Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Lindsey McCoy and I am the CEO of Plaine Products, a hair and body care products company dedicated to ridding the world of single-use plastic bottles--one bathroom at a time. We’ve replaced the standard plastic shampoo bottle, found in shower shelves just about everywhere, with a reusable, refillable aluminum one. From there, our concept is simple. Instead of tossing the empty bottles into the recycling bin, our customers return them to us. We clean, sterilize and refill the empty bottles, and then send them out again.
When my family returned to the States, I joined forces with my sister, Alison Webster, and we focused on creating a packaging revolution. Our customers, like us, are interested in a more eco-friendly lifestyle, the appeal of which is becoming broader and broader each day. So far, with our customers, we have diverted over 300,000 plastic bottles from our landfills and oceans.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Plaine Products was inspired by the decade I spent living on the islands of The Bahamas. Island living, however beautiful, gives you a different perspective. We learned to become more resourceful, reusing and repurposing items before we would throw them away, since buying new and disposing of old required planning.
Starting and running a business is a constant cycle of learning and growing. Take the time to examine each success and each failure and see what you can learn from it.
It’s here that I saw that trash doesn’t just go away as it seems to in the mainland United States, where there’s a much bigger infrastructure. Instead, in The Bahamas, litter, wind, and waves placed our discarded flip flops, shopping bags, and plastic bottles onto the sides of the roads, in the waterways, and across beaches. As I witnessed trash accumulating daily, I made it my mission to reduce the number of plastics in my life. I began to actively seek out ways to stop plastic use. I carried a reusable water bottle and grocery bags and skipped the straws at restaurants. But the bathroom remained one room where I could not find plastic-free options that worked for me and my hair.
While my initial idea to start Plaine Products was to help me on my quest to live without plastics, it soon became apparent that I was on to something. Although the concept seems simple, it took tremendous planning to find the right container, the right process to refill it, and the right formulation for the product inside. There was a lot of trial and error and we had to work to convince our partners to join us in this packaging revolution. That took some work since the concept of refillable shampoo bottles was a new one. We don't have any reward system set up for returning bottles, we can't track every bottle. But we estimate that we get a 75-80% return rate, but that's because people are excited to participate, being able to return the bottles is one of the reasons they purchase from Plaine Products in the first place.
Shortly before launch, our prototype bottles, then made of stainless steel, started rusting. We had to postpone our launch and return to the drawing board, where we eventually found a supplier for aluminum bottles, which better withstand the wet shower/bath environment. I expected our initial products to be purchased by family and friends, but in mere days following our launch, we were selling to strangers. That was a real affirmation to me that we were providing a solution to a problem that other people were also looking to solve.
We continued to develop our concept post-launch by working with influencers before influencers were a “thing” like they are today. I reached out to bloggers in the environmental/sustainability space and asked them to try our products. They were so gracious, giving us feedback and tons of encouragement. From there, our Plaine Promoters program was born. In our affiliate program, these bloggers earn 10% of what they sell. We next expanded this concept to like-minded nonprofits, who use their sales of Plaine Products as a fundraiser.
Before launching Plaine Products, I worked in the environmental non-profit space, so I knew we were on the right track in terms of necessity. The statistic that is commonly floating around in this space is that if we continue to use plastics at our current rate, by the year 2050, there could be more plastic particles in the ocean than fish. The challenge, however, is convincing consumers of the need to change the way they purchase and use products. We tend to be convenience-driven in our purchases. Plaine Products isn’t just a new line of shampoos and soaps--it is a packaging revolution.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
In developing our first product, there were three main considerations: the packaging, the product, and the process. All three had to work in tandem for us to be successful. The crux of our concept is, of course, the packaging. The task of finding a suitable alternative to the plastic bottle was a challenge. The issue with plastic bottles is that the material can only be recycled once or twice before the material becomes unusable. What’re more, plastic bottles from the bathroom often get tossed right into the garbage and don’t even have the chance to find another life.
We were challenged to find a material that would be as safe and durable as plastic and could withstand the wet environment of the shower. Our solution was aluminum, which can be infinitely recycled with no quality loss and holds up well in the shower. In the beginning, we had to go outside of the United States to source our bottles, now we are large enough to purchase these bottles from a US-based company and our next milestone will be to purchase bottles made from recycled aluminum.
Of course, what’s inside each of those bottles is just as important, as we had to work to formulate products that were natural, toxin-free, and worked well for a variety of hair and skin types. Then, we had to ensure that our formulator would be willing to intake empty bottles, clean them and refill them. To that end, we were looking for more than manufacturers and formulators, but partners. The entire concept of Plaine Products takes a bit more work than your typical brand of shampoo, both on our end and the consumer's end. It’s much easier to toss an empty bottle into the recycling bin. To make a difference in the world’s plastic pandemic requires all of us to do a little more.
Although we’ve come a long way from our first products, we’ve realized that we’ll never stop learning and tweaking our process to become even more eco-friendly. In essence, it’s our goal to make a very big impact on the environment by making our footprint as small as possible.
Describe the process of launching the business.
After about a year of refining our products, packaging, and process, we launched our website with a great deal of support from a web designer. He donated his services to get us up and running and as we grew (and demanded more time and energy), we started paying him. He’s now a full-time member of the team! Although our first sales were from family and friends within two weeks, we were processing orders from perfect strangers! I considered that a great first success. Since the beginning, we’re worked hard to network with like-minded nonprofit organizations, bloggers, influencers, and even other businesses. Our Plaine Promoters promote our products in their unique networks to earn 10% of sales. It also offers a fundraising option for nonprofit organizations that sell our products through their website and social channels. As we did our initial research in launching Plaine Products, we received a lot of feedback from sustainability and environmental experts that there was a receptive audience just waiting for a brand like ours to emerge. Our launch showed this to be true.
We’ve experienced consistent growth in our past three years of business.
- 2017-2018 5x growth
- 2018-2019 2x growth
- 2019-2020 2x growth
Our initial product line included shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. Since then we’ve added hand wash and body lotion in two different scents: citrus lavender and rosemary mint vanilla. Our concept, though, has applications for so many different products. We have to grow carefully and thoughtfully-- all of our products must meet our strict standards, as we are natural, toxin-free, and cruelty-free. Upon customer demand, our first expansion was with a skincare line, which we were able to raise $15,000 to launch with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. Whenever we talk about the difference we are making, we recognize that it is possible because of the partnership we have with our customers, who are equally as committed to stopping single-use plastics for the sake of the environment and to ensure future generations aren’t buried in plastic.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Messaging is very important to us as it pertains to attracting and retaining customers. Our initial tagline was “Join the Packaging Revolution.” We realized, though, that packaging does not necessarily excite people; however, reducing plastic use does spark interest. Our messaging now focuses on conscious consumerism and reducing plastic waste. We also consider ourselves a resource with tips for sustainable living through our weekly blog posts and social media posts.
It’s easy, however, to become overwhelmed and discouraged when trying to adopt too many eco-friendly habits at once. That’s why we constantly encourage everyone we meet to focus on progress, not perfection. This mantra seems to resonate with our consumers, particularly as we have started to attract the attention of people who are new to the sustainability space. After all, it is about more than just packaging.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We bootstrapped Plaine Products from the beginning, starting with shampoo, conditioner and body wash in the smallest amount possible, and have built from there. We were profitable early on and have run a lean operation to keep expenses down. Our growth has been relatively strong, based on support from zero waste and green beauty influencers, and organic growth. We’re active on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and starting to develop a presence on TikTok. We’re able to do that by using part-time contractors who are passionate about our mission of less waste in the world. Social media is our best means, along with our monthly newsletter of staying in touch with our customers, raising awareness about issues, and building a community of like-minded supporters.
We measure our success based on the number of plastic bottles we eliminate from the waste stream by replacing them with our aluminum bottles that can be infinitely recycled when they have finished their refill journey.
In the last four years, we’ve grown from three SKUs to 16 SKUs of refillable bottles. We’ve also added a wholesale bulk line of 3.5-gallon buckets to work with refill stores that are opening across the country. Refill stores are a growing trend of people bringing in their containers to refill at the shop, as opposed to receiving refill bottles at home.
Roughly 80% of revenue comes through direct sales of the website. The additional 20% is wholesale, with Amazon as one of the larger resale sources.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
My biggest learning in starting Plaine Products is the importance of moving forward. In starting a new business, there are plenty of mistakes and missteps. Things rarely go as we expect them to--and that’s when it is particularly important to regroup and keep moving.
Once again, progress is more important than perfection.
I know that we often want things to be perfect before we move on. But you can get stalled in your quest for perfection and miss an opportunity. Right before our launch, when we discovered that our bottle prototypes, which were then made of stainless steel, started rusting, I did have a moment of just wanting to throw in the towel. Had we done that, there would be over 300,000 more plastic bottles in our oceans today!
It took some effort, some additional research, and some time, but we were able to keep moving forward to find our replacement aluminum bottles that helped us get to our launch. Having that early hiccup in our plan helped me realize that nothing has to be perfect. Once again, progress is more important than perfection. Since our launch, we’ve redesigned our logo, made major changes to our production process, modified our shipping processes, and continued to develop our website. It’s a constant process.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our website is on the word press, with woo commercedriving it and a variety of plugins. The AffiliateWP plugin and AutomateWoo are two of our favorites. We use HelpScout for customer service and Pipedrive to help track wholesale sales. We use the ShippingEasy plugin for shipping.
We are currently fulfilling in-house, which works well for us given that our system is specialized, we don’t include pumps with refills, but we do include return labels. We have specially designed boxes so that we don’t have to use fill in the box to protect the bottles. We also use paper tape to ensure that once our boxes have finished being reused they can be recycled effectively, that’s harder if you use traditional plastic tape.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My favorite startup book is the Lean StartUp by Eric Ries. The Lean Startup is about launching early so you can spend time learning what your customers want. It's about testing your vision continuously, adapting and adjusting before it's too late.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I would advise other entrepreneurs to remain focused on a path forward--progress over perfection. Starting and running a business is a constant cycle of learning and growing. Take the time to examine each success and each failure and see what you can learn from it.
And while that path forward is important, it’s important to take that journey purposefully. Customers are constantly asking us to expand our business with new products. Our concept could be applied to so many different products. Yet, it could be easy to lose sight of our true mission--to stop the spread of single-use products.
We have very strict guidelines for our products and a very thoughtful, careful process. It’s important for us to constantly remind ourselves that, while we want to keep moving forward, we want to stay true to our mission and core values.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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