When Emily Doubilet was working as the sustainability manager at IceStone, a Brooklyn-based manufacturer of recycled durable surfaces, she also frequently organized events at local bars. "I'm a performance artist at heart," she says. "I once put on a global warming burlesque show." But there was disconnect between her love of parties and events and her commitment to environmental causes. Event venues and bars typically served beverages only in plastic cups, and that made 28-year-old Doubilet cringe. "So I became obsessed with researching alternatives to plastic that were compostable," she says.
From Obsession to Business
So between 2008 and 2009, Doubilet did her research and then launched a website called Sustainable Party, a curator and retailer of eco-friendly party products. She kept her full time job at IceStone, and tended to her startup after hours. But she had a tough time getting the business off the ground. Serendipitously, at the end of 2009, she reconnected with her friend Jessica Holsey, who was working in private equity and finance and became intrigued with Doubilet's business and at the prospect of working in a mission-driven company. They were, says Doubilet, a perfect match. "Jessica was trained in economics and is more operation-oriented, and I'm the more creative crazy person," she says.
The Business Evolves
The two partners used their curated site to gather as much information as possible about consumer demand and gaps in the marketplace. "We saw that paper party straws were huge sellers, but they were being made in China and imported," says Doubilet. "And they were not made from sustainably-sourced paper." The opportunity was clear, so Doubilet and Holsey did some research and found a U.S. manufacturer of paper straws. "Part of our sustainability mission is creating jobs here in the U.S.," says Doubilet. Thus began the company's transition from curator to seller, as the partners made the decision to begin producing their own products.
That decision, however, was also driven by the partners' connection with a new organization called YouthTrade, which helps give mission-driven young entrepreneurs access to retail markets. Last March, Doubilet and Holsey met with Whole Foods, a YouthTrade retail partner, and pitched their paper straws. "They loved it," recalls Doubilet. The company, now called Susty Party, launched its straws in Whole Foods' North Atlantic and Northeast regions in May, along with a line of eco-friendly compostable plates and bowls that are made from tapioca starch. "The fast-tracking of launching the straws, bowls, and plates was instigated by Whole Foods' interest," says Doubilet.
Positioned for Growth
Susty Party still offers curated items on its website because, says Doubilet, "it's a great testing ground for us to find new product ideas and manufacturers." The company also just recently launched a wholesale operation called Sustyware, which sells disposable tableware made out of materials such as sugarcane stalks, starch, palm leaf, and wood.
Potential customers include the growing number of large companies and organizations looking to foster a green/sustainable culture.
This year, Doubilet says she expects Susty Party to post revenues between $500,000 and $1 million—a significant increase over last year, when sales were well under $500,000. It's dramatic growth that she hopes is, well, sustainable.
Donna Fenn is a business journalist and co-founder of Y.E.C. Mentors, an initiative of the Young Entrepreneur Council. She is author of Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success and Alpha Dogs: How Your Small Business Can Become a Leader of the Pack.
Photo courtesy subject