The sign of a true entrepreneur is someone who can look around and go "wait a minute, there must be a better way." That approach worked well for Outlines' founders, who are tackling the unsexy but pretty serious recycling issue of shower curtain liners. The company just closed a $1 million pre-seed lead by Social Impact Capital to make sure that the giant water-splash-stopping sheets of plastic that are present in most of the 128 million households in the U.S. get sustainably recycled, rather than putting them in landfills.
"I moved to New York from London about six years ago. Like all New Yorkers I moved into like an old apartment that required me to have like a shower liner -- one of those plastic shower curtains. Coming from Europe, like I was very used to a door or a plexiglass screen on the shower, or a separate shower unit. I was caught in this constant dilemma; I would pick up my shower liner, three or four months would go by it would get slimy and gross," Outlines co-founder Luke Barkley Young explains. "I was in this really awkward position where I'd want to get a new one, but I had this plastic-guilt of throwing it away. I was used to being able to recycle everything, and I just hated this constant pain point."
Long story short, Young and his co-founder Megan Murphy set out to solve the problem in a rather elegant way. The pair developed a shower curtain system where the top of the curtain, the weights and the shower curtain hooks are made from sturdy, long-lasting materials, and the shower liner itself is made from easy-to-recycle plastic. The company developed a business model where it can take the shower liner in return and recycle it responsibly, as it ships out replacement shower liners on a regular rotation.
The company started as a project called "Dripp," where the duo found 2,500 early adopter customers who, in addition to being early paying customers, gave a lot of feedback about their needs as consumers. After a while, the company decided that there was almost certainly a sustainable market there, and spun up the Outlines company to explore that direction further.
Of course, a single-product company rarely makes a great investment opportunity, so I pressed the founding team on what might happen next in their product portfolio.
Outlines' shower curtain liner is full of clever details, including ensuring that all parts of the liner itself are recyclable, moving the weights and the metal clips to the parts of the curtain that are not designed to be refreshed. Image Credits: Outlines
"We haven't decided fully on what our second product will be. What we are interested in is bringing to market links to a much larger audience. We have a couple of ideas. Things like loofahs, body scrubbers, dish scrubbers, these things that just by the sheer nature of what they do, are possible products for us. Nobody wants to clean their dishes with the same dish scrubber forever," explained Young. "So we are working to really understand our customer base, to determine what we should release next. We definitely hope to do that in the first half of 2022."
On the one hand, the cynic in me is wondering "wait, we are giving VC funding to shower curtains, now?" but on the other hand, if 10% of households in the U.S. replace their shower curtain liners once every other year, that's still 6 million sheets of plastic that need to be dealt with every year, somehow. Ensuring that it's recycled responsibly doesn't seem so bad. Still, I found myself wondering if a washable shower liner wouldn't make more sense than shipping recyclable sheets of plastic around.
"First of all, shipping in general -- especially in the United States -- is becoming less carbon-intensive. So if you look at all the major couriers, they are adding more electric vehicles to their fleet. So carbon cost of shipping things back and forth is reducing, which is far superior to constantly shipping new stuff from the Far East where typically these plastic products are made. Also, when you do recycle in the U.S., there's a lot more legislation and regulation around how recycling can happen versus overseas. The other point on this is when we throw items away they go to landfills. As they decompose, they actually release methane, which is a far more heavy greenhouse gas than CO2 from shipping back and forward," Young argues. He further explains that washable solutions aren't really an option: "Reusable, washable plastics would be a dream, but there are two problems with that. First of all, a lot of plastic-based materials that are waterproof, like polyester, when you put them in your washing machine, the friction of that actually really releases millions of microplastics. Municipal water systems just cannot get them out of the water supply. And then if you were to use a natural fiber, they're covered in what's called a Durable Water Repellent (DWR). Over time, because of the heat of a shower, it actually corrodes off. When that happens, your shower liner doesn't work. So for this use case, plastic is by far the best material to use."
The company today announced it raised its $1 million round, and I wondered what's possible now that wasn't possible before they closed the round.
"We just closed the round of $1 million before our launch, which was very exciting. We've done a ton of development up until this point, both in the product and the design of the product, the website and the entire online experience. But we're really excited about investing in our digital tools. The first part is a part of responsible replenishment, it's all about serving you a plan that is highly personalized to your needs. Obviously what we're trying to do with that isn't ensure that we're not sending you more than you need, but you're also receiving enough so that you're not standing next to mold every single morning," explains Murphy. "We are investing in that piece to make sure that we are as smart as possible, and that we're creating something that's genuinely valuable to you as a customer. We are also really excited about further product development. As Luke said, we are already beginning work on the second product, but this is a big category with lots of space for innovation. So we are investing in future product development, to make sure that we're rolling out new products at a relatively quick pace."
You can learn more about Outlines at LivingOutlines.com.