Trees Should Capture Carbon, Not Crap
We know the problems with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions: Climate change, rising sea levels, flooding, droughts, wildfires, ocean acidification, climate refugees, political instability, and a lot more.
We know that it’s important to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the oceans. We can do that by reducing the production of CO2. We can also do that by capturing CO2 in carbon sinks.
In the US, forests store 14% of our annual CO2 emissions. Trees are a valuable, and powerful carbon sink.
And yet, in the United States, 27,000 trees are flushed down the toilet every day through the use of toilet paper.
And here’s another problem. Paper-making is a toxic process. It uses toxic chemicals. It creates air and water pollution. This is especially a problem for people with chemical sensitivities.
Zoë Levin calls herself “The toilet paper queen.” She is the Founder and CEO of Bim Bam Boo. They make sustainability-focused, health-forward essentials from fast-growing bamboo.
Last year, they experienced 900% growth in annual revenue. And they saved 1.2 million pounds of virgin forest from getting flushed down the toilet.
Ten Questions Every Social Entrepreneur Must Answer
Every entrepreneur must answer ten questions. In this interview, see how Zoë answers these questions. And think about the kinds of problems that you can solve if you launch and grow a business with a social mission.
Here are the ten questions:
- What is the problem that I’m solving?
- Why is it urgent?
- Why has the problem persisted?
2. Who has the problem?
- Is it just me, or is this a shared problem
3. How do people solve the problem today?
- What’s their workaround?
- Who is serving this market today?
4. How do you solve this problem?
- What’s your product or service?
- What’s your value proposition?
5. What’s going to differentiate you in the marketplace?
- What’s your unique selling proposition?
- What’s your secret sauce?
- Why are YOU the one to solve this problem?
6. How do you sustain your business?
- How do you generate revenue?
- How do you keep more of the money you make?
- What’s your business model?
7. What’s your impact?
- What is the transformation that you’re bringing into the world?
- How are you making a measurable difference?
- Can you make it bigger?
8. What’s your vision?
- Where are you going with this?
- What are your goals and aspirations?
9. How will you sustain yourself while you’re on this journey?
- What are your unresolved issues? Because entrepreneurship will bring up all your “stuff.” If you’ve ever thought “I’m not enough,” or “I’m not good enough,” get ready to deal with that. 90% of success is inner work.
- What’s your purpose? How does your personal purpose align to your business purpose? Because purpose drives passion to sustain you.
- What do you value? Does your business align with your values?
- What are your strengths and skills? What are your skill gaps? How will you close those gaps?
- How are you doing physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually?
- How will you practice self-care?
10. How healthy is your ecosystem?
- Entrepreneurship is a team sport.
- Do you have access to curriculum, community, coworking spaces, capital, talent, tools, and technology that you need to be successful?
As you listen to this interview, see how Zoë answers these questions. And maybe think about how you would answer them.
Help Launching and Growing a Business with a Social Mission:
If you need help thinking about these questions, take one of the free self-assessments at CultureShift.com.
If you need help thinking about your strategy to start and grow a business with a social mission, you can schedule a complimentary strategy call.
Also, we have provided a full transcript of this conversation below.
Learn More About Zoë Levin and Bim Bam Boo:
- Bim Bam Boo: https://bimbamboopaper.com
- Bim Bam Boo on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/bimbamboopaper
- Bim Bam Boo Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/bimbamboopaper
- Bim Bam Boo on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bimbamboopaper
- Lunar Startups: https://www.lunarstartups.org
- Free Self-Assessments: https://cultureshift.com/assessments
- Complimentary Strategy Call: https://cultureshift.com/strategy
Full Transcript: Conversation between Zoë Levin and Tony Loyd
Zoë Levin: Hi, I am Zoë Levine, the toilet paper queen, a.k.a. CEO, and founder of Bim Bam Boo.
Tony: The toilet paper queen, when you were a little girl, did you say, “Mommy, Mommy. When I grow up, I want to be the toilet paper queen?”
Zoë Levin: I wish I had such clarity at a young age, but not quite Tony. You know, I always was very entrepreneurial from a very young age, but I didn’t develop this keen sense for exactly what I wanted to do till I was a little bit older.
Tony: So, what exactly is Bim Bam Boo?
Zoë Levin: This is such a great question because, as I’m sure many entrepreneurs who’ve been down this path have understood that their brand changes as they change and as the market changes. So Bim Bam Boo was originally started as a paper company, a tree-free paper company using an extremely sustainable high growth plant, bamboo, for the primary material we use to make paper products.
We are pivoting right now and a little bit in a different direction – expanding the product line – which I can’t share details exactly how and where we’re going to be growing this brand. But we are evolving into very innovative, high consumption categories, all in the single-use disposable area.
Tony: Okay. When you launched Bim Bam Boo, there must’ve been some problem that was bothering you – that you wanted to take on. So, what was the problem, and why bamboo toilet paper?
Zoë Levin: There were two problems I wanted to solve. Of course, I’m all about efficiency, and I’m all about going above and beyond. The first problem was that 27,000 trees are flushed down the toilet every day because of toilet paper use. The second was that the toilet paper industry is unregulated.
It’s one of the most toxic industries that we have. It’s up there with clothing and fabric and dye, et cetera. The paper-making industry is also known to have an incredible amount of toxins and chemicals as a part of the paper-making process. And as a result, those with sensitivities can experience complications, whether allergies or constant UTI. It has a large impact on an individual’s health. So, I was looking to do two things. One, I was looking to create a product that was better for the earth. The second thing I was looking to do was create a product that was better for you.
Tony: How did you land on paper products and toilet paper in particular? So, I hear that, at the 20,000-foot level, it’s bad for the earth. It’s bad for you. Now let’s make something good for the earth and good for you.
But why did you think, “This is a problem that I have to take on?”
Zoë Levin: I have, okay. This is like TMI, too much information. But I’ve always struggled with IBD, inflammatory bowel disease. So, I like to consider myself as, rather than just CEO and founder, I’m also a professional pooper. I have a lot of experience because of my history and my background.
So, unfortunately, I know what it’s like when you’re at the end of the road. From a health perspective, you’re tired; you’re sick. And you’re like, I just am looking for something that is going to help me. That’s going to work for me. And I did a deep dive into all the products in my life, Tony, it was crazy.
It was like, looking at my skincare, looking at all of my cleaning products. And I think many consumers go through this, unfortunately. You’re looking at a 60,000-foot view of the products you use in your home, on your body. That there’s this crossover of sorts that everything in our lives is very much connected.
And that’s what drew me to this space. Because I was looking for a transparent and honest toilet paper company that was clear about sourcing the ingredients they have in their products, et cetera. And I, I couldn’t find a toilet paper that didn’t have formaldehyde in it. I couldn’t find ones that weren’t using chlorinated bleach.
I couldn’t find offerings that didn’t use gelatin, animal-derived adhesives. And I was just like, there’s got to be something better out there. And that’s really at the heart, the very soul, the core, pun intended of Bim Bam Boo. That is why I started this company.
Tony: You’ve got this big problem. You’ve got this personal problem. So, explain to me how you solve the problem.
Zoë Levin: It started with a conversation with my dad. So, my dad is a serial entrepreneur, and we were having a conversation at the dinner table. And I think this is a great lesson because we forget that there are supporters. There are people in our network all around us that are there to help guide you.
And it was as simple as a conversation at the breakfast table with my father that helped ignite this. It turned this tiny little; I like to call it, at the time, this idea was just a snowflake. And it turned that into a snowball, and it turned that into a snowman.
It just kind of perpetuated itself. These conversations, specifically with people in the Minneapolis, Twin Cities business area, helped propel this idea forward. And now, you can find Bim Bam Boo at Whole Foods nationwide. They’re expanding with our SKUs. So, you’re going to see a selection of different Bim Bam Boo products there.
And you can also find a set like the co-ops and Kowalski s, and Kowalski’s was my first cold call. I picked up the phone. I was like, Hey, I got this product. Could I drop some off? And it was one of those things where the buyer there just believed me enough. I believed in what I was building enough that they said yes. And that is really how it started.
It started as a grassroots effort where I was chatting with folks; they helped me get to the next step very much like your podcasts and like what you do here. Telling the story and believing in those people’s stories, and empowering them to go farther.
Tony: So, Zoë, that first conversation with your dad, take us inside of it. What was that conversation? What did you say, and what did he say that caused you to go “Ah! I’m on to something here”?
Zoë Levin: We were reading the newspaper. This is like to date myself, right? My father and I were sitting at the breakfast table. We were reading the newspaper together, and it was one of those things where you read a headline out loud, and he’s like, listen to this. Listen to this. 27,000 trees are flushed down the toilet every day in the United States alone. By the way, that accounts for 15% of global deforestation is due to this industry. It is a bafflingly large issue. We are using trees for this extremely disposable moment – trees that take 30 years to grow and harvest for paper-making. The equivalent bamboo takes about two years.
So, there’s high efficiency. And that is what kicked off that conversation was that headline. And my father having his roots in R&D product development and grocery. He was like,” Oh yeah, we can try and figure. I’m wondering if there’s something else.” And that’s, I think, the crux of that question, which is like, “Can’t we do better? Isn’t there a different way to do this?”
Tony: So how did you get started then? One thing I’ve noticed is the pattern is there’s this idea. You develop an innovation, whether that’s a product or a service. And then you make an impact, right? But you and I both know that there is this gulf between ideas and the innovation itself.
From the time you’re sitting at the breakfast table with your dad, and you’ve got the newspaper open, and you’re talking about this problem to the moment you have a product that goes out. And it gets on the Kowalski shelf. There are so many steps in between. So, walk me through it.
What did you do first? Second, third. How did you get that from the idea to the innovation?
Zoë Levin: I am so flattered by this question. Cause I feel like it’s my first time to explain how I built this. It’s great. Okay. The first step I took was talking to others about the idea and validating that this was a universal problem. Just because I see it as a problem, or an individual sees it as a problem doesn’t mean it’s a universally experienced problem.
The other thing I did was I took a walk down the paper aisle. That’s the other thing that we’re missing here is the market opportunity. The paper aisle at the time across most grocery stores, at least in Minnesota, I would walk down to the paper aisle, and I saw all the big players there.
They had all their shelf placement. It’s like Proctor and Gamble. Kimberly Clark, Georgia Pacific, they’re all there playing. And then there’s like one green brand, and it has…
Tony: The little sacrificial offering, right? They go, “And we’re green too. Here you go.”
Zoë Levin: Exactly. Exactly. It’s like, Oh great. So, they have one offer. So, then I bought the one green offering.
I was like, well, let’s see what I’m up against. If I want to get into this and recycled paper is the next best option, why isn’t recycled paper enough? Cause that theoretically, I mean, recycled paper made of post-consumer product is a wonderful alternative. It’s a wonderful alternative.
For everything other than toilet paper and, you know, paper towels or recycled tissue, it’s great for copy paper. But if you open up one of those recycled paper packs, you’re going to find it is the equivalent of sandpaper. I mean, it is like, you know, and that’s because of the nature of how you make recycled paper.
So, I went down to the paper aisle, and I was like, okay, I’m going to buy this stuff. Let me see what it’s all about. And really like start to, to understand the different qualities of the paper products and. Recycled paper is made up of a patchwork of different fibers. So, what they do is they’ll say, Hey, we’ll take your receipts coated in BPA.
We’ll take your newspapers; we’ll take your corroborated cardboard. And we’re going to throw that into a pulping mix, a slurry of sorts. And we’re going to create tissue from that. And what happens is…Okay, excuse me. I’m going to get kind of nerdy here, but I’m really into like paper making.
So, if you zoom in on the fiber structure of a recycled paper content you find because of that patchwork like approach, you have these very, very fine short strings of paper. So, the paper fiber themselves, when you experience a luxuriously soft feel to a paper or even a sheet, right? Like if you’re, if you’re talking about bad bedsheets, that is a longer fiber, it’s less friction against the skin.
And that’s what creates that feeling. Recycled paper, because of how it’s made – which is a wonderful innovation on its own – is horrific for a personal care product. And you find this both in absorption; you find this in feel, et cetera. So that only went to validate the need in the marketplace for a product that didn’t rob consumers or didn’t. Green products. Shouldn’t bargain with consumers, between efficacy and feel. You deserve a product that does both. And this was the first time I was like, “Oh my gosh, what if the stuff that I developed, what if we’re able to change the way we make paper with this at the crux of this green paper product, through a shift in the material?”
So that’s the next stage of this process is when we got into sourcing. That’s when things got crazy.
Tony: So, talk about that. I love that. So, you did this validation process where you’re talking with other people, and you’re looking at the products that are available for you. And I’m sure you didn’t just go down the paper aisle at your local store. You looked at the marketplace, right?
So, you’re looking at – here’s the total accessible market. Here’s the serviceable available market. Here’s my target market, and here’s what’s available. And you start looking at the quality and how people are trading off environmental impact for efficacy, comfort, usability, et cetera.
So now, you know, there is a problem in the marketplace, but you have to make something, and I’m, I’m assuming at this point you had never manufactured a product. Is that right?
Zoë Levin: I had never manufactured…well. I would say, no, I had never manufactured a product. As a kid, I was totally THAT kid. I had a small suitcase as a child. I would fill it up with things I would make. And I’d go door to door selling it. One of the first products I ever sold, get this. I was in the paper industry, very young. I thought this was so innovative. One of the first products I ever sold – I would take paper towels. And I would use Crayola markers. I would color designs on them. And then I would drip water on them and let them dry out. And I framed them. I would go door to door trying to sell these. I had a couple of other businesses.
One of them was a Barbie cleaning service. I would do Barbie makeovers. And I was just that kid. I would go around the neighborhood door to door. It was the new shtick every week. And
Tony: Wait, I’m just, I’m just picturing that it’s, you know, bring, bring your, what do you call it when you take your car in and a detailed right? Bring your
Zoë Levin: I was a Barbie detailer.
Tony: RP. I was a Barbie detailer. Now that’s going to go, that’s going to go in the yearbook right there. That is just something else. I was a
Zoë Levin: But it was my first time, my first time getting into real mass manufacturing, really understanding what it takes from a certification standpoint, from a capacity standpoint, from a reliability standpoint, and ultimately diving into the unit economics in the CPG industry.
Tony: Let’s talk about unit economics in a second but let me just ask you this. Did you know right away you wanted to go with bamboo? How did you experiment with materials? Which came first, the kind of material you’re going to use or the supplier, or did they come together? How did that work?
Zoë Levin: We went to the drawing board thinking, well, there’s got to be something better. What could that be? We knew it wasn’t recycled paper. So that was ruled out. Next came alternative fiber options. The alternative fiber in this space tends to be hemp, sugar cane. Or bamboo. There’s not much outside of that right now.
Those are the three leading material players. In the hemp industry, there’s only right. It’s a highly regulated industry. And I was like, well, geez, if we’re going to get into paper-making, and this is years ago, right? Like we’re talking. I mean, when I first started investigating this idea and trying to validate it for the market, this was over nine years ago, we’re talking.
Tony: So, you’re a nine-year overnight success, then?
Zoë Levin: I like to say that. Yes. Yes.
Tony: Yeah. Okay. So, nine years ago, you’re looking at these alternatives. So, you look at hemp, you look at sugar cane, and you look at bamboo then.
Zoë Levin: Sugar cane and bamboo are fun players in this space because they’re both types of grass. They grow very, very fast. The root structure is entirely different, and also the fiber structure you can also find rather than just…Oh, wheat straw! That’s the one I forgot about. So, there are four leading players in the materials market.
There’s hemp, wheat straw, sugar cane, and bamboo. And then, of course, there’s a combo. You can also combo these fibers with recycled paper or virgin fiber. So that’s how it started by understanding, like, what are the material players here? Like, it’s kind of like when you’re learning about the celebrities that are Friends or something. You’re like, who do we have to work with here?
And you’re learning about all the different qualities, and we knew we wanted something that was ultra-soft. In our market research, we found that one of the key drivers for consumer adoption and loyalty was the product’s actual texture. And also, at the time, very much, we needed a whitened product.
We weren’t looking at offering an unwhitened product in the market. So that kind of ruled out wheat straw at the time as well. And honestly, the wheat straw prod product was very subpar. So, it came down to getting samples of each of these. And I teamed up with a major research university to do macroscopic testing on all of these fibers.
Tony: So, and you’ve said we, a couple of times as your dad in, on this, who, who is we?
Zoë Levin: My dad has always been an advisor and a mentor. He has kind of taken a back seat, and I’ve taken the front very much. He’s been, I would say, my biggest cheerleader and supporter along the way, but he is, he is, he’s an advisor. He’s not formally involved in the
Tony: So, who is “We,” then if you say we…
Zoë Levin: The Royal we.
Tony: Oh, like WE have done the research.
Zoë Levin: Yes, we, the Royal we played a large role in my entrepreneurial story. It’s only till recently that I had the opportunity to build a team during the great toilet paper shortage of 2020.
Tony: Okay. You get these samples; you employ a major research university to look at these samples and give you some data. You had these different fibers to choose from. You ended up choosing bamboo. So how do you find a manufacturer? I mean, you know, you don’t go.
Did you just go to Google and figure out who the manufacturer was? We used to have in the Twin Cities, the James J. Hill Library. They had excellent research staff, but they’re gone. I know, sad face. But how did you figure out suppliers?
And then also, how did you figure out manufacturers to build this thing for you?
Zoë Levin: I looked to other industries that were also employing non-traditional fibers to make a product. So, this was looking a lot of the deli and to-go ware, things used for catering, cater ware, and looking at what the big players were doing.
And some innovations were happening there in the fiber space because all of those are pulped fiber products. And I was like, well, that’s not so different from the toilet paper industry. It was like, Oh my gosh. It looks like someone’s making plates out of wheat straw.
I’ve got to get in on this. Not that I wanted to get into that industry. But because I knew that that would lead me to where I needed to go. And so, I was kind of backtracking, and I ended up in China. I ended up at a major trade show in China, walking this trade show. And I was walking into these booths being like, “bamboo?”
This trade show takes place in Southern China. I got on a plane and made this grueling trip, and went to this trade show. And was like, okay, this is how I’m going to do this. This is also before Alibaba was a legitimate sourcing tool. I really wasn’t interested in hiring this out.
I knew that I needed to be the gut check on this step, especially doing business in China. This was the crucial keystone in this adventure to build Bim Bam Boo, finding the perfect manufacturing partner for this product.
Tony: And what were your criteria is for the perfect manufacturing partner?
Zoë Levin: the first had to be the certification. So, at the bare minimum, it was getting a mutual understanding of our value for the environment and sustainable sourcing. That was the first sustainable certification. So, our manufacturer today has FSC sustainably sourced certification.
Tony: Okay. So, let me just pause on that for a second. Because, in every entrepreneur’s life, there are the things that you can see on the surface. There are behaviors. There are strengths, and there are experiences that you have. But below the surface, there’s this set of values that drive behavior, right?
So, values are the things you can’t see. You can kind of indirectly measure your values, right? And people have lists of values, et cetera. But how important was it for you that your values and your partner’s values be aligned?
Zoë Levin: Personal credo plays a considerable role in my development of self. And not just as an entrepreneur but also as a CEO. As you grow and scale, you are challenged in new ways. You are put to new tests and obstacles.
I would say this was probably in many ways, the first test I ever took – figuring out how to find that supplier and running it through my, at the time, very loose set of values and seeing how we aligned.
This is such a brilliant question because we don’t realize it at the time. Still, life is always giving us opportunities to reevaluate our value system, our personal value system, and put it to the test in our professional life.
And this was very much one of the first things. At the bare minimum, I knew that if I am on a journey to create a product that will combat deforestation, one of the first things I can do to solve that problem is to start with sustainable sourcing. So, I looked at it in a twofold way.
Yes, this is what drives me to create this company: to create a monumental impact for the world, for the climate, for the animals that inhabit this place for the economies that thrive off of these forests that exists. But it kind of goes back to just, “Make the right decision.” Support these certifications that are helping, especially in China, make the decisions that inspire trust and build value for your brand and your brand partners.
In our case, major retailers.
Tony: When did the first case of toilet paper show up on your door, or how did it come over? Did the first shipping container of toilet paper show, show up at your door? How, did that work?
Zoë Levin: At the time, I had this 3PL warehouse in Lonsdale, Minnesota, about 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities. And I got in the car and drove there. It was winter.
I’m a big lover of fashion, so I was wearing this vintage camel cashmere coat.
I was thinking I’m going to match the boxes.
So, I got out of the car and brought my dad with me. He’s my key supporter and cheerleader. I think it was three years from the point of the idea’s inception to when the product arrived in physical form.
Tony: That is an important distinction. It speaks to that gulf between idea and innovation. There are so many steps between that happen. So, you have an idea. It’s not like you go, “I know, kids. Let’s put on a show.: It’s not like, “I know. Let’s make toilet paper out of bamboo. I’ll order it. I’ll Google it. Here it is. Let’s order it.”
It wasn’t that. It was like taking our time, doing our market research, and understanding what we’re doing. You mentioned unit economics a little while ago. We’ll have to swing back by that one in a little bit. But now your first shipment shows up three years later.
So, talk to me about that – the first time you walked in, opened up a case, and looked at your toilet paper.
Zoë Levin: I freaked out. I mean, it’s one of those moments where you’re just – it’s baffling. Because, I had been to China. I had toured both the pulping facility and our workshop. I shook hands with all of the workers that were hand-packing this product. I was working to source all of the actual packaging materials that go into that product.
Still to this day, I go out of my way to walk down the paper aisle of every single grocery store I visit. And whenever Bim Bam Boo is on the shelf, I take a picture, and I pinch myself. And it’s that moment when you hold the product before it even gets on the shelf – you go to the warehouse. It’s freezing. You wear a camel coat to match the boxes. You open the box up, and there is this product. It becomes your baby. You’re holding your baby for the first time.
Tony: “I freaked out.” I love that. You’re probably the first person who said that out loud on this podcast, but you’re not the first person who did. I am sure of that. I have a book over here. The first time one of these books showed up, I ran around the house, holding this book like I had a Teddy bear in my arm. And that only took me a few months to get it published.
You mentioned a little earlier that you got the first ones on the shelf at a grocery store here in Minnesota called Kowalski’s.
Talk to me about that. How did you get your first sale?
Zoë Levin: There’s this beautiful time in every entrepreneur’s life where they are so naive. They have these bright eyes and big bushy tails. And they don’t know what the hell they’re getting into. I was at that moment in my life. I was Googling. And this is before I had any idea of enterprise sales or B2B sales distribution.
I had no idea what the hell I was doing, Tony. And that worked to my advantage to this day. My superpower is in sales, hands down. And it started by picking up the phone, calling corporate at Kowalski’s, asking who the paper buyer is, figuring out who that key decision-maker was getting on the calendar, and showing up.
One of my biggest hurdles along the way was figuring out, and this is silly, but figuring out how to carry all these paper products around the damn country. An Ikea bag fits them all perfectly. But it took me a long time where I was just like walking into offices with handfuls of the product and putting them down.
I was like, “Hi, welcome. Hi, I’m Zoë. I have toilet paper.” It’s such a bulky product.
I set up a time with the key decision-maker at Kowalski’s, and I presented the line. That was the first sales deck I had built in my entire life.
I’d never taken a sales class. And also, I didn’t graduate college.
I was totally that kid that was working and taking 30 credits at one time in many areas. That included Chinese, which served me very well later in life. And in graphic design, which helped me well when I made a sales deck for the first time. And in acting and directing, which serves me well with public speaking opportunities like this. And in sales presentations, employing all of those skills to land the sale.
Tony: Yeah, so let me tie this way back to what you said earlier. You said, “I was the one with the little suitcase going door to door selling products.” So, you’re not shy when it comes to sales. And you said sales are sales is my superpower. That is such a critical point, isn’t it?
One of the things I offer people is an entrepreneurship skill self-assessment. By the way, it should be entrepreneurial self-assessment, but nobody ever Googles “entrepreneurial skills.” They always Google entrepreneurship skills. So that’s what I call it.
But of all the skills that are on there, it’s kind of a universal thing that people want to do something good in the world. But, when I ask them, “How comfortable are you standing in front of somebody and pitching your product?” Maybe a little less so. That is a superpower. Is there anything you would tell people interested in creating and growing a company that does good in the world? Is there anything you would say to them about selling?
Zoë Levin: What would I tell someone interested in doing good in the world as it relates to sales?
Zoë Levin: I’m so curious what your answer is to this as well. Because you’ve done the interviews, you’ve done these assessments, you’ve met so many brilliant, amazing people. I think you were probably an expert at answering this question. My…
Tony: Did you see what you just did? You just did one of the things that is important to sales – make it about them. And your instincts said, “Oh, let’s talk about you.” So, you just demonstrated what probably makes you a super salesperson.
Zoë Levin: I’m going to cry laughing. So, I didn’t think about it. It was not intentional, but it’s true.
Tony: It’s instinct. It’s the YOU mindset. When I pitch on a stage or do a TED talk, if I make it about me, I will die. Because I bring all that energy inward. But if I make it about them, then I thrive.
Because it’s not about me, it’s not about what I need or what I want. It’s about them and about what do they need and what they want. Maybe I have something for them. Perhaps they’re not the right customer. And if so, I can move on. But I assume that that is one of your critical skills.
Zoë Levin: It is undeniably. It’s hilarious. But as you know, Tony, if you can sell, it also means you can inspire. The thing about this is this. I mean, I think everyone, you could read a lot in research how to be a freaking brilliant salesperson. Because there’s an art and a science to this. But, with social entrepreneurship, social good, impact-driven, you’re a bit ahead of the curve in some ways.
I’m driving value for more than our “shareholders,” but maybe the stakeholders of our community, the earth, the beings on the planet – that is still to this day a little bit of an earth-shattering idea.
And if you can lean into the inspirational and aspirational qualities of what you’re building, you are going to be much better off than presenting your idea or your offering in pure black and white.
You need to help that decision-maker, that purchaser, that audience, whatever that is. Hold their hand along the way. They want to join you.
We know that this trend speaks to over 70% of millennial consumers. They’re willing to spend more on sustainable products. Many statistics can back this up. The world is looking for solutions. You have to hold their hand and guide them in that direction. And it cannot be shameful. It cannot be guilt-driven.
It needs to be empowering. So that would be my one piece of advice. Make it about them. Yes. And make it about them being the superhero. Allow them to succeed and make a difference.
Tony: I’m advising several companies going through an accelerator. They’re pitching for significant investment. And one of the primary things I tell them is that when you pitch, talk about how WE will change the world TOGETHER.
And it’s not about “I’m the superhero,” right? You’re like the guide on the side. You want the person listening to be the superhero. You want that person to say, “Wow. If I get involved with this, I am going to change the world.” And the same thing with the buyer, right? “If I get involved with this, I am going to make a big impact on the world. I’m going to help 27,000 trees per day, not go down the toilet.” That is a powerful, powerful statement.
I promised you that we would be about 25 minutes, and we’re about 45 minutes into this 25-minute interview because I love everything you say.
You mentioned unit economics. Not only is it essential that you do good in the world, but you have to sustain your good by having a business model that makes a lot of sense. So, talk to me about that, Zoë. How did you figure out the money side of this? What have you learned about that?
Zoë Levin: I have bootstrapped Bim Bam Boo to this day. And I’m so damn proud of it because that takes a lot of savvy. And one of the stories that I’d like to tell around unit economics has to do with our debut into plastic-free packaging.
This is the one time I will use “I” because I feel very proud of this moment. I went on Amazon and found there was not a single toilet paper offering that was plastic-free. I knew this was a tremendous opportunity. We shipped it to the consumer in a box. From a behavioral standpoint, I knew this would be one of the easiest shifts to a plastic-free option in the marketplace. So, I went into Amazon’s Prime dimension requirements. I knew I wanted two-day shipping on this toilet paper. I used their shipping pick-pack fulfillment standards to reverse engineer the size of this toilet paper roll that we sold on Amazon.
So, it’s a little bit smaller than a typical toilet paper roll because we needed to engineer everything backward. This was one of those moments where I was like, oh man, not only am I just killing it in terms of margin, right? This is the thing.
This is the moment for all CPG listeners of this podcast, for their ears to perk up.
Look at your shipping dimensions and requirements. Look at the dimensional weight that can kill you.
If our box were 0.2 inches over these requirements, my margins would be reduced. I would be making something like a 10% margin on this project because of the pick-pack and ship fees. So, this is the thing about unit economics.
It requires you operationally to look holistically at the business. It’s not just about how a product gets made, where it’s shipping from, or how it’s shipping from A to B. But what are the actual unit dimensions? How does that impact the sell-to price for the customer and drive home value for you and your company?
This was a great example because it checked all the boxes. It was plastic-free. It was an easy behavioral transition for the consumer. It was under price for all of our competitors in the same count per box per package. And it was maximizing and optimizing our margins because of its design.
Tony: Brilliant. So, you went into Lunar Startups sometime, probably last year. Is that right?
Zoë Levin: March of last year.
Tony: Yeah. Is this your first accelerator kind of experienced that? Did you have other accelerator or incubator kind of experiences?
Zoë Levin: It is my very first accelerator, and it’s been quite the ride.
Tony: yeah, for people who don’t know what Lunar Startups is. Tell them about it.
Zoë Levin: Lunar Startups is a nonprofit accelerator program that supports underestimated founders in making millions of dollars.
Tony: And how do they do that? I know that you’re not here to represent Lunar Startups. But, but you’re…
Zoë Levin: I am! They’re taking applications right now. I think their cutoff date is pretty soon. So, I would say Lunar has made a tremendous impact on our business, specifically during this incredible time of growth. I can speak to how they shaped and supported Bim Bam Boo as an accelerator.
Lunar Startup’s program is structured in a way to give you the foundation for success. For example, many entrepreneurs get to the point where they’re engaging in new agreements without signing NDAs or non-competes. They’re pitching without ever really perfecting their pitch. It’s this track for growth that we all experience. And we don’t take a minute to look back retroactively and say, what are the best practices around this? They coupled that foundation for success with a great network of mentors.
That made a tremendous difference for us when we were talking with major retailers. At the height of the toilet paper shortage, I was able to use Lunar’s expert network. I was able to leverage that to help me make better decisions for my business, figuring out who our best partners would be in this next stage.
And this was all, mind you, happening very fast. You can imagine, if a major retailer doesn’t have toilet paper on the shelf, they’re willing to make decisions quite fast. And we had to figure out how to capitalize on those opportunities while not sacrificing any of our values and making sure we were growing intentionally.
Tony: So, Zoë, we haven’t even talked about that. I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you tell a little bit of that story. Around March or so, people ran out and bought all the toilet paper off the shelves. And you’re in that space already.
So, so what happened?
Zoë Levin: This is such a funny question.
A couple of things happened. The first thing that happened was we sold out. I have this app on my phone that makes sure that I can see our sales on Amazon. And I pull up the app, and I check our sales as I do. And it shows that we have sold a month’s worth of inventory in less than 24 hours. That’s how I knew that this was a huge, huge deal. That was one channel, right? That’s our Amazon channel. We moved through a month’s worth of inventory in less than 24 hours. That was mirrored in our B2B wholesale channels. And I worked my butt off.
I’m going to be really honest. I got a bottle of wine. I went down into my basement. I opened my computer, and I built ourselves a Shopify site. And on the Shopify site, I launched a pre-order function, and I started taking pre-orders. Because I knew I had another container coming in very, very soon. And with our forecasting, I was like, “Okay. I’ve got some toilet paper, and I might as well offer this to our loyalists.”
I had sold over a thousand units in seven days on a website with no SEO. It was brand new. It was an earth-shattering experience. There are a lot of stories about overnight success, you know? “The celebrity gave us a shout out and we were just selling like crazy.”
The difference here is it was coming from the demand was coming from every single channel. That was quite overwhelming.
Tony: So, your lead time – it comes from China. So, they have to manufacture, they have to put it in a container. They have to ship it over to you. So, there is some lead time.
The other thing that has happened is somebody gets a shout out on Oprah, let’s say. And their websites crash, and nobody can get their product, and then they’re going crazy. The team runs to the CEO and says, “Let’s build the mother of all server farms. Let’s make sure that this never happens again.” It is tempting to overshoot the market. Because the market demand is way up. It is tempting to call up the manufacturer and say, “We plan on selling a month’s worth of product every day for the next365 days straight.” You start ramping up for that. And then they call their suppliers, and they bring in bamboo, et cetera. And next thing you know, you’re sitting on this massive pile of inventory that won’t move.
How did you keep from doing that? How did you keep from overshooting the market?
Zoë Levin: I made my retail partners contractually responsible for the inventory they wanted. It’s a little bit mean, but you’ve got to mitigate risk at the same time. As you can see from my little office here in Minneapolis, we’re a tiny company. There are always opportunities to mitigate risk. You have to think more like a chess player about it
Tony: That is a really good point. I know people who sold into major retailers. They built up their manufacturing. They sent it to the retailer. And partway into the contract, the retailer said, “You know what? This isn’t really moving,” and just shipped all the product back.
It will kill a business. So, that was clever. How did you know to do that? Did somebody on your advisory board say that? Did you talk to someone, or was that just instinct?
Zoë Levin: That was not instinct. That was a piece of advice. I had a couple of conversations that got me to the place where I was like, “Oh, I need to require this.” I also did quite a bit of research because that’s the thing about our position as Bim Bam Boo. Because of our business model.
We have multiple partners involved in this. We have major distributors that sell to major retailers. And unless you know about the contracts in place between those major distributors, with those major retailers, you don’t know what kind of liability you’re dealing with. There was a moment when I was like, “Oh man. I have got to do my research before moving forward with this.”
We’ve experienced 900% growth in annual revenue. It has been a wild ride, Tony. It’s mind-blowing, insane growth. That has required us to think strategically about onboarding new retailers, moving forward, and understanding the true liability of growth.
We like to make it really shiny. And it is an eye-catching thing. When you hear a story about a high-growth startup in the spotlight, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool.” But the reality is that the bigger you grow, the higher the risk. And the more liability you take on.
And that has been one of my biggest lessons through 2020, moving into 2021. Yes. We have experienced tremendous growth. Yes. It has been during a tumultuous year for our country and also our community. Yes. It is such an honor and privilege to be at the helm of that growth. And it also has required me to take the brunt of that responsibility in mitigating risk and liability where I can.
Tony: So, give me an idea where are you today in scale and impact? How do you measure that?
Zoë Levin: 2020 was a banner year for Bim Bam Boo. We experienced 900% growth in annual revenue. We sold 803,912 rolls. We experienced 2600% growth in store doors. We onboarded six new warehouses to reduce our ship time to under two days to our major retail customers.
And this is the stat I’m most proud of: We have saved 1.2 million pounds of virgin forest from getting flushed down the toilet in 2020.
Tony: So, we’re going to have to wrap this up. Let’s go with three questions here at the end. So, one is advice to early-stage social entrepreneurs. We’ve talked about a lot of things. You’ve given a lot of great advice already. Is there one key thing that you’ve learned on your journey that you would pass along?
Zoë Levin: Progress, not perfection. At Bim Bam Boo, our goal is to champion the planet and the people on it. And sometimes, that’s just a step in the right direction. It doesn’t need to be the perfect direction, but it’s the right direction. I think we all must remember this.
There’s always going to be, in a vacuum, the perfect solution to a problem. But if you can look at everything you’re trying to do from both as an entrepreneur, as someone looking to change the world, as progress, not perfection. We need a lot of people progressing. If we can get a lot of people trying, we can make a lot of change.
Tony: If people are looking for Bim Bam Boo online or on social media, wherever should they look?
Zoë Levin: I would love it if you joined the Bim Bam Boo crew at Amazon.com. You can search for Bim Bam Boo. You can go to bimbamboopaper.com, buy straight from our website, or you can go to any Whole Foods nationwide and pick us up in the paper aisle. Additionally, if you’re in the Twin Cities community, you can find us at any co-ops and at Kowalski’s.
Tony: People could just hit next on their podcast player, or they could go and do something as a result of this conversation. What would you love to see people go and do as a result of this?
Zoë Levin: My superpower is a saleswoman. So, I’m going to ask you all to buy Bim Bam Boo. That is my call to action. Become a forest-saving superhero. Buy Bim Bam Boo and wipe away climate change and deforestation.
Tony: Zoë. Thank you so much for being with us on Social Entrepreneur.
Zoë Levin: Thank you, Tony. It has been an honor. It has been a pleasure. And I’ve learned quite a bit about both myself and you during this podcast. Thank you so much for having me on.