Get a really good customer service person. At the start, all three of us co-founders spent half of our day answering questions and dealing with complaints. First of all, people can be mean and your product is probably your baby, so this is not always fun. It can actually ruin the next half of your day, not helping you build your business.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Isabel Aagaard.
Isabel Aagaard, 30, is a Co-founder and Designer at LastObject. Frustrated by all of the single-use waste, she decided to design innovative solutions to wasteful habits that make a lasting impact, starting with LastSwab — the world’s first sanitary, reusable cotton swab. Since then she has created sustainable alternatives to single-use cotton rounds, tissues, and face masks. One by one, Isabel is tackling the single-use items that have become an unfortunate part of our daily routine.
As an eco-fighter and power-mom, Isabel stands by her products and hopes to inspire others to be the change and adapt to living sustainably.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in a little town outside of Copenhagen in a family of design entrepreneurs. We have a family business that we’ve all been involved in at some stage of our lives — parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, grandparents etc. So starting LastObject with my brother came very naturally to me.
I earned my Master’s degree from the Royal Academy of Design in Collaborative Design, and my Bachelor’s degree is in Digital Media and Design from the IT University. I worked for a few years in the hospital segment designing everything from bags for patients to take their chemotherapy treatments home, to a maternity ward. Personally, I’ve always been very interested in waste reduction and sustainable design solutions on a big and small scale.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Incredible things can be done simply if we are committed to making them happen” — Sadhguru
I feel like being sustainable sometimes can seem endless and doubt how much of an effect one can really have. And when I feel like that I remember this quote.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I just started reading, Losing Earth: The Decade We could have Stopped Climate Change, it has had a huge impact on me. It explains how we came very close to solving the environmental problems over a decade (in the 80’s) and how we were derailed and failed massively because it was not of interest to some industries and formed political agendas.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
The idea for LastSwab came to us when we were researching which single-use items were the most harmful for our planet and the cotton swab was surprisingly quite high on this list.
We found that one of the biggest issues was that people didn’t discard them properly, mainly because they are so small. If flushed down the toilet, they often don’t get caught by filtration systems and are dumped directly into the ocean, and later end up in the stomachs of sea creatures. We felt that by solving this problem, we would create an impact on marine life as well as single-use pollution.
I think our “aha moment” was in the design process. We prototype a lot. The product, the packaging, the content — everything is made and edited hundreds of times while constantly being tested. We try to get our designs in our hands even though most of our work is on a computer. When we had the final version in our hands and it actually worked, this was when we thought this could really get big.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
It’s really important for us not to sit on our ideas and think we know best. We shouldn’t be afraid of changing things along the way, to the very end. We have the same mentality throughout the company. When working with manufacturers, marketing, sales — it’s all about having people involved throughout the process and constantly improving, that’s probably the reason we keep launching our products on Kickstarter.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Google is your friend. Some of the most simple ideas are still not out there.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
Lauren Singer was a huge role model for me. She really lived her passion in creating less trash and ended up using all that information and inspiration to create an amazing shop, before zero waste rang in everybody’s ears.
For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
Uh, that’s a lot of steps! Filing a patent, depending on the complexity is good to have some professional help with, and it can also just be guidance. Finding a good manufacturer is an inductive process of finding many manufacturers that make similar products and then decreasing the list through elaborate questions and prototypes. And regarding how to get retailers on board — make it really really easy for them to understand your product, order and put on their shelves. In other words: sharp story, B2B online shop and amazing packaging.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Haha, yeah it took us surprisingly long to see the mistake, which is probably the funny part. We are designers by trade, so here lies our passion and pride. Everything is perfected and edited hundreds of times. And after sending out the first batch of hundred thousands of LastSwabs we realized that the writing on the box wasn’t our logo but just our name. When you see it, you see it. We didn’t want to waste our casting tools because we stand for less waste, so the switch to using our logo has actually first happened now ( 2 years later as the tools have been used up). It’s silly but just such an out of the blue mistake.
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
The huge success of our crowdfunding campaign felt like a “tipping point”. Until then we hadn’t been sure exactly how well LastSwab would be received. The massive support and positive feedback we got from people completely validated our product. The takeaway is that our crowdfunding success didn’t come out of nowhere — we put tons of work into outreach and hyping the campaign on social media before the launch and collected 40,000 email subscribers through our landing page. If we hadn’t put all that effort into it, I don’t think our results would have been nearly as good.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You will be copied. One thing I wasn’t prepared for were the copycats that appeared within a few days of our Kickstarter launch. Since then we’ve been very careful about protecting our designs. That said, you should never sit on your design out of fear for this, because that most likely will kill it.
- Get your family on board. When you enter the space of an entrepreneur you quickly find out there are not enough hours in a day. So get your family involved or make sure you have their support, the best thing is a little bit of each.
- You will make mistakes and it’s not the end of the world. We have made changes before, under and after creating the first products. We even changed the plastic type of the case two years after launching
- This is a marathon not a sprint. When you are passionate and successful at the same time, you will start running. The issue is just that you don’t know for how long. So if you really have hit a nerve and your idea will become huge, you need your energy for not just the short runs but also the long runs.
- Get a really good customer service person. At the start, all three of us co-founders spent half of our day answering questions and dealing with complaints. First of all, people can be mean and your product is probably your baby, so this is not always fun. It can actually ruin the next half of your day, not helping you build your business.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Prototype, test and get feedback to find out if your idea is viable. Change your design and materials as many times as it takes to create an exceptional product.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
It depends on your circumstances. At LastObject we all have a lot of experience in design and are confident in handling product development ourselves. But if you have a brilliant idea for a product but lack the experience and aren’t sure how to proceed, then maybe hiring a consultant is the right path for you.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
We did neither, since we got started using crowdfunding alongside our own savings. I would say though that you should think carefully before seeking venture capital. While it can help your company grow faster, relying on VC investors means that you will have to consult them about all major decisions and there’s a risk that you’ll disagree on some key points along the way. If you go down the bootstrapping route, you will at least stay in complete control of decision-making and don’t need to compromise to keep an investor happy.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Our success has allowed us to design and launch more products to replace disposable items and reduce waste and that’s how we’re making the world a better place! I’m hoping that our success is also inspiring other entrepreneurs to develop new earth-friendly products and services.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Create less waste. It is actually a lot of fun!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Lauren Singer who I mentioned earlier would be a delight to meet and pick her brain on how we use the next decade to improve our planet.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.