As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Newman. Mike is the CEO of Returnity Innovations, the pioneer in the elimination of single use shipping packaging. Mike has worked at the intersection of supply chain and sustainability for over 20 years. After directing the Sierra Club’s political operations in 20 states, he received his MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. As Sales and Marketing Vice President for ReCellular, he built e-waste programs for Verizon, AT&T, Walmart, Best Buy and more, saving millions of used cell phones from landfills. Through his leadership at Returnity, reusable packaging will replace the use of over 1 million cardboard boxes and poly mailer bags in 2019. Mike has been featured on The Today Show, the New York Times, NPR and more.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In my 30’s it became clear to me that my family legacy combines both entrepreneurship and, oddly enough, waste management; My paternal grandfather owned a scrap yard, my maternal grandfather owned a plumbing business, and my father built a company that became the largest cell phone recycling business in the world. That legacy seems to have given me insight on a cellular-level that makes me uniquely qualified to face the specific challenges and momentous opportunities that Returnity is addressing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In 2005, I was Head of Sales and Marketing for the biggest cell phone recycling company in the world. We built and managed the e-waste programs for Verizon, AT&T, Best Buy and more — but had yet to land the Walmart account. I flew to Bentonville full of the expertise and confidence that came with being the market leader and most innovative firm in the field.
When I arrived for our meeting, I was put in the holding area for everybody else trying to do business with Walmart. Meeting rooms were assigned numbers, and a blinking screen much like one you would see at the DMV told you when your room was ready. Sitting beside me was somebody with a wheel of cheese. Another person had a big stuffed animal. A third was holding garden hoses. We all sat in silence, awaiting our fate.
That moment was humbling and transformative. I was brought to the realization that no matter your job, no matter your company — you are alwaysselling. That realization has served me well and has stuck with me through the years. I firmly believe that if you build products and services that create value and service your customers with integrity, and you will find success, no matter what industry you are in. And never think you are better than the garden hose salesperson.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
Everybody loves the convenience of ecommerce — and everybody loves complaining about the mountains of shipping packaging it creates. In that tension is our opportunity: eliminating single-use packaging that is expensive, cumbersome, and bad for the planet. We’ve done that by developing light, durable, easy-to-use bags and boxes to replace cardboard boxes and poly bags. These bags and boxes can accommodate larger or uniquely-shaped items and are water-resistant, durable and feature proven security and labeling components. Best of all they are made from recycled materials and are recyclable at the end of their lifespan.
How do you think this will change the world?
Switching from cardboard and poly mailer bags to reusable packaging leads to a significant reduction in natural resource consumption. More fundamentally, it helps reinforce the necessary move away from a single-use to a circular economy. Technological developments are creating a path towards that more sustainable future — but the more we can do to ease that adoption, the faster we can realize the benefits. We aggressively focus on details such as dimensions, weight, security and cost. Our solutions are unique in that we don’t disrupt the logistics that work for each partner but instead customize them to best fit the way they do business. In that way, we are making that path towards a more sustainable future more accessible right now, at this moment in time.
Convenience always comes at a cost. If one impact of the switch to reusable packaging is the perception that online shopping can be guilt-free, it might encourage a move away from bulk buying. The transport of goods — in reusable packaging or not — is resource intensive and needs to be part of a larger discussion on how to balance convenience and impact.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
I’ve been working on supply chain and sustainability long enough to be considered an overnight success. Though great ideas and change often feel like strikes of lightening, for me it was the culmination of 20 years of work building a base of expertise in environmental policy and grassroots activism (the Sierra Club), start-ups (stkr.it, Climb) and reverse logistics and supply chain (ReCellular). That knowledge base lead Returnity investor Brian Spaly (Bonobos, Trunk Club) to help bring me in as CEO in 2017. It is the perfect intersection of those previous experiences in sustainability, supply chain and systems change for major corporations.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Companies need to empower their supply chain and purchasing teams to adopt innovative new packaging models. Traditionally, packaging tends to be the last area companies are looking to innovate; the poly mailer bag and cardboard box may not get much love, but it is a level playing field for commerce that is seen as a cost of doing business.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
1. It is easy to dream of all the markets you can disrupt with your big idea — and to think it wise to place a bunch of small bets on all of them to increase the odds something makes it. In my experience, this strategy always backfires. At my first start-up, we kept throwing our technology at new categories — Kids books! Quilting! — but it just resulted in a lack of focus and inadequate resources to make anything successful. Not picking a priority is just as bad as picking the wrong one.
2. Successful startups need to focus on being great at as few things as possible. Every discipline or market you have to disrupt or excel in for your business to thrive just compounds your risk.
3. Network aggressively — but never assume that anybody knows your market or concept better than you do.
4. How you raise money impacts the definition of success for your company more fundamentally than you can possibly imagine.
5. Stopping is much harder than starting. This might seem counter-intuitive — starting a new venture is an enormous undertaking — but that same drive that compels an entrepreneur to launch a company can make it very difficult for them to know when enough is enough. At stkr.it I felt tremendous responsibility to protect my investors, but I also subconsciously was afraid of what calling it quits would say about me and my stewardship of the company. Businesses fail in so many ways, and so long as you conducted yourself with integrity and transparency, you ultimately are not serving yourself or your stakeholders by keeping a business going if the fundamentals are not there.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
My High School started offering Japanese language study because “everybody” knew that was going to be a valuable career skill. And of course, they were right — and totally wrong. There is no future-proof magic bullet; it requires the same focus and skills that have always been relevant in the workforce. Individuals that create networks, continue studying and adding skills, and are curious and hard-working will tend to get ahead and stay ahead, regardless of their field. You can’t predict what detours your career may need to make, but you will be best prepared to make them.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
Electric delivery vehicles. The trend lines all point in the same direction: not enough last-mile capacity, improving performance, lower costs, and a desperate need to address climate change as aggressively as possible. The age of the diesel-belching truck will reach an end sooner than people realize.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
I was raised in a family that puts integrity above everything — and has no tolerance for ego. I’ve learned hard lessons along the way, but that translates into a few core approaches to my business and personal life.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Keep the mindset of a student, always. Continue to research and seek out new ways to approach challenges in your industry and take care not to fall into complacency. Just because it is the norm does not mean it is the best approach.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
The shipping packaging market is experiencing rapid growth alongside eCommerce expansion, but only Returnity is solving for the increased focus on circular shipping models, consumer attention to sustainability, and brands sensitivity to a differentiated customer experience. We will displace the use of over 1 million cardboard boxes and poly mailer bags in 2019 — and 10 million+ in 2020.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.