Rebecca Finell wants you to stop using throwaway zippered plastic bags. She also wants to solve your problem of plastic containers that no longer have their lids or lids that no longer have their plastic containers.
The Austin mom and entrepreneur created Zip Top, a brand of silicone zippered containers that stand up and stay open so you can fill them with items and then zip them shut. They can be washed in a dishwasher and reused again and again.
Finell always has had an entrepreneurial heart. She was the kid who was always making stuff, mainly fine art in high school and grade school, but in second grade she won the Event for American contest for her school when she invented a makeup tool that looked like a thick marker and had mascara and eye shadow cartridges.
“My brain has always done that kind of thing,” said the 44-year-old Austinite.
Zip Top evolved over time. She watched reusable bags come onto the market. At first they were all fabric with a real zipper, then they were plastic lined.
"They were really hard to clean,“ she says. ”That would keep me from using it. I always wanted to do good things for the environment, but it makes it really hard when you have a moldy bag.“
Finding something that worked for her always has been Finell’s motivation.
She founded baby product company Boon in 2004 after having her first two of four children. She was in college studying industrial design at Arizona State University when she met husband Brian at church. He was working his way toward a Master in Business Administration. “He’s the one with the MBA, not me. I learned it all in the real world,” she says.
With Finell, she gets to work with high-end woods, leathers and crystal. Her goals were to get Finell products into Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys. And she’s done that.
Then the idea for Zip Top began evolving. At Boon, she had experience working with silicone. The design she wanted for Zip Top posed two problems: How do you make a one-piece silicone bag that zips closed at the top, and which manufacture could do that?
She spent a year and a half trying to find the factory that could do silicone in one piece at the scale she wanted. This quest took her to China and brought her back to the U.S. again. One manufacturer, she says, was willing to take a risk on her idea. “It took me a year and a half to get it right,” she says, because she is testing the limits of the size at which the silicone product can be made in one piece without having to be glued together.
In March 2017, she brought what she calls “pretty ugly” prototypes to the International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago. “They were kind of functional,” she says. “I wanted to gauge the market size and the interest.”
What she found is a huge interest and a global market from across all populated continents.
“Everyone is trying to make a change,” she says.
Finell says she’s not anti-plastics. “It’s the throwaway, everyday, single-use plastic that is our biggest problem that can be fixed,” she says. “We have to change our lifestyle and what we are used to.”
That also means changing how we invest in containers. Instead of buying a $1.68 box of 50 plastic sandwich bags once a month, it’s buying a couple of Zip Top sandwich bags at $11.99 each one time.
“People are smart,” she says. “When you can reuse something for years, it’s going to be cheaper than bags.”
With Zip Top, her goal was to get them into Target, and she’s accomplished that. Many stores have an end cap of Zip Top products. The latest thing she’s most excited about is Zip Top breast milk bags that will be coming to some Targets, though none in Austin. You will be able to get them on the ziptop.com website.
She says she’s trying to avoid this scenario: mom having a meltdown when her partner spills her “liquid gold” before it gets to the baby.
These bags have been FDA approved and expand when they are frozen. You can put them into a pot of boiling water to sterilize them or sterilize them in the microwave and they won’t be damaged.
Her next big hurdle is how to expand to meet a global demand. She needs to grow from seven full-time employees, plus many part-timers. They need to be at 20 full-time employees by this summer, she says.
And she needs to expand to other factories, but they have to be able to do it right.
She knows what happens when there’s an inferior product. When she did Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, people stole her images, and manufacturers in China had some of the test designs from her research there. They produced products that looked similar but weren’t the same. She’s had to hire a third-party company to send daily cease and desist letters, and she has a section on the Zip Top website to tell people what to do if they think they bought an inferior version.
Zip Top has become a bit of a family business. Fifteen years ago as Boon was taking off, Brian quit his job and began taking care of the kids, who are now 19, 17, 12 and 4.
“He is the biggest supporter,” she says. “Between the two of us, he's the patient one. He loves to teach; he's incredible. ... It's a perfect fit for both of us. He is over the household altogether, and I do this.”
She’s become the “fun mom.” "I'm going to play with the kids, and he makes sure they do their homework and eat healthy food.“
Their 17-year-old daughter, Vivian, is doing online school while learning the business from Finell.
Vivian is also the one who took care of her parents when Finell donated a kidney to Brian this summer. Finell likened that experience to having the fatigue of the first two months of pregnancy. “The hardest part was getting enough energy,” she says. She wondered if it was ever coming back, and then, four months after the surgery, it did.
Now, she says, Brian is doing well. “He’s amazing,” she says. “He’s running circles around me.” The color has returned to his face and his eyes. He no longer has to have a nap every day. “He’s a little more feisty, too.”
While her 17-year-old was holding things down at home, her team in the Bee Cave office was holding the business together. She also worked from home a lot.
Finell says she’s already had offers to sell, and she knows that one day she will, but right now she’s having too much fun.
“This is my favorite thing I’ve ever done,” she says.
Part of what makes it fun is the potential. She’s talking to schools and to cities about what they can do to move away from single-use containers. She imagines scenarios with takeout containers at restaurants.
“I know how to build them,” she says of product-based companies. “I want to build it to a certain point. I’m sure this is going to be bigger than me really soon. I will just know when it’s time to pivot.”
And like she did with Boon, she’ll leave the future owners with a lot of new ideas for them to take the company to the next level and hope that, like what happened when Tomy bought Boon, they keep the brand true to its roots.
“I have so many concepts,” she says. “I want to continue to feed product development.”
And then she’ll move onto the next product and create the next company. “I’m an inventor,” she says. “My brain can’t turn off.”