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From foal to unicorn – 4 best practice tips for sustainable startups

In the startup world, the secret to success is to turn from a foal into a unicorn. This mythical term often refers to a billion-dollar valuation. Not in the world of sustainable startups! Here, achieving the unicorn status rather means, not only to be better than any potential startup competitor but to be the best offer in your whole industry – even better than established brands in the field. An ambitious aim, to be honest. But maybe this is not as hard to achieve as you might think. We have 4 tips for your startup how to become a unicorn in your industry as well as a best practice example: our Green Alley Award winner 2018, Aeropowder!

Founded in 2016, they made first steps on wobbly legs like a foal until they evolved to an award-winning company that produces a sustainable thermal packaging made of waste feathers. 2018 has been a great year for Aeropowder and shows other startups what to focus on.

 

Develop a sustainable value proposition

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A value proposition is the benefit you provide to the people who pay for your product or service and differentiates your offer from the one of your competitors. Aeropowder did a great job in this respect: First, they were able to develop an exceptional product with many benefits. Second, their product also meets the spirit of our age. Pluumo is a unique textile providing a solution for the surplus waste material feathers. This makes its production much more sustainable than competing products. Moreover, it possesses all the thermal features of other insulation materials without being harmful to the environment. What else could an environmentally conscious customer searching for an alternative way of packing food deliveries wish for?

And indeed: In the middle of 2018 Aeropowder started to sell pluumo to customers.

“This was a key moment that demonstrated we had developed from concepted to fully viable product, and one that other businesses were willing to pay for as well”, says Ryan Robinson, CEO and co-founder of the UK startup.

But what exactly makes pluumo so attractive to customers? Ryan attributes a part of Aeropowder’s success to changes in the perception and general habits surrounding plastics and packaging.

“Indeed, the momentum is now, not just on a consumer and public level, but governmental policy is forming to tackle this issue as well. For example, in the UK the ‘Resources and Waste Strategy’ has just been published, highlighting how the country will phase out single use plastics across packaging. Now is the time for products such as pluumo to gain widespread traction, and it is an opportunity that we will seize!”

Focus on your customers and make them happy

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People, planet, profit: A sustainable unicorn startup does not only focus on making money. It also has a heart for the planet. But first of all, it has an ear for its customers. So, listen to the people you are selling your product to and find out what their needs are! Aeropowder found a great way to do this: They took the time to reflect on their work and tried to understand what really drives their business.

“We focused last year in ensuring that we understood how to scale up and understanding the commercial viability of our company as we transitioned form a world of prediction to one of experience and practicalities”, Ryan Robinson explains. “While we made a lot of important connections with potential customers, we focused more on deeply understanding their needs so that we would be prepared in 2019 to scale.”

This shows that understanding your customers really helps you grow and become better.
In 2019, Aeropowder plans to start selling to multiple customers around Europe and to expand their manufacturing capabilities. To achieve this goal, the startup does not forget to consider the needs of all stakeholders involved.

“We strengthened our partnership with our manufacturer, as our successes thus far helped all parties involved to understand how Aeropowder and pluumo would grow moving forward, especially in terms of manufacturing requirements,” confirms co-founder Ryan.

Work on your execution and create the perfect product

To become a unicorn startup, you need to develop a product that convinces your customers and makes them happy. But a great product idea is not enough. It’s all about the execution! A committed team is key for this, as Aeropowder experienced last year, when they completed their first pilot manufacturing run, which involved the production of 5000 pluumo liners.

“This was a manic process, involving us putting together a small team to work for a few days essentially finishing the sealing of the pluumo liners by hand,” Ryan remembers. “It was a time of many ‘firsts’ for us, but like most of the challenges we faced we rose to the occasion. It was extremely satisfying to see pallets of pluumo completed and ready to be shipped to customers.”

In the end, after all the hard work and all the babysteps forward and perceived giant steps back, finally, comes the reward:

“For sure, the highlight for our company in 2018 was actually releasing pluumo,” Ryan confirms. “This is our first startup, our first time doing anything like this… and it has been a lot of hard work to get to this point. So when we had the pluumo launch event in the first half of the year, it was so rewarding to take half a second to step back and appreciate what we had achieved so far. The room was filled with a huge number of our partners and supporters, it was not only an extremely rewarding moment but also hugely motivated us to push on for even greater things in 2019!”

Still, Aeropowder does not stop to improve their product and the processes involved. Currently they are working on fully automating their production process and are investigating the fastest way to produce the feather-based textile that is the core of pluumo, as well as to wrap that in a liner to form the finished product. “After all, large customers will require volume, and that means we need the manufacturing capacity to match”, Ryan explains. Another important product improvement, which is key to all sustainable startups, is the aspect of an end-of-life-solution for pluumo.

“Of course, we want our product to minimise its environmental impact throughout the whole of its product life cycle. There are many potential options such as take-back systems or compositing, but it is a fairly complicated problem given that we are working with a brand-new form of packaging material.”

Scale, scale, scale, grow and evolve

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Of course, the path from foal to unicorn runs past company growth. But you should keep in mind that growth does not only refer to company size but also growth in experience and know-how. Aeropowder’s plans for 2019 are not only to scale the production but also to get some learnings out of this process:

“Our main focus for the next couple of months is to complete the automated manufacturing run for pluumo. We hope that this will demonstrate our ability to deliver a mass quantity of pluumo units with dependable quality as well. This will enable us to secure the interest of much larger organisations than the ones that we have been engaging with previously.”

With growth in know-how and experience, the growth of the company comes automatically, as Ryan Robinson predicts for 2019:

“Around the middle of 2019 will start a significant period for Aeropowder as we will have to expand on all aspects of our operations to keep up with demand. We are going to have to think about hiring new staff, new premises and also how we are going to fund all of that! Of course, investment will be an option, although that will be another challenge in itself! For now, we are concentrating on getting our immediate goals completed… taking over the world with feathers will come later!”

Blog Thumbnail Photo by Inês Pimentel on Unsplash

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