Entrepreneur Dan Russo is on a mission to help grocery shoppers—and himself—remember to bring reusable bags to the store. The founder of L.E. Green Bags began by filling a gap in "guy-friendly" reusable bag design, but one year ago a spark of an idea for The Shopping List Bag has officially turned his hobby into a business.
The bag combines a shopping list, pen, loyalty card key ring and coupon clip into a full-sized reusable bag that can be folded and stuck to a refrigerator.
Russo debuted at Natural Products Expo East 2011 to rave reviews, landing a spot in our roundup of sustainable products from the show. Here, he recounts his year-long journey from prototype to finished product on store shelves, with plenty of advice along the way for budding natural industry entrepreneurs.
newhope360: What inspired you to create The Shopping List Bag?
Dan Russo: In 2010, I was making reusable bags for guys. I along with many of my friends were embarrassed to carry store branded bags because they were overly feminine and heavily branded. Doing the research for my business plan, I came across the stat that said 90 percent of people forget their bags when they go to the store, and 2/3 of people shop with a shopping list. I thought, that's a huge opportunity—if we marry those two concepts together and stop people from using single-use bags.
It's an additive product for retailers. It's not meant to replace your reusable bag stock—it's to start adoption of reusable bags. As a consumer, you're not going to have six shopping list bags; you're only going to have one. So when you go the store, if you remember your shopping list you'll at least have one reusable bag, and that one bag makes a difference.
newhope360: How did you go from prototype to final bag?
DR: I went to the local arts store and bought fabric, Velcro, fasteners and tons of crazy glue because I don't know how to sew. At the end of the day I had what became The Shopping List Bag. I took it to Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's, the natural stores I usually shop at. I did guerilla focus groups and asked the cashiers about it as I was paying. If people noticed it in my shopping cart I'd ask them, "Oh, what do you think about this, by the way?"
I called local tailors, dry cleaners, basically anybody who had a sewing machine to see if they could stitch me up a better version instead of the glue. Nobody was interested in taking on a new product, so I ended up connecting with Goodwill Industries. They employ a large population of disabled workers who offer sewing services. They were able to take some of my "guy bags" and adjust those to be The Shopping List Bag. That whole process began in spring 2010 and we just launched at Natural Products Expo East.
We just started shipping. They're in stores as of Nov. 3 in New York City, in the Westerley Natural Market and Broadway Panhandler, as well as Sunseed Food Co-op in Florida;
Espresso Yourself Cafe and Appalachian Whole Foods Market in Pennsylvania; and Natural Planet, a Puerto Rico distributor.
newhope360: So, a year ago you were stitching something together with glue and now that product is on store shelves. How are you feeling about this accomplishment?
DR: It's been a rollercoaster. I took this idea that seemed really cool to me, and I would share it with family and friends and they all thought it was cool, too, but I wasn't sure if they were just placating me. But it turns out that tons of people came by at Expo East and said it was the best product they've seen in years. It's been really great to know that I'm not crazy.
newhope360: Your bag has patent-pending status. Why is getting a patent important to you?
DR: I really wanted to protect what we've created and be able to grow a brand around our product. I think it's nice to take comfort that this is our product and we've started it.
newhope360: What do you enjoy most about being an entrepreneur?
DR: Entrepreneurship is always something I've been drawn to and something I've done to varying degrees throughout my life. I've always had ideas to start my own business, but for whatever reason I thought the idea wasn't quite perfect. So when I was living in Los Angeles and launched L. E. Green Bags, I thought, "This is my opportunity to do it—perfect or not, I'm going for it." I ended up moving back to New York, where I'm from, and started working with MTV. It's a 9 to 5 and it's a juggle, figuring out when to sleep and what nights to stay up until three.
newhope360: Your mom and girlfriend accompanied you at Expo East. What should someone keep in mind when working with family?
DR: My mom is my number one fan and brand ambassador, and my girlfriend Amy has been helpful from the perspective of giving a rational opinion and thinking about how to position the brand and where it might work really well. For me it's been really positive, so I don't have any horror stories. Constructive feedback can be difficult but nobody wants to see you succeed more than your family. I do have another person who handles press outreach, Jen, who has been working for sweat equity.
newhope360: How do you finance your business?
DR: Savings and credit cards. I had a 1963 Chevy Impala SS Convertible, and that got sold to finance the business. I moved back to New York to be closer to family. Basically, just bootstrapped the whole thing from savings, 401K and anywhere I could find a few bucks. We've had interest from investors. I'm at a place that I see so much potential in the bag that I'm figuring out what investment makes the most sense for us at this point.
newhope360: Describe your typical workday.
DR: I get up at 4:30 a.m. and I start stuffing bags, send out a bunch of emails for the day and make a to-do list as to who we need to outreach for the day. I leave the house at 7:30 a.m., take the bus into the office and I'm on the iPad all morning sending off emails. After the day job's over, I outreach to buyers, stop in stores, visit accounts and drum up interest face to face. Dinner's at 9:30 p.m. over the computer and then it's either continue stuffing bags and working until 3 a.m. (usually once a week or so) or midnight.
I've just been so excited by the product and the process that it fuels me completely. I don't even notice I'm tired. And recently I went to a vegan diet in July, and I found that it helps my energy level tremendously. I do a monstrous green smoothie in the morning and at night [try Russo's The Shopping List Bag Smoothie recipe]. I've never had more energy than I've had now, and I've never slept less.
newhope360: So far, what has been most helpful in publicizing your product?
DR: Expo East was far and away the biggest thing that we've done. To be face to face with so many respectable industry people was incredible. We would talk to anybody that would listen. And interestingly, a lot of our big contacts with really large orders were actually fellow exhibitors.
newhope360: You started a business in a down economy. Pros/Cons?
DR: Number one—don't be a victim. It's a down economy only if you think it is. I think it's a really abundant world and I, quite frankly, haven't had anybody tell me they wouldn't buy the product because of the economy. There's money and buyers out there for great products. Whole Foods for example is growing like crazy. Look at the natural food business, it's wildly successful.
newhope360: What advice do you have for other natural products industry entrepreneurs?
DR: The biggest thing I've learned is you can't take no for an answer. There are so many people getting into the natural food business—for the right reasons, maybe not the right reasons—but if you really want to cut through the clutter you have to be persistent.
And don't forget to reach out for help. So many people want to help because they've been down the same road as you. I've met so many great people just by sending an email or just by calling and asking if they'd mind having a conversation with me. I can't think of a time when somebody said no. I would read about someone in the paper and send them a note and they would link me up with somebody else. That's how I found my manufacturer, through a company featured in the Wall Street Journal.
When I do have struggles, and I'm thinking I need a power boost, I go back to the basic mission of why The Shopping List Bag is out there. It's to help the environment and to give the voice to our voiceless stakeholder, which is the earth. We're selling a product that matters, and that makes a difference in the world, and that propels me through.