“If you don’t start somewhere, you’ll end up nowhere.” - Quote from Nicolas Huxley, founder of Elephbo
For today’s episode, we have a sit-down with Nicolas Huxley, founder of the company Elephbo that recycles cement bags from developing countries, mainly Cambodia. We cover where and how Nicolas got the idea for his startup and how Elephbo’s products were conceived. We also talk about the learnings and challenges of a startup, why it’s best to work with experienced people, and most of all – Nicolas couldn’t stress it enough – to start your bookkeeping and accounting early on as this can save you a lot of time and stress in the long run.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
Who Nicolas Huxley is, and how and why he founded Elephbo
The evolution of Elephbo’s products
How Nicolas took the leap into being a sustainable fashion entrepreneur
How Elephbo designed its first product
The ins and outs of managing a startup
What Nicolas did to get the funding he needed
How to deal with investors
Why working with experienced people is important
Nicolas’ advice for how to get started
Elephbo’s biggest learnings and challenges as a company
Nicolas’ hopes for the future of his company
The start of Elephbo
In recent years the construction industry has been booming in Cambodia, and for this reason the country needs a lot of cement which are, of course, transported in cement bags. Consequently, a lot of these cement bags are just thrown everywhere with no proper waste management. Nicolas Huxley, seeing an opportunity there, thought about recycling these bags and make something new out of them, and thus, from idea to a product, and potentially many other products from these bags, Elephbo was born.
Elephbo’s range of products
Elephbo’s first product was a weekender sport bag since these particular cement bags were made of enough durable material for the look and design of a duffel or sport bag – made of very strong material but at the same time also very light. From this idea, they started to assemble it with other materials to make it more practical for everyday use. Then as the year went by, they started exploring other products – from backpacks, furniture, caps, and then sneakers which in turn has now become their main business.
Nicolas’ leap into designing sustainable fashion
One would certainly ask the question of what made Nicolas take a giant step to venture into sustainable fashion design, since his background is in consulting and having come from Ernst & Young. But for him, it’s easy and it’s in his nature of being fascinated to just try out stuff and learn something new. This is one characteristic that he thinks anybody should have if they want to know how to become an entrepreneur. Along the way you do make mistakes, learn from them and don’t do them a second time, he says.
Realizing an idea for a product
There is always the question of “how to get started” in any business. For the first two years, Nicolas found himself driving around in a tuk-tuk all over Cambodia in order to find people to recycle and assemble the cement bags, specifically. Quality-wise, the bags were not too good so he went back to Switzerland and looked for somebody who is professional and collaborated with another startup to develop the first prototypes, something which he learned is really important – to know what you are and are not capable of doing, and that you must have the right know-how.
At the current time, they have 10 people in Cambodia who go all over the country to procure cement bags mainly from construction sites. Interestingly, they have a “cement bag counter” on Elephbo’s website and you can see how much cement bags they’ve recycled. These cement bags will be then brought back to their production hut and the process then happens from the cleaning to the cutting, and these pre-cut sets will be sent to the respective production sites for final assembly.
As the startup grew, quality control became very challenging. Nicolas is partnering and working with local people in Portugal and Cambodia whom he trusts to manage each site, and things have been running more smoothly.
Selling his first product
First selling to friends and family and also sending out to his Facebook and LinkedIn connections, having no budget for marketing, it was all a matter of networking to get feedback for his product that had 80 bags in the first run. After the first 80 bags, this is where he saw this side hustle’s potential and that it could work out. Selling your first 20 products might be how you can measure if your product is good and if people do want it, Nicolas suggests.
Getting his first funds
Then he went to Cambodia, started a crowdfunding campaign and made a film to raise funds. Although he describes it as not “super successful” and still not having the entity of a company, they got $34,000, which is not much but everybody started knocking on the door.
Landing the right investors
Big brand names wanted to invest and even wanted to take over. These were busted deals and resulted into Nicolas losing a bit of focus and needing to start over again. He then started recruiting again (just 2-3 individuals), and found a small-scale business angel that wanted to invest. And from there everything just kicked off and started to feel like a proper business.
Working with experienced people
In 2018, a second investor approached them and this was when he decided to build a proper company. Having not undertaken any formal training nor entrepreneurship education, he knew that it was time that he needed to search for new people with much more experience and the right knowhow to help finalize the whole process including accounting and doing due diligence. And now they have four full-time experienced employees, which has been a real gamechanger for the company.
Becoming an LLC, and the trouble of bookkeeping
In the beginning, Nicolas admits he did work with a lot of lawyers in registering the company. The challenge was in their accounting that was not ready for this kind of transfer. All of their books had to be reviewed and, of course, being a small startup, mistakes could not be avoided there and this did take tons of time.
Nicolas remarks that if you do your job right from the beginning with regards to your numbers, a lot of hassle can be avoided in the future, which was something he learned the hard way. A company’s accounting and bookkeeping should be considered priorities even from the start, and not doing it is not an option.
Selling in physical stores
Nicolas’ business model with regards to retail is selling to various stores where his products are under consignment. This was challenging since it meant that he didn’t have the money upfront. He produced and put out a lot of products and yet he didn’t have any control.
What Nicolas did with the smaller retail shops was give a better margin at a minimum quantity that had to be met and then the buyers are able to get these products. This also required a bit of storytelling as a sales pitch, and either they believed him or they didn’t.
Biggest challenge and learning
Nicolas can’t emphasize it enough but it’s all about recruiting the right people. You’d have to find the right people who are willing to work their ass off even in the weekends and evening. Finding these people does take time and you should not stop searching.
Hopes for the future
Nicolas sees the potential in developing countries, especially with what they have achieved in Cambodia. People from all over the world approach him who want his business model/project in other countries as well, and this keeps him motivated.
With regards to sustainable fashion, general sustainability is of utmost priority while fashion is just second. He knows the situation the world is in now and he believes that people need to change for the long and short term. He believes his company has already started somewhere, taking one small step in the right direction.
Many of us have lots of ideas yet are being set back by many things. It’s all about not being afraid and just keeping on.
With how the world has evolved, we now see “potentials” everywhere. Take inspiration from these and, who knows, you might have the next big thing!
So. what do you have in mind and what small step have you taken?
Biography of McDonald’s Founder, Ray Kroc - Ray Kroc hustled his whole life selling everything imaginable for 30 to 40 years. Nicolas relates this to his own life where his startup has been only running for 2 years.