Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha is an entrepreneur who has founded two successful companies. Her BDÉT product – an environmentally friendly alternative to wet wipes – has just gone worldwide through the International Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) e-commerce site, which reaches 150 million consumers online.
Auckland Unlimited: What inspired you to create this product?
Billie Jo Hohepa-Ropiha: I saw the amount of wet wipes I used on my own two children, and it disgusted me to think it was all going into landfill. When my kids became potty-trained, I vowed not to use them again, and to use my own combination of moisturiser on toilet paper instead. My daughter didn’t like the after-feel of moisturiser, so I developed the BDÉT Foam Wash product that we have today.
What sort of R&D did you do?
I first came up with the idea in the late ‘90s when I was a university student, purely out of the idea that toilet paper is dry and quite ineffective on its own. We don’t wipe down a dirty table with just a dry cloth or paper towel, so why would we expect to be clean after just using dry toilet paper?
It made sense to put a cleanser or type of ‘spray and wipe’ onto toilet paper. So, when I put moisturiser onto toilet paper and tried it, I thought, “Holy ——, where have you been all my life?” It became a habit, and once you’re used to a superior way of doing something, you don’t go back.
Over the years, I trialled different cleansers and formulations until I found the foam bottle we have today.
To make it commercial, I engaged a cosmetic manufacturing company, who listened to all my previous R&D. I knew exactly the properties I wanted it to have, and in response they created the 98.9 per cent natural formula we have today.
It’s such a brilliant product, and so gentle, it can be used in many other ways, too. For instance, if you’ve had a busy, sweaty day, you can put it on paper towels or a flannel and wipe down your whole body. The special formulation means it dries and moisturises while leaving the body feeling clean and refreshed without needing water. It’s great for camping and travelling, or for workers who are out in the bush or in remote places without washing facilities.
We have a patent pending on the invention (foam onto toilet paper as a derrière cleanser) and are waiting for the outcome of this.
How is BDÉT better for the environment than traditional wipes?
Wet wipes are made from plastic and polyester, and most take a hundred years to break down, so they cause major problems when flushed down toilets and into the sewerage network. 450 billion wipes are produced a year globally, so that’s a lot of plastic being used once, then flushed down toilets or going into landfill.
When wet wipes eventually break down at landfills, they produce leachate and greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. Toilet paper, on the other hand, breaks down or dissolves in the wastewater or septic system.
So our product, BDÉT on toilet paper, does the useful part of cleaning a person, but without the negative environmental effects. It’s like when we used to use a wet flannel to clean a baby’s bottom - there was always the messy job of cleaning up and soaking the flannels in NapiSan after, but at least there wasn’t the problem of single-use plastics.
Now I’ve improved both methods to make cleaning more effective, convenient and eco-friendly.
What do you feel is BDÉT’s key competitive advantage?
Me! Seriously, no one knows this product better than I do. So I know exactly the range of products that I want to create from this single idea.
There is so much more we can do with this product. Other companies can and will come out making the same thing, but I have a few hidden secrets and game plans up my sleeve to give us longevity and relevancy. The best part is that I know my customers and their needs. This is the part that truly humbles me and fuels me every day - hearing stories of how it’s changed their life is priceless.
How did you fund the original R&D?
We have bootstrapped both our businesses (The Kiwee Company, which made the Kiwee Lifter and BDÉT) and as well as taking out bank loans, we’ve sold two houses. My husband and I sold our property rental in Porirua, and my mum and dad sold their home in order to keep both businesses ticking over. Businesses can feel like they just burn up cash.
That’s what I tell people: if you want to get into business, and especially producing products, and original products at that, you have to be comfortable with the feeling of burning up cash.
Then of course everyone expects free samples everywhere you go, so it feels like you’re giving it all away. People don’t realise it, but that product which will cost $19.99 on the shelf really cost you $120.00 because of the amount of money you’ve put in and the wages you’ve sacrificed to put the time into your business.
I’m not complaining. It’s just the nature of business, and why big risk means big rewards or costly failures.
How has the market responded to BDÉT?
I did an online soft launch of BDÉT on 1 December 2018, when we told friends and family, who bought online or straight from us.
It was an amazing feeling that someone was willing to pay cash for our new idea. I sold out of our initial 50 bottles, and went on to produce another small batch. A sales rep took our samples to Foodstuffs and they loved the product. By April 2019, Foodstuffs South Island had ranged our product – though actual sell-in came later. At the same time, a Chinese company that was setting up New Zealand-themed stores in China ordered a pallet’s worth.
It was a crazy time. I was initially thinking we’d start selling in a few health or eco stores, and promote ourselves in farmers’ markets, but we seemed to bypass that stage and had interest from retail straight away.
We’re now in 33 Countdown and Foodstuffs stores nationwide, are about to launch onto the LifePharmacy.co.nz site, are on the KIWIFRENCH.com site, and are about to launch on the ICBC (the biggest bank in the world) e-mall site, which has a retail customer network of 400 million, 150 million online shoppers and 400,000 staff.
We’re also selling on Alibaba. I don’t know how to market on there yet, but we have a presence. We’re also to announce our first major joint commercial venture with a company in the wastewater industry.
What challenges came up during market development?
Because R&D occurred over an 18-year period, there was really no problem with the creation of the product itself. And when you’re buying in samples and small quantities, most companies will send you their best packaging samples so you’ll buy more.
It’s when you start scaling up and buying thousands of bottles or boxes that you hit the major problems. That’s when you really get to feel what a heart attack at 40 could look like. You’re pretty much crying in your sleep because you’ve just had a pallet-load of stock pulled from your export order because the bottles are leaking, or the manufacturer sent you mismatched bottles and lids. Or you get a shipment of boxes with the name of the product missing, so you have to sticker each box. Or you get sent refill bottles with hairline fractures in the spout, so your customers wonder why it’s leaking everywhere.
That’s when you question why you got into the business in the first place, and maybe spend a day on the couch eating popcorn and ice cream and watching old TV programmes.
But you pull through. A new day comes and you get on with the business of solving that day’s problems to get you tomorrow’s profits. It really is a test of resilience and resolve, especially when funds are dwindling, and you have to be creative with the resources you have.
Was it hard to access domestic and international markets?
The ironic thing is we haven’t had a problem with accessing markets. Both retail and online have welcomed us with open arms, and I am truly grateful that they’ve seen the qualities and potential in our product.
Our biggest problem is marketing to the public. Telling everyone about our product is our biggest challenge right now, and that’s purely because we have limited capital, and marketing requires a chunky investment.
There’s no use throwing a few twigs on the fire and expecting it to keep going. At some stage you need to put some logs on to stoke it up, and that’s where we are now. We have an amazing opportunity to corner the local market with our environmental and waterway-saving product – but you can’t sell a secret.
Once we market and tell everyone about it, adoption will occur, then you’ll see a behaviour change. I bet, a year in from a major marketing campaign, the talk will be, “How did we ever survive without BDÉT? Who would even wipe with dry toilet paper now?”
I’m not just saying that because it’s my product; I know because in the 18 years that I tested it there have been a handful of times that I had to use dry toilet paper and I walked out of the toilet feeling dirty. And when someone has an experience like that, you’ve got them wholeheartedly. You can’t imagine walking out of a bathroom without washing your hands, can you? Well, BDÉT’s the same.
How has the Auckland Unlimited team been helpful on your journey?
I initially met with Sarah Leo-Anderson from the Corporate Partnerships team. Her encouragement and support were exceptional.
When she understood what my product was about and what problems I was facing, she organised a meeting with a successful business owner, and I met up with him to talk strategy and action those insights. Sarah continued that support by making sure I was aware of networking events, Auckland Unlimited information, and conferences that I could attend.
Then I met Yan Zhang from the International Trade Investment Team, who heard my speech at the Taki Hua Māori Business Event in November 2020. She made a beeline for me after my speech and offered to help me find an investor, now that we had validated the product, we were at the growth stage and needed capital.
We met up and discussed a number of people she had in mind, then organised meetings. She was so knowledgeable and supportive in guiding me through the process and how I should approach the meetings – she coached me through the process, including what not to say. Newbies to the investment capital-raising process can be quite green and reveal too much information when they need to sign people to an NDA.
Since then, both Sarah and Yan have continued their supportive roles and I consider them friends now. When you meet people who go over and above the scope of their job to see you succeed, they become more than just a colleague, and you’re more than just their client. So I’m absolutely grateful for the support that Auckland Unlimited has afforded me during my two and a half years that I have been in business. Nga mihi maioha ki a koutou katoa.
What recommendations would you give other New Zealand businesses looking for investment or help in accessing foreign markets?
Get in touch with the Investment Team at Auckland Unlimited. If you are willing to put in the work and keep up your end of the bargain to foster great relationships, then they are a major asset in providing you with the connections and networks you need to find an investor or access foreign markets.
Because I met Yan, she was able to introduce me to Josh Dong at ICBC , who researched our products and was interested. Meeting him led to BDÉT being accepted as a seller on their e-commerce site, which has an online customer base of 150 million customers.
They signed us up for a bank account and we are about to have our products selling through David Zhang’s store Green’s Health on ICBC’s site. We’ve had a number of conversations with investors, and these are still ongoing. But the value Yan has brought to our business through her connections and her deep knowledge of her culture has been invaluable in forging relationships and avoiding cultural faux pas.
She’s introduced me to people who clearly trust and respect her, and vice versa, so you are already winning before you have met them. Yan is a huge asset to Auckland Unlimited and New Zealand. I can see her introducing a lot of people and businesses, and our country benefiting from her involvement and introductions.