Reaching eco-minded consumers is one way to build a green business, but Andrew Sell wants to attract conventional consumers, too. Find out how he’s turning his green entrepreneur vision into a reality through Hipcycle.
Where did you come up with the idea for Hipcycle? What was your inspiration?
For years, I had wanted to start a company, and preferably a company with a triple bottom line as its foundation. I just never had the guts to do it. I think it was something about closing in on my 40th birthday that made me take stock and realize that you should do in life what make you happiest and to what you can bring your full passion. For me, that is working for myself and using the power of business to help improve our planet.
The idea for an upcycling company came because I came to see that there is actually an industry forming around the concept of making products from materials that would otherwise be going to the landfill. It is a small industry today, but it is fragmented among many small players, and growing quickly. These are great industry characteristics for starting a new business.
What green business problem are you trying to solve?
There are two interrelated issues that Hipcycle can help address: The first is to simply reduce the amount of materials going to the dump. This happens when someone buys a Hipcycle product, and it also happens when someone becomes aware of Hipcycle, what we stand for, and then takes action to put less stuff in their garbage can.
The second issue is to expand beyond the traditional green consumer market and reach more mainstream consumers. My take is that many green products target a customer niche of highly eco-conscious consumers that are willing and able to pay a premium — or take a hit on product quality and/or aesthetics — in order to support green consumerism. Most people in this country do care about the environment, but they’re not willing to make compromises in their shopping choices.
So, therefore, Hipcycle carries products that, in addition to being eco-friendly, are attractive, stylish, durable, and price-competitive with traditional goods. We want to reduce as many of the traditional barriers to buying green as possible so that more consumers are empowered to make smarter purchasing decisions.
How did you get funding?
I’m bootstrapping the heck out of this thing! My grandmother gave me a small portfolio of Procter & Gamble stock when I was born that just kept growing and growing over the years. I sold that, thanked Granny Mac up in heaven, and put it into Hipcycle.
Where do you source your products and what upcycling criteria do you follow?
Our products come from all over US, and also from all over the world. Waste is a global problem, and we are delighted to support designers and entrepreneurs that have a vision to create awesome products from trash. All of our products must meet one filter: does it compete with a mainstream equivalent product? Is it price competitive, and otherwise as marketable (if not more so)? We don’t want people to buy from us just because we have an eco-friendly product line, but because we offer products that meet their needs and wants.
Do you warehouse your merchandise, or do you dropship?
We do both. We send most of our smaller items out from our warehouse on the Jersey Shore, and larger items, such as furniture, are drop-shipped by our Product Partners.
In most cases, there hasn’t been a need to do a whole lot of convincing to get our Product Partners to drop ship with us. They have believed in our vision and have been excited to support that vision and also have a new channel to distribute their products. We do have a standard drop ship agreement, which is actually written more from the Product Partner’s point of view, to provide an additional level of comfort. We use that agreement with about half of our Partners, and have a handshake and a process outline with the rest.
Up front, it is more work for the Product Partner, no doubt. Since we don’t have the actual products in inventory, we need to rely on them to provide great product images, shipping weights, and other product details that would usually be able to create ourselves (if we had the product in the warehouse) in order to favorably market the product on the Hipcycle site.
As it relates to Product Partner relations in general, we want to come to a point in our relationships with them that they consider Hipcycle to be their best retail partner. We want to be fair, honest, and collaborative. We think it’s the only way to do it for long-term mutual value and success.
What platform did you choose to power your eCommerce website?
We use Magento. We started with a template that was heavily modified and had several extensions added. We partnered with Michael Bower from The Magento Developer, who did just a great job with the results and has great customer service.
How do you reach your target customers? What marketing strategies work well for you?
We have focused on three main strategies: social media, public relations, and online advertising. With social media, we have worked really hard to build followers and engagement on Facebook and Twitter, and we have had a pleasant surprise experimenting with Pinterest, where we have about 2,000 followers. We’ve also made it a priority to get new posts on our blog at least 2-3 times a week. Many of our blog posts have focused on DIY upcycling projects, reflecting our broader mission of raising awareness about waste reduction.
On the PR front, we have sought opportunities to tell the Hipcycle story across the web and also in traditional media outlets, and we are starting to see some good results there. I have also been invited to several speaking engagements, and we are doing things like contributing a gift basket to a silent auction fundraiser for the Ian Somerhalder Foundation, which a great environmental non-profit started by the actor from Lost and The Vampire Diaries.
Finally, with the online advertising, we have been experimenting with Google and Facebook ads, and a few display ads. We trying to be very targeted here and see what delivers the best ROI for us.
Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?
So far, I have been pretty lucky, but ask me again in a year! We founded Hipcycle in May of this year and launched the site on October 1. There are lots of little things that I would have done differently to be more efficient and effective, but there is nothing major I would have done differently. I would suggest, in general, to think through, but don’t dwell on, big decisions, and then make those decisions quickly and quickly fix them or otherwise change course as soon as you realize that you may have made the wrong call.
What advice would you have for other aspiring green and social entrepreneurs?
You hear versions on this advice a lot from social entrepreneurs, but it really is true: follow your passion and be smart about it, and success will follow. As a 39-year old, I finally jumped into the entrepreneurial pool, and it has been the most satisfying professional experience of my life.
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