Episode 124: Eric Ryan on Making Your Soap and Company Green, His Secret Power and Freedom to Tweet
Aaron Strout, recent DishyMix guest, CMO of Powered, uber-networker and host of his show, Quick and Dirty guest hosts this episode with Eric Ryan, chief brand officer of Method.
Eric is a lot of things. Father, brother, entrepreneur and of course lover of all things green. Listen in as he talks about:
- What is your secret power?
- Where do you get inspiration from? How much do family and friends play a role?
- Talk about one of your greatest successes?
- Greatest failures (or as we’re supposed to say, “opportunities to learn from”)
- Where do you see Method in 3 years?
- I notice that Method is on Facebook and Twitter and has a blog. How are those working out for you?
- How much freedom do Anna (your chief Twitterer & I assume FB-er) and Drummond (blogger) have within the company?
- What advice would you give for other entrepreneurs who are looking to start a company?
- What advice would you give to a Fortune500 company that wants to be as fun, green and nimble as Method is?
Susan Bratton: Welcome to Dishy Mix. I’m your host Susan Bratton, and on today’s show you’re going to get to meet Aaron Strout, the CMO of Powered, who is my guest host for this episode. And he is going to introduce you to Eric Ryan. Eric’s the cofounder and chief brand officer of Method. Method is that marvelous line of household cleaning products and soaps that you probably have a few of in your home; beautiful designs and great brand marketing. Aaron is a personal favorite of mine. We’ve done some great work together. He does his own podcast called Quick and Dirty, in addition to being CMO of Powered. And he’s been on the show recently, I hope you listened to that episode. I love the way Aaron thinks; he thinks like a true marketer. And I think you’ll really enjoy this interview with Aaron and Eric.
Aaron Strout: So I would like to introduce my friend Eric Ryan. Eric is the chief brand architect and cofounder of Method. I’m going to talk a little bit about his background, but welcome Eric.
Eric Ryan: Hey, thanks.
Aaron Strout: So it’s exciting to have you here today. I am actually guest hosting my friend Susan Bratton, who does the Dishy Mix podcast show among a number of other shows, and I was actually lucky enough to interview with her a few weeks ago and she asked me if I’d like to guest host. Eric, I think I’ve known you now for at least several years. You’re married to a good family friend. Lets talk a little bit about what you do, and I’m going to give you some background based on what you’ve said to me and what I know about you, and I’d love to have you fill in the blanks. I love the fact that in your bio you talk about the fact that Eric makes soaps, really nice smelling soap that’s nontoxic, which, you know, that’s the important piece because Method is all about the green, about the form factor, about making things that are usable, that are eco friendly, that are pet friendly. You started this with your partner Adam, and you guys have been doing this I think since 2001, if I’m not mistaken.
Eric Ryan: Yeah, 2001 was our first year in business, which was a brilliant year to start a company between 9/11 and the recession, but I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Aaron Strout: You know, I was going to say that exact same thing. Well, you know, and that absolutely is true because you’ve now grown Method into a hundred million dollar brand, ranked seventh fastest growing in America by Inc Magazine in ’06, and you’ve got some other nice accolades – and I, like, made up one by the way. So Eco Revolutionary by Time Magazine, PETA’s Person of the Year – or PETA, I don’t… p-e-t-a, I don’t remember what the proper pronunciation is…
Eric Ryan: PETA, yeah.
Aaron Strout: Yeah. And one of People’s Magazines Sexiest People Alive, and, you know, I like the fact that you caveat out of that by saying, “Okay, not really true”, but you’re good looking guy, you’re very metro sexual. But, you know, no you do, you are married, you do have a (unintelligible) with your two lovely children, who I’ve met. Tell us a little bit about how you got started at Method and how - you and Adam I think have known each other since high school, correct?
Eric Ryan: Yeah, we actually go way back before high school. We both grew up racing sailboats together and knew each other all throughout high school, lost touch in college and randomly both ended up in San Francisco. I came from a career in advertising – I started over in London, ended up at Fallon in Indianapolis for a while and came to San Francisco to work on Saturn for Hal Riney. Randomly ended up living a block away from Adam – actually on the same block. And at one point we finally became roommates, and after we lived for a couple of years – and probably the ironic thing is the flat that we lived in with five other guys was arguably the dirtiest flat in San Francisco, so not exactly what you expect the first place of a cleaning revolution to begin. But we started talking about starting a business together, and I just started looking at the household cleaning isle because it was such a big category, yet everything seemed so closely aligned and there was really no true differentiation. So kind of set on a branding challenge of how would you go in and truly disrupt this category. And as dug into it, realized there was a very simple insight, which is your home is this high interest, high emotional place, but the products used to care for it are nothing more than problem solution commodities, and if you could just connect the two you’d probably have the basis of a brand. And as we dug into it further, realized, okay well, the way people clean has changed; you’re not getting out a mop and bucket to deep clean the home once a week, the majority of your cleaning is wiping down counters before and after a meal. And as we got into it further we were pretty shocked to find out how dirty cleaning really is; that, why do you pollute when you clean? Why do you use poison to make your homes healthier? And this is where kind of our philosophy and values really came to play is the thought of putting anything into the home that is harmful, particularly to children, didn’t sit right with us. And Adam and I as sailors both had a real passion for the environment, so the thought of doing anything that would be detrimental to the planet was a non starter. But Adam also came from a background – while I was in advertising doing very noble things for the world, he was at the Carnegie Institute working on climate change and the Kioto Protocol. So he came from a very strong environmental science background. And so much of Method is just bringing together our two philosophies, which we just kind of for shorthand fortuitous style and substance.
Aaron Strout: Well it’s interesting. So you get the uber marketer/advertising guy, and then the eco conscientious chemical or sort of, you know, mad scientist, and you guys have been working together for ten years. I know you had the history beforehand, but do you guys always see eye to eye? Is that a good combination or are there ever days that you feel like you want to wring each others neck?
Eric Ryan: No. In fact we approach things very differently – we operate different, we think different – but that’s the magic of it. So I always think of great brands have inherent intention and they bring together two unpredictable things. So if you think of Target, “Expect more, pay less.” Starbucks gives you a moment of, you know, peaceful moment, but yet it’s delivered with high convenience. And so the same thing with Method of bringing two things together that you would never expect to go together, and as a brand strategist I would like to think I was smart enough think of bringing environmental responsibility and high style together. But it didn’t make a lot of sense to do that until we actually did and it created a brand with intentions, you know, baked into it that give it wonderful energy and character. So, you know, I think you can go back in how a lot of companies are founded, it’s, Adam and I would never in our normal careers come across each other, and it just happened that we became friends and roommates that we decided to start a business that led to creating a brand with this point of view philosophy. And now a lot of people do it and, you know, eco chic has become pretty common place, but back in 2001 trust me nobody was talking about it.
Aaron Strout: Well to that end you guys have actually not just sailed boats together, gone to high school together, worked together for ten years, but you also wrote a book together, and I think that from what I know about the book writing industry, you’ve written this book called Squeaky Clean: The Method Guide to Detoxing Your Home, which I think is available at most Barnes and Nobel, Amazon, etcetera, correct? So did that put any stress on your relationship? We’re there any differing opinions or was that just, you know, more of the same, you brought your two sort of powers together and it all worked out well?
Eric Ryan: No. I mean I think anytime we’ve worked together it’s – first of all we’re great friends, we enjoy working together, but we definitely approach things very differently, and which usually helps us get to a more original point. So what’s unique about Squeaky Clean and what we tried to do was approach the subject of health in the home in a way that was really easy to digest; it’s lighthearted, it’s got a lot of visuals, it’s short, sweet and delivers with a lot of personality, but if you actually look at the content there’s a lot of very, very smart thinking and some great nuggets in there. And so to bring it together, you know, we try to be – I guess if that book was to come to life it’s the really good looking girl who has a 4.0 student, or a 4.0 grade average. We want that brainy smart but with a high sense of style always coming together, and it’s hard to do.
Aaron Strout: So I mentioned powers, and I like to sort of take this in a few different ways. I’m channeling Susan a little bit; if you ever get to meet her she’s a very, she’s very bright but also likes to keep it down to earth. Talk about your one secret power. What’s something that people maybe don’t know about you, which is the thing that really makes you great and makes you tick?
Eric Ryan: I’ve got a real passion to create, and I mean that’s like the one reason I love soap and love these categories is you actually create something physical, real, it’s tangible. And even though it’s such a basic commodity that every person uses everyday, I love the fact that you can take it and create different expression of it. So it’s all, at Method it’s all about creation; that’s why we have in house creative, in house packaging. Every piece of creating the product is right here, so we’ve, you know, our office as I’m looking at the conference room I’m sitting in right now, like, it looks like a playground. It’s all about creation.
Aaron Strout: So speaking of creation – and I know you’ve just mentioned that you’ve got a lot of those two abilities in house – where do you get inspiration from? And I have a funny little story that I remember; my wife, who loves to clean, I know I’ve given you a couple earfuls, sometimes in a productive way, sometimes in a “Why the heck don’t you guys have this?”, and I know you have, you know, over a hundred different planet friendly cleaning products out there. But, you know, are there ever times where maybe you’ve got the kids in the bathtub and you’re like, “Ugh, you know what I could really use is this” or, you know, you’re with your wife and she says, “Damn it Eric, you know what I really want is Axe.” How much of that comes from outside of the company?
Eric Ryan: I mean it comes from all over the place. So, you know, one example of the kids in the bath. So our head of industrial design was giving their kids a bath one day, went to go rinse their heads, realized there was no cup in the bathroom, and then as a parent was stuck with that dilemma of, “Okay, do I just don’t wash their hair or do I leave them alone in the bathtub while I run downstairs to get a cup.” And so when he designed our kids hair line, he just built a wash/rinse cap into the actual cap of the packaging. So that was just an insight out of being very observant to a behavior at home. For me personally where I get a lot of my inspiration from is a really simple technique I just, you know, simply call appropriation, which is looking for an inspiration well outside your category and looking for things that are already working some place else, and this could be from other categories, it could be from other countries, it could be from the art world. And so we just try to do, put ourselves in places where we can find ideas that can be appropriated over. So one technique is once or twice a year we do trend trips where we go to Tokyo - this spring we did London and the Maizon Show in Paris, I took the creative team - and we really use it as an opportunity to look for things and look for inspiration so far outside our home categories, that we can take and appropriate back into home care.
Aaron Strout: That’s great. So you guys obviously have done some things well. Talk about one of your greatest successes. What’s been that homerun where you can look back and say in the professional side, “Wow, we really hit the ball out of the part” or “I really hit the ball out of the park”?
Eric Ryan: I don’t think there’s any really, you know, one particular, it’s lots of little ones, and I think if you look at any successful company that is truly sustainable for the long run, it’s never a one hit wonder, it’s a lot of little successes that leads up to a bigger success. Some of the things that have gone well for us are we have a wonderful relationship with Target. That was a huge win in our ability to secure that, but also to be able to nurture it over the years and they’ve been a wonderful partner of ours and has helped us in a lot of ways. Hand wash has been a signature item. Not an easy way to go in and find a way to be different ‘cause it’s such a basic product. But then, not only find differentiation, but be able to hold onto that differentiation while some other companies are continually knocking you off. So it’s just a lot of little things that have ultimately led to the success versus a couple of really biggies. But those are two that stand out for me.
Aaron Strout: So you talk about some of those big companies, and I know, I’ve read in a few interviews with you that you guys have talked to Walmart in the past. Can you talk a little bit about that? I know that Walmart’s one of those companies where either people love them or hate them and I’m not going to make you choose one side or the other, but what was your experience in that and would you chalk that up to success, failure, maybe somewhere in between?
Eric Ryan: Yeah, I mean Walmart’s a wonderful company, they’re doing a lot of wonderful thing, particularly in the sustainability area, but we typically don’t talk about retailers that we don’t have a business with at this time.
Aaron Strout: So we’ll take the fifth on that one.
Eric Ryan: Yeah….
Aaron Strout: How about other areas for improvement? So we talked about some of the ongoing successes. Is there something that you can look back and say, “This is an opportunity to learn. We sort of zigged when we should’ve zagged”?
Aaron Strout: Oh yeah. You know, one mistake we’ve made is we’ve, we went into a, broader into the personal care space, which was a situation of where we really followed the business needs versus the brand philosophy. And we’ve always prided our self of Method is not built off of a brand promise but a brand philosophy. And we’ve been so success, for example, on hand was that, you know, retailers really wanted us to come into the body care space because it’s a much bigger category and if we can have that level of impact in body care compared to hand wash, that’s a pretty meaningful distance for that. And so that, we’ve done, a couple times we’ve gone into that space we should never have gone into it; we are a brand that’s really built around the home and serving the needs of the home. In fact the original idea and the elevator pitch for Method was a veda for the home and this idea of taking a personal care approach and applying it into the home. And when you try to then extend that back to personal care, well there’s really not a big idea there. So for us that’s definitely been one of the mistakes that we’ve learned from and we’ve, you know, the brand now is securely focused within the home.
Aaron Strout: So did that take a while to sort of figure that out? I mean how painful of a mistake was that? Was it something that you knew after six months? Did it take a year, and was it something that you and Adam sort of immediately agreed on or did it take some time to get there?
Eric Ryan: No, it took a little while to get there, and, you know, different parts of our organization certainly wanted us to go into that. We had some capabilities from a product level. From the retail sales perspective it made a lot of sense; it just didn’t make sense for the brand. And so, yeah, it took a lot of trial and error and you got to make some mistakes and just be smart enough to learn from them and move on.
Aaron Strout: So speaking of other products, you know, you guys, I think you had mentioned in our pre conversation, you have some big announcements to make in January – and I won’t, you know, try to make you disclose those – but talk about where you see Method in three years. Are you a different company? Are you doing more of the same and just continuing to broaden your product line? Maybe give us some insight into that.
Eric Ryan: Yeah, I mean a big piece for us now is we’ve, we wanted to ensure that Method was a master brand. And as you know, when you become attentive to a particular category it becomes harder to expand. So part of what was the big idea behind Method was creating a master brand, and don’t segment by product, segment by audience. So we felt it was an audience that was underserved. And so what we want to do is build a deeper relationship with that audience even if it’s a smaller audience, and then serve all their needs across the home. And so you’ve seen us expand across categories, and the focus over the next couple of years is actually going deeper and innovating in those spaces we’re already in. So a lot of the products we’ll start bringing out the next generation version of over the next couple years and continue to really push innovation and get further ahead for differentiation. And then as far as expansion, you will see us continue go into new countries. We’ve set up an office in London. We’ve had early level success for the last couple years in the UK. And Canada, as well as we’ve set up an office in Hong Kong, we’ve launched in Australia and we’re in the process of getting a test in Japan off the ground. So international will become a bigger priority for us. We really feel that Method is a brand that can travel globally. There’s nothing particularly American about it. In fact, a lot of – you know, going back to inspiration – a lot of where we get our design inspiration is more from housewares, which has very much an international language. If you go to a showroom from Tokyo to Stockholm, you’re going to see the same brands and the same forms there. And so that’s a lot of where we draw inspiration from, which helps give the brand more of a international language.
Aaron Strout: I’m talking to Eric Ryan, chief brand architect and cofounder of Method. I have some questions that I want to ask you specifically about deeper engagement with your clients through social. Lets talk a little bit more about that after we take a quick commercial break.
Aaron Strout: I’m back with Eric Ryan. Eric is the chief brand architect and cofounder of Method. We’ve talked a little bit about sort of how Method came about, some of Eric’s success stories, some of the areas where there are room for improvement. And the thing that I want to talk about now that you peaked my interests as we’ve said, “Where is Method in three years”, I do notice that you guys are on Face Book, you’re on Twitter, Method has a blog and it looks like several of the folks at Method contribute to that. How’s that working out for you? Is that, are you seeing meaningful contributions? Are you getting product ideas? Give us a little bit of background on that one.
Eric Ryan: Yeah. We were a little ahead of our time. I mean even our tagline people, again, just implies that there’s some social value to the way that we think about building a community of consumers. And actually our first – we call them advocates – and our first, you know, advocates have sort of really came to us versus us going to them, and it certainly was a goal to try to bring more emotion and interest to these low interest categories, but we never would’ve been able to predict, you know, what an emotional spark we actually created within cleaners. So if you go to Face Book and other social media programs you’ll see we just naturally have a following that we haven’t gone out and created fansites our self. We do have on, but the majority of them out there have been self created. So we’re very cautious on the way that we continue to nurture that. We have a group of our advocates who, we essentially treat them the way that you would treat press, ‘cause at the end of the day they are; they’re blogging, they’re Tweeting. And so any new product launch we send them the same press kit that we send the press, and we just do things to continue to nurture and help support and build those relationships. We do get great ideas from them. Customer services, unlike a lot of companies would be outsourced to probably another country, sits right here in the heart of marketing; so any calls, any emails, right here it’s answered, any feedback from it we always share internally. We start off the week every Monday at 9 am within all company – we call it the huddle – and we always start off the huddle by reading a consumer letter, so we continually ground our self until we serve, which is our core advocates. For us social media tools, as you would expect, we’re doing all the normal things; Twitter, Face Book, email blast, ongoing blogs. And I mean not all brands can make social media work. We’re very fortunate that we do have a brand that lends itself nicely to social media, so pretty much everything we’ve done so far has been, just happened very naturally and organically, and we’re starting to move into our next phase of marketing where we’re going to focus a little harder on creating content that advocates can use in the social media space.
Aaron Strout: So I have an interesting question, actually two questions for you. One is you’re the creative guy, you’re the chief brand architect, yet I notice that Adam is listed on the blog as one of the contributors but you’re not; why is that?
Eric Ryan: Just a matter of time. It’s like I’ve got Twitter and I barely ever have time to kick anything out, so it’s actually something I’ve committed myself to doing a better job of. I’ll get a blog up next year, start contributing to that blog. But it’s really come down to just a matter of time. And I also believe, you know, we want our marketing department to be bottoms up, not top down. It’s not automatic control. And so I would rather be inspiring the internal ranks and let them get out there and talk about it. Anybody has permission to blog, to Tweet, and ultimately I think it’s more impactful if they’re out there talking. I can cover in other ways through conferences, but we really (unintelligible) in the company, so I haven’t, it’s something I do want to do more of and just haven’t had time, but I don’t see it as a major issue right now as long as other people in the company are doing it, which is I think just more authentic and real.
Aaron Strout: Yeah, and that wasn’t a indictment; that was more out of curiosity. It’s usually the other way around. You can’t always get the marketing people to talk, but I like that approach. The other one that sort of falls onto that – and you actually helped answer a question about, you know, do the folks from the company sort of have free rein, it sounds like they do. There is this sort of thesis out there that brands have lost control, not necessarily in a negative way, but this is not your fathers brand; this is not the 50s, this is not Mad Men. You basically are now curating or shepherding your brand, and it’s really your customers who are in control. Love to get your thoughts on that one, and feel free to go as short or long on that one as you’d like.
Eric Ryan: Yeah, it’s shocking how reactionary marketing has become. And I mean we find ourselves that way of it’s, you’re responding more to consumers that are coming inbound at you than you are outbound. So one way that we’ve responded to that is we’ve recently restructured our marketing department, and we took what it would be traditionally a brand management role – we call it pod tractors here. Those are the business owners very similar to how brand management is set up. But we freed them up from the day to day running of marketing. Their job is to interact with marketing the same way they interact with product development or sales and tying all three of those plans together for their individual businesses, and then reporting directly up to the top. But then what we’ve done with our inhouse marketing communications is creative, which if you think about all of the touch points that are created that that’s the group that creates those touch points, we put a creative in charge of them. And so by doing so creatices understand how to immediately and instinctually communicate with consumers. There’s no layer there that has to go in, so it allows us to be much faster and fluid in a way that we create communications for consumers. But the other thing too is if we live in this, you know, very viral world of earned media versus paid media, it puts such a stronger emphasis of the powers of the creative, because you can’t just simply interrupt somebody and jam your message down their throat; you actually have to create something that’s worth passing on, which is elevate the need for great, great creative. So that’s been our big bold move is putting creative in charge of marketing, and we’re only a couple months into it but I can already see it starting to pay dividends.
Aaron Strout: Well that’s great. So before I forget, I have a couple more questions, then we’ll rap up. Where can people find you? I know that on Twitter, I believe you guys Tweet under Method Tweets, correct?
Eric Ryan: Yes.
Aaron Strout: And if they want to find your blog or if they want to find you on Face Book or any other place you’d like them to find you, how do people, how do people check in and locate you guys?
Eric Ryan: If you just search on Face Book, “Method”, “Method Products”, Method Home”, like I said there’s a couple different fansites on there. If you go to Tree Hugger, Adam has an ongoing guest blog spot. Or if you just go to methodhome.com, you’ll find there our blog, our People Against Dirty advocate site as well.
Aaron Strout: Great! So our final two questions, one is – and there’s sort of two flavors to the same question – you’re a relatively small company, meaning you’re not Walmart, right, but you guys are a hundred million dollar a year company, so you obviously have, you’ve been doing something right. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are looking to start a company, maybe consumer, maybe, you know, B to B, maybe two or three pearls of wisdom?
Eric Ryan: Yeah, I think the biggest piece of advice I can give you is you got to figure out do you really have a great idea, and that’s hard to do ‘cause it’s very emotional and a lot of entrepreneurs fall in love with an idea right away and are so wet to that idea that they lack the flexibility or the really understanding if it’s worth pursuing. So one of the things we do with Method is when we developed the idea we put it into a concept book, gave it to the 30 smartest people we knew, and asked all of them to come back and tell us why it’s going to fail. In other words, go shoot holes in this. And the mistake most entrepreneurs make is even if they seek out advice, they ask people “What do you think?” and nobody ever wants to be the person to tell a entrepreneur that their idea is crap, but most ideas are crap. And so it’s a great way to empower people to really tell you what they truly think about an idea, and if you go to a broad enough individual, from different disciplines, you really get a great feel if your idea is worth pursuing. And a second piece of advice is having a great idea is ten percent of it. I mean the other 90 percent is really being persistent, and there’s a great quote about, you know, “Entrepreneurs who fail are just the ones who gave up too soon.” And so much of a business is about actually being able to execute it and make it work, stick with it long enough so you can figure out if it, how to make it work. And don’t give up. It’s such a cliché that it’s so true to try to get anything off the ground for the first time.
Aaron Strout: Great. So let me flip that around and say that there are a lot of companies that are big companies that I know for a fact have tried to and in some ways are starting to emulate you guys, particularly in terms of you’re creating eco friendly bottles with beautiful form and, you know, bright colors but with eco friendly ingredients. What advice would you give to any big company that wants to be more nimble, a little more sex, a little more green like you guys are?
Eric Ryan: Well there’s so much that needs to be done environmentally. And big companies have the opportunity to have a bigger impact. So I mean the biggest piece of advice is, it’s hard ‘cause you really have to elevate the desire and the motivation and the philosophy of doing what’s sustainable versus doing what’s, what financially makes most sense, because unfortunately most typically they’re at odds with each other. And you typically see erosion of profit margin the greener you go and eventually we’ll get to a tipping point where that will change and the most sustainable options may eventually become the cheapest options. But for a big company I think that’s hardest thing is really putting that philosophy in front of short term financial pressures. It’s not easy.
Aaron Strout: Well Eric, this has been a lot of fun. I have one final sort of out of the blue question for you, but how much would you pay to see the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl?
Eric Ryan: Is that even possible?
Aaron Strout: They are better this year than they have been in the last year, right? They had at least a hundred percent more wins than I think they had all of last year.
Eric Ryan: Yes. They have managed to make a one win season so far look like a significant improvement over last year. I know, right. I just wish the Ford family could figure out a way to put a winning product on the field.
Aaron Strout: Well Eric, I really appreciate your time. It’s been a lot of fun talking to you. It’s sort of an interesting change of events for me. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, but you and I are friends and I think this is one of the few times I’ve interviewed someone and had to step outside that role of friend, so… It was nice to sort of get the interview, the interviewable side of Eric Ryan. Eric is the chief brand architect and cofounder of Method, and he’s given you the places that you can find them. Thanks again for joining us today.
Eric Ryan: Thank you. Appreciate you having me.