Jan. 19, 2023

Injecting Fun Into Everyday Products

How Eric Ryan turned household necessities into lifestyle accessories

Nora chats with Eric Ryan, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Method, Olly, Welly, and Cast about building brands and disrupting DTC industries that are perceived as overly complicated or stagnant. He shares the successes and failures in building three billion-dollar businesses, and his approach to leveraging design and creativity. 


Host: Nora Ali

Producer: Olivia Meade   

Video Editor: Sebastian Vega

Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus

Music: Daniel Markus & Breakmaster Cylinder

Fact Checker: Kate Brandt 

Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop


Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm


Nora Ali: For Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you convos with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now, let's get down to business.

To consumers who are inundated with products and ads constantly, it can be especially impressive when a brand manages to actually stand out and stick in your heads. Have you ever wondered who the brains are behind these designs that turn otherwise mundane items into eye-catching products? Well, in September 2022, I got a chance to speak with a visionary who is behind three billion-dollar brands. That's three separate billion-dollar companies. Eric Ryan is the co-founder of Method, Olly, and Welly, and also has a relatively newer brand named Cast. All of these brands lead with their creative designs for otherwise pretty boring products like hand soap, vitamins, and bandages. His approach to disrupting these direct-to-consumer industries is all about injecting fun in any way possible, and it seems to be working quite well for him so far. All of that is coming up, after the break.

Eric, so great to chat with you.

Eric Ryan: Hey, Nora. Thanks for having me.

Nora Ali: Yeah. Welcome to Business Casual. A frequent user of products that you have founded. So that's always a good thing. Before we get into the meat of it, a quick little icebreaker for you. It's called OG Occupations, and as you might guess, the question is, what was your first-ever job, if you can recall?

Eric Ryan: Yeah. I would qualify a first job is when you get a paycheck, and my first paycheck was as a bag boy at a Kroger grocery store in Detroit, Michigan. I hated recycling duty, but I loved cart duty.

Nora Ali: You loved cart...like returning the carts?

Eric Ryan: Yeah. Especially in the snow, for some reason. I liked...

Nora Ali: Oh, you've...

Eric Ryan: I liked being out, finding carts, and getting them back to the store.

Nora Ali: Oh, my gosh. I didn't think that anyone enjoyed that, but that's good to know. So leave your carts out, because there is someone out there who enjoys putting them back...maybe. All right, Eric, let's get to all of the companies that you've founded, cofounded. A lot of really well-known brands. You've said, in the past, that you look for big cultural shifts, holes in consumer spaces, and market trends that might have been missed. What does that actually look like in practice for you?

Eric Ryan: Yeah. So my background, I came out of advertising and I was a planner. The planner really lived between consumer insight, which is research, and creative. So you would really try to identify and understand the insight of a category and then translate that to a creative brief. It's really been the foundation of my world as a founder, and I've just always loved not trying to create something from scratch, but really find categories that I thought were ripe for reinvention. So for me, I mean, a lot of it is just seeing it in the marketplace and looking at how one thing works in one area, and trying to apply that someplace else. So in the case of Method, I just spent a lot of time looking for opportunities in the grocery store, and the home cleaning category just looked liked a sea of sameness, and that was kind of my clue to dig here originally.

Nora Ali: How did you know that you wanted to start a brand, and start a company, and tackle those problems yourself, versus we hear from lots of founders and entrepreneurs who have a passion, they find something they're interested in, and they just turn that into a business. Instead, you are looking for the holes and figuring out where you can fill that hole with a business. So how did you know the entrepreneurship angle was right for you?

Eric Ryan: Yeah, and the irony is I don't have passion for a lot of the categories I go into. I don't love to clean. I didn't love taking vitamins. I don't like to bleed with Welly bandages. You know, but it's also finding that point of passion, but I grew up knowing from the third grade that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. My great-grandfather and grandfather were entrepreneurs in the automotive industry and it was just ingrained in me, that I remember building Legos, I would build spaceships, I would build little office buildings that were future companies. I was just such a nerd about entrepreneurship at a very early age.

Nora Ali: If you're not super passionate about the product itself, how do you stay motivated in the job, in building the company? Maybe that's why you've started so many companies, is because you want to stay interested and continued to solve new problems. So where do you find that energy and motivation day to day?

Eric Ryan: Yeah. I mean, I get such a creative high when you can crack a really new idea on how to reframe a category, and I love starting with a blank sheet of paper and really trying to reinvent something from scratch. That's definitely a big part of my passion, but part of what I do is I try to find my own kind of passion into it. So in the case of Method, while I certainly was not passionate about cleaning, and I'm still not, I was really passionate about home design. And so for me, it was bringing in this life-styling of design, and then, I'm also passionate about the environment. That's a lot of what the sustainability that my cofounder, Adam, brought to the table. So we found our ways to get really passionate and create this lovemark brand that we also truly loved, even if the initial category of cleaning was not something that was that interesting to me.

Nora Ali: You had noticed that there were some new things that consumers were noticing or should notice in the realm of cleaning supplies in the home. Just bring us back to when you noticed what was missing in terms of the available products in the cleaning space when you had first started Method. What was actually missing at the time?

Eric Ryan: Yeah, and this is kind of a similar path to what I've done with the other brands as well. So it really starts with seeing a category that feels like it's a sea of safeness and a bit stagnant. When I started looking at it, the first little insight was like, wow, you actually look at a dish soap a lot more than you ever use it, and it's actually kind of part of your home decor and the way you style your home. This is when life-styling of the home, this is back in 2000, was really starting to take off. So a lot of it, my original mood board I created for the brand, did not look like a mood board for a cleaning product. It looked like a mood board much more for a beauty or personal care product, and really kind of bringing in that sense of prestige and beauty that you typically wouldn't find in this category. We tried to infuse that through the design.

Nora Ali: How many iterations did it take for you to land at, for example, the iconic shape of the dish soap or the hand soap? How many iterations does it take to get to the final product for you?

Eric Ryan: It really varies, but I think it's the most important part of being an entrepreneur, is that growth mindset of where you launch, learn, and optimize, launch, learn, and optimize and you never, ever get it right out of the gate. For us, for Method, we went through a couple iterations on the graphic design before we really landed the final look of it. It's like, when you're trying to do something really distinct and unique, whether you're an artist yourself or where you're building a brand, it takes a while to find that authentic voice of a brand. I would say on average, probably it takes two to three years where I feel like, "Okay, we really found the authentic voice here."

Nora Ali: Did you find that people, when you had started Method, knew what was even in their cleaning products and had awareness of how harmful some of the chemicals are, or was there a lot of education that you had to do to get people to even notice those things?

Eric Ryan: At the time, you were literally asking to pollute when you clean or use poison to make your home healthier. The definition of clean was really this scorched earth, like, how strong can these chemicals be in here? We thought the definition of a healthy home is actually one where you're eliminating toxins in the space that you live and breathe every day. So for us, when we first launched, we actually hid on the back of the bottle the fact that it was non-toxic biodegradable, because most people just believe, "Well, if it's green, it doesn't clean," and so we had to change that mind.

So what we found is people would see it on the shelf because of the packaging. They generally buy it because of the fragrance. They get home, see that it works, and eventually discover that it's good for them and good for the planet. I call it kind of that intersection of narcissism and altruism, that we gave you these really narcissist reasons to buy it, but then the altruism is what brought you back and really made you fall in love with the brand. We try to do that with every brand that we create, is find that intersection.

Nora Ali: Well, now that clean ingredients and environmental friendliness is top of mind, I think, for a lot of consumers, if not most consumers now, how would brands or should brands stand out if they're trying to compete? Not necessarily in cleaning products, but generally in the CPG space, what would your advice be to differentiate when this is just an expected thing now, instead of a "nice to have"?

Eric Ryan: I think for us that's what's been most rewarding is green is now mainstream, and that's what's expected if you walk the aisles of Target where it used to be just us in the beginning. There's now entire aisles of natural cleaners and it's really great to see. But it does...like differentiation gets harder and harder, these categories evolve. But I would also argue, you walk any drugstore, grocery store, majority of the products on shelf are pretty crappy. Just bad design, bad flavor profiles. So there's just so much still opportunity to keep elevating and creating better products of brands out there. I also, you know, I think the altruistic reasons for a brand where that used to be a bigger point of differentiation, that really is table stakes now. We expect better from the companies and the brands that we buy from, particularly in this political environment where I think business now needs to respond with a better voice for good and be a more powerful force for good in this world.

Nora Ali: I heard you say in another interview, Eric, that you've noticed that categories are disrupted typically by people who are naive, and I fully agree. I strongly believe in even hiring people who don't have expertise in a particular industry, because they'll learn on the job and also ask questions that other people don't ask. But is that something that you still consider when you're working with new founders or hiring, is look at people who exist outside of the industry you're trying to tackle, because maybe they'll have more interesting insight.

Eric Ryan: Whenever I assemble the leadership team and just went through this on Cast, the new company that we started, I try to put together a team of insiders and outsiders. I think if you look at it, traditionally, categories are disrupted by outsiders because you do have to be a little foolish and you do have to look at it naive. I think it's also important not to know how hard the industry really is that you're getting into, otherwise you just probably wouldn't start. So I try to put together teams of insiders and outsiders so there's enough of us with a fresh lens and willing to take risk that others wouldn't, but with enough veterans and insiders who make sure we don't break a lot of the dumb rules that shouldn't be broken and to really get that right. So it's definitely been a big part of my formula of bringing together these insiders and outsiders.

Nora Ali: Along those lines, I want to hear more about your approach to culture. You had something called recess. There's definitely time to sort of relax and hang out, so how do you go about creating a company culture that people are excited about and can stay at a company for a long time and feel happy about working at that particular company?

Eric Ryan: It's something I really obsess over. As a founder, I fundamentally believe that everything starts with culture, and the products are a souvenir of that culture. If you can get the culture right and the products right, sales, marketing, finance, everything else just generally gets a lot easier. So when we think about culture, I think, just one of the most important things is actually caring and showing you care. I'm always shocked at how people often really don't care about building a great culture. So I think just signaling to the team the importance of that, and everything starts with culture, as a founder, is the most important thing that you can do.

Then of course it starts with hiring, and one of the things that we've always used at each company is called a homework assignment. So before we make a final offer to a finalist candidate, we ask them to come back and do what's called the homework assignment, and they're given three questions and 45 minutes to present it. It's really our way to do a live audition and do a chemistry test, but also does a beautiful job of reinforcing back to the company as it grows what's really important about this culture and what are the type of people that we want in here every day, sitting alongside us and driving this thing forward. But it's always been such a priority. In this world of Zoom right now and hybrid, it's never been more challenging than ever to try to build great cultures.

Nora Ali: All right, we are going to take a quick break. More with Eric when we return. So we learned a little bit about setting up good cultures, how to find holes in the market. Let's talk about funding now, because you self-funded, in the beginning, to start Method and then you went the traditional VC route after that. I had heard you say before that you didn't really have an exit plan in mind, necessarily, for Method and other companies that you've started. But what happens when a venture capitalist investor asks you, what's the exit plan? What was the story, the long-term story, that you were telling to investors, especially when you initially started raising funds?

Eric Ryan: Obviously, when you take outside capital, you need to be able to provide liquidity at some point and...it's exactly, they want to understand what does that liquidity time horizon look like, and they need to be able to mark up to understand from their fund and their thesis. But my core belief is, look, you build a great company, there's always going to be options on how to best exit that investment. Whether that's bringing in new capital to buy out existing, whether it's an IPO or being acquired, but just fundamentally in those early years, I just want everybody focused on building a really great business, and then the belief that, obviously, you do that, a great exit will come at the right time.

Nora Ali: And what was the biggest milestone or proof point for Method? I know a big deal for you is getting distribution at Target, for example. Was there a moment when you realized, "All right. I feel actually validated in this company that I'm building."

Eric Ryan: It's funny. It's like, you're constantly finding that next milestone and I think as an entrepreneur, it's really hard to be comfortable of like, "Okay, we did. Nope, we did." So I mean, definitely for Method, the two milestones that really stuck out to me was getting national distribution at Target. I mean, at that time it was unheard of for an early stage brand—this is back in 2002, 2003—to be able to achieve that. It was such a hard sell to get in there, prove ourselves, and make it work. The second is when we opened our factory in Chicago. I mean that, for me, especially coming from a manufacturing family, having our own plant and seeing people drive pink forklifts and the world's largest rooftop greenhouse and our own windmill, for me, that was like such a, "Okay, wow. We're really having an impact with this company."

Nora Ali: That must have been especially rewarding because of the scrappy nature with which you started the company. What were some of the crappiest things that you had to do in the early days of Method and getting into Target and all of that?

Eric Ryan: I mean, we did everything. I mean, we hand-delivered for the first year out of our car. It was a very traditional entrepreneur story of, you start with your local independents. You go in there at 6:00 in the morning, you sell to the manager, you get it on shelf, you deliver it yourself, and then you eventually move up to warehouses in a regional and then national. So we did everything ourselves. Adam was on the label, holding a sink that we bought from Home Depot and then promptly returned to save some money. We hand-applied the labels in the beginning and just did everything possible to will our way forward. But we always try to make sure, and even with Olly, we hand-delivered the first order to Target, and we really try to make sure we never lose that grit and that scrappiness in a company. And as each company scales and gets bigger, we would always set the example of "No job is too small for us to get involved" and to help and support and try to keep that grittiness in the company.

Nora Ali: Has that been the attitude for all the companies that you've started? Method, Olly, Welly, and we'll get into Cast in a moment, but I guess, are there any fundamental differences in how you started each company with the learnings you had from the previous one?

Eric Ryan: I think the fundamental differences after Method, we had better access to capital earlier. So we were able to attract better teams. So we would put these really great leadership teams in place right away and that was just incredibly rewarding. But you had to have people who were all egoless, so they were willing to do anything. That's what we're doing on Cast right now. We're literally building a store and we are all hands on deck bringing this thing to life. I think that's so important because, again, kind of going back to building a differentiated, unique brand, you're doing something that hasn't been done before, and there's so much quick learning that you have to adjust to. So if the core team is not deeply involved with the creation of that, I don't think the work will ever be as good.

Nora Ali: So explain why jewelry, then. It feels a little bit different from the other types of CPG brands that you've tackled. It's a durable, it's discretionary. Why jewelry after working in consumables?

Eric Ryan: It's so different, but at the same time, it has the same characteristics I look for. So it's a really big category that's highly fragmented. I look for categories that are unnecessarily confusing for the consumer, and take themselves too seriously. If you look at everything I've done, I bring kind of like this inner kid, Willy Wonka, I call it building these Everlasting Gobstopper brands to each of these spaces, and jewelry was no different. When you walk into a fine jewelry store, it is one of the most intimidating experiences and it should be one of the most joyful. Particularly for women self-purchasing fine jewelry, that should be your most joyful retail moment, and it's not. So that was kind of like, every time I went into a jewelry store, walking out, I was like, "This is really awful," and so that was kind of a clue. I always wanted—you know, years of working with retailers, I wanted the opportunity to be the retailer and be able to control everything from the scent, the drink we're going to serve you to the music, like every little detail. And we're about three weeks from opening and it's just been an absolute blast building this out.

Nora Ali: I guess, talk to me a little bit more about the plan in balancing the brick-and-mortar aspect of it, the physical aspect of it, versus the online aspect of it. What do you think, for a high consideration item like jewelry, where do customers want to make their purchases? Because I'll say, I get targeted on Instagram and TikTok all the time for jewelry brands, but I don't think I'm going to click there and spend $1,200 on a jewelry item unless I see it in person. So where do customers and consumers want to buy their jewelry these days?

Eric Ryan: Yeah, I mean online, certainly coming out of the pandemic, online has been growing pretty aggressively in the category, but still the majority of sales are in person. It's exactly that: Jewelry is such a sensory product and it's unlike apparel. It's closer to beauty. It's something that is more personal that you wear directly on your skin, and it's just much more a considered personal purchase, and to be able to actually hold it, touch it, we think is essential.

So we did launch online first and we really used online first to accelerate our learning and that helped us get smarter prior to opening up the first store. But we fundamentally see this as a 100-store brand in the US that we hope to build out over the next 10 years. Got to get the first one right and learn from it, but our intent is to create a scalable model and then have e-commerce really work in concert with these stores that we're creating. But I'm a little old school in that way, and I still fundamentally believe the physical retail for this is the most efficient way that we're going to build the brand and acquire our best customers.

Nora Ali: It is just jewelry now, right? Is there any plans to expand beyond jewelry to other durable goods?

Eric Ryan: There may be little pieces of art included in it, but no. It's really focused on fine jewelry, and our model's different too. We don't design in-house. Everything is with a partnership of a leading woman, independent designers. We're bringing you these really great artists and then bringing their work to life in a way that is hopefully a really joyful retail experience for you, but also the assurance that the quality and that everything is sustainably made.

Nora Ali: We're going to take another quick break. More with Eric when we come back. On the Cast website, it says that you focus on advising, coaching, and investing in the next wave of brand creators and industry disruptors like Rachel, who is Cast founder and chief creative officer. What makes for a good founder or co-founder in your eyes? What are sort of the characteristics that you look for—and not just the vision, but ability to execute. How do you sort of decide who you're going to team up with and partner with when it comes to these founders?

Eric Ryan: It's this weird balance you have to walk. You have to be incredibly confident and convincing of your vision, but at the same time, be really, really humble and have a growth versus a fixed mindset. It's hard to find it in a great entrepreneur, where like when they share their vision, you get so excited about it as well, and their passion for it is contagious. But the same time, they're wise enough to know that they're going to make a lot of mistakes along the way, and they're going to need to really be open to quickly learning and adjusting. That kind of curiosity and humbleness is often hard to find in a great visionary.

Nora Ali: Not just for founders, but if there's someone that you've hired and they don't seem to have that humility and aren't learning from their mistakes, I guess, what advice do you have for putting people on the right path? Because I've come across this before, too, where people think they know everything, but just from, I guess, a culture and leadership standpoint, how do you turn that around if someone doesn't understand when they might not have all the answers?

Eric Ryan: Yeah. I mean, it's obviously the hardest thing to do as a leader, as an entrepreneur. When you create a great culture, the individuals that are not performing at the level that they should, the culture really does a great job of it starts to kind of bring that to the surface. There's an old adage of "Hire slow, fire fast." Most people, when they let somebody go, their biggest regret is they didn't do it sooner, but it's really a hard thing to do. The way we approach it if somebody is really underperforming, we put them on a PIP and we really work well with them in a very candid, supportive way to help them be able to close whatever holes and areas that they're struggling with. A lot of times that works. We've been really successful in getting the right coaching support in place.

Then other times it's not the right fit. I always remind myself that you're really doing them a favor, because they know they're struggling. They're doing something that they're never going to be great at, and then you're freeing them up to find out what they're great at. We've had people we've let go and then I find out later they're going to school for physical therapy or something completely different. You're like, "Oh, my god. That's exactly what they should be doing. So it's really important with a high-performing culture: You can't leave low performers in there for too long, or it really hurts everybody.

Nora Ali: You mentioned a PIP, which is a performance improvement plan, and I think that's kind of a controversial thing. Some people think if someone's not doing well, just fire them. They're already going to be unmotivated if they're put on a PIP, because they know that they're not doing well. Why do you think that does work? Because it sounds like you are pro-PIP.

Eric Ryan: Yeah, no, very much pro-PIP. I think it's really unfair to them if you don't give the opportunity to help them get better, whether that's they are...or at least putting them on the path. You know, and often, when you put somebody on a PIP too, they will come back and self-select and realize that, "Hey, you know what? This is not the right role for me," and then you have the opportunity to help them exit in a way that really sets them up best. They can resign and it really puts them on a better path for what they're going to do next. So no, I think feedback is the greatest gift you can give somebody, and not to give them that opportunity to get better and get that real feedback, I think is doing them a huge disservice.

Nora Ali: It's a good argument, Eric. Before we let you go, we do have a couple fun things. First, a segment called Shoot Your Shot. So Eric, what is your wildest ambition, your biggest dream, your moonshot idea? Eric, it is your chance to shoot your shot.

Eric Ryan: My company's put a lot of plastic into the world, and we do everything we can to minimize that, and in Method we created the first ever PCR, which was non-virgin plastic in a bottle. We not only did that for ourselves, we worked to make sure that technology was available for everybody else so it would have a ripple effect. My moonshot would be actually something political, which would be to go out and try to get a bill passed that put a really meaningful tax on virgin plastic. It'd be so easy to do. And really do everything we can to get single-use plastic out of the market.

Right now, as an operator, the problem is there just isn't the incentive right now to be able to push people away from virgin plastic, because PCR is actually more expensive. You could take that tax, you could re-apply that into the infrastructure, and also that would make sure that virgin plastic is always significantly more expensive than recycled materials. It'd be so easy and have such a massive ripple effect. So that would be my moonshot, and a great way too, to have a much better impact on the world of plastic.

Nora Ali: Hope to see it in our lifetimes. Okay. Final thing for you, Eric. It's a quick little game. It's called Bullish or Bearish: Wellness Edition. So I'm just going to give you a list of things and you let me know if you're you're bullish or bearish on them. So here we go. First thing, Bullish or Bearish, again, Wellness Edition. Immunity shots. What are your thoughts on immunity shots?

Eric Ryan: Bullish. And I think we're going to continue to see technology in that space, get smarter and smarter about how to help support our immune system. So very bullish.

Nora Ali: Okay. And do you take them yourself?

Eric Ryan: I take them more acutely than regularly, particularly at the start of feeling a little off. Yeah.

Nora Ali: Okay. Interesting. Okay. Next up. Bullish or bearish: Peloton?

Eric Ryan: Oh, bearish. Come on. Anytime you do any fitness craze. Have we not learned this was going to be the future NordicTrack? I love the brand. I love what they did. It should not be a stand-alone company. It should be part of a bigger group, but, you know, very, very bearish.

Nora Ali: That's been discussed. Maybe we'll see an acquisition at some point in our near future. Okay. Next up: Bullish or Bearish: face gym. Do you know about face gym?

Eric Ryan: The brand out of London?

Nora Ali: It's a concept where you get facial exercises done. It's like you make an appointment, they stretch your face out, they beat your face up. It's a whole thing. 

Eric Ryan: That doesn’t sound enjoyable. I'm going to go...that sounds like a rough facial. So I'll go with bearish on that.

Nora Ali: Yeah. That's exactly what it is.

Eric Ryan: The whole point of a facial is to relax, right? So get tortured, otherwise. I'll go bearish.

Nora Ali: Yeah, I'm not an expert on it, but I've seen a couple videos and it just seems kind of painful and uncomfortable. Okay. We both agree on that. We are both bearish on face gym. Okay. Last one. Bullish or Bearish: Goop, a semi-controversial wellness brand. Thoughts?

Eric Ryan: I'm bullish. I think they've done a really great job of being the go-to curator, and I think Gwyneth and her team has a huge opportunity to continue to build out Goop brand and build more of their own brand into it. I think they're one of the few that have started as a media platform and have successfully been able to move into not only their own products, but also their own retail expressions. I think they've done a nice job of pacing it and building it slowly. So very bullish.

Nora Ali: Awesome. Well with that, we will leave things there. Eric, this was fun. Thank you so much for joining us on Business Casual.

Eric Ryan: No, thank you for having me.

Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @NoraKAli and I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments, and thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, shoot me a DM and I will do my best to respond. You can also reach the BC team by emailing businesscasual@morningbrew.com, or call us. That number is 862-295-1135. If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like the show, please leave us a rating and a review. It really, really helps us. Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Olivia Meade. Additional production, sound design and mixing by Daniel Markus. Kate Brandt is our fact checker. Sarah Singer is our VP of multimedia. Music in episode from Daniel Markus and The Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.