Simplehuman Founder Frank Yang on Reinventing the Trash Can

Katie Morell chats with Frank Yang about how he turned his smart product designs into a multi-million dollar company.
April 02, 2012

Trash cans get a bad rap. Usually stuck in cabinets below the sink, it isn’t until you stuff something too big in the can and the side rips that you are forced to get a new one. This all changed in 2000, when UCLA alumnus Frank Yang invented a new and improved version of the tired kitchen accessory.

His creation: a circular, stainless steel cylinder with a pedal at the bottom to lift the lid. The cylinder acts as the trash can and not only traps in odor, but also serves as a sleek kitchen art piece. He named his company simplehuman, and his idea took off. Today, the company sells multi-sized trash cans as well as products like touch-less soap dispensers and shower caddies in retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and The Container Store. According to Yang, who is also the company’s CEO, simplehuman brings in “well over $100 million” in revenue.

I recently bought my own 50-Liter Semi-Round Step Can, and I’m in love. Inspired, I called up Yang to get the inside scoop on his company and to thank him for making something that spruces up my kitchen.

Tell me about your background.
I grew up in the South Bay of Los Angeles and went to UCLA for political science. When I was a senior, my girlfriend (now wife), a graphic designer, encouraged me to take an industrial design class. I absolutely loved the concept of making existing products better, so when I graduated I looked into jobs at industrial design firms.

I worked for a few years at my Dad’s commercial product company and then went out on my own in 2000.

How did you come up with the idea for simplehuman?
I knew I wanted to take a product and make it better, I just didn’t know what product yet. One day I looked around my house, saw an ugly trash can and picked it. I hired a few freelance industrial designers, formed my company, created the product, had it manufactured in Asia, and then went to the International Home & Housewares Show in Chicago to show it for the first time.

Everyone at the show loved it. Back in 2000, industrial design was not prevalent in the houseware industry. Pretty much all industrial designers worked on cars, so that made our company unique.

What challenges did you face starting out?
It was difficult to nail down the supply chain part of it at first—the whole process of tooling, engineering and how to make products efficiently and at a reasonable price point.

The second challenge was understanding how to work with retail partners. We had no idea how to ship our product, what kind of price they demanded, and the margin that was needed. We had to be honest with our partners about what we could and could not deliver. We were able to slowly gain trust and now have excellent relationships with all of them.

How did you fund your operation in the beginning?
It was all bootstrapped.

When did you start expanding your product line?
About two years in. At first, the company was named Canworks because we were entirely focused on retooling the trashcan. But after a year, we did some soul searching and brainstorming and decided that we wanted to make other products and needed something to tie it all together. We wanted to make tools that will help people live better lives, so we came up with the tagline ‘Tools for Efficient Living.’

Then we talked to a consulting firm and came up with our current name: simplehuman: Tools for Efficient Living.

What lessons have you learned along the way?
I’ve learned to be very focused. For example, because of our success with the trash can, we were approached about expanding to make things such as cabinet organizers. At one point, we actually spent about $100,000 designing a cabinet organizer but in the end, we didn’t love it, so I killed it at the last moment. The lesson is to know what you do, stick to it and do it well, even if you have a ton of choices.

What does the future hold for you and simplehuman?
I plan to stay here for a long time. I am a very hands-on CEO and like to be in the trenches.

As for the company, we're not looking to go public, we just want to make the best products possible. We’d like to continue our expansion internationally. We’ve been in the United Kingdom for five years and that is now our second largest market.

What advice can you give to budding small business owners?
Stay humble and pick the right partners early on. We were very lucky to sign on Beth Bath & Beyond and The Container Store and they are fantastic. You really need to have solid relationships for your company to work.

Can you tell me about the next product you plan to release?
I can’t say much, but when it comes out I know everyone will be really impressed at its functionality.

Photo credit: Courtesy simplehuman