Sharon Rowe, Eco-Pioneer, THE MAGIC OF TINY BUSINESS: YOU DON'T HAVE TO GO BIG TO MAKE A GREAT LIVING

I'm here today with Sharon Rowe. Sharon is an eco-pioneer. The founder and CEO of Eco-Bags Products, Inc., she's the author of The Magic of Tiny Business: You Don't Have to Go Big to Make a Great Living. She has spoken around the world about building profitable, mission-aligned businesses from Sing-Sing to Nairobi to Yale University. She has been featured in Glamour, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and her bags made an appearance on Oprah’s Earth Day episode. Sharon lives in the Hudson River Valley with her husband. Her two grown children live out of state. Her son actually illustrated this book and is an illustrator for The New Yorker.


Welcome, Sharon. Thanks so much for being on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”


Sharon Rowe: I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you.


Zibby: Your journey is so interesting. You were an actress, a young mother. You decided to start ECOBAGS. You invented a new, reusable bag to replace the plastic bags you saw flying around. Tell me how you went from being a crazy, new mom moment to a successful entrepreneur?


Sharon: They always say things happen when you least expect them, when everything else is falling apart. It was kind of like that. I was working a “job job” that was a position I had downtown. I was a sale executive. I wasn’t really into it. It didn't really matter to me personally. I was making some money, but that was about it. Then I got pregnant. I told my manager about that. He said, “When are you coming back?” That was the first signal that maybe this wasn’t going to work for me. I started working from home when I had my son. 


At the same time though, I started being annoyed by the barrage of single-use plastic bags I saw on the street and the trees and the river, and also the fact that when I would take one home, it would break. It wasn’t even useful for a second use. I don't want to be part of this anymore. I don't want to use single-use plastic bags. I remembered using Filt in France, which are these French net bags. Long story short, some friends brought some back for me to the US. I started using them in my neighborhood. I got some really weird looks. I got some interested looks. I got some questions. I thought this could be a business, even though there was no demand. There was no market. No one was talking about this. I went home one night. I said to my husband, I think I have a business idea.” I told him.


Zibby: Had you ever started another type of business, even as a kid or anything? This was out of the blue?


Sharon: This was completely out of the blue. I had been an actress in New York. I knew how to be bold, even if I got crushed afterwards. I had worked in my dad’s retail store growing up, so I understood retail. But no, it just came to me that I should do this because I could be in charge of my own time. I had to make a living. It was not something I could leave on the side. I sat down with my husband. I said, “I have this idea.” He said, “Well, I don't know.” I said, “What should we call it?” He said, “Oh, Eco-bags.” He’s a lyricist. We said, “Okay, great. Let’s give it a couple months to try it. Let's see if there's demand.” That was basically it.


Zibby: Did you copy the French bag? Did you make a prototype? 


Sharon: I based it on the French bag. Back then, there was no internet. I had to contact all the consulates to find out who was exporting the kind of bag I wanted. This was all by fax. I went to the German consulate and the French consulate and the Italian consulate and the Spanish consulate. The first ones to respond were the Germans, who had about the same bag, not exactly. It was more square on the bottom. The French never responded to me. I'm not kidding. To this day, they never responded. The Italians responded about a year later with the most beautiful bag and the most expensive bag. I can't remember what happened to the Spanish. I actually have some of those prototypes in my attic still.


Zibby: You should post them on Instagram.


Sharon: [laughs] I should post them on Instagram. So that's what I did. The Germans were the first to respond. They said, “We have them.” I said, “I’ll take a case.” I started bringing them in. I started using them, and giving them to friends, and walking up and down Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue knocking on doors saying to store owners, “I have this idea. It’s called reusable bags. I'd like to introduce this. What do you think?” Slowly, I got responses. Some people were like, “You what?” Even in the natural products industry when I got into that, they were, “What's a reusable bag? Why would you want to use a durable bag, carry your own bag? It’s so easy, it’s so cheap to have a plastic bag.” There was no market when I started.


Zibby: That's so impressive. Now, it seems so obvious. Of course we should have reusable bags. Why wouldn’t we? Someone has to be the first one. 

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Sharon: Someone has to be the first one. When I started, I didn't have any other touch points for people doing what I was doing because there was no internet. I couldn't google it. I was in Washington Heights. I had to make a living. I had a young child. I had a husband who was a musician and a part-time teacher. We were hustling. We were just making it work. I wanted it to work. I wanted it to work according to my terms. I didn't want to be jerked around. The reason I started the company too -- it overlapped with that “job job” I referenced. One day I was at home doing my work. I was sitting at the computer and talking to clients and whatnot. I went to use the loo. I got a phone call from my manager. He started screaming at me. “Why aren’t you at your desk?” This is crazy. I was one of the top performing salespeople for them. I picked up the phone and I said, “I quit.” He said, “You can't quit.” I said, “No, actually I can.” Click. That night my husband came home. I said, “I don't have a job.” That's when the business of ECOBAGS got real.


Zibby: Have you seen the movie A Star is Born?


Sharon: No. I haven't seen it yet.


Zibby: There's this great scene in the beginning where she has a manager be totally rude in that same way. She had the same thing as you. When you watch it, you can see yourself quitting your job. Why do we have to have people be rude in a workplace?


Sharon: It was bold. If it’s getting you in your gut, if you're getting to that point, it’s not healthy.


Zibby: You have all these fantastic tips for how to run a business, and I don't want to say work-life balance because that's such a trite expression, but you lay out in very clear terms some really great suggestions for how people, especially moms since that was what you were going through at the time -- you in particular say that you block out, first, time for your family, then your workouts/meditation, and then you put your actual work time in your calendar. Do you really do that?


Sharon: That's right. I really do that. Right now, my kids are grown. 


Zibby: Right. I meant prior.


Sharon: Family first. It should be noted though when I was running the business, I had childcare. I actually shared a babysitter with my neighbor upstairs, so it was perfect. Then when my kids were a little older, they went to daycare and stuff like that. I would never be able to work around them in the house. Family first. I would take care of the kids in the morning. My husband, when he was there, we'd share, walk them to school or get them on the bus, whichever situation was at that time. I would always have in my calendar, “Go for a swim. Go for a walk,” whatever I was going to do that day. I would call it a business event. I would make it a business event for myself because I knew that if it was a personal event, I might override it. “Oh, yeah. I can move the swim.” You know what? If I move the swim from two to three, I get to the pool and at three, the swim team’s there. I don't get a lane. I have to wait. It’s not efficient. I kept it in my calendar as business events. I would schedule the work in blocks around those times.


Zibby: In the book you said it’s really important when your work time elapsed, that was it. You just stopped working, got up, even in the middle of things, and that was it. That's so impressive. It’s so hard to do that without tying up loose ends and everything.


Sharon: It is. It takes practice. I wasn’t always successful. I say if you're successful at least eighty percent of the time, you're good. Twenty percent of the time, things just fall apart. To be honest, sometimes thirty percent. Sometimes a hundred percent falls apart. Be kind to yourself. You're working hard. You are enough. You're doing what you can do. Then get back on the practice schedule. Over time, you build a muscle. That's not to say that I don't challenge that muscle, even now twenty-eight years later. You do. I'm glad that you didn't use work-life balance because I think we have a life. Part of our life is our work. Our work is business. It’s also family. Family is work. It depends how you want to look at it. It’s all basically a practice. It’s how you want to set it up. Because you're in charge, you can change your rules, which is nice. That's a huge freedom. We have an enormous amount of freedom if you actually get to choose. Even if you feel like you can't choose -- because when I had two children, I get even more done. It’s interesting. The more kids you have --


Zibby: -- [indiscernible-laughter] Should've had another kid.


Sharon: Because you know you have to do it. You have to stop at a certain point. It also forces efficiencies. Maybe that thing that you were tying up the loose end on the day before, maybe wasn’t so important. You could tie it up just by writing that last sentence or putting the period as opposed to trying to make it perfect.


Zibby: Sometimes people are like, “How do you have four kids? You do a podcast. You write. How do you do it all?” I've been trying to answer that question. I use every minute of my day. I'm not sitting on the couch watching TV ever. Every minute I'm like, “Am I being as productive as I can?” It’s go, go, go, go until I read for this stuff to go to sleep. You just have to be more strategic. 


Sharon: You have to be strategic about your downtime too and the time when you don't have the phone near you and nobody can interrupt you, even if it’s ten minutes a day. I've been doing meditation. I think I'm on a seven-day streak. 


Zibby: Good for you. That's awesome.


Sharon: That's a lot. I realized it’s only ten minutes in the morning. I'm using one the apps. I don't even get out of bed. How you sit straight, your spine is aligned -- no, I'm lying down. This works for me. It’s how I'm getting back into that practice. We’ll see how long I go.


Zibby: You have a nice quote in the book about how you don't want your family life -- you say, “Allowing work to bleed into everyday family activities is not only draining but can lead to some pretty ugly situations and mistakes.” You give some good examples in the book.


Sharon: I actually can't remember all the ones in the book. I remember one where I was working. My son came over and he was playing in the drawer. He picked up really sharp scissors. I'm on the phone. I'm like, “It’s a really big client, but my two-year-old is walking around with really sharp scissors. This isn't working.” Kids are kind of like -- don't take this the wrong way -- are kind of dogs though in a way. They want your attention when they want it. If you give it to them fully, for that minute or that two minutes or you solve their problem, if you engage with them, they’ll redirect or you can redirect them. If you keep saying, “Not now. Not now. Go away. Mommy’s busy. Not now. No,” and if you say no and it’s not a conscious no, it’s going to come back to you. They're going to be more persistent.


Zibby: It’s true. It’s so hard now that everything is intermingled on the phone. Sometimes you have to be on the phone. When I started out in the workplace, I would go to an office. My work emails would be on that computer. Then I could leave that office and I wouldn't be able to access those emails. Obviously now, it’s constant. Sometimes I find myself even walking up the stairs with my kid and I'm trying to email back or confirm an interview or something. Then I have your voice in my head. I was thinking, “Don't let it bleed into your life.” That's really what it’s doing. I'm with the kid, but I'm not really.


Sharon: I was lucky because the phones didn't come out ‘til my children were -- I think Julian was ten or eleven, twelve. They weren’t so pervasive. I didn't have that as much. I remember when they were teenagers, actually it’s really important when they're teenagers, because when they finally want your attention, that's special. Most of the time they're like, “No, I'm good. Close the door. Don't look in my room. I’ll get to it when I can.” I know. I wish there was a way to have a separate personal email account, except I'm blended.


Zibby: Me too. I tried that.


Sharon: I did too. It failed. Epic fail.


Zibby: It all just goes to the same place.


Sharon: I've learned better at swiping, delete, delete, delete, delete. Then, “Oh, crap. I just deleted something important.” You've got to go back in.


Zibby: Back to this Magic of Tiny Business. You defined tiny in an interesting way in the book. You don't mean a small business in terms of employee or even revenue. Tell us what you mean by a tiny business.


Sharon: Tiny business is really a state of mind, like a tiny house. It’s very intentional. The business is built on something that really matters to you and fulfills your personal goals. For me, it was a cultural impact goal. I wanted to see reusable bags enter the market. I wanted to see people be more thoughtful about the waste that they're creating. On top of that, I had an income goal. I needed to make a living for my family. I had an environmental goal and a social goal which was to produce a product that had a message sustainably, that wasn’t produced on the backs of other people. I knew what was going on in other counties in terms of not fair wage or fair labor. That’s where I came from. It’s very personal. It’s a mind-set. 


When you're starting a business, you may not have all the answers. You don't know what you want, but you can look at what you don't want. Most people know what they don't want. I didn't want to work ten hours a day. I didn't want to work on weekends. I didn't want to purchase goods at the cheapest available amount from sources that I -- there was no transparency. This was twenty-eight years ago. Again, nobody was really talking about this stuff. I don't even know where some of that stuff came from. Maybe it came from my dad and the retail store and the fact that we always knew Joey, who was the -- I forgot what they're called. He would bring in the jeans. My dad sold jeans pre-Gap. Walter Matthau’s brother Hank used to have a loft in SoHo. We would come down here to get all the army/navy stuff. We always knew our supply chain. Maybe we didn't know it to the manufacturer, but I wanted to know it all the way back. 


All these influences combined gave me my why. Then I had to really look at what's my how? How do I execute? How do I stay true to what I value most as part of this company so that I don't get pinged, that awful feeling you get when you comprise to the point where you know it’s not worth it? That meant -- again, going back to priorities -- I really had to do a deep dive. This is over time. I can't expect anybody to do this right away. In fact, I would never do it if somebody asked me to do it. I wouldn't take time. Look at what's the most important. What was the most important was raising my kids, putting food on the table, having friends over for dinner, and going for walks in the park. These are all really manageable at any stage if you have your health.


Zibby: I love how you outlined it in the book. You're not afraid to put your walk or your swim or whatever. It’s important to you. Otherwise -- you only get to live once -- you're not going to have it in your life at all.


Sharon: Right now, I'm getting this a lot at my age, a friend just died last week.


Zibby: I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.


Sharon: She was my age. My cousin just died last week. He was only ten years older. You think, “I'm going to live to a hundred. Invest for your future.” You know what? There's a lot of things conspiring in this world. We’re not always in charge. Live every day as full as you can. Again, a lot of this is in retrospect. I hope I was present in as many moments as possible while I had my children and my husband. I know I was not perfect, but I'm still married to the same guy. [laughs]


Zibby: Better than me. I'm on my second marriage.


Sharon: But you found love. That's what's important. You found what doesn't compromise and what really lights you up and what opens your heart. You found kindness. 


Zibby: Well, I'm not going to talk about this. [laughs] I can't talk about this. Another piece of advice in the book -- then I want to talk about how you ended up making this into a book -- nice-to-do versus need-to-do lists. Do you still keep those?


Sharon: I do. It’s not always a list. It’s basically a choice of what I do next. My desk is not a orderly place. I love all the new scientific studies that are coming out saying people who are messy are really creative because my desk is a mess.


Zibby: The insides of my cabinets are a mess. I try to keep the outside clean. 


Sharon: Good for you. I file things really carefully. That's interesting, but I can never find them. I do. I write everything on stickies. I write the same thing multiple times because my brain doesn't work in a linear fashion. I'm much more circular and spirally. I’ll revisit the same thing three or four times. That's why I'm like, “That's important.” The things that are less important continually fall to the bottom. Then every -- it’s not even on a schedule -- every now and then I look at my desk and go, “That's a mess.” I take everything -- there might even be good ideas on those papers, but I'm practicing impermanence -- they go in the recycling bin. If it’s really important, it’s going to come back, or I’ll call someone like Anne Marie and I’ll say, “What did I say?” I’ll call a friend and say, “What was that thing that…?” We can always find it somehow.


Zibby: That's true. How did you take all this and decide to make it into a book?


Sharon: The book thing was an evolution. First of all, it started with me being really bored with my business. I don't want to do this anymore. It started turning into a commodity business as opposed to a culture shift business. I really started to spread a message and to seed an idea. Especially in the recession, it was really, really tough. I decided I needed to do something to lighten myself up. I'm an actress. It’s really hard to find roles and then commit to the schedules. You have to show up for rehearsals. What can I do now that I can do for the rest of my life no matter what my health situation is and if my hand works? I can write. I started writing every day. 


I started writing ten minutes every day, then fifteen minutes every day, then I think I got up to a half an hour. I would use my phone. I would set the timer. Whenever it ended, I stopped, even mid-sentence. I just stopped. I knew I had to do that because it made me hungry to go back to it. The ideas would have an opportunity to mature or go away if they were not so good. I wasn’t writing about anything in particular. If I was writing today, I'd say, “Oh, the microphone, the chair, the cat,” freeform writing. That in combination with the fact that I would sit at the piano -- we have a piano in the house. I was thinking I should play an instrument. I was like, “Oh, there's a piano.” [laughs] There is it. How ‘bout that? A friend had given us one of those sand timers. That's actually where it started. I started improvising on the piano for about ten to fifteen minutes a day. I'm not really a pianist. I studied when I was a kid. My husband’s a pianist. 


Just getting those vibrations going, somehow all of that led to this idea of maybe I’ll write a book, which was prompted by a woman I know and a friend who’s part of the Women’s Presidents Organization. This is an organization with women with businesses well over a million dollars. Some of them are extremely successful. One of these very successful business women said, “I love how you live your life.” I was like, “What?” She kind of woke me up. She said, “I like what you're doing. I can see.” In my own self-critical way, I was like, “But yours is much bigger. Your business is ten times mine.” She said, “You seem to move in and out of things with more ease. You're not carrying that stress.” I was like, “Okay, if that's what you see.” I worked to not negate it, which is another practice, like, “I like your shirt.” “Oh, I only got it at Marshalls,” instead of “Thank you.”


Zibby: I do that stuff. I'm the queen of that. “It was on sale.”


Sharon: We’re trained. Deb is her name. She got me thinking about that. Then I chewed on that bone for about three years with a friend of mine when I would walk with her in LA. Finally she said, “Would you just shut up and write it?” She really pissed me off. I said, “Okay, fine.” I continued the writing practice. Mostly, it was every day. I got pretty good at writing every day. I wrote a play, not very good. I wrote a couple of short stories. I say not very good because I had it read. I need to go back to it. My friend Tessa who said, “Just write it,” she really pushed me over the edge. She's a producer. She's like, “Come on.” I wrote on Facebook, “Does anyone know anyone who knows anyone in publishing?” A friend of mine said, “Yeah. You should talk to Neil over at Berrett-Koehler.” Turns out because we’re in the same social business circle, I met him at a conference. I pitched him my idea, which was based on something my sister said on a couch in her house. She said, “You have a tiny business.” I said, “I could work with that.” She gave me tiny. She didn't expand it, but she gave me that. 


I pitched to him. He said yes. Then I had no idea what to do. I had never written a book. I had run a business for all these years. I had no idea where to start. I figured out that I had to write a proposal. I hired someone, Jeff Davis from Tracking Wonder [indiscernible]. I used him. He really helped me see what I needed to do for a proposal. While I was writing it, after Neil said yes, because he said submit it by x, I got a phone call from a friend of ours daughter. Kayla said, “Can you recommend any business books? Every single business book I see is boring. I can't do it.” She's a makeup artist. I realized at that moment that I wanted to solve the inaccessibility of business books for creative people. I'd already seen Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon. I loved his approach. I too couldn't read all those other business books. Put me to sleep now, too thick, too crammed. All those influences got me to the point where I put the proposal together. They said yes to the proposal. Then I had to get busy. 


Zibby: Do you have advice to either an entrepreneur with a idea, tiny or not tiny, or to anyone aspiring to write their best practices in the way that you have?


Sharon: Get started. Don't be afraid to share your idea with people. Listen to the people who are positive and negative. In the negative responses or the not “Yeah! Yay!” responses, there's a lot of information. I remember I called up a friend of mine who was in publishing. I pitched her the same thing that I pitched the publisher. She was, “Mm, not really.” She didn't give me thumbs up. I met with an agent before I met with the publisher. Also, it wasn’t her cup of tea. I could see that things have to fit a market. You either have to meet a market or make a market. They're the same and different in many different ways. You have to have your intentionality in place so that you can at least walk in with some ideas and they can shift. It’s kind of like setting up for a road trip. You set up to go to Nashville, but you're like, “You want to stop there? There's some barbeque.” The next thing you know you're this person in the barbeque saying, “You got to check out this tea shop down the street,” then you're wandering off.


Zibby: Thank you so much, Sharon. This was so lovely chatting with you. I'm so impressed with everything you've done and the way you saw a problem and solved it. That's amazing. Thank you for sharing your advice in such a relatable, easy to follow, actionable way. It’s really, really helpful.


Sharon: Thank you for that. My goal with the book is to have more people seeding their ideas, and specifically more women too, to seed their ideas, to not think that it has to be perfect to go out of the gate. It can be as imperfect as it is, just work it. Listen. Be kind to yourself. That's my mixed message. [laughs]


Zibby: That's fantastic. Awesome. Thank you so much.


Sharon: Thank you.