Ashley Etling is the CEO and co-founder of LimeLoop, a startup building a shipping platform for sustainable logistics.
Greg Miaskiewicz: So tell us what you're working on at LimeLoop.
Ashley: Well, the tagline is everything retailers need for sustainable shipping. So what that really means is we're replacing all those single use packages that are piling at your front door with reusable packages, and we're able to track that data along the way.
Greg: How did you get the original idea? I know you've been working in supply chain for quite some time and this isn't your first startup in the space, right?
Ashley: Correct. In my last company we were building enterprise software for the front end of supply chain and we were just doing a lot of shipping and at that point I was looking for a sustainable option and the only thing on the market at that point was 100%, or maybe even 80% recycled cardboard. I ended up creating this kind of reusable package for us to ship internally. Fast forward 10 years later came across it when I was unpacking boxes and during a move and it was at the shift of brick and mortar to e-commerce, probably the height of it, and was gathering a lot of data and information on what that shift looked like, not only from a supply chain visibility aspect, but also from a ESG perspective. And so I really started diving deeper into what that future could look like and reuse just seemed like a perfect timing, especially as the Sword policy went into place and recycling was pretty much falling apart.
Greg: I know there's some folks out there who think it's difficult to change human behavior and reusing things and not having single use containers. Some people might say rather than trying to change human behavior, we should just come up with reusable containers, instead of biodegradable single use containers.
Ashley: Yeah, I think I always go back to those three R's we learned way back when, which is reduce, reuse and recycle. So ultimately we would like to get to reduction, but reuse is that next one. And when we talk about consumer behavior change, we've always have approached it from the perspective of convenience. Creating a system that's convenient or even better for the consumer will allow them to participate. When you think about not having to untape boxes or retape them and now you can just unzip them or simply leave them at your front door versus actually going down, breaking down a box and put it in your recycling bin if it's not full and then trying to find another place to put them.
Greg: So what are your typical customers? What are they doing or shipping?
Ashley: Mostly apparel and also body care. And then we've recently started to expand into grocery as well and see a route where we can eventually expand with all industries. But apparel was a great way to test, especially because return rates are pretty high. So it was a great kind of entry into more of a closed loop system.
Greg: Do you work with any of the platforms that do grocery delivery?
Ashley: Yeah, it's great. And we're working with some other kind of more reverse logistics companies for delivery of groceries. That is our first entry into it. I'm really excited to work with companies like Good Eggs or Hello Fresh so we can continue to make groceries convenient for customers, but also increase that ESG.
Greg: What do you mean by ESG? Could you explain the concept?
Ashley: Sure. So the concept of ESG is really how we can measure impact from a corporate responsibility perspective. So it's become kind of a trendy word within the corporate kind of ecosystem, but it is a way where we think about it, of a way to brands to actually measure their impact, to minimize it and then also measure and expand it and how they really look at how they can grow and make that environmental impact. And at LimeLoop we really look at it from a kind of twofold perspective. We look at it from resource savings and then we also look at it from a carbon emissions and the impact from that perspective.
Greg: What do you think are some of the other interesting startups in the supply chain logistics space that are making the delivery of goods more sustainable?
Ashley: It's like alone, just a fun time to be in the space. And I think it's rare that people say that in supply chain, but there are so many great companies popping up. One of them is Planet Forward. We work with them working on our life cycle analysis, also called an LCA. So they're able to provide us with data to better understand the impact of using a reusable versus a single use. They work with also a lot of food companies to really be able to push that forward. I think Bolt Threads is a really interesting company out of the Bay Area. They're working on a lot of materiality, how we use banana fibers, how we use mushroom fibers to make materials. So we not only think about how the materials work within the world, but how we continue to have more of a cradle to cradle aspect. And then I think just great companies, which is one of our customers Tote & Co who have been at the sustainability edge for 25 years and they have continued to push it forward and look at every detail and push really aggressive goals. And I think how they can be representative of how we can actually build a true sustainable company from not only how we develop products but also how we actually internally think about sustainability.
Greg: How did you end up starting your first startup? What made you decide to take the leap to work on your own company?
Ashley: Yeah, I think just always a love for ideas and then I think given the freedom to be able to then execute on them. And then I think the third one is just a level of curiosity but perseverance as well. And that curiosity leads to seeing problems potentially in the world and then being able to create a solution for that. And then I think in my second company, moving to the Bay area really started to create a whole new curiosity, which is how technology can really add layers and optimize and not only for any industry but especially supply chain, which is where I fell into very early on in starting companies. And onto LimeLoop, which is being able to not only take supply chain knowledge but layer of technology and then that third element which is to really do good with those skills and that technology.
Greg: Take us back to the beginning of LimeLoop. How'd you meet your co-founders and assemble your original team?
Ashley: Chantal Emmanuel is my co-founder and also our CTO at LimeLoop and she came in for our interview a couple years in to my last company and we usually had a pretty rigorous hiring process. It would take us weeks, sometimes months. And she walked out of the room and we called her an hour later and hired her to join the company. And we've been working together for 10 years and just excellent, smart in her perspective and how she approaches and I think that has allowed us to build what we're building at LimeLoop. Just a mentality of a love for solving really big problems.
Greg: In terms of explaining to customers why they should use sustainable products or reusable products, are you actually showing them how this impacts their bottom line? Is it more cost effective to use or is it an additional cost that they bear because they want to be responsible?
Ashley: Yeah, we always look at it from the approach that sustainability will last if the double bottom line comes together. And so we really approached it from the very beginning of how we could save them money on packaging costs, but then how we could continue to add layers of technology to also help with that bottom line. So think about increasing their customers LTB or really helping with inventory management as a lot of our brands see an increase in returns. And then our next level we're going towards is then also just having more trackability, not only from the environmental impact perspective and being able to measure it and seeing dashboards around it, but also really being able to understand trackability and visibility beyond what carriers offer today.
Greg: To what extent have carbon taxes influenced behavior in your view? Is there more of a desire to actually look at what the real carbon costs are of a supply chain?
Ashley: The main data point we have is that we have a large amount of inbound from the EU and the UK and that's because they're looking at in the next year to be taxed for their environmental impact. So we're seeing quick shifts, how they look at it, how they approach it, and it is a must have now and we're starting to see that trickle into the US and hopefully over time that will be a part of it. But the other part of it is a Sword policy was put in place about three years ago where China said that they will no longer really take waste from the US so that has really backed up a lot of our recycling centers. So we'll continue to see ripple effects from that as well that could lead to some of those policy changes but also is just a resource depletion. So we'll start to see prices increase as well.
Greg: Do you think that there are any potential improvements to the supply chain? I know when things are shipped internationally, part of why people want to buy local is when you ship things on freight tankers across the ocean, they're using the worst fuel. It's kind of hard for certain goods to be shipped across the ocean and still not have a huge environmental impact.
Ashley: Yeah. And I'd say we're definitely seeing a shift, especially with the pandemic and all the supply chain backups we've seen. And I think that has shown one, we have a lack of visibility and two, the system is very delicate because it can be broken easily. So I think industry wide we're starting to see retailer shift and diversify the actual manufacturers they are working with and using. But kind of going back to that consumer side too, the more we purchase goods that are thoughtful and actually made in the USA, are made closer to home, we can also really have an impact on those decisions as well.
Greg: You've started a few companies and I know you also mentor and advise other startup founders. What do you think of this question that I think really at the beginning of companies founders grapple with, which is how to divide up equity with co- founders?
Ashley: Yeah, to me I've always approached it from the perspective that an idea is only something unless you actually execute against it. So it's really the perseverance and everyone coming to the table. So in a lot of ways, whether you're working more at it or you had the idea, all that doesn't matter because there's this long road ahead and you're both working on this idea to build it to this bigger vision. So it's all about collaboration that will really bring that to life. And so I've always been in the boat of a 50-50 is an excellent way to approach it and go forward and I think that sets an excellent precedent also about how you're going to go forward and grow the company. They are just numbers, but at the end of the day I think it says a lot on between the two partners.
Greg: I think philosophically for me it's as equal as possible and there are some cases where you may make it slightly unequal but having a split where, I don't know it's 50-20-30 is a recipe for founder disputes.
Ashley: I agree.
Greg: So another sort of very early stage question, how did you decide to name LimeLoop and your other companies? What was your thought process there?
Ashley: Well we wanted to make it fun because it is a consumer facing and then we also wanted to tell the story about how the company worked but take it a little deeper because when people think of it, they think about it as a reusable packaging company, but there's a lot of deeper layers we're solving with technology. So the Loop of course is the circularity aspect and the Lime is from the outside is this very protective covering that protects goods, which at the end of the day is what a package is. But as you cut that Lime in, there's a lot of layers and a lot that goes on with it and it all happens to be circular as well. So when you put those two together LimeLoop, that also then just makes it a fun, familiar, lighthearted brand.
Greg: Yeah, it's interesting. It's also green, you can use green colors because limes are green.
Ashley: It is, yeah. And that was another part of it. We definitely went down the route of lemons and different citrus and now I'm starting to also know a theme, see a theme in my companies. My last company's name was Red Clay, so I tend to gravitate towards some kind of color within a company.
Greg: Take us back to Red Clay. How did you decide to name that company?
Ashley: Similar. Color has a lot of meaning to it and the idea, well to backtrack a little bit. So what we were doing at Red Clay was really making it easier to develop products on the front end of the supply chain. So from the point of design idea all the way through production, so connecting to those designers and then creating tools for them to be able to work together. So the Clay is being able to mold an idea and then the red was put in front of it as it can be very powerful if we come together and collaborate and work together.
Greg: Interesting. Yeah, colors communicate a lot. Inside software we tend not to use red because red is error. But then there are companies that break that mold like Yelp, their color schema is very heavy on red. So colors can be recontextualized too I guess.
Ashley: I agree. And I think we're starting to see that too. And there's even shades of that red because that red has an association of being so powerful. We were using this new app as a communication tool internally called Remotion and they definitely have hints of that red that's toned down within their branding and it's beautiful and graceful and also stands out and inviting.
Greg: So one other very early foundational question for building a company, what do you look for when hiring the first employees at your company? What are the most important traits for an early startup hire?
Ashley: Yeah, I'd say we definitely start within the network. So most of our early hires have been through stakeholders, connections or people who have generally reached out to us or we have dug deeper into our networks. And so I think that friendly voice but then we also always just look beyond that as well because we know sometimes we have to go even further. I think what we look for is someone who is just really eager to solve big problems and really passionate about what we are building. Because as we all know, when you start into a startup, while you are taking on one role, you are still wearing lots of hats and it's still a lot of grit and perseverance and we're all kind of pushing one heavy boulder up the hill. So I think we look for that definitely. And then the skills, the knowledge to be able to come in and really hit the ground running and take ownership and really build against what we're going for.
Greg: When do you think is the right time to hire your first managers? When do you outgrow founder led management?
Ashley: Yeah, again this question often I think as a lot of early entrepreneurs are building out their roadmap and what that PNL and projections look like. And I think you don't know until know and when you feel so stretched in what you're working on, you have to ask why. And it generally usually comes to bringing on that next talent hire and that comes to whether that's a manager within your sales team or account as X or even managing on the product side.
But I think don't get too caught up in planning too far ahead because things shift and you need to be nimble but bring it on when it makes sense and you definitely are starting to feel that it does make sense. And I think also being smart about those customers you do bring on in making sure that you're listening to what they need and then you'll hit a point as well of when to bring on those team members to ensure that they are heard and you can continue to build and make sure you are building a product that really does fit their need but also can be 10 steps ahead as well.
Greg: In terms of when you hire your first product manager or your first salesperson or your first, I don't know, marketing growth hire, do you do it after you get product market fit to your point about listening to customers and making sure you're building the right thing?
Ashley: Yeah, I think it really depends company to company. For LimeLoop we had this natural flow of where a lot of people were searching for reuse and we were getting a lot of PR so the word naturally spread. So we were receiving a lot of inbound and so at first that was Chantal and I, we were wearing many hats and we were taking on a lot of those calls. And then I always tell her we continue to fire ourself out of roles and hire people that are smarter than us. And I think our roles generally progress as I start raising funds, that becomes more of my job and as that has become definitely more of my job this year, we have brought on our true first sales hire. So I think always hiring someone smarter than you and continuing to fire yourself out of roles. And I think you think about it from that time perspective, then you will hire smart and continue to think what's your next role? And that will bring that vision as well quicker to life because you can continue to move the company forward.
Greg: What do you think about equity compensation when you're hiring early? Do you think it's super important motivator for early employees to get big equity awards?
Ashley: I think it depends on the person, but I love it. I love being able to give the employees that we do hire part of the company because I think one, there's so many great models where it has worked so well, but in a lot of ways we're not going to get to our bigger vision without everyone. Chantal and I can't get there by ourselves. And so more and more that everyone can have a piece of that and we're all working towards this bigger goal, then I think it's excellent and I kind of err on the side to not pull back on it I suppose.
Greg: I know you mentor a lot of founders and have experience working with helping them bring their vision to life. What are some of the biggest mistakes that first time founders make?
Ashley: I think at first it's figuring out how we hire because team is so important and then it's the perseverance aspect. I always tell them 100 nos equals one yes. And sometimes 200 nos equals one yes. And then I think sometimes in the early days you hear these glory stories of so many founders who were able to raise so much money very quickly and that's such a small percentage. So it's kind of also these reality checks of the grit and the time it takes to actually hit the milestones were trying to achieve even day after day or year after year. And then I think a last one too is never hesitate to ask. They're always kind of trying to figure out how do I build this network? How do I get thicker and grow more of my customers? And I think at the end of the day, everyone has been there so everyone is more willing to help. And so I think always ask for help, never sit back and hesitate.
Greg: That's one thing that Silicon Valley is very different than other places, which is that everyone wants to help startup founders whose work that startups, everyone generally wants to help you.
Ashley: Yeah which is something I just fell in love with the Bay area and it's still there and people, they just want to give back because they got to where they are because they asked and people helped them as well.
Greg: What's something you wish you'd known when you were first starting out now that you've spent almost more than a decade working as an entrepreneur?
Ashley: It is an excellent question. I think what I'd wished I would have known very early on, which is something that I stick to today, which is always to simplify and focus. And I think it has continued to take shape as I grow more companies that as you're building a new company, there's such an innovation aspect to it that a lot of people want different things, but the more you can simplify and the more you can focus. And I have to say we're still refining this at LimeLoop that you can really actually build a foundation that scales incredibly.
Greg: All right. Well thank you for joining us and sharing the words of wisdom.
Ashley: Thank you so much for having me today, Greg.