Lessons Learned Launching Multiple Successful Ecommerce Companies
How Sarah Paiji Yoo built a successful eCommerce company with a mission to eliminate single-use plastic that even Mr. Wonderful, Kevin O’Leary bought into
Even though Sarah Paiji Yoo didn’t expect to follow an entrepreneurial path, she has found more success than most walking down that windy road.
Yoo began her career in a very traditional sense working in the finance field. She discovered, unlike many of those around her, that she couldn’t see herself spending an entire lifetime doing that kind of work. Yoo decided to make a change and enrolled in Harvard Business School … but it turned out she wasn’t a fit long-term there, either. While still taking classes, Yoo had started a business of her own on the side, and it wound up being much more interesting than her classwork.
The business was called Snapette, a mobile shopping app that helped consumers find products and stores nearby. Yoo had been following the developments in the mobile industry and she saw that the opportunities were plentiful. She took advantage with Snapette, raised venture funding and had enough success that it was an easy decision to drop out of Harvard and focus on the business full-time.
“I ended up scaling that business for the next three and a half years to a small team of about 20 people,” Yoo said. “Then we ended up selling that business to one of the world’s largest stock search engines at the time, called PriceGrabber.”
For a while, Yoo stayed on at PriceGrabber, but the contrast between running a small company and working for a larger corporation was stark.
“It was hard going from this small, mobile startup where if Apple made an announcement about the newest feature, I would get together with my team and our engineers and really think about how we can integrate this and really use this to push our product forward,” Yoo said. “In a larger organization, you have longer product roadmaps, and you need to justify why a change that you want to make is going to add more value to the company than some much larger initiatives that may be underway.”
Eventually, Yoo decided to move on from PriceGrabber, and she found her next avenue for success by predicting and then investing in the idea that soon enough, eCommerce was going to become a major industry.
“In 2013, we believed that it was still [in the]early innings in terms of direct-to-consumer,” Yoo explained. “It was our belief that we would continue to see whole categories move direct-to-consumer — many of which we’ve seen come into fruition. I remember at that point thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to see everything from shoes to socks to tampons to vitamins, etcetera, everything is going to develop a new brand and find more efficient ways to directly reach and communicate with consumers.’”
Yoo and her business partner started LAUNCH in order to capitalize on their ideas of what the future might hold. LAUNCH — which is still around today — is a start-up studio that helped bring companies like Rockets of Awesome, M.Gemi and other D2C brands to life. For a while, Yoo was satisfied. But something changed again, and her path shifted once more.
When Yoo gave birth to her first child, she was feeling the urge to do something more meaningful. . Those urges dovetailed with research Yoo had been doing about environmental contaminants. The combination of those interests led to Blueland, the company Yoo runs today.
Blueland is a consumer products company, on a mission to eliminate single use plastic packaging. The way it is accomplishing that mission has started with developing a new way to develop and use cleaning products. Rather than buying new bottles of dish soap or bathroom cleaner or laundry detergent over-and-over — which creates immense amounts of plastic waste — Blueland offers a forever bottle and cleaning tablets that you drop inside. You purchase the bottle once, fill it with water, and then drop a tablet into it and watch it become the cleaning product you need.
The idea is easy to understand and it has caught on with consumers — and also garnered enough interest from Kevin O’Leary on an episode of Shark Tank to yield an investment. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
Figuring out how to manufacture the tablets was a major challenge.
“We were reaching out to cleaning products manufacturers who were creating these products as liquids. They told us, ‘We don’t know how to deal with solids. We don’t even have tableting machinery. And in fact, many of the ingredients that we buy for our liquid products actually come in liquid form, and so we’re not even sure how we would then transform that into a dry product.’”
Since no one could turn simple liquid cleaning products into tablets, Yoo and her founding team needed to come up with their own formula. But that wasn’t easy, either. In fact, they had to come up with a list of chemists and then began reaching out to them via LinkedIn to see if they could help.
“We still have that spreadsheet today of hundreds of names of chemists that we found on LinkedIn,” Yoo said. “We wrote up what their background was and ranked them and then just started reaching out to them on LinkedIn and just tried to get as many people as we could on the phone with us.”
Through this method, they found their head of R&D, and, finally, were able to create a product to bring to market. And that, according to Yoo, is where success is put to the ultimate test. With all of her prior experience launching companies, Yoo knew that the ones who failed fell into the trap of trying to hit valuations or meet the needs of investors rather than focusing on the needs of customers. Rather than perfecting your product, entrepreneurs try to win big with a clever marketing campaign.
“ Ultimately the best marketing is an amazing product or service that drives strong retention and strong word of mouth,” Yoo said.
Blueland had the product that Yoo knew was a winner, and there was an opportunity to really disrupt the market. All this eCommerce brand needed was to educate customers on what Blueland was, how it works, and why it’s better — then get them to actually go to the site and buy the product.
Through social channels and strategic partnerships with certain retailers, Blueland has been able to overcome the education barrier — and the appearance on Shark Tank helps, too.
Today, Blueland is still selling mainly online, but Yoo said that entering more into retail is a likely path in order to reach even more customers. Until then, though, Yoo and her team will continue to monitor the key metrics of their eCommerce site and let the data guide them toward further success.
To hear more from Yoo and to learn exactly how she is planning to grow Blueland’s presence in the market, check out the full episode of Up Next in Commerce.