TerraCycle could arguably be named the world’s most innovative business. And after a long journey of invention, passion and hard work, TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky, 30, is certainly in the running for world’s most innovative young businessman. CL chatted with him about his road to success, his take on internships and how to achieve your dreams.
TerraCycle began over 10 years ago in the dorm room of then Princeton University freshman Tom Szaky from—surprisingly—worm poop. The idea sparked over Princeton’s fall break when Tom visited some friends in Canada who were using worm poop as fertilizer. He began harvesting his own worm poop after returning to campus.
“When I saw a lot of food on campus being thrown out, we decided to use the garbage to feed worms and create a potent fertilizer from worm compost,” he said.
Lacking funds for new materials, he packaged his fertilizer in used soda bottles and TerraCycle was born. Today, the company focuses on finding solutions for the world’s most difficult-to-recycle waste such as Capri-Sun pouches, beauty products, flip-flops and even cigarette butts.
So he built this eco-friendly empire after completing his degree at Princeton? Wrong. In fact, Tom achieved so much success by choosing not to achieve a degree. He dropped out of Princeton, where he was majoring in psychology and economics, during the middle of his sophomore year. This decision, of course, left his parents disappointed.
“I am an only child and it was a big deal for my parents who are very conservative physicians from communist Hungary. They wanted me to be a doctor and that’s the last thing I wanted. I ended up leaving school; it was tough,” he said.
Thank goodness he did make that tough decision–based on probable success of TerraCycle’s business plan? Wrong again.
“When I dropped out we had no clients, no scalable manufacturing, no brand awareness; bottom-line I was probably out of mind to think it was a good decision at that juncture,” he said.
What he did have was passion and a willingness to take risks, two traits that ultimately led him to success.
It makes sense, then, that he looks for these traits in TerraCycle’s interns.
“The energy and creativity brought by the interns of TerraCycle breeds great ideas, with less concern on what is impossible and more emphasis in generating a new understanding,” he said. “Definitely we want hard-working, open-minded interns that are not only willing to, but excited to, work on a wide range of different projects.”
Since he accomplished so much at a young age, it’s fitting he trusts college students with important and challenging projects. TerraCycle’s internship program does not consist of any coffee-runs or grunt work, he assured. Interns gain real world experience that will help them stand out in the job market, he said.
“I would suggest anyone go intern at a start-up or growth company versus the traditional strategy of targeting ‘big-name’ corporation. General Electric might look better on the CV, but the skills and experience will mean more come interview.”
What about those students who would prefer to never complete a job interview and envision founding their own company just as he did?
His advice for aspiring entrepreneurs: “Write up a really good business plan. This will help you prioritize, organize and understand what you need to accomplish and in what order. Then, down the road, it will help you get investors.” Then, of course, take risks.
“The best advice I can give is just go for it! Take the chance, because you’ll never know unless you try, and the worse you can do is fail. You can always go back to school or get a ‘real job,’” he said.
As for how to break the news to your parents—Tom isn’t of much help.
“I told my parents after the fact that I dropped out of school and I am shoveling crap for a living and you guys better be okay with that.”