Tajikistan is a tiny landlocked country in Central Asia, boarded by Afghanistan to the South and China to the North-East. It's the world's most mountainous country, with over 93% of its landmass covered by the Pamir, Alay and Fann Mountains. It's a place of staggering and rugged natural beauty, home to some of the world's tallest mountains. It's full of vast, jagged expanses of nothing. And that's exactly why I went there in 2018.
I'd spent the previous 6 years building a wine brand called Cake Wines. For the most part, my wine journey was an exhilarating ride. It challenged me and pushed me into places I’d never been before. But for anyone who's been in the startup game, you'll know how bone-crushingly exhausting it is to create and scale a company. After 6 years of what felt like a never-ending slog-fest I was totally and utterly spent. I was completely out of ideas and energy. The decision to sell the business and walk away was one of the toughest moments of my professional career. The process of selling the business dragged on for about 9mths and by the time the contract was signed and the money was in my bank account I was more than done.
I needed a break and a massive change of scenery. So I convinced my (now) wife Alyssa to pack up our lives and go on a crazy, once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I pulled up Google maps and started looking for places I’d never heard off. I wanted to get into wilderness. Proper wilderness. I wanted to find places as far of the tourist trail as humanly possible.
And so that’s what we did. We bought a tent, sleeping bags, hiking books and jumped on plane bound for nowhere land.
Over the next 18mths we visited some of the most remote and far-flung corners of the planet. We scaled volcanoes in Kamchatka, trekked along the Afghan-Tajik border and saw the most dazzling azure alpine lakes in Kyrgyzstan. We met ancient head-hunting tribes in Nagaland, scaled Kanchenjunga base camp in Sikkim, visited the wind swept planes of Patagonia and visited remote Buddhist enclaves in the far North-East of India.
We visited the bombed-out remains of a country that never was in Norogno-Karabakh, stayed in Kurdish villages along the Iraq-Iran border, drank yak-tea in Bhutan, drank vodka in Siberia and witnessed a civil uprising in Armenia. We even went to North Korea. Seriously.
It was during this epic adventure that I first realised how devastatingly pervasive the problem of plastic pollution is. We spent 18mths trying to push as deep into untouched wilderness as we could. Our aim was to get as far off the tourist map as possible. This pursuit lead us into some of the most epic and breathtaking pockets of nature on the planet. Places like this:
But no matter where we went, no matter how far we trekked from civilisation there was one thing we could not escape. Plastic. It has literally made its way into every corner of our natural world. I saw it with my own eyes and it devastated me.
So during those long treks into the middle of nowhere, I started thinking very deeply about the plastic problem. I was fortunate to have a whole bunch of time on my hands with not much to do. So I started thinking about plastic, day in, day out. As we made our way across the globe I started formulating a plan. And then one day I said to myself "I'm going to try and solve this thing".
At this juncture of the story I’d like to state for the record that I was (and still am) woefully and categorically unqualified for the task of solving the global plastic problem. I’m not an engineer. I have zero experience in the plastics industry. I’m not an industrial designer or a chemist. I’ve never worked in waste-management. In fact at the time, I wasn’t really even that good at minimising my own waste footprint.
I was, and still am, just a regular bloke with no specific skills that qualify me in any way shape or form to tackle the global plastic problem. I do however possess a healthy dose of stubbornness and a deep motivation to use my finite time on this planet to do good. I decided that I was going to use these two character traits, combined with the shear force of will to have a serious crack at the plastic problem.
The way I saw it back then (and still do today) is that there’s plenty of people talking about the plastic problem but far too people (and companies) actually doing anything about it. The big multinationals who got us into this mess (I’m not going to name names) have gotten really good at pretending they’re doing something about the problem, without actually doing anything at all.
Governments and politicians are great at making speeches and writing policy, but notoriously slow to act and inefficient when they do. The not-for-profit sector have tried their best, but don’t have the scale or funds required to tackle the problem at scale. Maybe it’s the innate entrepreneur in me but I still believe to this day that it’s going to be innovate, young, hungry startups who solve the global plastic problem. They’re the only ones with enough cunning, determination and mongrel to get in, roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty figuring out the complex solutions that will be required to solve this big complex global problem.
And so during a week long trek along the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan I decided to give it a crack. What’s the worst that could happen right?
By the time Alyssa and I got to the end of our 18mth adventure I'd sketched in my mind the blueprint for what would become Zero Co (although it wasn't called Zero Co at that point). As we boarded a plane home my mind buzzing with ideas to tackle one of the most pervasive environmental challenges of our times.
We arrived home in Australia in March 2020 and threw a somewhat last-minute wedding at Alyssa's family farm in Wagga Wagga. Then, we got to work trying to solve the global plastic problem.
At the time I had $100,000 in my bank account. Nowhere near enough to solve a global problem. What an amateur!
Alyssa and I moved back in with my parents (to save on rent) and I told Alyssa I was going to take my life's savings and start a company, with a mission to end single-use plastic and do large scale ocean cleanups.
It was a ridiculous plan. It was crazy risky. But I knew I had to give it a crack. Guided by the words of my favourite band (Rage Against The Machine), I got to work.
"It has to start somewhere.
It has to start sometime.
What better place than here.
What better time than now."
- Rage Against The Machine
I knew it was going to be the most challenging and complex project of my life. I knew it would involve sleepless nights and more stress than I'd ever experienced in my previous businesses. I knew it would push me to the absolute edge of my capabilities…and then some.
It was going to be a crazy steep learning curve. I'd never worked in the plastics industry before. I knew nothing about formulating and manufacturing personal-care and home-cleaning products. I'd never run an e-commerce business before. I certainly wasn't fluent in circular-economy speak and I didn’t know about the importance of including SEO search terms like eco-cleaning products, sustainability, zero-waste and plastic-free in blog posts. See what I just did there?
But I digress.
I knew deep in my gut that the world was ready for a solution to the plastic problem. I knew that Aussies from all walks of life were ready to be part of the solution. I heard the famous quote from Wayne’s World ringing in my ears…“build it and they will come”.
So there I was, sitting in my sister’s childhood bedroom at my parents’ house, working from a makeshift desk my dad made from an old door (true story), trying to solve a problem I was woefully unqualified to tackle, with my life's savings on the line.
What could possibly go wrong?
How about a global pandemic?
When COVID-19 hit, things got very real, real quick. The $100,000 bank account quickly drained. Launching a start-up as ambitious as Zero Co during a global pandemic turned out to be the most challenging experience of my life. But that is a story for another day and for another blog post.