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Ep. 126 - Branding Sustainability the Right Way with Emma Cohen

Emma Rose Cohen is the CEO and founder of Final, creators of FinalStraw—the world’s first reusable, collapsible straw that raised nearly $2 million on Kickstarter. 

Prior to launching Final, Emma earned a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience from University of California, Santa Barbara and received a Master’s Degree from Harvard in Environmental Management and Sustainability. 

She then spent four years working in the Waste Minimization Department at Los Alamos National Laboratory. 

In the last decade, Emma’s passion for sustainability motivated her to help found a nonprofit, Save the Mermaids, with a mission to educate children about the harmful effects of single-use plastics. 

Emma has shared her expertise about the harmful effects single-use plastic has on the environment while speaking on multiple TEDx stages, at conferences like Collision from Home, and on ABC’s Shark Tank. 

She has shared her experiences as an entrepreneur and sustainability expert in articles written for Forbes, and as a guest on dozens of podcasts, including The Next 10 Podcast, Shopify Masters, and How I Built This. 

Since 2018, Emma has grown Final from a one product company to a company with an entire line of convenient, sustainable alternatives. 

In 2020, Final launched BiggieStraw, FinalSpork, and FinalFork. 

In Q1 of 2021, FinalWipe Home and FinalWipe Travel will make their debut. Waste is just a design flaw. Emma and the Final team are on a mission to change that. 

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [01:06] The founding story of Final
  • [04:43] Timing is an important part to success
  • [07:23] FinalStraw vs the alternatives
  • [08:40] The iterations to the FinalStraw design
  • [10:42] Working on the Kickstarter campaign
  • [12:46] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
  • [13:07] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [14:16] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.grsm.io/honest
  • [15:44] Sponsor: Avalara avalara.com/honest 
  • [16:38] Sponsor: Rewind rewind.io/honest
  • [17:13] Boosting Kickstarter through news outlets
  • [18:18] Non-scalable things for growth
  • [19:03] Final’s Post-crowdfunding strategy
  • [21:07] From launch to the next iteration of products
  • [22:24] Evolution of the marketing strategy
  • [23:51] The Shark Tank experience
  • [26:36] Marketing is challenging for a niche product
  • [27:53] Joining 1% for the Planet
  • [29:46] What’s next for Final

Resources:

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  Transcript:

Emma Cohen  

Perfection is the enemy of progress so you have to let go sometimes of making it perfect and just move forward.

Chase Clymer  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

Let's get on with the show.

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And today, we are welcoming to the show, the CEO and founder of Final

It's a company that created the FinalStraw, the world's first reusable collapsible straw. Emma and her team are on a mission to help people rid their lives of single-use plastic. 

Emma Rose Cohen, welcome to the show. How are you doing today? 

Emma Cohen  

Amazing. Thanks for having me, Chase. 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So this is a super fun journey. I can't wait to kind of dive right in. So one thing I noticed in reading your onboarding stuff here is you started this journey more in  the educational space if I could say. 

You got your masters and you've done a lot of work in environmental sciences which... Bonus fact: my business partner has a degree in environmental sciences and now we're in Ecommerce

So I guess take us back there to where the seed was planted that you wanted to start a business to do good.

Emma Cohen  

Yeah. I never really had a plan as to what I was doing. It's always been just follow my passion, follow what excites me and take it from there. 

So in college, I was studying neuroscience because I'm obsessed with the brain and drugs and how [it affects] our perceptions of reality. 

And I was particularly fascinated by the fact that we were over-medicating kids with things like Adderall... 

Anyways, total sidebar. That was where I thought I was going. And so I got my EMT, I started working in a hospital. And I was like, "What on earth? I hate hospitals. They're the worst." You walk into one and it's just like, everything in my body just says no. 

And, so that was like, "Okay, I'm not doing that." And so at the same time, my girlfriends and I just happened to have a bunch of mermaid outfits. 

And we're like, "Let's dress up like mermaids and do beach cleanup." So we did. And it was super fun. And we realized that sustainability had this really terrible branding on it. It was very granola, very hippie, and very extremist. And really, we're all living on the same planet together. 

We all have this one earth that we have to share. So being an environmentalist, as niche as it is perceived and a high opinion [as it may seem], it's not. It's something that really any practical person cares about. 

So anyways, by dressing up like mermaids and being sparkly and fun, a lot of people wanted to join us. So it was like, "Oh! Okay. So if we put this different spin on sustainability, more people are interested in participating." 

It's more of an open-source where everyone can participate and add their contribution. So fast forward a bit, I realized that this was my path and this is what I really cared about. 

And did my masters in Environmental Management and Sustainability, ended up getting a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Waste Minimization. I worked there for 4 years, but it turns out government work is not meant for a mermaid. 

So (laughs) I was like, "Okay, I'm going to go be a ski bum up in Whistler. I've saved enough money to eat ramen for a year." And I was really excited to just be in the mountains and just shred all the time. 

And that didn't last too long because I started working on Final as just a side project. I was like, "This is a cool idea. Maybe it'll be something." And then launched the Kickstarter in April of 2018 and raised $2 million in a month. 

And it was completely unexpected and changed the trajectory of my life forever.

Chase Clymer  

Alright. Alright. We cannot belittle the starting foundation of your business data in two or three sentences. I'm gonna have to dive in a bit there. 

So you're in Whistler and you're working on what became the FinalStraw? What was that? What were you actually doing?

Emma Cohen  

Yeah. So you know, it started with this idea that... Well first of all, creating a successful business depends on one thing, which is timing. 

And so the timing was such that Seattle was banning single-use plastic straws. And I thought this was pretty revolutionary since up until that point, the only plastic items that had been banned were single-use bags. 

And those bans were really controversial because a lot of people use their plastic bags more than once. So the controversy was like, "Well, how do I then have to buy my bathroom trash bags now?" And people were just all up in arms.

But straws, on the other hand, didn't have as much controversy around them, besides ensuring that people who need straws still have access to them. But beyond that, it's like for the 99% of people, a straw is not 100% necessary. It's more of a luxury. 

So anyways, if you went on Amazon or Google or anywhere in early 2018 and googled "reusable straw", all you would find was a bamboo straw, a glass straw, or a metal straw. 

And these are just these long things that stick out of your bag and there's no way to carry them around. You're poking yourself in the pocket. It's just not convenient. 

I, [for] multiple times, have glass straws break in my purse and they would just have shards everywhere. And mind you, I don't even use straws. but people would just find these straws because I was obsessed with plastic straws and eliminating them. 

And so people were like, "Here you go. Shut up." (laughs) So anyways, there was this huge gap in the market, there was about to be this massive legislative change and there was nothing really filling this area of straws on-the-go, which is where most people use straws. 

So yeah, I knew all of that was going on. But that wasn't really the driving factor. 

The driving factor was to create something innovative, and different, and exciting, and new, that gave people a tool to reduce their waste. Because up until that point, it was like... If you wanted to have a marker of being aligned with the environmental movement, it was like you carried a water bottle and that was the thing. Or reusable bags. 

But I want to expand that way beyond those two items and make these super convenient, easy-to-use, fun, and exciting products that make it super easy to say no to single-use plastic and also are design-forward and cute.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And for those that are uninitiated to what the FinalStraw looks like, can you talk about the difference between what you brought to market versus what was out there? These metal, glass, or bamboo straws? 

Emma Cohen  

Sure. So the FinalStraw comes in a little case. And it basically is inspired by a tent pole. So it's made with 4 metal segments with silicone running through them. When you pull it out of the case, it self-assembles. And it's essentially a tent pole you can suck out of. 

So it has silicone running all down the middle. And these 4 metal segments that you can break apart, just like a tent pole or an avalanche probe, whatever. And it goes right back in this recycled plastic case. 

It also comes with a telescoping cleaner so that you can clean it on-the-go because that's everyone's first question: How do I clean it? And yeah, just throw it on your keychain. 

And for those straw enthusiasts out there, it's the Cadillac of straws. There is no [straw] better.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. So it's an awesome little device. And I'm going to get my hands on one soon. So I guess, where did the idea come from? 

Was it when you were up in Whistler seeing these avalanche probes? I feel like that would be in the environment? Did you go through iterations?

Emma Cohen  

The iterations were really in material sourcing. It was just a very simple concept, put four segments with a tube around it into a case. And the iterations really came when we went for design for manufacturing. 

So once we raised all the money for the Kickstarter, then it was like, "Oh shit. Now I have to make you know, 200,000 straws." I have zero design experience, zero manufacturing experience. I have no clue. So I hired a design firm. 

And from there, we started iterating on "How can we integrate the cleaning device? How can we make this as small and compact as possible, but still incredibly functional and high quality?" So there was... 

For any of those old school fans out there, there was FinalStraw 1.0. It had a drying rack in it and it had a squeegee instead of the telescoping brush. I really didn't like this design. 

But we were incredibly pressed on time and had to deliver because we told our Kickstarter people that we were delivering for Christmas and the holidays and it was this big pressure. 100,000 people, sending emails like "where's my straw?" 

So anyways, that model still is amazing and great and cool but I like this one better because it is smaller, more compact and uses less materials, which is obviously more sustainable. 

And, we iterated on the manufacturing process to be able to use a lighter weight metal and so that's less materials and lighter weight. So, yeah, this is a lot of iteration and constantly looking at things and trying to make it perfect. 

But any inventor or designer out there knows that perfection is the enemy of progress. So you have to let go sometimes of making it perfect and just move forward.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. I feel that goes hand-in-hand with just a website. Like a website's never optimized. The website is never done. Something can always be better. 

But we skipped ahead on a certain bit that I know that I'm gonna get yelled at if I don't talk about. How did you know... How did you have such a successful Kickstarter? What did that look like? 

Emma Cohen  

Yeah. So the Kickstarter... And yes, I know I made it like, "Oh, we just launched our Kickstarter."

Chase Clymer  

(laughs)

Emma Cohen  

I put 3 months of full-time work into the Kickstarter. There are 2 articles that Tim Ferriss put on his blog about creating an email list and running a successful Kickstarter campaign. And I basically followed those to a tee. 

So what that meant first is generating interest and leaves. So first off, I started by building a social media following. I'm obsessed with memes and pop culture. I think it's just the coolest way to transmit information. 

And obviously, something that's really caught on with our generation. And so I started making a meme account on FinalStraw, specifically around single-use plastic, and it caught on really quickly. I got 10,000 followers in 3 months. 

And so from there, we had a fan base. So then I was able to start promoting a landing page, which was just a super simple landing page with a photo of the FinalStraw case on it that said next to it, "There's a straw in here." 

So we're creating mystery, we're generating interest and a little bit of mystique. And so it said "Sign up to be the first to know." When you sign up on that landing page, it then gave you the option to refer friends and get discounts. So that is through a program called Viral Loops

And so basically, we were able to amass about 4000 email addresses before launching. And then the second that the Kickstarter went live, we emailed all these people, "Hey, it's live. Share it with your friends." And that was kind of the beginning of the virality of the campaign. 

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Emma Cohen  

Another big thing that I did to make the Kickstarter go big is that for months, I set up Google News Alerts for plastic straws, plastic pollution, all of these things. And this was dominating headlines at the time. 

And so I was emailing every single one of these reporters, which ended up being around 700 reporters in those 3 months. "Hey, I saw your article about plastic straws. Guess what, I figured out the solution. It's gonna be amazing." I got zero responses for 700 emails. 

And this is hundreds of hours of work. 2 weeks before the campaign, BuzzFeed responds. And I'm like, "Oh wow, I cannot let this slip through my fingers." 

So I ended up getting in contact with them, bringing them some straws, they loved the project and did a video on it that launched the day that Kickstarter went live. 

So it was just this confluence of all of this hard work. And everything just aligned perfectly. And as I said earlier, timing is the most crucial aspect of it all.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. And I just want to kind of talk about the cold email thing right there 700 with no replies. And it just takes one to change the course of the business. 

And it's those non-scalable things at the onset of a business, which are really going to make or break things. And you'll find parallels and a lot of stories, that they are [doing] a lot of just non-scalable, just doing the work to get things to the next level is what happens all the time. 

The Kickstarter is now launched, you've got all these email addresses, you're starting to get momentum on Kickstarter. 

Obviously, it's a great viral success with the support of the BuzzFeed feature. Now the things are all said and done. You talked about hiring a design firm, I'm assuming a product design firm? 

Emma Cohen  

Yes. 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So you get them involved. What's the next step after a Kickstarter? I feel like some people don't realize how to turn it into a sustainable business, take it away from the crowdfunding-esque thing into its own actual direct consumer business. 

So walk us through the growth of the [brand] going from "Here's a one-time product purchase" to "Here is a business".

Emma Cohen  

Yeah. So as the Kickstarter was just exploding, the first thing was hiring. So you have to hire people to start responding to all the messages. 

We are getting thousands of messages a day and press inquiries and everyone's reaching out because they're interested, including Shark Tank, which I'm sure we'll talk about a little later. 

But yeah, so hiring a team is the next thing and it's the hardest thing. And I have so much respect for people who built incredible companies, because they're not the ones building it. It's the team that's building it. 

And all they're doing is picking the right people. And it's so, so hard. A lot of people say they can do things that they just absolutely cannot. So, I'd say that that's the next big thing and then building the website. 

And then for me, as I mentioned earlier, I don't use straws. I just want to provide solutions for things that people encounter on a daily basis. 

So my mind --as soon as this did-- well was  immediately like "What's next? And what else can we create that is going to solve more problems for me, and other people?" Because straw users are a fraction of the population. 

But we recently came out with our fork and spork which I'm so proud of and so obsessed with because this is something that I use on a regular basis. So it's the same concept as FinalStraw, but it's a foldable spork. And I use this all the time.

Chase Clymer  

With getting the first initial run of products out, how long was it until you were about to launch the second product? What was like the timing between the launch of the FinalStraw and the next iteration of products?

Emma Cohen  

Yeah. So we didn't launch the spork until August or September of 2020. And when you... Most people have a few years to build up the revenue that we had in the first year. 

And so it was playing catch up for 2 years straight of just trying to build a team, get solid processes, build SOPs... I had a co-founder at the beginning. We had a big falling out. So dealing with that legal disaster, there's a lot behind it. 

And it's funny to think that we survived for 2... Well we thrived for 2 years on 1 straw and sold hundreds and thousands of them. And then things have shifted quite a bit, obviously, with the pandemic hitting and this being a travel-based business, but as an entrepreneur, you just have to pivot.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So now that you guys have pivoted a bit, you've got some new product offerings. How did the launch strategy change and the marketing strategy evolve? 

Are you still taking products to market through crowdsourcing type adventures? Or is there a different strategy these days?

Emma Cohen  

Yeah, it really depends on the product. And, our most recent crowdfunding campaign was called FinalWipe. And that was a real knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic hitting. And I learned a lot from that. This is my first company and so I made a lot of mistakes. But that's okay. And it's part of the game. 

So I think if I were to go back in time, I would have done it quite differently. But I was... Everyone was really freaking out back in March. 

And it was like, "What is going on? We need to do something. We need to be involved. We need to solve problems." And I was using a ton of single-use wipes. 

And I was like "This is a way that our company can help people who are dealing with these same problems." And so that's why we launched a reusable cleaning wipe. And I don't know. I think for future products, it's just... It's going to be a case-by-case situation. 

Do I think crowdfunding is the best way to launch this? Or do we want to launch it internally to our existing customer base?

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. It definitely makes sense to kind of weigh the options there. And especially because you've got such loyal fans you can probably test the waters before a bigger launch to see the reactions. 

And also, the way that your customers talk about the product is like having them write a copy for you. It's pretty, pretty awesome. They just use their exact words out there in your marketing. 

So let's pivot here, you're getting a bunch of inquiries from people about the launch of the FinalStraw. And obviously, everyone's favorite Shark Tank reached out. What can you share about that experience?

Emma Cohen  

Yeah. Well, I think I can share most of it. So 2 weeks into the Kickstarter, I'm just beyond any sort of... I don't think I was feeling feelings then. 

It was just like, full robot, "Have to just respond to emails." I was sleeping in bed with my computer, waking up, typing emails, working 18 hour days. It was insanity. 

So Shark Tank reaches out and they're like,  "We're interested in having you guys on the show. And can you send over your P&L and balance sheets." and I'm like, googling like, "What's a P&L?" So that's the level that I was at when I started this business. 

But I was like, "Okay. When Shark Tank reaches out, you just go for it. You dive in." And so I put together all of the financials and everything. And mind you this is a 3-week old company at this point. 

So we're putting together projections based on 3 weeks of sales, which is just silly. But anyways, [we] went on Shark Tank about 6 weeks after we'd launched, filmed the episode and... Yeah. I've never pitched to investors in my life. 

And so my first pitch was to Mark Cuban. And I think that I valued the business at what I knew it would be at the end of the year. 

But what they were seeing was some very ambitious entrepreneurs who had really good sales for 6 weeks, but had no proven track record of creating a product. And so I see it really well from both sides. Like why we got the offers we did. 

And I got offers from both Mark and Kevin. And I turned them down, because I didn't think that they were valuing us as high as we should be valued. So yeah. I don't regret that decision. 

Well actually, if I were to go back in time, I probably would have just done the deal on TV because everyone wants to just see a deal. And then, it would probably fall apart in the terms which, maybe, I'll get in trouble for. But the people just want to see a deal.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. Everyone wants it to happen, because you're rooting for him. Because you feel like they're gonna win wjrm something like that happens. Did you now... When the episode aired, did you see?.. What I've heard is there's a Shark Tank bump in sales. 

Emma Cohen  

Oh yeah. And to this day, it's still re-airs and we see bumps. I wasn't like... I've read about products like the whatever sponge and some cutting board and it's like, they sell out. They crash their website overnight. 

The Shark Tank audience isn't super environmentally inclined in general. There are absolutely a lot of watch viewers out there that are. But I would say, we're selling a product that you usually get for free. 

So you don't generally have to pay for plastic cutlery, or straws, or whatever. And what we're saying is "Here, spend $20-$30 on this product. It's an investment in the future. It's an investment in reducing plastics, it is a way to show your community that you care about the environment." 

And so, it is a tougher sell for people who are like, "Wait, you're trying to sell me something that I would get for free?"

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, it definitely would make prospecting in your marketing a lot more difficult because there's definitely a type of consumer where these issues resonate with them. 

And then there's another type of the market that just, frankly, doesn't care. So that's a challenge for the marketing team. 

I do want to ask here, though. You have now been... You joined 1% for the Planet. Let's talk about that a little bit and how you decided to become a member.

Emma Cohen  

That's always been a motivating factor. For me, the whole reason I created this company isn't to make a bunch of money. It's to make a change in the world, to make a lasting impact. 

And I think 1% for the Planet should be obligatory for every company. Anyone that is extracting a resource, using materials, whether that be energy or  physical product materials, whatever it might be, should be giving back because we are taking without giving back to the world. 

So 1% for the planet basically means that you donate 1% of your gross revenue to environmental nonprofits. And it really is like a symbiotic relationship. The nonprofit's that we work with promote us. 

And they're trying to obviously boost our sales because then it comes back to them. So it's really cool to have these relationships and be able to support the companies that are doing [and] have been doing this work for so long. 

We're really new and young, and a lot of these nonprofits have been around for a decade or more and, and really know the ins and outs of the systems and have incredible connections. And I highly recommend it to anyone out there who's kind of on the fence.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now Emma, is there anything that I forgot to ask you that you think would resonate with the audience? 

Emma Cohen  

Maybe just a little bit about what's next. 

Chase Clymer  

Where are you going? What's going on? 

Emma Cohen  

Yeah. So I'm really excited to continue pivoting. Corona and the global pandemic has made me realize where a lot of the issues are in packaging and single-use plastic production. So I don't want to give up too much but we are moving into the bathroom. 

And we'll be working on some really cool products to make it much easier to live sustainably. And that, ultimately, is the challenge. I'm not going after... I don't want my customers to just be the tree-hugging hippies --which who I love because I'm one of them. 

But I also want this to be for the average person that is busy, needs convenience, and wants beautiful design, and they care but they're not necessarily going to go way above and beyond to seek it out. 

So similar to the way that method soap created their product and brand. With beautiful design, amazing sense, and sustainability on the back-end, that's really what I'm trying to do. How can we make something that people just love and is also sustainable? 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. And I look forward to watching that journey from afar and checking in with you in a couple months and maybe having you back on the show so we can deep dive into something. Emma, thank you so much for coming on today. 

Everyone, go check out Final.co. Check out the amazing FinalStraw and all the other fun products that they have there. 

Emma Cohen  

Yes. Thanks so much for having me, Chase. Always fun. 

Chase Clymer  

Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. 

We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes. 

Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have. Make sure you subscribe, leave a review

And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.