The day Angela Sim and Lynn Yeo quit their jobs as investment banking directors at HSBC, they had barely any time to pack up and get out. “We left at the peak of our careers,” says Sim. “Some colleagues thought we were on leave. It was difficult for anyone to believe we left to start a business.”
Difficult, but so worth it, adds Yeo, citing dwindling satisfaction from a life spent driving up returns on the portfolios of Chinese and Indonesian tycoons, earning five figures a month, owning posh cars, and dining at Michelin-starred restaurants.
So, what was the siren song that had captivated these high-flying colleagues? That’s right, toilet paper.
For Yeo, it was the excitement of discovering bamboo as an alternative to paper coupled with a passion for recycling. Sim, an animal lover, wanted to prevent deforestation from obliterating wildlife habitats, and to donate funds to save polar bears from climate change. “I watched a documentary and cried,” she explains.
The 41-year-olds gave up their cushy lifestyles to cobble together the funds needed for the venture. Thus, Cloversoft, a company that produces eco-friendly paper products, and its mascot, the polar bear, were born in 2014.
A more environmentally-friendly toilet paper
The toilet paper idea evolved after Sim met a researcher developing bamboo tissues during a business trip in China where she also discovered to her horror that the snow-white sheets of most household toilet paper were bleached to look that way with chemicals harmful to the skin.
“Brown bamboo tissues are durable and sturdy,” says the co-founder and CEO, citing a two-year regeneration period for the treelike grass — much faster than wood. She is also careful to point out that the varietal Cloversoft uses is not eaten by pandas.
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Skeptical reaction from older customers and local distributors
Despite that, entrenched beliefs posed obstacles fast and thick. “At the start, many believed our products were unsafe. We had aunties questioning why we were supplying such dirty tissue paper,” Sim says. One by one, the pair went to distributors, such as supermarkets, to educate customers.
There was also an icy reception from local distributors. “Some retailers chased us out of their offices. They told us eco-friendly products were not important,” recalls Yeo, co-founder and chief marketing officer.
However, proving that one man’s trash is another’s treasure, distributors around the region soon approached them to discuss partnerships. By its first year, Cloversoft’s products were on the shelves of Brunei’s largest supermarket chain, and by its second, in the posh rooms of eco-friendly resorts in the Maldives.
Making a six-figure sum from selling toilet paper and tissues
By the end of its first year, Cloversoft’s 90-day-biodegradable tissues and toilet paper had sold six figures, demonstrating the combined market instinct of two experienced bankers. Six years and five markets later, its numbers are in the millions — and tripling each year.
Majority of customers are parents with young children and millennials passionate about sustainability, hailing from Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar and Taiwan. There will be three more countries added to that list by the end of next year: Indonesia, Vietnam and the US.
In the face of rising inflation, can the average shopper still afford eco-friendly products? The co-founders have kept prices low by implementing larger order minimums, running bundle sales, and negotiating raw material costs.
In addition, they have upgraded the tissues to be flushable and bundles are packaged in paper and used by top hotels like Conrad Centennial Singapore. The following are also in the works: sustainable wet wipes, detergent pods, body wash, and dissolvable floor cleaning sheets.
As ESG investment is all the rage in banking circles now, it almost feels like Sim is back at her old job, when she speaks of the “opportunity to make a positive impact on Earth, even while raising revenues”.
But what’s different now? Investors want their piece of the sexy global brand that she and Yeo are building.