Sarah Paiji makes starting a company look easy. She’d founded her first one, an online shopping app, before finishing her MBA at Harvard. Now, she’s founded another: Blueland, a Shark Tank-approved startup on a mission to reduce the use of single waste plastic. Her first mission? Cleaning supplies.
Fun fact: When it comes to the bottles of window or surface cleaner we use, we’re paying mostly for plastic and water. Paiji saw another way. By shrinking the concentrated ingredients (you know, the ones that actually clean) into coin-sized tablets, she could provide cleaning supplies at a lower price to your wallet and the planet. Thus, Blueland was born. The idea: Buy bottle. Add water. Drop in tablet — and boom! — cleaning spray. Repeat this, well, forever.
We sat down with the serial entrepreneur to learn more about her path to startup success and the importance of cutting down on plastic waste.
What were you doing before launching Blueland?
I guess you can call me a serial entrepreneur at this point. For the past 10 years, that’s what I’ve been doing, and I just fell into it accidentally. After four years in finance, going down a pretty traditional path, I realized it wasn’t for me — but I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. And so I ended up going to Harvard for business school and taking the two years to step back and really think about what it was that I wanted to. I liked this idea that I was going to a place where there were people from many different areas of business, where I would have the opportunity to learn about and from their experiences. That was my main goal for going to business school.
Before going, I had never actually considered myself entrepreneurial. I was very square. But when I got there I realized that there was an incredible track record of impressive women who started businesses right out of Harvard Business School, like the Rent the Runway founders and the Birchbox founders, just a few years ahead of me. That was incredibly inspirational to see: People just like me, with a similar set of experiences, who decided to just go for it. I decided to do the same, and I kind of got my heart set on starting a company while in business school — so that’s what I did.
I started my first business, a mobile shopping app called Snapette, and I ended up dropping out of business school to pursue that. I was able to raise some venture capital and ran that business for almost four years. We were able to grow to 2 million monthly active users, and then I got an offer to sell the business from Price Grabber, which was at that point one of the world’s largest shopping search engines, and I sold the company to them in 2013. I stayed on for a year, but then I was itching to get back to early-stage company building. I made so many mistakes as a first-time founder, and I really just wanted the opportunity to do it again.
Did you start another company right after that?
After that, I wound up reconnecting with another entrepreneur I knew, the founder of Rue La La who had just left. He came to me when he saw that I sold Snapette and said he wanted to create this startup studio, and asked if I be interested in joining. At that point, we really didn’t have a sense of what we were going to launch, but this was at the start of direct-to-consumer. At that point, Warby Parker was kind of the only example. I decided to make the jump and join him as a founding partner of Launch. And then through Launch, we ended up starting four companies over the next four years, which was a crazy adventure. And all four are still around and thriving today; they include companies like M.Gemi and Rockets of Awesome.
So what made you want to launch Blueland?
I knew, having gone through it [founding a company] once before, how much it requires of you — emotionally, time-wise, even physically. You have to really be in it. So, I knew that I wasn’t in a rush. That it really had to be 100-percent the perfect idea. Something that I could be very passionate about personally and something that I saw a path to growth.
After I’d just become a new mom, I decided to take a break. I kind of wanted to step back and take some more time with my son and also just kind of think about what it was that I wanted to do with my life, just to kind of a check on myself. During that time, like any first-time mom, I was doing a lot of research around the food and the water I was giving my baby. I breastfed him for 11 months exclusively, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
My bar for that stuff was high, and I was horrified to learn that the water that I was using to make his formula contained micro-plastics. Basically, all of this plastic we’re using breaks down into micro-plastics so small that it’s hard to filter out of our water system. And that’s when I decided to really, truly cut back on my plastic consumption.
It was an interesting journey as a consumer, because as well-intentioned as I was, everything came packaged in single-use plastic — from shampoo to lotion to ketchup. And so that’s when I thought, well, I have this experience building new companies, what a great way to have an impact beyond my own personal consumption. I could create a company or product that could also give other consumers another choice.
How is Blueland doing that?
Blueland is reimagining conventional cleaning products to eliminate the need for single-use plastic packaging. If you think about cleaning sprays, for example, a multi-surface spray or glass mirror spray, those products are over 90-percent water, which means that as consumers, we’re paying for a plastic bottle and a ton of water — things we already have at home. So what we did is shrink down that type of cleaning product into a tablet that’s about the size of a nickel.
Right now, we’ve launched a set of cleaning sprays, as well as a foaming liquid hand soap. We sell our system as a reusable, refillable system. We provide one bottle — a “forever bottle,” the last bottle you ever have to buy. When you need more of the cleaning solution, instead of buying a new plastic bottle and paying for all that water, you simply refill your bottle with tap water, and then you add one of our tablets. The tablet dissolves, and in a few minutes, you have your cleaning solution.
Your ingredients are also different from the contents of conventional cleaning supplies?
Especially being a mom, it was important to me that our products were non-toxic. I do think that that’s really the new standard, especially for the millennial family, younger millennials, and Gen Z. The challenge was also making sure the products were effective, and so it was a long formulation process.
How long did it take?
It took two years. Environmental, eco-friendly products have a really bad reputation of being more work, less effective, and more expensive. And we knew that we had to be just as effective as the leading, not only nontoxic brands, but as the leading conventional brands. People want to clean their homes, and if they can’t effectively do that, it’s hard to expect them to sacrifice that for the planet.
4 billion pounds of our trash is dumped into the ocean each year. And it’s breaking down into tiny pieces of plastic that is now showing back up in our food and water supply.
You talk about the products as very much part of this larger environmental effort. And you do a lot of education. Is that part of how you’ve spread the word about the brand?
It’s been so motivating and so encouraging, because our social media account really doesn’t talk about cleaning very much or even cleaning products. This is the nice thing about social media. Without it, if we were just selling in a big store, we would just be another collection of cleaning products on a shelf. Instagram has really enabled us to be a brand that really stands for the environment and sustainability.
We talk about where are the easy changes that you and I can make to do better by the environment, and one thing that’s been so exciting is that our educational posts do so much better than any other type of post. For example, for those who celebrate, we did a post on real versus artificial Christmas trees, and it’s the best performing post in the history of our account. We’ve gotten over 4,000 likes, and it hasn’t even been a day yet. Over 400 people have told us what kind of tree that they are buying and why. People want to know more. They are interested in doing better.
What are some easy swaps you’ve made to reduce waste?
Some of the easiest yet most impactful places to start are water bottles, coffee cups, straws, and plastic bags. The statistics are insane — 500 million straws are used daily in the United States. It just requires a little bit of planning. And once you get into it, it’s really something that don’t even think about. When you move from a single-use to a reuse system, you can actually invest in higher quality products. I love carrying around a beautiful coffee mug — it’s just so much more enjoyable than a single-use, throwaway paper cup.
I love the Byta because it’s beautiful, and it’s also wide-mouth so I can use it for water or coffee. I think of it like my phone or just like my keys. I just don’t leave the house without it. Bringing it along ends up eliminating at least two to three cups each day. It’s admittedly hard to remember the first few weeks, but once it becomes a habit, it’s such a simple way to make an impact.
They’re a reusable alternative to Ziploc bags, but really I use them for everything. I carry my makeup in them, I put my son’s snacks in them, I keep pens in them. It’s really nice to have made this transition to higher quality, more permanent products.
This one I’ve found is really easy! I always carry a couple of Unpaper Towels on me, and I have them all over my home. It’s crazy how many paper towels and napkins you use throughout the day when your hands aren’t really that dirty. This is just another way to be more sustainable, and they’re easy to throw in the wash, too.
Honestly, Blueland has been hugely convenient for me. The tablets are big space saves — nine tablets are the size of your iPhone. While I love the idea of buying bulk and checking something off my list for a long time, it’s nearly impossible in a small New York City apartment. If I lived somewhere else, I would want to be a Costco consumer, and I think with Blueland you really get to do that. I mean think about hand soap. We are constantly going through liquid hand soap in our home, and now I can stash like 24 tablets in this tiny little box and always have them on-hand. It’s just one less item on my shopping list.