This interview series features inspiring female entrepreneurs who have launched and run successful businesses. Through our peers’ experiences, we can learn practical lessons and insights to empower us on our entrepreneurial paths. Crucially, storytelling de-risks entrepreneurship so we believe it is an essential pillar in closing the opportunity gap for female founders.
Firstly, tell us a bit about you?
I am Mahira Kalim, founder of Spruce ethical cleaning products. I started Spruce after realising there is a need for an honest brand that offers eco-friendly, single-use plastic-free and non-toxic products without engaging in greenwashing.
I lived and worked mostly in Silicon Valley after graduating from Stanford University and was always surrounded by entrepreneurs and startups. In my career, I focused on launching and selling innovative technologies. After starting a family and mostly inspired by my own personal journey as a consumer, I decided to switch gears and get into the consumer products world. Spruce is starting with household cleaning products, but in the future, we plan to offer a wider range of consumer products so customers can conveniently make the switch to the safe and eco-friendly option.
Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea?
The idea for Spruce had been brewing in my mind for a while. I had faced health issues in the past and had many reinforcing moments that slowly led me to move to a non-toxic, “clean” lifestyle. And then, over the past two years, I became more aware of my personal and household’s plastic footprint, which to nobody’s surprise was significant despite considering myself eco-conscious. Some swaps were easy and obvious, but others were most expensive, inconvenient or simply didn’t work. That’s when it became clear that there is room in the market for a product that solves the “eco” and plastic waste issue for busy people like me. I have always had a full time career, and I have two kids. There was no room to be making my own DIY products for every item I needed. Fast forward one year, and we are now going live with easy to use, beautifully designed, effective and truly low waste Spruce products.
What was the moment that everything changed for you? Describe that moment when you decided to fully commit to your idea and the first few steps you took to make it possible.
The big moment that changed everything for me was when I was one month into my maternity leave with my second child. I was completely frustrated with the single-use plastic waste that was suddenly added to my household with a new baby. I realised it is time to take action. So during all waking hours, mid-night feeds, and sleepless nights I started to read about chemical formulations, green chemistry, how to design and launch a consumer product, going through my LinkedIn to see who I can get advice from, researching innovative plastic-free packaging alternatives and of coursing hounding everyone in my life and bombarding them with household cleaning questions.
What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?
Everything was new to me as my prior experience and network were pretty much all in the technology sector. The main challenge was to find the right manufacturer and partner to work with as I was on a mission to not choose a manufacturer that currently makes cleaning products and processes toxic chemicals such as bleach, ammonia, pesticides and much more in the same manufacturing units. Their ethos and values wouldn’t have been aligned with mine, and I would not feel comfortable pushing my product through the same production lines. That was challenging and took months to sort, but all it took was a few thousand calls I made to every single manufacturer in the UK.
What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
I definitely felt like I was on to something after conducting consumer research, speaking with anyone and everyone about it, collecting feedback and gauging people’s enthusiasm felt great as it seemed like a lot of people are already aware of the plastic pollution problem and would look for an easy and effective alternative that they can adopt without disrupting their lifestyles. Our big moment of joy was most definitely when Dezeen Awards selected Spruce for their Sustainable Design shortlist recently. Public voting for Dezeen Awards opens on September 14th, we would love your support to win the public vote.
Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?
I have taken the self-funded route so far to get started and build a prototype. I realised early on it is not the wisest to raise too soon, especially pre-launch as the valuation will be very low without a proven business model and track record. We are going down the Kickstarter crowdfunding route so we can get our community to support us by pre-ordering. With crowdfunding, the production run is typically scheduled after pre-orders have been received. You can support our Our project on Kickstarter starting September 16, 2020. We will offer early-bird discounts.
What has been your best investment?
Getting the right support when and as needed has been great. I surrounded myself with a lot of successful female founders and tapped into their network for freelance talent. With Covid-19, the freelance and consultant community was majorly hit with lots of projects getting cancelled. I am glad I was able to do my part to support the community and got excellent support as a result.
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us?
Thankfully there have not been any major mistakes that would set us back, but I have to say I got early engagement with a marketing agency which was a bitter experience. Their heart was not in the right place. Thankfully, I became aware of their objective early on and was able to get myself out of the situation. I would offer it as a word of advice to be careful who you get in business with, get referrals and get them to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Most importantly, choose partners whose ethos and values are completely aligned with yours. In this case, they were not.
What’s your experience of being a woman in the startup ecosystem and what in your mind needs to change?
It is no secret that the startup ecosystem and funding is especially unfavourable for female, especially BAME founders. Recent studies say less than 1% of institutional funding in the UK goes to female founders. It is a deplorable state and absolutely needs to change. On a positive note, there are some VC’s and investors out there who are on a mission to bridge the gap and support female founders. However, there is still a long way to go, and a lot more needs to happen before the startup ecosystem becomes favourable for women. I also find the unofficial female founder community coming together as a great support system. This has majorly helped me in my journey, especially as a first-time founder.
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own business?
Talking to as many users as much and as early as possible. You might be on to something with a great product with incredible credentials, but that might not be what your customer wants.
Have you had any role models or mentors along the way?
Having mentors and surrounding myself with other founders, especially female founders, has been the biggest help in my journey of bringing Spruce to life. As a solo founder, it can be a very daunting and lonely journey. My incredible mentor network is what helped Spruce come this far, with continued support, guidance and invaluable advice.
With the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see yourself in the next five years?
2020 has taught us that five years might be a very long timeframe to plan for. However, our midterm goal is to deliver on the mission we started with. We are a registered B Corporation Pending, and our goal is to design our business processes and scale in a way that we can achieve the full B Corporation certification in a year’s time. We set out to be an ethical business which is more than just plastic-free, and we plan to deliver on that mission.
Can you tell us one of your goals for 2020?
2020 is pretty much drawing to a close now and went by much faster than we anticipated. I must admit, like most businesses, we were hit by the pandemic, which slowed down our progress and shipping. However, we have lofty goals for the remaining year to end our crowdfunding campaign successfully and our proud moment would be when we start shipping our orders, get them in customers hands and have our first reviews flying in. For 2021, we will continue to innovate to launch new products in our portfolio and offer more ways to go plastic and toxin-free.
What can our readers do to support your business?
We are a small business launching amidst the ongoing pandemic so any support we can get from fellow planet lovers to support our business is greatly appreciated. Our products will be available on Kickstarter starting September 16th, 2020 with early bird discounts. Customers who want to cut down on their everyday household waste and plastic pollution can support our mission by pre-ordering on Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a great platform for supporting small businesses and creative projects, and it makes it very simple for customers to order. All you have to do is sign up and back a project by choosing a reward. Your order will be shipped in due course when we hit our project goal.
What books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?
The books that have guided our vision include:
– Cradle to Cradle by William McDonnough. This is a great book for anyone building a sustainable business as it makes you think about the overall lifecycle of the product to make it circular rather than linear (as most single-use products are designed today).
– How I Built it podcast is a major source of inspiration for me as it gives Founder’s and startups backstory and the real struggles they faced, not just the shiny wins.
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
My advice would be to just get started and not treat it as a daunting startup journey. Treat it as a project and define small deliverables. It will be much easier to progress when you can celebrate small wins that take you one step ahead in your journey.
Where can we find you?
About your author
Leah Williams is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.
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