Welcome to Episode Four of the Sustainable eCommerce Podcast.
In this show, I'm joined by Ricky Gilbey, founder at WAW Handplanes.
If you don't know what a handplane is, it's kind of like a mini bodyboard for your hand, perfect for body surfing.
After some early success making handplanes by hand from sustainably-sourced wood, Ricki wanted to scale his business. His passion for cleaning up the seas led him to focusing on ocean plastic as a base material.
But at the time there was no supply chain of ocean plastic sourced from Australian waters. Rather than putting that in the ‘too-hard basket’, he spent three years implementing Australia's first ocean plastic supply chain.
The result is the phenomenally successful Badfish handplane. This truly is an inspiring story of how a regular fella beat the odds to join the fight against ocean plastics and built a profitable business at the same time!
Bodysurfing For a Cleaner Ocean
Giles Smith: Ricky Gilbey, welcome to the show! Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you got started with a WAW Handplanes?
Rikki Gilbey: So I founded WAW eight years ago now. I fell in love with the sport of body surfing at the same time that I started the brand. I moved from England to Australia about 12 years ago, and spent a large amount of time learning how to surf. It took me about five or six years to get to a very, very average level. But then I discovered body surfing, and I was achieving the same kind of thrills and enjoyment of riding a wave in the first few days of body surfing as it took me years with surfing.
Then I looked into it a bit more and realized there wasn't really much available in terms of equipment here in Australia. I'd always had a burning desire to start my own business, and all of a sudden the fire had some fuel, I had an idea and I just kind of ran with it!
Giles Smith: I love it. And so, you started making them with sustainable wood products?
Rikki Gilbey: Yeah, so when I first started the brand, I was working as a carpenter. So I had access to a lot of recycled and reclaimed timbers and yeah, I was pretty handy. So I just started shaping some handplanes myself at home in the garden, annoying the housemates that I was living with at the time.
I remember there was a Eureka moment for me when I shaped up 18 handplanes out of wood, and I secured a spot at a local Sydney market in Manly. I went down there and just hope, and that was it. I didn't really have any equipment for sales, I didn't have any payment facilities, I didn't have any merch stuff or real branding. I just had a table and my product and the story to tell. I sold every single handplane that day. Completely sold out!
So I left with like a big smile on my face, a huge boost of inspiration, and a big wad of cash, cause it didn't have any payment card facilities! I thought, this could be it, you know, this is a really cool business opportunity.
I remember one guy particularly on that day. A solid one of my handplanes and in the morning, and he came back in the afternoon and he was like, “Ricky, I just have to tell you, that's the most fun I've ever had in the surf”.
So I just thought “This is a great, great idea and a great product and something that I really believe in”.
Giles Smith: I know the Manly markets, I've done that many times myself! I can literally picture you down there just with a table – all the other handmade products all around you. I can almost hear that conversation in my head!
So how long did you do the wooden ones for before you decided to make a transition into ocean plastics?
Rikki Gilbey: So I was doing that since 2014. And then we got to about 2016 when I started to realize that I needed to scale up. So that was when the idea of making something out of recycled plastics came to light because I obviously knew that plastics production was quick and fast and relatively cheap. And it got to a point where with the timber handplanes that my full-time job, 40 hours a week was in the workshop, manufacturing the product. Then I was trying to run the business and grow that on the side, which wasn't quite sustainable business- wise. So yeah, I had to outsource the production of the timber ones and then focus on a new project, which was using recycled plastics to create an option that actually allowed us to scale up in production.
I remember being quite naive at the beginning, which I think really helped me out. I really wanted to use ocean plastics, being a product that was used for surfing. Ocean plastics was something that I really wanted to tackle and take on. I remember writing it down from concept to first production run and my original timeline was three months.
I thought I'd just be able to buy some processed ocean plastics, put it through a machine and make some plastic handplanes. But no!
It took me three years to set it up. It was just the fact that it didn't exist at the time – the supply chain for ocean plastics within Australia didn't exist. The more I researched it, the more inspired I got to try to do something. Having the knowledge that it had been done overseas in a similar fashion, I knew that it could be done here in Australia, it was just going to be difficult. I didn't think it would take as long as it did, but we ultimately succeeded!
Creating Australia's First Ocean Plastic Supply Chain
Giles Smith: What I love about that whole thing is that you're making a product for people that clearly love the ocean and you're using ocean plastics. The whole thing is totally congruent.
So, you started, you realized you wanted to do it with ocean plastics and then you realized there wasn't a supply chain. I want to congratulate you – having the resilience to push through that and actually put all those pieces together, because I think that's where most people stop.
Break that down for us. How did you actually put that supply chain together? How did you find the supplier that could collect those ocean plastics and then how'd you find a factory that was willing to work with the ocean plastic material?
Rikki Gilbey: So I think firstly, just touching on the drive to do it. I think I have such a deep passion for the business that I've created and around body surfing. I knew that my business needed to scale up to be sustainable, to actually be long term. Just from my own background, I couldn't bring myself to make a product for the ocean out of virgin materials or virgin plastics, especially.
I set up a supply chain from collection through to manufacture, but all I've essentially done is connect up people that are already doing great stuff in that space.
So the group that I ended up partnering with for collection is a group called Ecobarge Clean Seas. They've been collecting marine debris from around the Whitsundays & great barrier reef region for over 10 years now. They would collect all that material, bring it back to their base, sorted it all out for their data collection and then ultimately send it to landfill.
And so they'd take it out of one environment and then put it into another. Better out of the ocean, obviously, but for them it was a real pain point. They were doing all this hard work, cleaning it out, and then still sending it to landfill.
They were ready to do something like what I was trying to achieve. Then the real missing link was the processing side of things. Actually taking that material, sorting it out and cleaning it, washing it and shredding it so it was into a form that could actually be used by a manufacturer and injection molder.
That's where I partnered up with The Plastic Collective. Louise Hardman created these machines that basically offer remote communities the ability to process their own plastic waste locally. They give education around sorting it out, and then shredding it up in a little shredding machine.
So we partnered up with them and they connected with Ecobarge, and set up one of their machines at their HQ, which allowed them to then start processing some of that material that they’d collected. So we worked quite closely with them to set all that up.
Then the next big challenge was trying to find a manufacturer who was actually willing and able to put this material through their machines. Big injection molding machines for production are very expensive. You're forcing a lot of material through very tiny holes and gaps in injection molds. And so a lot of manufacturers were very hesitant to even run tests or trials on this material. So I had to find someone who was willing to do that. I got turned down by the company that I ended up using originally, just because they said it was going to be too difficult to use ocean plastics.
So I started attending all of these different events – sustainability events, plastic recycling events, just to be in the know and trying to build out my network. At one of the plastic recycling events, I heard the CEO of this company do a talk about how we need more people to make more things from recycled material. That would then create a pull-through effect for the entire system. So immediately after his presentation, I just cornered him and told him what I was trying to do and what I wanted to achieve. He loved the idea, he thought it was amazing, beautifully circular. Obviously being collected from the ocean to then use back from the ocean for people who care about the ocean. It just turned out that the idea had never made it to his desk. You know, it always just got to the front desk, wherever I called or emailed it, made it to reception and then was kind of denied from there.
So just to actually go to the events and see people, in-person made a huge difference to me. It was the only way I could get through to the right people.
Giles Smith: I think it's really insightful! Can I unpack that a little bit? Are you able to share who that partner was?
Rikki Gilbey: Yeah, the guy’s name was Mark Yates and it was originally a company called Replas. They already work with post-consumer recycled plastics on the market. We have since moved on from Replas as our manufacturer, but that was integral to us starting because it was with Mark and with Replas that we managed to do all of the experimentation around the recipe, and getting the right mix, and putting it through the machines, and doing test runs and that kind of stuff.
Giles Smith: So in terms of ocean plastic as a material compared to virgin plastics, what's your experience been? Have you had to make any adjustments for the mold or the process that you would normally have made? Can you give some insight into what people might expect if they are following that similar journey?
Rikki Gilbey: Yeah, so I think ocean plastics is possibly the worst type of material that you could use in regards to plastics, just due to its high contamination rate. It does have a lot of foreign objects in there that aren't plastics. There's bits of shell, sand, salt, tiny fragments of steel wire, that kind of stuff that somehow manages to make it through the whole cleaning process.
Um, and that's always going to be the case really just because it is so contaminated at the source. So how plastics work, every different type of plastic (and there's about 40,000 different types now) has its own melting point & setting point.
Normal Virgin material is single polymer, so it's one type of plastic. It can be melted & injected rapidly and cooled rapidly so that the mold can be opened in seconds. But ocean plastics are very mixed – multi-polymer, it has to stay in the mold a lot longer than, than industry standard. If you open the mold too early, the different polymers in the mix would start setting at different temperatures and different rates. So the product itself would start to warp ever so slightly. If you take it out immediately, it can warp pretty horribly. If you look at normal products (single polymer), they might be in the mold for anywhere between five and 30 seconds. Whereas the products that we're making, the hand planes, they can be in the mold for two to three minutes per unit. When you're paying a manufacturer, you're paying a lot for machine time. So if you’re working with ocean plastics, you can expect the machine time to be a bit more expensive.
One thing hoping for out of this whole project is that we mix the ocean plastics with post-consumer curbside material. We put it at a ratio of 33% ocean plastics to 66% curbside material, and then we put in a UV stabilizer to add to that as well. But that curbside material is predominantly milk bottle cartons, and that’s quite easy to source compared to ocean plastics and much easier to use.
So we'd love to see the Badfish showcased as a positive case study for that. You can use ocean plastics and make a profitable product and business out of it. I just hope that it inspires people to be open, to using a much cleaner, much more readily available, cheaper post-consumer recycled material. You don't need to go out and set up an entire supply chain to do it.
Giles Smith: Changing pace a bit, financially you've got to put a lot of investment into creating molds, then obviously creating the inventory. As far as I can see, you've mostly done that organically. Except you had an Amazon launchpad grant awarded to you. Tell us about that process. How did that go and how did you doing it?
Rikki Gilbey: So when we launched the Badfish ocean plastics hand plane in 2019, we got a lot of media attention in the recycling space because an ocean plastics supply chain in Australia hadn't been established prior to that point. We were the first people to do it. We won a competition with the National Geographic, and then we won the grant with Amazon.
Up to that point we had done it all organically. The money that the business had made, was put back in to grow the inventory and stock levels and marketing and that kind of stuff. To be honest the Amazon Launchpad grant was one of the easiest grants and funding that we'd ever really got. We just entered 250 words and ultimately got the emails through saying that we'd been awarded the grant. Although you're dicing with the devil with the big corporate stuff they did really boost us and got our message out there quite a bit.
Giles Smith: Fast forward to now, you’re a couple of years on from getting that launch pad, how has Amazon been for you as a marketing channel and sales channel?
Rikki Gilbey: We did get quite a few different media features from it, which was great in terms of sales. In Australia, Amazon still is quite negligible in terms of sales, revenue, and quantity of orders. In the U S it seems to have a lot more potential. We did launch on the U S. Amazon site about 12 months ago. And to be honest, we haven't really touched it since then. We’ve just been sending stock and having the profile available on Amazon. It's doing quite well. We are planning on boosting that and pushing that a lot more this year. The potential in the US for Amazon is quite large, I believe.
Giles Smith: Yeah, it is. 250 million people with credit cards on file, who only go there to buy things. It's hard to ignore, particularly in the U S that's for sure. Amazon Australia is a tiny proportion of that. It sounds like your main focus is still your brand website. What are your main mechanisms for bringing traffic to that and telling your story and getting people excited about your brand? What do you do that's working for you?
Rikki Gilbey: Up until a couple years ago, we pretty much relied entirely on Instagram and word of mouth. So we built a half decent social media following. We run quite a few bodysurfing community events which attracts quite a bit of local media. Just because of the novelty factor, body surfing is still quite unique. We also got into some kind of local features with the recycling stuff. Really boosted our marketing for body surfing as well.
In the last couple of years we have been using, digital marketing agencies to create Facebook, Instagram style ads and pushing that along with our EDMs.
Word of mouth is still huge for us. Our sales can be quite weather dependent. If we have a nice high-pressure system over the east coast of Australia, there's a bunch of people down at the beach. The week after our website sales will be a lot bigger than normal. It's our customers that are marketing it for us. They always love to showcase that message around our ocean plastics cause. It's a cool thing for them. Like, “look what I've got” and “I'm helping clean the beaches”. That's incredible marketing for us.
Giles Smith: So tell me a little bit about your tech stack. What are you using to actually host your brand site on?
Rikki Gilbey: We are using Squarespace at the moment but to be honest, we've exhausted the limits of Squarespace. There's quite a few different plugins and tech stuff that I would like to include into our e-commerce site. We are looking to migrate to Shopify this year, which is going to be a whole mission in itself. It's quite a well-established website. It's got a very good Google ranking around anything to do with body surfing and handplanes.
Giles Smith: Yes, maintenance of the organic position is going to be the trickiest thing that you face in that whole journey, without doubt. It's the most important thing to get right.
Giles Smith: Tell me what's your biggest challenge right now in growing the brand? What's your goal for the next two or three years? And what’s your biggest hurdle to getting there?
Rikki Gilbey: So, the number one hurdle for us at the moment is expanding out that supply chain. We've exhausted its capacity right now. We're basically using every single kilo of plastic that we can process and clean up for our products. We have been expanding year on year since the beginning, which is great to see.But we may be hitting hurdles in a year or two with our production. We might not be able to produce as much as what's demanded. The biggest hurdle for me right now is to expand out that supply chain.
I'm working with quite a big project too, to scale that up to a full commercial level. We want to get to a point where we can not only Product with msupply our product material, but also offer it up to anybody else who would like to use Australian ocean plastics in their products. So we're really kind of trying to set that industrial processing system up.
Giles Smith: And are you giving any thought, particularly if the US is a big market, to actually producing over in the US as well?
Rikki Gilbey: Yes, definitely. At the moment we will use Amazon as a third party logistics platform to launch in the U S and see how that goes. If that shows some kind of promising trends, we would hopefully look to getting a production system set up directly in the US a well.
Giles Smith: Okay. Cool. Last question, Ricky. If you were starting today, knowing what, you know, what would you do differently?
Rikki Gilbey: It's funny. I think if I knew what I had to do to start this whole thing, speaking, honestly, I think I would have questioned it a lot more than I did. I think being naive at the start really played to my benefit because I thought I could just get it done and get it done quickly. But I was just taking on every little hurdle and just getting over each one over and over and over.
It seems pretty overwhelming to start with, but if you just take it one step at a time, break down your big goal into many, many little goals you can ultimately achieve.
Giles Smith: I love that. And it's such an empowering and powerful message in the sense that things can sometimes look overwhelming, but you have to break them down, like the old adage of how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.
I think it's fantastic that people coming through and thinking about doing this sort of thing now have pioneers and trailblazers like yourself who have already done that and shown that it can be done. Congratulations on your tremendous success!