Sometimes, entrepreneurs get ideas in the most unexpected places. For Lisa (Gutzke) Ellis, MBA ’98, it was the beach in Galveston, Tex., where she lives with her husband, Karl.
Ellis regularly enjoyed a morning exercise routine on the beach, but didn’t enjoy all the garbage that cluttered her view. She picked up five to 10 items every day to do her part. Still, it didn’t seem to make a dent.
“I thought, ‘There has to be a better way to get these items off the beach,'” she said.
Most of the litter she saw in Galveston was disposable cups, plates and the like. So she tackled the problem at its source by founding a company that sells biodegradable disposables.
The company, BYOgreen – or Bring Your Own Green – sells high quality, durable disposables made from either corn or sugar cane.
“I thought it would be great to have disposables that would be naturally absorbed,” she said.
Since its beginning just two months ago, the company has enjoyed a promising start. Plates and cold cups are the best selling products so far.
“We specialize in smaller quantities, so people don’t have to buy 5,000 cups at a time, for example,” she said. “People really like our introductory packages that offer a little bit of each product. That way, people get to try before they buy.”
Durability surprises many customers
Customers have been downright surprised by the quality of the products, Ellis said.
“I think there is a misconception that if something is made out of renewable resources, it will be flimsy. When we tell people our products are made from corn and sugar cane byproducts, it is interesting to see their reactions, because all our items are actually quite sturdy.”
Another surprising fact is that paper plates made from sugarcane byproducts can be microwaved.
“Can I eat them?”
According to Ellis, one of the most frequently asked questions about BYOgreen’s products is, “Can I eat them?”
The answer: yes. But it would be like eating paper, and it would have no nutritional value, Ellis said.
Customers are amazed, she added, by the variety of biodegradable products available.
“We have access to everything from lunch baggies to utensils, all made from corn as well,” she said.
Still another surprising fact is the products’ affordability. Ellis said after potential customers see the prices, many say, “Why wouldn’t I do this? I didn’t even know I could.”
Her Oshkosh MBA degree was catalyst for success
Ellis earned an undergraduate degree in English from UW-Milwaukee, but chose UW Oshkosh for her MBA.
“Part of the reason I selected UW Oshkosh for my MBA was due to all the positive feedback I heard from current students and graduates of the program there,” she said. “Also the fact that it was accredited really made an impact on my decision.”
While an MBA student, Ellis traveled with Business Professor B.S. Sridhar on the western European study tour.
“That experience really made me begin to start thinking about things differently—especially about perception versus reality in the business world,” she said. “Europeans’ perceptions of Americans are often not positive, but I was treated very politely—unlike many of my classmates. Professor Sridhar said he thought the reason was perhaps the Europeans could not tell my nationality at first sight.”
Ellis compares that difference in perception to the perception people have about biodegradable products.
“I find that so many things are just based on perception,” she said, “not on the truth. So it is interesting to watch people’s perceptions change as they get to know our products.”
The international business skills she gained during the European study tour exposed her to important information that has helped her jump a few hurdles in her business development.
“We deal with product suppliers around the world, and really with the sugarcane market, most are located in Indochina,” she said. “The language barrier was difficult at first, but we were able to find some business contacts who spoke the language, so that has helped.”
All the company’s corn-based products, by the way, come from Nebraska. Ellis said she is proud her company supports the American farmer.
Building business is all in the family
Karl is the company’s primary salesperson. The couple both worked for the airline industry in San Francisco until repercussions following September 11, 2001 forced their company to downsize.
“At that point, we decided to find a place we both wanted to live and work, and ended up choosing Galveston about four years ago,” she said.
The couple has started five businesses within the past few years, some on a part-time basis.
“I have applied the skills I learned in the MBA program to help me manage the complexities of my businesses, and how they impact personal and financial relationships,” she said.
The professional skills she learned during the MBA program were priceless, she added.
“I dreaded classes that were heavily team-based—I just wanted to do my own thing. But the skills I learned really helped me relate to other people, even if they don’t have the same background as I do.”
New division caters to food vendors
After just two months in business, Ellis already has started a new wholesale division within BYOgreen. Called ECOtakout, it offers products to the restaurant and fast food industries.
“Basically we are targeting anywhere there are regularly organized meetings,” she said.
Discount for UW Oshkosh alumni and friends
Alumni and friends of UW Oshkosh can order BYOgreen products online and enjoy a 10 percent discount. Just visit www.byogreen.com and enter discount code uwosh during checkout.
Those who live in the Oshkosh area are welcome to stop by the Pollock Alumni House, 765 Algoma Blvd., to look through a box of BYOgreen product samples. Ellis included a note, saying that even the packing peanuts dissolve in water.
Some Facts on Disposables
- 970 thousand tons of paper cups and plates were discarded in 2003 (EPA). If, we approximate 15 grams weight for each cup or plate, we get 64 billion paper cups and plates being thrown away every year in USA.
- 730 thousand tons of styrofoam and plastic plates and cups (710 thousand tons were styrofoam) were disposed in 2003 (EPA). Using 10 grams weight for each cup or plate, we get 73 billion mostly styrofoam cups and plates being thrown away every year in USA.
- According to EPA statistics, a total of 3,810 thousand tons of plastic containers & bottles were thrown away in 2003. Using a generous number of 20 grams for each container, we get a number of 190 billion plastic containers & bottles being landfilled or incinerated every year.
The above numbers do not include trash bags, grocery bags and other plastic materials like trays, utensils, clam shells, caps and other plastic packaging. A total of 8000 thousand tons of these items were discarded in 2003.