Doug Williams, the Founder of Raleigh-based Calico Sol, is proof that pivoting is part of the entrepreneurial process.
The path to get to Calico Sol spanned many years. While serving in the military overseas, Williams became passionate about sustainability. It was during the time he was stationed in Germany, when he would drive by fields full of solar panels and wind turbines, that he began to fall in love with the concept of green energy.
Fast forward to 2020, when Williams was making the difficult decision on what he should do after an 11-year military career. Consulting was one option, but Williams knew he wanted to focus on something he was passionate about, something the world truly needed: sustainability.
Enter Calico Sol, a sustainable furniture startup that will start with a couch as its first product. But even that is a fairly dramatic pivot from the company’s Plan A: a daily disposable litter box for cats.
That came out of a personal problem that Williams and his wife experienced. Always raising stray cats in their homes, scooping out the litter became an annoying task for them, and it’s one that is associated with a negative smell for millions of households.
But after various surveys, focus groups and analysis, Williams decided on a different consumer space that had a larger market than the cat litter box idea. Though it still followed a common theme, Williams said, and that was creating a more sustainable approach to everyday household items.
“The first consumer space that I’ve decided that I would like to enter would be the home furnishing space because the core concepts are still very much the same, in the intersection of a consumer product good and the circular economy,” Williams said.
Now Calico Sol, which received a $10,000 MICRO grant from NC IDEA in April, is working on a sustainable sofa product. The sofa is different from what’s already on the market because at the end of its life cycle, it can be disposed of sustainably due to its materials—and Calico Sol will even collect the sofa to recycle it. And whenever the sofa does go through natural wear and tear, customers don’t have to replace the entire thing but can instead just get new cushions, Williams said.
Americans alone throw out over 12 million tons of furnishings and furniture every year. Because most furniture is not entirely recyclable, this means over nine million tons of glass, fabric, metal, leather and other materials end up in landfills, according to the EPA.
The target customer could be families with younger children or pet owners looking for a couch that can easily swap out cushions in the case their child or pet wrecks them. Instead of having to live with a sofa that is dirty or messy forever—or breaking down and buying a new sofa—they will be able to sustainably replace certain pieces.
The couch will be $2,300 and aims to remain competitive with products from the likes of Pottery Barn while still delivering that sustainable edge, Williams said. Still amid prototype development, the NC IDEA funding will help Calico Sol get to launch in August of this year.
Beyond NC IDEA, Calico Sol has taken on $116,000 in funding from a family and friends round and several other small grants. They are currently seeking $1 million in pre-seed capital to sustain 18 months of operating costs and scale production as well as establish a warehouse to refurbish old furniture.
As a startup founded in the very middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Williams said he’s already noticed delays in manufacturer communications because of the high demand for home furnishings since the pandemic began. But as a company soon to operate in this space, high demand is not the worst problem to have.
And because remote communication has become standard in a post-Covid environment, keeping up to date with the design team in Philadelphia has been relatively frictionless.
“The pandemic has made tools like Zoom and Google Meet and Microsoft Teams much more prevalent amongst the average person, so everyone feels very comfortable using these tools now,” Williams said, adding this was a huge benefit to Calico Sol in working with contractors initially.
Williams, who is wrapping up the MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, said right now he is looking for co-founders that have experience in operations, sales, marketing or sustainable products to take the startup to the next level.
Williams wants Calico Sol to be able to track the carbon footprint of all its upcoming products, similar to a nutritional label consumers find at grocery stores. But ultimately, Calico Sol is on a mission to keep its products out of landfills.
“It’s not enough just to know that there’s a lower carbon footprint comparable to what you find in a typical sofa,” Williams said.
Calico Sol will track how many units of its products have been sold and kept out of landfills because of their recyclability. But its social impact aims to go even beyond that, Williams said, as he plans to work with veterans and formerly incarcerated people once he expands manufacturing capabilities in North Carolina.
Right now, Williams is a member of Bunker Labs, a national organization that supports military veteran entrepreneurship and opened a RDU chapter a few years ago.
“Having access to facilities and resources like that have been instrumental in allowing me to have the time and space to ideate and come up with the business plan, the pitch deck and executive summary overview, all of the components of the business,” Williams said.
And as one of the 15 companies out of 139 that applied for NC IDEA MICRO grants, Williams said it’s validating to the business to have come out a winner.
“As a startup, being able to raise funds consistently and constantly pair those with milestones that can then be used to drive traction and raise more money, it’s a positive loop,” Williams said. “There’s also the validation that comes with the due diligence that these accelerators and other programs have put into choosing the companies.”