Plastic affects human health. Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing David M. M. Taffet.
Over the broad sweep of his career, David’s taken on countless roles: parallel entrepreneur, venture capitalist, investment banker, fund manager, turnaround specialist, Mr. Mom, mentor, and street photographer. Three descriptive words flows through them all: Intrepid. Immersed. Inspired. In his role as CEO of Petal, David draws upon 30-plus years of experience building companies, leading successful teams, raising capital (almost half a billion dollars in total), and developing cross-sector partnerships for commercial and public gain.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Early in my adult life, I was told that behind every successful entrepreneur there is a dead parent and a paper route. I fit that bill.
A few weeks before my third birthday and two weeks before he was scheduled to return home from war for good, my father, a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, died in the fiery crash of his F-4 Phantom (Vietnam, 1971). This tragic loss indelibly handicapped my childhood.
I was left to fend for myself in a broken home with a broken mom. To escape the pain at home, I began working outside the home at around 8 years old. First, I would get paid for completing chores for others and then bit by bit I began building small businesses where I could leverage other people’s contribution to increase profit. In eighth grade, I knew I had become a full-fledged entrepreneur when I took over a significant paper route from a man retiring in his 60s. I proceeded to staff the route with friends equipped with bikes and baskets that I bought for them.
From my humble beginnings peddling papers, I worked and built business to help fund my college and law school education. Then, after a 5-year stint as a litigator, I left law and embarked on a life as my own boss at the head of numerous companies, often in parallel.
So far in my adult life, I ran a VC fund, an investment bank, and a $100 million buyout fund called The Fossicker Fund. I also built and sold my own operating businesses from things as varied as a nationally ranked coffeeshop to a nationwide data center company to a direct marketing company that purchased fine jewelry, precious metals and gems. In addition to running my own companies, I’ve led a number of turnarounds in disparate geographical locations (e.g. California, Germany, Canada, New York, etc.) — four on behalf of Fortune 500 companies, eight on behalf of public and private entities, and one for a significant nonprofit.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
I am leading a company called Petal, LLC, a high-tech consumer goods company with a revolutionary appliance that will forever supplant traditional waste disposal methods. Petal, the world’s first zero-stink-germ-freezing waste bin does what no other disposal device can: Stops rot, eliminates stink, and halts the spread of germs.
Petal lets you discard dirty diapers, food scraps, pet waste, feminine hygiene products, incontinence briefs, and medical waste with the of peace of mind that your environment will stay clean and healthy. Like a flower, Petal is a fresh and natural way to keep your environment feeling and smelling its best.
Throughout human history, the disposal of dirty diapers, food waste and all manner of organic waste has looked pretty much the same. Centuries ago, we tossed our garbage in the street, creating dangerous and unsanitary conditions that encouraged the spread of sickness and stink throughout our communities. Something had to change. So in 1875, we began storing our waste indoors. Trash cans allowed us to contain rotting, stinking, germ-ridden waste in our own homes. This was the best we could come up with then. Can you imagine?! And almost nothing about in-house waste disposal has changed since then.
Think about this: in the same year we started using trash cans, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson had their first telephonic conversation using a two-person, hard-wired precursor to the modern phone. Today, we communicate wirelessly through smart phones that capture HD photos and videos. These tiny mobile computers have over 1 million times the memory and over 100,000 times the processing power of Apollo 11’s guidance computer — the one that enabled us to land on the moon 50+ years ago.
Yet, our waste bins, how we use them, and what we tolerate from them has stayed relatively stagnant. We’ve tried filters, chemical air fresheners, and environmentally devastating single-use (and sometimes proprietary) plastic liners. But, at their core, waste bins are still just open containers ripe with rot, stench, and germs. Petal is finally revolutionizing the waste disposal game, for good.
Uniquely designed to fit into any room of your home, Petal is a sleek, responsibly sourced, scarily energy-efficient, and technically-unique appliance that freezes organic waste solid to 0°F in under 35 minutes. The frigid temperature ensures that nothing leaks and nothing sticks to the reusable plastic pail, eliminating the need for landfill-clogging, single-use plastic liners. Powered by new patent-pending technology, Petal uses less than $1 per month in electricity.
In every household, business, and industry, the “ick-factor” is real and by eliminating it, Petal will play a large role in the adoption of important and ambitious organic waste collection programs. Petal’s initial focus will be on ensuring a stink- and germ-free environment for nurseries and kitchens. Beyond the home, Petal’s commercial uses are numerous. Petal has the potential to help every business and industry– from hospitals and nursing homes to daycare centers, restaurants, fairgrounds, and other spaces where sanitation is a public health concern.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
According to Mark Twain, “Humor is a tragedy plus time.”
I’ve certainly made a number of mistakes in launching Petal and, for that matter, in every business I’ve ever led. Since we only just launched Petal early this year at the beginning of a global tragedy — COVID-19, I think an insufficient amount of time has passed for me to find my errors funny. What I will offer instead is that I never need to find humor in my circumstances to mine my failures for lessons or to acknowledge and embrace my faults with humility. I consider my mistakes fertile ground for learning and growing.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Unlike so many of my peers, I was never fortunate enough to have an acknowledged mentor. The decisions I made along the way were contrarian and, to the family and friends in my circles, ill-advised. Thus, no one stepped up to help or guide; instead, I generally suffered a chorus of naysayers pelting me with fear, uncertainty, and doubt as I forged forward despite them, alone.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have help along the way. Instead of looking to people, I generally sought guidance from books.
One book that grounded my thinking more than any other is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences Laureate and Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient Daniel Kahneman. Entrepreneurs are often guilty of drinking the nectar of delusion. They fail to recognize their stinking thinking and, as such, they either fall prey to overconfidence or become paralyzed by perceived, non-existent dangers. By illuminating the thought process, identifying cognitive biases, and demystifying risk, Daniel Kahneman calmly defuses the reader’s over-reliance on emotions and intuition and equips the reader with science-infused decision-making tools that will improve the reader’s awareness and judgments.
A book that shaped my understanding of the value of facilitating buys as opposed to aggressively selling is SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham. Too often, professionals and entrepreneurs resort to a recitation of features and benefits and tout the superiority of their product or service over competing alternatives. SPIN speaks to the importance of asking earnest questions with an eye to getting your prospect to describe their current situation, delineate the problems they are encountering, identify the implications of not solving those problems, and confess to a need to fix the problem. In the end, you want the prospect to ask for your help.
The last thing you want to do is push/sell your product or service. Armed with this knowledge, I’ve raised hundreds of millions of dollars and sold tens of millions in products and services.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
In a polarized world, there is tension between those that cling to stability and covet continuity on the one hand and those that delight in destruction and demolish foundations on the other hand. The problem with either of these extremes is that both are rooted in base human drives as opposed to an interest in the greater global good.
Those that cling to continuity are afraid of change and as such embrace the ways they know instead of welcoming the good that might be. Those that employ destruction as a surrogate for disruption delight in devastation, not creation, which should be the driving purpose of disruption.
Properly pursued, disruption should elevate and improve a product or service for the benefit of the community of end users. It isn’t meant to destroy or undermine past practices and products simply for the sake of shaking things up, but rather as an unavoidable consequence of advancing and growing. Dismissing and destroying past practices without having an improved offering to supplant what once existed is an act of selfish violence, not a meaningful or worthy way to operate.
Intention and purpose are the measure of disruptive acts. If the disruptor seeks to create and improve, then the actions are worthy. If, however, the person seeks only to upset the status quo with zero regard for what will follow, then the purported disruptor is in truth a destroyer.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Agility Rules!
I have experience building companies in disparate industries after 9/11, following the financial crisis of 2008, and now in the middle of the pandemic as the CEO Petal. In each of these instances and at the helm of any business, I cling to agility amidst chaos while quickly familiarizing myself with new industries and rapidly assessing and leveraging interdependencies, alignments, and opportunities for integration. To keep my bearings while weathering rapid and unexpected change, I rely on soft skills to gather input from the team members involved, trust my sense of self to operate autonomously, draw on behavioral economics to recognize and avoid emotional and cognitive biases, and rely on statistical analysis with a healthy appreciation for uncertainty. Regardless of what I anticipate the outcome should be, I know all too well that life is what happens when you make other plans. So, I allow events to unfold and then I adapt to the situation as opposed to clinging inflexibly to what I envisioned or had hoped.
- Execute with Excellence because it is the only thing you can control.
As best I can, I strive to stay present and to focus on the work in front of me. I avoid regret over past mistakes and dismiss anxieties over potential future outcomes. I know I cannot change the past and I appreciate that the future is uncertain. My most fervent desires will not alter what has happened or improve what is yet to come. Only my actions can make a difference. The only way to improve the measure of me and to increase the odds of future success is by bringing my best and inspiring others to do the same.
- There is always more.
Because I believe in the Flow, I know that the laws of attraction and abundance are available to all of us. This means that in building businesses or turning enterprises around, I seek not to cut costs, but rather to increase my investment. I operate knowing that there will be more and that growth comes from enrichment, not starvation. This flies in the face of the scarcity mindset that governs the actions of most entrepreneurs and turnaround consultants. Where the quintessential entrepreneur will operate with meager resources while eating instant noodles, I raise sufficient funds to ensure that the company looks like an enterprise as opposed to a scrappy startup. In the same vein, where most turnaround consultants look for ways to cut costs, I always lead with increased investment in the right people and supplemented operational resources.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
As a new brand, we knew lead generation would be critical to our pre-sale success. Since were just starting out, lead generation not only allowed us to capture the right audience for our product, but it was essential in growing our initial brand awareness. Our initial efforts focused on pairing a solid content strategy with high performance social media advertising, using targeted messaging to attract new audiences and drive traffic to our landing page for email capture. We spent a lot of time understanding our ideal audience so that we could articulate the value of Petal in a way that would resonate and connect to how people think about and define their own needs.
Petal is positioned to replace all traditional waste and diaper bin solutions, and we made the decision early on that we would market to every use case for waste management in the home. We discovered that while Petal has a wide consumer appeal, there are also several niche audience opportunities as well. While this is an enviable position, we knew that we had to approach lead generation a little differently. We worked to identify opportunities for sharing more broad appeal narratives while simultaneously focused on very targeted approaches in our storytelling to capture these specific use case audiences.
We were also lucky to find an incredible partner, Rainfactory, who has helped us in our lead generation efforts. Rainfactory has built an unrivaled reputation in the digital marketing arena for creating massive growth for early stage companies like ourselves. They believed so much in the product and our people, they became early stage investors — taking on a client (Petal) for equity in lieu of fees for the first time in their six-year history.
We collaborate in real-time, blending the branding and messaging from the Petal marketing team with Rainfactory’s prowess in building effective online advertising and customer acquisition campaigns. Their data-driven insights and methodical approach for finding the highest performing ads helped us consistently hit higher than average conversion rates and reach our goal of 10,000 email subscribers in only a few weeks.
Our mix of a game-changing product, a strong brand presence. and focused lead generation efforts has helped us capture the quality audience we were after at a faster pace than initially anticipated.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
As a parallel entrepreneur and a turnaround professional, I’ve led almost 30 companies and divisions. Along the way, I never managed the same type of company twice. Indeed, Petal is the first consumer product-focused company I have launched and/or headed. Demanding uniqueness is a discipline I employ when deciding on my next endeavor.
I’ve learned that having a beginner’s mind set is an invincible superpower that forces you to sublimate your ego. Recognizing that I know nothing, maintaining a child’s curiosity, exercising authentic humility, and embracing my oldest and best friend — discomfort — keeps me free from the prison of pre-conceived notions and/or expectations. By accepting my ignorance, I can move and pivot with ease.
I don’t have any visibility into what I will do next or in parallel, but I am certain that it won’t be a “been-there-done-that” or a “me-too” business. I also know that I won’t shake things up just for the sake of disrupting. My next business, like every previous business, will disrupt with worthy purpose.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
On my first day of law school at the University of Virginia School of Law, Professor Saul Levimore, who is now at the University of Chicago School of Law, stood before my Torts class and proclaimed, “To be successful in life and in law, think sleazy and then act ethically.” Professor Levimore declared that turning a blind eye to the dark side is naive and dangerous. He advised us to examine every possible motivation, incentive, and action not from a perspective of how we wish the world were, but with a healthy appreciation of how it actually is–good, bad, and ugly.
Levimore’s admonishment taught me that to prevail, I must operate with a beginner’s mindset to see the world without preconceived notions and that I must dispassionately discern truth without passing judgment. I must take time to understand each person, not within a framework of polar assumptions (Male/Female, Rich/Poor, Black/White, Urban/Rural, Good/Bad, etc.), but rather with the calm patience essential to methodically uncovering the uniqueness of the individual. I can’t evaluate people by how I would behave were I in their circumstances, but rather I have to step into their shoes and understand the world from who and where they are.
Because of my life experiences before law school, I recognized and accepted that evil exists in the world. It wasn’t until Levimore’s proclamation that I fully appreciated how important it is delve into the darkness and think like a criminal. Oh the schemes they can craft! By working from where people are and thinking the way they think, I am now able to anticipate how one might behave. I no longer conflate my personal commitment to doing the right thing with my assessment of what others might do. Once I assess the person and how they might behave, I execute ethically with an eye to defusing, containing, and/or avoiding potential deviousness.
Armed with Levimore’s sage, albeit perverse perspective, I’m rarely surprised by the depths of depravity, mendaciousness, and larceny that fuels some. Sadly, I still suffer tragic failures in in my personal assessments of others, but I’ve determined that these occur when I lead with my heart instead of my intellect. Even those mistakes, though, have shaped my worldview and brought me to here. For that, I am grateful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
- Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor
I wish I had the benefit of this insight earlier in my previous almost fifty-three years of life; I would have been far less reactive. My wife Christie Zwahlen shared this quote with me late last year. When she did, I experienced an epiphany. I understood immediately that I cannot control how life will provoke or incentivize me, but I certainly have the power to control when and how I respond. By taking a minute to consider my responses, I have become the architect of me.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I don’t have to imagine what I might do; I’m doing it. Through Petal and its innovative approach to freezing organic waste, my wife Christie and I are on a mission to eliminate the need for single-use plastic bags. Plastics in general, and plastic bags in particular, are environmental scourges that detrimentally affect the health of our planet.
According to a 2018 study by the Earth Day organization, it is estimated that 4 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide annually. Only 1% of these plastic bags are returned for recycling. The rest end up in landfills, oceans and waterways, and scattered across the landscape. Closer to home, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags annually. That’s a little over 300 bags per person!
Because plastics do not biodegrade, these are frightening numbers with serious implications. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, plastics pose, among others, the following dangers:
- Plastic affects human health. Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to them is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments.
- Plastic spoils our groundwater. There are thousands of landfills in the United States. Buried beneath each one of them, toxic chemicals from plastics drain out and seep into groundwater, flowing downstream into lakes and rivers.
- Plastic threatens wildlife. Wildlife become entangled in plastic, they eat it or mistake it for food and feed it to their young, and it is found littered in even extremely remote areas of the Earth. In our oceans alone, plastic debris outweighs zooplankton by a ratio of 36-to-1.
- Plastics poison our food chain. Even plankton, the tiniest creatures in our oceans, are eating microplastics and absorbing their hazardous chemicals. The tiny, broken down pieces of plastic are displacing the algae needed to sustain larger sea life who feed on them.
Through Petal, we are looking to eliminate the need for plastic liners entirely. We are encouraging consumers to rely instead on biodegradable liners or, even better, to forgo liners all together.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!