Any product that aims to help Mother Nature thrive and help the world function better is a great product. Kyle Ewing, the Founder and President of TerraSlate, talks about the genesis of the idea for TerraSlate paper to product development. The product is environmentally conscious as it minimizes the use of paper. With its efficiency, TerraSlate has become bigger, and the need for manpower also increased. With Kyle’s management efforts, he shares his key learnings from running the business as well as the challenges they had to go through as a team. He highlights his company’s overarching protocol which stands on three pillars of success – quality, speed, and customer service.
We’re with Kyle Ewing. He’s the Founder and President of TerraSlate. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a horse event. We’re in the signature flight terminal outside of DIA and Kyle’s about to fly to Houston.
We’re headed down to Houston on a jet to see some clients in the oil and gas industry. You will all have to cross your fingers for a good meeting!
Kyle, tell us about your business and who you serve.
My business is called TerraSlate. We make treeless paper that’s 100% waterproof and rip-proof. People often ask me, “Why do you need paper in a digital age?” What I tell them is there are millions and millions of things that not only get printed, but that get laminated and handled heavily on a daily basis. Something like a restaurant menu is always a good go-to example. Restaurant menus get handled by as many as 100 people a day and they get wiped down, spilled on, and people put hot coffee cups on them. They get wine or salsa spilled all over them and what’s cool is you can wipe them clean. For a restaurant, that’s very advantageous.
The other benefits are you can print it through any laser printer and you can write on it with a pen. Instead of printing out a sheet, then taking it over to the laminating machine and feeding the laminating machine one sheet at a time with traditional laminating pouches, you can put a ream of TerraSlate in your printer and click go. When it comes out, it’s done. You can do 500 in two minutes. We do everything from restaurant menus to work with biotech firms for materials in their labs. The paper is non-porous. If they’re working with hazardous chemicals or something like anthrax, the paper can go into the lab. It can get written on or used, usually, it’s a chart or some type that’s being filled out, and then it can go into the chemical bath and go out of the lab. You don’t have to type your notes before leaving the lab anymore.
With grocery stores, we do a lot of price tags, as well as behind the scenes manuals and foodservice guides. The next time you go to Whole Foods, touch the price tags, those are all done on TerraSlate. There are a couple of other cool things as well. We do maps and nautical charts for the military. We work with all four branches of the military as well as the Coast Guard. We’ve been having a good time with it. A customer called me and asked how does TerraSlate react to Plutonium 236 or whatever the isotope was. I said, “I have no idea. I don’t have any way to test that, but I’d be happy to put some samples in the mail. That way you can test it and let me know how it works.” I’m very excited to hear how that works if that works at all.
People hearing about TerraSlate paper, that you developed, and they’re asking, “How in the world did you think of this?” What drove you down this path? You’re a bit of a serial entrepreneur.
This is my third company. The first one I made a successful exit from. I bought myself a sports car and I bought my wife a house. The second one, I failed on. The third one is TerraSlate. We’re hoping that we can win on two out of three.
TerraSlate has been around for how long?
Can you go back to the genesis of the idea and how you went from the genesis of the idea to product development? Did you have a market in mind or were you going to develop a product and find a market?
I came at it, opposite of that, but maybe in a traditional sense where I identified a problem and I tried to solve that. That problem was students traveling internationally have a bad habit of losing their passports. My friends that studied abroad in college all lost their passports and then it was a big problem to get to an embassy and prove their identity because they didn’t have any documentation to prove their identity and then get them back home. My thought was I would create a backup version of a passport that would allow you to take it with you when you’re out adventuring or hiking in the jungle or scuba diving and you could leave your real passport at the hotel or in the dorm room safe. In order for it to be useful and better than a sheet of copy paper, the paper itself needed to be waterproof, rip-proof and durable.
It was a good product. One of the coolest things about it was if you lost your real passport, you could take this to the embassy and they could then immediately issue you a new physical passport that you could then get home with or go onto your next country. The great thing about it was I sold at least two or three a week. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had invested a significant amount of money in the research and development to make this paper. By selling two or three a week at $12 a piece would never recoup that investment. That was the head-scratching moment where I thought, “What am I going to do with this?” Funny enough, a guy called out of the blue and he said, “Kyle, I love your product. I’ve bought one for all three of my daughters. I think it’s great, but can I buy a case of this paper?” I said, “Yes, definitely.” As a matter of fact, it’s two-for-one Tuesdays. I’ve got a whole basement full of this stuff that I can’t get rid of.
He bought a case and I forgot to ask him, “What are you doing with this? What are you going to use it for?” I didn’t ask any of the questions that I should have. I didn’t even get his phone number because I was so excited. I had to put my own phone number on the FedEx label because I didn’t get his phone number. I had this system of Google voice ring through transfer so I could have a business line that would ring to my cell phone, but the problem was I couldn’t see his phone number when he called in. A couple of weeks later, I got both his email and his phone number. I asked him, “What are you using this for?” He said, “I’m an oil and gas guy. I do the exploration.” He maintains the rigs, the pumps, and what have you out in the field.
What he said was his regular paper gets soaked by the rain, oil gets on it from people’s fingers, it smudges, and it renders itself useless pretty fast. His company had tried laminating but it’s not possible to write on lamination. They’re in this weird space and all of a sudden, he figured out that TerraSlate would work well. He could print it through his own printers. The operators in the field could use a regular ballpoint pen, fill out their maintenance logs and charts, and they could leave the sheet with the rig. It wouldn’t matter if it could get rained on for 100 days in a row. Oil greasy fingers didn’t make any difference. That was the “a-ha” moment that this material is not just for this one purpose, which was the backup passport. There might be a whole array of industries that I can approach with this.
Were you married at the time?
I was not married, but I was dating Ashley, who is my wife now.
What was the dialogue like when she’d come over and you’d have a basement full of paper?
She is one of the most understanding and supportive women in the world. I took over the basement almost immediately. We have an office in the house. I took that over and then I took over the dining room. The second I had one thing moving towards the kitchen and the family room, it was like, “You need to get an office.” The living room was the borderline. I got one box of paper over that line and then got an office.
It’s interesting when you were talking about the various uses. I guess the thing I always try to find is if there’s a pain point that somebody has before they find your product. They find your product and then you get some interaction with them after they use it and it’s solving their problem. Let’s talk about what’s the most exciting market that you’re working in?
The most exciting market is always the military. We get these fun emails and they come from a Captain, a General or what have you and it starts with “unclassified.” It has a very official sounding email body and then a very official signature. Those are the most fun because sometimes they tell us what they’re using it for. Sometimes they ask us a million and one questions and then we don’t get to find out. What’s cool is we’ve got our paper in submarines for the US Navy. It’s in all sorts of ships. We’ve got it in military aircraft. We do a lot of work with the Air Force Academy. Sometimes we do the printing. Sometimes when it’s classified, we shipped them the paper and they do the printing themselves.
We did an implementation where they asked us how to print. The good news was it was about three bullet points long. The guy that I was working with was a nice guy. It was to the effect of you open the box, you put it in the printer and click print. He still teases me that it is the best and easiest implementation he’s ever done because there’s no technology to fail. It doesn’t have anything electronic. It doesn’t matter if it gets wet. You put it in the printer and it works. One of the coolest things we do besides work for the military is we secure documents.
I will give you an example that’s not one of our clients. I’m not allowed to disclose that but I can give you an example that would be a similar use. For instance, Coca-Cola doesn’t keep their recipe on a computer because that can be hacked from anywhere in the world. What they did is print it on an actual piece of paper and it’s kept safe because you cannot hack a piece of paper. It’s the most secure form of communication that there is. It’s not possible to get it from anywhere else. You have to physically come and get it.
That’s like capturing the typewriter ribbon, which used to be the game.
You’re an intelligence guy so you know that exactly and you can handwrite it. People say, “At some point, you have to type it and then you have to print it.” It’s not true at all. You can write on it with a pen. We’re in the midst of developing with a nanotechnology company these micro-particulates. What they are is these little hexagonal pieces that we can make them in any shape. What we do is put your logo on it or we will put somebody’s initials. If I was going to make one for you, I could put BR or WR on these nanoparticles. A human hair is 100 nanoparticles wide. I’m going to butcher the science here but I’m the business guy so hopefully, that’s okay.
These particles are roughly 40 nanometers wide which is less than half the width of a hair. We can mix them in the paper when we make it. Here’s why that’s cool. If you had “WR” nano particles in your paper, you could print anything you want on it and you could give it to somebody else. With a magnifying glass, they could find these little specks here and there on the paper. They would be able to see the shape and they would be able to see that it says WR, the name of your business, your logo or whatever it is. To the regular person, they wouldn’t see it at all. It would look like a speck. It won’t photocopy, you can’t photograph it and you can’t lift it out of the paper. It makes it virtually impossible to counterfeit a document. We’re going to do all kinds of things with deeds, certain types of contracts, banking documents, as well as military applications.
I think about it as you could solve a problem which is what you’re doing. I think back to the part of the original story. You’re two out of three successes and one not so much. On the not so much success story, how much of that played into TerraSlate success?
I hear regularly that you learn more from mistakes than you do from success. In entrepreneurship, it’s magnified to the ‘nth degree. Your education comes from failing, not from succeeding. When you succeed, you think you have a hot hand. It’s like being on the basketball court in the NBA finals and you make a couple of shots that maybe wouldn’t be high percentage shots. All of a sudden, you feel like you’ve got a hot hand. That basket is about as big as a truck. You can throw it from anywhere and it will go in. The hard part is recognizing that it’s not true. You don’t have a hot hand in entrepreneurship. That’s not a thing. You can be good, but the problem is that success makes you think you’re better than you are. Failure is what will cut your knees out quickly. It will teach you all the things that you would miss if you just thought you were hot and you could touch anything and make it work.
A couple of the key learnings are in the transportation industry. I created a company called Teslyne. We used Tesla SUVs to compete with Uber and Lyft directly. We had an app. It was Colorado-based. You could go from anywhere in Colorado to anywhere in Colorado because that’s where our luxury limousine license had permitted us to be. What I learned is you don’t want to run a business that operates 24 hours a day. I learned a huge amount about hiring and staffing because to keep a small fleet of vehicles on the road 24 hours a day, you need to staff four drivers per car. Every time you buy another car, and Tesla’s are not inexpensive, you’ve got to have four more drivers and then they turn over because it’s an easy job to do, and easy to leave. We had high standards so they went through a training process, but then they would take this experience and move to Cincinnati or whatever.
The single most valuable thing I learned out of starting Teslyne was how to hire good people and how to figure out that they’re not good right away and then you have to move on. Nobody likes to fire people. The emphasis is always on making a good hire. Are you able to say, “I am in crisis, I am going to drive all of these cars myself,” or “I’m going to get some more people?” That’s still not a reason to get a bad hire. A bad hire will do worse things for your company than you staying up all night and driving all the rides or what have you, obviously within the legal limit of a number of hours you can drive and be safe. Still, a good hire is not only good for the business, but he or she becomes a good example for all of the other employees that you have. If you can create that culture of hard work and customer-service facing, it spreads. It works in reverse if you have a bad employee that can spread too. Hiring was something I did more of than I’d ever done in my life and that was the biggest take-away from Teslyne.
Do you have a lot of employees with TerraSlate?
We have fourteen people here in Denver that do the printing and production. In addition to that, we have three manufacturing facilities around the country. One is in Houston where I’m headed to today. One is in New Jersey and then one in Wisconsin. Those are large scale plants. What’s wonderful is that with traditional paper companies, their business is declining at 9% a year. These mills, which have been around for 100 years, have very little business. A few years ago, it was hard for us to get mill time. Now they compete for our business. We help keep the mills open because our business is up into the right as fast as we can go. We ship things directly from there and then we do ship things from Denver if it’s printed materials. We have a pretty big staff that manages and operates those mills, but they work on a contract basis.
From my personal interest, if I have a document that I want to destroy and it’s on TerraSlate paper, what does the destruction process looks like?
TerraSlate can be put in any paper shredder. You can cut it with scissors, you can punch holes in it. It doesn’t burn well, but you can burn it if you hold a flame to it long enough. We don’t recommend that though because we don’t like to put carcinogens in the atmosphere. It goes against our whole sustainability premise and not cutting down trees. Any paper shredder, even a standard office one, will do it. Military grade shredders work as well. They take a piece of paper and they turn it into dust. You can’t glue that back together, you get the diamond cut and it works great.
As I think about the contrast, you were talking about all the people you’re trying to hire for Teslyne and then you look at the rapid growth of your company. What are the chief challenges on a rapidly growing company that you’re facing?
One of the things that people love to say to me and it makes me cringe every time is, “That’s a good problem to have.” It’s like, “You’re growing so fast, it’s a problem.” What they are dismissing and not realizing is that doesn’t mean it’s not still a problem. One of the hardest things about growth is being able to create systems that are scalable. We’re going to print X amount now, but tomorrow we’re going to print 10x that. How do you get the people trained up to run the equipment? You’ve got to get the equipment delivered and half of it comes from Japan. It’s got to come over on a ship and it’s got to be custom-installed. You’ve got to call the power company because we need yet again to upgrade the power line. Not just inside the building. We have to upgrade the wire that goes all the way down the street from the hub.
It’s phenomenally expensive to do that. Every time we get another piece of equipment, we’ve got to up the power. There are a lot of processes to go through to do that. Whole Foods called us and I had been working with them for three years to put this deal together. The deal would die and then would come back and die again. Finally they said, “Here’s the green light. We need this right now.” We ran 24 hours a day to get the material to them. We did not have the capacity to do that because we were already running at capacity in the process of adding more. All of a sudden, then we had to add 2x capacity overnight. You figure out how to run three shifts a day. A lot of that is me staying at the facility and running the equipment during the shifts.
You learn how to do maintenance, don’t you?
Yeah, and we have maintenance techs at our facility all the time. We have dedicated parking spots for them. What’s interesting is the printing presses that we use are designed to print all types of regular paper that comes from tree pulp, yet ours is fully synthetic. It’s a different thing to print. It’s not harder pre se, but it is harder at high speed because all of the feeding mechanisms are designed to work with a paper that’s porous, where air will go through it. When you suck it up, a little bit of air will go through it. That can help get the top sheet but not the sheet under it. Ours is completely non-porous. Water or air will not go through it. When you suck up the top sheet, you may get the bottom sheet stuck to it because of static electricity.
We have what are called air blades or air knives and they blow air in from the sides. They blows air in between the sheets to make sure that you get the top sheet and the sheet that stuck to it gets pulled back down. To do that at very high speed is difficult. One of the techs famously said at the office, “It’s not what it was designed to do, but it’s what it can do,” which is a quote he took from Apollo 13 when the whole thing is broken and they’re like, “We know it’s not designed for this.” They had a sock and some tape and, “We’re going to figure out how.” We do that a little bit because the equipment isn’t always designed to do what we do with it. We run it fast and it gets hot. The good news is after a few years, we’re getting good at it.
I don’t remember where I read it or maybe it was you talking about it, where when you were first testing your paper in your house, I think you had a printer meltdown.
We were in a few different pieces of equipment. The challenge of making synthetic paper is that if you make it out of plastic, it’s rigid. It won’t go through a printer because it has to be able to flex and bend to get through the paper path of any printer. The first iteration is rigid and it will break if you bend it. That doesn’t work. You can’t print it. The next iteration is to have it be flexible. You put it in the printer and the ink smears all over. It can’t accept the toner. A couple of more versions later, it’s flexible and the ink will stick in theory. You put it in the printer to test it and then it melts because laser printers use heat to adhere toner to the paper. They get hot and regular paper can handle that as long as it goes through quickly.
Our prototype seized in the printer and melted. It seized the internals of the printer completely. We had to get rid of it. That was funny and the whole house smelled like plastic and when Ashley came home. She was like, “What kind of science experiments do you do while I’m at work?” I was like, “I don’t know, but we need a new printer.” Those are funny stories now but at the time, it was incredibly stressful because you have this product you’re excited about. You spend a bunch of more money and all of a sudden, it doesn’t work again. The engineers were like, “We don’t know if this is going to work. We will take your money to keep doing iterations and the new prototype, but what you’re trying to do may not work.” Eventually, we did get some that’s flexible that toner adheres to and it’s heat resistant up to 450 degrees. You can run it on a commercial press or laser printer. It takes a long time to get there.
I think about the humbling process that you’ve been through. You get one thing and you go, “This was a great idea,” and then you go, “We finally figured that out.” No, not as much and you keep going back. Thinking about your other pursuits, you’re a triathlete. When you look at the triathlete credo and disciplines, how much did that play into what you’re doing in your business?
Athletics and business crossover significantly for me. I skied professionally for a while out of high school and then during college a little bit. I got injured before the Olympics in 2006 so I didn’t get to compete, but I got to go as a spectator. I got to support my friends and teammates on an Olympic level. I thought that was wonderful. It was a good experience. The discipline I learned during that has been hugely influential in my business life. The perseverance and the mentality of one more day, or one more drill, are what you may need to get there.
This is super funny and a little bit abstract, but I had this influential ski coach in my life and he was almost a drill sergeant. His name is Bobby Aldighieri, and I will send him this so he can evaluate my story. Bobby was tough. There was no room for mistakes. You’re on time or you’re late. You’re five minutes early or you’re late. There’s no room for errors and you don’t waste his time. If he’s coaching you, you’re not messing around.
It didn’t work for some people, they hated it because it was a little bit too rigid. For some reason, I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it. That style of mentoring, teaching and coaching worked for me because I was so passionate about what I wanted to do. It was like, “Tell me anything I need to know to get to there.” That discipline that he instilled was influential in my life. I tried to think of like a miner with a pick-axe. He’s underground and there’s a big ruby in there. He doesn’t know which swing is going to get him there, but it might be the next one. You swing that thing one more time. When the rock chips and it blasts you in the face, you’re squinting, and you can’t see anymore, take another swing. If you’re tired, your hands are blistered or whatever, you never know how many more it will take, but it might be just a few. “I’m going to find this thing and I don’t care how many swings is because I’m equally motivated on the first swing as I am on the 25,000th swing a couple of years later.”
I like the discipline a lot. It works well for me. I have a lot of self-motivation taught by this one guy. One of the things that became a key part of TerraSlate and its success was I would spend a minimum of one hour on the phone and doing cold calls. I would do it at a set time every day. That is my time to sell. It doesn’t matter what happens. This is my hour. I’m going to do sales for this hour. Every once in a while, I get a win because you get a sale or a couple of things go well, all of a sudden it turns into three hours and that’s great. That doesn’t mean you get credit for the next day. You’ve got to do your one hour. You can do more, but you don’t get to do less.
Shortly thereafter, I added second criteria to that. It’s one hour a day on the phone, then five days a month on my feet, literally doing door-to-door sales. What I would do is go to the main street of whatever the closest town was that I hadn’t been to yet. I would walk up one side and talk to every restaurant manager, and then go across the street and back down the other side talking to all of the other managers. I would say, “This is my product. We make waterproof menus.” They’d say, “Come on, that’s ridiculous. It’s not laminated.” I would say, “You’re right. That’s the best part.” They would say, “Prove it.” That was always my favorite thing to hear because I knew I could get the sale when they would say that.
What I would do is we take one of the sample menus that I brought with me and put it in the dishwasher at the restaurant. It’s hard to refute that because commercial dishwashers run incredibly hot. It’s water at very high speed in a commercial dishwasher. It’s compelling because you can’t fake it through that. TerraSlate won’t delaminate and that would prove it. What’s cool is TerraSlate is one solid piece of material with no layers. It never comes apart. What that allows you to do is you can hole punch it, you can cut it in any direction, fold it and then it’s still 100% waterproof. It’s one hour a day on the phone and five days a month pounding pavement. It’s a numbers game. You fail a few times in person, that hurts, but I’ve only got to go to a few more and I’m going to get a sale. You refine the pitch a little bit and you maintain that discipline around it. It’s A/B testing.
Are you still iterating?
Yeah, every day.
You have clients or prospects to go see in Houston and you go, “I’m going to close some business.” For many people, they forget that it’s much like a brick building in a wall. It’s one more brick in the wall. It sounds like bricklaying.
It’s one more swing of the pick-axe.
It’s the same. Looking at some of the other homework before here, you also have some charitable work that you’re passionate about. What’s got you going with the Seven Ribbons?
The Seven Ribbons Foundation is a charitable organization that I founded about 10 years ago. It specifically supports cancer research in an effort to find a cure. I had two aunts that had cancer. Cancer can pretty influential in your life as soon as you come in contact with it. My brother-in-law beat cancer. He’s a young, healthy guy. If there’s a guy you would say that this would never happen to, it would be him. It’s important to not only be successful as a person in business, but philanthropic endeavors are maybe more important. Our mission is to support cancer research and raise money by running a marathon on all seven continents and then climbing the seven summits, which are the tallest mountains on every continent.
When I seek pledges or donations, we have fun things we will do like you can buy a mile. I create something that I will put on my arm and I will have everybody’s name and I can remember that person for one mile. For me, on a personal level, it’s motivating during the race. It helps you stay mindful and it keeps you in the moment. You’re going through a lot of pain in a marathon and it gives you some perspective. You’re like, “I can keep running. I can run a little faster.” It’s the same with mountains.
You get a lot of time for deep thought when you’re on a rope line because you’re close to other people, but you’re still twenty feet apart. That’s usually the interval on a rope team. The problem is you’re all facing the same direction going up a hill. You don’t get a lot of time to communicate. You get a lot of time to think. We have some fun with that. People will also pledge per step. You calculate how many steps are in a marathon or up to the top of a mountain. It gives us a fun way to relate to people when we’re asking for donations. We’ve raised some good money and hopefully, some of that will have an impact.
Making an impact as a result of doing well in business. The more you do in your business, the more impact you can make. We’re going to shift gears a little bit because I’ve worn you out on the personal quiz and I met your lovely wife. She has influence and support and that’s a key team member for you as well so shout out to Ashley. In looking, you had the influence of a coach. What do you do as far as reading to feed the tool between your ears?
I’m a consumer of all different types of media. I love reading. I’m a reader – if you had to categorize me. I love to read on the iPad sitting on the plane or sitting in the airport. I also love to listen to books. I have a series of podcasts that I crush on a weekly basis. I love listening to them. When the new episode isn’t out yet, I’m like, “Come on!”
Economics is my favorite topic. Planet Money, the guys from WNYC. The Indicator is a daily podcast. I could go on for a month on all of them. I’ve added your podcast so that will be fun.
A book that I’ve read and just finished, is called Radical Candor by Kim Scott. It was recommended to me at an event called the Masters’ Dinner by a guy that I know relatively well. All of a sudden, we got talking business and it was like a MindMeld and that was fun. He was like, “What are you reading?” I told him about a couple of things. One of the books is Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. That was my first recommendation and he came back with Radical Candor by Kim Scott. I was like, “What is that?” I bought it at the dinner table or downloaded it.
Kim’s whole shtick is that when you’re managing people, you have to give them candor or you do them a disservice. I am super guilty of her first example in the book that she opens with, which is when you have an employee that doesn’t do a great job and you say, “No problem, I will take it from here.” It’s easier and it’s faster if you just fix it rather than have a teaching moment, go back, show them how you wanted it done, how it ought to be done or what the client’s looking for. You make that mistake of doing it for them. The problem is they don’t learn. What you’ve done is you’ve created a monster out of them and out of yourself.
They don’t know what you wanted because you never told them. You’re constantly frustrated because they always get to the same spot and you always have to fix it. Don’t do that to yourself. It’s hard, especially if it’s a new employee or somebody you haven’t worked with yet. You don’t want to come off the wrong way. Everybody wants to be well liked by the people they work with, but you have to remember, it’s back to our discipline, you don’t need to be harsh about it. That’s not the point. The point is you say, “This looks good, but here’s how I want to make sure we do it in the future. You need to add these things or we’re going to change this slightly,” then they can say, “I got it. I know what Kyle wants now.” The next time they do a similar task or assignment, they bring it to me. I’m like, “This looks great!”
Given your growth pattern, you’re going to have a lot of people to take and bring along because they’re all going to be on board. We talked about the failures of the past and how it’s set you up. We covered the failure side pretty well. If you were going to take and broadcast your company message on the front of your favorite business periodical, whatever that is, what would it say and why?
I would adopt a joking slogan that we use around the office but we don’t use it in public because it’s cheesy. We say “Don’t laminate TerraSlate” which is the cheesiest catchphrase. We never use that in print, but we use the message and we adopt it. Our professional version is “Never laminate again.” Lamination is very hard on the environment. It’s very hard to make those clear pouches in any kind of environmentally friendly way. They’re made out of plastic. When you have to print a piece of paper, then you have to insert it into a laminating pouch and you have to put them through this heating mechanism that seals it up. There are fumes that come off that from the plastic.
Once it’s been laminated, a piece of paper can never be recycled after that. It is only trash. Every time you laminate something, you’ve created a piece of trash that lasts forever. What we replaced lamination with is TerraSlate because it doesn’t cut down trees like the piece of regular paper did. You can print it and then when you’re done with it, you can put it in a mixed recycling bin and it can be recycled. It’s cheaper, it’s faster and it’s more sustainable than laminating regular paper. My message or my ad in the Denver Business Journal or the Steamboat Pilot would say something along the lines of, “Waterproof paper – never laminate again!” with a photo that makes it clear what you’re doing.
For you, as you’re looking at your day and you carve out times, what’s the best allocation of time or initiative that’s helped you and your company?
Business development, 100%. As an entrepreneur, my personal philosophy is to never take investors’ money unless you absolutely have to. In the entrepreneurial world, it’s called bootstrapping. You take whatever amount you have or whatever you can dedicate to it and you make one tee shirt. When you sell that tee shirt, you buy two more. You scale up like that. It’s painful because it’s very slow at the beginning. Getting on the phone and selling sheets of paper and going out in person selling menus means that I can make a bigger run the next time I call the mill and I need another round. There are the economies of scale in all types of manufacturing, and especially with ours, we make sheets of white paper.
You can take advantage of those economies of scale when you buy twenty rolls instead of two because there’s a changeover cost to make TerraSlate versus regular paper. You get to distribute that cost over a lot more sheets if you make a bigger run. The problem is you don’t want to end up with a basement full of inventory that you can’t sell. Now your money is tied up in inventory, you can’t do any marketing. If somebody says, “I need you to come down here and do an implementation,” you’ve got to buy that plane ticket on a credit card with the money you don’t have because all your money is in inventory. It’s a constant balance of cash flow.
Some of your background in previous work is with Brightstar.
With Brightstar, I did demand supply and demand signal forecasting, which is a fancy way to tell Verizon, Sprint or any of the big phone carriers how many of the new phone they need at each store to maintain a certain level of service. To have it in stock 98% of the time, this store needs X number of phones. You roll that up to a company-wide forecast and then you can put the orders out for how many phones you want to buy each month. Some of that is helpful in my current role at TerraSlate. The good news about when you do it on a big scale like that on a countrywide or on an international level is you have a lot of data. When you have onesie, twosie sales, the forecasting is tough because you’re forecasting on a data point of one.
Forecasting is wonderful, but it’s only as good as your data. It can be a challenge to figure out the balance of how much inventory do you want and how much equipment you can afford. Doing sales and getting the money in the door and then doing your own collections, “Charles, it’s Kyle. I haven’t talked to you in a little while. Let me know what I need to do to get a check in the mail,” or I send an email, “Susan, it’s Kyle. Let me know if I need to attach this invoice from the order on this date. Let me know if I need to follow-up with a person or a different department and get the check back because I need the money. I need to buy more inventory. I need to buy another piece of equipment.” Make the sale and then get the check.
I was thinking about typical military maps were pretty large. We didn’t laminate them because we got contact paper and that’s what we do. You’d write on it and then right on there, it washes off. We had a grease pencil, it smudges, and you can’t read it anyways. How big of a document is it? Is it wide as your rolls that you could do?
We make the paper on big rolls. They look like giant rolls of toilet paper and then we cut the paper down to sheet size. Our standard large size is 12” x 18.” That’s because most printers that print up to 12” x 18” can’t handle anything bigger without a phenomenally expensive printer to do that. We make custom-sized sheets regularly for people, but typically we will have a minimum order of 4,000 sheets. The people that need the larger sheets always need a huge amount of it anyway. We don’t stock those sizes, but we cut it to spec whenever needed.
I’m thinking about your discipline to call and go see customers. What would you say to the business owners saying, “I’m so busy running my business, I don’t have time for that?”
I heard it in a podcast, it might have been Tim Ferriss on his podcast and his thing was if somebody can do it 80% as well as you can, you need to outsource it or insource it. Have someone else do that. If it’s the accounting that is taking up all your time, there’s a cloud-based accounting that you can use that’s phenomenal. We do that. We have an accountant and she travels back and forth between the US and Jamaica. She does our books and she does a phenomenal job. I don’t care where she goes. Everything is in the cloud. We use an accounting software called Xero. What’s cool is we have a third-party prepared financials available at a moment’s notice anytime.
If I’m here to meet with you about a new piece of equipment and you say, “I need to see some third-party prepared financials,” I’ve got them right here on my iPad. “Here you go. This is live as of this second. These numbers are up to date.” Accounting takes time. Marketing takes time. You can outsource marketing or hire the people in to do that. The hard thing for an entrepreneur is giving away control because you think they will never do it as good as you can. That might be true but the opposite is also true. They might be able to do it significantly better than you can because this is the only thing they do. You can hire the person or a company that does digital advertising for you because they are way better because they’ve been doing it for many years. They know everything about it. It’s the only thing they think about. You’re trying to think about that and all the other pieces of running a business. If you’re too busy to get out there and sell, you need to be hiring people or you need to be outsourcing. Nobody can sell it as well as you until you’re big enough to have a sales team, then maybe they’re better. My thought is to follow that. If it can be done 80% as well by somebody else, hire them. Even if you think you can’t afford them yet, you hire them and then go sell some more paper until you can pay for them, and then keep scaling up. That’s how you do it.
For you, if I was to ask Ashley or somebody else who knows the unusual habit that’s helped you or your company most, what would that be?
I have what my employees call Kyle Level 11 and this is the scenario: I will walk into somebody’s office and I will say, “I’ve got an idea.” They all lean back and roll their eyes and they say, “Here we go.” I’m like, “What does that mean?” They’re like, “Go ahead.” “For instance, I want to get into reusable notebooks. It would be an eco-friendly notebook that you could write on and then you could erase the pages and reuse it. Maybe it’s a good idea. Maybe it’s awful, but I’m going to execute on it and we’re going to try it.” They know that their job is going to be to support this initiative. They always smile. They’re very nice about it. I’m very excited about lots of things all the time and doing the next thing with paper. One of the cool things we do now is we make what’s called a PODD book. What it is, is for a nonverbal child, they can’t communicate through their voice but they’re all there in their mind. What we do is we’ve taken a PODD book and we printed on TerraSlate. We put a pipe through it and then a strap and the kid can wear it sideways like a hip bag. They use this to interface with their parents and with their teachers.
What they do is open it and they say something like, “I want to go outside now” by pointing to the appropriate picture. Then the teacher can say, “Great, let’s go at 10:30 and then we will go to the zoo afterwards,” or whatever it is. It’s cool because the parents can communicate with their kids. The PODD book doesn’t break or wear out and the batteries don’t die, and they carry it everywhere with them. Kids are kids so it has to be a little rough and tumble. We started making these PODD books a while ago and now we’re plugged into this whole network around the country. We’re shipping these things to schools, parents and individuals. We’re shipping them to Australia and all over the world because it’s the best PODD book you can get. We do them at our cost. It’s a non-revenue generating unit for us but that’s okay. We profit and grow as a company, but as a philanthropist myself, we’ve got to give back. That’s one of the small ways we can do that. That’s been fun.
It’s a great story. I suffered a bit from, “I’ve got this idea.” Everybody does the same thing and here we go. For the past couple of years, if there was an overarching belief or protocol in your company that’s like, “We live or die with this,” what’s that been for your company?
We call them the three pillars of success. They are quality, speed and customer service. If you’re going to print something, it’s similar to accounting, it cannot be wrong. It’s got to be perfect. If I’m printing Whole Foods-green, it better be Whole Foods-green. It cannot be a different shade or a different pantone. It’s got to be perfect. The other thing is we make white sheets of paper. Any defect is glaringly obvious. You can see a speck bigger than the point of a pen from across the room on a sheet of paper. People do not appreciate when they get paper if it’s going to have specks. We work hard to make sure that we have perfectly consistent products.
The paper has a perfectly smooth surface. It’s always consistently white. If we make it in a color, that the color is consistent, and then speed. In the printing industry, for a restaurant in Key West Florida for instance, it’s a lot easier for them to get their menus made by the local print shop than it is to get them shipped from Denver. What we ended up doing is we compete with every print shop in the country and now ship to 35 countries around the world. We’ve got to do it better, that’s the quality piece, and we’ve got to do it faster, which is the speed component. What we do is we have a standard two-day turnaround time on anything we print. Every once in a while, that kills us to do, but nobody likes a slow print shop. We can deliver our products with free shipping to that customer in Key West faster than the print shop that’s across the street from the restaurant.
We get a lot of business because people will call and say, “Kyle, I got your number from so and so. It’s Thursday. The chef has ordered all sorts of fine foods for the weekend. They forgot to tell us and we sat on the menu changes. We need new menus tomorrow. Otherwise, we can’t sell this food.” We will do same day printing with overnight shipping. We get rush orders every day. The whole production facility is designed for speed.
It’s quality, speed and then customer service. We try to be incredibly easy to work with. The website is very functional and it’s super easy to order online. I put my cell phone number and my email signature into my actual cell phone. People call me all day and all night. I talk to customers all the way here. I talk to them all the way to the aircraft and the second we land.
It ends up being a customer service role on a regular basis and that’s great. I’m also the guy in the booth at the trade show, as often as possible, which is 90% of the time. The reason I like that is when a customer walks up and talks to the President of the company, they know I don’t have to get approval to do something. If they need something specific or special, I don’t have to go through a queue and run it up to the chain and get approvals all the way up, and then I then back down. I can give them yes or no. I can give them a price on the spot. I empower my employees to do the same thing. If they are working with a customer and they need something, let’s figure out a way to make it happen.
It’s very expensive when we make mistakes. We try not to do that very often. We have maybe a handful of returns ever. We do try to make it right as soon as possible, whatever that is. We’ve had paper arrive in another country and one of the boxes got dropped on a corner and some of the pages were bent. We refund them for those sheets or we’ll ship a replacement to them wherever it is. People appreciate that and every once in a while, somebody takes advantage of that. In terms of being an entrepreneur, it’s always better to keep a customer than to lose a customer and you have to get another one.
If you’re going to offer advice to a President of an organization that is taking that role for the first time, what advice might you offer?
Assuming that they’re coming from outside of the company, my advice to a new CEO would be to listen first. Don’t go in and knock heads together. Everybody hates that guy or that girl. It may be effective in some circumstances but spend a significant amount of time listening. You won’t be able to take everybody’s suggestions, thoughts or ideas and incorporate them, but you will get a good read where the company is. You can formulate a plan with those people, being involved to go forward and drive a positive influence in a new direction.
Part of that is servant leadership. I regularly make sure to get down and climb up under the machines and clean them or replace parts, with the techs and with my guys and girls that do that every day. What I want to show them is that I know how to do every job in this room. I’m very happy to help. If we’re down a person because somebody is sick or whatever the issue is, I’m happy to run back there and fill in at any single point in the process. My hope is that people then can see me as a real person. I don’t sit in an ivory tower. I’m happy to roll up my sleeves and get dirty or even get my sleeves dirty. The message is that you’re willing to go to battle with your team.
I will be the one that stays up all night if someone needs to. What that does is it earns their trust so that when you need them to go to battle with you, they’re ready to ride at a moment’s notice. It doesn’t matter if it’s last minute or the weekend, or they’re already in the midst of a big project, they’re ready to saddle up and go. That’s pretty cool on an internal type of a focus. When a customer sees that happen for them, when they see your team can gel in a second and deliver for them, they not only feel special, but they trust you and your team and they like the whole team. That makes a big difference. People buy from people.
I don’t care if it’s the military or a multinational corporation, somebody is cutting a PO. There is a person doing it and somebody has to get the approval. If you can relate to that person and if that person knows you will go to bat for them, you’re much likely to get the business. At some point we will have a competitor. My hope is that we’ve done such a good job for them, standing on our three pillars of success, quality, speed and customer service that even if somebody else has another product that’s less expensive, they’re going to stick with us because they know we’re going to deliver.
I’ve seen that leadership model pretty much all my life. What are the common misconceptions about your role?
The common misconception is that entrepreneurship is easy, but it is made to look easy by design. There is no entrepreneur that I’ve ever met who will tell you, “Everything is awful, it’s going badly, we’re failing.” They’re optimists. They will tell you it’s going great, even if it’s not because they know they’re going to figure out a way to get great. What people see from the outside is that you don’t have a boss. You can probably sleep in. You can play golf whenever you want. All I do is jet set around the world and I am on vacation all the time and that’s it. What’s funny is that’s a dream you’ve got to sell because that’s what looks good. That’s what sells TV on Shark Tank. “We created this new thing called the coffee cup and we went on Shark Tank. We sold eleven billion coffee cups and now look at us.” In reality, that success took at least ten years and they’ve banged their head against the wall more times than they can count to get there.
That would be embarrassing to do that but they’re making it look good. The misconception is that you jet set around the world, you’re always on vacation. The truth is I don’t play golf. I don’t even know where my golf clubs are. I work all hours of the day. My wife and I watch Game of Thrones while I’ve got my laptop in my lap and I’m typing away. I’m watching but I’m typing.
You’re working on the airplane. You’re working at the airport. You’re making sales calls and on the intercom they hear “Boarding plane,” and they’re like, “Are you at the airport?” I say, “Yes, but I wanted to make sure I called you before I got on this plane,” and people say, “I appreciate that.” Entrepreneurship is much harder and much more painful than it looks.
There are not a lot of worse feelings than knowing you’re not going to make payroll unless you close this deal right now. By the way, you not only have to get the purchase order, but you also have to get the check because payroll is due on Wednesday to get it paid Friday. You’ve got to get the government paid before you pay the employees and it’s a whole other process. That means you’ve got to have the money in the bank ahead of that. That can be incredibly stressful because the risk as an employee of working in a small business or a startup is they don’t get stability as they would have at a major multinational. In multinational, they always make payroll. If they were short, they could get a loan in five seconds to cover it. The employees will never know. When you’re a startup, you don’t have any of those benefits or resources available. Twice, we’ve missed payroll and I paid payroll with PayPal and Venmo.
I was 3,000 miles away and my accountant called. I was like, “Okay.” I personally PayPal’d and Venmo’d everybody’s accounts so that they would get their money in time. They are dependent on you and they will leave in a second if they sniff any instability. You’ve got to treat people well so that they treat you well. Also, I called every employee personally and I said, “Here’s what happened but I’m going to get you paid. I’m going to get your your pay early. What’s your Venmo handle or your PayPal email address? Let me know and it’s coming right this second.” There are ways to handle it. People on the outside don’t see that. They see you flying off here and there, shaking hands, speaking at events, doing podcasts or whatever. They don’t see the internal stomach aches that you have almost on a daily basis to try to keep it all together.
People wonder, we talked about why you do a podcast. They’re not such a fan of business owners and some of the things they’re going like, “How did you think of that?” You created a market or solved the problem within the marketplace. I’m a small business owner too. What I do and you worry about your employees, you worry about what you’re doing, you worry about your product delivery, and you go all these things and someone says, “Yeah but you control your schedule.” All this stuff is a common misconception. CEOs are up there wearing cool clothes and making big decisions about the way they do things, “By the way, I’m on my way to the islands.” No, not so much. For you, in the past few years, how do you stay motivated with all the stuff that you’ve got going on?
I’m a motivated guy. That’s part of my personality. There are hard days and there are hard weeks. Sometimes there’s a whole month where you’re like, “I’m taking it not going well the way I want.” Motivation is internal and you can do a couple of things to help that, motivate the people around you so that when you’re having a day, you need motivation. They can lift you up and cover for you a little bit. One of the things that I saw on this show called Bosch. It’s a police show on Amazon Prime and they never say it in the show, but the main character, Harry Bosch is a police detective and on his desk. He has a little sign and it says, “Get off your ass and knock on doors.” I thought that was great. I think that’s perfect. I have emulated him and I have a sticky on my computer that says the same thing. What that reminds me to do is “I don’t care how busy you are, what you’re doing, what the crisis is right now, get off your ass and go sell something.”
Everything else takes care of itself after that. For people that are looking to reach out to you, how do they find you on social media?
We talked about your favorite quote. I think about the growth pattern and I don’t generally ask this. We’re sitting here three to five years from now. If you could come pretty close to what you have as true for your company, what do you think your company’s going to look like three to five years from now?
It’s something that’s funny. I think about it every day and I don’t know what it looks like. I could tell you that few years ago, I wouldn’t think that we’d have a 6,000 square foot state of the art facility that looks like a clean room right in Denver plus three plants around the country. I hope that a couple of years from now, we’ll laugh at the size of that facility we have now. My hope is to get people to use TerraSlate instead of lamination and then use TerraSlate instead of paper if it’s going to be reprinted all the time. Instead of reprinting the same document, checklist, maintenance log, or whatever again and again, print it once, use it and then recycle it.
We have artists using it now for alcohol ink and airbrush art. We had no idea when we developed TerraSlate that it would work for that. All of a sudden, we got involved in this community and they think TerraSlate is great for their art projects. That’s super fun. We’re making one-off signs for food trucks because they put it on the outside of the thing. It doesn’t matter. It can sit in the sun and the rain all day and they don’t have to get a new one.
I hope that we can keep doing what we’re doing, scale and positively change the world in a small way. If we can figure out a big way to do it, we’re going to do that too. Even having a positive impact in a small way means a lot to me. I hope we’re ten times bigger in a couple of years. I hope we have as good of a team then as we do now.
Kyle, for all of what we’ve gone on here, we’ve covered pretty much all the bases. The biggest mistake anybody could make is if they think that your product has an application for them, they should call and they can find you on the internet. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking time out of your very busy schedule. Thanks again.
I appreciate it. If you’d like to get a sample, send me an email or go to the website, TerraSlate.com. We’ve got sample packs of all kinds. If you’re a restaurant owner, I’d love to save you some money on your menus. This is me, ABC, Always Be Closing. At the close of the podcast, I will give you one last sale and a call to action. It’s been fun being here. Thanks so much.
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About Kyle Ewing
Kyle Ewing became a full-time entrepreneur in 2014 when he left the corporate world to build his first company, Guerrilla Tags ID Systems. After a successful exit in 2015, Kyle is now focused on the growth and development of his new startup, TerraSlate Paper, which manufactures and prints waterproof paper for the US Military, restaurants, and biotech firms around the world. The success of his businesses can be best attributed to a creative marketing approach that nimbly tracks customer needs to fulfillment and leverages just-in-time inventory management. His most recent high-profile advertising campaign in partnership with BMW USA is the “Road to Sustainability” in which he seeks to make redundant laminated documents in all applications. Kyle enjoys collaborating with fellow entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to develop new systems, metrics and growth strategies for emerging companies in the tech and renewable resources industries.
The experience Kyle gained in corporate positions provided the underpinnings for his entrepreneurship a position as Supply Chain Manager at Brightstar Corporation on supply chain optimization and demand signal forecasting in which, at an operator-wide level, he successfully carried out multiple initiatives in supply chain management, data-driven analytics, and inventory management using triple exponential smoothing models that he built for the wireless phone industry. Kyle also held roles as a Business Operations & Management Consultant, Procurement Manager and Marketing Analyst where he gained much of the valuable experience upon which he relies.
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