We unlock the emotional power of fandom for brands.


Ryan Lupberger

In this week’s episode, Jonathan talks with Ryan Lupberger, founder of Cleancult. They are on a mission to redefine cleaning. They offer innovative plant-based products with a refillable, zero waste subscription-based and omni-channel business model to eliminate toxic chemicals and plastic waste from cleaning routines. Since launching in 2019, the brand is now in over 4,000 retail doors and growing rapidly at 300% YoY.

Jonathan and Ryan start with the founding story and how Ryan came up with the idea. Ryan realized there are no FDA regulations around cleaning supplies and believed there is a better way of doing it. He wanted to create the last bottle of soap a consumer would ever use by using refillable glass bottles and milk cartons, while using natural ingredients that you can pronounce, understand and that are actually clean.

Ryan talks about how he fell in love with the better for business movement and how their first 3 models failed, but in 2019 they came across their current model. The first launch of the brand used pods, but they found that the pods got so hard in shipment they became rocks and didn’t work. A year later they launched an Indiegogo and needed a higher average order value. All the bottles leaked in their first round of shipments. This is when Ryan started to sweat. It was 2.5 years in, and they hadn’t had traction in sales when they finally got to a lightbulb moment when they looked at the boxed waters of the world and asked, what if we applied this concept to cleaners?

When they started, they prioritized better functionality because people want to be better. It’s not that they don’t want green brands, it’s that they need to prioritize product excellence over product betterment for the world. The most sustainable way to make cleaning products would be DIY at your house, but they knew not everyone would do that and that’s not sustainability at scale. When building, it was prioritizing better formulations and supporting it with better packaging.

When developing the products, Ryan asked himself, “How do we make better solutions that don’t require behavior change?” Sustainability greenwashing is hard to differentiate what’s real and what’s not. There’s always going to be a group of customers that are dark green – looking for best environmental sustainability. They matter, but they’re 1% of the market. Ryan talks about how they are not trying to be for the 1%, but the 99%. How do we get a model that really makes a difference to everyone that they can consume very easily?

They tried to create a model that requires the least amount of education possible. DTC is humor, video, color and price. You have to show people what it is. Majority of business is in retail, its bread and butter from a differentiation perspective; many competitors can’t live on a shelf wherein the carton is beautiful/alive and stands out. Cleancult is a refill, and 2 these go together. Trying to create a sustainable system that can go into any traditional retailer; you can go in and understand it with minimal education.

Jonathan and Ryan dig into their startup journey and land on an important topic, where they are based. 35% of the team is based in San Juan. What drew them to San Juan was talent, flexibility, community & R&D environment. The SBIR grant grants 100’s of millions of dollars to start ups for free. Found a great oppy to partner with University of Puerto Rico Maya West to get grant funding and also continue to make it better. Taxes are less of an attraction, more the community/talent.

They joined Mass Challenge in Boston in 2017 which was their last accelerator to get over the hurdle and when they started raising money successfully. They had some grant funding and finally closed the pre-seed round which came down to one person because we struggled fundraising and kept getting no’s until the CEO of Bombas said, let’s do this. He opened up his network and it was the one credible investor that once he lent his credibility, the business credibility became real. They moved up to NYC and now they are back/forth between NY and PR every month.

As the episode winds down, they talk about time management, angel investors and empathy. Ryan believes that empathy is important. Being an entrepreneur is a wonderful journey but there is a lot of pain, frustration and suffering. It will take a decade. Whatever you’re building, it will take a decade. Don’t have to be ready for it upfront. Be ready for the long journey but it doesn’t have to be suffering, and even if it is, how do you remain as mindful as possible.