Former student Tom Benford wanted to make a real difference to improving the well-being of our planet. With a helping hand from Launchpad, he set up Plastic Phobia in Sheffield and was so successful he quit his studies to grow the business.
Tell us all about your company:
I got started with Plastic Phobia last year, while studying Economics at The University of Sheffield. At first it was just an online shop selling steel straws, but it proved so successful I had to drop-out of my degree! I quickly expanded and began supplying businesses across the country. We particularly specialise in wholesaling bamboo products, and sell everything from toothbrushes and soap dishes to mobile phone holders. We’re perfect for businesses looking to reduce their waste output, which is usually difficult as most suppliers wrap their products in a lot of plastic.
When did you first decide to start up on your own and what inspired you?
The initial idea came about after we’d had a student party in our flat. I went into the kitchen and there were just plastic straws everywhere. I realised how wasteful we are, so I looked into alternatives and found steel drinking straws. Originally, I wanted to make them in Sheffield and asked everyone I could, but nobody was able to. I found a factory in China who we work directly with to ensure minimal plastic is used from manufacturer to customer, and have carbon neutral shipping throughout the supply chain.
How has Launchpad helped you?
Launchpad has been brilliant. I met start-up business advisor Andrew Bunn when I first had the idea and he gave me the guidance I needed, helping me to put together a plan using his expertise. Just the belief he showed in me helped to push me forward and I still meet with Andrew regularly. On top of that, you have the workshops which are great. I always come away with plenty of new ideas. They also set me up with a growth advisor who looks at my statistics in more detail and points me in the right direction.
What do you think of the Sheffield City Region as a place to start a business?
It’s fantastic, mainly because of the people. Sheffield is such a connected, supportive city with all these great people who really want you to thrive. Of course, it’s also the green city, which is a big thing when it comes to tackling the plastic problem. A lot of zero waste shops have popped up, which has been great for us – we’re working with The University of Sheffield’s zero-waste shop and The Bare Alternative. They get a lot of paper-based packaging from suppliers, but send it all to us to reuse.
What are your hopes and aims for the business?
I like to think big. I want to make a global difference in the fight against plastic. I’m currently still running the business from a student house on my own but plan to move to a warehouse and start hiring. After that, we might be able to laser the steel straws ourselves, or even make them – that could be more economical with everything happening with regards to Brexit, and the weak pound. Then we can begin exporting and look at alternatives for any sector using disposable plastic. There are around three times as many zero waste shops in Germany as here in the UK, so there’s a real opportunity for growth in other countries.