First Friday: Optimist Co’s open source cleaning products

Have you ever thought of cleaning products as a tech company? The Optimist Co’s Devin Donaldson did.

Donaldson came to our February First Friday to tell us about how she created and marketed Optimist Co., a company whose open source products are disrupting the cleaning product aisle.

Donaldson’s interest in making her own products began when she suffered an asthma attack using a leading “green” cleaning product whose label was hiding toxic and irritating ingredients. But her journey started as a child inventor, followed by careers in both science and business.

She had already been making, testing, and using her own products at home when an opportunity to sell them presented itself at the Barnstable Village Farmers Market. She had six weeks to figure out her business so she could take it out of her kitchen and get it on the shelf.

“It was a really busy but exciting summer,” she said. Everything had to happen fast because of time constraints. Money wasn’t spent on market research (she got her logo for free from an intern at her label maker), but she found that people were buying because of what was in it, not how it looked. She was not alone in her mistrust of labels.

Doing it on the fly this way allowed her to test her messaging before putting money into branding and product development. Donaldson also began capturing emails and building an audience before she had a website to direct customers to.

Another thing she skipped was a business plan, at least in the beginning. “There is no five year plan,” she said. “I am happy to know what’s happening six months from now.” Instead of creating a business plan, Donaldson spent her time validating that people wanted her product and would buy it repeatedly.

In doing her market research, she realized that most green companies’ messaging was on global warming. She wanted to make her company’s message optimistic, not dire. She wanted it to resonate with people. Because people are having reactions to some of the ingredients in natural products, Donaldson saw the need for a new bar for safety, with open source recipes and ingredients lists. Optimist Co. is the only company “that encourages our customers to make our products at home, sharing the knowledge needed to clean without chemicals,” she says.

In an effort to take her company to the national level, Donaldson tried networking, but was unsuccessful finding people who knew how to help her. Because she started her business on Cape Cod, but wanted to run a national business, she applied to MassChallenge for help.

She didn’t get in the first year, so when she reapplied she asked people who did get in to look at her application. They helped her fine tune her language so it resonated more like a tech start up, including identifying her recipes as Open Source.

She had questions and problems she wanted to solve going in. At MassChallenge she had a team of mentors and could ask those questions. She launched digital marketing and developed a marketing strategy there.

A lot of MassChallenge is about making connections, she said. “People have the wrong goal in networking. My goal is having a warm introduction. If the person you worked with can send an email and get you in a door, it’s a good connection to have made.”

There is no right or wrong way to start a business. She runs Optimist Co. as a technology company first. She said selling online makes everyone a technology company.

“Lean, light, and agile” is her approach to the business, reducing the cost of starting a business. “We live in a gig economy,” she added, “so if I need help I can hire it from all over the world.” When she wanted to set up a subscription model, she downloaded an app on Shopify and had it running in two days.

Her product was on the Today show, which was not only good for selling products. “You are on the list now,” she said. “You can email the other people who were on [the show], and ask them questions. You’re on the same playing field now, even if you don’t have the same R&D budget as Dyson.”

“My job every day is to pitch. Different audiences from small to large. You get practice so it gets easier,” she said. “An optimist is hard to say no to.”

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