In 2011, Sarah Paiji Yoo, a new mother who had been shocked by the amount of microplastics discovered to be in daily-use water, embarked on an ambitious journey to eliminate single-use plastic containers. Starting with a simple but powerful mission—that no one should have to sacrifice a clean home for a clean planet—she co-founded Blueland, a New York City-based startup that makes and ships eco-friendly cleaning solutions to its customers.
The company delivers on its mission by replacing customers’ need to purchase single-use plastic bottles with just-add-water tablets and reusable Forever Bottles and tins, helping households break the habit of purchasing plastic containers whenever they need more cleaning supplies. Since its debut in 2019, Paiji Yoo’s company has seen steady growth alongside an increasing cultural interest in sustainable products, expanding its offerings from cleaning tablets to powder dish soap and laundry and dishwasher tablets.
As part of our Art of the Pivot series, we’ve been speaking with successful entrepreneurs in search of critical insights that can help business leaders find ways to emerge strong in the new normal. Paiji Yoo shares her experiences and perspectives, discussing what led her to start the company, how she manages a purpose-driven business, and what’s next for Blueland.
How did you start Blueland? What was the problem that needed to be solved, and when did you first recognize it?
When I was transitioning from breastfeeding to formula-feeding my oldest son, I began doing research and was horrified to learn how many microplastics are in both our tap water and bottled water. I was deeply concerned about using this water to make my son’s formula, so I decided to reduce my personal plastic consumption. I soon realized how difficult it actually is to do so since many household items use single-use plastic in their packaging. This, ultimately, is what led me to found Blueland.
A foundational pillar of Blueland has always been its mission and purpose. As you grew the company, how has your commitment to that mission and purpose shaped your decision-making?
Every decision we make at Blueland is done with our core mission to eliminate single-use plastic. From our recyclable shipping materials and our reusable Forever Bottles and tins, to our compostable tablet pouches and the sustainability tips and tricks we share across our platforms, our mission is pulsed through everything we do. We ask all those who work with us (investors, partners, employees, etc.) to be dedicated to the same mission as well.
What was your approach for product development and supplier selection?
The idea for Blueland has always been rooted in our just-add-water tablet approach, but bringing this to life proved to be a real challenge. We needed to find an amazing chemist with experience in both cleaning products as well as dry formats (like pills and tablets) and a manufacturer with tablet-making capabilities despite these products having only ever been made in liquid form. Eventually, after we cold-pinged more than 100 chemists on LinkedIn and spoke with more than 50 different manufacturers, we were able to find the perfect set of partners that ensured we would not need to compromise that initial vision for the brand.
Have there been any challenges to getting new customers?
We have been fortunate to have strong customer growth since we launched, especially given how much climate change and plastic pollution has continued to be a well-covered topic in the news and social media. But amid the pandemic, we’ve seen a significant increase of traffic and purchase orders on our site, as people are more interested in washing their hands, cleaning their surfaces as well as cooking and doing laundry at home than ever before.
How else did COVID-19 impact your business?
We have directly heard from our customers that the pandemic has given them a whole new perspective on cleaning, and have seen the demand for our products increase because of this. Initially, many conventional brands were sold out both online and in-stores, and consumers were hesitant to venture into physical retailers, so they opted to shop online, which led them to Blueland. However, we continue to see the elevated level of sales remain today. We were not sure initially whether what we saw this spring would represent a one-time “COVID bump,” but instead our sales have actually continued to increase in recent months. Despite the pandemic, we are finding that Blueland’s environmental mission continues to resonate with and attract new consumers.
What have you learned about customers’ set preferences and behaviors?
During this time, we have kept communication channels open in an effort to have a continuous feedback loop since customer priorities are rapidly and dramatically shifting. Consumers who previously staunchly prioritized non-toxic and eco were suddenly open to trading these benefits for disinfectant claims. It has been helpful to understand what concerns and questions our customers have, and unlike products sold in physical stores, we are able to easily update our website descriptions, email and social media messaging to more directly address these issues. We even launched a subscription offering recently in response to hearing feedback from those looking to avoid crowded grocery stores.
What did you learn about yourself during the pandemic? How has it shaped you as a business leader and better prepared you for the future?
The initial onset of the pandemic was a stressful time for every business, no matter the industry and no matter if you were an employee or a founder. For me, personally, I was so concentrated on the business during this time that I completely forgot to take care of myself. I wanted to do and be the best for my company, my team and my family. It is impossible to constantly strive for perfection and I was really hard on myself. Ultimately, it’s like what they tell you on a plane—“Put on your own mask first before assisting others”—and that makes total sense, because I quickly realized I couldn’t help others in the long run if I was burnt out and no longer clear-headed.
What is top-of-mind for the turn of the year and hopefully, the emergence out of COVID? Where are you putting your energy next?
While we have founded the brand on cleaning products, I would love for Blueland to grow into a global company with products across a range of categories like personal care, beauty and possibly even packaged food and beverages. We imagine there one day being a “Blueland home” that is filled with beautiful reusable containers that are convenient and affordable to refill.