Marina Tran-Vu: Founder of EQUO Plastic-Free Utensils – Ep. 77

Video Highlights:

About Marina Tran-Vu & EQUO:

When it comes to an outside-the-box success story, Marina Tran-Vu’s is really something.

She worked for years as a corporate marketer, working for and with major brands. She was supposed to just be visiting Vietnam from her native Canada, but then the pandemic happened while she was abroad (pretty much everyone’s worst nightmare) effectively trapping her in another country. Rather than give up the fight, she doubled down, building a pandemic business for eco-friendly straws and eco-friendly alternatives to other everyday single-use plastic items. Marina’s story is proof that fulfillment can sometimes come from events that seem negative at the outset.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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02:13 – [On the positives of straws] “There’s a lot of great uses for a straw, on an everyday basis it just makes drinking easier, especially if you don’t want to spill – let’s say you’re driving and you want to take a little sip… there’s some of us who love to drink drinks without ruining our lipstick or maybe staining our teeth…and then for other people who either maybe have some disabilities or may be hospitalized and aren’t able to get up and drink, straws really do help with that.”

04:00 – “I started EQUO, which is a sustainable brand that provides 100% plastic-free and compostable solutions for everyday single-use plastic items…We started off with straws made out of different materials like grass, rice, coconut, sugar cane, and coffee, and then we’ve also branched out into utensils and dishware and bags as well. The goal is to replace anything that is single-use plastic.”

04:39 – “The research tells us that these materials [single-use plastics] are very, very harmful for the Earth. On average, a plastic item or product is used for about 15 to 20 minutes or less and then thrown away and it lasts on the earth for about 100 to 200 years.”

05:09 – “I moved to Vietnam about three years ago…I started going to a lot of coffee shops and noticing these interesting things in my drinks I’d never seen before. Turned out it was a grass straw, which I didn’t even know was possible – to make a straw out of grass or rice. That’s when it started to turn to thinking about ‘why isn’t this available everywhere else in the world?’ And so that’s what really sparked the idea.”

05:47 – “Coincidentally, at the same time, my nephew was born and I don’t know what it is about babies…but when they come into your life and into the world, they kind of make you rethink things…I really wanted to be able to show my nephew Vancouver, where I grew up, and where it’s beautiful and natural, and the rest of the world – and hopefully give him a chance to grow up in this world and see it as beautifully as I saw it and not have to move to Mars. So that was really the motivation behind starting this business.”

12:01 – “One of the things I learned about Vietnam, and about Asia in general, was if you want to find something or create something or do something, anything is really possible. It’s a great country of innovation and of creating solutions.”

12:52 – “I found out that there are pockets and areas in Vietnam, just like all over Asia, where people actually manufacture in neighborhoods or regions. One region might be specializing in coconuts…you’ll have a coconut area that uses literally every single part of the coconut – the shell to create bowls, the flesh for food and candies, the juice for drinks. Then you’ll have the oil from the coconut to put into cars or motorbikes. They’re super resourceful, and so I went to visit these areas and that’s how I started sourcing things.”

18:23 – “Through our research and surveys, what we found out was people weren’t using these things [e.g. grass straws] because they didn’t know that it was possible…And so the first real issue was just a lack of awareness or education that these materials, that were not only durable but also eco-friendly, were available as an alternative to plastic…And I thought, ‘What else do we need to do to get people to pay attention and then not only be aware of this, but also make the active choice to switch from plastic over to paper?’”

28:07 – “Plastic is actually a very good material in terms of durability. It’s really important, especially for medical devices that go into the body…But it was first developed for military uses – for airplanes – that’s what it was meant for. That’s the level of durability it was supposed to be used for. But then we took it and we just decided to mass-commercialize that use for everything possible. And just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should. And so…we’re just focusing on single-use plastic and paper where it’s unnecessary.”

28:58 – (Ross) “I don’t know why there’s this belief that somebody has to either be 100% or 0%. That might just be a very American value system. I think in general, we don’t talk enough about reduction of things… if we can reduce something by 90%, that’s still better than not making an effort at all.”

29:42 – “For a long time it was like, ‘You have to do everything perfectly sustainable, you have to not eat meat otherwise you’re a horrible person or you’re just greenwashing or you’re being a fake sustainable activist’ …I think that’s a really, really harmful way to look at the industry, as well as to advocate for the industry, because what you’re saying is basically you don’t want anyone to attempt to do anything because it’s never going to be good enough.”

30:48 – “We really want to make sure people understand that there is no gatekeeping to sustainability. There’s no wrong way to do sustainability”.

32:39 – “Kickstarter is an algorithm. There are tricks of the trade. There are certain things on it that will make your project better or worse. You don’t get equal exposure…I would say make sure if you want to do a Kickstarter campaign, that you really do your research, make sure you understand how it works, the ecosystem behind it, and make sure you plug into that ecosystem.”

35:17 – [On appearing on Shark Tank] “If you’re looking for a lot of feedback in a short amount of time, just get on a reality show!”

36:14 – [Kickstarter tips] “Kickstarter is like a community…you really have to get to know that community, be a part of it, understand it, and connect with people in that community – especially leaders of the community – if you want something that you’re trying to push forward to be accepted, as well as advocated for.”

37:30 – [Kickstarter tips] “You want to set a very small, realistic goal because if you hit your goal within the first 24 hours, what will happen is the Kickstarter algorithm will kick in and you’ll be pushed to the top of the page and you’ll get on to newsletters and things like that…Then you get all this free advertising, which is worth tens of thousands of dollars from Kickstarter and the community as well. That will boost your project – and that’s usually what gets projects up to the $100,000 million mark.”

40:24 – [On entrepreneurship] “No one is telling you what to do every single day, no one’s guiding you, telling you what’s right or wrong, no one’s giving you infinite amount of money…But I would say that it brought a lot of things out of myself that I didn’t know was possible. I didn’t know I could present, I didn’t know people could follow my ideas, I didn’t know I could build a brand by myself. And so that really changed for me and a lot of that will impact your self-confidence on a personal level.”

44:36 – [On the cost of living in Vietnam] “It’s so much cheaper here. I can get by with 2 or 3 US dollars a day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if I wanted to…Whether it’s a great place to start a business – I really think that depends on your mindset…You really have to understand and appreciate the culture, and appreciate the talent here, and the business environment, and understand that some things that you might expect in terms of structure in the West don’t exist or may not exist over here.”

48:44 – “For the next 5 years, if everything goes super well, the dream is to get EQUO everywhere, to get everyone to try our products, get our product to every country…I really think that education is the key to success and the key to getting out of any sort of situation as well, especially poverty. I’m a big advocate for getting females funded in terms of their business…so hopefully maybe being on some sort of board for that. And then, probably starting another business. I think once you get into entrepreneurship, you want to do that next thing.”

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