Melissa Lush Of Force of Nature: The Power of Flexibility; How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic
“The small stuff can eat you alive.” We’re a small business, so everyone has to wear a lot of hats and you have to constantly go back and forth from strategy to execution. I knew this would be the case. But at a startup, you can easily get sucked into spending way too much time on executional stuff, and that has a cost that you have to keep in mind. So my approach is to think of the time spent on those objectives, whether it’s my time, or anyone else’s time, as high-cost time.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Lush, Co-Founder and CMO of Force of Nature.
Melissa Lush is Co-Founder and CMO of Force of Nature. As a mother with a background developing new products for Procter & Gamble, Melissa was always on the lookout for product ideas to make Moms’ lives easier. Then her company found an industrial technology that she believed could completely change one of the most toxic industries in the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Florida, sweating and mosquito-bitten. I come from a long line of entrepreneurs and had been exposed to that mentality pretty early on in life. In the 4th grade I got a job at my elementary school bookstore and got in trouble because I started running “Buy 3 get 3 free” promotions on the football logo pencils. What 9 year old does that? I used to sit at the dinner table with my bowl of ice cream, and as it went from solid to mush to liquid, I would do a pretend commercial for each stage of melting to pitch it as a new product. My mom would come back to the table a couple of hours after dinner and say “What are you still doing here?” And then of course selling Girl Scout Cookies fit me like a glove. The cookie drive was my favorite time of year, but I had to pull back on the promos when my parents were like “You committed to sell those for whaaaat?!” When it was time for college I wanted to try not sweating for 4 years, to see what the foliage fanfare was all about, so I went to college in upstate New York. The winter was holy hell. I focused on Psychology and Economics because I was fascinated by what drives people to do what they do. I worked in the Psych lab and loved all the observational experiments, which ended up being a lot like what I did when I went to work for P&G.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My dad used to always say, “It takes all kinds, Melissa,” which I think is a proverb. He always taught me to love and appreciate the differences in people, whether it be their attitudes, beliefs or ways they wanted to do things. Whenever I got annoyed or frustrated with someone because they weren’t doing something the way I would’ve done it, he would say that. It’s really stuck with me, in life and in my professional career.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Okay I am going to keep this real. My company is a startup and the last book I had time to read was Bad Blood probably 3 years ago. I usually prefer podcasts to reading so that I can multitask. One I enjoy listening to when I can is How I Built This with Guy Raz. My favorite episode was about Stasher Bags, which was founded by Kat Nouri. She was trying to get people to invest $12 on a Stasher bag to replace a 12 cent single-use plastic bag. It was quite the challenge, starting with getting retailers to believe in her mission so that she could get the product in front of consumers on the shelf. She also had the challenge of educating consumers about why a $12 reusable food storage bag was the right investment. The trick was educating retail buyers and consumers about the horrific environmental impact of plastic bags and getting them to see that $12 as an investment in the health of our planet, not just a food storage bag. You’re not investing in a Ziploc, you’re investing in the earth, and to preserve it for future generations. I also loved hearing Kat talk because she was all about giving credit to the people who helped her along the way.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
After college I went to get my MBA because I really wanted to work on developing interesting new products, and I thought being able to work at a big, global consumer products company would be the most rewarding. After business school, I went to work for P&G and it was just the best possible way to learn about creating brands and products that people love. It’s ingrained in you from day one that the consumer is the boss, and you are there to make their lives better; and if you do, the business grows too. I got to work on creating brands and developing products for both women and men, and was able to travel around the world doing research to figure out how we could make life easier or better for people. We would do ethnographies where we’d watch a consumer in their home using products and interview them along the way to figure out what we could do better. Sometimes you’d notice things that surely were frustrating but that they didn’t articulate as problems because they just accepted certain product compromises. But then you could use those observations and insights to develop better products. One of the things that always struck me was the tolerance people had for using really caustic chemicals on their bodies and in their homes. At one point I was working on new hair color products, and we were watching people use a competitive brand. People would complain about the smell, not getting the color they expected, or the feel of their hair after they rinsed. No one ever said “Sheesh this must smell this way because there are some serious chemicals sitting on my head. Why can’t they use non-toxic ingredients?” They just accepted the chemicals as the price you had to pay to get the right hair color. I liked figuring out those accepted compromises, because that’s when the real product breakthroughs happen.
A bit after my son arrived, I left P&G when the travel and hours became too much. I remember arriving at the airport after a week-long meeting in Argentina, and my son came toddling down the corridor to meet me and I just burst into tears having not seen him in 8 days. I just couldn’t do it any more and got a new job that required minimal travel. I missed doing new product development, so I did a lot of projects on the side. I was in touch with some other ex-P&Gers, and one of them had found this super interesting industrial technology called electrolyzed water. It’s made from using an electrical current to change the chemical composition of salt and water into a detergent and antimicrobial. The antimicrobial is called hypochlorous acid, and it’s an amazing pathogen killer that also happens to be completely non-toxic. It’s so safe that you could put it in your eye and be totally fine. I started researching the ingredients in the cleaners I used, and was shocked to find that even “natural” cleaners can and do contain ingredients linked to hormone-disruption, allergies, asthma and more.
Around the same time, I had an interesting experience that pulled it all together. My son ran into a play structure at kindergarten and needed stitches. I asked the nurse about the solution she put on my son’s forehead right before she bandaged him up, and when I looked at the label, I saw that it was made from hypochlorous acid. I did some more research and learned about all these uses for hypochlorous acid and learned that it’s the same substance that your immune system produces to fight infection. It’s used in industrial applications like eye and wound healing products, and also in green cleaning. For cleaning, companies make it in these big tanks and then use it up on site, because the antimicrobial ingredient has a shelf life of about two weeks. I thought it was so cool and started working on how we could commercialize the technology for families. The amount of cleaning parents have to do is intense, and I loved the thought of being able to completely eliminate all those nasty chemicals locked up under your sink with an all-in-one product. Back to the haircolor example, people just accept that for a cleaner to work on the hard jobs, you have to use poison. So you compensate. You lock up the products, you clean while the baby is sleeping, you rinse off everything and wait for it to dry before you bring the baby back into the room. The best is you wait for your one free hour a week when your family is out of the house, and then you use that to clean your house. Ah, parenthood! Another compromise is all the single-use plastic bottle waste, and the space those bottles take up. I’m an apartment dweller, and my under-the-sink cabinet is like a clown car. So the idea of being able to have one product to replace all that junk was wildly appealing. So we got to work figuring out how to adapt the technology into a little appliance that could fit on your countertop and formed our company, Force of Nature.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
When the pandemic hit, cleaning products went out of stock practically overnight. If you could get them, you got price-gouged. It was $6 a bottle yesterday, $16 today. Awful. With our product, people loved the peace of mind of being able to make their own cleaner and disinfectant when they needed it. Our business increased by 10X overnight. People were so grateful to have a product to protect them, and even better was the fact that it was non-toxic. We donated appliances to schools, daycares, hospitals, nurses, ICU teams — basically to anyone who told us they needed one. We have really amazing manufacturing partners who pulled out all the stops to make sure we could stay in stock while we ramped up. We definitely had to make changes to how we did things all along our supply chain, and a lot of the time we were guessing about how long that change would work because warehouses were closing, delivery services were delayed or closing, etc. We also staffed up in Customer Service to accommodate the higher volume of questions.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
During the pandemic, it was all-hands-on-deck on customer service because the volume went up exponentially. I was answering customer questions over email, across our social channels, etc., and we were getting tons of businesses asking about our product. We had created Force of Nature for consumers, but businesses were finding us through SEO, friend referrals, and so on, and they were thrilled to be able to make their own cleaner and disinfectant. From a regulatory standpoint, a lot of businesses are required to use EPA registered disinfectants that are approved for use against Covid-19, and Force of Nature is. We were getting a lot of new businesses where the safety of cleaning products is critical — like daycares, schools and medical facilities. Or health and wellness focused businesses like gyms and spas. A lot of businesses have sustainability goals that they need to reach, so they loved being able to completely stop using single use plastic bottles. We offered to donate appliances to any small business that our customers knew really needed a non-toxic disinfectant, and through that donation drive we got a lot of insights about the businesses who need us the most. The takeaway was that if we really wanted to advance our mission of creating a healthier world to work in, play in, and raise our families each day, we’d get there a lot faster if we pivoted to a business focus. We launched a larger capacity appliance — Force of Nature Pro — to meet the needs of enterprise-size businesses and hired a sales team to make it happen.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Great! We’re in thousands of businesses across just about every vertical imaginable. There has been a lot of research coming out lately about the health impact of disinfectant use, and it’s pretty scary. For example, a study showed that chronic exposure to typical cleaning products can be as damaging to lungs as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day (and that was on adults!). It was the first time there was a really large longitudinal study and there are starting to be more of those. Another study showed that daily exposure to disinfectants can increase the risk of developing COPD by up to 35%. Another one showed that the more babies are exposed to cleaning products in the first few months of life, the more likely they are to get asthma. People are starting to become more aware of the fact that there are major health risks associated with typical cleaning ingredients like bleach, quats and fragrances. I am so proud that we have an option for people that isn’t toxic to people or our planet!
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband, Scott Lush! He has been supporting me since the day I met him, and with Force of Nature. I never could have done it without him; he runs all the technology for our website. Besides setting up and maintaining all our e-commerce, he solves every and any technical problem that comes up. I am kind of a hairs-on-fire person when it comes to our site. He brings his computer with him everywhere — it’s like his 3rd arm — just in case he has to fix something. That man has worked on our site from the beach, museums, rest stops, camping trips, and the car more times than I can count! He even did a lot of our photography when we first launched because we couldn’t afford to hire a professional photographer. He spent hours shooting in our bathroom, our kitchen, our nursery.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
When the pandemic happened, all of the platforms we use to educate people on the product, like Google, Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc., were trying to crack down on bogus products making claims that they could “cure” or “prevent” COVID-19. So these companies were all trying to adapt their algorithms to be able to screen out the false claims. But because they had to make these changes so fast, it was a very bumpy road. For example, one of the social media platforms shut down our account because they said we were telling people the product kills germs. I said of course it kills germs, it’s a hospital-grade disinfectant. And here is all my regulatory documentation proving this. Then a social media platform made us remove all references to the product being able to kill 99.9% of germs, which of course it does. Again, we couldn’t tell customers the truth! This company was essentially over-riding the government regulators who oversee our product category. We eventually worked our way through it but it was quite a window into the scramble that was happening at these media companies at the time.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- “A pandemic will be coming and you will be homeschooling”. It would have been nice to mentally prepare for this one (as I’m sure most would agree!). My son’s elementary school did an incredible job, but at the end of the day, working in a small apartment having to homeschool your child isn’t favorable for productivity. And I only have 1 child! I am in awe of parents doing that with multiple children, and we have some of those amazing people working at Force of Nature.
- “The small stuff can eat you alive.” We’re a small business, so everyone has to wear a lot of hats and you have to constantly go back and forth from strategy to execution. I knew this would be the case. But at a startup, you can easily get sucked into spending way too much time on executional stuff, and that has a cost that you have to keep in mind. So my approach is to think of the time spent on those objectives, whether it’s my time, or anyone else’s time, as high-cost time.
- “Hire people who will fall in love with your customers.” Having empathy and real love for your customers is critical for delivering against our mission. Our customers are parents trying to keep their families healthy, daycares trying to keep kids and staff safe, schools trying to be more sustainable — they are all trying to make the world better, so we get up every day to work on how to do better for them. When we hire people who truly fall in love with our customers, they move heaven and earth to make our products and company better, and that’s the magic of building a brand and a business for the long term.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
When things get stressful, I look over at my wonderful son and my amazing husband and feel grateful for our health, and that I am here on this earth another day. I have a group of I’d-do-anything-for-you friends that I count on too. My mom died when I was a teenager and perhaps because of that, I have always found great comfort and peace in appreciating the people I love most.
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?
I would love for every child on this planet to have access to healthy food, an amazing education, and supportive, loving adults.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
Kat Nouri, the founder of Stasher! Some of what we’re trying to do is so similar to what she has accomplished!
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!