By Marie Griffin, Director Content Strategy, KidBacker
Imagine an average class of ninth graders watching a video on the plastic bottling industry and its impact on the environment. Now imagine that one of those teens is not only paying attention, but also starting to wonder how he can help solve this problem.
That teenager is Benjamin Stern. Sparked by a combination of a documentary he saw in school and the detergent pods his mother used in the laundry, Benjamin’s idea was to replace plastic bottles with an environmentally friendly and waste-free delivery system for personal care products.
After realizing that his product, now known as the Nohbo ball, was particularly well suited to replacing the travel-size bottles found in hotels around the world, Benjamin set his sights on transforming the hotel industry before moving on to other markets. Nohbo balls promise to save hoteliers money, cut down on truck emissions (because they are lighter and less bulky to transport), satisfy travelers’ needs in a novel way, and eliminate the need for an untold number of the tiny plastic bottles that are piling up in landfills and the ocean.
By the time he was 15, Benjamin had developed his idea far enough to file for multiple patents, hired a chemist to turn his vision into a groundbreaking product-delivery system, and formed a company called Nohbo LLC, where he is CEO.
One year after formally starting his company, Benjamin is 16 and getting ready to implement his plan to get Nohbo balls into hotel rooms. He also plans to sell Nohbo balls filled with shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and shaving cream directly to consumers through his website.
Benjamin’s company and story have already been introduced to the hotel industry through websites Green Lodging News and Hotel Business. Here, he shares his experiences and hopes as a teen entrepreneur with KidBacker.
KidBacker: Please tell KidBacker readers how Nohbo got started.
Benjamin Stern: After watching a documentary covering the ins and outs of the plastic bottling industry, I saw my mom using laundry detergent tablets and, eureka, the idea came to me that hair products and body washes could be delivered the same way. I did research and realized there wasn’t anything like that on the market. I asked myself, ‘Why can’t I create it?’
I was originally thinking of this as a regular consumer product, but then I took a trip and stayed in a hotel. I immediately thought, ‘My product would be perfect for this place.’ It will be cheaper to produce than the little bottles they have and it’s environmentally friendly. Hotels are increasingly aligning with environmental messages, like asking guests to reuse their towels during their stay to save energy and water, so I felt there would be a good fit.
KB: Lots of us think we have ‘brilliant’ ideas, but most of us never act on them. What was your first step?
BS: I contacted [one of the big companies in the consumer products industry. They were interested, but they wanted me to have an approved patent before we could work out a licensing deal. My aunt knew I was looking for a patent attorney and she connected me with someone she knew, Matthew Gerstein, who was very familiar with the patenting process. He fell in love with the idea, and he drafted the first patent and filed it. Since then, he has become a partner in my business. A few months later, Matt introduced me to a patent law firm, the Marbury Law Group. I pitched my product idea and the firm decided to give me $20,000 worth of pro bono services.
KB: Even with pro bono help, developing a product costs a lot of money. How did you fund it?
BS: At 14, I got a job at a sub shop and later at a grocery store. The very first investment was a loan from my grandmother to cover the initial startup expenses. My parents also gave loans to my business. I have spoken to some venture capital firms and angel investors, but, so far, I don’t have any final agreements.
KB: Once you had your patents pending, how did you create the actual product?
BS: I started searching for chemists and contacting them for quotes. I finally found a chemist with over 20 years of experience developing cosmetics and other consumer products, Robert Ray of Hutton Labs. Since he started working with Nohbo, he has invested his time to develop the product, charging me less than usual so that he could become an equity shareholder, which he now is.
KB: What are the key features of the Nohbo ball?
BS: Each ball is one inch in diameter, and the product inside is concentrated so that each one has enough shampoo or conditioner or body wash for normal use for one person. The ball is water-soluble and the product inside is semi-dry, which means less water is used in the manufacturing. When the ball is activated with running water, the ball dissolves and the product inside is activated.
We added some non-toxic fillers to create a more ergonomically appealing product, but Nohbo balls don’t include gelatin, which is obtained from animal by-products. We also added a flavor to the ball to give it a bitter taste. There have been many stories in the news of kids swallowing washing detergent tablets. Even though shampoo and body wash are not nearly as lethal, the Nohbo ball has very bad taste, so if a kid does put it in his mouth, he’ll spit it right out. We have designed a wrapper that is made of compostable plant-based plastic. The ball itself can be engraved, so we can mark it with the name of the product inside, like shampoo, and put various brand markings and names on it.
KB: What will your business model be?
BS: One of the good things about Nohbo is that there are multiple options. I’m going to create and sell my own line to appeal to consumers, but we will also do licensing. For example, major shampoo companies can put their formula into Nohbo balls. Because hotels mainly buy through distributors, we’re researching those distributors so that we can try to make agreements with them. The good thing about starting with hotels is that they can help accelerate the acceptance of our product in the market by familiarizing consumers with them. We want to put brochures in the hotels to show consumers how to use Nohbo balls.
KB: How much of your own time has gone into Nohbo?
BS: Most of it. I used to play ice hockey and I used to do a lot of extracurricular activities. Now it’s almost all Nohbo. Last year I was home schooled, to make it easier for me to manage Nohbo, but now I’m back in regular high school, where I’m a junior. I’m a straight-A student, but it’s very stressful to juggle my company, school full-time, and my other responsibilities. However, I really enjoy [building my company].
KB: Do you plan to go straight to college when you graduate high school?
BS: I’m taking time off to work on this company. I’m going to grow Nohbo before I go to college. It’s the most sensible thing to do.
KB: You’ve learned a lot about how business works in a short period of time. How have you done that?
BS: I have done a lot of research on my own. I read Entrepreneur magazine and some blogs. I also have a business advisor. His name is Ron Flavin. He’s a self-made entrepreneur and a grant and funding specialist. He has helped me make connections and given me a wealth of advice along the way.
KB: What do you think it is about your personality or background that has given you the drive to become an entrepreneur at such a young age?
BS: One thing is ambition. If I want something, I go after it. With Nohbo, I am able to put together being environmentally motivated and being financially motivated.
As far as my family, we’re all very independent and we’ve moved around a lot. I’ve lived in Seattle, in multiple places, and Virginia, in multiple places. My mom and I just moved here to Melbourne, Florida, last year. My dad lives in Portland, Maine, and my older sister, who’s 19, is now living in Israel.
Also, being a teen, I think I’m more willing to take a risk like this. I’m not going to be on the streets if this company doesn’t make it. But I don’t expect that to happen. I really believe in my product.
Nohbo Balls At-A-Glance
Location: Melbourne, FL
Business: Manufacturing/Plastic Bottling – Water soluble ball that holds shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, and body cleansing products
Mission: To revolutionize the body care industry by providing cost effective and environmentally sound body and hair care products for travelers around the world.
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