S2E6 - Nik Robinson of Good Citizens - 100% Recycled Sunglasses

We speak with Nik Robinson of Good Citizens who set up the business with his two kids aged 6 and 8. Good Citizen turns single-use bottles into eyewear. They make 100% recycled sunglasses where each sunglasses is made from one recycled plastic bottle. 

Highlights:

  • Creating a business with your children
  • Why Naivety can be a good thing
  • Starting with principals e.g. Every employee gets time with their children
  • Why they chose to create recycled sunglasses
  • The problem of founders getting too close to their business
  • Their experience running a Kickstarter campaign and hitting the target in 6 minutes
  • How Nik’s background at the BBC and advertising agency helped him
  • Why join a business with no purpose is no longer acceptable
  • How can Good Citizen influence change
Transcript

[0:08] Will: Welcome back to the Green Element podcast where we feature business leaders and innovators transforming their operations to be more environmentally and socially sustainable. I’m your host, Will Richardson and I can’t wait to meet our guest today and help you on your journey of sustainability. Nik, thank you so much for joining the Green Element podcast so we’re here today to talk about Good Citizens and your eyewear company? Is it eyewear or is it glasses wear?

[0:38] Nik: Yeah, thank you. It’s great to be here, obviously, in Sydney at the moment, and you’re in sunny Edinburgh. So, it’s really nice to hear that you’ve got sunshine today. Yes, an eyewear business. It’s recycled eyewear business, eyewear for now, but we are going to be progressing into other products. But for now, let’s call it Good Citizens and it’s making eyewear.

[0:58] Will: Brilliant, it’s such a cool project because you don’t have a background in manufacturing, you have done this completely off your own back. You’ve done it with your family, and you have just done everything with your, I mean, when I say family, children, you’ve done the whole thing together as a family unit. And so, it’d be really interesting to see, to understand where the idea came from and what kind of started you off on making a recycles eyewear?

[1:29] Nik: Well, so point to remember for this is I think naivety is a really good thing in business because if you knew the thing that you’re about to embark on, if you went to a friend and said, I’m thinking about doing this, and you knew what was about to happen, you would give up. I think naivety is great in business and people don’t like to use the word naivety or luck, but you need a bit of both. Otherwise, nothing great ever happens. But back to how did it start, my eight-year-old had applied twice to be in the green team at school and the green team was set to do recycling, and he is being rejected. When he came home, he was all upset and I said look, you know, he was really upset, the kids, that they come home with things from school that we didn’t come home from school, you know, they come home really informed about the environment. They, you know, so it was a really big part of their schooling. And I guess where normal school. So, I said to little Harry, look what was dad have a think about some thoughts and an idea, we may be set up a business together. 

[2:24] Nik: And so, I went away for days at the coast and I scribbled some thoughts down and I came back and over dinner, I sat with my wife and Harry and his little brother, Archie and I got some paper and I sketched up some ideas. And we basically talked about it and he naively said, yeah, let’s set up a business. So, I shook hands with my two kids, and I would lay there in bed and I said, I’ve just shaken hands with, the six year old, was a five year old and a seven year old at the time. And when I shake the hand of someone that is it. I’m known for that, like, that’s it, we’re all on. So, I woke up in the morning and I said, I believe we have a business to get to gentleman. So, we sat there, and we scribbled down four principles, and interestingly, you know, you say to kids, what’s the principle there and it’s like, you know, we should really have a business plan. But my, we do have a business plan but to be honest, I’ve only kind of looked at it once, what we have is guiding principles. And principles are things that we will never sway from, no matter what happens. Whoever approaches us, I said to the kids we’ll always stick to these little rules. 

[3:23] Nik: The first rule was we’d always use recycled materials in our products, let’s not wuss out and do 50% this and 50% that, let’s always go 100%, let’s aim for 100%. And I said another thing is that products get designed, and they fall to bits. So, in the fashion industry especially and I come from a family of shoe designers, you know, so I’ve kind of grown up surrounded by last and leather and tools, and I understand the craft that goes in. But I also understand the things that mass produced and someone’s always or the heart or the planet is hard. So, let’s design a product that doesn’t fall to bits, how brilliant would that be? So, it lasts forever. And if it doesn’t last forever, every little part is replaceable. So, that was the second principle, the first phrase was recycled. Second is everything should be designed to last. The third is no one on the planet should be exploited. No one should be taken advantage of. And that was like really an interesting conversation. And then the kids said to me, the most important rule of this new business dad is that we get time with you. So, every employee gets time with their children. So, we literally scribble down those four principles on paper, there’s pizza and tomato sauce all over it. And we’ve got that, and we’ve still got it. 

[4:34] Nik: And I’ve been talking to some fairly influential people, I have gone to some meetings in Sydney since this has kind of grown. And I just showed him a picture and say, yeah, this is our guiding principles. And it’s really funny because I’ve met some really quite intense people and lovely people, but they’re obviously highly intelligent and understand the world of venture capital. And when I showed this to them, they look at me and go, are you, is this for real? And I’m like it’s real. These were done by my kids. It’s got us to this point, so those, kind of guiding principles were at the basis of this business. And the kids understood it. And if they understood it, they got excited by it. And if they got excited, everybody else will get excited. So, yeah, that’s kind of how it started. And then obviously, it’s a real, and then you jump onto Google, you know, what you do you jump onto Google. And I think, you know, I’ve worked with a lot of startups and I have a business which helps startups get into the media, and we have an assessment process that everybody has to apply. So, I’ve interviewed 700 founders in the last two or three years and it’s really interesting, like, what’s the problem we solve? No one cares about your product; they care about how it makes their life better. They care about the problem it solves for them. They don’t give two hoots about anything else. 

[5:43] Nik: So, all of a sudden, I was now faced with where I’m saying at my own thing, after I’ve helped all these startup founders, that was really tough kind of challenging going, what’s the problem we solve? And I think there’s this collective problem in the world that we’ve all woken up and gone, plastic. It’s great, but the world’s drowning in it, but I don’t know what to do. So, we decided this business could be the go-to, one, we’re not naïve, it needs everybody to fix this problem. But it is a fixable problem. The world is not doomed. And I think everyone’s getting scaremonger.  

[6:49] Will: I have images of your ketchup stains purpose; you should frame it and have it on your website and that should be your mission and purpose.

[7:01] Nik: Yeah. No, I think what we have, and I think what businesses really missed out on is a true authentic story. People buy why you do it and they buy the story. And I know, everyone’s watched the Simon cynics, what’s your why? And it uses a wonderful example of Apple. Well, let’s, tell you what, it’s really hard working at what your why is, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. And I can help other people do it, I just cannot do it myself. I think, you know, I think people listening to this now that run their own business. You know, when it’s your own business, your mind goes to mush. You just become like; I don’t understand what’s going on because you’re so close to it. I think in every founder I’ve ever spoken to; they’ll remain say, I’m just not getting this. And I’ll say but you’ve got an MBA in business and I’m like, yeah, I just don’t get it in my own business. I’m second guessing everything. I think that’s the biggest challenge, kind of founders and the startup and small business people faces, you’re wearing a million hats and how do, you just get too close to it, you need to pull back and kind of have a helicopter view of what’s going on, that’s probably the biggest thing I find challenging, myself.

[8:08] Will: So, you’ve got four fundamentally brilliant principles for a business, how did you end up deciding that you’re going to make over from that?

[8:20] Nik: If things right, so in all honesty, a lot of people are trying to do potion plastic waste and it’s a real challenge. And so, you know, for a month, I very naively use Google and became a bit of this science person trying to understand polymer formulas. But you know what, I got through it enough. And I also use my initiative and picked up the phone and rang some professors at university and chatted to various experts and just found people, you have to be tenacious. And I very quickly understood that ocean plastic for us is not the way to go. We always wanted to do a product as well, that would be an easy buy, that everyone would be an no brainer, right? We live in a really sunny country, what can we make, it’s got to be sunglasses, got to be sunglasses, lots of material. And we realize that you know, recycle PET plastic bottles, and million are sold around the world every minute and million, and only about 7% go to landfill. The bottling companies are getting a lot better at repurposing it and upcycling it, but they just go to landfills. Well, how can we stop this bottle?

[9:23] Nik: So, we looked at bottles, and we went actually, how much does a bottle weigh? We got us kitchen scales out and the bottle weighs 28 grams. And I was looking at a program that calculated the weight of glasses and went about 28 grams. So, let’s just do some really simple, one bottle, one pair. And that’s kind of how it started. And then we found a design company that specializes in industrial design, marine waste, and I briefed them. And I said, but everything’s got to be made except the lens. So, we need special hinge designing, you know, so that’s taken 9, 8, 9 months and a lot of money to just get a special hinge right. But everything except the lenses is one bottle. And we own the design of that hinge and it’s a special clip hinge

[10:09] Will: So, it can’t break?

[10:11] Nik: No, it’s very flexible, and every part is replaceable. So, you know, we’re just working on this right now, the warranty, the biggest complaint from people about glasses are sat on them when the hinge broke, so they throw it away. So, our challenge is how do you make a pair of glasses last forever. So, we’ve got literally two arms, a face and two clips. And if anything breaks, you post it back to us in an envelope and we’ll put it into the top of our machine and send you a new part, we’ll just remake it because the same amount of plastic. And so, it’s circular. But then someone said to me in a really fancy way, well, that’s a circular economy, man. And so, there’s a name for it, okay, it just felt intuitively right for us. Why would that just not be the norm? So, every part is replaceable, and we’ve got another phrase at the moment called bomb proof, which the kids giggle about, it’s problem proof. 

[11:03] Will: Brilliant. And you have funded all of this avenue?

[11:07] Nik: Of course, very naïvely, I mean, I sat with my wife and I said look, surely 20-grand would cover this. So, we worked it out, yeah, 20-grand, let’s just say the design costs to just design the frames or surpass that. And then the process we’re using is injection molding, which is incredibly technical. When you actually investigate how bottles are made, you know, they’re made in factories, where the temperature is like seven degrees, apparently in the factory and they’re made under really cold conditions. And they have to heat the plastic into a super high temperature, get it down to seven degrees within three seconds. Otherwise it becomes cloudy. So, the tooling costs are astronomical. And we live in Australia, you know, in winter, it’s 26 degrees, which means it’s failed, the palomas failed. So, we’re having to build tools, and we’re looking all our energy efficiencies, but we are going to make them in Sydney because, you know, I looked at the far East, it’s difficult to say hand on heart that what you think you’re getting from them, I wasn’t even sure if they would give us recycle plastic, they just probably make it out of normal plastic. And that defeats point one of our business plans with the kids. So, I know I’m using hundred percent recycled.

[12:23] Will: Travel as well back. 

[12:24] Nik: So, yeah, so all in all, the most expensive part and we did do a Kickstarter, which was a very interesting exercise. I’m not sure I’d do another Kickstarter; it was an incredible amount of work. And unless you put a lot of funding into promoting your Kickstarter, you’ll get nothing. And we hit our target in six minutes, which we’re very humbled about. The target was only 20-grand when really, we needed 130-grand. So, we’ve had to put, we made 60 but we’ve topped it up, but we believe in it. I think you’ve got to believe in something. And I sat there with the kids and I sat with my wife and we said look if that puts a year and a half into this and at the end of it, we’re 30,000 backwards as a family, we can all live with that. Now the kids have no idea what 30,000 means. But they’re like, yeah, let’s do it. So, we all did it and we’re going to do it, we’re doing it but we can’t back out now. I jumped off the phone to our toolmaker tonight, and steel is being cut. There is no turning back, I’ve committed the money. That’s it, we’re in.

[13:26] Will: It’s scary, isn’t it?

 [13:28] Nik: It’s scary, but it’s also excited.

 [13:30] Will: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think that naivety is so important, I feel, because I can resonate with me with company footprint and our software. I don’t know what it was like to build a software. I’m not a software designer. And it’s a lot more expensive than I anticipated but you kind of end up getting to a point of no return, don’t you? And actually, you wouldn’t have got there if you’d have, maybe you would have got there if you’d have known. But maybe it would have traded a bit more carefully or softly on the way there.

[14:01] Nik: Yeah, I think if anyone’s listening to you now, that the way I set it out is a broken up into three stages. So, I said to the design company, let’s work on a concept of what these things will look like and let’s spend 5 or 6000. And if at the end of that process, which is part one of part three of design, then I will move to the next part on our release the next funds. So, we got to that first part, but you know, it took us quite a while to get to that. But we got to the second part and then once we got to the second part, which we were showing people now we’re going to use great. And so, your kind of you just take that leap of faith, but the risk at the beginning was about 12000. And then obviously the next leap was bigger, and we have a design, you have to get to design manufacture phase where you take an idea and take into mass production. And that’s where we kind of got to and then the next phase is paying for tooling. And the tooling is very expensive. 

[14:53] Nik: And again, getting things ethically made, throws a real spanner in the works. It’s really sad, all our recycled plastics 13% more than virgin plastic. It baffles me, everything’s more expensive. But if more people do it, there’d be more of a demand. And already we’re getting inundated from banks, hey, we got credit cards that we don’t use, can we give you our credit cards? Can you make them into sunglasses or products, and we’ll buy them back off you and give them to our customers, it’s really bizarre? We did the Kickstarter, we kind of launched it, we did a bit of PR, we made it onto the front page of the national newspapers, which was really surreal. Because Harry, my eight-year-old became is kind of famous eco warrior for a week, we got onto the main, we got onto the national news, New Zealand pick the national news in New Zealand pick this up. Now all of a sudden, Harry who’s never been allowed on social media is now on the front page of the national newspapers. I’ve got my mother in England ringing me saying this is not appropriate. And we’re like, we’re shutting it down. We’re getting all this down. But you know, it kind of we went, wow, there is definitely something here and I think journalists were just really fascinating, an eight year old, this seriously involved in a business. And we’ve just been asked to do our first speaking gig, Harry and I at a festival, a business, quite a big business festival because they want to hear the views of an eight year old and he will answer the same questions that you would ask me in his way. And it’s really interesting to listen to. 

[16:18] Will: And I think we were talking about before you asked me what, it could be about me. And I was talking about the fact that we’ve interviewed quite a lot of businesses, and they’re all purpose driven businesses and there’s a really common theme, your four guiding principles are really common in all of those purpose driven businesses. And I think what I absolutely love is the fact that your eight year old has come up with those, which means that I’ve got more faith in the fact that your eight year old has come up with that, than someone that’s in their 40s or 50s, trying to help and trying to do good, if that makes sense. 

[16:59] Nik: It’s interesting. My kids have never read a business book. I’ve read a few business books. But I think deep down the fuel that I have right now and have had for the last year and a half haven’t really taken a salary. But I feel really rich. I wake up, yes, I have wobbles, and my poor wife has to kind of talk me down and go look, you were all right. You know, I go out for drinks and meet friends in the city and they’ve all got big jobs, big cars, big suits, big ties, you know, massive mortgages and after a few drinks, but the playing field levels, and I don’t feel as a failure anymore. And they all go, I really wish I was doing what you’re doing because you kind of got that great freedom to do it. And I’m just tied into the next 15 years of school fees and mortgages and blah, blah, blah. So it’s a really interesting kind of space we’re in. 

[17:42] Nik: But you know, Harry, and the kids, it just feels right to them too, it’s like this is a natural thing. Why would you not want to spend time with your children? Why wouldn’t every employee want it? So, if when we take our first member of staff on whether they’ve got kids or not, if they don’t have children, and we’ll just give them some free time to spend with their parents or their sister or their brother. Because I think family doesn’t just have to be children. And I think you know, what a wonderful value to say this is built into the business. So, you get off time for special occasions and if you don’t get that special occasions, you’ll get a written warning. A written warning for not taking time off, how much would that person value the business and they would feel very valued, because they are. And that came from an eight-year-old so.

[18:26] Will: Yeah, I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s fascinating that, I don’t know that the core principles are, it’s so intrinsic to human nature, though, isn’t it and it’s what every business should be doing?

[18:38] Nik: Yeah, I think it’s easy when you’re a small business and you started from scratch. I think I talked to friends and they asked me questions and then, you know, they are, yeah, I’d love to do this in my business. And they’ve got like 300 staff, or some of them will be really senior in a business with 60,000 staff. And it’s interesting, because there’s processes, there’s an existing brand, there’s existing values, it is an intrinsic history in that business that they’re in, it’s been around for 100 years, you can’t just change the course of that ship. Whereas it was a startup, every day, you’re making it up, you know, my mice, we laugh on myself unemployed, I’m giving myself a job every day, I get up and if I don’t do anything, nothing happens. And that’s kind of the world of small business. Small business can be anything up to like 100 people, I think. So, I think there’s a great advantage, you’re very nimble, you very quickly understand what works, what doesn’t work, and you set your own course. 

[19:30] Nik: And I think if you do have just some guiding principles, I think it’s a very overwhelming time when you set up a business. And I think a lot of people give up within the first six months, because you’ve got the factors of, no salary, your whole world is shaking, because you’re not used to this and it’s very fearful. But if you can just don’t get so bogged down in business plans of, where do you see yourself in a years’ time, three years’ time, five years’ time? Well, I don’t know where I’ll be. I’d love to come back on this podcast in 12 months, and I would happily share, did it work? Yes, it did work. And what’s the impact, we’ve had, you know, how much plastic have we pulled out the ocean? How’s Harry doing? How’s the school? You know, or versus it didn’t work and that $30,000 debt that I said grew to 230,000. But you know, I’ll still tell you the truth.

[20:21] Will: What got you into sustainability? I mean, you said you’re a graphic designer beforehand, but you must have been interested in sustainability before you had this idea or did it?

[20:31] Nik: Well, my background is I’ve obviously seen in this podcast up, many years ago, I worked at the BBC and I worked for Planet 24, which way the big breakfast club works in the media game. And it’s, you know, entertainment’s great. I love entertainment. Before this job, I was head of content for an entertainment company in Australia, and I loved it. It’s a very kind of exciting world and I’ve also worked in advertising, working with, you know, kind of big brands, small brands, and I had my own ad agency. And I think the jobs that really excited me weren’t the money jobs, you need money to turn a business around. But the clients that took on, my agency was 70%, social enterprise, not for profit, the rest of the 30% were big brands. And I just, I don’t know, I just feel it’s a nicer place to play because I’m making a difference. And I think everybody in any kind of career, you get to a certain level, and it’s like, right, you know, quite traditional route to come out of university, and you’ve got three, those three or four years, right, going get a job, and you’ve broke in your skin and you work your way up the corporate ladder, and then you kind of get to 30, 35 and go, what am I doing? But then you got your kids and then you turn into more things and I know it’s a real challenge.

 

[21:38] Nik: But I don’t know, I just kind of felt that if I’ve been given this gift to communicate and as I said before, I’m completely dyslexic. So, I’m atrocious in writing emails, but you got to surround yourself with the right people. I don’t know, I just, sustainability design, making someone’s world or experience better, and if it helps the planet, and why would you not? I think the younger audience, the millennial group coming through, this is, like, why would I join a company that doesn’t have any kind of purpose or, you know, any kind of purpose baked into the business? Yeah, they wouldn’t even join you. They’d be like, oh, so you got, you just make money, fine, yeah, not interested. You know, I needed a sense of something else, I don’t intend to work nine to five every day. Yeah, I think that kind of fell into it, really or just, I don’t know, for me, I mean, sustainability. But I think, you know, these words ethical, sustainable, I suppose. Yes, do it the right way, do it. Why shouldn’t it be done like this? And I got to say, the last year has been hard because trying to do a transparent supply chain, it’s very, I could have had this project up in three months. But it’s–

[22:47] Will: — more sustainable than a lot of sustainable companies. Because you’ve done it naturally because you’ve done it, you’re doing it the right way. Because you just do it naturally, you just got right. Well, this is the way we do it, programmatic approach of going along. How do you think you can influence change on the back of this? 

[23:07] Nik: It’s a really good question. I think, I break things down to, in my head, I’ve gone right. If I can go to my local cafe, and I’m wearing my sunnies, and I see someone else’s bought my sunnies, one thing I didn’t explain was with every pair of glasses that we sell, you get given a citizenship number. So, today, we announced it humorous in Australia bought the first pair ever, and we’ve pre-sold a few pairs. So, he was citizen number one. And number three is I’ve got the whole list, right? So, as this grows, and you see someone else in a cafe, and you see them wearing the glasses, and they’re very with design them so that very easily identifiable to another citizen, but not necessarily someone who doesn’t understand the brand. If you saw someone else, you smile and go and the brief the design team was many years ago, when my grand dad was alive, we go along in his camper van, and we’d see another Volkswagen camp event and as a family, we will wave and it’s just lovely moment have as you pass any smile and you connect with another citizen. So that’s built into the glasses. 

[24:05] Nik: So, and everyone knows that when you buy the glasses, it’s a bottle, one bottle is used to make it, 100%, one 600 mil soft drink bottle. And for every pair we sell, we also pull a kilo of trash out of the ocean. So, this week, we’ve just written a check to pull out 850 kilos, which is a bigger than my house, that pile of rubbish, that feels great. So, that makes change. But I think it connects people to design, connects people, people as it grows, and they go to their cafe in three months’ time, they’ll see five people wearing them and they’ll be like, actually, this little idea is actually growing. And I think people want to be also, they want to be known and liked, people, it’s human nature to go please like me, I’m a good person. I’m not saying you have to have a brand to be liked and to be good. I’m not saying that all. But it’s kind of a visual signifier to say I give a shit about this planet, your planet, I’m on the same wavelength. It’s a simple step, simple action, little simple solution.

[24:58] Will: Will you be able to look up the numbers on, I don’t know how you said that, if you’re wearing glasses, and I was wearing glasses, and I saw you in the cafe, would I be able to go online and look up your name?

[25:08] Nik: No, you just go to that person and say hello, fellow citizen, hello, fellow citizen back. And you might say what number were you and you’d go; I was in the top 1000. And if they’re the 25th thousandth person, then you can say wow, 25,000 kilos have been pulled out, thanks to you and wow, you were at the beginning, you’re, kind of this early adopter. So, it’s just, technology isn’t there yet and we thought about it, we’ve explored it but then if we put technology into the product becomes not recyclable, because there’s a little chip in there. And the whole thing is about being 100% recycled, or 100% recyclable. And I think the businesses simplicity, don’t overdo it. It is simple, people get it, they’ll share it, they’ll love it. adopt it. We’ve been approached by a bank to say, hey, we put a chip in your arms, and he can pay with the glasses. And it’s like, we can be it’s not recyclable, because they would have to put the chip out, then it goes against everything we’re about. Let’s just keep it simple. Let’s just smile and wave and say hello, give them a hug, give a fellow citizen a hug. That’s it.

[26:12] Will: Brilliant, so how can we connect with you more?

[26:14] Nik: We have a website that we built in a night, goodcitizens.com.au, we’re currently building our new e commerce store, there’s a million things going on. You can go to Facebook, goodcitizens_official, we have an Instagram account goodcitizens_official. I believe is a whole load of more social media, things like Snapchat, we haven’t got there yet. We’re just focusing on the basics, we’re going old school, we’re going Instagram.

[26:42] Will: Brilliant. idea. 

[26:44] Nik: I did want to say one thing. I wanted to say that to my wife when we set this up, let’s not have any social media, let’s just have a mailing email address. And she told me to get off my high horse and the world is going in social media so let’s not just email people.

[26:59] Will: Yeah, I think which is probably the right idea, to be fair. Nick, thank you so much for being-

[27:06] Nik: Listened to your Mrs.

[27:08] Will: That’s the moral of the story, isn’t it? 

[27:10] Nik: It’s an absolute pleasure, Will, absolute pleasure. I think it’s great what you do, keep doing it.

[27:15] Will: I’m looking forward to 12 months’ time  

[27:17] Nik: Keep spreading the good. Yes, so am I. 

[27:24] Will: Thank you so much for listening to the end of this episode of the Green Element podcast. Do take a moment and share this with your friends and colleagues and rate and review the podcast wherever you get your podcast. I’d love to know what has been your biggest takeaway from this conversation, what are you going to do differently? Please share your thoughts across social media and tag us so we can see them too, @GE_ podcast. For links and show notes for this episode, visit our website greenelement.co.uk/podcast. Thank you again. I hope you’ll join me on the next episode and together we can help create a better world.

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