“If not us, then who?” Why Ami Bateman and Sian Murray launched their eco-friendly cleaning products during a pandemic

Pleasant State

Pleasant State founders Ami Bateman and Sian Murray. Source: supplied.

Queensland entrepreneurs Ami Bateman and Sian Murray launched their business during a global pandemic, but for the passionate duo, there was no “alternative” to creating their innovative, non-toxic home cleaning products once the seed for the idea had been planted.

Bateman and Murray developed the idea for Pleasant State in December 2019, registered the company on February 17, 2020, and are in the midst of raising thousands of dollars via Indiegogo.

In this Q&A, the founders share their business journey to date, the challenges and opportunities of launching during a pandemic, and why being ethical in business is not “just a tick-box exercise”.

What’s your elevator pitch?

Sian: Pleasant State is working towards a sparkling clean world that’s free of single-use plastics and toxic cleaning products.

We’ve developed Australia’s first non-toxic and no-nasties concentrated bar that dissolves in water to create an all-purpose, bathroom and glass cleaner, meaning you never have to throw away a plastic cleaning bottle again.

Pleasant State is all about cutting the big business BS.

We’re a female-owned Australian startup that’s looking to change the game by focusing on a bigger purpose, not just profit, which is why we’re donating 2% of sales or 20% of profits (whichever is greater) to removing plastic from our oceans.

Where are you based?

Sian: Ami and I live on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland — Ami is in Maroochydore and I am in Noosa.

We’re both originally from Melbourne, but coincidentally made the move to the coast 18 months ago.

We both work from home or in each other’s kitchens. We’re looking for a warehouse space to call home, which we’re very excited about!

Do you have any employees? 

Ami: Pleasant State doesn’t have ‘paid’ employees.

In addition to myself and Sian, we have two other shareholders who work on the business. None of us are paid, instead, we work for sweat equity making us 100% employee-owned.

We do, however, have a very supportive supplier network that is quite involved in our business, including Wayne and Heather Thomas (our chemist and researcher) and David Popov from Pop & Pac, who have been amazing contributors to our branding and design.

What did you do before taking the leap to start your own business? Did you always want to be a founder?

Ami: I spent the last 15 years in big corporations working with and advising some of Australia’s largest for-profit, startups, government and non-profit organisations in HR, marketing, sustainability, health and safety, and technology. Before launching Pleasant State I was running my own technology consulting practice advising enterprise clients.

I am very passionate about ethics and business and have had ambitions to build a company that does right by its employees, customers, partners and the environment for a long time.

I’ve had some radical l ideas about the way I  want to run a company so that it’s a place workers don’t necessarily need to take a holiday from.

During my time advising, building and growing businesses, I’ve often felt that the current organisational models are flawed and could be significantly improved. I’ve never accepted the status quo, so it seemed like I didn’t have a choice but to do my own thing.

Pleasant State is my opportunity to do just this and demonstrate that doing good is good business!

Sian: I have spent the majority of my professional years in creative digital marketing, social media management and public relations, the majority of which was at a boutique agency in Melbourne before deciding to pack up my life and head for the coast.

I always knew that I wanted to be a founder and knew that my experience in marketing and personal branding would help me get there. I would often say to my family and friends, ‘I want to be an entrepreneur with multiple businesses … I just don’t know what they’re going to be yet.’

I was hoping that one day it would just come to me, and it did!

I am very determined to walk my own path. I don’t particularly like being told what and how to do something, and I believe that if I am going to make a positive impact in this world, it’s going to be by doing things differently.

Pleasant State

Pleasant State founders Ami Bateman (left) and Sian Murray. Source: supplied.

How did you go from the initial idea for Pleasant State to getting the business off the ground?

Ami: During an environmental debate with a friend last December I was introduced to just-add-water cleaning tablets that were being sold direct-to-consumer (D2C) in the US and Europe. Following the debate, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.

I started doing some research only to realise that no one was manufacturing or even selling products of this kind D2C in Australia or New Zealand, so I thought: ‘Why don’t I do it? It seems like a no brainer.’

I knew that while I could manage a complex project like this to create an amazing product, I needed someone to bring the brand to life. I wanted to build a brand that provided us with a competitive advantage. Pleasant State needed a personality and a story.

This person I was looking for needed to be someone that really aligned with my personal values, and just like the idea itself, the universe served up Sian! As someone who is also obsessed with making customers happy, I wanted to build a company that also knew its customer intimately and ensured a very smooth customer journey, which is where our other two shareholders, Ranil Illesinghe and Sasha Lincoln come in.

The next step was coming up with a formulation and a manufacturing solution.

I had zero clue about chemistry. In fact, my last chemistry grade was a D (long story). But I just started calling my networks and asking silly questions. I started cold calling manufacturers and other businesses in Australia, NZ and the UK to see who could help us to get this idea off the ground.

Eventually, I was led to our unicorn chemist Wayne (aka Phantom Chemist) who also happened to be conveniently located on the Sunshine Coast. We put the challenge to him to make us a just-add-water cleaning solution that dissolves in 500ml of water to create a super-effective spray that has no nasty chemicals and smells amazing. After an extensive R&D period, he did just that!

Wayne has been instrumental in supporting us to find the right manufacturer for the long-term as well. They are also Queensland-based.

Sian: Once we knew we had a viable product that we were super proud of it was all systems go.

With plenty of amazing eco companies popping up, we wanted to enter the market quickly, which led to our soft launch and product tester campaign on July 1.

The product tester campaign was really successful for us. We essentially asked customers to sign up for their chance to be one of 100 product testers, which gave us the opportunity to build our database and get some really valuable feedback so we could ensure our customers would be as happy with the product as we were.

During this time we also ran an extensive market research campaign. It’s surprising how often this research is overlooked by companies, as it was integral in our process of ensuring we created a brand that aligned closely with our target audience.

Over 3,300 Australian’s put their hand up to participate. The results from the tester campaign were extremely encouraging. Our testers rated our product ‘just as effective’ as their current cleaning products (including AJAX et cetera), and we performed significantly better in the areas of environment and social impact, no nasties and ease of use.

One hundred per cent of our testers are what we would consider promoters using the Net Promoter Score framework.

These strategies helped us to create hype and an audience backing that really resonated with our mission as we lead into our crowdfunding campaign that launched on August 19. In one week, we raised 45% of our $54,181 target and gained about 350 paying customers.

We’ve also now also been accepted into the Flair Incubator program. The program supports female-led businesses on a four-month journey to advance their aspiration to run an international operation from regional Australia.

How are you funding the business?

Ami: To date, I’ve largely bootstrapped the company with some contribution from shareholders when we did our first share issue.

In order to remain aligned with our values of people and planet before profits, I’ve been intent on remaining independently owned and funded — a value shared by Sian, Ranil and Sasha. This is despite several early offers from companies and individuals wishing to invest, which is encouraging, and an indication that we’re doing something right!

We’ve also had to be really innovative in the way that we work with our suppliers to manage cashflow. We’ve been blown away by how committed our suppliers are to our mission and at how flexible they’ve been.

We launched our crowdfunding/pre-sales campaign to support some of the larger expenses we have coming up, including our custom bottles, bar manufacturing and trademarks in international jurisdictions.

Post-crowdfunding, we will be looking at grants and debt financing.

What has the response been to your crowdfunding campaign?

Sian: To date, we’ve been really happy with the response to not only our crowdfunding but our brand identity.

In our first week of the six-week campaign, we raised about $25,000 from 350 paying customers and that number is steadily increasing day by day.

Overall the response to our product, messaging and values have been overwhelmingly positive so we know we’re heading in the right direction.

Pleasant State products

Pleasant State products. Source: supplied.

Why now? Why launch a business during a global pandemic?

Ami: To be completely honest, like the majority of people and businesses, we had no idea this pandemic was coming.

We had committed to the concept early this year which meant the ball was already rolling. Come March, when we could see what was happening in other countries, my problem-solving nature kicked into overdrive and we started hustling!

Sian and I felt this immense responsibility to push through with the idea so that we could not only create jobs during a time of economic depression, but also provide ourselves with a purpose and hope in a time that was going to present the opposite to many people, and at a time when environmental sustainability was likely to be forgotten.

To be completely honest, we felt we didn’t have a choice.

If not us, then who?

Did you have a moment where you questioned if it was the right time to launch a new business?

Sian: Not at all, because what’s the alternative? We have an environmental crisis on our hands and if we don’t do something who will?

Plus, we’re not sure it’s not a good time to be looking for other employment opportunities.

That being said, there has been a lot to overcome and consider when trying to launch a purpose-led business.

From the global pandemic and a global recession to the Black Lives Matter movement and bushfires, there have been a lot of times when we’ve needed to pause and consider the most respectful and considerate way to communicate and market our mission.

What particular challenges has COVID created for a business like yours? 

Ami: There have been significant supply chain shocks and human resources challenges, and uncertainty in our operating environment.

The demand for chemicals and trigger sprays has skyrocketed, which means there is a significant demand backlog. We’ve been lucky to work with suppliers and brokers who have good relationships internationally and have helped us plan in advance to help us make sure our launch date is not impacted.

Getting access to the likes of Wayne our chemist and manufacturers has been particularly difficult because they have other cleaning sector clients that are demanding their time as demand for cleaning products has significantly increased.

Before things felt largely predictable: you could make a business decision and predict a certain outcome. But now that’s all up in the air uncertainty of how the landscape could change at any moment.

And what are the opportunities?

Sian: There’s been much more time to work on the business.

Prior to March, we were trying to juggle other work, social lives and other commitments, but we learnt pretty quickly that a global pandemic can give you much more time, so that was definitely an opportunity. We don’t think we would have been able to achieve as much as we did in four months if the world hadn’t changed so drastically.

As mentioned, there’s also been a huge increase in global demand for cleaning products given the increased focus on hygiene.

A much larger number of people working and staying at home has also meant that more and more people are becoming comfortable with the direct-to-consumer via e-commerce model as they can’t visit shopping centres and are now at home to sign for deliveries.

Additionally, the immediate need for sterile and hygienic single-use products has left many feeling like we’re going backwards.

The impacts of no KeepCups, no BYO packaging and single-use masks are already being felt. This has really highlighted the plastic problem and demonstrated to many that the plastic issue lies in production.

It’s up to businesses to come up with better ways to create products, not consumers to figure out how to recycle them, because at times like these when consumers need to be reactive the responsibility can’t be on them.

Let’s talk about values. What are Pleasant State’s values and how do you plan to incorporate these into the everyday of your business?

Ami: When making any business decision we consider it through the lens of our ethical values. While often more time consuming and costly, it helps us to make the right decision by people and the planet.

These values focus on social responsibility, reducing environmental impacts, with a focus on stopping the production of single-use plastics, remaining Australian made and owned, remaining employee-owned, and focusing on creating opportunities for charities or organisations to work on projects that align with our values.

As an example of this, we have pledged to donate 2% of sales or 20% of profits (whatever is greater) to cleaning up our oceans with Take 3 for the Sea.

We’ve established our shareholder deed to ensure no significant inequalities will exist between the lowest-paid employees and the highest-paid employees.

Whenever we look for suppliers we ask three questions.

  • Can we find an Indigenous-owned supplier or a disability services provider?
  • Is there a local supplier on the Sunshine Coast or in Queensland?
  • What are the values of the supplier, are they aligned with ours, and can we see ourselves working with them long-term?

You’re hoping to become a B Corp by next year. Why is this important to you, and what does it allow the business to do?

Ami: I was keen to create a business with ethical and purpose-led values. I looked for ethical decision-making models that we could leverage to support us in always making ethical decisions from day dot. I found B Corp provided the most comprehensive framework for Pleasant State.

Now, when we make any decision we consider it through the lens of B Corp best practice standards. For example, when selecting a lawyer, it came down to two firms. Both were comparable on price and competence, but we chose the firm that was local to the Sunshine Coast and had more gender and racial diversity amongst its staff.

When selecting any materials or ingredients for our products we consider environment, quality and customer preferences first before we even consider the price.

B Corp isn’t just a tick-box exercise for us. Its standards are embedded in everything we do, create and decide upon.

No business exists without its community. Who’s in your community? 

Ami: I couldn’t agree more with this statement. From the very first moment I had the idea, I started reaching out to our networks, our friends and our family for advice, support and guidance. Without our community, we could not have achieved what we have in such a short period of time. It was through our community that I was introduced to our chemist and manufacturers, which was not an easy thing to come by we can assure you!

The Pleasant State community consists of our core team, our strategic suppliers, our former colleagues, our online followers, our Sunshine Coast community, our friends, our families, and more recently our customers who are advocating and supporting us by funding us to get us off the ground.

Sian: We are extremely appreciative of the support and cheerleading and it keeps us motivated when things get difficult or we have any setbacks.

In fact, when we have setbacks, it’s our community that jumps in to help us get through it because they believe that what we’re trying to achieve is critical for our environment and our health, and they’re going to be there side by side to make sure we achieve what we’ve set out to do eradicate single-use plastics and toxic cleaning chemicals.

 

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Over the weekend, Ami and Sian challenged themselves to collect all the plastic cleaning and personal care products they had around their homes. They were shocked at what they pulled together! As two plastic conscious individuals, this was much worse than they had imagined. We suspect that the majority of Australians would have this much, if not more in their homes, so when you consider that these products will take up to 1000 years to break down, it’s horrifying! Putting it all together in this way really highlighted the depth of the issue and allowed us to stop and consider what other options might be available. How about you do the same? Collect your plastic and tag us so we can see how widespread the issue really is! No judgement here, let’s create awareness and help each other find single-use plastic free alternatives! 👏 . . . . . #australianmade #plasticpollution #plasticsucks #plasticocean #plasticpollutes #noplanetb #eco #cleaning #clean #singleuseplastic #singleusesucks #plasticfree #plasticfreeoceans #ecoclean #plasticfreeforthesea #plasticwaste #plasticfreelife #plasticrevolution #plasticban #banplastic #sustainable #sustainableliving #sustainability #sustainablecleaning #cleaningproducts #zerowaste #aussiemums #aussienation #aussiesdoingthings #startup

A post shared by PLEASANT STATE ™️ (@pleasantstate) on

Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Do you think we’ll see more women start their own businesses because of this?

Ami: Yes and we feel that this is only a good thing. When pitching for the Flair Incubator program, which is supporting regional female-led startups in going global, I was amazed by the quality of the female leaders and their focus on social impact. In fact, all businesses that were shortlisted had social and environmental issues at their core.

Women are setting out to solve complex and critical social and environmental issues that for too long have been ignored and it’s about time!

As Barack Obama was recently quoted as saying: “If women ran every country in the world there would be a general improvement in living standards and outcomes.” The same can be said of business.

Can entrepreneurship be an answer to some of these problems? And if so, what do local, state and federal governments need to do to support it?

Ami: Startups or small businesses are often established to address a problem or unmet need, so yes, startups and entrepreneurs will play a role.

However, I feel that ethics needs to be at the core of all startups in order for them to have meaningful and long-lasting impacts. To achieve this we need to see our educational systems teaching entrepreneurs about how to build an ethical business, and how this will generate long-term value, not just short-term returns. We need to see investors investing in purpose-led organisations that have a long-term vision, not founders out to make a quick buck at the expense of employees, supplier, community and the environment.

In terms of government, I am personally impressed with the support (knowledge and grants) provided at a local, state and federal level.

I feel for that for too long we’ve been sold this story that corporations add the most value in society by virtue of making lots of money (we’re quick to ignore and fail to price negative externalities), yet we often neglect the value added by government in research, development and funding of innovations and technologies that typically support these same businesses to get off the ground and grow.

Pleasant State has personally been the beneficiary of local, state and federal government support and we won’t forget the role the government has played in what we hope will be our future success.

What’s the big goal for Pleasant State? When you picture the business a year from now, in September 2021, what do you see?

Sian: Pleasant State has plans to make waves, not ripples, when it comes to environmental and social impacts. We’ve started off small with three just-add-water products (multi-purpose, bathroom and glass) but we have many more products in the pipeline which we expect we will have launched in a year’s time.

We also have intentions to go global very soon. In fact, Pleasant State was successfully selected to participate in a four-month incubator called Flair. It’s run out of Canvas CoWorking Space in Toowoomba and its intention is to support female-led regional startups go global. We should achieve global expansion within the next six months thereby helping us to support local employment growth.

Ultimately we hope to help reduce the production of single-use plastics and to educate our customers to make more informed choices when it comes to safe cleaning products for their homes.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?

Ami: Do something that scares you a little everyday!

If it was not for this piece of advice I am not sure I would have had the courage to start Pleasant State and to weather these interesting and uncertain times.

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