In an era marked by an increasing focus on environmental sustainability, the entrepreneurial journey of Alexey Savin stands as a shining example of determination and innovation. As the co-founder of Hay Straws, he set out to address the global plastic straw dilemma, offering a sustainable alternative that has gained remarkable traction. In this exclusive interview, Chris Choi engages with Alexey, taking us on a captivating voyage from his humble beginnings in eco-conscious toothbrush manufacturing to the rapid ascent of Hay Straws. Join us as we explore the challenges, strategies, and inspiring moments that have shaped this extraordinary path of entrepreneurship and environmental responsibility.
Absolutely. I'm Alexey Savin, originally from Russia, and I've been living in the U.S. for the past 14 years. My entrepreneurial journey began when I was working as an FVP of sales for a startup. I became increasingly eco-conscious and noticed the growing issue of plastic waste during my travels, especially around beautiful beaches. This inspired me to take action and make a meaningful contribution. So, I started a toothbrush company made from bamboo, intending to sell it on a subscription basis, similar to Dollar Shave Club, which was gaining a lot of attention at the time.
My co-founder, who was passionate about sustainability as well, joined me in this venture. He was living in San Francisco and had experience with eco-friendly practices like separating trash. We launched the toothbrush business, but our journey took an unexpected turn when we discovered a potential alternative material in China. We found wheat straws being used to make various items like chairs and cowboy hats. When we tested them as drinking straws, they worked perfectly. We brought some back to the U.S., and after a successful trial in a friend's restaurant, we decided to expand.
In 2018, amid the growing movement to reduce plastic use, we officially launched Hay Straws. Our growth was explosive; we sent emails to numerous restaurants, and the response was overwhelming. We had so much business that our phones were constantly ringing off the hook.
We experimented with various strategies, some more creative than others. At times, we used subject lines like "Reservation" to achieve a 100% open rate. However, this approach sometimes upset recipients when they discovered we were talking about "reserving" a better future by switching to our eco-friendly straws instead of plastic ones. But even with a few negative responses, we considered it a success. Out of thousands of emails, if we had a few people who didn't appreciate our effort, it was a worthwhile trade-off.
Having experience from my previous tech company, which sold software to restaurants, helped us approach potential clients effectively. Restaurants often have gatekeepers, like hostesses, and it's crucial to convince them to connect you with the right decision-makers. Our creative outreach methods allowed us to break through these barriers.
Since our launch in 2018, we've steadily built our distribution channels. We operate a mix of in-house distribution with four warehouses across the U.S. and partnerships with national distribution centers like Cisco Chef's Warehouse and Gordon Food Service. Our growth was initially explosive, doubling every month, but we faced challenges with inventory and cash flow. At times, we were shipping orders even before inventory arrived. This situation improved until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing restaurant closures and new challenges.
COVID-19 forced us to reevaluate our operations. We had to be dedicated to keeping the business afloat. My co-founders and I stayed with the company, even when finances were tight and most restaurants were closed. We used this time to automate processes, improve efficiency, and make necessary adjustments. The pandemic served as a catalyst for restructuring, making the company more mature and resilient.
One significant challenge was managing our rapid growth. It may sound ironic, but it can be overwhelming to meet increasing demand while ensuring adequate inventory and managing cash flow. Second, unpredictable factors like the COVID-19 pandemic can disrupt operations unexpectedly. Lastly, staying dedicated and resilient during tough times, like when restaurants closed during the pandemic, was crucial to our survival.
We employ a mix of strategies, Chris. We continue to use email marketing, which works well in the restaurant industry, as many professionals still rely on email. Additionally, we've ventured into social media and Google advertising. Participating in restaurant association fairs allows us to meet clients face-to-face and build relationships. Of course, we also sell our products through our online store and have a wholesale portal for interested businesses.
While we all have an eventual exit in mind, our primary focus now is on building a sustainable and efficient operation. We aim to expand our client base from thousands to tens of thousands of restaurants across America. Right now, we're committed to continuous growth and improvement, and we'll see where it takes us.
My advice would be to start as quickly as possible. Don't spend too much time perfecting every detail or deliberating over a business name. Get your minimum viable product out to the public to gauge its reception. You can always make improvements based on real feedback. Speed and agility in the early stages are essential.
Start Swiftly and Adapt: Alexey's journey highlights the importance of taking action promptly. Instead of overthinking or perfecting every detail, launch your minimum viable product to gather real-world feedback and adapt accordingly.
Resilience in Adversity: The COVID-19 pandemic presented unforeseen challenges, but Hay Straws' ability to adapt and persevere during tough times underscored the value of dedication and resilience in sustaining a business.
Sustainability as a Driving Force: Alexey's commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility serves as a powerful reminder that businesses can make a significant positive impact on the world while also thriving in the market.
Innovation through Creativity: Creative approaches, like their unconventional email outreach strategies, played a pivotal role in Hay Straws' initial success. Don't shy away from inventive methods to engage with your audience.
Continuous Improvement: Building a well-oiled machine and continually refining operations is key to long-term success. Focus on sustainable growth and always seek ways to enhance your business.
Alexey Savin's journey with Hay Straws exemplifies the potential for entrepreneurs to make a difference in the world by marrying innovation with a commitment to sustainable practices.