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“Why Pay To Be Advertised When You Can Get Paid To Be The Content” 5 Leadership Lessons With Tom Szaky of TerraCycle

“Leverage Negative Cost Marketing. Why pay to be advertised when you can get paid to be the content. In today’s day and age media outlets are looking for massive quantities of content and, in some cases, are willing to pay for it. We’ve leveraged this by blogging for dozens of major blogs from the New York Times to Huffington Post, writing three books (with a third one coming out this October called the Future of Packaging) and even having our own TV show (four seasons that aired around the world).”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Szaky, Founder and CEO of the global recycling company TerraCycle. Known for recycling the unrecyclable, the company uses its innovative solutions to minimize human impact on the planet. Different from other entrepreneurs who are solely capitalists, Tom is an eco-capitalist who is on a mission to change the world by eliminating the idea of waste. In the company’s 15 year history it has inspired a passion for recycling in over 63 million people, recycled nearly 4 billion pieces of trash that were destined for land fill and donated nearly 16 million dollars to charity. All of this by creating new raw materials by recycling things like cigarette butts, pens, toothpaste tubes, ocean plastic and hundreds of other waste streams.

What is your “backstory”?

I was born in Hungary (during that time it was still communist), then after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster emigrated to Germany, then Holland then Canada as refugees. From there I went to university in the United States, which is where I got the idea for TerraCycle — a business whose purpose is to eliminate the idea of waste.

I always loved entrepreneurship, as business is perhaps the most powerful force to change the world. The key question is if that change is good or bad and how does it impact your ability to generate a profit.

TerraCycle started as an organic fertilizer company, packaging liquefied worm poop in used soda bottles, from there we evolved greatly to were we are today: now operating national platforms in 21 countries and known as the world leader in recycling “the unrecyclable.”

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The most profound moments are when I see the TerraCycle business model implemented in far away places around the world; especially when that interaction is unexpected. From seeing our logo on a package of pens in Brazil to cookie wrappers in the UK, to meeting one of our over 100 million volunteers that collect and recycle their waste with TerraCycle to the remote aboriginal communities we work with to collect and recycle ocean plastic

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There is no other company like us out there in the world — this is partly because we have a very unique philosophy to a relatively innovative industry: waste. The goal of TerraCycle has always been to eliminate the idea of waste, which we do today in three ways (or via three unique business units). First, we make things that are non-recyclable nationally recyclable from cigarette butts to dirty diapers. Second, we integrate unique recycled materials into high end products, like ocean plastic into shampoo bottles, and third, we create platforms that move disposable products into durable products without sacrificing the economics and convenience that makes disposable products desirable.

We have the challenge of making people care. We are trying to solve something — garbage — that goes out of sight, out of mind and is cheap to throw away or burn. We are asking a person to invest their time and money to be able to do something with it that’s significantly better but not nearly as simple. And that’s not necessarily easy.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Be able to motivate people and lead by example. Give employees latitude to be creative and not afraid to come with ideas and think big. That’s how we’ve grown. The most rewarding aspect about being CEO is being able to realize what I set out to create — having a profitable business that only does good and with every action helps get us closer to a world without waste. I love coming to work. I love engaging with my staff and our partners to try to solve big problems. Many of our staff could be anywhere, working in a variety of professions and jobs, but they like working at a business with a purpose because it’s personally fulfilling.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

There are many people along the way who made more of an impact than they probably know, but it was a casual conversation that moved our business down a different path. Seth Goldman, CEO of the Honest Tea Company, and I were having a conversation about how children’s drinks were starting to be sold in pouches that weren’t recyclable. He asked me if I could come up with a solution to keep all those pouches from heading to the landfill. I jumped on this opportunity, and with the first investment from Seth to create the Drink Pouch Brigade, TerraCycle’s “sponsored waste” business was born.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Through our recycling programs, TerraCycle has engaged over 63 million people in 21 countries to collect and recycle enough waste to raise almost 16 million dollars for charities around the world. Not only are collectors keeping waste out of their local landfills or incinerators, they can earn money for each piece of waste they send to us which can then be donated to a charity or non-profit of their choice.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.

1. To tackle a big problem, first break it down into smaller achievable pieces. If you make the topic too big, too hairy, too far away, people won’t get excited, and won’t take action. The key is to do small digestible steps, and make sure you celebrate every win, every step of the way.

2. Leverage Negative cost marketing. Why pay to be advertised when you can get paid to be the content. In today’s day and age media outlets are looking for massive quantities of content and, in some cases, are willing to pay for it. We’ve leveraged this by blogging for dozens of major blogs from the New York Times to Huffington Post, writing three books (with a third one coming out this October called the Future of Packaging) and even having our own TV show (four seasons that aired around the world).

3. Test fast, learn from your failings and be ready to try again. Any great idea is build on a mountain of failures. So be ready to fail, and focus on what you can learn from that. Then test often, and test quickly. Make lots of small bets and learn from each one.

4. Hold tight to your identity as a person, as a CEO and as a company. TerraCycle struggled early on due to a lack of resources: everything from money, to office space, employees, to even materials to make products. While it was a challenge to fulfill some of those earliest sales orders, we stuck to our core identity and it ended up leading to more and more opportunities, more money, and more growth in the business.

5. You’re only as small as your vision. If you have a grand vision and an undeniable passion for an idea, you may feel compelled to drop everything and go for it. As long as you’re always realistic and vigilant, and as long as you are ready to work harder than you ever have before, you can achieve anything.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Get involved, get out there. If you are thinking about starting a business, or moving in a different direction, just do it. Don’t overthink it. You can always adjust along the way, but you can paralyze yourself by over analyzing everything.

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