Like Bill Martin and Rusty Szerek, the CEO of Terracycle, Tom Szaky, dropped out of a prestigious college (Princeton) at age 19 (U.S. 1, November 10, 2004). Like Martin and Szerek, Szaky is a media darling. His latest cover story was in July for Inc. magazine with the title “The Coolest Little Start-Up in America.”
Unlike Martin and Szerek, the 29-year-old Szaky is still at the helm of his first firm, and his company has nothing to do with the Internet.
Terracycle is a brick and mortar firm that manufactures “worm tea” fertilizer from worm castings (affectionately known as worm poop) and packages it in used plastic bottles to sell in stores like Home Depot, CVS, and WalMart. All parts of its product are made from garbage, and it has no adverse environmental impact.
The Inc. magazine story spurred a new round of calls to Szaky from excited reporters eager for a “good news,” ecologically sound business story. Most recently he was interviewed on CNN on August 20.
Szaky confirmed the vow he made on CNN, that his goal is “to make a $100 million business that’s based on eco-capitalism, where you can make lots of money and save the world at the same time. And to do it in a really big way.”
With $4.5 million invested in the company since 2001, Szaky points to the first quarter of this year as his first profitable quarter. In the second and third quarters, Terracycle ran in the red again.
Nevertheless, Szaky expects 2007 to be a $5 million or $6 million year, up from a projected $1.5 million this year and $500,000 last year.
He has moved from just one product, plant fertilizer, to four, and now has nearly 15, with 80 percent of them confirmed for national distribution. They include a formula for African violets, a concentrated lawn fertilizer, formulas for cactus, tropicals, roses, and tomatoes, a line of potting mixes (packaged in recycled milk jugs), and a seed starter made from 100 percent recycled paper and 100 percent worm poop.
He has added a third full-time salesperson and a second PhD scientist. The Trenton office has 15 to 20 workers, and the manufacturing area staff ranges from 10 to 50 people, depending on the production season.
His “worm gin” (an incubator for worms from which the castings are collected) is still operating, but because the company grew more rapidly, he had to look elsewhere for worm castings. And just in time, new suppliers emerged. “There was a pyramid scheme in the worm industry that collapsed,” explains Szaky. Owners were left holding their bags of worm castings. “We acquired their products and gave them contracts. All the worm farmers who got scammed are thankful we are helping them,” says Szaky.
Schoolchildren are still helping to collect the used bottles, and from 50 to 100 of the school-based “Bottle Brigade” locations are added per month, but this effort is still mostly a marketing and public relations strategy. The 1,355 Bottle Brigades around the nation provide just 20 percent of the bottles needed, with the rest coming from end-runs or manufacturing surpluses.
Like the other young entrepreneurs, Szaky is not anxious to return to academe. Asked if we could consider re-enrolling at Princeton, Szaky replies, “Not in a very long time.”
TerraCycle, 121 New York Avenue, Trenton 08638; 609-393-4252; fax, 609-393-4259. Tom Szaky, CEO. Home page: www.terracycle.net.