Sandra Ann Harris founded ECOlunchboxes in 2008 from her home office in Lafayette, California.
Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
ECOlunchboxes is based in San Francisco Bay Area providing natural and healthy lunchware, including stainless steel food containers and handmade cotton lunchbags. We are aiming to reduce lunch waste and offer non-plastic food packaging options due to growing concerns regarding plastics safety and BPA. We provide a natural and reusable eco lunchware line that is healthy for people and the planet.
How did you come up with your business idea?
I yearned to avoid the throw-away plastic baggies, the plastic Tupperware food containers and the plastic/vinyl lunchboxes sold at the big-box retailers that are so ubiquitous. But as I searched high and low in sporting goods stores, big-box retailers and online, I was unable to put together a lunch kit that met my needs. I wondered, "What is the best way to pack a lunch?" That was when, about five years ago, I resolved to develop a lunch kit for kids ages 3 to 103... something healthy for people and the planet.
What I've come up with is a back-to-the-basics solution. The kit starts with a 100% cotton, machine washable bag with matching cloth napkins. Inside the bag, which can be converted from shoulder bag, to sling bag to backpack, are reusable bamboo utensils, and a two-level stainless steel ECOlunchbox sized to fit a sandwich. What have I left out? Plastics. Disposables. Vinyl. PVC. Lead. And, of course, the lunch. That part is up to you!
Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?
Yes, I used a free template from the Small Business Administration. This was an important first step. I also did a SWOT analysis. I think it's critical for entrepreneurs to write a road map of where they want to go and why. In fact, the SBA offers many free tools on their Website that are really helpful.
Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?
Yes, I've worked from home in various capacities over the last 10 years and it was natural I would do the same with ECOlunchboxes. I am a working mother and balance my business and home responsibilities. I can seamlessly change my headquarters, however, if I choose as my business is set up to be run from anywhere since we use cloud computing whenever possible, such as Grasshopper phone services and Quick Books Pro Online.
Green business is all the rage right now. Has it really been practical for you as an entrepreneur to incorporate green business practices?
Absolutely. I have earned certification through the Bay Area Green Business Program and am currently seeking other standards certifications to strengthen our brand and clearly communicate to our customers our green values.
With the current economy in a slump, what cost saving tips would you have for a new entrepreneur?
Keep your overhead as low as possible for as long as possible so you can re-invest the savings in the growth of your business. This is one of the reasons I've chosen to keep ECOlunchboxes a virtual company and use cloud computing services and outsourcing (Third Party Logistics Services).
I'm not seeking to grow a big organization. I'd like to keep our company light on its feet and as scalable as possible, especially since our product is seasonal and we have big spikes in demand in during back-to-school lunchbox season.
Social marketing is consistently being written about in the small business space. Has it worked generating business for you?
This is something we are continuing to chip away at with mediocre results. We do have a Twitter and Facebook presence, but I feel like we are missing opportunities here and know ECOlunchboxes has a lot to learn in this area.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
Dream. Believe. Then, get Real: do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis and listen to what the data shows. Once you begin, you will find strength to persist as you "dream," "believe" and reflect on your "SWOT" analysis.
Thanks for your time, Sandra! Good luck bringing your product to lunch rooms across the nations.