I had the good fortune of interviewing Tom Szaky, a TPE extraordinaire and founder of TerraCycle. His company is making a variety of products, all out of garbage. They aren’t recycling a little here and a little there. Tom’s company is in fact producing all their products from 100% waste materials. His is an amazing guy, with an amazing story. Here are parts from my interview:
Mike Michalowicz: Tom, I understand you started your business, TerraCycle, back in 2001 and it has received an amazing amount of accolades for its innovative approach. Tell me exactly what you do.
Tom Szaky: TerraCycle makes organic lawn & garden fertilizers, hand painted e-waste flower pots, office and school supplies, eco-friendly cleaning supplies, pet products, home décor items, billboard messenger bags, eco-friendly fire logs and fire starters – all upcycled from useful materials that would have been cast off as trash.
Mike Michalowicz: Are you telling me, everything you create comes from garbage? How are people reacting to that?
Tom Szaky: TerraCycle is redefining what waste is, and unleashing its tremendous, untapped value. Plus TerraCycle is actively engaging over 3 million Americans in our free upcycling fundraiser, inspiring and engaging people to make a difference in our environmental future.
Mike Michalowicz: Talk about defining a niche. It sounds more like a revolution. What is the future like for TerraCycle?
Tom Szaky: I plan to expand TerraCycle Brigades worldwide and bring everyone on Earth onboard with the notion that there is no such thing as trash. Just as importantly, to make eco-friendly products affordable and available for everybody, so that they will become ubiquitous.
Mike Michalowicz: What would you define as your biggest accomplishment to date?
Tom Szaky: Certainly, my biggest hurdle to overcome and subsequent accomplishment, was selling an unknown plant fertilizer with no reputation to The Home Depot at 23 years of age. However, just as important to TerraCycle was the establishment of several six-figure deals with Kraft Foods, and Kraft’s iconic brands including Oreo and Capri Sun.
Mike Michalowicz: I’m sure you have had bumps and bruises on your path. What have been the biggest challenges or mistakes you have made?
Tom Szaky: It’s been trying, at times, to convince my executive team and board of directors that it makes good business sense to simultaneously branch out to so many diverse markets. Sometimes my frantic pace of expansion has cost my company more dollars than it should have, but we have always come out the other side a better company.
Mike Michalowicz: The TPE community is strong, and you surely represent an iconic TPE. Tell me what defines you as a Toilet Paper Entrepreneur?
Tom Szaky: As a growth company, all of our efforts are focused on expanding TerraCycle brigades nationally, and soon, internationally. Likewise, we’re focused on expanding our product lines into several new markets each year. Since our budget goes toward expansion, our teams have limited funding. This also benefits our environmental footprint! TerraCycle has never bought advertising space, uses pre-owned office furniture, and barters with other businesses when possible. There are many mutually beneficial relationships waiting to be created!
Mike Michalowicz: Pre-owned furniture, bartering, and no advertising. Now that is what I call a TPE! What can you share with other TPEs as your biggest entrepreneurial lesson?
Tom Szaky: As you grow, it is important to bring experienced staff on to your team – their years of experience will be well worth the salary it commands. Especially with such a unique company as TerraCycle, however, it is important to expect your most experienced staff members to disagree with and oppose some of your decisions. While their experience is incredibly valuable, as an entrepreneur, you have to push back sometimes. Remember, this is your dream and vision – never sacrifice it!
What to learn more about TerraCycle and Tom Szaky? You can catch Tom on Nation Geographics “Garbage Moguls” television program or TerraCycle’s website. And make sure you pick up his book “Revolution In A Bottle” — it’s at Amazon and it is printed on 100% recycled paper of course!