun for me to be able to work on something where I can use my creativity and my voice because at the lab, creating promotional material with memes is not necessarily encouraged, and yet that's how I communicate all of my messaging, well, a lot of it is for FinalStraw now. And so yeah, I was just super fired up and excited to be working on something that I was really passionate about, and then launched in April of 2018, and it just kind of was a rocket ship that exploded and really haven’t looked back ever since.
Felix: Right. So it sounds like you were kind of struck by this passion idea you want to go after and just start taking steps, taking steps and kept walking on this path towards where you ended up today. Were there any points along the way, though, where you're like, "I'm not sure that this is the right path for me"? Did you ever have any doubts along the way?
Emma: Not while working on the straw project. Definitely not. It was just always really exciting and fun and I was learning so much every single day. I never did any business school training, and so to start a company is business school on crack. You just kind of dive in and start making mistakes and hopefully, you can surround yourself with people that can help direct you in the right way. But no, no, I've never felt like it wasn't the right path.
Emma: I didn't have a ton of expectations going into it. I was like, "I'm going to launch this project on Kickstarter, see what happens, and if the world responds and they're into it, then I'll keep going. And if the world says, 'Meh, not interested,' then I'll find something else." But luckily enough, the world was very affirming and really said, "This is needed. We need solutions out there. Waste is a design flaw." So it really was exciting and encouraging to find out that people were really interested in this type of item, and inspiring because I thought of a ton of other ideas that I want to work on.
Felix: I like that you mentioned about how if it wasn't going to work you would just try something else, and that's not the first time where I've heard people basically saying that you want to be firm on your cause, but be flexible and adaptable on the solution that you're bringing to market to advance that cause, so it sounds like you had the same mentality going in. Obviously worked out, the first kind of shot that you took at this. So speaking of that first shot, where did the FinalStraw project come from? Why was it at this point in your life? Because it sounds like you had many years already involved in the kind of space. Why was it at this point in your life where this project came into being and you decided to pursue it?
Emma: Yeah. I was basically coming to my five-year mark at the lab and just wasn't feeling like I could express myself creatively, and I knew it wasn't something I wanted to do longterm. So I was looking for other things to do, and I met my former co-founder, and we just started talking about this idea, and the timing was just incredible because I was like, "Well, I've been saving up money. I'd like to quit my job," and so I did. I quit and I moved up to Whistler, British Columbia, and was skiing and had the time to spend on this project.
Emma: So it really was all about timing, and I relate most of our success to the timing and the fact that the world was really ready for this idea because if we had launched even six months earlier, I think that it would have been crickets. People just weren't focusing on single-use plastic the way that they are now, and especially the straw, which became this kind of gateway plastic and this beacon for an item that is incredibly low-hanging fruit and something that's really easy to remove from your daily life.
Felix: So timing. Was it luck or did you see that this wave was coming and you just wanted to work as fast as possible to catch up to it? Which one would you attribute it more to?
Emma: It was definitely both. I have Google news alerts for basically anything related to plastic, so I knew it was coming. I knew that Seattle was about to enact their straw ban. That came into effect in January of 2018, but what I didn't know is that Seattle was going to create a tidal wave of additional legislative bans, as well as corporate buy-in. So not only do you have crazy sweeping of plastic straw ban, but you also have all of these enormous corporations like Starbucks, Disney, Alaska Airlines, Marriott, all electively removing single-use plastic straws, so it all happened at once. And I certainly was like, "The Seattle straw ban is going to have an effect," but I could never predicted that it would be this large.
Felix: Looking back, so you mentioned that you had Google alerts and you paid attention to legislation, but looking back, were there other things that you would pay attention to? For someone out there that is trying to see when is the right time, when is the right timing, or maybe they're looking for a cause to get behind, they're trying to find out what is that thing that will kind of help them ride a wave, what were some things that you would say you probably could have seen or paid attention to? What are some green flags, I guess, that would have said that this was something that was going to become much, much more mainstream?
Emma: Well, as I said, the legislation that was going into effect, but then there was a huge gap in the market. There was nothing out there, not a single item that was a portable straw. Now, when you go on Amazon, there are telescoping straws, there are folding straws, there's silicone. There are all of these different types. When we launched, the only types of reusable straws you could get were long, straight straws that were really difficult to carry with you. The bamboo ones, they make your drinks taste weird. The glass ones break. I went through many glass straws in my purse that would just shatter, and then I would have this jagged glass piece in my purse. And then the metal ones were equally as dangerous. Starbucks had to recall 1.8 million stainless steel straws due to mouth lacerations.
Emma: And then additionally, there was no easy way to clean them. You had these big bulky items and no solution for people who want to take sustainability on the go, so it was this combination of there being nothing out there and what was happening with single-use plastic and the conversation. You had all of these celebrities getting involved and really elevating the conversation to the limelight. And so the combination of those two things I would say were the big flags.
Felix: There's this groundswell of demand and conversation, but no real supply. There's nothing out there to help actually serve the demand for people out there that wanted to, like you mentioned, to have this kind of conservation, this kind of sustainability on the go. How did you know what features were important to your particular solution? Where did it begin to decide, okay these were the things that are, because like you mentioned, there are things already out in the market that sort of did it, but not to have the kind of features that you eventually employed in your product. How did you know what you need to include in your solution?
Emma: Yeah, so that actually is really, it's really nice these days that you can actually figure out those answers pretty easily. You go on Amazon and you look at what exists in the market and then you look at reviews. What do people like about the product? And what are the factors that they point out? And so going through each review and categorizing, okay, here's a point that they like, here's exactly what it is that they liked about that. And really breaking it down. And then looking at the other side of it, what do they not like? How can I make it more convenient? What are they complaining about? And how often is that a complaint? Is it something that a lot of people are saying? Or is it a one-off sort of complaint? The combination of looking at reviews and then also just talking to people.
Emma: Once we started working on prototypes, we'd show it to people in everyone's first question is how do you clean it? We immediately knew that easy to clean was going to be the number one thing that had to be on there. And we had to include a cleaning device. Then beyond that, design people love beautiful design, we all gravitate towards beautiful things. And so just, like Apple has created these products that people really go to, even though the function isn't necessarily better of an iPhone over a 'droid, in fact, the cameras on 'droids are way better. We all have iPhones because they're beautiful and easy to use. That was another big thing. We have to make this something that's intuitive. We don't want, we're already trying to teach people so much about carrying a straw with them, which is a massive consumer behavior change. But what can we do to make it as simple as possible so there aren't a ton of questions.
Felix: I was going to say, so you probably could not address every single thing that you saw in your research. How did you know what you should actually pay attention to? What you should build into your features? And at least the very first couple of versions and what things you can kind of put in the back burner and maybe ignore altogether?
Emma: Yeah. When you're designing a product, you basically create kind of three buckets. The must-haves, the nice to have and the kind of, it would be great if we could add this on, but it may not happens. With the must-haves it was really clear, do the frequency when I would read reviews and also the frequency when I would talk to people of the questions they would ask. Easy to clean, easy to use and beautiful design. Those were kind of the three top things that we looked at.
Emma: And then from there it was like, okay and also, sorry, easy to carry. That's why we had the key chain attachment with it. From there you kind of start to filter down because when you're designing a product, you can't include everything you want on it, otherwise it will be insanely expensive or huge. And for us, portability was number one factor as well. We really wanted to keep it very compact. Yeah, I think it really just has to do with the frequency that you're hearing these things. And when you look and scour reviews or talk to people, really pay attention to how often someone is asking a question because that means that the rest of the world will probably be asking that question a lot as well.
Felix: Got it. It's almost like looking at the frequency of these kinds of comments, looking for the themes and you mentioned that you cannot, you have to say no as some point, you have to cut the, kind of cut off the features at a certain point otherwise you have this kind of creep where you're constantly adding more and more things. You mentioned it's going to be expensive to get it to market if you're adding too many things. It also might just take you too long. You might have so many ideas, so many different things you want to put into it, that'll take you forever to get it to market. Do you recall what was maybe the hardest decision you had to make on something to not do or to do when it came to the product design?
Emma: Yeah, totally. We had basically six months to take an idea and a prototype to making 100,000 straws for the Kickstarter backers that we'd sold them to. Mind you, we had no idea how to do this, literally zero. To create a product in six months and deliver it in that timeframe when all you have is a prototype is super challenging. There were a lot of decisions that were made that were rushed. What comes to mind when you ask that question, when we, the first version of FinalStraw had a drying rack and a cleaning squeegee. And I really didn't like this design. At one point we had a conversation and I was like, this is an extra piece of plastic. It's, it's over-designed. I don't think people are going to use it and it doesn't make sense for what we're really trying to accomplish, which is, using the minimal amount of materials to solve a problem.
Emma: And so we had a whole team meeting and got together and said, "Well, we can either move forward with this drying rack design and deliver the majority of our product on time." Because we'd promised product by before holidays, or we can start from scratch and we will then not produce product until, I don't know, April or something of 2019. The decision was ultimately made that more good would be done with creating the product with the drying rack because going four more months of people not having a reusable straw is creating a ton of waste. I definitely don't regret moving forward with that decision. I think that it was the right thing to do to also test. Are the drying rack and cleaning squeegee effective? Is this something that people are going to like and want to use? Because my opinion is definitely not always the right way to go. Just because I don't like something doesn't mean the customers won't. We really do try and test everything and put it out for vote and use kind of a small subset of customers to help us guide the direction of where the company's going.
Felix: You mentioned something in there about how you had no idea actually how to create this thing beyond the initial prototypes. Talk about why you moved forward anyway with the crowdfunding and putting this out to the market even though you couldn't see the entire path to get you to producing the product.
Emma: Yeah, I'm a risk-taker. I'm an adventurist, I just kind of like to go for it. That's been an interesting learning lesson too now, running a company, learning how to kind of temper the go for it, just dive right in sort of tendencies that I have with testing and making decisions carefully. I think the purpose of the crowdfunding was that we just had no idea if people were going to even like this product. And I would show it to my friends before we launched, they were like, cool idea, you quit your job for this? I think that no one, not a single person ever said, "Wow, this is going to be a hit. You guys are going to make millions." No one said that. And so this was, crowdfunding was our way of dipping our toe in and seeing if this is something people even care about. And it turns out people really care about these kind of products. It was a really easy and low budget way to do some pretty big market validation.
Felix: Based on what you've seen or the entrepreneurs that you've which one do you think entrepreneurs need more of, this kind of dive right in mentality that you took on early on or the more calculated approach that you seem to be trying to adopt more as your company's maturing?
Emma: I think it really depends on the product. In terms of tech and stuff would say calculated because you don't want to release an app and then have it not work and then lose your customer base because they're like, "Oh, I tried that, it didn't work." And then trying to get that customer back in is difficult. I think it really depends on what you're putting out there. But in general, because my approach is dive right in, I would say dive in. We dove in and no one knew that this was going to do well and it did. And so we got lucky in that respect. But there were a lot of calculated approaches when it came to creating a pre-campaign strategy, creating the market thing and the messaging. Finding a really distinct brand voice. Though we basically put the idea out there with no idea how to kind of take it the next steps, there was a lot of calculated action done ahead of time on how to build the audience, how we wanted to communicate, how we want to come across to people. It kind of was a bit of a balance of both.
Felix: So it sounds like you went heavy on the marketing, the promotion, the branding, the audience building side, and then see they want this product first before you invest any more time, energy, resources into trying to build it. Is that a correct approach that you've taken?
Emma: Yeah, and I mean additionally we just didn't even have the time to really take the next steps. We both quit our jobs and worked for three months straight building this campaign, putting together all of the material, getting the prototype to a place that we were happy with it. So, had we had more time I think we would have looked at more of the setting up the manufacturer, getting a 3PL but additionally those things are super expensive and we only had $30,000 to start this company. So there wasn't really an additional budget to start investigating these other downstream things that needed to happen.
Felix: Okay. So let's talk about Kickstarter and the crowdfunding campaign. So you ultimately ended up raising 1.8 million dollars with over 38,000 backers so huge success from this. Did you know that you guys wanted to go into the crowdfunding Kickstarter route to start with or what caught your eye towards wanting to take that approach to launching the business?
Emma: Yeah, definitely. We started the project with the idea of going to Kickstarter and to see how many people were interested. Kickstarter is a really amazing platform for being able to launch ideas and they do drive their own organic traffic so it seems like a really good way to test and say, "Is this something people want?"
Felix: How long did it take you to prepare to go from the decision to say, "Let's launch this on Kickstarter," to actually be able to push the campaign live?
Emma: So we started working loosely on the project in October of 2017 and immediately we said, "We're going Kickstarter." That was always the plan but we didn't really start spending the full-time hours until January of 2018 and then it was both of us were working full time for three and a half months to bring the project to life.
Felix: What did you spend most of the time on during this preparation phase of Kickstarter?
Emma: So, getting the prototype ready. A lot of the prototype was made handmade. We found someone to mock the case up in CAD but the straw and the squeegee that we showed on Kickstarter were literally just made by hand. The straw was made using medical tubing. And so, we had to test all of these different types of tubing, find out which one had the best elasticity and then how to hold it on. We actually used orthodontist's rubber bands to hold the tubing together. And then, I spent a ton of time on the messaging, and the marketing, and creating the brand voice. I love making memes and I learned how to use Photoshop in college just because I liked making stupid memes and different random photos of my friends faces like Photoshopped on someone else's body. And so, I worked a lot on creating the social following and getting people interested in what we were doing and excited about the launch.
Felix: Got it. So, when you look back on it what was the best use of your time when it comes to launching on Kickstarter?
Emma: That's a good question is the best use of our time was the video. I mean, the video was what people really remember. When I talk to people who they're like, "Oh, I remember that, the mermaid, right?" That's how people remember us. They remember the star of our video. And so, we spent a ton of time writing that script and working with the production team to get that exactly perfect. So much work in post-production too because I'm an insane perfectionist and so there's just like all these tiny little things that probably 99.9% of the world would never notice.
Emma: But I guess to make that a little more of a general statement I would say developing the brand voice. Who do you speak to? What kind of words do you use? How do you want to come off? We are sassy, and fun, and sparkly, and not afraid to curse and get our point across in a bold way. And so, that developing that brand voice and then also as we bring more people on the team ensuring that they understand that that's how we talk and that's how we like to create messaging was probably the best use of my time.
Felix: Yeah. So, understanding your customers, developing that brand voice, figuring out how to set the messaging. Like what is the messaging that you want to put out there? These are all where you consider what you spend most of your time but also where you found that is was the best use of your time. So what do you actually do when you're trying to develop those? Is it just time spent like thinking and ruminating over this? What are the exercises? What are the practices that you had to put into place to discover the voice of the brand?
Emma: Well, luckily our target customer is me so I got to just really think about what I liked and what I would want to see in the world. And what I like seeing are companies that are fun, exciting, have interesting messaging and are silly. So, it was like basically creating something that I wanted to see in the world which was really, really fun.
Emma: In terms of spending of how I come up with the ideas I just go on super late night down the Google rabbit hole and looking at what others are saying, what other memes are out there any random weird idea. I just start Googling and seeing what else is out there and is it something that I am coming up with completely or that's completely original or are there already things that exist that I can look at to inspire me? Certainly brainstorming is my favorite way to come up with these. Like when we're working on new scripts now I'll work with someone else and we just spend two hours on the phone throwing jokes back and forth and saying, "Is this funny? Is this stupid?" I never know. I have the sense of humor of a 14-year-old boy. So I'm like, "Is this funny to just me or will other people laugh?"
Felix: Yeah. You mentioned that this was an important thing for the Kickstarter campaign but I think it's also important even without just in general which was that you spent a lot of time trying to understand how your customers talk. So, can you explain more about this? Where were you looking to determine, to figure out how they're talking? Because like you said you are your target customer but for someone out there that maybe doesn't feel that as closely tied to their brand where do they go to do this kind of research?
Emma: Social media. So, look at the comments that people leave. This is also where you can look at other brands. If you know that your target customer is buying say a Hydroflask. For our purposes Hydroflask is a great example of a company that our customers are also buying from. What are they saying in the comments there? And really diving down into the exact language. For us a big question was like, "Are we a collapsible straw or a foldable straw?" So we would put out both sets of those languages and see what people resonated with. So do a lot of AB testing in ads and seeing, "Okay, which exact words are we going to use?" Because you want to be mimicking the language that your customers use because that resonates with them, that feels familiar, and they are going to feel a deeper connection if you're using the words that they would actually use.
Felix: So you take the comments that are on your social media or on your, on competitors or even other similar brands, social media profiles, what the customers and what the audience is commenting on. How does that get used? You mentioned in the ads, where else do you use the language of your customers?
Emma: Yeah, so we use it all over. We'll pull direct comments and use it for ads. Maybe it's a question that we see a few customers coming up with so then we write a blog post on that. We use what our customers are saying to inspire the direction that the brand is going. Looking at future products, what colors do they want us to add? What nonprofits would they like to see us support? Ultimately the brands that succeed have a dedicated customer base. This isn't just like, "Oh yeah, I use this item." It's like, "I go out and I tell my friends about this incredible thing that has added so much joy to my life." And we want to make sure that that's the kind of relationship we have with our customers. It's intimate. It's more than just a straw it's a conversation starter.
Emma: It's where people are able to really feel connected to this movement around single-use plastic because ultimately when you look at the news and read the headlines. It's really easy to feel like the problems are so big that we can't solve them. So we want our customers to feel empowered. That, though it is just a straw, it is one step. It is the perfect beginning step towards living a life using less. And then also sharing that message with your friends, coworkers, you know, a random person sitting next to you at the bar that says, "What's that?" When you pull out your Final Straw.
Felix: Makes sense. Okay. So you also said that images are important, things that you pay attention to the photos out there. Is that the same strategy, looking on social media or where else can you determine what kind of content, visual content your customers want to see?
Emma: Yeah, totally. So, I look at the way that people post photos of their straws and then we'll mimic similar photos in photo shoots. I look at color schemes, I look at how do people set this up? Because a lot of times, someone will create a photo of a Final Straw and I'll be like, "That was a genius way to position that" and then we'll use it. That's the beauty of social media, everyone's putting this information out there for brands to learn from. In addition, I look at what other items are they carrying with their straw.
Emma: So like let's say, you know, someone is posting a photo of their Final Straw with a Corkcicle water bottle, then I'm going on Corkcicle, I'm looking at what colors they're doing. I'm looking at their newsletters. Really everything. I subscribed to way too many newsletters cause I want to see what other companies are sending out, what kind of promotions they're doing, how often they're sending them. This is the kind of scrappy way when you've never started a company before to just learn from everything around you. This is my first company. So it's learning so much, making so many mistakes and also just trying to surround myself with the people and the information to make the best company possible.
Felix: There's this kind of art in size to brand building and marketing. But you've taken an approach of starting with the science first, by seeing what's working first and then maybe adding your own creativity, your own art to it. Rather than just kind of going down this path and staying inside your own head and not seeing what's already successful out there. So you've taken an approach first of see what's successful. Start from that, start from that as your kind of foundation and build from there. Do you have any examples where this has led you down the wrong path?
Emma: I think that some of the times when I've implemented it the wrong way is by not thoroughly testing these things. For example, we just released our black straws and so they come in two variations of black straw with a black straw and then, sorry, so it's a black case with a black straw or a black case with a gold straw. I was certain that the black case with the gold straw was going to do a million times better. So we ordered way more of those and yet, we released it and black on black is doing twice as good. So the mistakes that are made are because I'm not thoroughly testing it. And as soon as I start believing that my opinion will be the result without looking out and the thing is everyone else on the team thought the same thing, but we didn't test it.
Emma: And so really, everything, all of the answers are in the testing and entrepreneurs that aren't looking to test every variation and aren't willing to pivot and maybe that are married to their idea over what I would call the best idea. That's where you're going to see a lot of failures. I've seen it in the past with companies that have come to me for advice and I say, "Look, you got to change your name. It'll never work with that name." And they don't test it. They just move forward with that name and then it doesn't do well. You've got to put all of these things out there and you have to be willing to pivot because if you don't, you'll get stuck in your own quicksand.
Felix: So there's nothing better than putting it out there and seeing the results as like the true test. And you know, I think what you're getting as testing at a smaller scale before you place such a huge order. The other thing that you mentioned that you've done is that instead of spending a bunch of money on focus groups to find what people want, you just go and ask your audience. So from things like the colors to the kind of products that they might want to see you guys launch. Where does the conversation happen? How do you open the door to having these conversations with your audience?
Emma: So there's kind of two different ways that we'll do it. First of all, we'll just do a poll. Some of the posts that we have with the highest engagement are when we do color contests. People are so excited to be involved in the creation of the next product. And so we get incredible engagement. We have kind of three tiers of different audiences. So we have our ambassador crew, which is like a really tight group of people who pass through our training and really want to be directly involved with the company. That's about 500 or so people. So we can use that for the smaller tests. Then we've got our final crew, which is a private Facebook group of about I think 7000 people and then we can kind of test things on a larger scale there. So maybe that's where we've narrowed down some of the information and then we want to see what this next, tighter group says, and then we can open it up to the wide audience and say, you know, "Hey, what do you guys think of this?"
Emma: The second way to test is just simple AB testing and ads. So you don't need it, and it's really inexpensive, is the beauty of it. You can put a hundred dollars behind an ad and AB test with two different images, look at your click-through rate, and then you know, once a winner has been decided, then you can really focus on that image. Beyond that, you can also test copy and start to see what people are really responding to. It depends also on the type of engagement you want. Are you trying to just get clicks? Are you trying to see what's eye-catching? Or are you trying to actually create a conversion? Because sometimes you'll create an image that might get more clicks, but then you won't create the conversion the way you want it. So really focusing in on what you want to test and then implementing a test to get a proper result.
Felix: Has there been a time where a customer, I think this is in line with what you're saying too. Have there been times where customers have given you feedback and then their actions don't reflect their feedback
Emma: When I was talking about having the version one of the straw with the drying rack, you know, people, when we came out with a version two without the drying rack, people were like, "Wait, I miss the drying rack" even though our reports that said that people weren't using it. So, that brings up more questions of are people just missing it because we're removing it or was it actually being used more than we found through tests and I don't really know.
Emma: But yes, of course, there are tons of times where people are going to say that they're going to do something that they might not actually follow through with. And that's one hard thing about testing, especially when it comes to the environmental sphere. You can run tests and say, would you pay 50 cents more for an eco-friendly product? And people will say yes, but then you see in action that a lot less people will actually do it. So you always have to keep that in mind when running these tests if you're asking a specific question like that.
Felix: When it comes to running ads to do these tests, can you do the same thing? Or have you done the same thing to determine a product's release or product features or colors, like things that are related more to product development itself?
Emma: No. So in terms of product development, we really are doing these polls and asking people directly what you'd like to see next. We haven't done it for ads because generally if you're running an ad you have the products already or you know unless you're doing a presale. In terms of looking at what products to do next, this is where I'm really focusing on what, because I am the target customer, it's what I want, it's what I really need and wish existed in order to reduce my own personal single-use waste. So I'm really able to look at my behavior and my daily actions and, and say what would make my life easier in order to live zero waste. That's how I'm basically determining what products are next.
Felix: So again, speaking of the ads then that are more focused around the branding or the messaging or the copy and the photos. Would you ever want to optimize an ad towards clicks rather than like conversions or purchases? Like what's the kind of strategy when it comes to the ads? What does the ultimate goal for you guys?
Emma: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it really depends on what your ad is leading to. We recently started working on a blog and so for there, we're not looking for conversion. We're just trying to get people onto the blog and find the blog so that they can find another resource for educating themselves around single-use plastic waste. Ultimately, I didn't start this company to sell a bunch of products. I started it to educate people and raise awareness around single-use plastic and promote behavior change. So, yes, we do sell straws, but that's not the purpose of what we're doing. We certainly do just create ads to get engagement. Additionally, we want to draw people to our Instagram account.
Emma: So if you're creating an ad that's for engagement versus conversion, it's going to show to a lot more people that might not be directly within your audience, but that's how we get people, "Oh, what is that? Oh that looks fun and exciting and interesting. I would like to follow that account." And then if you check out our Instagram account, it's really dense with information. So we're really trying to go beyond just selling straws and tell people about what is happening in the world, ways to reduce your impact and also create a community where people can connect with each other and share their own personal journeys.
Felix: Yeah, definitely want to touch on the platform that you've created for education in a second before we get there. The ambassador crew, the final crew, the Facebook group you said the ambassador crew has about 500 people, the final crew, the Facebook group has about 7,000 and I'm guessing the last group is your entire email list or social media that you put this out to. Does the feedback change from level to level?
Emma: Definitely. I mean from our ambassador group, we get really detailed feedback and we're forming relationships with all of these people very direct. When it comes to the feedback that we get from the larger world, I mean people who don't know the brand, they don't understand why anyone would even use a straw. It's these different kinds of levels of engagement and understanding for what the issues are and why we exist and why we do what we do. At the end of the day, if your answer to reducing single-use plastic waste is to just not use a straw, that is absolutely 100% the best way to reduce your waste. If you're the type of person that really wants or needs a straw, then we provide a sustainable alternative.
Felix: What about the guidance? Does the guidance change from level to level? I mean could the ambassador crew members say that they want something, but then the larger crew it's just not marketable they don't want? How do you balance the kind of feedback that you get when it comes to giving you guidance and direction on where to take the company next?
Emma: Yeah, it's tough because the ambassadors, they want more swag, they want to be able to really rep the company, and I'm trying to figure out what's the best way to move forward to sustainably rep what we're doing without just creating a bunch more waste. The apparel industry is the second most polluting industry out there, so not really wanting to go into creating a bunch of shirts and items that we'd have to stock a ton of inventory and then to contribute to that industry, so trying to find a balance. It's not saying that I'll never go into apparel, but it's a tough thing to really integrate into your company because there's just a lot of waste in that area and a lot of different sizes and colors that everyone wants.
Emma: But yeah, I mean, back to the question, I do weight what the ambassadors are saying because they are involved with the brand on a really regular basis. And so if it's something that I'm hearing a lot and I'm hearing it over and over from ambassadors, I will definitely take it very seriously. But at the end of the day, the opinion of any customer is equally weighted with ambassadors. I don't want one person to necessarily feel like their opinion is going to dictate what I do to a higher level. I want to appease our customers and I also want to do what's right for our company.
Emma: All of the decisions I make are based along the fact of is this going to increase awareness around single-use plastic waste? Is this going to make it easier for people to reduce their waste? Is this going to make it easier for people to share the message? And if it doesn't check one of those boxes, then it's not really a direction that I'm willing to go.
Felix: So speaking of increasing awareness and educating consumers so that they... the ultimate goal is to change consumer behavior. You mentioned that the education platform that you've created is a way to do that. You mentioned to us that you have now found a balance between promotion and communicating and educating your audience. What is that balance for you guys?
Emma: I would say probably 70/30 if I had to just kind of ballpark a percentage. 70% being education and awareness and 30% promoting the product. I can scan through our Instagram and look at how that's weighted, but you will see that the majority of what we're posting is about the issues and ways for people to reduce their waste. I think it certainly will change and fluctuates depending on the month. We're entering into holidays and so it's definitely going to be more product-focused. Plastic-free July, for example, was entirely issue-focused for the entire month. We tried to educate and show people ways to live zero waste. It fluctuates, but overall I would probably say about 70/30.
Felix: Yeah, it sounds like this was something that you had to work to get better at. Were there things that you might have done wrong when you first started this out in terms of balance between the communication/education and the promotion side?
Emma: I mean, if it was up to me it would be 99% education and 1% product. I think that my team is always pushing me to keep that balance and to ensure that we aren't a nonprofit, we're not just there to educate. We still need to sell straws in order to pay the bills. I think that as time has gone on, I've seen where that balance needs to lie, and the team also puts in their opinions. It really just has to do with testing; where do people respond? And the thing is when we send out emails that are entirely educationally focused, they still create a spike in sales.
Felix: That's awesome. One thing that you wanted to get clear and across to the entrepreneurs is that if you have an idea that you're passionate about and a problem that you want to solve like you've discovered, it's possible to follow your passion and create a company with a mission that aligns with those values. What's the key advice that you'd give to someone out there that is pursuing a business based on a passion for a cause?
Emma: I would say put everything you have into it. Being an entrepreneur is really difficult and you have to be willing to make a lot of sacrifices. I have no social life and I work all the time and that's just my life and it's great and I love it. I do make sure to dedicate an hour a day to physical activity because that's super important for just keeping healthy. First of all, just be ready to make those sacrifices. Second of all, find your voice and target you're marketing towards a very specific group of people. If you try and make it something that everyone will resonate with, it dilutes the message and it makes it meaningless.
Emma: So hone in on your voice and hone in on the kind of messaging and branding you want to see and then test it. Go out there and see is this something the world responds to. I get a lot of messages from people that are starting Kickstarters and really excited. I was recently chatting with a company; they're so sure they're going to make a million dollars at the Kickstarter. Well, they launched and it was crickets.
Emma: Make sure that behind what you're doing, you're doing it for the right reasons. I was never working on this project to make money. It was never even in my sight at all. The fact that the company is doing well is such an added bonus and so exciting, but it was never the driving factor. If money is your driving factor, working on a company with a mission to solve a problem may not be the right path. And not to say that that's wrong. If that's your mission, that's fine, but it doesn't really align with creating a company with a mission because the mission has to be the most important thing and nothing can come in the way of it.
Emma: There’s been investors that I haven't brought on board because they don't understand why I'm doing what I'm doing. On Shark Tank, Kevin O'Leary called us a mission with a product as an insult. And I was like, "Yeah, we are. That's why we're doing what we're doing." So making sure to surround yourself with people that get it, and never diluting your message for people that don't.
Felix: Amazing. finalstraw.com is a website. What would you say needs to happen for you and for the company this year, for you to consider this year a success.
Emma: Well, I'm busting my butt to get FinalFork launched this winter, so really hoping that's going to happen, but I'm not going to launch it until it's really perfect. So we'll see. I get the new round of prototypes in tomorrow, so I'll be able to see. But honestly, this year has already been a success. We've engaged with so many people. We launched in REI, all stores, which is such a dream come true.
Emma: When I first started working on this project, I went to REI and just big does eyes, walking around and like, 'What if one day?" And it's crazy because a year and a half later, here it is. We're in all REI stores. So it's a huge success. We're just really trying to build out more of our programs, getting more ambassadors on so that they can spread the mission and building out the team. It's been a success and really excited for holidays, which are always crazy and FinalStraw's kind of this ultimate stocking stuffer. So excited to see more people gifting this and getting more people on board with raising awareness around ways to reducing and reuse plastic.
Felix: Awesome. Again, finalstraw.com. Sign up for the email list to hear more about those upcoming awesome-sounding products. Thank you so much for your time, Emma.
Emma: Yeah, thanks, Felix. Thanks for having me.