The FEKKAI Life: Sarah Paiji Yoo, Cofounder and CEO of Blueland

I am a celebrity hairstylist, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist who’s built my brand on taking care of others, body, hair, and soul. Join me weekly for The FEKKAI Life, a series of relaxed, intimate conversations with free thinkers, business leaders, and creatives who’ve used their passion to change the world for the better.  Available wherever you find your podcasts.

Frédéric Fekkai: Hi I’m Frédéric Fekkai, and welcome to The FEKKAI Life. In this podcast you will hear about passion, and inspiration, sitting for conversations with some of the most interesting people, while making a difference.

Sarah Paiji Yoo: Hi, I’m Sarah Paiji Yoo, cofounder and CEO of Blueland, a eco-friendly cleaning product company, and to me, clean living is being mindful about all the waste that we create on a daily basis, that waste can be in a direct way, like packaging we consume and where that ends up end of life, or in an indirect way, like waste that may have resulted in the production and delivery in something that we consume. That increase in mindfulness and awareness, for me, has really led me to really seek and apply easy solutions across my daily life, and be more discerning, not just about what I choose to consume, but decide if I consume at all. 

FF: To get a glimpse into the future of eco-friendly cleaning products and sustainable packaging, we are talking today with Sarah Paiji Yoo, cofounder and CEO of Blueland, the refillable tablet-based system that revolutionized the cleaning industry

FF: Hi Sarah! How are you?

SPY: Hi Frédéric, I'm good, how are you doing?

FF: I'm so happy to have you on the podcast on The FEKKAI Life podcast.

SPY: No, thank you for having me, I'm excited about this conversation.

FF: Well for our audience, I'm gonna say I am thrilled to have the cofounder and CEO of Blueland, which you're gonna tell us about in a few minutes, about your company. As an entrepreneur myself, I enjoy speaking to others like you who have the same drive. I want you to give a quick description of your business for everyone to understand what you do, because I admire it.

SPY: Oh sure, yes so Blueland is on a mission to eliminate single-use plastic packaging starting with cleaning products, we sell our products as a refillable system. So for example with our cleaning sprays and hand soap, these are products that are conventionally over 90% water, and come in a new plastic bottle each time. And what we’ve done is we sell our products with a set of beautiful reusable durable bottles and these cleaning tablets that are about the size of a quarter and when you need more cleaning solution or liquid hand soap, you fill up our bottles with warm water, you drop in a tablet, and that's it, at the end of a few minutes you have a full bottle of cleaning solution or hand soap and so you never have to buy or throw away another plastic cleaning bottle ever again.

FF: Right and you obviously ship this to every home with an order online, right?

SPY: Yes, so we are direct to consumers, so we sell predominantly online at the moment.

FF: Great, because that's a direct impact to our CO2 so that’s wonderful.

SPY: Yes

FF: So you’ve been involved, Sarah, with so many entrepreneurs like Follain, Rockets of Awesome, M.Gemi, you worked with such a wide range of spaces. What excites you, what drives you professionally?

SPY: Yeah, I’ve been a serial entrepreneur for about 10 years now, and initially it was the exhilaration of creating something from nothing. Something that has never existed before and putting it out in the world. I think I feel very fortunate to be born in a time and place where that’s possible. Where someone can go out because of the internet, because of being able to store things in the cloud, because of marketing channels like Facebook and Google, to be able to start a business, even at a young age when I got started. And also from the challenge of it, I think with my first startup 10 years ago, I had an early sale, I sold that business about three and a half years in, and I had made so many mistakes along the way, that I was dead set on “I have to do it again, because I am going to be so much better the next time around” and I’d just gotten the entrepreneurial bug. But with Blueland, Blueland really began when I became a new mom and all of a sudden that excitement and energy from launching something new, all of a sudden wasn’t enough for me. I still loved early stage company building, but I needed to be working on something that was more personally meaningful to me, especially because I was spending so much time away from my son and my family and I think that feeling has certainly been amplified during this period of the pandemic, where most all days I've been working from home and I really feel how much time I spend away from my child and my family working. That's how I ended up coming to Blueland, I ended up taking a sabbatical and a break from my other businesses because I was trying to figure out what type of work it was that I was going to find more meaning in. During this journey as a new mom, I also discovered the dire situation that our planet was in, and felt empowered to do something about it, both for myself personally and my son and for future generations.

FF: Great. Well, you know that this is actually across from my heart, I'm loving that. Tell me a little bit...we live in a very uncertain, strange, and difficult time. For some, obviously, it has been an opportunity, but many of us have been hurt. How did you navigate this time, what were your challenges, and what were your opportunities?

SPY: The pandemic has oddly and fortunately been for us been a time of great opportunity but of course also of disruption and challenges as well. We were completely lucky to be on the right side, to be a product that could serve a need at this point in time because we were selling cleaning products and hand soap. All of a sudden people became intensely focused on cleaning down their surfaces and washing their hands. And I can't say that's because anything we did, we were just kind of in the right place and the right time certainly. So it was interesting because overnight when Covid landed in the US, we saw demand surge 300% and at the same time we got hit with so many operational challenges across our supply chain. We had manufacturers shut down for a period of time out in Asia, we had multiple disruptions here in the US as all of our formulas and tablets are made here in the US. We also needed to proactively slow down our operations despite seeing more demand than we have ever seen to keep our team safe. In our warehouses we had to slow down to half the speed and institute split shifts, versus in any other scenario in the demand we were seeing we would be ramping up as fast as we can. But ultimately we feel fortunate for that. We were able to serve a real need, and interestingly even the fact that we were a direct-to-consumer online business really benefited us as well. Certainly there was this period early on in the pandemic where shoppers were understandably hesitant to go into stores. This is a category where historically shoppers have preferred to buy these products in stores as part of their regular grocery trip, but all of a sudden they were looking to purchase these categories online.

FF: Are you strictly direct-to-consumer, or do you have any plans to do both?

Spy: At the moment we are predominantly direct-to-consumer online on our own website. We have select retailers that we do work with, very limited, like Nordstrom, Goop, and West Elm. At the moment we have been most focused on our direct business because we continue to see so much opportunity there. That said, our intention has always been to make our products available also in the traditional retail channels, the vast majority of consumers of this category still want to buy these products in stores when they’re purchasing other groceries and other products, and we recognize for us to really maximize our environmental impact and really get our products into as many households in the US as we can it's important to be in these other channels.

FF: Do you know who your customer is, have you identified that?

SPY: For us it really breaks down into three different buckets. We have the environmentalists that we characterize as really willing to go above and beyond for the planet, whether it takes more work or costs more money. We also then have a group of younger folks, Gen Z, Millennials that consider themselves “woke,” who really want to buy brands that align with their values and are increasingly wary of conventional brands both from an ingredients and an environmental perspective. But the biggest group of our customers are what we would call second city moms or second city families, consumers who have understood the importance of ingredients and have started shifting over to more nontoxic products, nontoxic personal care and beauty products, cleaning products. And now are also looking to take that next step and also incorporate eco-friendly attributes into their consumption decisions as well.

FF: That's great. I forgot I knew this, but tell me the whole story. How did you start and how do you feel about being a founder of a company coming out of TV, Shark Tank, and being in the public eye?

SPY: Yeah, Shark Tank was definitely one of the most crazy experiences I’ve ever had. I've been an avid viewer of Shark Tank for the past 10 years, and I've told many friends and family, half jokingly, that one day, I want to go on Shark Tank. And then with Blueland it just seemed like the perfect business. Everyone needs cleaning products, everyone washes their hands, everyone washes their dishes, and our price point has been developed to be very accessible, especially with the $2 tablets that we offer. And so I knew that I wanted to get on the show, but I thought it was a complete long shot so we were shocked when we made it through the entire process, and it was one of the most nerve wracking things I have ever done. But obviously so glad we did it because it definitely brought awareness of our brand and products to like a whole new level, and the audience fit was really great for our offering. I definitely have mixed emotions on all of it, certainly being a founder more-so in the public eye, being “the face of the company.” I can’t say it comes naturally, I am introverted, so it's not naturally where I get my energy, but it’s important and I consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity to be able to share our story and have so many folks interested in hearing our story. It’s hard because there are so many things that only I can do—and you must feel exactly and very much more so the same way—and there are days where I might spend all days at a photoshoot or a video shoot and I question, is this the most impactful thing I can be doing as the CEO of this company? But it’s hard when I'm also the only person at the company that can be doing that specific thing or having this podcast conversation. I think it’s something I’m still trying to figure out as we go.

FF: So does it mean you have the host of Shark Tank in your business? Are they partnered with you?

SPY: Yes, Kevin O’Leary.

FF: OK, so what do they do? Are they always over the shoulder, do they leave you alone? Tell me, how do they measure your accomplishments?

SPY: Yeah, it’s so funny, because I wasn't sure what to expect when a Shark invests because I mean, these guys have been on the air for 10 plus years, I feel like they are investing left and right, so I always thought they must invest in these companies and be completely hands-off and have some team at most managing and interfacing. Kevin O’Leary—AKA Mr. Wonderful—was the one who ended up doing our deal, and we are very much so directly in touch and we text or talk by phone at least once every two weeks. Yeah it’s a lot, but it’s all positive, it’s all centered around how he can help with the business. For our relationship I haven’t had to send over any detailed financial or updates or anything like that, it’s much more about—he's been very generous with his time and his platform and his notoriety and how to use that in how to further share Blueland with the world.

FF: One thing that I love, Sarah, is the big wave that you have made in the sustainability world. And I want to know what you and your company are doing to impact the planet.

SPY: Definitely. On so many levels, I think, one, simply with our products, we are very focused on the R&D and really developing solutions that have never existed before. It is really exciting to be on that frontier. When I stepped into this eco-sustainability space, it felt like a lot of the solutions that brands were offering were looking back to simpler time, and almost paring things back and that's how we're getting through it, eliminate waste. For example, a bar shampoo. There’s multiple examples of asking the consumer to give something up for the sake of the planet and what I’m really excited to do with Blueland is really figure out a way to leverage innovation, science, and progress to also find sometimes very hard solutions that also help our planet heal and be in a better place, and I am very proud of the challenges that we have undertaken. Those tablets, the cleaning tablets, truly are products that have never existed before. We had 40+ large manufacturers and industry veterans tell me it wasn't going to be possible. They looked at me as if I was incredibly naive, saying, “there's a reason why this hasn't been done, it’s just not doable.” I love that our company stands for taking up these challenges that many aren’t willing to take on. That’s one. I think there's an incredible opportunity for us to have a great impact through our product and our packaging solutions, and even beyond that, what really inspires me is that I really do hope that in five to 10 years that we will have set a new standard for businesses generally to rethink how they produce and package their products. I’m excited to have seen our space, the cleaning products space, evolve even over the past 2 years, where now we are seeing very large CPG companies throw their hats in the ring and offer up refill cleaning solutions, and I think that’s great. Some people say, “Aren't you worried? That’s competition.” I'm like, “No, some of these CPG players are like 50 billion dollar plus revenue companies and are many, many, many times larger and have more reach than we do. I think that’s exciting, if we can play a small role in influencing some of these larger players, because I think that helps us extend our impact on the environment far beyond the reach of our own products. I think similarly, some of our consumers are really excited about how we can empower and inspire them to do better for the planet beyond using our products. On our instagram, for example, we talk about easy swaps they can do across their lifestyle or easy tips that they can implement, and I love hearing people say Blueland was kind of the first step into leading a sustainable lifestyle and it’s inspired them into carrying around a reusable mug or reusable water bottle, etc.

FF: Are you associated with a big charitable organization to support your cause, and does the customer know?

SPY: It’s a good question. Philanthropy is a core part of our business. We have a rotating set of partners that we work with and so far we really appreciate that flexibility, we are at any point in time working with a group—at the moment it's Oceania—that we give a percentage of proceeds to from sales, and even with the Black Lives movement that is happening at the moment, is really an eye opening time for me as a founder and a CEO where we speak so much about sustainability. But to be truly a sustainable and socially responsible business, we need to also acknowledge that there are certain communities and groups of people that are disproportionately impacted by plastic pollution, and climate change, and that enabled us to shift our donations during that period to the ACLU and other relevant organizations

FF: So Blueland obviously focuses on eliminating single-use plastic and, when I bought my company back, my first purpose was to come up to the market with a product that would be totally sustainable. So this was the mission and I am proud we did this. It was a long journey, it was a tough journey but here we are and we feel great about what it does for our client and certainly the planet because we see all of the damage we are living in. Tell me about your awakening moment when it comes to sustainability, how did this emerge as a cause that you were going to support?

SPY: Interestingly, despite my serial entrepreneur background, this is one that came to be completely organically. I was taking an extended maternity leave, and during that I became a new mom, and I breastfed my son for 11 months exclusively and it was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and in the twelfth month I was finally switching him over to baby formula. And it was a really big deal for me, and very stereotypical first time mom behavior, I was doing a ton of research and agonizing over what kind of water should I use to mix with his baby formula, is tap water at home clean enough? Should I be using bottled water? In that research I was horrified to learn that regardless, our drinking water in the US on average contains hundreds of pieces of microplastic, and that was the first time for me when I started to connect the dots between all this plastic that we are consuming as a society and how it’s ending up in our waterways and our oceans and how it’s now showing back up in the food that we eat and the water that we’re drinking, and even the water that I was using to make my son’s baby formula. So at that point just as a consumer, I decided I would try my best to cut out as much single-use plastic as I can, and that was a really eye opening experience for me because I realized as well intentioned as I was as a consumer, I had no choice. Everything seemed to come packaged in single-use plastic and that’s when I realized I had this background on bringing these new products to market, I could have such a greater impact on the world, beyond just my personal consumption if I could find a way to give consumers more choice and I really applaud all of your efforts, especially on the use of PCR, it’s such an important step in the right direction. That was kind of the “aha” moment for me, like what kind of world are we leaving behind for our children and future generations.

FF: What resources do you recommend for educating yourself on the plastic crisis?

SPY: A great book that I recommend to many folks, it’s pretty short, it’s very easy reading, it’s called “Greenwashed” by Kendra Pierre-Louis, she is a New York Times environmental journalist, she really does a really nice breakdown, examining sort of major economic sectors of our society, including our food, our infrastructure, our consumer products, our energy, and gives a very digestible breakdown of the immense challenges we are facing, how these came to be, and just how complicated these issues are to resolve. Another resource perspective, there are alot of accounts even on Instagram—Blueland aspires to be one of them—that aim to be an easy digestible resource for people to get more educated, both on the plastic crisis, and learning about easy lifestyle swaps and changes that people can make to do their part

FF: So where can our audience learn more about Blueland and connect with you?

SPY: Yes, so you can check us out on our website at Blueland.com and follow us on Instagram @blueland, and follow me @spaiji.

FF: So what's next for you and Blueland?

SPY: I really hope that we will one day be a leading CPG company of our generation. A global company with products across household cleaning is certainly our focus today, but there is certainly opportunity across personal care and beauty, and I would love to tackle packaged food and beverages one day. I envision this Blueland home filled beautiful and reusable containers that can be easily and cost-effectively refilled.

FF: I am so inspired by Sarah's personal connection to a world with less plastic, and love her vision for a cleaner and more sustainable environment. I am looking forward to seeing much more of that in the industry. I am Frédéric Fekkai and this is The FEKKAI Life. There is more wonderful and inspiring conversation to come, and I can’t wait to see you there.

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