"Every day, the world uses over 1 billion plastic straws, which take over 500 years to break down. Don't use the straw that breaks the camel's back. Be part of the solution."
That's what you'll read when you first visit the Camel's Back Bamboo website, which is an intro into why founders - Tessa & Max - started their brand here in Melbourne.
You'll also read about how they conjured up the idea while sipping cocktails in Asia, and I'm not sure about you, but I can relate to the level of inspiration and entrepreneurial flair that magically appears after that first cocktail...
We had a chat to Tessa to hear a little more about Camel's Back Bamboo.
Tell us a bit about the people behind your company
We actually met while working at a large consulting firm, and decided it was such a great idea to spend 10+ hours a day together there, that we’ve now gone into a business of our own..
We’re both really keen to use our business skills for the greater good, but we come at it in really different ways. Max is the fanatical animal lover who gets a kick out of volunteering for the RSPCA, signing animal rights petitions and begging me to adopt a greyhound (we live in a tiny apartment up 4 flights of stairs soo… not today junior). I’m the semi spiritual kook who believes that the world is made up of trillions of atoms and molecules, none of which are more important than the others. So therefore, we should treat our streets, beaches and waterways with as much respect as we do people, animals and things. As you can imagine, philosophical conversations get pretty wild at our house after long nights of packing straws!
What inspired you to start your company and when did you start it?
Like all great love stories, Camel’s Back Bamboo came alive about a year ago while we were on holiday in Asia. Seeing so much litter across beautiful beaches was pretty confronting, but we also saw a glimmer of hope in the small movement of bamboo straws that were popping up here and there. It seemed so obvious to us after first using bamboo straws that we should have made the switch long ago, and the more we learned about the wonder plant, the more obsessed we became (it’s rapid growth, naturally antibacterial qualities and amazing durability, to name a few). We also couldn’t believe we hadn’t seen much of the bamboo movement in Australia, despite being surrounded by great ocean-conscious communities.
Aside from our love affair with this super-plant – we also just wanted to encourage people to consider the way they consume. It’s certainly not news to anyone that we need to get better at this, but in our busy and convenience-driven lives, many people don’t know where to start. Most of the people we know are firmly on the keepcup bandwagon, so our thoughts were – what’s next? What’s the next little change people could make quickly and inexpensively, that could lead to the next step, and then the next? When you think about it, the single-use plastic straw couldn’t be an easier thing to swap out of most people’s lives!
What would an ‘average day in the life of’ look like for you?
How many times have you heard the old, ‘there is no average day as a small business owner!’. We want to be more original, but unfortunately (and fortunately) it’s really very true.
Mornings sometimes involve picking and packing orders from the day before so that we can do our post office run. We have learned the hard way that you do NOT want to be going there at lunch time, so we get in early!
During the day, it’s lots of unsexy laptop work as we respond to online enquiries and reach out to venues and partners we’d like to work with to spread the word about sustainable living.
There’s also the spreadsheets, finances and inventory management – do you know how hard it is to keep track of such small pieces of inventory?! We hope not. Our eyes are definitely deteriorating from counting so many tiny straws. Once you get to about 500, it’s like being hypnotised, and we have no idea what happens from there..
Sometimes, when we have big orders for events that need to be packaged up in canvas bags, we literally create working bees of friends and family and pack thousands of bags over glasses of wine and delirious banter.
Our favourite time of the week or month is when we get to hit the road and head to a market where we get to talk to real people, in person! Unlike our digital customers, we really get to discuss the broader issues of pollution and waste with our market visitors and it really gets us going.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Well, quite literally, Max makes me a coffee in bed every single morning. As ‘pampered pooch’ as it might sound, I swear he likes doing it! But really, spending 20 minutes together every morning just talking and laughing is a conscious choice that we make and continue to prioritise, so that we feel energised and connected no matter how crazy the day becomes.
In a more metaphorical (and cheesy) sense, what gets me out of bed in the morning is knowing that each day is an opportunity to make change. I have definitely been at points in my life where I have felt stuck and at the mercy of a ‘set path’ laid out in front of me, but I’ve since realised that I could wake up on any given day and change everything if I really wanted to. So, I guess the freedom to choose is the most exciting thing about a new day, and a ‘bad’ day is just one quick snooze away from a potentially great one!
What is your favourite way to enjoy your product/s?
We’re all about a healthy lifestyle, but, of course, it’s all about balance. So we have to admit that our favourite bamboo straw moments tend to involve cocktails of some description. It probably looks something like an ice-cold concoction of Four Pillars Gin (not an ad!), soda and whichever fruit we have at home. We love adding orange or passionfruit for something a little more jazzy than your stock-standard lime wedge, and strawberries are also amazing when they’re in season! When we’re making cocktails, we usually opt for the shorter bamboo straws from our range, even though they were originally brought in for people asking for kids straws...
What is an interesting way of using your products that not many people would know about?
One of our lovely customers actually wanted to use a bamboo straw in a canvas bag as a wedding favour for all of her guests! She was quite conscious that weddings can be the worst perpetrators for waste, and wanted to do something more sustainable.
As they were starting the reception with cocktails, they decided to engrave the wedding date on the straws and print each guest’s name on the canvas bag that held the straw. These were then laid on the table as named placeholders, avoiding even more waste! We hear the guests were huge fans of the eco-friendly gifts and weren’t so sad to miss out on the usual tooth breaker lollies either..
What have been the biggest trials so far in starting and running your company?
Definitely a huge challenge as an environmentally conscious business is not creating our own mega plastic footprint through the packaging and distribution of our goods!
Our eyes have been opened in a big way to how wasteful the ecommerce world can be, and we’re constantly trying to source even better packing materials and methods.
Getting stock through customs and quarantine into the isolated Australian bubble has also caused both unexpected delays and HUGE bills. A word to the wise if you want to start importing goods; do your research first on import duties, GST, customs brokers, and the raft of charges that come with it all! You’ll definitely need to have at least a small savings cushion to get you through any shock bills.
What is your favourite way of winding down and taking time out?
It shouldn’t surprise you after reading much of this that I’m going to say yoga and meditation, but it’s popular for a reason!
It’s definitely becoming more important than ever, given how we’re constantly plugged in, switched on, and accessible 24/7 to anyone who wants us. I remember being pretty relaxed as a kid, but since the rise of social media and smart phones during my high school years, and even more so since I’ve started working, I’ve found that I really need a very purposeful, dedicated practice of unplugging or I accumulate some pretty weird energy.
It’s no longer enough to ‘switch off’ in front of the TV, I find that I need the screens off, mouth shut kind of solitude to do a hard reboot after a day or two of notification overload.
I also find it really relaxing and a great way to make sense of thoughts to write in a journal.. although I must admit it’s pretty frightful how bad I am at handwriting since all this time on laptops! Serious hand cramps, but it definitely helps in a way that typing just doesn’t.
Here at Retreat Yourself, we LOVE dreaming BIG - what is your vision for your company?
Selling reusable straws is obviously just a teeny tiny way to help the environment, and we’re definitely not kidding ourselves that straws alone are enough to make radical change!
While we do want to expand our product range and investigate other weird and wonderful eco-friendly materials, we also want to do more to educate people about conscious consumption. Whether it comes from partnering with other advocate groups, eco brands, or individuals, we want to be able to reach a national, and hopefully even international audience, to inspire people to make changes in the way they consume all material products. Whether it’s fast fashion, foods, or straws, there is definitely a broader message about low waste living that we want to be a part of sharing.
For anyone out there wanting to start their own business, what would your biggest piece of advice be?
A few dos and don’ts:
DON’T - wait a second longer! We wished we had moved just a few months sooner on our idea. There was almost no competition when we first googled ‘bamboo straws’ in Australia, but by the time we got our butts into gear there were already a few really great options and some decent competition. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! You’ve really got to stop talking and just start somewhere, even if you don’t have it all figured out.
Having said that, definitely DO save at least a small cushion fund for set up costs and other unexpected bills that will definitely crop up as you get started. You’ll have to accept that, depending on what kind of product or service you’re in, you may invest (and lose) around $5,000 to really give a business idea a good shot before you know whether it will work or not.
Having one amazing business idea that goes viral overnight with little effort is not all that common in reality, it’s definitely hard work and a lot of trial and error. The first thing you try is not necessarily going to be the one that sticks. You’ll need to be willing to dust yourself off from some setbacks and deal with a nice healthy dose of rejection, which a lot of us aren’t very used to quite frankly!
But at the same time, there’s really nothing like writing your own story. So definitely don’t let hard work or some upfront financial investment stop you from having a crack. You’ll spend the rest of your life wondering if you don’t, and the barriers to get started are at an all-time low in the digital age that we live in.
And lastly, what does a fulfilled life look like to you?
Creating a life that allows space for creativity, reflection, time with those we love, physical activity and of course delicious food and vino! Funny how simple it is and so many people say the same old thing – but it really does all come down to time. It is, after all, far more luxurious than any of the stuff we can buy - it can’t be bought, swapped, replaced.
We’re convinced we could live out our days in a shack with a few great outfits and a really wild veggie garden (and probably a laptop.. to be fair) – but we’d be some of the happiest people in the world. We just wish that more people knew that they don’t need to stay trapped in thinking of the luxuries in life as necessities – then more people would be able to step away from jobs they hate and create a life doing what they love (with way less waste!).
You can check out Camel's Back Bamboo on their website: www.camelsbackbamboo.com