Open any household closet and you generally find a mishmash of empty metal hangers left over from the dry cleaners. Recyclers won't take them, so they're likely to end up in the garbage bin headed straight for landfill. That's the way it was in Leigh Meadows' Toronto home, until her young son Jacob suggested a better way.
Why not make the hangers out of paper? Hmm. Coming from an entrepreneurial British family, Ms. Meadows, now the CEO of Media Hook and designer of the Smart Hanger, gave the idea some serious thought and pursued it with family seed money. Three years and a partnership later - plus a lot of research, focus groups and hard work - those paper hangers are a viable and growing business. Made in Canada from 100 per cent Forest Stewardship Council-approved recycled paper, the Smart Hanger is both an environmentally friendly product - it is fully recyclable in your city's blue bin - and an advertising vehicle for brands.
Some of the biggest challenges along the way have been how to make the hanger suitable for rugged dry cleaners' use and profitable as a business. Approaching the dry cleaners came first because you can't go to an advertiser and say, 'I have this fabulous idea but I have no idea how many people I'm going to reach' because they're not going to talk to you, says Ms. Meadows.
"Dry cleaners work in silos - they're often family run and have been there for a long time - so even though they loved the idea, change is difficult," says Ms. Meadows. "The hanger needs to do very specific things, so I had to get that right. I had to work in a dry cleaners for a little while to understand the process - what shape the hangers needed to be, how strong, what corners did they go around, what truck they went on - and to talk to the people who handled the clothes. That took a long time."
During the process, she discovered the Ontario Fabricare Association, a dry cleaners' organization whose members genuinely seemed to care about making their industry more green. She signed a contract giving its membership exclusive access to the hangers for free. Once she had that in place, she was able to determine how many hangers would be needed each week. According to Ms. Meadows, that can add up to 12 million hangers a year just with the association's dry cleaners in Ontario alone.
Profitability was the hardest part to figure out, says Ms. Meadows. The obvious choice was to put advertising on the hangers, but she initially had some reservations about what messages would be used. She solved that by targeting companies and retailers who clearly want to make an environmental difference. Currently, she has contracts with Adidas and major retailers plus a licensing deal with Nickelodeon.
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"We're right on the cusp of making a profit," says Ms. Meadows. "The companies we're talking to are big brand names that plan a year in advance, so we knew going in that we'd have to have the funding to take us there. And now we're there."
She found the most difficult part of talking to advertisers was that the product hadn't proven itself yet since it's new to Canada, so she armed herself with information from other countries to show how it works.
"It surprised me how cautious the industry has been," says Ms. Meadows. "People have said that's a Canadian trait. So when I go to see a potential client, I make up a hanger with their information on it so they can see what it looks like. Then the penny drops."