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Eco-Bags’s CEO says: Go Tiny, Be Mighty

Sharon Rowe shows us how to start a “tiny” business that can have a major impact.

Our friend Sharon Rowe founded Eco-Bags Products in 1989 to address the problem of wasteful, single-use plastic bags. She introduced reusable bags as an alternative--so we can all just say no to single-use plastics. Of course, Rowe also needed to make a living. As an actor living in NYC with a new family, and after more than two decades in business, Rowe is publishing a book this month that's part memoir and part how-to advice for entrepreneurs who want to start a right-size business that drives revenue and supports their lifestyle. The Magic of Tiny Business is available for pre-sale now on Amazon and hits bookstores in May. We wanted to investigate Rowe’s exceptional eco-career as CEO of Eco-Bags Products. Our ECOlunchbox founder, Sandra Ann Harris, recently caught up with Rowe to learn more.

Writing a book is  a big departure from what you've been up to running  Eco Bags Products. What inspired you to take up the pen?

I started a few new morning practices about three years ago, and one of them was writing. I was writing to reignite something in me. I had no idea where it would take me, but I sat down every morning to write for 20 minutes. Then a friend of mine from the Women Presidents’ Organization said, “I love your life,” which got me thinking, Why?  What do I have that she admires so much? She has a business 10 times the size of mine and is very successful. What do I do differently? Then a friend’s daughter called to ask me for advice, saying that she found all the business books confusing, unapproachable and dull. I realized, through a lot of inquiry, that my acting and improvisation training, along with prioritizing family and core values around a “do no harm” philosophy, is what made my business journey unique, successful and impactful--rather than having an MBA. I decided it was time to share what I learned because I started from scratch and believe others can make a big impact with a “tiny” idea, too.

Photo: @therefillrevolution

Do you think it's possible in this day and age for someone to start a business at her kitchen table, like I did with ECOlunchbox nine years ago, and scale it the way you have, making change happen and driving the sales of hundreds of thousands of reusable bags along the way? Or has the marketplace changed?

I think the kitchen table is still a great place to incubate a new business idea, and yes, the marketplace has changed. It’s noisy out there, but working at your kitchen table is free...and close to snacks! The only difference from when I started (pre-Internet) and now is that you have to be comfortable telling your story on many different platforms, and you must be lean and agile. What’s key to scaling  or “spawning” (when you inspire others to build a business like yours) to make an impact and a living  is finding an urgent or emerging problem to solve that you deeply connect with for more reasons than profit. The story is what invites people to connect to your “why” and “how.” You may have a product idea, but what you’re creating is a new experience…a new perspective--and that’s where the value for growth and impact lies.  

What do you say to people who think that you've got to be rich to start your own mission-based business, who believe they should focus on a real job, and later when they are in retirement age shift gears to do what they really love?

This is at the heart of tiny business, where you don’t have to go big to make a great living. There are a few things to consider here – patience, persistence, cash flow and profit. What do you know about you, and what is your relationship with those concepts? You have to get real with yourself and articulate what’s enough for you.  What do you want or need for financial security now and for the future? Everyone has different answers and, for some questions, no answers at all. The key is building a relationship to what you know and don’t know. Note that I didn’t say “follow your passion” because I think unless you get real with solid business acumen (which you can learn along the way), your passion might just put you in a hole. There’s a lot to business that’s practical and repeatable that is learned over time. What does rich mean to you, anyway?

If there's something you could do differently when it comes to your career, what would it be?  Do you have some pearls of wisdom that would be helpful to fledgling entrepreneurs?

I didn’t go into business to have a business, and I never really knew what having a career was. I have a life, and I do this thing called Eco-Bags Products. Sounds weird, right? I started a business to change something in our culture, to make a good living and have a lot of time with my family. I did all that. I didn’t put money in front of time, but I kept profit in sight at all times. I think the one thing I could’ve done differently is put a management team in earlier so I could step back or out sooner, and spend more time on the business vs. in the business.

You've built your business and now you're publishing "The Magic of Tiny Business." What's next for you? We can’t wait to hear what you’re up to!

Love that! Well, the book will be out in May 2018. It's available on Amazon, and I’m hoping it’ll really catch on. As Seth Godin wrote, “Tiny is mighty….” There’s so much pressure to go big, we’re missing out on enjoying every day. So, to answer your question of what’s next…I don’t know. I’m open to invitations to speak, travel, coach…write more. I've set up a site sharonrowe.com to develop these emerging areas of interest. I have a few ideas for a new business, but I’m not jumping in right away. I know I’ll be doing more acting and writing with my theater company. Beyond that, come to my house on Wednesday nights when my husband does improve piano salons, or join me along the Hudson River for a kayak trip. The thing is I never expected to love this world of change makers like you, Sandra, so much. I really like the company I keep and am happy to open the doors and invite people in because it’s “the room where it happens….” OK, that’s from Hamilton!

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