Meliora’s Co-Founder Kate Jakubas-Creating Healthy Cleaning Products
Kate Jakubas is the co-founder and Chief Operations Officer of Meliora Cleaning Products. Meliora, a certified B-Corp company, manufactures and sells cleaning products that minimize environmental impact. As an entrepreneur, her job is multifaceted – she takes on many different roles, including running the product manufacturing and the operations side of the business. She co-founded the company with her husband Mike, who handles the financials and business administration.
Kate, what is your background before you became an entrepreneur?
I went to engineering school – got my undergraduate degree in Material Science Engineering from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign – then worked as a metallurgist for a company that produces sinks and faucets, performing research on materials and metal alloys.
While I was there, a new law in California was set that required lower lead content in drinkable water that runs out of faucets. It was my job to find a solution to this problem for my company. It was fascinating to discover that there was more to environmental impacts than just putting the right item into the correct recycling bin. So, I went back to school to get my Master’s degree in Environmental Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology here in Chicago, where I learned a lot more about the technical side of the environment.
During graduate school, I found out that there were very few restrictions or regulations in place for household cleaning products. It was hard to tell if products had ingredients that were safe or environmentally friendly. And, to this day, there are no federal laws that require cleaning product companies to disclose to the consumer what ingredients they are using. That’s what led me to found a cleaning product company that does disclose its ingredients to consumers.
That is amazing that there are so little regulations for a household product.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there has been no point in history where product ingredient disclosure and product transparency were normal. A company can put a big bottle of blue stuff on the market called glass cleaner, but they don’t need to tell you what it is that you’re spraying onto your windows – why it’s blue or why it smells like it does. As a consumer, when you buy a cleaning product, you don’t know what the environmental or human health impacts are. You don’t know if the product has something you are allergic to in it or if it contains animal by-products.
Traditionally, large companies, like Procter & Gamble, have resisted transparency in ingredients. The typical argument is, ‘These are trade secrets. If we tell people what’s in our product, then competitors can steal our recipes.’ That’s not a legitimate argument because anybody that has the means to have a multibillion-dollar cleaning product business also has access to the kinds of laboratories where they can reverse engineer any formula anyway.
If that’s the case, then why do the big companies resist disclosure?
I think companies don’t reveal ingredient information because, if consumers knew what was in a particular product, they might not buy it. Consumers could find out a cleaning product is mostly just made of baking soda or, more commonly, there may be an ingredient used that you really would want to avoid for health and safety reasons, for moral reasons, or for keeping kosher. Some ingredients might have animal components.
To me, it’s not a valid argument that, if we tell people what was in our products, they wouldn’t buy it anymore. As a consumer, I want to know what is in the products that I buy.
Absolutely. But, doesn’t government have to impose regulations to force disclosure?
It helps. In California, they recently passed a law to increase disclosure requirements for cleaning products. Large companies fought for and were given a 2-3 year phasing period. They claimed that they need time to update product labels. What it’s really about is that, since it’s time to publicly disclose their ingredients, they now want to reformulate the product. So simply by forcing disclosure, California is creating positive change. Also, when consumers are given full information, then they’re able to make the choice that’s healthier and lowers negative environmental impact.
Tell me more about your company.
I founded Meliora in May of 2013. It was run out of my kitchen. It started as a small part-time thing, while still working at my full time job. It took about 6 months to add my husband Mike as another part-time employee. We grew the business really slowly – we’re both very risk averse. It took two full years before Mike quit his job and went full time for Meliora. Then, I came on full-time a year later. At that point, we were able to move our operations into a dedicated facility and out of our kitchen.
What we’re doing with Meliora is leading by example. We are proving that you can have a business that is successful by disclosing our ingredients and by making better cleaning products for people. We can show companies like Proctor & Gamble (P&G) that there is money to be made just by being more responsible as a company. We aim to make an impact by having a company like P&G take a second glance at our company. We know that Tide is spending advertising dollars against Meliora’s search terms on the internet. So that’s a win in itself. It means we are being noticed by bigger companies because they see us as competitive. More responsible products like ours coming out on the market makes big companies pay attention and makes them change their practices. That has even greater positive impact.
So, how’s it going?
We have two full-time production employees plus we have a contract sales person that works on commission. We’ll bring in another part time employee soon to help with production. Earlier this year, we started paying ourselves a salary. We have been tripling our business annually for the past few years.
Do you have any interest in being acquired by another larger company?
We are both engineers, so our approach to business is using it to solve the problem, to set an example, and to offer a better product.
I love being in the factory every day solving this problem and controlling all of the business decisions to make sure we stay as environmentally responsible as possible. We’re not trying to grow the business to sell it. If it ends up that it’s better to get our products out as part of a bigger company then we would consider that at that time.
When did you come to the realization that you were entrepreneurial minded?
I was never really a business-minded child. I had a rock collection instead of a lemonade stand. I’ve always been inspired and interested in how stuff works and Mike is that way as well. He took apart toasters to see how they were put together. We’re both really engineers.
It wasn’t until I was older that I discovered business could be used as a tool. I see it as a technical problem that has a lot of pieces to it. It’s not just how to make soap, how to make more soap, and how to get it out the door – it’s about how the business runs that’s important. That’s why we’ve become a B Corp assessed company.
I’d love to know more about your experience with the B Corp Certification.
B Corp is a third-party assessment. It’s similar to an organic certification for agriculture, but it’s an assessment and certification of an entire business, not just the products that are made. It assesses not only our environmental performance but also how we run our business; for example, how well we treat and pay our employees.
I really believe in B Corp because it holds us to our own high standards. When I set out, I had these great ideas about how we’re going to be the most sustainable and best cleaning product company for the world. But, if you don’t have a formal plan to check in on those goals and commitments, it’s easy to just get the order out the door this week and then maybe implement a recycling program next week. B Corp puts metrics first, measuring governance, social and environmental impact. It has been a wonderful program and process for Meliora.
Recently, B Lab, the organization that developed the assessment, launched what they called the “Best for the World” list. They pick the top 10% of companies in different categories. I am proud to say that we were chosen for the list in the Community Category. This highlights what we strive to do in our work, including our contribution to nonprofits. We donate 2% of our top line revenue to environmental nonprofit organizations.
Is there a particular challenge you’ve had to deal with to incorporating sustainability into your business that you can share?
Sure. We know that single-use plastics have a negative environmental impact. We know that our customers want to avoid plastic wherever possible. We had already designed our product with a very small amount of plastic. We don’t use any plastic tape for shipping, we use paper for box filler. But, we still include a plastic scoop with each of our paper canisters of laundry powder and struggle with that. But, for now, we decided that it was more important to focus on the packaging of the detergent – looking at the total amount of plastic per load of laundry. It’s something like 90% less plastic already that other cleaning products. We improved our packaging.We are always trying to figure out how can we be better for the world. Someday that plastic scoop will be history. But for now, I like taking incremental steps.
Is there any company that has inspired you as an entrepreneur?
I’ve been inspired by Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company. The founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, said that people always told him it’s impossible to make clothing products that are more environmentally responsible and that you can’t tell people where their products are made. Patagonia really made a name for itself by doing the opposite. The company became very successful and now many people buy products because it is a more responsible company.
What skills do you have as an entrepreneur that has helped you become successful?
Having an action bias is one of the most valuable things an entrepreneur can have. It’s important to understand that everything doesn’t need to be perfect the first time out. If you hesitate and don’t get started because you know your Instagram page isn’t perfectly curated, then that will be a challenge. You need to be able to take action – to decide what is really important to you and for your business. At Meliora, we focus on what makes our business special.
Any other advice you might have for entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurship is really hard. If we hadn’t kept our other jobs at first, we would have had to shut down. We were working without a salary for a long time, and had the savings from our previous full-time jobs. You have to stick with it longer than you think. You have to prepare for the long haul.
What advice would you give to women who want to do something for the world? Whether it be a business or a project?
Some things can be remarkably difficult when starting a business – especially for women, so you need to pick your battles so that you can win.
For example, some of our suppliers respond better and faster to the male half of our executive team. WelI, I want my business to move forward, so for now, I accept that. Someday, I hope that will change. I would advise entrepreneurs to focus on solving the important challenges.