As a biologist, Cristin Salaz admits she doesn’t “have much business running a business.”
But after two decades spent pursuing her passions – protecting ecosystems and searching for jobs that gave her the flexibility to pursue scuba diving and spelunking – she’s settled down to open We Fill, a shop that will seek to make Durango a little more Earth-friendly by decreasing the amount of plastic used one single-use polyurethane bottle at a time.
“I want to help all the future generations of all species here on Earth, and this is the one little contribution I can make,” she said.
The shop, which Salaz plans to open Dec. 15 in the old north Main Avenue post office, 3465 Main Ave., will feature personal hygiene products, home-cleaning products and laundry detergents that will be sold in bulk. Customers can bring their own bottles – plastic, glass, metal, whatever – to refill at the shop, thereby eliminating the cycle of getting a single-use plastic container with every purchase of shampoo, lotion or laundry detergent soap.
Salaz credited the Southwest Colorado Small Business Development Center with helping her learn how to handle market research, finances, marketing, insurance, bookkeeping, business plans and inventory.
“They have an amazing staff, and they keep you on track,” she said.
Mary Shepherd, deputy director of the local SBDC, said many small businesses begin much like We Fill, with an owner passionate about an idea but with little experience running a business.
“A lot of what we do is helping with feasibility studies,” Shepherd said. “Sometimes people have a great idea, but they don’t know if it will work in our market or it requires more resources for research than they can obtain individually. We can help. It’s best to find out if your idea is promising before you spend a lot of time and effort in trying to bring it to fruition.”
SBDC, located in the Fort Lewis College School of Business Administration, has dozens of business consultants that can aid a small-business entrepreneur with business planning; demographic data; licensing and regulation; marketing; financial analysis; social media and websites; pricing strategies; and numerous other nuts-and-bolts requirements of running a business.
“A lot of people are passionate about an idea and are familiar with a field and its concepts, but they have never owned a business and don’t know where to start, how to approach a bank, cost analysis, market research,” Shepherd said.
One key to open a business that Shepherd said the SBDC can help with is determining if a proposed new business is conceptually workable in the real world.
She said the key question to ask: “Are you addressing a real problem that people need solved and are people willing to pay for it to sustain a business?”
In the end, Salaz said opening We Fill surprised her by how much she enjoyed dealing with the business end of things.
“Now I see opportunities everywhere,” she said. “I have an old VW bus. I can convert it to a mobile shop. I can say, ‘I’ll be in Mancos the first Tuesday of every month. I thought I’d have to force myself to deal with insurance and bookkeeping. There are things I didn’t think I’d be good at, but we’re going to be open, so I guess I’m all right.”
Price is an important part of Salaz’s business plan, and she’s striving to keep her products price-competitive with organic options found at big-boxes and chain stores that dominate consumer life.
A few examples of prices she plans to offer include 30 cents an ounce for Ecos dish soap, 15 cents an ounce for Ecos Orange Plus all-purpose cleaner, 45 cents an ounce for Aromaland body lotion, and soaps from the Vermont Soap Co. ranging in price from 40 to 45 cents an ounce.
Salaz, who graduated from Fort Lewis College in 1996 with a biology degree, strives to find products that are biodegradable, organic, plant-based, free from animal testing and, ideally, locally made. While it remains impossible to find all those characteristics in any single product, she maintains those standards as her ideal.
She plans to offer handmade shampoo bars, bath balms, bar soaps and facial scrubs made in Durango by Passion Flower Beauty.
We Fill will also offer other products to decrease plastic use such as bamboo kitchen utensils, stainless steel lunch boxes, silicon containers (to replace to-go boxes and Ziplock bags), dental floss made of silk, mesh produce bags and loofah sponges harvested in Guatemala.
A big part of the challenge to open the shop, Salaz said, was finding products that could be sold in bulk. Many biodegradable and organic products she enjoyed using at home only came in single-use plastic containers and the firms did not offer the option to buy in bulk. Instead, she had to search for niche products from smaller firms that are sold in bulk and whose corporate ethos share her passion to eliminate single-use plastic.
“Our products will change as the market develops and as some things work out and some others don’t, but the drive behind the shop will stay the same: limiting single-use plastic consumption. That will be the only constant,” Salaz said.
Although recycling is a better option than single-use plastic, Salaz said eliminating the purchase of single-use plastic containers is preferable.
“In recycling, I don’t know how much energy is used to truck things to the recycler. I don’t know what kinds of chemicals are involved in recycling. You’ve got your plastic. Let’s just reuse them,” she said.
What Salaz is proposing is not new. She likens it to the way consumers lived at the turn of the 20th century when they purchased in bulk at the general store.
“Hopefully, we can help change the paradigm and go back to the way we used to shop,” she said. “Maybe one day we’ll have a milkman again. Who knows? But somehow we’ve got to change. We’ve got to leave the Earth better for Keith Richards.”