CompoCloset is the environmentally friendly startup making portable composting toilets affordable.
For context, Richard turned up to the interview dressed in full sports-gear, ready to go for a run.
So you’re obviously a sportsman?
I love mountain biking. I never do it enough. Every year my New Year’s resolution is getting out on the bike more. I never seem to ride enough. But I try to stay fit. I’m in America at the moment, so no bike. I was gonna go for a jog.
Okay. Where do you generally ride?
In the UK? I’ve got a good group of mates in Bristol, so we normally ride in Wales. It’s like a big bike-playground. Wales is a lovely place.
So why don’t you tell me where you are in the States.
So I am currently on Orcas Island in the San Juan’s. Which is a nexus of manufacturing - only kidding.
My business partner and my partner are sisters. This is where their parents live.
We’re just taking a bit of a break from a business trip that started about a month ago. We came over to see the first samples from the injection moulds for manufacture.
That went really well. We saw our manufacturer down in Los Angeles. We went to some campervan events to do some research for our product. We needed to save some money because we’re a start up, we can’t afford to live in LA with Airbnb rates there every night. So we came up to the San Juans.
We’re just camping out here for the best part of a month, while the last parts arrive in the USA for production.
Amazing. So you’ve decided to manufacture in the states rather than say China?
Yeah, some parts are made in China, and then there’ll be shipped to the US for final assembly.
Our product is very sexy. It’s a portable composting toilet for camper vans. The biggest market for us by miles is North America - the US and Canada. As a marketing and sustainability angle, we thought it would make sense to manufacture our toilets in the biggest market to reduce the miles the finished product would have to travel before sale.
We reached out to manufacturers completely “green”.
We got these 3d files of the toilet design made and contacted manufacturers saying, “Hey, can you make these?”. And they said “No and go speak to these guys”. I didn’t even know who to approach.
One of them replied and said yeah, “I’ll give you a quote to make moulds for your plastic parts”, they turned out to be our manufacturers.
It’s lucky because, since we started the project, supply chains have gone south spectacularly.
Now we have a very short supply chain. The biggest parts are made in America, which helps us with their inventory and helps us reduce transport miles. And thank goodness, because trying to get anything into the US, the Port of Los Angeles is complete backed up.
Yeah, it’s been a really “interesting” year-or-so to make a physical product.
We’re lucky we don’t have any microchips. We dodged that bullet. But yeah, just making anything at the moment has been a bit of a learning curve, especially with the prices of everything being so unpredictable.
So you’re obviously having to teach yourself about the manufacturing process. You said when you reached out to companies in the State to build your toilet, the first few companies said, “No, we can’t do that. You need to go with these guys”. So how did that journey unfold as you were teaching yourself?
I kind of knew a bit about manufacturing products made of plastic. I thought I knew enough to say “Okay, I think it’s going to be injection moulded”. But our first design was quite a bad one.
It was rough and ready, so we said to ourselves, “Let’s get something up and send it to someone for injection moulding.”
But they said, “No, you need a different type of manufacturing.”
One person said, “Oh, you’ll need a structural foam moulder for that”, which is where they put air in the injection moulding.
So then it was a case of trying to find a manufacturer who could do it. We used a website called Thomasnet, which is a big directory of manufacturing stuff in the US. It’s really hard to find American manufacturers, because most of the time, they only let you put an American phone number into their online form.
If I wanted to find one in China, it would take 30 seconds, but finding one in America is difficult.
So that was basically how we found them, on Thomasnet, looking through trying to find manufacturers that satisfied these needs.
We were sending out emails saying “Hey, can you make these parts?” Then they said we needed a 3d file. So we got a 3d file made and reached out again - “Hey, can you make these?” Then they said, “No, it’s too big…”
So it was just trial and error, with lots and lots of error…
It’s only the error that you learn from so you’ve got to go through those failure periods. With COVID making the manufacturing process X amount more difficult, how did that unfold for you? Did you start the process before COVID struck?
No, the product is actually a COVID Baby.
I took some time out right at the start of COVID. COVID happened and I said, “Let’s have a break. But the pandemic put paid to the plans of travelling around Asia then around the world. So we converted a camper van and travelled around Europe.
We thought “We can always drive home if we need to”.
We put in a composting toilet whilst converting the camper van and said, “Hey, these things are great, but then they could be better”.
That’s the origin story of the product. COVID was in full flight when we launched and everything was saying that supply chains were broken. But we still sailed into it blindly, naively. So we knew we’d be getting into some difficulties.
But then when we’d launched the project the Ever Given happened (the container ship which got stuck in the Suez canal), then there was a power cut in Texas, which made plastic prices in America volatile and shipping went crazy.
We were in the middle of the project, thinking “How is this all gonna pan out?”, but hoping it would all have stabilised by the time we came to production.
It partly has, so let’s say “We got lucky”.
While you were going through the story of how you came about the product, you skimmed over it quite a lot. I’d really like to unpack that. Because I bet there’s some nuggets of interesting stuff in there.
So why don’t you explain to us how, whilst you were travelling around Europe in a campervan, you decided to make a better toilet?
I have to confess, before converting a camper that I hadn’t heard of this type of dry toilet.
It was my girlfriend who suggested “Hey, let’s get one of these. They’re more environmentally friendly”. I looked at them and said, “Oh, you don’t need water, you can stay off grid longer, and you don’t use chemicals! Sounds great.”
Also they don’t smell as strong.
They’re a great solution for camper vans. Because you really do stay off grid for so much longer. Conserve your water. But the product that I had - and I’m not going to poopoo the competition (see, the puns are great!) - I kind of just found it frustrating how you had to empty it and when you had to empty it.
It was just thought, “Surely this could be better?”.
And they were very expensive products, because the volume of production is so low.
But I believed in the potential. More people would use them if they were more affordable. And also if they were designed for campgrounds a little more.
I found it strange that you’d have to design your entire van around the toilet if you wanted one, but lots of people do design their van around it because they want these types of toilets so much.
We were sure if you can make one smaller and improve on it, people would want it.
Continuing our travelling around Europe we stopped in Austria, where my business partner - my partner’s sister - lives.
I told her about these dry toilets. I convinced her to do the marketing and to come on board to help. We ended up in the second lockdown heading down to southern Spain to camp out over winter.
And that’s where we really sat down, dug our teeth in and launched the business.
We wanted to test the theory out to see, would people actually want our toilets?
We actually ran some Facebook ads and didn’t even have a product image. We didn’t have anything. We just said, “Hey, we’re gonna make a more environmentally friendly, affordable, composting toilet.
And people gave us their email address, people were willing to say “hey, yeah, tell me when this thing comes out. I want to learn more.”
We were acquiring emails at that point for about 20 cents, which is nothing considering we didn’t even have anything to show them.
We thought, “Okay, well, we can get a few thousand emails for a few 100 bucks. Let’s do it!”
Were you giving away a lead magnet or something on the Facebook ads? Or was it just a landing page?
I think we had a really bad website and it didn’t have a product image.
We didn’t have a lead magnet. We had a Facebook page and Facebook suggested, “hey, you should run an ad”. We just ran our banner from our website, which said “Composting toilets. Your camping toilet is changing for good. Learn more.”
People signed up and said, “Yeah, we’re interested in that”.
It was that basic.
We need to see if there was real interest. That’s what spurred us on. So then we said, “Right, let’s get a picture of this thing as quickly as possible.”
I got a freelancer to take my really bad sketches, and turn them into a 3d image of what this thing might look like.
Then we could run an ad and say, “Hey, this is what we’re planning to make, are you interested?”
Then we started really acquiring them. So much so, we thought “Well, let’s really test whether people want to buy it and run an Indiegogo campaign. So we said to the people who had signed up, “Hey, this is coming soon and this is the expected price point.”
So we set up what they call reward crowdfunding.
We found a fantastic company called LaunchBoom, who put out a load of educational material on how to run an Indiegogo campaign.
One of the tips they gave was to actually train your adverts to find people willing to buy. The way you find them is, you say, “put down a deposit”, which was $1. When they paid the deposit, we then asked if they wanted to pay 20 bucks to guarantee the best Indigogo price.
So we set up payments on our terrible website that now had product images.
It’s a great way of lowering your cost of customer acquisition.
Then we launched the Indiegogo campaign, which was really successful. We set a high bar because we said, “Well, this is going to be an expensive business to run and it’s going to be really hard. If we sell 10, we can’t make a business out of that”. So we set a very high goal of $100,000.
If we didn’t hit it, everybody gets their money back.
We would just walk away and scratch our heads and think what to do next. But we managed to hit that goal in about three days. That was really cool.
And then it kept kept going, which was fantastic!
So do you think in order for you to achieve that goal of $100,000 there was a couple of things that really got you over the line?
Good question, what helps you get there?
So I have to praise my business partner on her good strategy about acquiring leads. Also, building a community is another part of our ethos. I’m not a product developer, I’m doing this because I believe in the product being greener and being really good for vanlife.
Also trying to make it more affordable so more people can afford it.
Because of that we gained strong support from the people that had signed up and followed the journey as we designed it and improved it.
We had setbacks, and delays even to our Indiegogo launch. We designed our first product Got it 3d printed. And then we had some requests from the community.
They said “Hey, can you put in this feature?”. It was such a big request we just had to redesign the product. We explained to everyone, we had the request, we think it’s fantastic. We needed to push everything back. But it’s gonna be even better!
So having the community of supporters that have got your back, I think is another really, really important part of it. It helps make our product what it is. It really is all of our backers.
I’m eternally grateful for their input, their support and their encouragement.
It’s hard enough for people sitting at home saying, “I’ve got this really good idea. I want to build a product”. How do you do it whilst you’re literally on the road and living out of a backpack?
Very good question.
Launching it in COVID was helpful, in some ways, because everybody suddenly had to do everything remotely. So, whereas previously, an American manufacturer would have expected a visit, they knew that they weren’t going to get one so it probably made it bit easier to find and manufacture. So everything just had to accommodate me sitting on chat or on the Internet, zoom or Skype or Google meet or whatever.
That probably helped in some ways.
Could you have done it before COVID? I don’t think people would have had the patience to get on a zoom call. Or even a phone call. So that was probably in our favour.
So you’ve got to the end of the Indiegogo raise, you’ve achieved your $100,000. What happened next?
So in parallel to the Indiegogo, I’d been looking at raising some additional investment.
I thought - naively - if we can sell this product that we haven’t even made yet which is environmental and in demand, surely someone will want to invest and stump up some cash to grow it? I had some contacts from my background and finance. Some people were like, “Yeah, I can be an investor.”
I’m very fortunate in that regard.
But I knew that wasn’t ever going to be quite enough, I knew I’d have to get some external financing in place.
So I came in cold saying,” Hey, I need hundreds of thousands of pounds. Can I have some money? Some of my friends - huge thank you to them - said, “Yeah, you’re a smart cookie. Yeah, you’ve done loads”My parents, thankfully, also help.
But we needed some more.
Learning how to raise capital, as well as make a product was hard.
That’s one that I think was harder with COVID. It was good in the sense that I could do it remotely and I could approach angels from anywhere in the world. I was up in Scotland at the time trying to raise money and network. But not having a physical face to face place to meet investors was not helpful.
It’s very hard to convey your enthusiasm and emotion for products over a call - waving hands in front of the screen isn’t very helpful.
We completed our raise in December.
So we’re funded, thank goodness.
There’s nothing fun about fundraising. We raised 250,000 pounds. In addition to the Indiegogo funds that we’ve raised. And since then we’ve been focused on getting it to market.
Hopefully, we won’t have to do another raise. But we’re dreaming big.
I’ve got another thing in the back of my mind, we might need a bit more cash. We’ll see how that goes.
So you’ve got that quarter of a million that you’ve raised on top of the Indiegogo campaign. What are your plans for using that for the rest of this year?
That cash was to finance the injection moulds, and to spend on marketing to promote the product and launch the business.
We also spent some of it on trademarking and patenting parts of our design.
So that’s basically on legal fees, marketing and manufacturing capital costs.
You’ve painted a picture of the journey with a few ups and downs. Timing, as they say, is everything. You said COVID was a blessing in disguise because it allowed you to engage with manufacturers overseas. What would you say has been the most difficult part of your process? And how did you overcome it?
Everything has been hard.
Designing the product was hard. Raising the money was hard. Not running out of money is hard.
What has been the most difficult part of the process?
I would actually say the most difficult part of the process is keeping just through all of them because all those little lumps and bumps are big at the time but in hindsight they look much smaller.
Getting support around you, ideally a co-founder, that can sit there when you’re having a crap day and just pick you up and put you back on the horse and tell you to put your toys back in the pram is really helpful. If you don’t have a co-founder, try and get involved in founder communities, such as Rbbl, Spice Startups etc. Getting those networks around you is really valuable.
You can tap into other founders, share their experience.
And what was it about specifically about the communities you found that you felt you felt that you were able to reach out to?
I got introduced to a lot of the communities.
The first one I found was startups.com. I got involved there and it was good, but very American focused. I also then went through Spice Startups - they were a great couple of founders launching a company for founders.
Then I was introduced to Circulo, which was more of a sustainability type community.
It is really fantastic. Incredibly International. They struggle to arrange times for their meetups, because they’ve got people all over the world.
And it’s fascinating and really inspiring to learn about the journeys of all those people.
And then through Spice Startups, I learnt about you guys at Rbbl and your community and what you’re doing. Again, two founders building the thing they need to be founders.
What are your plans now going forward for the rest of 2022?
2022 is going to be the another transition yet another part of our product journey.
We are about to go into production any day now. I know that the moulds are in America now. So things are going to happen.
Then we’re going to deal with all the problems that happen after you make something.
There’ll be manufacturing issues, that’s going to happen.
There’ll be things that go wrong, there’ll be returns etc. So, we’ll deal with all of that, then we’ll probably get some more growing pains. And then we’ll think about the next version of our product and maybe another product.
But right now I’m just focusing on “Let’s get this thing to production and fulfil our backers.”
Yeah, that’s our plan for 2022 - go to production, iron out the wrinkles and keep improving.
And you’re in the States right now is the plan for you to stay over there whilst the manufacturing is kicking off.
Cool. Well, I wish you all the best of luck.
Thanks for having me. It’s been really great chatting and sharing the story and trying to encourage other people!
You can find out more about CompoCloset here