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More and more people are realizing that disposable household items — be they plastic cups and bags, cotton pads, toothbrushes or anything else — are bad, both from an environmental and economic point of view. At the same time, sometimes you can’t do without them, which is especially true for travel and medical industries. What can you do? Startup Effa offers and sells a solution to this problem: recyclable paper toothbrushes have already attracted the interest of many corporations. Ilya Kichuk, one of the founders and CMO of the startup, shared what the project is about, how it is developing, and what goals it sets for itself.
We talk to startups and investors, you get the value.
Effa is a Ukrainian startup which produces recyclable eco-friendly products. Their top product today is eco-friendly paper toothbrushes, and the company is planning to add other goods for daily use, including masks and slippers. Effa products are 100% recyclable.
— How did you come up with the startup idea?
— I was involved in industrial design, branding and product development, so I often came across products that turned into garbage straight after they were developed and used. We live in a consumer society, and we are used to buying something and then throwing it away. So I thought why not produce products that could then be easily disposed of and serve as raw materials for the production of other items. After conducting some research in this direction, I came to the conclusion that one of the most irrationally used and polluting objects around the world is toothbrushes.
In hotels, for example, the time of using one toothbrush is a couple of minutes, and then it goes to the trash. At the same time, the production path that each toothbrush goes through is impressively long: plastic production, brush production, associated carbon dioxide emissions, logistics … The same applies to the production of one plastic cup, which is then thrown away. This is simply irrational.
— How long did it take you to turn your idea into the actual project?
— It took 3 years until we started actually working on the project. For a long time, it was just a concept. We started actually working on the project in 2018, when we went to America to take part in an acceleration program. The first competition where we presented this idea was international, and it was held in Ukraine in 2017 under the auspices of the Greencubator organization (Greencubator is a public organization in Ukraine that builds an ecosystem for sustainable entrepreneurship and the development of a green economy. — Startup Jedi). We took first place and thanks to this we were able to present the project to the international community in Cyprus. Then there were several more competitions. We made it to the top five projects participating in the GGF (Green for Growth Fund) competition in Germany. These first victories and achievements boosted our motivation to move on.
— How does participation in contests help to promote the product at first?
— In the early stages, I advise all startups to participate in contests, because this is network and PR. Besides, there are often publications after the finale, which contributes to the promotion and recognition of the product. Our product is simple and understandable for everyone, so journalists want to write about it. Once they wrote about us in one large Korean resource, and we did not know about it until our friends from Korea told us. That was how we found a major distributor. At the same time, as far as contests are concerned, it is important not to overdo it: it’s possible to participate in many contests and get zero output.
— How did you create the MVP?
— In our case, it was not easy, since MVP for consumer products is often made from plastic or electronics, while everyone rarely encounters paper — even if we talk about contractors. Therefore, we made MVP by hand in the laboratory together with prototyping contractors. For a while, I just showed clients what our product should look like with a render on my phone. In the end, we made test samples, began to send them to our potential customers and received feedback and pre-orders.
— What is special about your other products? What are they made of, how are they recycled?
- We are currently developing them, so I cannot reveal some points yet. They are also made of recycled material, and products will also be aimed at meeting the needs of the travel and medical industries. We want to replace disposable plastic where possible — and it’s not just paper, but various biocomposites such as grain and certified recycled material. Our goal is not to produce material, but to make a product from what has already been produced. Other products include disposable recyclable masks and slippers. In general, we are primarily driven by customer requests, and they are different for every hotel.
— What raw materials are your toothbrushes made from, and where do you get them?
— From recycled materials. We don’t even cut down trees :) Brushes are made from waste products from the production of sugarcane cellulose, and raw materials are purchased in China. This is a renewable, clean resource, so we decided to use it. When eco-activists tell us disposables are bad, we usually reply by saying we are making this evil less. There are some things that cannot simply be taken away from everyday life in, say, hotels since this is part of the service and standards that cannot be changed.
A typical disposable plastic brush takes 500 years to decompose. Effa toothbrushes dissolve without leaving a trace in water or soil within a few months.
— Tell us about recycling your products: what does the cycle look like, what do they then turn into?
— Firstly, we have contractors who can recycle used toothbrushes.
And secondly, they are designed in a way that makes them easy to break down into parts, so they can be recycled immediately. Their paper part goes to paper, and the nylon part goes to plastic. We do not claim that the product is biodegradable, because each country has its own conditions to claim this. We declare that the product is recyclable, that is our brushes are one of the few products that are ready to be recycled.
— It’s been about 4 years since you started developing the idea and taking part in competitions. What do you think is your greatest achievement so far?
— Firstly, the fact that such a seemingly simple product was of interest to large brands at the prototype stage, which you could not even test. This motivated us to move on and work harder. Secondly, six months ago we entered the acceleration program Startup Wise Guys, which helped us a lot in terms of knowledge, confidence, product promotion, and improving it. Thus, the main achievements are access to large brands and the fact that we were able to sell our product to them because there are quite a lot of projects that are trying to sell something to businesses.
— What is your most successful case when it comes to cooperation with brands?
— I must say that working with large brands is an important component of product promotion. Our product helps to implement the concept of sustainable travel, sustainable living, we help companies create a green brand image. We promote them and they promote us.
One of our successful cases is Netflix, which wanted to get our products to their office and on the set. The best part is that we never contacted them, they found us themselves. We came to California to showcase our products, and this month we will ship the first small batch to Netflix.
— What will your project be like in a year?
— We are going to promote a line of similar products made of different recyclable materials, not just paper. The global goal is to replace plastic wherever possible. Many people say that disposables are bad, and I agree with that, but we, roughly speaking, are replacing disposables with cleaner ones. The hotel will keep throwing out 500 brushes a day, but let these be our brushes, which will then be recycled, and not those that will simply be disposed of, emitting carbon dioxide and harming nature. Our annual plans also include working with brands: for large brands, this is corporate responsibility and concern for the environment, for hotels it is a necessitysince in most countries disposable plastic is already banned.
— How difficult was it to break into the market? As you mentioned, large players often have too many partners, they have whom to choose from.
— Firstly, the product sells itself.
Secondly, many brands want to be sustainable, and our product helps them do so. Our task is to show our competitive advantage. Despite the fact that the market is quite competitive, there has not yet been such a solution. We were the first to offer it — and it worked. Besides, we want to develop a brand rather than a product, because the brand is more important in this case. You can buy a toothbrush on Alibaba as well, but these are very different things. We offer both the service and our brand, which is very important for me.
— How do you reach big brands and big clients?
— Basically, through LinkedIn sales, LinkedIn publications and access to decision-makers. Yes, it is quite difficult to reach a top manager of a large network, but in the end, it pays off: it may take 6 months to establish contact, but in the end, you get a large client. In this regard, b2b products are easier than b2c.
We have 4–5 strategic clients mainly in the travel industry. In some countries, if the hotel has more than 50 rooms, it is forbidden to use disposable plastic. In other countries, this is being lobbied at the political level, so there’s more to our project than just toothbrushes. It’s also about sustainability and rational use of disposable items. We try to convey this to our clients — and most are ready for it. We are helping them achieve Sustainable Development Goal 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), which resonates with so many people.
— Where are your main customers, and who are your direct competitors?
— Our main clients are in Asia, the USA, the Scandinavian Peninsula, and the United Arab Emirates. However, the main market for us now is Asia, where most of the luxury hotels which strive for sustainability are concentrated.
We have a lot of direct competitors. There’s no product without competitors. Our competitors are bamboo toothbrushes, as well as large corporations that may be looking to move in the same direction.
— How did you find investors, especially the first ones?
— Investment is a whole different story. Our first investor is a New York accelerator Starta Ventures. It was also there, in New York, that we raised investments from an angel investor for the Pre-seed round. Now we also closed the $500 000 round with an angel investor Seed. Startup Wise Guys acceleration helped us a lot in this, as we got useful knowledge about how to develop, how to look for investors — after all, we were already at the stage when we could offer something to the investor.
We mainly use smart money. We sometimes receive strange offers, but reputation is more important than just money. I do not agree that money does not stink, therefore we work with smart money only.
- How many people are on the team now? What is the role of each of them?
— There are 5 people on the team, but we keep looking for talents. I am responsible for design, marketing, branding, and product development. I have experience in industrial design, branding, I worked in creative agencies, video production, and worked a lot with start-up products. My wife Dasha Kichuk is the CEO of the company. She is engaged in communication with clients, investors, public speaking and pitching, finance and operations. Kostya Shcherbina is the CPO responsible for logistics, communication with contractors, industries, logisticians and lawyers. He deals with the operational part of the product. Nikolay joined us recently, and he is engaged in R&D — developing new products, studying materials, prototyping and engineering. Anya is the Head of sales who also joined us not so long ago. She is a cool account manager, closes deals with large brands, clients, and she is responsible for sales and operating systems in sales.
— What advice can you give to those who are just starting to work on a startup?
— I think there are 3 types of founders
Each type has its own strengths and weaknesses, but the most important thing is not only to determine which type you belong to, but also try to develop the necessary skills in order to combine all three types as much as possible. Therefore, my first advice is to become a hybrid founder in order to find balance.
The second tip is to be confident in your product. If you are unsure about a product, the customer will not buy it either.
The third tip is not to be shy about showing your design. It’s important for a budding startup to make a basic MVP of what you have and show it to the client. Many startups hide it, they are afraid that the idea can be stolen, but in fact, no one needs a raw idea. It is a big mistake to be afraid to tell the investor about the product.
Another tip is to find a mentor who can help you avoid basic mistakes, and feel free to ask knowledgeable people for advice. This will help you save time and be more efficient and productive. Do not hesitate to reach out to those who have come a certain way, have experience — most people will be happy to share it.