Soft Sell

Not a Square to Spare

Discouraged by some and encouraged by others in the tissue industry, Willy and Tim knew it would be a long, hard road. "But if we could do it, [we knew] there'd be a market," says Willy. They subcontracted with various paper manufacturers for the machine time needed to experiment with their formula. Their first sign of hope came at the end of a particularly grueling 16-hour session.

"We'd bought machine time for a period of 24 hours and had to clean the machines out before we put the cotton mix in. We ran it time after time, but we just couldn't get it [right]," Willy says. The weary team had been working since first thing that morning. By the time things finally appeared to be looking up, it was 11 p.m.

"But [just after] something that sort of looked like tissue came off, a crashing sound almost like thunder rang throughout the factory," Willy says. The machine ground to a halt as smoke filled the air and billowed out the windows.

They'd produced the equivalent of about one square of tissue, says Willy. But it was a start. They left and celebrated the night's progress over beers. "It was extraordinarily exciting to have produced something right at the end," Willy says, "and we knew where to start next time around."

Sure enough, the next time they ran a formula test, they produced their prize within three hours: an all-cotton tissue with some quality. "We were finally vindicated," says Willy.

One hurdle down, plenty to go. Manufacturing was the next big challenge. "You can't go to the top manufacturers, because they own 85 percent of the market and they're not going to support a new, unique company," says Tim. Instead, Linters identified several smaller, independent manufacturing companies that weren't worried about conflicts of interest and that had the engineering expertise to produce all-cotton tissue.

As the partners continued to improve their formula, the next task was to move toward the marketplace. Backed by positive results from more than $1 million in blind in-home studies, and clinical tests for abrasion, absorbency and toxicity, marketing proved easier than anticipated. Says Willy: "Of the first 14 retailers I made presentations to, 14 of them said yes."

Sales of the Purely Cotton line in Texas test markets in 1996 reached $70,000. In 1997, with expanded
distribution throughout the Pacific Northwest, the company brought in $2.5 million from stores such as Albertson's supermarkets and Rite Aid drug stores.

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This article was originally published in the March 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Soft Sell.

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