Episode 53 – Flipping the Script: an interview with Jessica of CaraGreen (Michael Bustin Pt 2)

 

Jessica: Hi, this is Jessica with Build Green, Live Green and today we are flipping the script a little bit and we are going to have Michael Bustin, our guests from a prior podcast will be interviewing me and we'll be talking about some of how we've worked together over the years and how our business has changed and frankly, whatever the hell he wants to ask me again. So Michael have at it.

Michael: Hello, podcast listeners. Thank you for having me on your podcasts, Jessica it's fun and exciting. Well we've known each other for years and we have similar backgrounds and we worked together for a number of years as well. You've taken, CaraGreen from something quite boutique to, I think something that's really revolutionary and definitely stand out in the world of material not only distribution, but also I think consultation as well. I've seen over the years really kind of get in the winds a little bit with your manufacturers. I know you've had some challenges with some of your manufacturers because they are quote unquote boutique-y, how do you handle you know working with these boutique manufacturers to really help them build some notoriety in a brand, because a lot of them don't have those skills they're so focused on sustainable product and materials?

Jessica: Yeah, I think you're right that you know we've had to evolve and kind of find a different place to add value beyond just traditional distribution. So we've kind of changed the notion of what a distributor is and we're kind of more, I would say, maybe even a channel partner and I, like you come from an engineering background, but I have an affinity towards marketing side. So with some of these brands, you see an opportunity where they make a good product but they don't know how to present it to architects and designers and I feel like we were able to build that area of expertise. So our goal is to take them from being boutique to being not necessarily maybe a mainstream brand right away, but a well-known brand anyway.

So we started out with Durat, was one of our partners, and I think it was through conversations with you actually that we ended up establishing US-based manufacturing for that product line and then some of the other brands that we've really partnered with PaperStone is one that has just been so open and welcoming to our marketing strategy and they've let us work with them across platforms to really just get the awareness of PaperStone out there and why it's such a great material and position it as an alternative to quartz and being silica free and really letting us take our industry knowledge and overlay it on of this really great product and help them market. The same thing with Lapitec, I think that we've worked on building this infrastructure that is data-driven and is marketing and our blog — this podcast exists because of you, you came in and had a conversation when you were with your marketing firm and we were talking about content and you told me a couple of years ago, you need to have a podcast, and that's why we started this. So thank you for that. 

 

But yeah, I mean, we've really become a marketing and sales distributor, which there's not a lot of companies out there like that that are really focused on getting into architects and designers and we're now getting approached by some of these fewer boutique brands, some, large, multi, multi-million dollar companies that are looking for distribution partners and we're really excited to kind of continue to grow by getting these; it may not be the whole brand, but maybe there's a product or a new product category and they know to get out there and to access the architect and design world, you really need a CaraGreen to do that, you can't do it through traditional distribution.

Michael: And that was kind of a question I had in mind. The second question was I've seen CaraGreen again, evolve from this distribution model to again, more of a consultancy almost and I know with my current position with dura saying, we have distributors in the United States and the wat that CaraGreen acts and in what they do and their focus is really much different than most of the distributors, whether distributors that I see now or even distributors that we work with in the past. So I think we'v3 definitely found a good niche. Where do you see, I think you touched upon this a little bit, but where do you see CaraGreen maybe evolving into, is it still representing the boutiques, or I liked the idea actually of bigger companies, as bigger companies try to go more sustainable and try to find whether it's sustainable furniture or materials, or what have you, they'd have these initiatives in place, which might be new to them and they're going to need some partners that understand not only sustainability but marketing brand materials, distribution. Do you see yourself CaraGreen evolving more into maybe a consultancy and somehow balancing that with being a distributor, or maybe having even satellite CaraGreen distribution sites, or maybe something partnered with another distributor that could be a satellite, it could be a sustainable arm of an existing distributor?

 

Jessica: Yeah. So I think that yes to all those things. So we're actually the latter that you mentioned partnering with a distributor who maybe is more streamlined on the logistics side or heavier on the kitchen and bath side is something that we are definitely pursuing, because I think that there's a very mutualistic relationship that can be had there. What's driving our next step, I think is the fact that healthy surfaces and sustainability are becoming the norm, they have to become the norm. So you're going to see all of the mainstream surfaces start to announce these sustainability initiatives and you already are. You're seeing some products come out that are a hundred percent minerals and no resident's completely recyclable or a hundred percent recycled glass. So you're starting to see that evolution happen and soon there will be no differentiation between, you know, sustainable products and other products. 

 

So that still is decades away from where everything is sustainable, but people are at least starting to tell the story, building factories with sustainability and the environment first. So I think we have to maybe loosen our definition of sustainability and look at the whole picture. If there's a factory in Spain that's built to reclaim a hundred percent of its water, reclaims a hundred percent of its waste and it's carbon offsets is completely controlled by solar and wind power, they're doing so much for the environment who am I to say that my recycled plastic product is better than you. I don't think you can do that, so I think that you have to open your mind up and expand into some of these other brands that are doing things for the environment. What we just have to do is to be able to tell their story, and that's what we are, we are storytellers and that's what we pitched to these brands is you might be a huge $300 million company that has a new brand you want to bring to market. You cannot do that through your traditional distribution, you need a CaraGreen to help you do that. 

 

So our value proposition, we price like other distributors, but it's because the value that we're adding is all the money we've dumped into sales and marketing efforts that we put into your products. Other distributors just don't do that, they don't budget for it and it's built into our model.

Michael: Yeah, that's very interesting. Something you mentioned set off a little trigger and it's something I've been thinking about a lot lately, you were talking about safe materials and cleanable materials, and one of the things that I've noticed with our company and our solid surface material, but also just listening to many webinars and podcasts of industry experts. It's funny, pre-COVID, you knew about these people and everybody was hush, hush and now the whole world wants to speak and be listened to or want to talk and want to be heard. So it's quite interesting because there's a lot of great data out there, but one of the things that I've been thinking about is there's a difference, it used to be a pre-COVID it's sustainable, sustainable, sustainable, it's recyclable, it's recycled material, blah blah and there's a focus on the composition of the material as a reclaimed recyclable, sustainable material, but what I've heard over and over and over again, which excites me because we sell solid surface and you as well, is it's not less about sustainability, but almost now it's about cleanability, but it's even being able to stand up to the harsh chemicals and the extensive cleaning that everybody has to do. 

 

So it had me thinking about some of the products you sell because I, I know all about porosity and sealant and all that stuff and when I think about some of the materials knowing what I know, we went through an extensive cleaning that everyone has to do. Do you worry about that with some of your products that they might be overlooked because they don't have this new cleanable, have to meet these cleanability standards or does it all find different uses for them in different areas?

Jessica: One of the first things we did in March actually, was to go to our manufacturers and ask them all for cleanability documents and kind of proactively did that because we knew that this was what was being asked for. I would say, Kirei has a great cleanability document that they've published.…Lapitec — I mean, Lapitec holds up to anything. Durat is a solid surface like you said, PaperStone is really, really good, holds up really, really well. I would have had concerns about IceStone, but we don't carry them anymore. So I mean, I think you know the concrete side of things. I feel like when it comes to that side of it, I feel like we've done all the right things to make sure that we've addressed those concerns and we do have products that we know do hold up very well. My concern with what you're talking about is that we made all this progress and sustainability and health, and it reminds me of some of the memes I saw that were like, hey moms, who've been cleaning with water and vinegar and household essences or whatever, you were pretty quick to snap up all the Lysol and it's true, but I feel like as a built environment, did we compromise all the progress we made?

 

That is a question that I do have, because I think the direction that everyone was going with disclosure and what's in it I would hate to see that fall by the wayside just to have these sterile surfaces and plexiglass everywhere. We've written a couple blog posts on this because I think we can keep those gains and go back and create a safe environment in a visually appealing way.

Michael: I too was concerned a little about the sterility of things and when people are talking about the new norm, they are talking in the surfacing world and the design world, in a built environment, they're talking about cleanability and what they were saying was, they want to see the polished surface now, they don't want to see dust on anything now, they want to have a monolithic surface, they want to smell from your Rosemary and Sage, Aveda candles, now everything's going to smell like Windex and I think there's was a little blip and what I'm hearing, and I'm sure you're hearing the same is sustainability is bigger than ever and it's never going to go away and it's only going to get better and there's more focus on it. I think we might see a little bit of a blip against the sterile environments, but they're not soothing, they're not calming, they don't have the biophilic kind of element to it where you're bringing nature inside but the whole workplace environment design is changing drastically and everything. So it's going to be very interesting over the next couple of years.

Jessica: Yeah and workplace is interesting to me too, because my first thought was, oh, no, WeWork and Industrious you awesome workplaces for these mobile employees, what's going to happen to you? I just thought these kind of just-in-time work environments where we were in, in Industrious for awhile, they were doing all these cool things, which were, you know, you get this much workspace and all this common area, and then with COVID, what's going to happen? But what I heard, which was really interesting was that what was going to happen was more of these were going to pop up in suburban city settings. So it wouldn't just be this huge office space, it might be a smaller one, but more of these WeWork/Industrious type spaces are going to be cropping up. So people that are working remote have a place to go to have a conference and things like that. So I think the workplace changing is absolutely accurate and you heard, as I did on the Material Bank call yesterday, that a lot of people are never going back to work in the office.
 

Michael: What was ecstatic was, was it one of, I forgot how many, one out of 10 or something maybe in higher said that the 1% said they would go back to pre-COVID conditions and the rest of them didn't, or even like with trade shows, I was surprised where I think it was 23%, let's go the other side of it, 77% said that they're probably not going to go to trade shows. I mean the stats were alarming.

Jessica: Yeah. I mean, I think that it's hard to, and I think you have to qualify a little bit, because it's hard to imagine right now, because you are envisioning, would I go back right now in the future. But I think one of the things that I really enjoyed discovering over these last several months was that our transition to online was very easy because we were very online and I was talking about traditional distributors before, if you're just a shoddy website with a list of slabs that is really hard to go add any value in today's world. Whereas we have so much more infrastructure online and support online that doing webinars and trainings and all that stuff, we were ready to do it and ready to go. So that was really great for us, Google drive, all of our accounting online, it's been really, really seamless.

Michael: Yeah. The pivot, it's interesting to say that because I think in our other podcast, we've talked about some traditional methods and you know, the traditional communication, the old ways of selling the old ways of marketing really changed the world and what I saw and I continue to see is the days of networking and going to functions and shaking hands and being around bunches of people, it came to a halt quickly and we like you when I came on board with Durasein from day one, we said, we're going to go all digital and we're going to be very social and we're going to communicate in that manner. And we got pushback from people saying, well, everybody's on social and everybody doesn't know how to use it on and on and now we didn't know what was going to happen. But fast forward and look what we're doing, everything is all digital. 

 

It's been, it was kind of a saving grace and we built up a lot of momentum like yourself. So for us I know there's been a lot of transitions for a lot of companies, for us like yourself, we were, we were in the process of, we're just poking your head out of the ground, our brand and for us, it was easy peasy as we call it, it wasn't that much of a change, we were already on that trajectory, you guys are the same; as an entrepreneur, you're very entrepreneurial, some people look at these times as crazy time that, oh my, what are we going to do? And it's going to kill our business and all that kind of stuff. I've always taken the approach where when there's chaos and confusion, there's opportunity and you're a lot like me where you know, I operate really well in the gray area, the unknowns. So do you see, have you seen any patterns or anything interesting as far as opportunities out of all this moving into the future with sustainable surfacing and sustainable materials?

Jessica: I think one of the biggest shifts that we made was putting a data analytics team in place. So I never would have thought that, my ex was in data analytics and I was like, that sounds terrible. Well, we've created this team of people that is doing data mining and making sense of all of it for us and I used to go to these industry events and get this kind of data and see what was happening but now having a team, that's looking at those numbers and analyzing and synthesizing that data, that's giving us yet another thing that we can add value to our partners and say, hey, we can synthesize this data for you, and we can tell you what's going on in your market and we're kind of like you said, this sort of consultancy piece of this, it's really intended right now to grow our business, but I can see it providing value to all of our partners and monetizing it down the road.

But I think that all that we have when we're trapped in our homes, we have our phones and we can reach out to people, but there's a lot of data. So if we create a team, that's going to take that data and do meaningful things out of it, whether it's telling me what I need to order, telling me where people are building, telling me which areas are hot, telling me where the schools are going up, tell me what the school designs are looking like, that's the kind of information that we can use to figure out what content we need to put out there to be relevant, analyzing data on Google, Google ads, keywords, all that stuff, taking the time to analyze the data right now is I think a really powerful thing that we can do in this downtime.

Michael: It's funny because I have similar feelings and you and I, we're smart people and we understand that and for years, same thing I look at like, you hear data mining, you hear data, data, data, data, you know and I would look at a report and see graphs and charts and everything and yeah, I understand it, but okay no big deal. As we start to expand and grow I find it, I'm almost infatuated now, I'm infatuated with social media from an entrepreneurial standpoint. I mean, when I was a kid had my own little businesses as a kid, if I had social media nowadays, if I had social media back then and the fact that…

 

Jessica: You would have been a YouTube star.

 

Michael: The fact that on my phone, I could communicate with the world and build an audience with the world and I could sell whatever I want, people are going to buy it blows me away. But the data, like you said, what I find fascinating now is as we get into more digital, we're doing a lot more digital campaigns, it's so amazing how you can, even from a marketing standpoint, you can look at the numbers almost in real time and you can pivot and change and you'll see from time to gender, whether it's demographics or psychographics, even as we start to expand in other parts of the world, looking at market segmentation and look at everything from, you're looking at something like construct connect data and find out where the projects are and what type of projects are there and I mean, it's really quite fascinating. I give a lot of respect to those that do data mine, because now I understand it, that there is a lot of information in that information and that information allows you, as a business person, us as business people to make very smart decisions on how we execute, as opposed to just trying everything to a shotgun approach it's being very, very calculated. So I'm fascinated too by the data more so than ever. 

Jessica: So I think that's a big thing for us and we should check back in and do this in a couple months and see where things are then. Do you want to do the outro? You just say, this is Build Green, Live Green.

Michael: Who me?

 

Jessica: Yeah. 

 

Michael: This is Michael Bustin. I'm here with Jessica of CaraGreen, Build Green Live Green.