The Social Innovation Podcast was joined by Marina Tran-Vu, the Founder of EQUO.  Derived from the words ECO, meaning not harmful to the environment and STATUS QUO, meaning an existing state or condition, EQUO stands for the ideal of creating products with minimal impact to the environment.
Some of the topics that Marina and i discussed:
  • Leaving a high-paying job and going ‘back’ to Vietnam
  • Living quite an unsustainable life prior to founding EQUO
  • The grass straw and deciding to commercialize them globally
  • Starting a business during a recession
  • Building a sustainable AND fun brand
  • European expansion
Some other titles we considered for this episode:
  1. To Be Honest, I Was Completely Not Sustainable
  2. I Wanted Bright and Loud and Colorful
  3. I Did Everything by Trial and Error
  4. The Biggest Currency in Life Is Time
  5. People Said This Was Crazy and Stupid
This episode was produced by Isabelle Goh.

Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):

Michael Waitze 0:24
Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Social Innovation Podcast today I’m going to concentrate so hard to look into the camera, but I’m going to fail. I’m happy to have Marina Tran-Vu, the founder and the CEO of equal join us. Marina, how are you doing today? Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Marina Tran-Vu 0:40
It’s been a crazy day. But thank you so much for having me. And I’m looking forward to this.

Michael Waitze 0:44
What makes a day crazy, though.

Marina Tran-Vu 0:47
You know what dealing with everything from like going out and doing interviews like this one, I had a radio interview this morning to really when personnel HR issues that plague I think pretty much every single startup or every single company, especially nowadays. So there’s a lot of that.

Michael Waitze 1:05
So talk to me about this radio interview. I’m really curious, is this a radio station in Vietnam? Or is it like a regional radio station? Like what is it?

Marina Tran-Vu 1:12
Yeah, yeah, no, it’s a radio station in Vietnam. They’re actually like the largest one here. And they invited me on there to do a radio interview, targeted towards Gen Z to trying to build up that Gen Z, younger demographics, in terms of a radio audience. And so they invited me if I spoke it all in English, and I had my trusty translator next to me.

Michael Waitze 1:34
So this was what I wanted to ask you. Are you a Vietnamese speaker as well?

Marina Tran-Vu 1:37
I am I am. So I’m, like born or raised in Canada getting us Canadian. But I came over to the NAM about three years ago. So my goodmayes is not super fluent. I learned it when I was younger, but I didn’t start relearning a lot of it and using it a lot until now.

Michael Waitze 1:53
So did you grew up in a household where a Vietnamese was spoken?

Marina Tran-Vu 1:58
Yes, absolutely. Actually, my parents, they spoke a lot of enemies. And especially when we are getting yelled at me and my sister, then they like very, very busy. But ya know, Ashley, growing up, we grew up in the Vancouver east side, which wasn’t the nicest neighborhood at the time. And there was a very sort of multicultural community there. And so everyone, every tip of language, but my parents for the purposes of their business, and living in Canada, they learn, they used Vietnamese, they also spoke English, they kept that up. Whereas my sister and I went to school, all they taught was English. So we just kind of learned to use English primarily versus Vietnamese.

Michael Waitze 2:36
It’s really interesting that did your parents send you to Vietnamese school? Do you know what I mean to learn the language?

Marina Tran-Vu 2:42
Yeah, no, I mean, I know a lot of parents definitely do that. Unfortunately, my parents cannot afford that. You know, we’re kind of I wouldn’t say the typical, but we were definitely similar to a lot of people who had immigrated over to Canada, my parents were extremely, extremely poor, at that time, so we could barely afford to do anything. So we spent a lot of time actually learning to help my mom with her business.

Michael Waitze 3:06
What kind of business was your mom? And so she

Marina Tran-Vu 3:08
started her own tax preparation, accounting business. And so when we were young, like literally, at the age of like five or six, we were doing some simple stuff, like, you know, stamping and like, you know, stapling and photocopy and running over. And as we got older, we started doing printing and doing some, you know, tax preparation, filing, wherever we could, you know,

Michael Waitze 3:29
what, what is the tax system? Like in Canada? I’ve no idea. In other words, in the US tax prep is such a gigantic business, because the tax system is so confusing, right? It’s almost purposely so. Is it the same thing in Canada? Or is it just is it a lot easier?

Marina Tran-Vu 3:41
Oh, no, it’s absolutely confusing. But I think one of the things where my parents were able to come thrive is like, at this time, like, before, they started their business, my dad had studied Computer Engineering, and my mom has studied accounting. And you know, at that time, you know, back in the 1980s, like, you were filling out all these tax forms by hand, and that will literally, you know, break your wrist break every bone in your hand, because it’s, it takes a long, they have to do a calculation to make sure they’re correct. So what my parents did, was they actually kind of created I would say, the first like, a tax accounting software, and basically, was able to kind of do that very quickly. So it would take, you know, an hour or two hours to fill out a tax return and calculate, my mom was able to do in like, 10 minutes.

Michael Waitze 4:26
So your dad did, I presume? Because your dad was a computer scientist, and your mother was the accountant. Did your dad like sit with your mom? Like, okay, what are the rules and stuff like that? And then write a program to do this. You’re kidding. Exactly.

Marina Tran-Vu 4:36
Exactly like basic. Like at the time we use basic math, C++, not all this like, you know, fancy Python or whatever. Yeah, my dad commands in basic. And he hooked it up to computers to a printer and it’s one of those printers where you feed in the paper. And luckily, you just feed in the tax form and he was able to program where you print on each line, line by line and also the calculations that are automated. So all you have to do is just take down all the all the forms that you get, like, you know, saying this commission got paid for your salary, whatever and input the numbers and get a tax return

Michael Waitze 5:09
done. So did you so, you know, really funny question, but did your mom and dad at the beginning of when your dad wrote this program and your mom told them all the rules, right? Did they tell everybody that they’ve automated or to board? They’re just like, oh my god, this is so funny like that? 7000 Whatever it is, you don’t I mean,

Marina Tran-Vu 5:25
no, they didn’t, they didn’t tell everyone about it, it’s just my dad is very much about efficiency, you know, like, he like, he’s an engineer, he’s like, there’s got to be a better way to do this sort of stuff. So he was all about that, you know, and he actually turned that down, like a six figure I kinda would have would have, which would have been huge, I wish would have been a huge on site, he turned out a six figure programming job, yeah, would have been huge for us at the time, because we were literally just living in poverty at that time. He turned that down to help my mom started her business. And then, you know, after I became successful, and well known, and like, you know, we started making money and able to move ourselves out, you know, a couple big tax grants, I’m not going to name them, but a couple of big tax preparation giants who have their own software now, you know, came knocking on the door and tried to offer my parents, you know, some money for the software, which

Michael Waitze 6:13
I have this theory that I call the fallacy of now. And, you know, it goes something like this, that when people meet you today, they presume that you’ve always been the way you are. And for those of us that grew up in poverty, and I’ll put myself in that category, there’s a presumption when people meet you, right, because you’re well spoken, and you’re well educated, and you’re successful, and you’re happy that they feel like there’s no way you could have grown up in poverty. So when you tell them, they’re taken aback, do you? Do you understand that fallacy? Do you know what I mean? Where like, people meet you today? And you know, like, you’re in another country, and you seem all well adjusted and stuff like that. But you feel like, there’s part of you that people don’t understand, because they don’t know what it was like back then. Do you know what I mean?

Marina Tran-Vu 7:01
Absolutely. I think that’s a huge part of, I think some of the ethos around how I live my life and how my sister does two, people didn’t realize that we learned how to work from a very young age. And I’m not saying like, I’m saying, like, literally at five or six, you know, we’re learning to work at a very young age, we’re learning to care about money a lot, because, you know, we could barely afford McDonald’s, you know, we live in a cockroach and rat infested apartment for years of which, you know, half of it was my mom’s office because she couldn’t afford to rent an office, you know. And half of it was like, No, our home and we would wake up at 6am in the morning, take a shower, before she opens up the office, just we have to get ready, you know, and prior to that, you’re looking in the back of a store, also, on a mattress that we all shared. And so people don’t know about that about, like, you know, my life or anyone else’s life, but they see now it’s like, oh, you know, you’re living in such a privileged life, you know, you have issues that are that no one would ever even say is an issue because it’s a personal issue, but they don’t know what we’ve gone through.

Michael Waitze 8:03
So I love this kind of story, right? And I was, I’m in Singapore now. And a few few weeks ago, or a couple of weeks ago, I was with a partner of mine, and we were walking around, and I specifically took him to a place where I had stayed. The last time that I was in Singapore. I’m staying in a hotel. Now it’s not super fancy, but I’m not uncomfortable, right? We were joking before about like, if you saw the setup, you’d laugh because it’s kind of like rigged and things are hanging everywhere. It doesn’t really matter. But I think that you can’t forget where you came from. And particularly as it pertains to the startup world, everybody. You know, one of my friends on LinkedIn actually posted something today. It’s like how a startup works. And it says, Read something, have an idea, get funded, be successful. It’s never like that. It’s just like a line that straight up into the left. And the reality is, it’s a lot messier. But I think that life as well as a lot messier. And I think it’s really important for people to understand that an entrepreneur like you are again today looks like entitled. But it’s a big mistake. And one of the reasons why I took this guy down Hong Kong Street was because there was a what’s called a hostel where I had stayed. And I said to him see up there on the third floor, the last time I was here, I stayed there and it was $16 a night it was all the coffee you could drink and all the cookies you can eat. Actually, it was all the peanut butter sandwiches you could eat. And he was like, why are you showing me showing me this? And I said to him, I think it’s important for people to understand that like what you are in what you have, is not what you always were. And that this idea of building something from scratch is really hard. But that you can’t forget. Even if you have a modicum of success, like when you move out of that apartment or out of the back part of that store, you moved into a nicer house because it sounds like your parents at some level became successful or more successful, at least then when you were younger. There’s this strange feeling right of like, I can’t forget the cockroaches. Is that fair?

Marina Tran-Vu 10:00
It is, I mean, to this day, it sounds weird, but I have a massive fear of, you know, bugs or insects or anything with more than five legs. Starfish have five legs. But um, yeah, I have a massive fear, then people are like, Oh, why are you so scared of bugs, but they don’t really know, you know, I’m not going to always go again to that story, but they don’t know that we had cockroaches in our food in our microwave in our like, you know, in our bedroom, you know. So that was something that, you know, I, I carry with me, and it’s also kind of a weird thing to like, a lot of times were like, you know, why do you always finish your food, I always tell people like, hey, like, you know, don’t don’t waste any food, take it home or whatever else. We didn’t have, you know, all the food in the world. When I was growing up, either, you know, I could have been a lot taller in the world, but you know, I didn’t. So you carry those things with you. I think it does kind of affect your outlook, too. It’s the same sort of thing. It’s like, you know, people say, it’s a privilege to leave your six figure corporate job to start a company. And I’m like, No, it’s not a privilege. It’s a choice, you know, and it’s a choice I made. But it’s a choice I made knowing full well like how hard it is to I mean, that I know how it was this hard. No, but I knew it was hard, you know. So I made that choice.

Michael Waitze 11:17
So tell me now that you’ve made that choice. Actually, this is really interesting to me, too. So I used to do this show called globe change. And globe change was a show that talk to college students like first year college students about what the transition was like going from high school to college. And one of the kids there her parents sounds similar to your parents, right. So they emigrated from Vietnam. Yeah, in the early 80s. And, you know, they escaped, essentially right. And she wanted and when she was doing her internship, because this university, UT Austin actually has a great internship program, they send people overseas. And she actually chose to go to Hong Chi Minh and her parents were like, really mad. They were like, We didn’t come all the way over here and bring you to Texas. So you could all go all the way back. And she was like, I want to learn. I’m interested in my home country and stuff like that. And I’m curious, like, what your parents thought when you said, I’m going to Vietnam to work?

Marina Tran-Vu 12:10
Um, well, the first thing is that they actually welcomed it, because we were in a little bit of a different circumstance. Yeah. I was. I didn’t actually voluntarily go to Vietnam. Yeah, no, I was actually kind of I did it for my family. Unfortunately, my father got diagnosed with late stage cancer. But he’s doing better now. You know, he’s doing a lot better now. Which is great. But you know, at the time, it was like turning your entire world upside down. And you know, some people don’t understand it. Some people don’t still don’t understand it to this day, you know, a lot of my friends were like, Why are you moving? Right? You’re not going to the whole sob story. But the reality was, like, you know, we didn’t know how long this went live. You had some stuff over here that, you know, I needed to come here to help take care of because he was so sick, that he literally cannot fly, you know. And so that’s why I made the decision to just kind of drop everything and come over. And that decision wasn’t taken lightly. It wasn’t like done in like know, a month or so was that over a couple of months, where I started to see like, Hey, I’m not focusing at work. I don’t like the fact that you know, I can’t spend, like, as much time as possible at time with my family, there was no such thing as remote work, you know, time like is literally in 2018. It was like remote work. What are you talking about? Right. So I thought like, you know, my Caroline family a lot, and I need to do what I can to help them. And so I came to Vietnam, literally no friends. You know, we’re staying with an aunt who didn’t really like me to be honest with you. I can tell. And I came here to try to help my dad for a little bit. So when I first came here, I think everyone thought the same thing. Or a lot of people told my parents the same thing, which is, they didn’t think I would last a month. I actually when I went to the venom previously, I think I really didn’t like it. You know, it was so different. You know, it wasn’t like, it was like, literally the airport when you got out it was full dirt road. And you know, the barrier between like no people welcoming the pastures that are coming off the plane was literally like a thin yellow rope. I remember that because I was like, that’s not keep anyone back.

Michael Waitze 14:20
Put your kid. I mean, you were so much younger. No,

Marina Tran-Vu 14:23
exactly. I was a kid, I had nothing else to do. There were no traffic lights at the time. And now there are you know, like, there was a lot of development and in a very short time period for Vietnam. So when I finally came back, you know, I was like, hey, it’s very, very different from what I remember. And I had to learn everything from scratch. So that’s what you know, most people thought they thought I wouldn’t last, you know, a month even the people who met me here thought that I would be the kind of leave you know, and like how I kind of showed all of you

Michael Waitze 14:53
What was your previous job. You said you left a job to go there. What was your previous job?

Marina Tran-Vu 14:57
Yeah, so prior I’d say like I’m coming to the NAMM. I was actually working in brand and marketing for a few companies like Unilever, Bacardi, LG. And then my last one before I came to the NAMM was Spin Master at a toy company actually.

Michael Waitze 15:13
Okay. What did change? So what was the impetus to start equals? Like, what does it do? What was the impetus there? And for all the people that never thought you’d last like? Yeah, we know what to say.

Marina Tran-Vu 15:28
Yeah, well, first of all, equal itself is a sustainable brand that provides 100% plastic free and compostable products. We started off with a lot of drinking straws made out of materials like grass, rice, coconut, sugar, cane coffee, and then we expanded to utensils, plates, and things like that. Also made from the same materials. And the reason why I started, or at least the inspiration was, you know, when I first came here, and I had no friends, you know, I spend all my time in cafes, you know, like, you know, hoping that maybe I’ll meet some people, or at least I’ll like, do some reading catching up on that. Right. And so, yeah, I mean, like, know, what do you do when you’re in a new city, you don’t know, anyone, just go to whatever, wherever possible. And so I went to a lot of cafes. And I saw one time in this cafe, it’s actually in a cafe called whizzing in Vietnam, finance, French team. But they had this like, green thing in the drink. And I was like, What is this? It’s kind of weird, you know. And so that’s why for me, like I was okay, I need to discover a little bit more about this. And like, again, I had nothing but time on my hands. And so I was like, why not research the heck out of this. And I researched it more realize, you know, products like this have been asked existence for decades in countries like Vietnam, but it just hasn’t been commercialized or brought to the rest of the world

Michael Waitze 16:45
So what was that? What was that green thing?

Marina Tran-Vu 16:49
It was a grass straw.

Michael Waitze 16:52
Yeah. And was it meant to be? Was it meant to be like a sustainable product? Or was it just something that that cafe had, you know, what I mean, or?

Marina Tran-Vu 17:00
Yeah, so as for the history behind it, is that, you know, farmers have been used to work in kind of fields and cutting down, you know, plants and whatnot. Sometimes we would take a break, and it would take a coconut, and then we’d have to find something to be able to drink that drink. That piece of grass, which turned out to be hollow. And so that’s really what kind of started the whole like, grass straw.

Michael Waitze 17:25
Right? So it wasn’t the fact that they were trying to be sustainable. It was just made out of necessity. And then at least at the beginning, right, and then there you are, I mean, obviously, over time, it changed. But then there you were going, Hey, how can we mess up? We make this into a mass product? I’m presuming. No.

Marina Tran-Vu 17:40
Absolutely. And so that’s really kind of where, like, inspiration came from, to be honest with us. It was just like, we need to kind of commercialize this and bring this out, because it’s been around for a while, and at some people did commercialize it, but they commercialized it, kind of very locally in Vietnam. And I thought, you know, this was, it was a waste, to not be able to try to bring us product to the rest of the world. And so that’s really kind of where I started pushing

Michael Waitze 18:05
when you were researching the hell out of this thing, right? Were you surprised at the implications of the sort of ESG and sustainability world? In other words, was it a world in which you involve beforehand? Or was this just something we like, started doing the research? And you thought, oh, no, I didn’t know this existed, you know what I mean?

Marina Tran-Vu 18:23
It was that I was completely I will be honest, I was completely like, not sustainable. Like, I’m not gonna try to pretend, you know, like, like, I would probably not fanvil. But I was like, no, like, I just like every sort of like learning curve, like, you know, you start to get interested in something, you realize, hey, like, this is an issue, I should try to start to be a little more sustainable, a little bit less wasteful. So I want to try to do a little action. And I saw, as I start to learn more about this, you know, I was like, Okay, this is something that, you know, could really be not only a great business opportunity, but it could have a lot of effect in terms of bringing Vietnam and Vietnam products to the world. And then on top of that, just doing some good for the planet, too. Because at the same time, my nephew was born. And I was like, Oh, my gosh, all sudden, my life priorities changed. And I want to try to do something good for him, too. So that’s really kind of what triggered a lot of that.

Michael Waitze 19:14
But isn’t this the perfect example? I mean, I didn’t even ask you this, but you just said it. It wasn’t just for the sustainability aspect of it. But it was a business opportunity that you thought could be profitable, that you thought could get exposed to the rest of the world and be even bigger. And it was also still helping. And I think, you know, was having a conversation with somebody about this earlier, but tell me where I’m wrong here. It’s one of these things. I feel like if you don’t experience it yourself, it’s hard to explain. And you said now that your nephew is being born, maybe you looked and was like, Oh no, if the oceans rise three inches, like his life is just going to be a living hell. And if I can do a little bit, which turns into a lot, I should do that. Does that make sense?

Marina Tran-Vu 19:55
Yeah, no, absolutely. Like prior to that again, like I didn’t know anything about ESD I didn’t. And like to be fair, I didn’t know anything about the startup world, I didn’t know what equity was, or shares or like raising money was, I had no idea. So when people were telling me these are part of ESG goals, I had to like no search for that. It was, it was literally like, I was learning the entire process. I was learning about sustainability. And then I was also kind of finding my purpose, like, No, I’m, like, my reason of or my why, for my business as well.

Michael Waitze 20:25
So how long is how long has EQUO been around?

Marina Tran-Vu 20:28
As been around? Now, thankfully, for two and a half years. It’s been a hard journey. And we started at like, you know, during the pandemic, which was probably not the smartest idea.

Michael Waitze 20:40
I don’t know. I mean, I think historically. And you know, one of the benefits of being 57 is that you get to see a bunch of different cycles, right. And historically, starting a business, either during a recession, or during some kind of difficult period of time is, it’s almost always the best time to start, because, first of all, everybody else is panicking. So they’re not focusing on business. But second of all, you only have upside, right? In other words, it couldn’t get any worse than it is. And we used to say, we used to say in the stock market that like a good idea, in a bad market, just a bad idea. But a good idea in a great market. It’s a great idea. Do you know what I mean? So if you’re there, when the market starts to turn, you’re okay, idea is now a killer idea. Because everybody else was so busy just trying to preserve and you’re just so busy trying to build. Does that make sense? If you build on a hard time, when the market is better? It’s easier? It’s not easy. Does that make sense?

Marina Tran-Vu 21:33
Yeah, no, I mean, hindsight is always 2020. So like, when I look back on it, yeah, you know, like, I resonate with them a lot. I would just say, like, you know, again, just being very honest, I did not do it on. Never was going to happen, you know, like I started in February 2020. We heard some rumblings about, you know, some like something going around, and we’re like, okay, yeah, like, you know, it’s gonna be over in the next month, and next month, and boom, we’re like, no global shutdown, and then people are locked down forever. And they don’t see each other for two years. Yeah. Like, I did not predict that I did not start it in the middle thinking that it was an opportunity. I just started.

Michael Waitze 22:13
What, what have you learned about the startup world? Do you know what I mean? Like for someone who knew nothing about ESG knew nothing about sustainability, learn? I mean, obviously, you’re smart. Right? Muco into easy peasy. But you go into the startup world again, which is a it’s its own animal. Yeah. What did you like? What did you learn about this, too? What? Did you research the hell out of that too? Or did you go in a little bit blind? You know what I mean? Like, what surprised you?

Marina Tran-Vu 22:38
I went in completely blind, I had no idea about startup world, I only I only started to get exposed to it. Because you know, someone before we even launched our product, you know, came to us with a majority acquisition offer before I even launched it. So I was like, Okay, how do I do with this? And what do you mean by majority acquisition? Like, what do you want? I’m just making stuff leave me alone. Yeah, I was just like, I didn’t know what it meant. And then I talked to my friend who was very engrained in the stock world, and name’s Jack, he runs this company called one class, amazing, amazing education technology company. But I learned very quickly from him, he’s like, you know, this is what it’s all about. This is a crash course. And he was kind of my guide, and my foray into the rest of the world of startups and accelerators are raising money very quickly. And I would say the biggest things I learned is that raising money doesn’t make sense. You know, like raising money and the whole kind of ethos around like, hey, the more you raise more successful you are, or whatnot, but raising money doesn’t make sense, because valuations inherently don’t make sense. And everyone has a different type of valuation for a company. And so when you’re trying to look for like a calculator on, like, whether or not a company is successful, because they raised a certain amount of money, or whether or not they’re successful, because they’re worth a certain amount of money, no one will have the right answer, because it completely varies, right? It’s like, it’s like art, right? People don’t know how much it’s worth or it’s not really worth anything until someone says it’s worth something. And even then you don’t really know how to calculate how much it’s

Michael Waitze 24:08
because it’s all BS. Did you raise any money or no?

Marina Tran-Vu 24:12
I did. I did. So I was able to raise some money. I recently closed my round of 1.3 million USD. raising that money. Yeah, I know, having someone who literally did not know anything and did not know. You know who Y Combinator was last week. Like, I think I didn’t do too bad. I had some really great help friends and advisors, mentors that helped me do that.

Michael Waitze 24:36
What was the purpose for raising $1.3 million?

Marina Tran-Vu 24:41
To give us a chance, I think that was the biggest thing. You know, I think I was very ambitious trying to run the business during 2020. Or like starting the business. Very funny. Funny, I learned a hard lesson there. I thought it was really ambitious trying to sell During 2021, we were able to do some of that. But really 2022 was trying to give us like a real chance at hitting the market and seeing what we could actually do, hopefully in a less restricted environment. So that wasn’t the biggest thing is just giving us a chance to do that, and seeing if all the hypotheses that I had about what we can do and about the sustainability industry, that we’re like, kind of things that people all 100% believe in my office, I constantly seeing if I can prove so

Michael Waitze 25:26
what was the hypothesis?

Marina Tran-Vu 25:30
Um, okay, so there were a few of them. But the first one was that you can brand a commodity that people can still care about that. So that was one thing like, like, I asked people, Hey, do you know a fork or straw brand? You name one? Can you name tooth? And 99.9%? of people cannot name one.

Michael Waitze 25:49
Is there a straw? Is there a straw brand that I should know?

Marina Tran-Vu 25:53
Um, there might be I’m not gonna give them

Michael Waitze 25:57
just the answer is either yes or no, I’m not asking for the brand. But it’s a good it’s a it’s a really interesting point, right? Like, you can name five car companies in your sleep like I could literally wake you up from like a slumber from 10 years. You’d be like Honda, Mazda, Toyota, like, you know, the mall?

Marina Tran-Vu 26:11
Yeah, I will at the time. I honestly could not. And should we know some stock companies? Yeah, we’ve wrapped why not? Because we know tissue paper companies, right. We know Kleenex. We know Charmin. We know, I wrote growl. And those are 100% commodities. And how about, you know, paper? We know Xerox? Right? There’s a brand there. So why not do that with other commoditized categories, like straws. And so

Michael Waitze 26:35
I have to ask you this, like, this is a very specific hypothesis. Was this a new idea you had? Or is this an idea that’s been gestating in your brain for a long time and thinking, this is the best way to test it? Or did you see that you come from a marketing background? This is a thing. So you were sitting there going? How can I apply what I’ve learned to all the other stuff that I’ve done for LG and Unilever, which make branded products that aren’t particularly commodities? But soap? I mean, really? Yeah. And then say, Wait a second, no one’s done it for straws. So you probably sit there going, I’ll be the straw brand that people are like, you’re insane. Tell me I’m wrong?

Marina Tran-Vu 27:09
No, no, it’s like you’re reading. That’s exactly. I, my background, you know, and working for all these companies, I realize the power of it is the reason why people wear Nike, or they, like know why certain bottled water brand, or they eat a certain type of noodle, right, like very proximate, you know, some of the properties of those products are quite similar, you know, or they’re quite basic, was very small changes here and there, but really, what makes you buy it and buy it over and over again, is the brand what it represents what it could represent, you know, what you aspire to be? So that’s kind of like one of the biggest hypothesis I had.

Michael Waitze 27:45
So I want to get into another hypothesis in a second. But I want to understand what’s the branding is it meant to be just a sustainable brand isn’t meant to be a luxury brand isn’t meant to be a combination of these things? Super curious.

Marina Tran-Vu 27:58
Yeah, so it’s meant to be kind of a more like, sustainable but fun. That’s something that we want, and colorful. And I know it doesn’t sound very, very unique. But if you take a look at the branding within the Eco category, it’s primarily very natural sort of materials and colors, you got your beige, and your Aqua to just make sure it all looks like no. Right. And that for me, that’s a little bit, you know, it’s nice, but it’s a little boring, I want it to be bright and loud and colorful. So that was something that we wanted to do that was different. And then on top of that, you know, we made everything kind of very fun looking very abstract looking, because we wanted to make sustainability fun. And you can, you know, I can sit there and tell me sustainability is fine, you know, you should care about it. But that’s not really the case. You know, when you tell someone like, hey, you know, every single year that we like, continue to do this, we’re gonna die earlier or you know, we’re all gonna have to move to Mars, or you’re killing like, no, that turtle when you do this, that sort of messaging, I think fails to resume. Like that fear mongering doesn’t, doesn’t do any more. So we tried

Michael Waitze 29:04
to sort so you make a really good point, too. And again, I was talking to somebody about this this morning, I can scare you into almost anything a few times. But at some point, you just go numb, like, I can’t even punch somebody a bunch of times. And at some point, they’re just gonna be like, that doesn’t hurt anymore. I don’t feel it. Right. But nobody wants to stop having fun. It’s weird, right? Like, hey, we want to have fun next Saturday. I’ve had enough fun. It’s something no one’s really said. Yeah.

Marina Tran-Vu 29:27
Yeah, yeah, it’s the same sort of thing is like, you know, you can see a t shirt over and over and over again, right. But if that T shirt, kind of like is in a nice little canisters like oh, man, I got a t shirt in a in a, you know, that’s super cool. That might be a little bit of a different sort of thing. And so, that’s why I say that, you know, there is a different approach to sustainability, which may not be popular, but you know, I think that it’s, it’s worth exploring, so that’s why it became another house. So

Michael Waitze 29:53
what do you think is that hypothesis working?

Marina Tran-Vu 29:57
Um, I think it’s definitely helping for Sure, because, you know, people see us, they say they love our branding. You know, they remember that we have a lot of different materials, we still have a lot of work to do on educating on all the different materials and getting people to remember our name. But that’s why we also made our name super easy to remember and kind of found, like,

Michael Waitze 30:17
just looking at it thinking, why would they pick that? I got it. Okay, it took me two seconds to figure it out. And once I thought about it, interesting, what are the other hypotheses?

Marina Tran-Vu 30:27
Yeah, I would say the other one is very unpopular, very, very, very unpopular. But it’s kind of like this idea of like, you know, we can still do small sort of things. And that’s still okay. You know, for example, we tell people that, you know, our products are single use, you know, there was huge focus on reusable. The reality is that, you know, sometimes people have don’t want to do, they don’t want to lifestyle, they don’t want to change their behavior immensely. And bring a fork with them everywhere they go, you know, just to be more sustainable. So our products are all use once throw away, but without the same damage as plastic or paper. They’re all 100% compostable. So that was kind of a different sort of thought with versus the original narrative of like, no recycling, which is a huge farce, finally, and then, and then reusable, which is asking a lot of people, and then also the fact that, you know, we ask people like, Hey, you can just use a straw with a plastic cup. That’s still okay. You know, you don’t have to be a perfect sustainable person. So that was also another hypothesis that we put out as a message. And I think that’s resonating because I think a whole industry,

Michael Waitze 31:36
did you feel like that was a little bit risky? Yeah, but did you know that? Did you know that when you were doing it, you know what I mean, like, this idea, not? Sorry, go ahead. Sorry. Go ahead.

Marina Tran-Vu 31:48
Sorry, I was gonna say, yeah, no, not at all. I, I did this all like literally, it sounds a little bit weird. But I did all by trial and error. And based off of my own experience, like, I’m not an environmental scientist, I’m not a super sustainable person. But what would I want, you know, to become more sustainable. And so I wanted a product that was easy, didn’t ask me to compromise and asked me to carry stuff or wash it. And I wanted something that was a little bit better than doom and gloom messaging, you know,

Michael Waitze 32:14
and that’s so when you went to VCs, I’m presuming VCs, or even just angel investors to fund this. I mean, $1.3 million doesn’t come out of thin air, right? Somebody had to believe this, when you first started telling this story to people, like, We’re not just building a company, we’re building a company around sustainability, I didn’t really know that much about it, and we’re gonna do it. It’s gonna be fun. It’s not going to be gloomy. And it’s going to be super colorful, and it’s just going to be single. Did you get this look like again? Are you insane? Like, there’s a lot of this?

Marina Tran-Vu 32:40
Yeah, I mean, I’ll say, admittedly, at first, I didn’t refine all that kind of thinking until people actually asked me, they asked me questions, like, why do you do as Why is it like this? You know? And that’s when I realized, like, if I dig deeper, I had those answers. And that’s the reason why, you know, I just didn’t articulate it at the time. But, yeah, when I first went out pitching to people, you know, a lot of them, I would say, at least half of them said, You’re crazy. This is stupid. You know, we have tons of straws out there. There’s nothing special about what you’re doing. Anyone can replicate it, because it’s a commodity, which is true, right? But I also said, hey, well, you know, if they weren’t already doing it, then you would have, you know, the products that are not plastic or paper straws, for example, the strong market taking up more than 0.1% market share, but it’s not. So I think there’s an opportunity. So

Michael Waitze 33:30
I love when people tell other people that are building businesses that what you’re doing isn’t special. And then everybody’s already doing it. And it’s not the right way to make money. Again, if you just go back two years of business experience and cyclicality and all the things that you’ve seen before, you know, we didn’t need another operating system. We didn’t need another computer. We didn’t need another user enter. We didn’t mean anything. And yet, there it is really, really successful. Because the differentiation particularly from an investor standpoint, they have no idea what it’s like to build a business from scratch. And you know, you said before, it’s all silliness. I mean, I agree with you completely. But I think it’s super interesting as well, that you’re right. If it was easy to do it, even if it’s just a commodity, there would be blue straws with like rainbows on them already. And everybody would be using them, and yet, they’re not there. So actually, what we’re doing is different. And frankly, if you can’t see the difference, I’m okay.

Marina Tran-Vu 34:28
Yeah, and I would say a big difference. I learned to in like, you know, as I started to talk to these other people and these other companies now, people are like, we don’t need another dating app. We don’t need another, you know, rest a pizza shop. We don’t need another whatever else, right? But at the same time, like a big thing I learned was execution is

Michael Waitze 34:46
the only thing. Sorry, go ahead.

Marina Tran-Vu 34:49
Yeah, you know, like if you have an idea, right, I’ll be like, You know what, I want to do this really amazing pizza shop. That’s Vietnamese flavors. And then you know, I execute a poorly done like, I’m not going to make the same money as a huge giant corporation here, there’s a big one that’s focusing on getting closer and they’re doing massively amazing. Because it’s down to.

Michael Waitze 35:11
I mean, look, we don’t need any more coffee shops, but there’s there are hundreds of different places to get coffee. And to be fair, there’s one that I love. So I actually walked past three coffee shops to get to that one. And dating apps. You know, we know what is it fika. Like, Denise didn’t need to build that either. And yet, there it is being successful raising money. And I’m sure people said the same thing to her like, this is just this is a commodity, no one wants to swipe left or who cares? And she’s like, this is different. Yeah.

Marina Tran-Vu 35:37
They will say that about anything 100%. I can. I’ve heard it so many times about mine is like, yeah, you’re not doing anything,

Michael Waitze 35:44
does it? It’s like, okay, but does it give you more confidence as you like, I don’t know how old you are. And frankly, I don’t really care, right? But at some point, no, no, but at some point, right? You hear this, like, that’s not going to work in this isn’t going to work. And that’s not going to work. And the same people that said to you, when you first arrive, like she will make it three months, or one month or 10 minutes or whatever, right? It’s easy for people on the sidelines to say all this stuff. But at some point, you know, you bypass other people’s expectations, and you continue to go on. And it gets back to this idea that I always have, right that everyone’s an overnight success 10 years later, but the more you push on, does it make you more confident about you don’t have another idea about this? And instead of doing it like this, we’re gonna do this thing? Do you feel like everyone’s gonna be like, No, that’s not going to work, either. And just be like, sure. You know what I mean?

Marina Tran-Vu 36:29
Yeah, I mean, I would say for ideas wise, based on my experience, yeah, you know, it does make me a little bit more competent. Like, just pushing forward with an idea. Because I saw I saw myself be able to work through all the, you know, all the nonsense of people saying that, hey, you’re just never going to work. But, you know, as an entrepreneur, like, and especially myself, as a first time founder, it makes it very, very difficult sometimes to have that mentality. Like, it’s a battle, I would say, every single day, it’s like, man, maybe the right like, No, this has gotten super hard, you know, days like today, or like a couple of months ago, it was so hard that I just didn’t know if I can go on. And so it’s a little bit of both sometimes you

Michael Waitze 37:14
remember, we talked earlier about, you know, walking down that street and talking to this guy about? Don’t worry about it, we’ll take it out anyway. But remember, I told you that story about walking down the street and showing that guy, that hostel where I stayed, and he was like, why are we here? And I was like, because I don’t want to go back there. Like, I really just don’t want to go. I think that building something always takes a ton of sacrifice and a lot of pain along the way. But I don’t want to go back. Do you ever think about this idea of like, I just don’t want to go back to that pain? Do you know what I mean? I do you don’t have to say yes. You can just go no, I’m I’m out a bit. But like, for me, it drives me every single day.

Marina Tran-Vu 37:56
No, I you know what, like, that for me? I would say like, there’s you know, there’s two types of the pain, right with us pain of like, you know, when we’re, and then there’s pain of like, all the things that you love, sacrifice. Right. And like, I think back to it. And of course, I don’t think anybody wants to go through that pain again. But if, if we didn’t, you know, we wouldn’t be where we are today. So, I mean, like, I can share a personal story, you know, I left I left Toronto, I left eight years living there, building my like, entire adult career there, building a life there having what I thought was going to be a life partner there. And all my friends, I lost them all. And I didn’t do that on purpose, but it has happened, you know, being stuck in Vietnam, from the pandemic, everything. It just happened, and am I grateful for that. Now, I am because, you know, I developed into a different type of person, when I was like this, you know, even three years ago, have a person and then I also kind of saw the value of who I wanted in my life. And, you know, they said that, like, There’s this quote, kind of go around everywhere, about how like, you know, you really kind of figure out who your friends are, in terms of like your real friends, and then your friend that buys convenience. And, you know, I realized for a while, you know, there are some friends I still talk to you Toronto, those are my friends. Friends are convenience. Because proximately you know, so that really helped me learn a lot about them. Those were like really important life lessons that I feel like I’ve taken into the future for

Michael Waitze 39:28
sure. I mean, I remember one of the kids coming back when I was a junior in college, one of the guys who graduated came back, he took a job on Wall Street and he was like, I’m constantly canceling dinner and weekends away with my friends. And it’s an easy and very quick filtering mechanism for the people that really care about you and the people that are there, just like you said, for proximity and convenience. And he goes, the funnel drops down to a really small group of people. And at the end of the day, it’s really only those five people that matter anyway. Yeah,

Marina Tran-Vu 39:56
exactly. Exactly. And the one thing I kind of add on to their to It’s like no, people keep saying this but I don’t think they realize it but uh, you know, your biggest currency in life is time, right? And so if you’re spending time with the wrong people with people who, you know, you know will drop you because you’re not in the same postal, you know that then there’s no point in continuing to be your life because your life and your time is so valuable you don’t need wasting a you don’t have to waste on people who don’t value in this I

Michael Waitze 40:26
agree that can be earlier you can learn that the better off you are, um, what other products are you making? Like what does the future look like to you? You know, no one’s gonna see that, by the way, but I can’t. I could not not laugh. Go ahead.

Marina Tran-Vu 40:41
Yeah, so we just released our coffee tempo, which is super exciting. You know, they’re they’re very flexible and made of coffee grounds. And then we are planning on introducing plates, bowls, takeaway boxes are all available for preorder. And yeah, those are our plans. And our plans are to expand it to other countries. So right now we’re in the US, Canada and Australia, primarily online. But we’re applying to expand into Europe. And then we are in Singapore, and we’re just gonna try to blow it up as much as what is it? What

Michael Waitze 41:11
is expansion mean to you, though? In other words, it’s hard enough to run a business. You know, we joked before about remote working right, where you’re like remote you’re fired, basically, is what it used to be. Right? Like if I’d gone into my boss at Goldman Sachs and said, I love this job. But from now on, I’m going to be working from Bali, and I just need like a high speed internet connection, he just would have been like, are you really okay, right. But now, that’s not true. But if you’re expanding globally, not just regionally, what does it look like to you? And like, what’s necessary? You think? I’m really curious? Like, do you need somebody on the ground in Sweden to build in Sweden or not?

Marina Tran-Vu 41:47
You know, what I before? I would say, no, like, I’m offended by before me, like last year, I would say no, because, you know, there’s kind of everyone was working remotely by like, by just being forced to, you know, but I think there needs to be a little bit of both, you know, I think not everything can be done remotely, you have to go on the ground, you have people in person and sensing things. And it’s the same sort of, kind of methodology that I take, when I take a look at my business when people evaluated as a startup. It’s like, yes, you know, people are investing millions of dollars into technology startups, right. But at the end of the day, we live in a physical world, and we still need to have physical products. That’s why investing in products like mine might be a good idea. But that’s the same thing with remote working and like just getting things done. It’s like there’s nothing that can really replace that in person, sort of.

Michael Waitze 42:39
So will you start traveling a lot now?

Marina Tran-Vu 42:43
Oh, I’m already started. We opened up our borders. And yeah, so I’ve already traveled to Singapore to finally see two of my like best friends from university. I finally saw them after almost three years. And so I did that. And I went to Korea recently saw my sister who was there. So I’m finding my sister after seven months, and then I’m dying to see my parents, again, after a year. And this is where prior to that, you know, I didn’t see them for two and a half years. Yeah, probably.

Michael Waitze 43:13
Because this is my first trip, right? I mean, I’m in Singapore. Now. I had not left Thailand, obviously, for the whole experience of COVID. And I don’t disagree with you, like I was at a conference last week. And there’s and I’ve been saying this for years anyway, even before COVID, where people are talking about robots replacing this other thing, and maybe they can, maybe they will, but I don’t think you can get rid of human connectivity, right? Like if you and I were because I recorded in person here with a bunch of people. It was unbelievable. I still think this is okay. But if we were sitting in the same room, and just like really there, I think it’d be just a little bit different. And I don’t think there’s any separation between or any, like replacement for just a face to face meeting.

Marina Tran-Vu 43:55
No, there isn’t any Oh, there’s a different energy. And there’s a different like reaction that you can get from each. I mean, well, I don’t know if that’s the case of me because people say I’m pretty similar online as I am in person, but I hope it’s a good thing. You know, but um, you know, I know for a lot of people like their dynamic their energy changes, you know, when they’re really around people you know, and and I think that that’s that’s a good thing you know, because it you should be feeding off of other people’s energies, right? We’re all like atoms that are moving around at the end of the day.

Michael Waitze 44:28
Yeah, I’m extroverted anyway, so any kind of interaction I have with people gives me energy whether it’s in person or or remote, but anyway, look, Marina, I can keep you forever. This was a great conversation. Marina Tran-Vu the founder and CEO of EQUO I got it right I put an S on it. I think in the middle and I won’t do that again. Thank you so much for coming and doing this. I really appreciate it.

Marina Tran-Vu 44:48
No problem. I was so fun to have this conversation and I would love to be back if you would have me it might company still around and a couple of years.