I can say with the confidence of experience that one spray of KOALA ECO in your kitchen will elicit compliments. The scent alone is enough to convert most from a regular household cleaner, but dive a little deeper, and you’ll discover that there is much, much more to love about this home-grown Australian brand...
Made by husband and wife team Paul Davidson and Jessica Bragdon, KOALA ECO’s range of cleaning products are safe for families and are kind to the environment. Eco-friendly and ethical, the brand uses high concentrations of native Australian plants’ potent essential oils, to not only work effectively but to leave our homes as aromatic as the Australian bush.
Started out of personal frustration when Paul and Jessica were on the hunt for safe, affordable, chemical-free cleaning products that would actually work, they have built an impressive brand while also raising their two sons, Emerson and Arthur.
We spoke to Jessica about the mission behind KOALA ECO, the future of sustainability, and the joys and struggles in managing a business with your husband, juggling a family and building a legacy.
What is your background – what did you do before you launched KOALA ECO?
When we were just out of university in Boston, Adrienne and I started up and ran a floral business. We sold up and moved to NYC from Boston to attend graduate school at Columbia University. I spent a decade living in NYC, and I worked for a boutique hotel group at the Maritime Hotel, which I absolutely loved.
NYC was where I met my Australian husband Paul. Paul and I moved to Australia and settled for a while in Perth. I started working for an amazing non-profit cultural organisation called FORM, which does incredible work using creativity to make positive change for people and places throughout Western Australia. Although I was always intending to set up in business myself again, this period at FORM when I got to know and work alongside a lot of wonderful Australian designers and artists was a really rich experience for me. When we moved to Sydney with our two young sons, I was more than ready to focus on setting up my own enterprise.
I’ve always loved being busy, whether that’s in my working life or when I have been in full-time education (I love learning). Additionally, I’ve always been really fortunate to work either for incredible organisations or for myself.
Take us back to when you couldn't find any cleaning products which you felt comfortable using around your children and how this then developed into Koala Eco?
OK, so KOALA ECO was a pragmatic solution to a personal frustration. Paul and I were constantly on the hunt for safe, affordable, chemical-free cleaning products that not only could make our home smell (naturally) fabulous but also would actually work. We felt our sons Emerson and Arthur (and Gotham our dog) shouldn’t have to hold their breath in order to avoid absorbing chemicals every time we cleaned the family home.
But we couldn’t find what we wanted, so ultimately we thought: why don’t we make our own? We’re both from entrepreneurial backgrounds, and so being Koala Eco’s first — and therefore possibly most demanding — customers, we had some pretty specific and sophisticated aims in mind. Primarily we wanted something that not only worked flawlessly but also could be misted safely around our children. We wanted to use ingredients derived from nature and sourced locally. Then, aside from the formulas being 100 percent safe and effective, we also wanted our products to look stylish in case we needed them handy around the house for accidental spills, or if we were just too busy to put them away.
So we did a lot of research and started working carefully with a local chemist and lab, and the result was Koala Eco, launched in Sydney early in 2017.
We use only 100 percent pure Australian essential oils, because these, when combined with other non-toxic ingredients like vinegar, plant-based surfactants, sugar-based biodegradable alcohol and bicarbonate soda are just such great alternatives to caustic cleaning products.
Starting a business from scratch is something which a lot of people find daunting. Where did you begin – what were your first steps in creating KOALA ECO?
Well, I guess once the idea of making safe cleaning materials had taken hold, we launched into a period of lots of research and planning. Asking lots of questions of ourselves and of others; questions that needed answers if we were to make this a viable project. If we were going to use essential oils from native plants, which ones would we start with? Australia has the most incredible range of plant-based resources and remedies, so we knew we had wealth of natural anti-bacterial and insect-repelling materials right on our doorstep. Who could we work with on formulating the products? Who had the crucial knowledge and would also be in tune with our ethical reasons for making these products? How would we source the essential oils? Could we work with a lab that wasn’t too far away? And so on.
It was a really steep learning curve. Sometimes things didn’t go as quickly as hoped because an ingredient we thought might be perfect turned out not to be, so we’d go back to the drawing board. Initially I was less concerned about the marketing and finance end of things because both Paul and I have that experience. It was more about the practicalities and feasibility of carrying out the manufacture of our original idea, and finding the perfect ingredients.
“ I am not going to sugar coat this: it is hard work, and many start-up businesses fail. You need to be honest with yourself: do you have the temperament to cope with the time and energy your business will demand, especially if you have other responsibilities, such as a family? ”
You were one of the first companies selected to have a .eco domain - showing your commitment to sustainability. Where do you think sustainability will be in 10 years?
We’re so proud of this .eco domain. To us, it’s way more than a few letters at the end of the Koala web address. We were one of the first businesses to be invited to re-badge as a .eco company by the Vancouver-based .eco movement, launched by two former United Nations Environment Programme staffers. It’s backed by more than 50 environmental organisations including Conservation International, United Nations Global Compact and WWF; so we’re conscious of being part of a strong network that unites in support of each other’s goals in making a positive change for the planet.
I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you where sustainability will be in a decade. I know where I hope it will be: way further up on the political agendas of governments worldwide, and also a much more conscious part of everyone’s daily lives, so much so that not to live sustainably will be as socially unacceptable as sexism and racism. Ok, maybe that last bit will take longer than 10 years, but I think youngsters growing up now will be much more aware of our impact on the planet much earlier than we were, and much more proactive in living sustainably. By then, the damage may be such that this will probably have to be a lifestyle imperative rather than a lifestyle choice.
What tips do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I am not going to sugar coat this: it is hard work, and many start-up businesses fail. You need to be honest with yourself: do you have the temperament to cope with the time and energy your business will demand, especially if you have other responsibilities, such as a family? You have to be 150% committed to what your business stands for; you have to be passionate about what you are doing and why. But you also have to be just as committed to your family life, so it can be tough keeping all the balls in the air.
Get a good team around you in terms of sounding boards and mentors: be curious, ask questions, network with other entrepreneurs whenever you can. Do your research. Try to make sure you can afford (emotionally and financially) for your venture to fail without that destroying your confidence or leaving you without a living. You then have less to lose and so much to learn if the outcome isn’t positive. That said, there comes a point where you just have to back yourself, take a deep breath and jump in. Resilience and self-belief are so important. You have to have confidence in yourself and in your idea. Having confidence in yourself is one of the hardest things, but it strengthens when you plunge in and get on with it. Take care of your physical health too – no point in running yourself into the ground. Entrepreneurship takes stamina!
Running a business requires 110% - do you ever feel overwhelmed and if so, how do you overcome this?
Running a business and raising a family is challenging but worth it. It’s important not to let a home-based business dominate family life, and I’ve learned that with young children one has to be able to prioritise and accept help. Sometimes things can threaten to feel overwhelming, but it’s important to define the boundaries and not get exhausted. So ina working day, I try to grab a few minutes to sit and centre myself with a bit of meditation. I have some essential oil diffusing through the house, whatever my current favourite happens to be (usually something we are researching for our latest product). I read the New York Times every day. I like the New Yorker and The Economist too. I make time to have a really good coffee, and have some TCHO chocolate!
We all know how many chemicals are in everyday cleaning/beauty products yet we continue to use them – why do people find it so hard to switch?
For a couple of reasons, maybe, including a fear that natural products won’t be as effective, and that they will be more expensive. Perhaps also a reluctance to change entrenched habits? That’s why education is so important, to let people know that natural products are not only just as (if not more) effective as synthetic cleaners, they do the job without giving people headaches or breathing problems or allergies or skin irritation; they offer terrific value for money; and if people can just give a couple of products a try, chances are they won’t want to go back to artificial fragrances and toxic ingredients when they know they can get the same or better results with entirely natural remedies.
Your products are infused with Australian essential oils which when combined with vinegar, sugar-based biodegradable alcohol and bicarbonate soda are great alternatives to caustic cleaning products – how did you create the formulas? Many of the essential oils you use in KOALA ECO have been part of the Aboriginal pharmacopoeia for thousands of years?
Yes, that’s true. This country is blessed with the most extraordinary range of plant-based resources, from antiseptics to medicines: natural remedies that have been part of the Aboriginal pharmacopeia for tens of thousands of years. Following such a fabulous and well-tested tradition, Koala Eco uses pure essential oils derived from trees and plants like Eucalyptus, Tea Tree, Lemon Scented Iron Bark, Lemon Myrtle, peppermint, lavender and rosemary. For example, Eucalyptus Australiana(which we use in our Stainless Steel + Chrome Cleaner) is a great antiseptic, while Mentha Piperata (Peppermint) is a natural insect repellent which is why we put it in our Glass + Window Cleaner. We also use essential oil extracted from the peel of citrus species like grapefruit and mandarin.
Aside from these essential oils we use vinegar, sugar-based biodegradable alcohol and bicarbonate soda, plant-derived solubilisers and surfactants, and purified water. So everything is non-toxic, vegan, greywater safe and is not tested on animals. No dyes, masking agents, synthetic perfumes, chlorine, bleach, sodium laurel sulphates & phosphates. We also sell scrubbing brushes and cloths made from organic bamboo.
Paul and I work really closely with our specialist chemists and labs. Unless we are totally happy with the product right through its development, then it won’t go into production. Koala Eco products have to be biodegradable, and totally eco-friendly, and they also have to be able to clean effortlessly, removing bacteria, disinfecting and deoderising. If our ingredients can’t be sourced from native Australian plants, then we won’t use them.
Koala Eco is 20 months old but stocked in over 400 Australia stores – many businesses would dream of this kind of success. Why do you think your brand has experienced such incredible rapid growth?
To be honest, we were so convinced of the need for these kinds of products and we became so absorbed in the research and setting up of the company that initially we didn’t truly appreciate how quickly we became popular. Koala Eco is not about making money as much as it is about making positive change, just in a small way. Though of course to be successful is the only way in which we can sustain the company.
I believe the ethos of home cleaning is changing. I think that so many more people are now trying to make a difference in their own lives and homes and are trying to make lifestyle decisions that are as environmentally responsible as possible. The fact that Koala Eco products can offer some solutions while people are making these choices is really what we are all about. So, I think we hit the market at the right time.
We get lots of compliments about the way our products smell so gorgeous, and we’re happy to get them, but the credit should go entirely to Australia’s wonderful plants and trees! People love the artwork on the labels and the website, which is great. We wanted to make our products look good as well as perform fabulously.
You work with your husband Paul – what are your tips for successfully navigating working with a partner? Do you have very different roles in the business?
Paul and I are fully involved in all aspects of Koala Eco, researching ingredients then working with our specialist chemist, Australian essential oil experts and the lab. And as I think I’ve mentioned, we are our own most demanding customers! Unless Paul and I are totally happy with the product right through its development, then it won’t go into production. We consult each other on all elements from manufacture through to the business development side of things. It truly is a joint operation.
Did Arthur’s health change the way you felt about the products we use around the home?
Your second child Arthur was born with Neuroblastoma – what do you remember about those early years and how did it change your perspective on life?
Our family life is completely the most important thing to Paul and I. When you have been through an experience like Arthur’s illness as a family, you really understand life needs to be lived as well and healthily and happily as possible. Arthur was diagnosed in Perth at five weeks of age. I had taken him to see a number of GPs and paediatricians already, as well as visiting Emergency two or three times, as he was in constant pain and would not stop crying. Because he was my second baby I just knew there was something wrong, and that we were not dealing with a breast-milk allergy or lactose intolerance or colic.
Luckily, on the day we took Arthur to hospital, a surgeon (who ended up performing all of Arthur’s surgeries) decided to run another ultrasound on him. That’s when we found a tumour the size of a golf ball in his para-spinal region, and he was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma. The tumour was pushing into the spinal canal, which is why the poor little baby was in such extreme pain.
Arthur’s diagnosis was one of the worst days of our lives. Nothing can prepare you for hearing your child has cancer. Paul and I functioned on adrenaline and went into survival mode during his treatment with a lot of support from our family and friends. We tried to make things as normal as possible for Arthur and for Emerson, his then 18 month-old big brother. I am really proud of how we navigated such a painful experience as a family, however, as a couple, I honestly don’t think Paul and I processed the trauma of it all until years later. I believe it made us stronger as a couple, but again we were the lucky ones and I completely understand how a different outcome may tear people apart.
While our son’s life was saved by the most incredible care and treatment, I never want to suggest that the existence of Koala Eco is down to Arthur, because environmental causes, such as exposure to infectious and toxic substances are unlikely to be the cause of childhood cancer. That said, of course we want to create a non-toxic environment for our family and promote habits of healthfulness, but this is not a new thing for us, we have always tried to be as mindful of health as possible.
What has been the most challenging part of motherhood for you?
It would have to be linked to the events around Arthur’s illness, but who am I to say that there won’t be other moments just as challenging to come? Feeling any kind of fear for your child is really tough. Being a parent is truly the most life-changing event anyone can experience and there is no way to describe or understand it until you are in it. I always thought having a career and children would be easy until it was me!
Motherhood is such a transformation. However, having a good support system and being surrounded by great women always helps. Juggling work, motherhood and life itself is a demanding task, so I always try my best to compartmentalise and focus on one thing at a time… easier said than done. I love work, and I love family life. Ultimately, I’m doing what I love.
What do you love most about running your own business?
That the business is all about the things I believe in, and would be practising anyway: care for the planet, healthy choices. And I absolutely love the testing stage where we are working with the lab to formulate new products.
What’s your approach to raising boys?
Paul and I want our boys to live long and healthy lives, and we want to instil in them our love and respect for the environment, so that they can experience it too, and pass it on to any families they may have. Our priority is to guide Emerson and Arthur through boyhood and into being young men who are confident, curious, honourable and generous. I’d like them to grow up as independent thinkers, and become compassionate men.
Since becoming parents, we’ve lived in cities on both sides of Australia, and our boys have been raised in a multicultural setting. They are still really small, however I’d like to believe that their perspective is developing in a broader way. They are growing up as part of a family spanning two different countries and this is teaching them to expand their horizons. I guess they are still of an age where whatever Paul and I do is accepted as the norm, and so the questions may come later. Or the questions may not come at all—perhaps we will manage to instil mindfulness about the planet in a totally natural and organic way, so that our boys embrace that lifestyle and mindset as totally normal.
My main philosophy with parenting is to show our sons they are loved. They are still quite young, and I know it won’t get easier but even when I am setting boundaries and feeling completely overwhelmed and incompetent I tell them that I love them. Kindness is most important.
What are your tips for time-management – how do you get it all done?
I find exercise really beneficial to managing a packed schedule. I go for an early run, yoga class or beach workout. Paul and I make sure we go out together for dinner or a drink together on a regular basis. There’s also a lot to be said for sharing a really good quality bottle of wine with your nearest and dearest every so often and commit to talking about everything except Koala Eco!
Best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
It wasn’t given directly to me, though I wish it could have been possible to meet her! Eleanor Roosevelt said “you should do one thing every day that scares you”. I have used this wisdom throughout my life to try my best to face my fears, and force myself to do things outside of my comfort zone. Following this advice has been incredibly useful in my career and life. For example, public speaking—something I didn’t love doing at all—became easier once I forced myself to do it.
I try to look at intimidating situations as an opportunity for personal growth. I also love the saying “you can’t be afraid to fail”. I truly believe that experiencing failure is what makes you grow, and without failure you plateau.
How do you keep your house clean and tidy?
I am extremely organised and a bit of a neat freak so I always like to make sure everything ends up in its proper place (not so easy with kids). I tend to do a little bit of cleaning and tidying daily and I try and focus on one task at a time. Paul is an incredible cook, so on weekends I’m probably more the cleaner-upper; however, we definitely share the workload and have a healthy balance.
Cleaning is definitely a family affair. Our children are responsible for realistic things like making their beds, setting and clearing the table and putting dishes in the dishwasher. It’s important to start with small wins and to get the whole family involved.