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Why Cleancult’s Founder Rejects Collaboration Tools While Working Remote

We spoke with Ryan Lupberger, CEO of Cleancult, to hear his thoughts on teamwork and collaboration while working remotely, and how COVID has shaped his cleaning company's trajectory.

Home Work is a series that examines how founders and designers are managing their work and team in a remote world.
Home Work is a series that examines how founders and designers are managing their work and team in a remote world.

Home Work Issue No. 3: Ryan Lupberger, Founder & CEO of Cleancult

Ryan Lupberger is the founder and CEO of Cleancult, a cleaning products company that uses powerful formulas with all natural ingredients to create a zero-waste cleaning solution. As a leader that's had to navigate his company through the pandemic, he explains how collaboration, trust, and flexibility have helped his team manage remote work and drive record sales that have fostered Cleancult's most productive period yet.

Before we get started, can you tell us a bit about yourself and Cleancult?

I was born and raised in Colorado, and have grown up always valuing natural products. The inspiration for Cleancult came when I was looking at the labels on my cleaning products, and couldn’t find any ingredients I recognized. I was already buying organic food, shampoos, you name it, but cleaning products had never really been on my radar. I started to do some research and discovered that there is no regulatory body on top of cleaning products—it’s actually a really dirty industry. You have 1,200 chemicals allowed here that are banned overseas, with very few healthy alternatives.
At Babson college, I fell in love with entrepreneurship. My goal became to create a natural household cleaning brand using products that were actually natural, with packaging that was zero-waste and with formulas that were really powerful. There’s a lot of problems with cleaning, but there’s also a huge opportunity. We’d been seeing so much amazing growth in DTC these past few years, but we hadn’t yet with cleaning. In 2017, Cleancult was born!
Half of your team is now based in Puerto Rico, right? Can you tell us about that?
Yes, half of our team is based in New York and the other half is based in Puerto Rico. It’s an interesting story. In 2017 we were sponsored by the National Science Foundation to move to Puerto Rico. Through a host of odd and fortunate events, we eventually found out that over 60% of the world’s pharmaceutical companies used to be based on the island, until Congress changed a few tax loopholes. That meant that there were plenty of excellent labs, R&D, and design infrastructure there. So, we decided to base that part of our business in Puerto Rico, while basing our other functions like sales, operations, and marketing in New York.
This means that we’ve always had remote work as an integral part of our culture, which I think has given us a leg up in terms of making this transition to fully remote. Currently, our team is working from all over—we have employees that are based in New York, Puerto Rico, Ohio, California, and North Carolina, among other places.
I'd imagine there's still been a large transition from working in an office on a typical day to working from home. How has that been for you?
I think for me I tend to struggle with transitions. When I get up it's hard to start working, and at the end of the day, it's hard to unplug. I used to always walk to and from work, which helped me transition into the right frame of mind. At home, I didn't have that trigger. I'll wake up, drink some coffee, and slowly slip into the work mindset. Before I know it, it's noon and I still don't feel like my mind is as clear as it really could be.
Even though we have probably been, as a company, our most productive since COVID started, from a personal wellness perspective, I think it's lower than working from the office. That's one of the reasons we're going to push for reopening the office as soon as it is safe.
I've been working from Maine for a while, but am looking forward to getting back to New York to be at a proper desk! I’ve just been bringing my massive 50-inch monitor in a suitcase wherever I go.
There’s a lot of interest in the topic of how to “shut off” when you’re temporarily or permanently working remotely. How do you work with your team to help them achieve work-life balance?
With us, it’s always come back to the word “temporary.” We will never be a permanently remote company. Even if it’s just once a month, I think it’s super critical to have a home base. Having a space to call the office, to reflect the team’s culture, is huge. So that’s where we stand from a timeline perspective.
In terms of individuals’ day to day, it really depends on the person. Some people love to work 6pm to midnight, while others prefer 9 to 5. I think it’s important to be able to ignore that green little dot on Slack that seems like it has the power to ruin peoples’ lives. You need to make sure people feel comfortable not answering messages right away, and the only way to do that is to not always answer things right away as a leader. I’ve made sure to take time off, as have other leaders in the company. We’ve had a big push for our September launches, and it can be draining. I think a lot of it is more implicit than explicit. As a leader you need to remember that your employees will do what you do.

While working at home, what kind of collaboration tools has your team relied on? Are there ones you can't live without?

When we first went remote, we really went heavy on infrastructure. We invested in lots of tools—Trello, Asana, Notion, etc. But frankly, we didn’t enjoy them. It’s been a big transition for us, but we basically have no technology or structure supporting our remote team. We use Slack for communication, but otherwise, there’s nothing. We used to do Monday standups, Wednesday check-ins, and Friday progress reports. But this ended up fostering a lot of micromanagement.
We knew we had the right leaders in place so we decided to put as few touch-bases as possible, and just leave it to them to manage their teams. When we took out all these structures and projects, we actually saw people really start to succeed. It wasn’t until we had ripped out everything but Google Drive for storage and Slack for communication that we really started to get flawless. We still have Monday check-ins, which is great to see everyone’s face, and we do occasional trivia nights or happy hours.

It wasn't until we had really ripped out everything but Google Drive for storage and Slack for communication that I think we really started to get flawless.

That's really interesting, and a bit counterintuitive. It seems that your management style is really about hiring the right people and getting out of their way.
It’s all about giving people the authority to run their organization. You need to make sure that you have a great team in place and then you simply let them do their work. This year, we’ve been shifting a bit to put a greater focus into building a great executive team, as well as into thinking about how each team has its own style of working. Operations might work different hours than, say, our marketing team. Each team’s leader will understand what works best for them.

The pandemic has obviously skyrocketed demand for cleaning products. When did you begin to see COVID’s impact on your company?

We’re a very omni-channel company, so I’ll break it down by channel. In terms of direct-to-consumer, demand has grown 30% while our CPA has fallen about 30%. We’ve seen solid growth, but nothing crazy. Amazon came out of nowhere; we’re now ranked number four for hand soap on the platform. It just exploded. It’s been a wild ride but it’s a challenging partner—you need to make sure you don’t lose your brand integrity or your pricing integrity.
Retail has been surprising—we are, in the end, a retail-first brand. We are the only zero-waste cleaning product in the world that can be put on a shelf. If you think of our competitors, which offer a concentrated tablet, it can’t live in a display. They’re great products, but not made for retail. The beauty of our model is that DTC will always be growing, but it will also be supporting retail.
Retail has also been interesting because we’ve had all these product launches, but the timeline on which we work with retailers has been the same. Retailers have not been nimble enough to necessarily be opportunistic—most of our partnerships won’t be launching until Q1 of next year. So while retail has been terrific, and the tailwinds excellent, the timing hasn’t really changed. Overall, growth has been super platform-dependent this year.

We are the only zero-waste cleaning product in the world that can be put on a shelf.

What are some of the challenges your team has faced as you've scaled your company during a period of heightened market demand? Did your focus on sustainable and natural ingredients help or hurt in any surprising way?
It’s a good question, and we’re still trying to figure out what exactly the impact of COVID is on natural cleaners. Before the pandemic, conventional cleaners were growing at 2-3% year over year. They just weren’t that exciting. Natural cleaners were growing at 18-20%, and in different categories. Refills were exploding.
Overall, cleaning products have seen their sales quadruple, but we don’t know yet what the implications are with naturals. Will they grow proportionately faster? There’s a chance that after frequent usage of conventional products, people will get frustrated with dry skin and other side effects, and switch to natural cleaners. It's also important today to be antiviral, antifungal, etc, which can be challenging for natural products. We use coconut which has most of those properties, and we’re getting certified by the EPA right now to kill COVID, but it’s a long process.

Lastly, one of your biggest differentiators is packaging, which is exceedingly unique for the cleaning space. I particularly love the milk carton! How did you come up with that?

It was all branding. We spent years working on building a brand, establishing our team in Puerto Rico, and identifying natural yet powerful ingredients. But even by 2018, nothing big had happened for the company—there was no differentiator, we didn’t stand out enough.
As we looked to the future, we realized we needed to change our packaging. We considered our restaurants: What existed that could be plastic free, easy for the consumer, and possible for retail? It was like a lightbulb went off one day—milk cartons!
We spent a year traveling the US trying to figure out if and how we could do this. We built our own machinery and ended up with a lot of IP and trade secrets on how to do that, and as of today, we are the only company in the world that can put soap in a milk carton.

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