Dallas-based husband-and-wife team Jeff and Liz Helfrich created the Solecan, a dual-use can for both trash and recycling made from recycled plastics.
April 29, 2013
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome today to Green is Good, and today we’ve got for our first guests Jeff and Liz Helfrich. They’re in Dallas, Texas, and they’re the inventors of the Solecan. Welcome to Green is Good, Jeff and Liz. JEFF HELFRICH: Thanks for having us. We’re so glad to be here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re thrilled to have you. Listen, we love having great entrepreneurs, new entrepreneurs on Green is Good. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your journey, how you came up with this concept, and what is actually the Solecan? LIZ HELFRICH: Well, the Solecan is a dual-use recycling and trashcan, so it’s two halves that sit together to be one whole trashcan. We came up with this idea after we had had a little disagreement, shall we say, in our bathroom. Jeff was throwing a lot of recyclables into the trash, and I was spending a lot of time dumpster diving, as we say, to fish those out and put them in their regular recycling bin in our kitchen. We realized that recycling had to become a lot more convenient for people to be able to do it in rooms other than the kitchen, either in their home or in their office. So, we went to shop for a dual-use can that we could use in our bathroom and in our daughter’s bathroom, and we couldn’t find anything that was small enough and inexpensive enough that we would be able to purchase a couple of them pretty easily. So, we decided to start designing our own can. We figured if we had this problem, there were probably other families and office workers in the U.S. and college kids who would like to have something similar, and so we spent more than a year designing the Solecan and developing it to bring it to market. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wonderful. So, when did the journey start, though? How long ago was this? JEFF HELFRICH: We started originally at least doing our drawings in probably the fall of 2011, and even before we that, we had kind of had the idea, but as it often goes with an idea, you kind of have it and then it takes you a while before you say, “Hey, we’re going to really try to go do it.” And so it was probably early 2011 when we first thought about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Listen, branding is so important. Who came up with the name Solecan? LIZ HELFRICH: I think Jeff came up with the name Solecan, actually. We wanted it to convey the idea that it’s the only can that you’ll ever need, so it’s the sole can. JEFF HELFRICH: People who recycle have a kind soul. They’re trying to take care of the Earth, and so it’s definitely meant to have double meaning. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. For our listeners out there, you can go to www.solecan.com to check it out. They’ve got a wonderful YouTube video on it. We’re going to talk a little bit more about the website later on. So, you named it Solecan. Explain now the eco side of Solecan, and why it’s better than anything else out there. JEFF HELFRICH: Well, so, one of the things that we really wanted to be part of the Solecan was a commitment to environmental responsibility, so the can is all about recycling, obviously. The point of it is to get people recycling more. Only 35% of waste in the United States is recycled, according to the EPA, and they estimate that actually 75% of the waste is recyclable, so there’s a huge gap between what could be recycled and what is. That’s what we’re excited about with the Solecan, is the opportunity for it to help increase those rates, and then to increase our commitment to environmental responsibility, we want to make this Solecan from recycled plastic. It’s going to be made from polypropylene, which is frequently like yogurt cups and things like that are made out polypropylene. We’re going to make it in the USA as well. We don’t want it being shipped across the ocean, wasting all that fuel. From beginning to end, we really want this to be an environmentally responsible product. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK, so it’s going to be made in the USA. It’s going to be made environmentally friendly. Do you already have prototypes, and do you already have manufacturing partners set up? JEFF HELFRICH: Yes. We have a 3D printed prototype, which is really amazing. Five years ago, a couple like us probably couldn’t do this project, but today we did our 3D CAD drawing and then we had it printed. We have a working, breathing prototype which you can see in our video. As part of our Kickstarter project that we’re doing, we reached out to a California-based custom injection molder that works with recycled plastics, and we got a quote for what it would cost us to make a mold, and how much it would cost to do a production run and that kind of thing. So we already have a manufacturer in mind, and frankly, we’re ready to go. We’re just trying to raise the funds to make it happen. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before we get into raising the funds, which is so critical as entrepreneurs, talk a little bit about this marital situation here, though. Now you have a husband and wife with a brand new product. This goes on all the time in the entrepreneurial world. Are you both still working while you put this together? How much money are you going to try to raise together? LIZ HELFRICH: Yes, we are both still working. Jeff works as a financial analyst, and he definitely still goes to work on Monday through Friday. I am a stay at home mom, so I couldn’t exactly outsource that job very easily, and I do still obviously take care of our two little girls. We have a little girl who’s almost two and a little girl who’s almost five, so they have been enjoying seeing this Kickstarter project get going and learning about recycling and things. As far as raising the funds go, we’ll continue to have our jobs as long as we’re raising the funds. We’re trying to raise $75,000, which is $40,000 for the injection mold, that’s how much it costs, and then the additional $35,000 covers the initial production run and also the shipping and fulfillment costs for all the people who order a Solecan from Kickstarter. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Go into that, though. As you were saying, Jeff, earlier about the ability now for young entrepreneurs to have the opportunity to raise money via these new social media campaigns such as Kickstarter. Explain why you chose Kickstarter, and where you are in the campaign – when you launched it, how much you’ve raised so far, and how much you have left to go. JEFF HELFRICH: Well, so, Kickstarter basically is an online platform where creative projects can go to raise funds from backers. In exchange for the funds, the projects provide a reward, and in our case, the reward is going to be our finished product, the Solecan, and we have some other rewards as well – fun recycling t-shirts and things like that. The beauty of Kickstarter as a platform is it really gives the ability to go out and reach a lot of people, and get a lot of people involved in a project. That way you can raise a little bit of capital from a lot of people, and they also are getting something out of it, so it’s a great deal that way. The way the projects work is they set a specific goal, so in our case, ours is $75,000, and they have a specific timeframe. Our project, we launched it a little over a month ago, and our project actually ends on Earth Day, April 2nd at midnight. We have to raise $75,000 by then, and if we don’t, none of our backers get charged anything, so it’s kind of an all or nothing because they don’t want you to be in a situation where you raise half the funds, but then you can’t really do the project. So, that way, it lowers the risk for everyone too. That’s kind of what Kickstarter is. We, frankly, just thought it would be a fun way to get the word out. We’re actually going to Earth Day Dallas, which is one of the largest Earth Day celebrations in America. We expect to have about 60,000 people attend, and we’re going to be showing them the Solecan and trying to get them to back our Kickstarter. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. And how much have you raised to date? JEFF HELFRICH: Well, to date, we’re at about $7,500, so we have quite a ways to go this weekend, but we’re certainly going to give it our all and see if we can make it happen. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. For our listeners out there who want to go see more about the Solecan, it’s www.solecan.com, and there’s a great video on the site. So now, talk about the raising the money part. Kickstarter is a great way to, as the word says itself, it’s self-descriptive, kickstart the whole campaign, but do you have a business plan? Are you in discussions with other potential funding agents? JEFF HELFRICH: We are certainly open to that. We set up our company as an LLC, and so that obviously gives us the flexibility to bring other investors in. To date, we’ve been funding it all ourselves, but we’re definitely open to working with other people or bringing someone in, as long as they’re aware of the risks. A startup is a highly risky venture, and we acknowledge and that. That’s why, at the beginning, we wanted to do it ourselves, but we’re certainly open to bringing someone in. We’re also open to finding other ways to make this work. I mean, the reality is this is a great product for dorm rooms or offices, and it would only really take one medium or large-sized company or, frankly, one college to say, “Hey, we’d really like these in our dorm rooms. We’d really like these in our offices,” to justify investing in the mold. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. So, the investment side is one thing. You’ve gotten also a lot of publicity on a lot of sites such as Good and 1800Recycling.com and Triple Pundit. How have you gotten all this coverage to date so far with your unique idea? LIZ HELFRICH: Well, it was pretty much legwork on our part. Jeff made a spreadsheet early on before we started our Kickstarter campaign of all the major bloggers, social media sites that we would like to appear on to get our can into the social media world. We e-mailed a lot of people, and we got a lot of great responses. Some of the early bloggers really put a lot of effort into helping us promote our campaign. We also talked to a lot of other people who’ve had successful Kickstarter campaigns, and they were able to share a lot of ideas with us about how to use Twitter, Facebook, and some of the other Kickstarter-centric blogs to spread the word about our idea. Also, we frankly used our own social networks that our friends from college, people like that, to get the word out. That spreads the word pretty effectively, but it is a lot of work. It has been a couple of hours every night working on social media after our kids are in bed and Jeff’s home from his regular job. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before you came up with this idea, which was basically an idea born out of necessity, did you guys consider yourselves eco-activists or greenies? Was that really part of the whole deal? Did you grow up in families that had environmental backgrounds, or is this something that just really was created in this new era of environmental awareness and climate change? JEFF HELFRICH: Well, I mean, no. Obviously, I don’t think we would characterize ourselves as eco-activists, especially me, because I was throwing recyclables in my trashcan. But as with many things, when my wife tells me I’m wrong, I think about it for a while, and I usually reach the conclusion that she’s right. In this case, that’s exactly how it went. Our families did recycle growing up, but I would say they weren’t fervent recyclers. We’ve kind of been in recycling cities. We went to college in Boston and we lived in Denver for five years. Both of those cities have recycling efforts, so we’ve always been around recycling. When we had this idea and we had this problem that we wanted to solve, we just felt like it was sort of what we should do. If we had this problem, we thought other people might have it, and it just so happened that this solution hopefully will leave the world a little better place. We have young children. We want the world to be a good place for them to live as they grow up, and that’s sort of some of what this is about. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When you first started telling your friends and family about what you were doing and what your idea was and your vision was here, what was the response met by your friends and family? LIZ HELFRICH: For the most part, they were pretty excited about it. We had a lot of friends tell us that it was a good idea, that they would use on in their house. A lot of friends have become our backers on Facebook. They really were very, very supportive. I’m sure, in the back of their mind, there was a really thought of this is a little bit crazy, they’re going to work on a what now? A trashcan? But, really, they’ve been very, very supportive, and I think Jeff did a little bit of a disservice to his mom talking about recycling. His mom is pretty aggressive at their house about recycling, as is my mother, and I think they both immediately saw that this would be a great thing because they would have less work to do because the recycling would sort of be organized before you take out the main trash, which is always a great thing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Talk a little bit about the journey. What did you expect and what didn’t you expect? We have about five minutes left, and I want you to give our listeners out there, and aspiring entrepreneurs, some words and thoughts of wisdom on starting an entrepreneurial venture. JEFF HELFRICH: Well, I guess the first thing I would say is it always takes longer than you think. As we mentioned earlier, we started this in kind of 2011, and here we are it’s 2013, and we’re trying to get the product launched. So it’s definitely taken a long time. This entrepreneurial journey is kind of an interesting mix of challenges and elation. I mean, there have been so many people that have been willing to help us in this journey, and have tried to help us, and you just are touched by what people are willing to do and how they’re willing to help out, but then at the same time, there are plenty of times you’re rejected along the way. We went and probably talked to 40 manufacturers. Originally, we thought, “Hey, we’ll just bring this to an existing manufacturer. They’ll love our idea and that will be the end of it.” That’s not necessarily how it works. Many of them don’t even want to talk to an independent inventor for legal purposes, and so that was a challenge. We’ve definitely knocked on a lot of doors and have been turned away a lot of places, but it’s nothing to get discouraged about. We feel our idea has merit, and, frankly, as part of our Kickstarter, we found a lot of other people that feel that way, so you just have to keep pursuing it a little bit every day, and eventually you’re going to get to the finish line. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Liz, what do you think about this whole process? LIZ HELFRICH: The process has definitely been longer than we anticipated. What I would say is you really need to be open to teaching yourself new skills and learning how to do new things. Jeff had a little bit of background in web design, but he worked incredibly hard to get up to speed on it and did all of our website, and he’s done a lot of social media work for us. We taught ourselves how to edit digital video to create our video, which we totally did ourselves. We’ve learned a lot about photography. It just ranges all over the board as far as skills that we’ve had to learn to be able to do this project. That is something I think you sort of don’t realize when you are starting out, that you’re going to wear a lot of different hats – the marketing hat, the web development hat, the photographer hat, the financial hat. So, use your skills that you have, but definitely be open to learning new things. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, we’re down to about two minutes, but for our listeners that are interested in learning more or want to potentially invest in Solecan, go to www.solecan.com, and they can learn more about the Kickstarter and also about your great invention. OK, now, you’re down to about a minute-and-a-half, Liz and Jeff. Give your pitch now. Give your pitch. You’ve got about a week left to get the investors. Tell them what they need to do. JEFF HELFRICH: Well, visit our website, look at our video, and think about where you have been where you really wished you had somewhere to recycle and you didn’t. If you think about that, I guarantee you will come up with several places where you can really use a recycling bin, and the Solecan is the perfect solution for that. It’s great for places where you don’t have a lot of space. The most common places, I’d say, are probably going to be at your desk, either in a home office or at your office, or in a bathroom or under a sink, pretty much anywhere that you’re space-constrained. People live in apartments, it’s a great solution for that, so just think about where you’ve thrown things away that were recyclable, and I think you’ll realize that there are a lot of places where a Solecan would be useful and that if you come to our website, you can preorder one. We’d just be delighted to have you supporting us, and it’s a great commitment you can make this Earth Day to the environment, to recycle more. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you. Jeff and Liz Helfrich, you are both living proof that green is good. JEFF HELFRICH: Thank you. LIZ HELFRICH: Thanks for having us.