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Eric Smeding
Eric Smeding

European E-commerce Manager, Unilever Netherlands

Eric leads a new ‘home-grown’ Unilever start-up from Amsterdam. He is also the founder of a European programme aimed at accelerating Unilever projects across the EU using this start-up methodology.

A career in detergents was not part of my original game plan. Until I took the job with Unilever, I worked in the digital space with small, superfast start-ups in telecoms and retail. But detergents are a lot more interesting than you think. Everybody washes their clothes, and yet 90% of us get the dosage of detergent wrong.

In Europe, people do on average five loads of washing a week. If we can change how people use detergent, so they don’t keep using more than they need, the sustainable impact could be huge. It may seem like a contradiction for Unilever to be encouraging consumers to use less of what we sell but using less doesn’t mean you can’t run a profitable business. It just means you’re doing it in a more sustainable way. If you create a purposeful brand that people relate to, then loyalty comes naturally.

It can be hard to drive small initiatives in a business that is built on volume and scale. That’s why I pitched to Unilever’s European CEO and Home Care VP to set myself up as an intrapreneur to work with a group in the Home Care hub in the Netherlands. The aim was to develop a solution with a small team, adopting a start-up mentality. Fortunately, they said, “let’s do it”.

Our idea was to focus on creating a well-designed dosage device that people could trust to deliver the right amount. The aim was to make it easy to use – you push it once, twice or three times, depending on whether you have a light, normal or heavy load.

The device has been designed to be aesthetically pleasing too, so it’s worthy of having out in your home, rather than hidden away in a cupboard. We wanted to appeal to people who feel ‘a tidy house promotes a tidy mind’ with its minimalist design.

We called it ‘less’, because – literally – it’s using less of everything. Using the right amount of detergent not only means you need to buy less, it also means we use less water, packaging and CO2 to deliver it to you.

The device and the detergent bottles are made from 100% recycled plastic and it’s delivered to our consumers in a 100% recycled carton.

Eric Smeding

Consumers can also sign up to the ‘less plastic’ plan to return empty bottles free of charge to be cleaned and reused, and we’ll provide them with a new one.

We’re a direct-to-consumer business. That means we make a lot of our decisions based on real-time data. This data is helping us understand people’s washing behaviour first, in order to give them the right service and the stock of detergent they want.

We’re currently piloting in the Netherlands. You pay €19.95 for the device and you get two free bottles of detergent with it. The bottles will last an average household who do their washing five times per week, more than five weeks. When the time is nearly up, we send a reminder to restock and deliver the detergent to your door.

‘Less’ is a work in progress, but we have more than 3,500 customers and are growing every week. What’s next is to prove the model works, optimise the portfolio and consider how to roll it out to other markets, enabling more people to enjoy the ‘less’ experience.

We operate just like a start-up would. If we need budget to test new things, we pitch to an investor board. The only difference is that Unilever is our sole funder. It’s a concept called ‘metered funding’ – the full budget for our project is allocated but it’s released on a monthly or quarterly period. At the end of every business period, we discuss the progress made and our plans for the coming quarter with the internal Unilever investor board. It forces you to become super concrete in your strategy and is a much more action-oriented way of working.

What I’ve learnt from developing ‘Less’ is that working like a start-up is possible in a large corporation. I believe Unilever could become the best start-up accelerator in the world.

But just like a start-up you have to be brave and push back. And sometimes you have to ask for forgiveness rather than ask permission. You also need a team that shares your passion. They will sell your concept to others in the organisation.

But the most interesting learning is that you’re in a great position to be an intrapreneur. Corporation 2.0 can give you the freedom to drive a good idea. You can leverage its resources, knowledge and money in a way that a traditional start-up can’t or wouldn’t have access to – and that can give you a better chance to make that idea succeed.

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