Developing sustainable products ft. Marina Tran Vu

Marina Tran Vu is the entrepreneur behind Equo, a company that focuses on leveraging natural materials to replace single-use plastics. She's grew up in Canada but her family is from Vietnam. Hear her story about going back to Asia and developing a passion for sustainable products as well as all of her lessons from being a product based entrepreneur.

Show notes

Hello friends and welcome to this episode of the conscious of women entrepreneurs podcast. I’m your host Martine Thomassen, and today I’m excited to introduce you to Marina Tran Vu. She started her own company called Equo in early 2020, Launching successfully on Kickstarter. Recently her company was awarded the SME 100 fast moving companies in Vietnam award, and she was named SME 21 women entrepreneurs to watch in 2021 as well. So, Equo is a sustainable brand, delivering easy solutions for everyday single use plastic items, starting with drinking straws, made from grass, rice coconut and sugarcane. These are 100% plastic free, biodegradable, compostable and non-toxic. Future categories will include utensils, dishware and stationery. So, her products really don’t ask anyone to learn new things, change their habits, or behavior. They are just easy no-brainer switches that you don’t even notice. Mother Earth does though, so thank you so much for bringing this company to life, Marina. I’m so happy that you’re here to talk about it. 

So tell us a little bit more about your journey. How did you come to want to start a company with eco friendly products? 

For me it was an odd journey; I was born and raised in Canada, and had lived my entire life there. A couple of years ago, someone in my family got sick, and I came over to Vietnam in order to help kind of take care of certain things that they wouldn’t be able to do themselves. So, that’s actually what brought me back. One of the things that people will be very aware of is that the country itself is known for coffee. It’s one of the biggest exporters in the world of coffee. And so I visited a lot of different cafes and coffee shops, and that’s really where my journey started because it was where I found and discovered the grass straw. I was like okay, what is this in my drink because I’ve never seen anything like it. I saw paper plus I was very familiar with that but this kind of grass straw I had never seen before so that’s how everything kick started. As I was exploring more and more about the sustainability space, I realized that  this was a big opportunity. Not only to bring something from the East to the West, but also doing something good for the environment. I was also inspired by making a better future for my nephew. And it has really stretched me to grow.

I see this with my clients as well; you’re pretty much forced to grow into a new version of yourself. You have to grow mentally and stretch yourself to reach your goals. 

Yes, I don’t think that if I had ever started my own business, I would have been ever put into that position where I would have to discover these new things going on, or learn these skills that I maybe didn’t prioritize or do beforehand, so, you’re absolutely right; entrepreneurship is like this massive like person behind you pushing you to do things that might have been scary or you’ve never done before. 

Where is your business at now and what future plans do you have for your company? 

After we had launched on Kickstarter and finished our crowdfunding in June of last year, we delivered our products to our customers in September. That’s when we started to work on actually selling and launching into the market so we launched into Australia, Canada, the US and in Vietnam in around mid November last year, so we’re still very young. We’ve only been selling for about three months or so. And that’s what we’re doing right now; we’re just focusing on selling and driving awareness around our products, hoping that people will try it as an alternative to plastic and paper. And then on top of that we’re actually raising capital, to help fund our operations and business. So we’re still quite small but we’re expanding rapidly as there’s a huge demand for our products in the market. So we’re trying to be able to keep up with that demand. 

So you’re looking for investors to really take that next level. 

Yeah, I’m hoping that the investors or anyone that potentially in the future will take a chance on our products. I take a chance on me, you know, as a first time female founder. You know, take a chance on sustainability and, and place your bets on that for the future. 

You’re mentioning your customers. So who are they – is it mostly B2B like restaurants and that sort of stuff, or how do you see your customer group?

We see it kind of in two ways. The first being B2B, like restaurants, coffee shops, you know, big consumer packaged goods companies that usually bundle a straw with their drinks, and that’s what we want to target. It might be a little bit difficult as a small company to try to get their attention so we’re doing our best. On the other side, we’re also focusing on the end consumer. If you think back a couple of years where there was this video showing a turtle with plastic straw being pulled out of its nose. It went viral and contributed towards changing the entire industry. The consumer pressure that they put on organizations to make a change was great. And so, we want to appeal to passionate people. They’re more than willing to test out our products, validate our proposition, check out to see if we’re actually a legitimate company, and they might also help us to rally and get the attention of these bigger corporations to make the switch.

Okay, so you’re really using that consumer power to drive beneficial change for the poor animals, the environment and the earth as a whole. 

I would say that one thing that you said makes perfect sense, which is the consumer has actually so much power.People often think that “I’m just one person”, but that’s actually kind of our model. It’s about small solutions with big impact and that, I think, seeing on the consumer side too, you may think that it’s just one person or two people or three people who are making change and that won’t make a difference. However, if enough of those “one person or two people” kind of get together and make that change, it can have a huge impact and so that’s really what we’re breaking into. Because when we don’t even have to change our habits, and it makes so much sense to buy it, then, obviously a lot of people that are more eco-friendly are focused on that sort of mindset, that creates a huge wave. 

I used to work with a lady who wrote her master’s degree for this guy who looked at the spread of electric cars in Norway. And what they found was what they call “the neighbor effect”. So, when someone saw that the neighbor had an electric car, their neighbours started considering getting one too. It almost spreads the same way a virus does. You get these hubs or hotspots of people that think for themselves, and then other people around them start adapting. That’s sort of how it spreads, and I suppose that you would be slightly similar with your model so one cafe’s using it, or one person has it for their birthday or you know whatever. Then the message spreads, and eventually we’ll get 100% of people choosing the more sustainable option. 

Yes exactly, we’re just hoping that, you know enough people give us a shot as a new brand as a new company and that it trickles down to the rest of their network, and even so we try to make it as easy as possible for them to be able to share it with others. None of our products require that you learn anything new or change your behavior. You don’t have to carry around stuff, it’s single use, but the good stuff. It’s literally just a switch to our product from a previous product like a plastic or paper straw, and you may not even notice it because it’s such a quick change and you’re not changing things or behavior, you may not even notice it. 

Because this is a podcast for conscious women entrepreneurs I always want to ask my guests about their experiences and lessons in running a business, so how does running a conscious business look like for you in practice. 

Yeah I would say the biggest thing I’ve learned was just the amount of self confidence and belief that you have to have in order to start a business. I have worked in corporate for about eight to 10 years. You know, just to kind of climb that corporate ladder, and growing my career in this very structured environment and being an entrepreneur, there is no structure. There’s so many different ways that you can become an entrepreneur, and through that journey, you’re going to have to rely on yourself as the person that is going to make the right choice. Now even if you make the wrong choice, you’re gonna have to rely on yourself to get yourself out of it too. So, that was one of the biggest things I’ve learned starting my journey and even right now in my journey, is that regardless of where you are at regardless of how successful you are or not. The only thing that’s gonna keep you moving forward is your belief in your vision, your belief in what you’re doing and you’re really becoming the person that can actually do it. And it’s totally a self fulfilling prophecy, and if you believe it, it will happen. 

Yeah, that’s one of my all time favorite quotes is actually from Henry Ford and it goes: “Whether you think you can, or you think you cannot, you’re right”. And it really comes back to that self fulfilling prophecy where you have to believe that you can do it.

Yeah, exactly, and that also translates into these two books, which are my favorite books.This one book by an author named Paul Arden, which is titled “Is not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be”. And it’s all about this belief on how good do you want to be how, how much do you think you’re actually going to be successful. Because if you think that that’s what you’re going to achieve and you’re only going to achieve or hit this mark, then you’re only going to be able to hit that, you know, you create your own ceiling. 

You have not really been into the Eco-friendly environment before it wasn’t necessarily something that you had considered your whole life. But was there ever resistance to speaking and living your authentic truth and really stepping into this new role?

Yeah that is a great question. It was something that I struggled with, actually when I started this company, and I know a lot of people say like, it might be imposter syndrome, that was something for me too. Being an entrepreneur but also going into the suitability for big challenges. Before this I wasn’t exactly the most, you know, green person and I wasn’t environmentally conscious at all, but I think after I kind of learned more about the industry, I really went all in, because I wanted to do better. I knew I wanted to do better for the earth, but I didn’t know how. And if I thought about it kind of outside of just myself, there are millions and millions of people out there right now, who will probably do the same thing, they want to do better. Sustainability can be a little bit intimidating because sometimes you hear that “if you’re not doing this right that you’re a terrible person or you’re using plastic at all, you can’t call yourself sustainable”. And I think that was where I was, and I want to start my journey. So, I flipped that around and said okay this is a strength because I understand that consumer. The consumer that doesn’t know how to start, the consumer that is just starting a sustainable journey, and going at it from that perspective. What I can do to help myself is to educate myself more. Think about all that I can educate myself on with sustainability and talking to different people. And after that, I looked at how I could translate that to someone else who was me a couple months ago or like a year or so ago. So that’s how I tried to address that. But you’re right, it was a massive, massive challenge when I started.

Yeah, It’s so interesting because in marketing, we found that the most efficient way was actually to follow someone’s journey. It wasn’t like saying “we’re perfect” because that’s not relatable. It’s almost not achievable for a lot of people, but really having that vulnerable communication like, “look, I started here, and then I, I educated myself and I realized and I found all these things”, and then you show them how you took those particular steps and how easy it can be and just like certain swaps. Like you say, you don’t even have to change your habits; you just change the product, and you make a massive difference. So simply by being open to checking out new things and being curious about the journey really is a super effective way of marketing products as well in terms of your business. You don’t have to be the expert, you just show that you want to be better.

Yeah and, and you said it like perfectly. You just have to make sure that you’re authentic and you stay true to yourself and what you present out to people because, you know, people nowadays are very smart. They can, find out anything and everything about you on the internet or in your personal life, so they’ll be able to tell if you’re faking things. But if you present yourself authentically and say “hey, these are things that I don’t know, or these are things that we’re not doing perfectly yet, but we’re trying to find a solution”, then people would be more welcoming to it.

Yeah, it also creates engagement because if you’re asking “what do you do”, “what’s your solutions”, “what are your habits that have worked for you”, then it becomes this whole nice dynamic community around it as well. There’s actually a brand in Norway called “Klar” which is underneath a large corporation but they are focusing on sustainable products. It has, up until now been mainly cleaning products, and they have done such a great job to ask their followers, like, what do you want the next product to be, what do you like to do with this product, what are your habits, and so they really created this movement of both great advertising and marketing, but movement for lowering the bar of living more sustainably and making it a fun thing.

 

Yeah and I think that’s super super important. It’s what we’re trying to do, as well as a brand, we’ve seen some really amazing pioneering sustainable brands before us, do awesome things and they’ve changed the category. Now we’re trying to help build off of that by saying okay. So is there an addressable market that they have not you know tapped into you, which may be these people who again are just starting their sample journeys are trying to figure out how, and then can we adjust them and help bridge that gap to maybe become more sophisticated sustainable consumers later on, I think is something that we try to do, just based off of all the great brands that have gone that before us and, and so you’re right engagement is extremely key article to figure that out with consumer.

You’ve been on this journey for a little over a year, with this business specifically. So, we spoke a little bit about this before the show, but if you were to have a coach, alongside you for this journey, what is something that you would have loved to get coached on?

I would have loved to honestly get coached on mental strength. I think a lot of times, and this is just my experience as an entrepreneur, there’s a lot of pressure. You’re hiring and you’re responsible for a lot of different people and their jobs and their livelihoods, you’re responsible for, maybe investors’ money or, or even the amount that you’re spending, you’re responsible to the supplier that you’re working with or these partners that you’re working with. But what no one teaches you when you get into that is how to be mentally strong enough to handle all that. And I think, mental health is one of those topics. Nowadays it’s gotten a lot less taboo to talk about, but it’s one of those things that I really struggled with at the beginning. As I mentioned imposter syndrome trying to figure out “is this the right move” or “how do I deal with everything, and all the pressure that’s going on around me and people relying on me”, or, people even saying “I have so much faith in you, I believe in you”. When you may not believe in yourself. That is something I really wish I would have had someone coach me through during that time. I had to learn things the hard way. There were a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of tears and a lot of stress that came with starting a business. If I had someone there to help guide me on that, I think it would have been a lot easier. And I probably would have a lot less wrinkles right now.

So tips where everyone wrinkle prevention: get a coach.

 

Yeah, get enough sleep, and let them let them help you figure out how to best handle all the stuff that’s coming, rather than trying to handle it yourself like an onslaught.

We’re approaching the end of this interview, so I have three rapid fire questions for you:

  1. What is your favorite quote? “It’s better with a whoops than a what-if”

  2. What is the book that has impacted you most in terms of your entrepreneurial journey? So there was the first one that I mentioned by Paul Arden. But there’s a second one that was really good. It’s called “Into the Magic Shop” by James Doty and it tells the journey about how, as a child, he imagined things he envisioned and he did certain things and had every single day to help him get out of the situation that he was in the environment I was in. And so, that again is to just tie back to this whole self-fulfilling prophecy of imagining envisioning what you do. And if you do that every single day you really believe it and you can achieve it. 

Amazing! I’d love to check that out as I tend to lean towards more self-help books in terms of strategy, mindset and all that sort of stuff. But having it as a storyline I haven’t really explored yet, so I’ll jump into that. Okay so last question: what is something that the listeners can do or focus on this week to get them closer to being a successful entrepreneur and living life on their terms.

I would say the one thing I learned when I was an entrepreneur is that your goals are always going to change, but you have to make sure that you track them. So, for example, when I first started the company I was like you know I want to make a sustainable company that brings stuff from the East over to the West and to bridge that gap. My second goal as my nephew was born, I want to build a better world for my nephew and future generations to come. Then it progresses and so your goals are not always just going to be one-dimensional, and you’re not just gonna have one throughout your entire life, so to make sure that you progress towards a not like a journey of an entrepreneur. Always write down your goals, I don’t know that no matter how small and how big they are just write them down so you can keep track of how you’re progressing.

So true! So, where can the listeners find you and your amazing products?

You guys can find us on our website at https://equointl.com/ or you can find us on Amazon as well where we’re listed as a product shop. We’re available again in Australia, Canada, US.

So, what is your biggest take-away from this conversation?

The biggest takeaway, at least from me, kind of being a guest on here is that, you know you’re always learning from your journey, No matter like even in my conversation with you, I realized as I was talking to you that I was learning things about myself as I was going so that is the biggest takeaway, you’re always learning, no matter what, no matter what situation you’re in, no matter what you’re doing, you’re always learning.

Yeah, if you’re interested in, you know, looking at their products or exploring how you can live more sustainably or just being inspired go and check out Marina and eco and yeah thank you so much for coming on the show, it was amazing to talk to you, and good luck for your journey.

Thank you so much and thank you again for having me.

xx Martine

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