Finding meaningful work is about asking complex questions rather than coming up with easy answers.
I was born in Mexico. When I was a one year old, I immigrated to the U.S. with my parents. One summer I returned to the Pueblo where my grandmother and many of my extended family members still live today. I remember walking hand in hand with my abuelita to fetch water from the well across town. It took us about an hour to get there and an hour to return home, with a heavy bucket in tow. Even then the hard work did not end and we would boil all the water to get rid of bacteria.
For most of my childhood, despite being perfectly healthy and more than happy to eat the delicious food my mother cooked, I was routinely rewarded for finishing everything she served with the at-the-time-exciting-but-in-hindsight-seemingly-meaningless invitation to join the Clean Plate Club (CPC). The words “Great job. You made the Clean Plate Club today” have been permanently etched into my subconscious. And from all the conversations I’ve had about this topic, I’m not the only one. As a kid, I never reflected on the underlying message behind this club, or thought about why it would have come to be in the first place. As a teen, it seemed like an oddity, a habit of mind and speech that my parents continued to display because that’s how they’d always done it. More recently, though, as I’ve delved deeper into the issue of food waste, the Clean Plate Club has taken on new meaning for me, and despite some of the club’s shortcomings, the main message is highly relevant today, perhaps for different reasons than it was initially intended.
In March 2012, my business partner Ross Lohr and I drove from Boston, Massachusetts to Morganton, North Carolina with a car full of t-shirts that we were planning to upcycle into t-shirt tote bags and circle scarves. Two years later, we have sold over 15,000 custom t-shirt quilts. How did we go from upcycling random t-shirts that we thought were ironic, into becoming an affordable way for people to preserve their t-shirt memories? We made a whole lot of mistakes, but we tried not to make the same mistake twice. In order to save other aspiring entrepreneurs some time, here are five things I wish I’d known back then:
Do your research: There is more than one place in the United States that does cut and sew.
Instead of doing our research and being resourceful, we drove across the country to find our manufacturer. On the one hand, we made a lifelong connection with the people at Opportunity Threads in western North Carolina; on the other: we did not have enough traction to justify a road trip. There are now also a lot more resources to find textile-manufacturing plants, and we should have done our homework.
Hearing that you have a ‘cool’ idea is different than people purchasing your product.
A lot of times in the social enterprise or for-profit world, people ask their friends and network if they would buy x if it existed. Most people say, “Yes, that’s a cool idea.” But when the product is actually presented, oftentimes it's too expensive or just not that good. During that first spring of trying to convince people to buy our totes, we asked a lot of people what they thought, and the typical response was that we had a nice concept. One night on the bus coming home, we asked a random passenger what she thought, and she said, “It looks like the first bag ever created—it’s not very good.” At the time, we felt she didn’t understand the “story,” but if we had stopped and really listened to an unbiased consumer reaction, we would have saved a lot of time and money.