EP58 – Is Brand Purpose Critical to Founder Resilience & Overcoming Adversity?


EP58 – Is Brand Purpose Critical to Founder Resilience & Overcoming Adversity?

EP58-Sustainable Ecommerce

EP58 - Sustainable Ecommerce Podcast

It’s so tempting isn’t it, to believe that other brands and other entrepreneurs have all the answers and so have had an easy path to success.  We’ve all been sucked in by the alluring stories of hockey stick growth.

Few brands like to share the real story lest it tarnish their investable image.  But when you’re a purpose driven brand, honest & transparency about the realities are far more powerful.  Imagine openly promoting your 2500+ failed attempts to make your first.  And imagine the emotional challenges of 752 days in which your commitment is tested, your leadership is needed to keep your team motivated, your values are challenged, all the while your bank balance is draining.  What does it take to build an internationally recognised, ground breaking brand from that kind of standing start?

To answer these questions, my guest today is the hugely inspirational founder of Good Citizens, Nik Robinson.   Together with his wife and 2 children, all equal shareholders in the business, Good Citizens makes eyewear where the frames are made from 100% post-consumer plastic, and in doing so are executing their Purpose of Untrashing the Planet.

There are a number of things I hope you’ll take from this episode.

Firstly, just how hard it really is to make things out of recycled plastic. I hope you’ll excuse some somewhat self-indulgent questions about the details of how they make products, having been down this path myself I was fascinated by and somewhat in awe of what they’ve achieved with their manufacturing process.  And if nothing else, I hope that you pass a BS filter over claims made by many brands about how their products are made from recycled materials.

But in many ways, this episode is the story of how Purpose, and especially the Robinson family’s commitment to each other to see that Purpose through, has sustained them through what continues to be a turbulent journey.  And far from being back-room idealism, Good Citizen’s mission drives everything they do and has enabled a story so compelling that they were able to secure a front window spot at Selfridges in London before they even fully launches, and get invited to speak to the leadership at Tesla, Google and even at the UN.

I hadn’t intended the show to about Purpose especially.  But as we were chatting, and my mind increasingly opened to the question of whether Purpose is in fact the key to overcoming adversity and generating resilience as a founder.  Please do listen right to the end for my take on that, having had this amazing opportunity to chat with Nik.


What does Goodcitizens do?

Goodcitizen’s Purpose is to untrash the planet. They do that by turning 600ml post-consumer waste plastic bottles into beautiful eyewear, including sunglasses and reading glasses.

How did Goodcitizens get started?

Nik moved to Australia in 1998, working in advertising in TV, Radio and PR.  Good Citizens began in 2018 after a discussion with the family raised the issue of all the trash being generated and the damage it was doing to the planet.  After getting some encouraging feedback from mentors about the idea of turning waste plastic into desirable products, Nik spent 4 months researching processes, terminology and different polymers. 

With that knowledge at hand, they then spent 9 months designing eyewear, followed by 18 months of ‘trial and terror’, trying to find a way to mould recycled plastic into high-quality frames.  Indeed, it took 752 days, 2500+ failures and over 250k invested in machinery & services before Nik & the team were finally being able to  mould their first pair successfully.

goodcitizens mission

Where does the plastic come from?

Goodcitizens buys the raw material on the open market for post-consumer waste, not from ocean plastic. The plastic is palleted, sent to Melbourne, washed, crushed and returned to Sydney to be moulded.  The only thing that gets added is a small amount of colouring.  

Has using recycled PET forced you to take a different approach to making your eyewear?

Moulding recycled PET requires more pressure than virgin resin, so Goodcitizens have had to invent a modification to the traditional injecting moulding machinery to make that viable in standard equipment.

Traditionally, sunglass frames are die cut from a single CNC solid block – leaving most of the frame wasted. Then the cut frame is tumbled with things like cork and sand to smooth the frames, often for weeks, requiring a huge amount of energy. GC’s injection moulding process enables may frames to be produced efficiently, and the final frames can be hand-assembled in about a minute, with no need for the extended finishing & polishing process.

There are often over 20 components to a standard pair of sunnies. Even though individually the components may be recyclable, it is not cost effective to disassemble them, so almost all end up in landfill. Goodcitizens can easily be disassembled at home and 100% recycled, but more importantly, being modular frames means that individual parts can be replaced.  The philosophy being that these are the last pair of sunnies you would ever need to buy.

What Values have guided you to keep going through that process

The brand’s purpose is to Untrash the Planet.  That simple yet massive purpose has kept them aligned.  Their underlying values also help them stay true to the culture of the brand, including ‘Only use 100% plastic waste’, ‘make products that last’, ‘Don’t exploit people or the planet’ and ‘Employees get time with kids and loved ones’.

What is it like having your 2 young kids as active shareholders?

There is a fine balancing act between keeping them engaged, and indeed keeping them updated in the deep details of the business versus protecting their youth and innocence. The main thing that has enabled that to work is the Purpose of Untrashing the Planet.  That has kept the whole family going even through the tough times.  It has also been an amazing opportunity for the children to do things like speak with the Prime Minister, and present to a senior team at Tesla. Having the kids in the business also ensures a deep commitment to stick to the values.  As an outside observer, having practice at communicating the story in a way that small kids can understand almost certainly has helped keep the story simple & believable.


What tips do you have for making your story PR-worthy.

You have to start with a big problem you’re solving, and a story of truth about your journey towards it. That make it attractive to journalists.  It’s also useful to have a PR-pack, and pre-prepared stories they can pick up and publish quickly, adjusting to their needs.

As a founder, how do you manage your mental state through the crappy days?

Having a shared Purpose is definitely a big one, and that in turn helps you put things in perspective. As long as you have enough to be secure, you can cope with a lot. Other than that, exercise is important (ocean swims in particular), as well as maintaining a good network of friends and colleagues to talk with.

Where can people get Goodcitizens eyewear?

Simply head over to https://www.goodcitizens.com.au

Top Takeouts

  1. Lets just reflect on the material and product creation journey Nik and the team have been on. Innovation is happening all around the world, so we must be open to the idea that smart folks elsewhere have also found solutions to using 100% recycled plastic to make new products, but it clearly isn’t an easy thing to do.

    Personally, I was aware of the challenges of Ocean Plastic, but I wasn’t aware just how hard it was to make something purely from 100% recycled material.  I’m certainly going to looking at other products claiming to be made from recycled material with a keener eye thanks to this conversation.

  2. I also loved Nik's analogy of how their business Values are like the flaps on the side of a bowling alley. I now know these are called Bumpers, but the point is, when you have clearly defined values, they truly do help you stay true, and help everyone stay aligned with what you believe in. The universe wants to challenge you to drift of course, and that can be through production issues, financial constraints, supplier relationship or any number of other tactical problems where the easier thing to do is to take the path of least resistance.
  3. But let’s come back to this big question of whether Purpose, real deep, driving Purpose, is a critical ingredient for Founder Resilience and overcoming Adversity. Thanks to Nik being so open about the challenges, we get to see just how hard getting to the very first pair actually was.

    I got the opportunity to chat with Nik for a coffee after the show, and he shared with me some stories about how those challenges continue, almost every single day as they wrangle 100% recycled plastic into both new and existing moulds. So what sustains him through that?

    He’s clearly driven by this Purpose of Untrashing the Planet, yet that’s an impossible endeavour for any one brand.  I actually think it goes a little deeper. I’ll admit, I hadn’t considered this being a family business as being an essential element of their success, but the way they each and collectively share a total commitment to the Purpose, rather than just being involved in a business is unlike anything I’ve seen before.  So it’s the shared Purpose and shared commitment to it that I think is the essential, and priceless element here.

    So can you replicate this lesson in your own brand, and generate this level of resilience for yourself?  Many continue to copy Goodcitizens marketing, but can you borrow from their brand DNA?  I think to a degree you can.

    Firstly, you need the structure of Brand Values, the Purpose Bumpers which everyone must adhere to, and must be actively and very visibly used to test every decision and every action you take.

    Secondly, everyone – especially the brand leadership needs to genuinely share your commitment to the Purpose, and openly answer to each other and hold each other accountable to moving towards it.

    Thirdly, and finally for now, as the brand Founder, you are the Champion of the Purpose. You have to live and breath it, relentlessly, every day, and most especially on the shitty days where nothing’s working.  Doing that builds the backbone of expectation for the team, your suppliers and dare I say it your customers to get on board.

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