Zeronto Founder's Story: Interview at Grevivals

About Grevivals:  Grevivals highlights innovations and business outputs of companies from across a broad spectrum of industries.

Grevivals: Hi Francis, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start, maybe you can share some of your backstories with our readers? 

Francis Li: Thank you for giving us an opportunity to share our story. Well, it all began when my wife Eva and I had our first child. Starting at the hospital, we received tons of gifts from family and friends, who we were so thankful of. At first, it was fun and exciting. However, being an eco-conscious couple, the sight of plastic packaging and trash piling up was really painful. The gift baskets, with plastic wrapping and shiny synthetic ribbons and bows, were the main culprit. Then, it was during our flight back to Toronto after visiting Eva’s family in Los Angeles, where we received even more gifts, the Aha moment struck “What if there is a better and greener way to gifting?”

Grevivals: Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?

Francis Li: It was never easy. When it was about time to launch Zeronto, Covid-19 struck. We couldn’t get the products in hand as there were logistic issues. Finally, after much delay, in December 2020, Zeronto was launched. From day one, we knew we were up against the big guys who have been dominating the baby gift market for years. As a small family business in Toronto with a small marketing budget, it was more like David versus hundreds of Goliaths.

It was a frustrating slow start. There were many trial and errors on different basket themes, different product selections, marketing mix, website navigation, etc. However, our experience in ecommerce and baby products with BabyJoy.ca definitely helped. Thanks to the support pouring in from our customers and their words of encouragement, it motivated us to keep going. It’s almost a year now, we know we still have a mountain to climb but we will keep going. As there is a saying: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Grevivals: So let’s talk about Zeronto. What should we know about your company? Can you tell us the story behind Zeronto?

Francis Li: After researching on the available baby gift baskets in the market, we realized there weren’t many options available for plastic-free gift baskets that not only filled with organic and eco-friendly products but are also wrapped with reusable cloth.  Hence, Zeronto was born. It is a baby gift basket company inspired by zero waste and zero plastic i.e. good for our planet and good for our babies.

It’s pretty easy to guess, the name “Zeronto” came from the city of Toronto. Initially we were deciding between Toronto and Los Angeles, Eva’s hometown. At the same time, we wanted a name that would bring a strong sense of zero waste and zero plastic. In the end, the name “Zeronto” was chosen as it has a catchy rhyme and much easier for everyone to remember.

Grevivals: As far as we understand, Zeronto’s products are always plastic-free and non-toxic. We really appreciate your efforts towards fighting climate change!! Can you please tell us how you come up with this incredible idea and how you get inspired? 

Francis Li: I can tell you, the more a person dig into the issues facing our planet, the more concerns he or she would feel. After watching documentaries and reading numerous articles, Eva and I realized that the planet we call home is already in a crisis. The thought of how our consumption habits are linking to climate change has a profound impact on us. We realized the more plastic and non-recyclable materials we use, the more harm we going to put on our planet. First of all, the plastic’s production itself that required fossil fuels contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Then, those plastics that landed up in the landfills release methane and ethylene after being exposed to sunlight and heat and that, in turns, accelerates the climate change. Not to forget, those plastics that drifted away into the ocean, threatened the marine life.

Now let’s look at the gift wrapping that comes with glitter or coated paper, foil, shiny ribbons and bows. These materials are mostly non-recyclable. Millions of tons of gift wrapping were thrown out every year in North America. Most of these would end up at the landfill or in the ocean. Imagine the damage caused.

All this while we only talked about the plastics being harmful to our planet. Now let’s look at the plastic in the baby products. Plastic toys account for almost 90% of the toy market! Plastic toys may contain Phthalates, BPA, PVC and other toxic chemicals that would adversely affect a baby’s health. Now, imagine a baby who would love to put everything in their mouth for exploration.

Grevivals: Following your vision can you tell us how Zeronto was born? What is the main mission of Zeronto?

Francis Li: At Zeronto, our aim is to bring happiness to families by removing this unnecessary waste and replacing it with a safer, greener alternative that is free of harmful chemicals and ensures the entire product can be used.

We want to make a change. And we know others would do too. We believe in the power of individual actions and all the small choices that make such a difference. So, let’s start with our children and gift them something to be proud of.

Grevivals: What is the biggest strength of your company and what does the company offer? 

Francis Li: Eva’s interest in Japanese Furoshiki cloth wrapping led to the idea of having all Zeronto’s gift baskets beautifully wrapped in reusable cloth. All the baby gift baskets from Zeronto are inspired by zero waste and zero plastic.

So, why zero waste? From the gift wrapping to the basket itself, we always make sure everything are reusable and not go wasted. Now, why zero plastic? All the products whether for babies or moms are free of toxic plastics. Our baskets are filled with GOTS certified 100% organic cotton clothing, sustainable & safe wooden toys, natural rubber teethers, food-grade stainless steel bottles, to name a few. These products were carefully handpicked by our team of loving parents with the safety and comfort of babies in mind. We use exactly the same products for our own children!

Not only that, we have a very fast turnaround time even though our gift baskets has personalization. During week days, most of the orders were shipped out in less than 24 hours! Whether for personalized clothes, blankets or toys, all printing were done inhouse for better quality control and faster processing.  

Grevivals: What is the future plan of Zeronto? 

Francis Li: We continue to strive to bring the finest eco-friendly and plastic-free products for babies as well as for moms and dads.

One thing that is missing at Zeronto at the moment is give back to society and we are working on it despite the hectic schedule. Growing up in Calcutta, India, Eva and I were touched by the selfless work of Mother Teresa (Saint Teresa of Calcutta) for the poor. I personally met her few times. We have also previously worked with Mother Teresa Foundation to support the orphans in India. We aim to make Zeronto a complete social enterprise that does all things good for our planet and humanity.

Grevivals: As a founder of Zeronto, could you please briefly explain your strategy for reaching your target audience? 

Francis Li: As mentioned earlier, we have a small marketing budget. There is no way we can compete with big guys head to head. Hence, we decided to go after a niche market and build our market presence from ground up starting from local.

Our small budget forced us to spend wisely on PPC and social media. Fortunately a growing number of orders came from word of mouth. By putting our heart and soul behind each order, we tried our best to create a positive impression on both the sender and receiver of our gift baskets. It was deeply satisfying when we started to hear people mentioning that they were referred by their friends or family.

Grevivals: What is the most challenging situation you have faced while working as a founder of Zeronto?

Francis Li: Starting and running a business is very challenging yet rewarding. Your emotion is guaranteed to be taken for a roller coaster ride. Yet, at the end of the day, entrepreneurship is just so fulfilling. You get to learn about yourself and others like never before.

Now think about an entrepreneur that has a family with young children. Being a dadpreneur is no easy task. One has to juggle between business and family life. Thanks to the support of Eva, the daunting task of a balancing act is made relatively easier.

A business can grow only as fast as you and your team can execute the plans. Being a founder, you tried to wear different hats when your small team has been stretched. Whether it is customer service, marketing or product research, you got to be comfortable to fit into any role. You have to learn on the go and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Grevivals: Where do you see your company in the next 5 years?

Francis Li: We hope Zeronto continue to grow and impact the world by encouraging others to change the wasteful way of gifting one basket at a time.

When more and more people in Canada or United States think about finding thoughtful baby gifts that will not sacrifice the environmental sustainability and Zeronto is at the top of their mind, then, we know we have done something right.

Grevivals: Being a part of an environmentally conscious community, what kind of suggestions would you suggest for the new/upcoming “Green ” startups/SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises)? 

Francis Li: The competitive landscape is changing fast in this space. The market is flooded with “green” products and services but the consumers are skeptical. They are very much aware of the “greenwashing”. For a brand to stand out, it comes down to how green and how genuine your product or service is. Just a label is not enough; a product should speak for itself.

When a company believe in the planet’s sustainability, it should follow with their actions. Whether it’s the packaging that uses paper tape or the products that are organic or sustainably-sourced, the message should be consistent across all activities. It should be there for the customers to see in order to build the much needed trust.

My suggestion for other startups is to be honest with your approach and never under-deliver on your promise. When your brand promises premium products, there should be absolutely no cutting corners. In the long run, you will always be better off.

Grevivals: Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role? 

Francis Li: First and foremost, we would like to thank our valued customers for the continuous support and believing in us. We paid attentions to your suggestions whether in persons, over the phone, emails or surveys. Without all of you, we won’t be where we are today. A big thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

I would personally like to thank my wife Eva, my brother Joseph, sister-in-law Diana and the rest of the team for the hard work and dedication. Our small team with family members are built on trust and determination. We share a dream and we believe in it. As Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Source: GREVIVALS - Go green so there will be a tomorrow

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