Everyone experiences those formative “A-ha!” moments when a scene or image strikes us in a profound way. Many spend their lives building beliefs and passions stemming from that very moment. Inspired by the success his friends had using red wiggler worms to process compost, Szaky felt there could be a business in commercially producing and distributing a product he would call ‘Worm Poop’. Szaky, 30, is founder and CEO of Terracycle, which sells consumer products made from recycled waste. He was named “Best CEO under Thirty” by Inc. magazine in 2006, beating out Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
Both Szaky and TerraCycle reached this point via circuitous routes. Born in Hungary under the Communist regime, Szaky fled with his parents to Toronto in 1986 after the Chernobyl explosion. When eight-year-old Tom arrived in Toronto, he was conversant in Flemish, French, Dutch, Hungarian, and the art of fending for himself in strange environments. Soon he learned to speak English and attract adult support for some amazing ventures.
“My parents never told me ‘No’,” he says of his exploits. All of them involved rallying his peers to do something “cool” and then convincing adults that the project was OK. His motto: “If you are going to do it, do it big, and if no one helps, do it anyway.” Success usually meant getting started before getting permission. Szaky was just 14 when he was bit by the entrepreneurial bug .The idea of starting a company was new to him, but he was interested in the internet. So he taught himself to code and launched a graphic design company which employed 3 associates and earned its young proprietor a five-figure income, while landing clients as big as Roots clothing company.
In 2002 Szaky was a freshman at Princeton when he heard about a friend’s discovery.If you fed organic waste to earthworms, they produced fertilizer that plants seemed to love. Fascinated by the concept, Szaky quit school during his sophomore year to launch what is now TerraCycle. From that point on, Szaky was a man obsessed. He paid a Florida inventor $20,000 for a contraption that housed millions of worms and began shoveling Princeton University’s food waste into it to feed an ever-growing colony of worms.He admitted he never was undaunted by having to shovel 150-pound barrels of garbage daily.
Szaky decided to sell this home-brewed plant food, Earth Plant Fuel.Committed to selling a fully sustainable offering, he packaged his prized Worm Poop in paper bags and took it to gardening stores inviting them to stock it. The response was that the product looked good, but the aroma was not consumer compatible.
Szaky realized he had no money left to design and make packaging for his precious worm poop. That led to his second breakthrough. Szaky started raiding recycling bins for soda bottles. The product was made from waste, so why not the packaging as well? Szaky developed a process to mix his Worm Poop with water, strain out the solids to leave a nutrient-rich liquid, then fill recycled bottles with it and seal them with waste spray tops
To build up a surplus of bottles, he persuaded church and school groups to form “bottle brigades,” which would collect bottles in their neighborhoods in return for small donations. The idea was so good that Szaky took top honors at the Carrot Capital Business Plan Challenge in 2003 and a prize of $1m in investment. A good thing, as Terracycle had only $500 in the bank at the time.Under Szaky’s direction, more and more trash fed more and more worms which fed more and more plants, and, with Americans throwing out 2.5 million plastic bottles an hour, packaging was also readily available.
In 2007 ,Seth Goldman, the founder of the US drinks company Honest Tea, asked Szaky if he could find a second life for his Honest Kids juice pouches, made from a combination of plastic and aluminium. In a bid to find a solution, Szaky sat up all night teaching himself to sew the empty pouches into tote bags. Goldman loved the idea and together they came up with the first corporately financed collection brigades.
As the company grew, Szaky saw opportunities everywhere. Trash was something to be ‘upcycled’ into an offering more valuable than the original product. He started with seed starters and potting mix, made from and packaged in waste. Then he offered the Urban Art Pot, made from electronic waste. Then came plastic products, from kites to clipboards, all completely recycled.Today, more than 19 million people around the world collect trash for Terracycle, saving about half a billion pieces of waste per month from ending up in landfills.
Estimated to be worth at $5 million, he recently bought a modest house in nearby Princeton and in an interview said the he prefers to buy as little as possible. “I don’t want to go to Ikea and throw it out after three years, so I buy expensive durable products.’ He has worn the same pair of jeans for nine months and his favorite cotton blazer is 10 years old. Another unusual part of his company is its intern program. Szaky bought a 10-bedroom 7,000 square-foot Victorian house near Trenton High School and hired a cook. Interns work for free, and in return they get room boarding and food.Once the company is self sufficient, I really want to go back to school ”he said. A behavioral economics major, Szaky hopes to return to his former advisor, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman.
Szaky teaches us that there are resources other people are paying to get rid of today that can form the basis of new and valuable offerings. While building a business on trash might not top the glamour charts, it also offers one more lesson: that the word sustainability can apply equally to a business and to the planet when spoken by an entrepreneur
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