Entrepreneurs

Want to Make an Industry-Changing Product? Look to Other Industries for Inspiration

For Jonathan Propper, CEO of direct-to-consumer laundry detergent company Dropps, doing the laundry isn’t a chore. It’s a family affair. 

In the mid 1980s, Propper’s mother, Lenore, created the first version of Dropps’ low-sudsing solution (originally called Cot’n Wash) because commercial detergents were too harsh on her sweaters. The mother-son duo had been running a cotton mill near Philadelphia producing an ultra-soft “softball” yarn, and they needed a gentler solution. 

Propper says at first he tried to sell his detergent the traditional way: in bottles, on shelves, in stores. But he found it difficult to compete in such a saturated market, and the brand never really took off.

But Propper didn’t want to take no for an answer, and neither did his mother, who often said, ‘You can do whatever you want to do, you just have to change your reading material.’

So when years later, a friend said to him, ‘I love your detergent, but I hate measuring,” Propper says he had an “aha” moment: “America loves convenience…why ship big bottles of liquid laundry detergent (which is mostly water) around the country? There’s water already in the machine–why not remove it from the detergent entirely?” 

And that’s just what Propper did. Through the internet, Propper says he came across the unit dose concept being used in dish soap, which was being manufactured into dissolvable pods.

Propper put two and two together and was able to adapt the technology to create Dropps, which launched in 2006–the very first liquid laundry detergent pod (six years before Tide).

Then, eyeing the success of direct-to-consumer business models such as Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s Razors, Propper saw a way to beat the giants: “We went from bricks and mortar to digital, and never looked back,” he says. 

Propper also went all-out on viral marketing. Propper says he took cues from Michael Dubin’s first smash-hit video and Al Gore’s 2006 climate change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which showed jarring images of a naked (formerly snowcapped) Mt. Kilimanjaro. Thus was born “The Naked Truth About Laundry,” a sub-two-minute video that stars himself…in a bathtub, naked. (You can see it for yourself here.) “What can we do that Big Laundry’s not going to do? Take off our clothes to make a point,” he says. 

Since re-upping the 2013 video two years ago, Philadelphia-based Dropps has cleaned up in the laundry category, earning the No. 289 spot on the 2020 Inc. 5000 (up from No. 1,031 in 2019).

From the October 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine

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