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The Renewal Workshop on Building a Team to Save the World

Today I’m speaking to Nicole Bassett and Jeff Denby, the founders of the Renewal Workshop. The Renewal Workshop is a very cool start-up apparel company that helps apparel brands close the loop on their products. They partner with companies to help manage their unsellable returns and excess inventory by taking discarded clothing and turning it into renewed apparel, material for upcycling or feedstock for recycling.

In this conversation we talk about just what it means to get something brilliant up and running — and succeeding. Tune in as we explore:

  • What it’s like to have a start-up and to work with a co-founder.
  • How to handle and overcome resistance to your ideas.
  • Tips and strategies for better collaboration and better partnerships.
  • . . . And so much more.

Be sure to check out the Renewal Workshop website and follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffDenby and Nicole @BassettNicole.

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Full Transcript

Michael:     Say you buy a nice piece of clothing, you start wearing it, you look pretty sharp for a while, maybe fashion changes or more likely, something goes wrong. Like, you get a hole in it, it’s been snagged on the washing line or eaten by a moth or maybe the hem rips or maybe the zipper goes or the button goes. And you look at that piece of clothing and you go, “Okay, now what?” Maybe you can take it off to a clothes bank or donate it somehow. But for many of us, we go, “You know what, it’s dead. I can’t fix it; into the trash.” And this is actually a big issue. It’s a big issue for our planet. Nearly 14 million tons of clothing, of textiles, discarded every year. Huge amount of stuff just ending up in our waste that could be otherwise repurposed. And that’s what this conversation is all about.

Today I’m speaking to Nicole Bassett and Jeff Denby. They’re actually the founders of the Renewal Workshop. These two are long-time veterans of the garment industry. But they’ve said to themselves, “We can’t keep having a linear industry. We make it, we wear it, we break it, we discard it. It needs to be a circular industry. How do we actually make stuff come around so that we don’t waste the precious resources of the Earth? Now, this conversation, we don’t spend a whole lot of time about the clothing recycling part of it. That’s a really important issue, that’s why I want to feature them.

But what we get into is a conversation about what’s it like to have a start-up. What’s it like to have a co-founder? What’s it like to have an idea that meets resistance? How do you tackle and overcome all of those to make them work? So, you don’t need to be a start-up person, you don’t need to be a founder to get a lot out of this conversation. So here we go, Nicole Bassett, Jeff Denby, co-founders of the Renewal Workshop talking about just what it means to get something brilliant up and running and succeeding.

Alright, Jeff and Nicole, it is so great to have you on the podcast with me today. And I’ve given everybody the introduction spiel about the Renewal Workshop and a little bit about the two of you, but we’re going to jump into the real conversation now. And I start all the interviews nowadays by asking this question: What are you taking a stand against? What’s the thing that you decided to tolerate no longer that sparked this particular adventure? And, honestly, this is going to be a gimme for you guys because it’s clear what you guys stand against, but I want to hear it in your own words. So, Nicole, let me start with you first. You know, what, for you, are you taking a stand against? What’s pulled you into this?

Nicole:       Yeah, I think the thing that we’re taking a stand against is this traditional industry, this linear model of working as an industry and saying, like, we think that we can do better as people, as residents of this Earth. And that traditional business has done a good job of taking resources from the Earth and most of the time exploiting people in that process and creating things and selling things and getting it out there in the world, and then it sort of has nowhere else to go at the end of its life cycle. A take-make-waste model. And so we really want to challenge that. And we want to challenge this linear model of business and see if we can create a business that is circular.

Michael:     I love it. And Jeff, what would you add to it? Is there anything in particular that kind of pulled you into the fight, the good fight?

Jeff:           Well, I think what’s interesting is that, you know, traditional 20th century industry models were really, like Nicole said, smart and intelligent about the way that we were able to harness our power to extract natural resources and turn it into various widgets, and create this amazing economic, industrial powerhouse. But it is entirely linear and now we’ve added in a technology revolution that is all about finding more efficient ways to make that linear model work just more efficiently. The challenge is, is that we are running out of natural resources and we are in a place where we have to start to get a lot more intelligent about how we use them. And that the next wave, the next industrial revolution is going to be about turning our linear industrial system into a circular one. And that’s what we’re on the precipice of and that’s exciting.

Michael:   That is exciting. But, Jeff, let me ask you this, and then Nicole, I’ll ask you the same question. It’s one thing to be sitting around, you know, into your third glass of red wine going, “Yeah, circular! Down with linear, up with circular! We’re up for it!” But it’s hard to necessarily leap from the idea to the moment of commitment. So, Jeff, when was the moment for you when you went, “Okay, I’m pushing all my chips in on this. I’m actually going for it”? What tipped the balance from feeling outraged to actually going, “I’ve got to give up some stuff and start something new to deal with this?”

Jeff:           It was really the moment that Nicole brought this idea to me. I was trying to figure out what my next move was going to be and she came and said, “I’ve been working on this crazy business model.” And I said, “Oh, this is a really nice idea but I’m not doing another start-up. They’re too hard.” But it was—the more and more I read it, and the more we talked, I was like “Wait. Well, Nicole, who’s doing this right now?” And she was like, “Nobody. I can’t figure out anyone who’s doing it.” And that’s where I was like, “What? This seems so obvious now. Why is no one doing this?” And then we had the opportunity to go out into the world and actually begin to talk to brands and say “Hey, if we went and did this, would you be interested?” And every single brand we talked to was like, “Uh, are you kidding? You’re going to go and do this? Yes, please. Somebody solve this problem for us because we’re not going to.” And that was, kind of this thing was like, “Oh, there’s an opportunity here. Like, we should try this.”

Michael:     And it’s no small opportunity. I mean, from your website, it’s somewhere between 12 and 14 tons of textiles per year discarded and thrown into the trash.

Jeff:           Million tons, 12 and 14 million tons.

Michael:     Oh, exactly. Thank you. So, I only underestimated it by 0.9999%, exactly. So millions and millions of tons. Nicole, so you came to Jeff and went, “I’ve got this idea.” But what was it for you that made you go, “Alright. I’ve got to step over the precipice and get engaged in this. What sparked that for you”?

Nicole:       Yeah, I think it was having spent the last twelve years working on sustainability issues in the apparel industry. You’re always thinking of, like, “What’s next or what could we do better? And I think there was many moments—I had a very lucky career working with some wonderful companies who wanted to make a difference, and still at the end of the day, we were like, “Wow, we still make a lot of stuff. And we really do have a consumption question that we have to solve for in the world and we have this resource issue that Jeff talked about.” And so, I was very inspired by things I learned early on about circular economy and about how do you create businesses where you’re actually, you’re decoupling resources to wealth or resources to value? And how could we start to create businesses like that? And just sort of sat with the idea for a while and researched and researched and thought about it and wrote a business plan, but was very much sitting on like, I don’t know how to start a—like, I had a consulting firm, but this was something completely different. And so that’s when I reached out to Jeff and Jeff’s, like, “Oh, this is how you do it.” We just sort of ran off the cliff and jumped into this.

Michael:     So, one of the things that I’m guessing is that as the founders of the Renewal Workshop, you’ve had to figure out how to work well together. And you know, start-ups are horribly difficult to do that with because you don’t know what the hell is going on, you’re making stuff up as you go, you’re reclaiming everything as the next pivot, because that sounds slightly better than “We’re just stumbling to the next mistake, we don’t really know what’s happening.” Nicole, what have you learned about yourself and learned about collaboration as you’ve stepped into this leadership role?

Nicole:       I will say that this has probably been the hardest growth period for me personally as an individual, as a leader, as I would say a change in my career. Because a lot of times when you’re working for some other company you’re sort of, you know, it’s a little safer. You can kind of blame the company or blame something else if it’s not going right or—it’s not all on your shoulders. And I knew that I did not want to do this by myself. I knew over my career I have done better with collaboration and that’s why I was very much looking for a cofounder. And meeting Jeff, it was really—I mean, it was funny. We have a very similar sentiment because we’re both Canadians and then there were some other things about Jeff that, on a personal level that really was, like, this is the right partner for me. But, at the same time it’s challenging. Like any relationship, even the best ones, are challenging in a way that you have to look at yourself and like, “Oh, my ego just got hurt here or but I wanted to do that thing,” or whatever, and yet I think because I have so much respect for Jeff as a person and his career, that I’m, like, all in to make it work and at the same time I’m in for myself to say, “I want to grow here. And I’m not like going to let a hurt ego hurt my business. I’m going to use it as an opportunity to grow.” And so, I do a lot of work on the side with a coach and with meditation to, like, I want to be better through this process because I know it’s going to be, really, either an opportunity to grow or an opportunity to suffer.

Michael:     That’s well put. Jeff, how about you? I mean, what structures or tools or systems do you use to help you with the really challenging process of working with a co-founder in a start-up experience?

Jeff:           This is not my first start-up experience and I think the big thing that I took away from all of my experiences in the last one is that it comes down to values and making sure that you have a partner that is truly aligned on a really fundamental values level. And you know, one of the things that Nicole and I did before we even got started with the business of the business was take some serious time to figure out who we are as human beings. Like, why do you want to start a business? No really, why? No really, really, why? And when you get to the core of who are you as a human and what do you want the world to see and what’s your North Star, then that alignment makes everything else so much easier to deal with because you are understanding what the core is that you’re doing, and we go back to that together all the time. And this idea of a co-CEOship or a co-foundership really puts in place incredible checks and balances within a business, and I think makes our decisions much stronger than if it was just a single co-founder or a single CEO sort of situation.

Michael:     Yeah, I love that. You know, I read recently an article about The Beatles, and certainly in the early years, their style of leadership was unless all four of them agreed on a course of action, they wouldn’t take the course of action. And it just was apparent that it just did wonderful things for their sense of focus and their sense of, “This is the thing we’re going to commit to, because we know all four of us are up for it and in for it.”

Jeff:           Yeah, making decisions in a business is really scary, and I think I’m sure you’ve explored this in other podcasts, about being a founder and being a CEO is a lonely place.

Michael:     Right.

Jeff:           You know, you have to be in a place where you’re always up for your employees. You always have to be putting on a sunny picture for investors. The world outside has to think that you’re doing amazing. And sometimes you don’t have anybody to share the ups and downs with, and we do. You know, when one of us is down, the other one can pull the other one up. And frankly, when we’re both down, it can be like, “Ugh, we’re both exhausted. Okay, we both can’t be exhausted.” We can have that conversation and pull each other back up, and that’s really powerful in a company.

Michael:     Yeah, for sure. Alright, here we are. We’re taking a little break, a little kind of mixing it up in the middle of the interview, and so I get to ask these three favourite questions of mine. And Nicole, I’m going to start with you for the first question. The first question is this: what’s the crossroads you came to, the moment of truth, the decision you made that, when you made it, has made all the difference for you?

Nicole:       You know, I think the biggest moment for me actually was the moment when I used to work in film and television and I was sitting in a dark editing suite and realized, like, “This could be the rest of my life, or I want to commit to something more meaningful.” And I went back to school and got a Master’s in Environmental Studies and Business, and that has absolutely pivoted my career.

Michael:     That’s awesome. Great answer. And Jeff, how about for you?

Jeff:           I realized that I wanted to focus on sustainability in industrial manufacturing systems when I was in China, inside of a factory that was so dirty and dark that I could not see across the room. And I realized that we were literally killing people on the other side of the world so that we could have potato peelers. And that was the point I walked out of that factory and was, like, “I love stuff, but I don’t want to do it this way anymore.”

Michael:     Brilliant. So, the second question is this, and those are two great answers, so thank you. Second question is this: whose work has influenced your work? So, this might be a thinker, a writer, an activist, a parent, a role model; it doesn’t really matter. But Nicole, for you, whose work has influenced your work?

Nicole:       Yeah, I would say there’s two things. One is the book Cradle to Cradle. It is Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough, and that book actually was the one that made me realize, like, “Oh my gosh, we are living in a linear system and it needs to be circular.” The other one is a book called Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.

Michael:     I love that book, yeah.

Nicole:       And, oh, it absolutely put into words and had academic research behind so many things I was thinking about, thinking that businesses can be so much better than they are, and it’s absolutely influenced our company.

Michael:     Yeah, that’s fantastic. And Jeff, how about for you? Whose work has influenced your work?

Jeff:           One of the books is Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Built to Last. I’m really interested in the concept of long-term value-building, which is, I know, very unusual in today’s world. But I believe in this idea of figuring out how to build companies that build long-term value and last a long time, so it’s been really interesting for me to read those books, even though it’s like ten years old or so now, or more. I still go back and reference them because I think that there’s a lot of really key, interesting insights into what it means to be a great, long-lasting company.

And then, I’d just say secondly that there are just some really important mentors in my life who are business owners and entrepreneurs themselves who have come—who are ten years, fifteen years ahead of me who have been amazing mentors, and those really are the people that are incredibly helpful to me as an entrepreneur, to keep me going and reminding me what the point of the game is and what we’re really trying to accomplish, and those people are very important to me.

Michael:     I love that. That’s a nice shout-out to those influencers on that personal level. So, third and final question. You know, at Box of Crayons, we say we’re helping people and organizations do less good work and more great work. Good work, your job description. Great work, the work that has more impact and the work that has more meaning. And you know, part of why I was exciting to have you both on this podcast is so much of the Renewal Workshop is about great work. But Nicole, I’m wondering for you, at the moment, what do you see as your particular great work?

Nicole:       I think it’s the fruition of the work that we had put in around the values creation that we had done early on of, like, what do we want this company to stand for? What are the values that we want to live and breathe each day? And I think when I come into work and see people and get reminded of our own values, and see people living them and challenging when we’re not, it makes me feel like, “Oh, we’re doing what we wanted to do. We’re doing what we set out to.”

Michael:     That’s very cool. How about you, Jeff?

Jeff:           Yeah, I think the great work we’re doing I feel like is we’re really establishing a foundation for a totally different way of thinking about resources and value within the industrial system. We are at the very, very beginning of actually creating a circular system, and it’s exciting to be right at the very beginning in establishing that foundation. And I just see the long-term of what this is going to become in ten, twenty years, and that’s the great work, is where we get to, and it starts today.

Michael:     I love it. So, great answers from both of you. Thank you. Now we’ll get back to the regular interview.

So, you know, one way of stating what the two of you are up to with the Renewal Workshop is you are disrupting this linear garment industry, and there’s nothing like disruption to create resistance to disruption. So, I’m curious to know, you know, I’m going to mangle this quote, but there’s something about the first time people heard they idea, they went, “That’s crazy,” the second time they heard it, they went, “It’s still crazy,” the third time, they went, “Maybe,” the fourth time when it’s actually happening, they’re like, “Okay, that might work,” and finally they go, “Well, this was my idea all along.” I’m curious to know, what did resistance look like when you bumped into it, and how did you stay resilient in the face of trying to get an initial grip on the slippery slope you’re trying to climb? Let me lob that tricky question over to Nicole as a starting point.

Nicole:       You know, I think—and I don’t mean this as a cop-out of an answer, but I think we, in knowing that change is hard and knowing that there would be resistance, we created a business strategy and plan that goes at the lowest-hanging fruit and the easier parts first to warm people up to the idea. And then, our business will evolve into those parts, where people and even us say, “Oh my God, that’s crazy.”

But to start, I think people, there’s a real growth in this idea of re-commerce out there in a very simple way. Like, the best analogy was one my husband made early, early on. He goes, “Oh, you’re kind of like a car company. You’re like Toyota where you buy a new car or you’re providing the opportunity to buy a certified,” you know, and the word we use is ‘renewed,’ product. And to be able to point to another industry or another model and be like, “Pretty profitable for them.” And then, the fact that clothes being sold consignment and the re-commerce in apparel is taking off huge with companies like The RealReal and ThreadUP, that this idea was people were kind of like, “Okay, that’s not scary. I can get into that.”

And then when we come in and say, “Yeah, and that’s the first step in the ability to create a circular economy, because that’s where the most value is being preserved, is in renewing and reusing products.” And I think that that helped be like, “Okay, I can take the first step into that.”

Michael:     I love the way you framed it, going—and it’s a really great answer. I don’t think it’s a cop-out answer, I think it’s a great answer, around, “Well, you know, we created a business plan that went for the low-hanging fruit, the place we’re likely to meet the least resistance.” Make that real for me. Who did you target initially and why them, and how did those conversations go? I’m just curious to know, you know, give me the juicy details here, as much as you’re able.

Nicole:       Yeah. I think, well, we started in the outdoor industry because outdoor brands were already starting to have the conversation around, like, “What happens to the stuff we make?”

Michael:     Right. Patagonia, for instance, took a great lead on that.

Nicole:       Exactly, yeah. Patagonia’s Worn Wear program was something that people were like, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” So, there’s a sentiment and an aptitude for environmentalism, and then there’s also it’s really high quality product because it’s being designed to, like, go get used in not just walking down the street. So, I think when you—so, when we went into having conversations with brands, they’re like, “Yeah, that’s a really good idea and that makes sense.” And we have a way of working with brands where we actually run an analysis of their problem first before we do a business. We put together, like, an actual business proposal because we want to know if they’re a right fit for us and if their product would work. And we’ve found that yeah, we come back and some companies are absolutely resistant to the idea that they would want their product resold again, and yet it’s being resold again all the time, but they’re not a part of it. And so, we’re like, “Okay. Well, we’ll see you in a few years!”

Michael:     Right. I love that.

Nicole:       Yeah.

Michael:     And I love that insight going, A, you’re building partnerships, and B, you’re actually doing your best to kind of make sure that you’re working with the best possible partners. And there’s also something really insightful about going, “We’re not going to fight a losing battle.” You know, you’ve got no time for that whole, “No, no, let me try and persuade you.” You’re like, “Okay, if you don’t see it now, the time is not right, so let us come back to you in a year or two years or four years when suddenly the wheel will turn and you’ll be much more open to this.”

Jeff:           I’ll list that, too. I think one of the things that’s really key here is that both Nicole and I have been in the apparel industry for a long time, and in particular, Nicole has been in the outdoor apparel industry, and the level of respect that she has amongst her peers was definitely a very helpful starting place for us. And I think it really speaks to entrepreneurs who are going out on a venture that, you know, having spent time in the trenches in an industry and really, deeply understanding how it works and the model and getting to know people, gives you a real advantage when you do go out on your own to try to disrupt something. If we were outsiders, we would not have any of the meetings that we had had, but the fact that we were insiders really allowed us to get with the right people.

And on top of that, you know, there are some brave people inside of the companies, inside of our early partners, and I truly commend those brave people who are really, really smart at seeing what the future is. And you know, ultimately, we’re going to look back and say, “Oh, yeah, those were the smartest companies in the industry.” And that’s exciting, and it’s really cool that those brave people exist within those companies.

Michael:     Yeah, I love that. So Jeff, I mean, the whole thing with start-ups, as far as I can tell, you know, this is not part of a culture that I’m that familiar with, but what I can tell is the one thing that seems to be true about all start-ups is whatever they think their business plan is at the start, that’s never the business plan. It always changes. So, I’d be curious to know, what if anything has been the surprise for you in terms of how things have unfolded for the Renewal Workshop? What’s kind of made you gone, “Oh, I really thought that was going to work,” and it didn’t, or, “I really didn’t think that was going to take off,” but it really has? Or maybe something else.

Jeff:           I think that the big thing for me was the size of the opportunity actually got so much larger once we started the business. You know, we really thought—like, we really understand factories. We knew what it took to—Nicole and I worked in factories all over the world. We knew what it took to set up a factory and to start it, and actually those things have happened really in lock-step with what our plan was. We’re doing pretty good. You know, now we’re moving into a sales part of our business where we’re actually producing product. Again, the production of product is not the hard part for us. Now we have to sell it. I think we’re going to learn a heck of a lot of things about customers and what it means to put renewed product out into the world. But at the same time, is that we’ve been able to have amazing conversations with really, really large brands and understand the scope of what it means to turn their brand into a circular, zero-waste brand, and realize that, “Oh my God, like, this renewed apparel part of the circularity system is a small part of what we ultimately want to achieve as a company.”

And so, we really started looking at, like, “Here’s what we’re going to do right now, and we’re going to stay focused on this because we need to do this to get to the big opportunity, which is five and ten years down the road, and we can’t take our eye off of that ball because that’s where the huge opportunity and, frankly, the huge money is in this business. And I was kind of surprised at how big that opportunity actually is.

Michael:     I love that. How about you, Nicole? What’s caught you by surprise as the Renewal Workshop has grown and evolved?

Nicole:       Yeah, that’s a great question. I think, well, maybe what is surprising or not surprising is that we were very meticulous in creating the plan of how we would roll out the company and the timeline, and you know, we are pretty much, as Jeff said, lock-step in what we wanted to execute. And I think in some ways, if I were to reflect on that, that’s surprising, that we were that tight in being able to say, “We will spend this amount of money and we will do it in this timeframe.” And we’re actually in the middle of a huge project of launching all of our systems and we’re delayed, but we’re only, like, a few weeks delayed. And so, I think that our ability—I don’t know, maybe it’s like a surprising trust of our skills and abilities to be like, “Oh, wow, we can do this!” And we have a good sense of what it will take to do this in a way that’s reasonable and actually executable.

Michael:     I love that. I love that sense of, “Huh, we apparently actually do know what we’re talking about!” That’s awesome.

Jeff:           Yes, that is a surprise. That is the big surprise of this whole thing.

Michael:     No, I totally get that, which is in some ways that just kind of owning up to the knowledge you have and going, “You know what? There’s actually years of experience and observation and self-awareness that allows us to take better guesses in terms of how this is all going to play out.”

So, Jeff and Nicole, we’ve barely scratched the surface of this, and I’ve actually kind of directed the conversation more because I’m just nosy like that to, you know, what’s it like being a founder of a start-up? What’s the work been like in terms of how the plan’s evolved? And we haven’t spoken a whole lot about actually the challenge that you’re really taking on, this 14 million tons of clothing discarded every year. So, for people who are, like, “Yeah, yeah, the start-up stuff is interesting, but you know, how do I get some of these clothes? How do I find out more about that?” where on the Web are you? Where can you point people to so they can find out more about the Renewal Workshop?

Jeff:           Yeah, the Renewalworkshop.com is our website, and we will be selling renewed apparel by about mid-December-ish at Renewalworkshop.com, so that’s really where everything is going to be. You can find us on Instagram, @renewalworkshop, where you can follow along with the build-out of the factory and everything that’s going on inside. And so, those are the two main places where people can come and find us.

Michael:     That’s perfect. Well, look, Jeff and Nicole, thank you so much for getting on the Great Work Podcast with me today.

Nicole:       Thank you.

Jeff:           Thank you for having us.

Nicole:       Yeah, thank you for having us, Michael.

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