Plastic bags, coasters, table linens: to most, these are simply objects that help us through the day that we give no extra thought to. But to busy mother and innovator Kat Nouri, she saw these everyday products as opportunities to do better — by people and by the earth.
Inspired to encourage her family to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle, Kat Nouri founded modern-twist in 2005 with the goal of changing how people think about the products they use in their everyday lives and their impact on the earth — namely plastic. What started as a small shop offering a few home and lifestyle products made from pure silicone (rather than plastic), has become a business that supports sustainability, an alternative lifestyle, and one that has forever changed the lives of Kat and her family.
More than a product line, Kat has become a provider of safe alternatives for consumers’ health and the planet, and most recently this mindset took the form of a product invention: “As a mother of three, I’ve been making school lunches for years. Every time I used a plastic self-sealing bag, I’d think ‘what a waste,’” she explains. “But when it came to ease, convenience and functionality, plastic bags were unmatched — there were no good alternatives out there.” She decided to make one herself and stasher was born, a plastic-free storage bag made from 100% pure platinum silicone with all of the conveniences of a plastic bag (think pinch-press, self-sealing, air-tight) and none of the environmental consequences.
A wonder-woman who launched her business a decade ago, Kat’s sharing more with us today about her vision, how she found success in business, how stasher came to be, and her views on everything from motherhood and downtime, to what it means to do good by people — as well as our planet. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I come from a very spiritual and entrepreneurial family. My parents taught me that we only have so much time in this life, so it’s important to live every day to its fullest and to always shoot for the stars. You have to challenge yourself, and if you don’t ever experience failure, then you’re not challenging yourself enough. I always tell my husband that if we can teach our kids to do everything intentionally and passionately in their lives, and not to fear failing, they’ll be just fine no matter what path they choose. They just need to connect the dots. That’s what I did: I simply connected the dots.
I’ve always tried to follow my own vision, I always felt different. Maybe part of that comes from being an immigrant. Working for others can be very rewarding, but once the entrepreneurial bug bites, it’s hard to go back. What makes my path mine and what makes my pursuit unique is that I discovered early on that my passion for making a difference is a very powerful motivator, something that drives me personally and professionally.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak, and I’ve been involved in starting many ventures aside for working for corporations. But it wasn’t until I became a mother that I found my true calling and launched modern-twist.
As a mother of three, I felt that I had to be more proactive helping make the world a better place for my kids. I want my children and their children’s children to be able to live healthy and happy lives, in a healthy environment. I saw how my everyday choices impacted the world, how choosing to buy certain products or eat certain foods depleted resources and hurt the environment. I wanted to change the direction I was going, and I wanted to bring everyone else with me.
I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself; to be part of a movement that instills values, promotes a sustainable lifestyle, and raises consciousness. modern-twist gave me a platform to create beautiful, useful products with a conscience, and now with stasher — the world’s first air-tight, self-sealing, non-plastic bag — we are giving people a healthier choice, getting them to rethink plastics in their everyday lives. Our products empower people to ask questions, and not be numb to the things they use and eat every day.
As we grow and our business evolves, I’m driven by the passion that I see in my team, my advisers and partners. This shared commitment to making the world a better place has a pulse of its own. I guess you can say we are all drinking the Kool-Aid!
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was, and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?
I didn’t set out to design and develop sustainable products for the home and for kids and babies — it just happened. modern-twist and our new company, stasher, are a natural extension of my upbringing and life experiences. My mother has a Ph.D. in nutrition, and is also a qi gong master and a Buddhist. My father was a competitive athlete, and worked in the natural foods business. So the importance of health and nutrition is ingrained in me, and it’s something I have always been passionate about.
Though my background is in marketing and sales, I have always been creative, and wanted to do my own thing. I have an innate artistic sensibility, so I left the corporate world and pursued my interests in ceramics and floral design. But it wasn’t until I became a mother that I realized that I could combine my passion for design with my passion for health and well-being, and start my own business: modern-twist.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
I was given a lot of advice when I was starting out, but the best things I learned, I learned from experience. I’d tell someone just starting out a few things.
Decide what success means to you, and aim for it. Success means different things to different people. Being successful is a combination of so many things: persistence, tenacity, endurance, passion, forgiveness, and compromise. To me, finding fulfilling, meaningful work is the ultimate success. If you are in a position to work passionately every day, then you are successful. Half of your life is spent working, so make it count.
Don’t be afraid of stress; I know that is easier said than done. Early on, I discovered that stress can be a positive motivator — so don’t think of stress as a negative thing. Take that energy and channel it towards achieving your goals.
Don’t follow the pack — be an innovator! If it has been done before and you can’t do it differently or better, then don’t do it.
Accept that you don’t know what you don’t know. Surround yourself with specialists. You can be the orchestra leader, but you need to know enough to ask the right questions. Try to know a little about every process; it not only gives you perspective when things go wrong, but also gives you a great appreciation of other people’s hard work.
The culture you create for your team is probably the best investment you could ever make. A healthy and fresh, positive outlook makes everyone in your organization feel good, and when people feel good, they do better work.
Generosity is key. Your team, partners, customers, just want to know that they’re appreciated. Pause to say “thank you.” Don’t take anyone’s good work and energy for granted. People just want to know that if they take a chance on you, you will be honorable — even when things go wrong.
Transparency makes relationships easier — it takes too much energy to be any other way. Intentions are always as clear as day. When you’re with your team and you are all pushing in the same direction without ego or agenda, it’s like being part of an engine that lights up with the power that is beyond one person.
But the most important piece of advice I learned along the way is this: Remember that this is not just your journey, it’s your family’s journey, too. You’re all in this together. My Mom, kids and husband have had my back every step of the way. They’ve helped pack unfinished products, stressed with me in uncomfortable meetings, traveled to trade shows around the world, and lifted me up when I’ve hit rough patches. They have been on this journey with me, and my success is because of their support, and their belief in me. The best part is, by including them all in the process, we don’t miss out on this important time we have together.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Funding. It’s the one thing that just doesn’t go away. You’re always looking for ways to support your existence, ways to grow the business and keep it stable. It’s extremely difficult to not sell out your vision for the sake of finances. To me, investment that is neither strategic nor aligned with the vision and the culture of my company is not attractive in any way. In a day and age where outside investment is portrayed as a sign of legitimization, it’s a lot more important to say “no.”
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
At some point, you have to hand off the baton, you have to trust the people around you and let go. I realized I can’t possibly do everything all by myself — I needed to focus on growing my business, and I needed people to help me do that. Like hiring a CFO. It was a game-changer for us. Inventory and finances can be complex; one false move can put you out of business. Having someone on board who could advise me about risk, how to grow the business, and making sound financial decisions helped me evolve as a businesswoman. I learned that if you spend money on good people, it will save you at the end of the day. Hire people that respect your vision and share your passion; people who will challenge you to be better, people who will make you think hard and call you out when you’re making a bad decision. Choosing the right people at the right time can make all the difference.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
I’ve woken up with a pit in my stomach every time we’ve run out of money. Cash flow is everything. As a result, I work as hard as I can to make sure I always have my eyes open for additional financing, whether it’s an investor or traditional bank. However, I have never agreed to partnerships that were not aligned with my vision. Organic growth has allowed us to stay true to the direction of our brand, without “selling out.” My CFO has been my savior by helping me stay on track.
If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?
I would get organized. Between three kids, a husband, friends, family, and running a business, I just don’t have time. Getting organized always seems so out of reach!
With more time, I would also try to squeeze in a little more relaxing exercise time. Exercise gives me back my sanity. I can’t function without it. Work-life balance is so important — you can’t take care of others unless you’re taking care of yourself. As my husband likes to say, “If Mommy isn’t happy, nobody is happy.”
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
We’ve sacrificed everything for the business. We’ve put our home and all of our financial existence into it — we’re all in. Traditional banks practically ask for your first born as collateral. I’ve met with banks for years, and been rejected over and over again. But I’ve been persistent, and proved that I work tirelessly to never let down the people who choose to invest in me. I’ve given my all — financially, emotionally, and spiritually — to making my business a success.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
I’m proud that I have identified that it’s the people in my life that make this journey all so amazing. When I’m at work, our office and the people we work with — we’ve chosen these partnerships, and each other. I feel like a kid in a candy store, surrounded by people that inspire me. Recognizing the priority in that makes me proud.
I’m also very proud that I have evolved into a socially conscious entrepreneur, channeling my success into making a difference. Even after modern-twist’s success, I felt I needed to do more. With three kids, I’ve packed a lot of lunches over the years, and it always bothered me that there wasn’t a healthy alternative to plastic sandwich bags. I worried about the chemicals leeching into their food, and I worried about all of the bags going to landfill every day. I looked for healthier alternatives on the market, but nothing compared to how easy and convenient plastic bags were. That’s when I had my a-ha moment — and stasher was born. We spent years designing a bag that would be a healthy, fully functional alternative to plastic. stasher is made of 100% pure platinum silicone — even our innovative, patented pinch-press seal is silicone. And now, I’m launching the world’s first self-sealing, air-tight, non-plastic bag! stasher is truly amazing. It offers all of the ease and convenience of plastic, but without any of the negative effects on our health or the environment. It’s going to have a huge impact in educating people about the dangers of petroleum-based plastic, and creating a more sustainable world.
I really believe that it’s our duty as consumer product designers and manufacturers to produce goods with a message, with a conscience. That’s how we can really make a difference. I’m so incredibly proud of stasher. It took a lot to get here — a lot of perseverance, commitment, drive, and belief in my vision.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Hang on to the coattails of people that inspire you. As a kid, I was always attracted to the elderly. I wanted to listen to their stories and learn about their journeys, about the obstacles they faced, and the paths that led to fulfillment. As an adult, I surround myself with amazing advisers. I have never been afraid to reach out to anyone at any level. Being perfectly okay with rejection has made me fearless. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people you admire in your industry. Networking is a key to success. By networking, you’re connecting the dots to others that may share experiences or help you find your path.
For inspiration, I listen to TED talks in bed, NPR on the road, read Inc., The Economist, and blogs while on the plane and on exercise machines. I love Social Venture Network (SVN) books and blogs. Best of all, my husband is a walking encyclopedia. He fills me up with all the other things I wish I had time to read, thoughts which guide me creatively and spiritually fill my soul. I love Henry David Thoreau, W. Somerset Maugham, and Khalil Gibran.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
When you’re running a hundred miles per hour, you’re not crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s and it gets you. Things go wrong. But you do the best you can when you’re growing. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many hands to do the work. There are no shortcuts. You learn from your mistakes, and keep moving.
But for the most part, a stone in the road often ends up being what saves you from the avalanche. That mistake you made? You learned what not to do next time. Every time you think someone else has it easy, or has achieved something by luck, think again. The reality is, a heck of a lot goes into it before luck ever kicks in. You just can’t ever quit, because you never know when the solution is around the corner.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. First, I’d say you have to have a very honest conversation with yourself. Can you take a punch and smile in hindsight? Recognize that this journey will consume you and challenge every bone in your body. Ask yourself, would you believe in you? Would you invest in you? If the answer is “yes,” go out there and take as many “no’s” as you can. Learn from it, and find people who believe in you, who inspire you.
2. Second, research, research, research. Know everything there is to know about your industry, your competition, and the market. Information is power, and the more you know before you begin, the easier the journey.
3. Last, you need to be strong and committed for the long haul. Starting a business is easy, but creating a strong, lasting business is a marathon. Never give up on your vision. Don’t compromise your values. Your conviction will bring people on board. Hard work and being true to your own DNA will inspire you.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Zum! This app has taken modern parenting to a new level. Safe transportation has been a key element in helping me manage my busy family.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
At the end of the day, if all else fails, you’re always the first man up. You have to feel comfortable with that if you’re steering the boat. Being responsible for other people’s livelihoods is a huge respnsibility. But, it motivates me and keeps me working harder than I do for myself. I’m the first one to do any job that needs to be done. When you have that sort of approach, everybody helps in owning the whole process.