/By Gessi Li
As I was tramming along Sheung Wan the other day, I noticed something that had never caught my attention before. Other than the dried seafood that was lying on the side of the pavements, there was something else, lying there against the fences, unwanted – Cardboards.
Had I not met Earnest, co-founder of The Second Box, I would never have noticed these brown piles that blended in so well with the reddish bricks that lined the pavement. The Second Box aims to improve the lives of scavengers by buying their cardboard boxes from them at a higher price. They then process and recycle the cardboard boxes to sell to companies, especially the seafood shops along Sheung Wan, or to people who were moving houses.
Earnest interacting with scavengers and a family (Source: Earnest Wong)
Earnest sat on the edge of his seat as he passionately shared with me about the recycling industry. He explained to me all the different types of plastics found in a single bottle, and the problem of high labour costs for sorting waste. I had never seen someone talk about trash so enthusiastically. Through our interview, he brought me to Europe, to the US, and to Taiwan, where he saw a man who had just missed the rubbish truck, and so with one hand holding onto his bag of rubbish, he chased the truck on his scooter, until he could throw his rubbish away. We can see in comparison how laid back Hong Kong is when people don’t even have the incentive, nor concept of waste production and recycling.
This lack of concept for recycling was one of the challenges The Second Box had to face. After running The Second Box for 2 years, Earnest and his team are now at the “half-time interval”. Despite winning up to five hundred thousand dollars from various awards, The Second Box could not break-even and were forced to pause and rethink their business model.
Earnest (Right) and his team (Source: Earnest Wong)
How does one person, so passionate about what he is doing, just stop? Indeed, it was not easy. The energetic vibe diminished, and Earnest sank into his chair as he recalled that time when he transitioned from being a full-time, working 7-days a week, to a part-time worker for The Second Box. “I was so guilty…..it felt like I was abandoning my team”, he said with a muffled voice. Within a few more months, his team decided to put The Second Box to a pause.
It was difficult to realise that things weren’t working as expected for The Second Box, but it was clear that they weren’t meeting the goal they had set for themselves. As reluctant as they were, they knew that it was best for both the company and their personal growth to pause and see how they can improve. They knew that they could not keep investing endless resources into something that does not work.
When The Second Box decided to pause their work,Earnest was devasted. He could not believe that 2 years of hard work led to an incomplete project.. But he did not allow his feelings to consume him. With the support from his team, and the passion and enthusiasm they still had for The Second Box, they knew it wasn’t the end. Instead of coming up with countless reasons for their “failure”, the team focused on how they could improve things, perhaps by changing The Second Box’s business model.
Thinking back, the lessons he had learnt with The Second Box are invaluable. The respectful attitude towards others is one of the lessons he has learnt, and what Earnest will bring to his future parters, suppliers and target groups. At first, The Second Box thought they were helping the scavengers by giving them a better income, and “it was initially a one-way interaction to us”. However, they began to realize the scavengers did not let The Second Box help them. With reminders from their mentors, they realised that it was in fact a two-way interaction, where the scavengers would supply them with cardboard boxes, in return for payment of what they deserved. The team understood their attitude towards the scavengers was wrong, and “it was too arrogant of [them] to put [themselves] at a higher position.” The scavengers were helping The Second Box as much as The Second Box was helping the scavengers. Empathy, another key concept in social innovation was equally important, because “only by thinking from others’ perspective can communication be more effective, in order to reach that win-win situation.”
Now, Earnest spends half his time helping out with his family business, and half his time on another start-up project. He simply cannot take no for an answer. The Second Box may have been put on hold, but nothing else was. Earnest’s mind was still whirling with creative ideas on the possibilities in the recycling industry. With some remaining capital, the team hopes to find The Second Box running again as an NGO. “I’m ready to restart The Second Box any time, even right now”
His positivity radiated again when he told me that “up till this day, I still believe that The Second Box can make it, it was just a matter of time”. He sees this phase as an opportunity to learn and to keep gaining experiences. The break was a time for their team to regroup and find the suitable business model. It was perhaps also a good time for his body to rest as he admitted that collecting cardboard boxes was physically challenging. In fact, he could have a few heat strokes in a single week.. To this day, he still thinks of ways he could improve. Instead of doubting whether he has tried his best, he choses to focus on what he can do better. His optimism and perseverance made me forget how deterring this experience must have been
It is easy for us to see something unsuccessful as a failure, but you can’t call anyone a failure when the person is still trying, still making attempts. That’s what an entrepreneur is – you may take “breaks”, but you’re always ready to go back out trying again with innovative ideas.
Lastly, some words of encouragment to those who feel stuck: There is nothing to be ashamed of when something does not work out, because it may only mean that the methods you are using does not work. There are so many other methods that you haven’t tried. Each case, each attempt and failure, brings experiences to the industry, and even the society. So share your story with others and bring insight to those around you in order to pave a way to a better future.