The most important thing you can do before you start a business is have your finances in order. Make sure you can support yourself and your business financially. It’s hard enough to start a new business and even harder when you are financially stressed. I tell everyone that’s thinking about starting a business to make sure they have a side hustle to cover their bills.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kylee Guenther.
Kylee Guenther is the CEO of Pivot Materials (Pivot) and Founder of Loopy Products. Kylee is an entrepreneur, international keynote speaker and second generation in her family to work in the plastics industry. She grew up on the plastics manufacturing shop floor and is passionate about finding environmentally friendlier solutions to everyday issues involving sustainability.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in a small, rural town about an hour outside of Detroit. Almost everyone there worked in either manufacturing or farming and I think it’s safe to say there were more sheep then people.
I’m the second generation in my family to work in Michigan’s plastics industry. My dad made some significant and important contributions to the industry, including working on the first plastic bottles with handles — The gallon-sized milk bottles we all use. We talked about plastics and stretch blow molding — My dad’s favorite bottle making technology — Over dinner every night, so naturally, I got interested in the industry as a child. Even from an early age though, my interest was more into the waste that was created. I wanted to find a solution.
I finished Graduate School right at the height of the Great Recession. Luckily, I was able to find a job, but it wasn’t one that I found fulfilling. I was unhappy but kept daydreaming. During this time, I met my husband and for the first time in my life, I finally felt like I fit in. He loved and accepted me exactly for who I am. Flaws, awkwardness and huge, impossible-seeming dreams included!
My husband encouraged me to embrace some of my wild and crazy dreams. One of those dreams was to start Pivot Materials and help solve the plastics crisis with sustainable material. I named my company Pivot because pivot means change and that’s exactly what I wanted to do to the plastics industry. We incorporate plant waste into our materials to make them safer, stronger, smarter and more sustainable then traditional plastic.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When life gives you lemons, make limoncello is a mantra I strongly believe in. I like it because it’s a more adult version of the lemonade saying. To me, this saying means we always have to work with what we have and I put this into action during my pandemic business pivot when I started my own home and housewares line called Loopy Products. We use some of our innovative materials from Pivot Materials to make our products. Speaking of limoncello — Loopy Products first products are wine glasses and whisky tumblers made with Pivot’s sustainable, bio-based plant waste fiber-reinforced materials.
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?
The first thing that comes to mind is the movie Hidden Figures. I wish there were more films like this when I was a kid, encouraging women and people of color to excel in areas that weren’t as traditionally accepting of them. I really connected with “Hidden Figures” because as a child, I was told I wasn’t good at math because I was a girl. To this day, I’m disappointed that anyone would ever say this to a child because it really held me back for quite a while.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Before the pandemic, my little startup was growing and flourishing! We were expecting our first big, multi-million-dollar order to go to production. We’d also graduated from Plug and Play, one of the best business accelerators in the world, won a best small business award from our home state of Michigan, were named one of the top 50 clean teach companies to watch globally by Cleantech Group and won multiple pitch competitions. Life was good and I was living my dream!
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
The first thing I did was stop and take a deep breath. I didn’t know what was happening and neither did anyone else. I didn’t want to make a quick, rash decision that I’d regret later. I took the time I needed to think things through and I decided that jumping on the bandwagon to make hand sanitizers and face masks wasn’t right for my team and I because I figured that market would quickly get saturated by larger companies who were able to pump out a lot of product to market fast.
Ironically, the name of my business is Pivot Materials so we are all about change like our name implies. However, our goal is to change the plastics industry, not have our whole world change due to the pandemic. The pandemic provided me with a real opportunity to pivot. Business slowed considerably for Pivot Materials during COVID-19 which gave me the opportunity to start Loopy Products, a sustainable home and housewares company.
At Loopy, we are reinventing impossible or hard to recycle products using new, innovative and sustainable materials that reduce or eliminate the use of plastics. We are launching soon and are working on very innovative products like the world’s first eyeglass frames made with the waste from coffee processing (this product is expected in early 2021).
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
I guess there were two “aha” moments, actually. I was in Laguna Beach, wading in the ocean and thinking about how so much plastic is finding its way there and how bad it is for the wildlife. While I was thinking about that, a sealion swam up to me. I wasn’t very far out, but I was terrified and ran screaming to shore thinking I was being attacked by a shark. However, once I calmed down and my husband told me it was a sealion not a shark, I realized what a special moment I’d had with that animal and for some reason, it picked me instead of all the other people out in the water. It was that moment that made me realize I wanted to start this line not only to make high-quality products with less or no plastics, but also to educate people about the materials products are made from.
Pivot Materials was growing and kept me super busy, so I kept thinking about my housewares line but figured it wasn’t something I’d get to do anytime soon because I just didn’t have the time. Then, when the pandemic hit I suddenly had a lot more free time and that was my other “aha” moment. I figured there’d never be another time in my life when I had this much free time so I better get moving now.
How are things going with this new initiative?
They’re going okay. To be honest, it’s taken longer to get this up and running then I’d hoped, because of the pandemic and all the issues that it’s caused within supply chains. We are making progress though. Most importantly, all the products we are bringing to market are very specifically targeted for replacement to improve their environmental footprint so if it takes us a little longer to get things to market, I’m okay with that. One thing I’ve learned during the pandemic is patience.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband and my Aunt Wanda were the only people in the beginning of my business journey that didn’t think I was crazy for taking on the entire plastics industry. They encouraged me so much and never put my dreams down. Although my Aunt passed away suddenly while my business was basically still a daydream, I can still hear her in my mind, telling me to “give’em hell”.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
This is really an awesome question. Thanks for putting this out here. I’ve been working on Pivot and been so focused on new customer and product development that I hardly ever get a chance to look back at what my team and I built. Starting Loopy Products really gave me a huge opportunity to look at what we’ve done from a whole new perspective and I feel really good about our accomplishments.
It’s also really fun to share Loopy Products with people in my life that until this time haven’t fully understood what I’ve been up to. I think this is because Pivot’s materials are sold in their raw form, in little pellets that look like bunny food. For someone outside of material science and engineering, it’s really challenging for them to imagine what can be done with these little tiny pellets. Now that I can hand them, for example, a coffee mug made from coffee waste, their eyes light up and they realize what our team has done.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- The most important thing you can do before you start a business is have your finances in order. Make sure you can support yourself and your business financially. It’s hard enough to start a new business and even harder when you are financially stressed. I tell everyone that’s thinking about starting a business to make sure they have a side hustle to cover their bills.
- The lone wolf founder theory is bullshit. What I mean by this is that one person cannot build an empire on their own so ask for help. Contact your local economic development agency, small business administration, accelerator or incubator. It’s their job to help you and other businesses in your area be successful. Tell them what you need and never be ashamed of reaching out for help.
- Make friends with other business owners. Your life is going to change a lot when you have a business, especially if it’s successful. From my personal experience, I can tell you that your friends from your life before your business won’t understand you the same way as your business friends will. This was hard for me to swallow, but once I did and added new friends into my life that understand my lifestyle and were as driven as I am, I’ve been much happier.
- Not everyone is going to think your business idea is a great one. What matters is you believing in it. When I first started, so many people told me I’d never be successful and this idea was a waste of my time and money. I turned all their negativity into energy and that made me work even harder and it’s paid off.
- Conquer your biggest fear by ripping off the Band-Aid and everything after that will be 10 times easier. When you are leading any organization, you are going to have to do a lot of things you don’t like or that make you uncomfortable. For me, talking to people was a huge problem. I decided that the success of my business was going to be severally limited if I couldn’t talk to people. I ripped off the Band-Aid by booking a public speaking event. I was terrified before giving the talk. I almost threw up before I got on stage and I was sweating profusely the entire time, but I did it. After the first couple of minutes on stage, it was already easier and by the end of my first talk, I wasn’t terrified anymore. I kept booking events for more practice and now I’m an international keynote speaker. I managed to turn my fear into something I enjoy and created an additional income stream.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I’ve tried to get more sleep and been really open and honest about my feelings. At the start of the pandemic, I was sleeping about 9 hours a day — Almost double my usual 5. For me, I felt like that extra sleep not only felt like the right thing to do, but it gave my mind more time to process everything that was going on.
Being really open and honest about my feelings has been hard, but I think it’s been a great outlet with everything going on this year. I, like many Americans, was really struggling on Election Night, when we didn’t get a clear result. I stayed up all night and I stress ate an entire bag of Doritos, (taco flavor if anyone’s curious), all by myself. I was tired the next day but was part of a Zoom event. I started things off not by apologizing for looking like a walking nightmare, but by saying I had had a rough night and had in fact eaten an entire bag of Doritos in less than two hours. Another person on the call joined in and said she was glad she wasn’t the only one and had eaten an entire loaf of bread by herself. We took the first few moments of the call and all shared how we’d been feeling and what we’d been stress-eating. Afterwards, I felt a lot better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I don’t think about being influential but I am trying to make the most out of this one life I have to live. My greatest passion is sustainability. Last year, when divers reached the deepest trench in the ocean, plastic was already there waiting for us. Seriously — Plastic beat us to the deepest known point in the ocean. This guts me and I want to help find a solution.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be an education movement around people better understanding plastics and other materials and the implications of using them. For example, did you know that black plastics generally aren’t recycled in the US curbside recycling system? This is because they are the same color as the belts that are used in the sorting process and the optical sorters can’t identify them.
We are trying to build materials education right into the mission of both Pivot Materials and Loopy Products. Educating people is the first step in any movement and we have a huge responsibility here as material providers at Pivot Materials. We do not take this lightly because plastics affect every single person and animal on this planet.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Oh my — I guess I have a tie between Martha Stewart and my celebrity crush Retired General Colin Powell.
There’s nothing political here with General Powell. I just feel like he’s an amazing person and a great leader. I’ve never met him, but every time I see him on TV or read something about him I feel a connection to his soul and think about how I hope I’m that strong of a leader someday. During his career, he’d stood up against the status quo, made decisions that weren’t easy and accepted when he was wrong. These are all very important traits for any great person and entrepreneur.
I love and respect Martha because she’s been able to reinvent herself countless times over several decades, which I think is an incredibly important skill for an entrepreneur. She’s also not afraid to try new things and is always well-spoken. Plus, she’s the only person who roast both turkeys and Justin Bieber with such flare.
How can our readers follow you online?
My LinkedIn profile is: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kyleeguenther
You can find Pivot at: Website: Pivot.eco
FB: Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PivotMaterials/
You can find Loopy at: Website: LoopyProducts.com
My Speaking Services: Website: (updgrade Under Development) KyleeGuenther.com
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!