When Chris Sell pitched his business idea — to sell inexpensive, eco-friendly school products to Northwestern students — his own parents were less than enthused. “My mom told me I was an idiot,” Sell said.
To be fair, Sell had never attended a single class at Northwestern when he was busy defining his audience: The 19-year-old Weinberg student transferred from Notre Dame this fall, and only began imagining the business when his internship fell through this summer.
But three months and a $4400 investment later, Sell runs Ecco Living, which sells to students 15 kinds of supplies, from plastic hangers and notebooks made from recycled material to 100 percent biodegradable laundry detergent. Sell delivers the goods from his ‘98 gold Lexus semi-SUV for a 99-cent fee.
Inspired by Ethos Water, which gives a portion of each sale to humanitarian water programs, Sell will give half of the company’s profits to three separate nonprofits that advocate for the environment: the Natural Resources Defense Council, X Prize and the Rocky Mountain Institute.
So far he’s had twelve customers, including Weinberg sophomore Katy Ebbert, who found out about the company on the Bobb-McCulloch listserv.
“If I ever see the option for products that are environmentally friendly, I would choose [it],” Ebbert said. Before Ecco Living, Ebbert said she’d likely buy her supplies from the neighborhood CVS. However, environmentally-friendly options at major retailers like CVS are limited, Ebbert said.
Ecco Living’s range of products “intrigued” her enough to sign up. “If things like that are accessible to students, they’ll be more likely to actually use them and be able to do something productive,” Ebbert said, nothing that her package of hangers, pencils, notebooks and paper towels didn’t cost her too much.
Sell admitted that the company has had a slow start and the idea may end up costing him, after spending $2100 to get the business on the ground and create a Web site, and another $2300 to buy the materials he sells.
“At this point I’m probably going to lose money, and I probably felt that going in,” he said.
Though he’s new to campus, Sell did have some connections to Northwestern before coming. In fact, Sell’s friend Weinberg sophomore Ben Armstrong (who is also a North by Northwestern staffer) helped him come up with the plan, and he met with students from the Student Boxing Company and the Institute for Student Business Education. He got the ball rolling in early July and had formed the Web site and filed for the company by August.
“So far the experience has been a little bit grounding, but I have great hopes for it,” he said.
While Sell does find it a little irritating to deliver the goods all around campus, his work was appreciated by Weinberg sophomore Jennifer Brown, who was impressed by the company’s convenience. After ordering online, “I’d been on campus three days, and they called and asked when I would be available,” Brown said. “They brought [the supplies] to me, I paid on the spot, and that was that. It was really easy.”
Sell has found it difficult to keep a social mission and make profit at the same time. But he stayed away from the nonprofit model because “I do think people need incentives to get involved,” he said.
Moving forward, Sell is facing some awkward choices as he tries to advertise the firm to students at his new school.
“I feel that it’s contradictory to use paper fliers,” he said. “Right now we’re using recycled paper, but I didn’t want to put it on the sidewalk, so I’ve been putting them in dorms.”