Last week, Lizzie Horvitz, Finch Founder, sat down with PiperWai CEO and Co-Founder, Sarah Ribner. The two first-time founders discussed the difficulties of tackling environmentally conscious decision-making as a small brand, the innovations changing the packaging game, and proving naysayers wrong. Read along for some exciting insights into Sarah’s journey, and the value of collaborative communities like Finch. Check out Finch’s Instagram Reels for the full recording.
ABOUT SARAH RIBNER
Sarah Ribner is the CEO and Co-Founder of PiperWai, a company creating environmentally conscious personal hygiene products. From developing products in a kitchen, to taking the stage of Shark Tank, to gaining tens of thousands of customers worldwide, Sarah has brought her passion for human and planetary health to the personal care space.
Lizzie: Hi everybody! It’s so nice to be back on here. Today we are talking to Sarah, from PiperWai. I’m so excited. We’ve never even met before, we’ve just emailed and texted, so I’m so excited to meet her. She should be joining any minute. Oh, here she is! Perfect. Hi Sarah!
Lizzie: How are you?
Sarah: Really good, how are you?
Lizzie: Good! It’s nice to meet you.
Sarah: It’s nice to meet you virtually!
Lizzie: Are you in Brooklyn right now?
Sarah: I’m based in New York for now. I travel a little bit between home, where my family is in Philly, and New York, but based in New York for the most part.
Lizzie: That’s awesome. Well, I’m so happy to have you. I was just telling people before we started that we’ve never actually met or talked, we’ve just emailed and texted. I would love for you to just share a little bit about your background and how you got here.
Sarah: Sure. I started PiperWai out of personal need. I was going through this entire transition of learning how to use healthier products and learning more about what’s going into conventional personal care, including all kinds of ingredients that may be linked to long-term illnesses, and others that were just harsh for my skin. I was dealing with breaking out in rashes and acne and other skin conditions from products I had bought at drug stores. When I switched to natural, all the things that conventional products were supposed to solve, I was able to solve with natural products, but natural deodorant was the hardest one to find. I was using mass-produced drug store brands. I tried a few smaller ones from Etsy sellers and either broke out in rashes or would smell terrible halfway through the day. It’s a really hard product to get right so I started using a formula with a childhood friend, and saw that there was a really big white space in the market for this kind of product. That was through my journey and turned out it was right, it was something that was desperately needed. Since we’ve launched it’s taken off, this category of natural deodorant.
Lizzie: That’s phenomenal. And this was 2014? Or maybe a little bit later?
Sarah: Yeah. It was very small. We were doing a few hundred units per month, crafting everything, literally shipping from a living room. Sometimes I would go into my desk job and ship from my desk during lunch. It started very small and it kept growing organically -- we didn’t invest anything in advertising, it became word of mouth. Then, after a couple of years of doing that and operating on a very small scale, NAACP and Values Partnerships were hosting casting calls for Shark Tank. I applied, and in about three months we were out pitching and that’s what got the word out about the brand and the product.
Lizzie: That’s phenomenal. What was that experience like being on Shark Tank?
Sarah: It was terrifying because I’d never been on national television before. It was a unique experience seeing behind the scenes what goes into one of our favorite shows. For the months leading up to it, we had to be completely confidential about it. We couldn’t tell friends or family. It was this big secret until all of sudden there it was on national television and we had two weeks to prepare. It was a really exciting experience but it was the best way to get the word out because a lot of people didn’t know what natural deodorant was and why it could be better. It was a good way to get seven minutes of airtime to explain it.
Lizzie: So you were a first-time founder when you started this. What were some of the challenges as a founder going down this journey?
Sarah: The biggest challenge -- I’ve heard this a lot from women entrepreneurs -- is being taken seriously as an entrepreneur, especially if you’re a first-time founder. Coming from a certain background, it can be quite hard, especially going into manufacturing, which is a very male-dominated environment. Having to learn the retail landscape and all the things behind building a brand, it was challenging to get taken seriously. I remember one of our first manufacturers right before Shark Tank, said, point-blank, “This is not going to exist in a few months. You’re going to go off and do something else.” Here we are, years later, still operating and with tens of thousands of customers worldwide. It’s kind of like proving a lot of nay-sayers wrong, and continuing with the brand, and believing that this is a product people need.
Lizzie: I can relate to that so much. You have to have this blind optimism. It’s not narcissism, or like you have an elevated view of yourself, but you almost have to wake up every day when you’re in those trenches and be like, “This is going to succeed.” You hear people all the time telling you that it’s not going to work, and you, of all people, have to be the one that’s cheerleading for your team and yourself. That resonates with me.
Sarah: Exactly, yeah, the cheerleader. I say that all the time. You have to be your own cheerleader.
Lizzie: I’m thinking of 2014. I worked at Unilever for a while, and we were just getting into the natural deodorant space years later, probably 2017, 2018. What was that like, what were some of the challenges early on before this industry had taken off to make all the right sustainability decisions?
Sarah: Early on the perception of natural deodorant was difficult because a lot of people considered it ineffective, bad for sensitive skin. There were just so many negative connotations with it. There was the misconception that something that is entirely naturally derived could not be effective. We had always been packaged in glass, that was an early decision because it was recyclable, and it helped to protect the product pretty well. As we started to learn more about different types of sustainable packaging, and as consumers became much more educated and demanding of more sustainable packaged goods, we learned that it’s quite difficult as a small brand to be sustainable, inside and out, ingredients and packaging. There are all kinds of cost barriers to sustainable packaging. There’s a lot of greenwashing, so things that we thought were sustainable, weren’t. So paper, for example, if there are any oil stains on it, is no longer recyclable. You don’t know what the source of the paper is unless it has certain certifications, and even then there could be a lack of transparency. The challenge is knowing what is sustainable, and then the cost barrier for small brands. We went through the whole challenging landscape of figuring out how we become sustainable, both within the product and packaging.
Lizzie: Completely. We hear that so much with smaller companies that don’t necessarily have a scientist on staff, or that can’t afford these certifications that tell you exactly what you need to do. Where were you going in those early days to get trusted information that wasn’t greenwashed?
Sarah: In the early days, I was talking more to manufacturers or thought leaders, like people who were involved in nonprofits, especially nonprofits involved with ocean clean up and sustainability within oceans, and also manufacturers who have a long history of producing sustainable or conscious packaging. Early on we had spoken to Lonely Whale, for example, that had partnered with Plastic Bank. When I would get connected with one person, I’d get connected to someone else within the community. It was this long process of connecting with as many people as possible, and almost crowdsourcing information from very trusted contacts. Sometimes it did lead in the wrong direction. Going back to the paper example, I thought that was the most sustainable because it’s so easy to find that anywhere in our industry. We even hired a consultant, in-house, to do our own research into some of these options. Everything we thought was sustainable, wasn’t in production, or at the start of life. I would say that the entire process of the conversations, the interviews, the internal research, the testing -- I think that process took about a year.
Lizzie: I love that you talk about crowdsourcing because I think so many companies, particularly smaller brands, are just trying to outpace their competitors from a sustainability standpoint. What we’re finding is that anti-competitive collaboration is so important because we’re not going to solve this individually, right? It helps when you’re trying to get a certain size of materials, that’s not something your company may be able to do alone. I feel like the world is still far away from where it needs to be, but we’re moving in the right direction of sharing secrets with competitors.
Sarah: We found that other brands have been open to speaking about their challenges because we’re all facing the same thing, we’re all trying to become more sustainable. If someone else has found a solution, even if they’re a competitor, it still helps the broader landscape to make it more accessible and to share information. That’s a really good point. That’s been another source of information, just connecting with other entrepreneurs who might have done the same thing.
Lizzie: That’s great. What innovation now in the sustainability space are you excited about, either that you’ll integrate into your own brand, or just in the space right now?
Sarah: I’m excited about a lot of these non-profit/for-profit collaborations using recycled, ocean-bound plastic. There are fishermen out there that are facing dwindling fish populations, which is impacting their income. They’re partnering with these organizations to get fair wages, to basically fish plastic, and then that plastic becomes gold, almost. They’re reselling it, and they’re creating long-term job opportunities just taking this plastic and repurposing it and giving it a second, and sometimes a third life. I’m excited to see that innovation -- how plastic is being repurposed into everything from packaging for furniture, to jewelry. Then, of course, in the interim, it helps to prevent certain types of plastics from entering the ocean and also helping to clean. It’s a cool innovation. Even to see the technology and how that’s been evolving to solve some of the complications that producers are facing using this plastic, they’re constantly innovating. We’ve even talked to a few suppliers that use completely renewable energy in the process. That’s been cool to track.
Lizzie: Have you found it’s been easy to track the supply chain down to second and third-tier, or is that a challenge for you guys?
Sarah: It’s not as challenging with certain suppliers, but for others, it’s very challenging. I think it depends on the supplier. We have found that the more transparent they are, unfortunately also the more costly they are. It’s a cost that right now we absorb. We must have that kind of transparency in every step of the process, especially as a small brand because we don’t have eyes on the ground in some of these processes.
Lizzie: Pivoting a little bit, I find that my favorite part of being a founder is that my job completely changes every three months. I’m working on things that are completely different and I don’t know what that will look like in three months from now. That keeps me going; I don’t do well with monotony. I’m curious how you’re spending your time these days. What are your short-term goals?
Sarah: About the same, going in between a million different roles a day, which I just got used to. Now if I had to do the same thing every day I wouldn’t be able to focus on it -- I’m just used to jumping between so many different projects. Day to day it could be that I’m tracking down trucks and making sure that our manufacturing is going on schedule, and then I’m jumping on an Instagram Live, and then I’m trying to design and focus on new product development, then I’m jumping in team meetings. Every day is different, which is pretty wild. It doesn’t turn off. If something’s happening, you don’t have that separation between work-life sometimes, so that also is something that I’m trying to work on, and keep that separation.
Lizzie: It’s difficult. I find that 99% of it is so fun, but that 1% of being able to separate your personal life is a challenge too. You get to a point where you’re getting there and there’s never a lack of things to do. You could always continue to be doing more and more, in the millions of roles that you’re having every day. That resonates with me, for sure. So we always ask this question to our Q&A guests, because we find that our community is super resourceful and sometimes makes their own things. I’m curious to hear if you’ve ever had a DIY project and what is the best or worst example of that?
Sarah: My favorite was actually during the lockdown. In my parents’ house, this room had been used as storage. I cleaned everything out, hopped on Youtube, and learned how to do those wall panels. You do these three different panels and then it comes out looking elegant. I repainted the room, re-did the walls. I learned how to sand the floors -- the floors were damaged. It came out as a nice home office.
Lizzie: That is so cool! Maybe that’s the next career for you.
Sarah: Yeah, it was a lot of fun! I was just watching YouTube videos and getting inspired on Instagram.
Lizzie: That’s awesome. Someone just wrote, “I walked 20 minutes back to a restaurant where I left my PiperWai hand sanitizer. It really is the best.” I’m so glad that person commented because I was just going to say, on our Instagram we asked who has questions for Sarah. A couple of people wrote back and were like, “I don’t have any questions but this is the best product I’ve ever used.” People love your brand. It’s awesome. I’m still working through my current deodorant, but I’m so excited to test yours out. So, what is next for you guys and what can we do to help?
Sarah: Our goal is to be 100% sustainable, conscious packaging, so we try to take our customers on this whole journey that we started with this PCR and recycled ocean-bound plastic [Sarah is showing the PiperWai container]. We started with these couple components, and I don’t have any samples but we also have aluminum packaging. There are certain products in our line that we’re transitioning away from the old, virgin plastic. Our goal is to be 100%. We are looking to design a couple of our own types of packaging, custom components. I’m excited about that. Also new products, and starting to expand the deodorant. This has been the best seller since day one. This is what we used to handcraft in a community kitchen. Because it works so well, we didn’t need to expand too far, but there are certain things that we’re looking into expanding into within the next year or so. I’m excited about that.
Lizzie: That is really exciting. I will be looking out for those. Well Sarah this was so awesome. Is there anything else you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask about?
Sarah: I think we covered it. The really big thing and you touched on this before, is that brands are collaborating more than ever to make the landscape better for everyone. I think that’s what’s exciting about brands in the sustainable space. Plug-ins and communities like Finch and these ways to connect other entrepreneurs and people who are trying to do basically what we are told is impossible. It’s great to have a community around this.
Lizzie: That’s great. We’re so excited to stay in touch and collaborate in the future. I’m so happy to meet you, and so impressed with what you’ve built so far. Thank you so much!
Sarah: Yeah, thank you! You can buy it at PiperWai.com or on Amazon PiperWai.
Lizzie: Oh, amazing, perfect. Thank you! Talk to you soon.
Sarah: Thank you, bye!