Upcycling, while still a niche, is gaining popularity as consumers become more environmentally conscious. The trend involves repurposing waste into new and improved products that can be used or sold. Upcycling gained enough momentum by 2014 to warrant its own reality show, but the industry was much more of a gamble when Upmod launched in 2011.
The Snoqualmie, Wash.-based startup decided to capitalize on the trend early with its online marketplace for upcycling artisans. Upmod bootstrapped its operations before raising a round of seed funding in 2015, according to CEO Rich Lancaster.
“Upmod is a social sharing marketplace for buyers and sellers of environmentally-conscious products made from used raw materials,” he said. “Upcycling is a major societal trend, but is still little understood as an industry, Upmod intends to change that and to consolidate major aspects of this emerging industry.”
We caught up with Lancaster for this installment of Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Upmod is a marketplace for buyers and sellers of products made from used raw materials.”
Inspiration hit us when: “Upmod is the recognition of the need for an online space to help reshape current consumption habits and reduce the amount of waste going to landfills by inspiring people to reuse as many of their possessions as possible and encouraging the purchase of repurposed products. It takes the Earth a year to produce what humanity consumes in eight months and over 80 percent of all durable goods are not repurposed or recycled. Long-time supporters of the Triple Bottom Line (people, planet, and profit), Upmod decided to build a website to inspire sustainability.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “The company is currently angel funded, after having been bootstrapped for a number of years. After a business plan was completed that included all of the research necessary to prove out the opportunity in this emerging and evolving upcycling industry, it was felt the time was right to raise a seed round. Upmod has been raising a convertible note round with a view to moving to institutional funding in 2016. There is a major new market opportunity in upcycled, recycled, reclaimed, salvaged goods, it just needs to be defragmented, Upmod is in a position to lead that effort.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Upmod is the first major marketplace platform to integrate a rich social media capability that enables all users to repurpose their own content across their social media channels. The combination of rich social interaction and efficient e-commerce supports an engaging and fun consumer marketplace, allowing Upmod artisans to sell products successfully with the potential for viral response.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Upmod originally launched in 2011 as RecyclePost and then changed to UpcyclePost thereafter. As the company grew and our audience became more defined, we recognized the need to create a brand and culture more closely aligned with the majority of our users. While the mission of the brand has always remained the same, we simplified our name and updated our logo, website, and messaging. The result is a sleeker website and more user-friendly interface more closely aligned with the aesthetic and UX preferences of most millennial women, our core demographic. This move is projected to grow our marketplace by helping us successfully attract and communicate with the majority of our artisans and customers.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Upcycling is a highly fragmented market (understatement), it’s very difficult to identify large contiguous blocks of either artisans or sustainably minded consumers. So our biggest mistake to date has been in poorly performing test marketing campaigns that have cost us time and money. You could call this the learning process, but for a startup it’s imperative to spend your funds as carefully as possible. We’ve learned from those early failures and have now hired a firm out of Austin, TX who are perfect for our needs. We are about to launch Upmod.com with a new focus and all new marketing campaigns that will drive the process of defragmenting the upcycle industry, and unite buyers and sellers on the site in large numbers.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Upmod is a marketplace first and foremost, so having Jeff Bezos in our corner would be the most obvious option. Bezos is the pioneer in marketplace technologies, marketing and rapid growth – he’s the single biggest player in our space and one of the most innovative people in the global economy. Amazon has recently launched a ‘handmade’ goods initiative of their own, and they are targeting Etsy sellers. Clearly Amazon and Bezos could teach Upmod a lot about how to rapidly scale this opportunity.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Upmod is currently headquartered in rural Snoqualmie, in a building owned by one of our great investors – low rent! Our favorite activity is hiking to Snoqualmie Falls for lunch. But inside the office we have a game we play with an upcycled mason jar and some ping pong balls, it’s just like the games at any state fair where you have to get the ball in the fish bowl – the current record is 9 balls in the jar in one day.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Passion for repurposing items. We all love the products our artisans produce and need employees to have that passion. We have a conference room full of recycled items that are being used to create our own objects.
Obviously we look for all of the relevant skills necessary for the job we’re hiring for, but it starts with a passion for our industry. Our newest employee, Nick Smith, comes from a family that owns the Wild Hare Vintage here in downtown Snoqualmie. Nick is becoming an expert upcycler.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Startups are incredibly tough. Over 90 percent fail! Only enter this world if your eyes are wide open, you are tough, flexible, resilient and innovative. Understand fully what you are getting yourself into before you make the decision to start an angel/venture backed business. It’s imperative you know the difference between bootstrapping a company and funding it through investors. Neither is easy, but funding a company through investors requires a different kind of skill-set and should not be confused with the skills needed to bootstrap a company. The bottom line in this business is the ability to craft a great plan and then get investors to fund it, that gets the ball rolling – then you need to be a good leader, technologist (typically), business operator and sales/marketing guru – if you have enough of all of that then you could be in the 10 percent that make it.”