Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.
Inspiration to start a business can come from an unusual place. About 10 years ago, Lynn Julian and her college friend Chance Claxton got their motivation while preparing their children’s school meals.
“There’s just a lot of trash when you pack their lunch every day,” says Julian, of Scottsdale, Ariz. “Plastic baggies, yogurt containers, little cracker bags.” Both were struck by the huge quantities of waste, especially at schools without cafeterias, where children often bring disposable water bottles. They thought: “Where is this all going, and why is nobody doing anything about this?”
Julian and Claxton, both stay-at-home moms with professional backgrounds, decided they were the ones to do something about it. First, they did some research, which revealed some deeply disturbing facts: Americans discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year. Some 50 percent of plastic in the U.S. is used just once then thrown away. There are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, forming giant garbage patches of pollution and devastating the ecosystem.
They began designing a prototype for a “waste-free lunch kit” — two stainless-steel food containers, a stainless-steel beverage bottle, a food wrap for sandwiches or snacks, and a cloth napkin, all in a recycled cotton sack. At the time, consumers were just learning about BPA — an industrial chemical used in plastic containers that can seep into food and beverages. Parents, in particular, wanted options other than plastic.
“It was very important for us to create something that people were seeking and that was going to solve all those problems for everybody,” Julian says. “We had to hustle because we knew we wanted to capitalize on what was going on in the news.”
Julian and Claxton, who had met while studying abroad in Spain, brought starkly different but complementary skills to their startup, which they initially dubbed Kids Konserve. Julian had worked in finance for a number of investment firms — she describes herself as “tough as nails” — while Claxton had worked as a buyer at Design Within Reach, the national home-decor store. “She got a lot of her design knowledge there,” as well as experience with sourcing, manufacturing and product development, Julian says, “which for obvious reasons really couples nicely with what I do.”
By August 2008, they had placed a bulk-manufacturing order for the lunch kit — which they priced at $40 each — and were ready to sell it. Julian had used a connection to meet with an editor at Cookie magazine, a now-shuttered Condé Nast publication for parents, and Kids Konserve was featured in a back-to-school article about waste-free lunches.
“I’ll never forget it… when we first went live on our website, watching and thinking, ‘What if nobody ever buys these products? Can you imagine everything we just went through?'” recalls Julian, who estimates that she and Claxton initially contributed about $100,000 of their own funds to the startup. “And I remember sitting there and seeing the orders start coming.”
Consumer interest was strong, but what really surprised Julian and Claxton was the interest from wholesale buyers. “We had never thought about selling to stores who were then in turn going to sell to their customers, and we thought, ‘This is a whole new ball game,'” Julian says. “But it was very exciting.”
The following season, the two attended Natural Products Expo West, a big trade show in Anaheim, Calif., where they met buyers from Whole Foods and other eco-conscious retailers. With purchase orders in hand, they decided to change their business model, primarily selling wholesale rather than directly to consumers (although their retail site still contributes 10 percent of sales).
They began adding more products, including divided food containers, insulated coffee cups and ice packs. About 5 years ago, they changed the company’s name to U Konserve, to reflect consumer interest from teenagers and adults. U Konserve products are now sold in 1,000 stores, and internationally in Europe and Australia. (They declined to disclose annual revenue.)
Today, Julian and Claxton are proud of the impact that their small, 6-employee company has had on the environment. For instance, for the past 4 years, they’ve been selling stainless steel straws. Julian estimates that their product has kept 74 million plastic straws out of the waste stream.
In 2015, U Konserve became a B Corporation, a designation that means the company meets rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. (Etsy, Patagonia and Warby Parker are examples of well-known B Corps.)
Next up for U Konserve: Expansion. “We are in the process of seeking either funding from an institution or an angel investor or a strategic partner,” Julian says. “We have the opportunity to grow to another level, which simply cannot be done with limited resources.”
Julian says she’s personally happy that she and Claxton have been able to achieve their goal of building a successful eco-friendly company while raising kids. The two worked from their homes for 5 years — Julian in Scottsdale and Claxton in Sausalito, Calif. — until the company (and the kids) grew enough that outside offices made sense.
“Both of us had a strong passion for creating a business that has a positive effect on the environment, and [we] wanted to make the Earth better for our kids,” she says. It’s “quite fulfilling.”
Lynn Julian – Co-Founder – U Konserve – Phoenix, AZ
Lynn There are literally millions and billions of straws, and coffee cups, and plastic baggies, and single-use items going into landfills every single day.
TEXT Lynn Julian – Co-Founder – U Konserve – Phoenix, AZ, USA
Lynn U Konserve designs, manufactures reusable waste-free food storage products for everything from food on the go in your car, to reusing to pack a school lunch, to taking a lunch or a meal to work. I like to look at it not that we’re selling thousands or tens of thousands of containers every year, but how many thousands of pounds of trash we’re saving from going into the landfills.
TEXT Lynn grew up in near San Francisco.
TEXT When she was 3, her father took the family to Europe, bought a van and spent a year traveling.
Lynn They were definitely adventurous parents. I always like to say that that started my love and my passion for travel.
TEXT Lynn attended San Diego State University to study economics and finance.
TEXT She spent a semester at the University of Salamanca in Spain.
TEXT There she met Chance Claxton.
Lynn We traveled together, we studied together, we enjoyed that incredible opportunity together and Chance and I just became very, very close.
TEXT When Lynn graduated in 1988, she began an ambitious career in corporate finance.
TEXT She married in 1994, and 5 years later Joey was born.
Lynn When I had my son I was fiercely optimistic that I was going to continue to work. I was at the height of my career. I was doing really, really quite well. The second I took a look in Joey’s eyes I laughed and said, “I am so not going back to work.” And then Rose came along very, very shortly thereafter.
TEXT Lynn and her family moved to Phoenix in 2000.
TEXT She and Chance remained close.
Lynn We talked about, you know, “Wouldn’t it be fun and interesting to start a business together?” And fast forward, our children started going to school and we thought, “Wow, you know, there’s just a lot of trash when you pack their lunch every day.” And just speaking for my children’s elementary school--800 students, at least two water bottles in the trash can every single solitary day, plastic baggies, yogurt containers, little cracker bags. There are no recycling programs. So we were thinking to ourselves, “Where is this all going and what is, why is nobody doing anything about this?”
TEXT In 2008 Lynn and Chance pooled savings and began to research reusable food containers.
TEXT They visited factories in Asia.
Lynn We knew we wanted to be only working with very reputable and sustainable manufacturers. We were hoping to use as much recyclable material as possible. For example, our insulated bags and the sweat-free ice packs, all of that fabric is actually made from recycled plastic water bottles.
TEXT With first- to sixth-graders as their target users, they named their company Kids Konserve.
Lynn Kids Konserve was the name of the business that we logoed, we trademarked. After that we thought, “It’s a free for all. We can say what we want on our tags, and our catalogues,” and there was one particular phrase that we thought was very catchy that we put on every single solitary product and we didn’t know that somebody else owned the trademark.
Lynn This was an LA firm and they tried to flex their muscles with us, even though I said, “We will immediately cease use of this phrase, we’re so sorry, we had no idea.” Well they wanted money and they were potentially threatening to go against us personally for our equity in our homes. And I said, “You know what? This is a very good lesson that just because I’m creating a fun, cute little product, I need to keep my business acumen going.” I hired my own attorney and actually did a little research into their background and their business, and when they learned what I learned, they never bothered me again.
TEXT In 2011, to meet demand from teenagers and adults, they began to make larger containers and changed their name to U Konserve.
TEXT The company is growing steadily with customers like Whole Foods, the
Container Store, Amazon, and small kitchen supply stores.
Lynn We’ve been very passionate about keeping the ownership as a 50-50 owned company.
SOT We’re getting a couple of orders a week, I mean, it’s been really, really good. They really like one particular--
Lynn You can only grow as a small, leanly-run, self-funded business for
so long. In our busy season we go out of stock in our top selling items and it’s very frustrating for us because that’s basically money out the window because we don’t have the product to sell. We can’t sell product unless we purchase it.
TEXT Lynn and Chance are now looking for investment partners to help them expand.
Lynn The good and the bad of being a successful business is you get mired down into the minutia and the details of running it.
SOT Hi! What are you doing here?
-Hi. I wanted to bring you some snacks.
-Oh, sweetie! But remember, not this.
Lynn But the fact that my kids were a part of the process and they saw me work
really hard at something, and never give up, and create something that is doing something good for the earth--it could sound a little corny at times but it’s the absolute truth and that is really, really exciting.