“Doing business is in my genes”
You may not be entirely familiar with the company Infiberry, but if your resolution for 2018 is to do something to protect the planet and reduce plastics consumption, I recommend you check out its product – the FRUSACK original bags. Hana Němcová, along with Tereza Dvořáková, pioneered and developed these trendy Czech environmentally-friendly and compostable bags for holding fruit, vegetables and bread. Their successful start-up company is evidence that even students of traditional fields can come up with innovative ideas and make their mark in the business world. How does a medicine student become a businesswoman? How can she manage study, building a global company and bringing up her small son? And what did she get out of her participation, and a great 4th position, in the global Women Start Up Competition?
We had had to postpone our meeting because Hana’s young son was sick. When the same thing happened three weeks later, I decided to make the trip to Hana’s home. We completed the interview in one hour, during which time Hana made a number of telephone calls, with an investor and with her colleague regarding co-ordinating pre-Christmas orders from the e-shop, we filmed a video of the interview and discussed the poor range of appropriate waste sorting bins available for the home. Perhaps another new product? It was clear that Hana is a young woman with a lot of energy and hard work.
Hanka, you decided after almost four years to stop studying medicine at Charles University, and return to first year. You have started studying at a private university focused on business and financial management. Was this a difficult decision?
It was obvious to me, although I was always being told how much of a shame it was. I had my finals and compulsory practice ahead of me in medicine, and these are very difficult in themselves. Besides business, I also look after my four-year old son. I knew I didn’t want to work in medicine itself, so I made the pragmatic assessment that it would be a waste of time and energy. I would have been just an average doctor, and this would have been hard to come to terms with for me. I want to dedicate myself fully to doing business, something I enjoy and which fulfils me. The part-time aspect of the course suits me and I’m happy I’m able to use the knowledge I acquire in my specialisation of Financial Management in practice.
How is your Frusack product doing three years in?
They’re doing really well; thanks for the question. We’ve moved on from our dreams to implementing specific plans. We’re growing on the Czech and Slovak market, and in the new year we’re planning to develop global international distribution in collaboration with Amazon. I’m glad that we have made progress in developing the material further, in collaboration with our supplier. The process wasn’t easy; nobody knows how a new material is going to behave. The material is still compostable, made from corn starch, but we can now make it more quickly and more cheaply, and this is key when transitioning to wholesale distribution. Transition to wholesale distribution is a stress test which many projects are unable to pass. Very often, a product and its design are very good, but production costs are too high. I should say that Frusack is just one product, and a key pilot project. Our company, Infiberry, aims to continue to focus on environmental solutions to food purchase and storage, to go on to offer large shopping bags, and then boxes for storing foods. Food waste is an area very closely related to food packaging. Many foods are distributed pre-packaged. But back to Frusack. We need to be sure we can handle all the steps not only involved in production, but also in distribution, in order to succeed globally. Incidentally, little is known, and little is written, about these phases. In the fascination over new and successful projects as part of various crowd-funding campaigns, it is not mentioned that people have not always been able to bring an initial idea all the way to a successful end. It is frequently logistics, a distribution network and all subsequent processes which are missing. As such, it is these issues we want to look at now. Until recently, it was only my colleague and I, with assistance from the investor and his team, although they were not part of the company. Now we have an assistant who helps with administration, and we have a trainee who takes care of co-operation with stores. Now Frusack isn’t just available from our e-shop, but also in brick and mortar stores. There are about a hundred people involved in production, and the owner of the Czech company which sews our bags together has essentially become our head of production.
What drives you personally? Business in general, or environmental business, or is it rather a matter of social responsibility?
I’ve always enjoyed business in general. I could choose from loads of simple or even profitmaking areas. But I need to see positive impacts and the changes they bring. I just found those plastic produce bags really annoying. I led a healthy life, bought loads of fruit and vegetables and the bags which built up at home basically led me to my current line of business. I wanted to start using reusable produce bags, but there was nothing on the market. I didn’t have as much information then about the harm caused by plastics, in particular in terms of their accumulation at the bottom of the oceans and their impact on sea creatures. That makes me even more pleased that public awareness is greater, particular in terms of the new carrier bag charge as of 1 January 2018. I’m pleased to be able to contribute towards dealing with this problem; whether through people purchasing and using Frusack bags, or because we have helped make people talk about the problem.
What are Czech consumers like in terms of acquiring new habits?
I don’t know whether this is peculiar to Czechs only, but I feel that we are rather lazy. Loads of people really like the look of Frusack, but then they say they would forget to bring the bags to the shop. But it always takes effort to build up any habit! It’s like regular exercise. I’ve learnt to bring my keys, mobile, wallet and Frusack bag containing four other reusable bags when I go shopping. This situation will be dealt with when such plastic bags are charged. There are now charges for carrier bags, and you can suddenly see how everyone carries foldable fabric bags with them, and net bags can once again be seen in the pages of fashion magazines. Statistics show that each year up to 400 plastic bags per person are consumed in the Czech Republic. Last year in Great Britain, charges were placed on even the smallest, thinnest bags and within half a year their consumption fell by a full 80%. Basically the economic aspect will always have the greatest impact. Yet according to our research 70% of people have information available to them on the harmfulness of using plastics.
You and your story in business demonstrate the success of Charles University’s Centre for Knowledge and Technology Transfer in supporting transfer in practice.
Yes; I took advantage of the opportunity to study Science and Information Management. This was the first time I had had the opportunity in my studies to come across socalled soft skills, both in terms of management and presentational skills. The rector of Charles University himself is a great advocate of students knowing how to sell what they learn at the university. Another benefit was that this subject was open to students at all 17 faculties. I met a colleague there who was studying marketing and PR, and he helped us at the outset. I remain in contact with the Centre for Knowledge and Technology Transfer, and they have helped furnish us with contacts for potential investors.
Your generation is spoken of as a generation of start-uppers who want to do business and are not interested in being employed.
I think the pressure is a double-edged sword. All those successfully publicised stories of student entrepreneurs can put pressure on others who might get the impression just studying is not enough. Or for other women, studying and raising a child. I think it is important for us all to know what makes us happy and what we want to do. Then we have the chance of being the best at what we’re going to do. There are many options, and establishing a company is easy.
You represented the Czech Republic last year at the Women Start Up Competition; congratulations on your fourth place. Looking back, what specifically did the competition give you?
It was fascinating to meet the winners from all the countries; the bar was set really high. We still remain in contact. We also had the opportunity to take part in a three-day mentoring programme. We’ll see which of the recommended steps and in which form we execute them in the end. In general, I think mentoring is really important; we chose our current investor because he is also a mentor to us.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I trust that Frusack and Infiberry will still be around, and we’ll be doing well internationally too. My son will be 14. I’d like to travel more. And I’m looking forward to getting to a stage where I have more time for personal development. I haven’t had a holiday for two years. I’ve been to visit my parents in the USA, but the whole time I was in contact with and managing the company. I feel that I’m getting to a stage where I’m going to need more time for myself and my partner. So I’m looking forward to building a strong team.
By Linda Štucbartová