Vodafone xone Innovators Series: The Pallet Kingdom's Adriana Christie on waste as revenue, businesses baking in social good and missing digits

In this edition, the last of our interviews for the Vodafone xone Innovators Series, we talk with Adriana Avendaño Christie, co-founder of up-cycled furniture company, The Pallet Kingdom, a member of the board of Social Enterprise Auckland, and a member of the Waitemata local board

Ben Fahy, Idealog’s publisher and editorial director: It seems like you’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak. It seems like you’ve also always had a social conscience. You grew up in Colombia. Your grandparents, they were missionaries, and your parents had an orphanage. Was doing something entrepreneurial and good for the world something that you felt was always inside you?

Adriana Avendaño Christie: Yeah, well I guess the social conscience was there, quite present. My grandparents left [New Zealand] in the 1960s, to Colombia, South America. And unlike typical missionaries, they’re really into the space of social working and empowering marginalised communities. So what they did is that they have started to build schools in the 1960s in Bogotá, which is the capital. Obviously, I wasn’t alive in the 1960s because I am quite young, but in the ‘90s, when the schools were already fully functioning and my family was really involved in the slum areas, my parents started taking me there.

When I was four, my Kiwi granddad passed away, and since then my dad started to bring street kids into our house. So I started with two brothers and sisters, and obviously, being able to share stuff was a bit of social conscience already. Then I ended up with 30 brothers and sisters.

Wow. And you’ve got plenty of brothers and sisters, in a way, with The Pallet Kingdom, because the idea is obviously taking things that usually go to waste, pallets … We see them around. There are thousands of them used every day, millions perhaps. But there’s another element to your business. Can you explain how that works?

Yeah, totally. So at the moment what we do is that we work closely with people that are struggling through mental illness and depression. I have someone in specific that is almost daily with me and his name is Liam. He’s 38 and it’s just really interesting to see how, now that he is able to walk into the workshop and dismantle pallets and cut them and sand them and do holes … He’s doing his own type of crates and he wants to start selling them. He gets a sense of accomplishment and he feels that he’s worthy of life, and that he can enjoy and is proud of things. You wouldn't imagine that building furniture would bring such a sense of happiness and accomplishment to people.

So obviously, your heritage with your grandparents' building skills, they seem to have some practical knowledge in that regard. Did you have any knowledge of building or creating furniture before you started? How did that all happen?

It’s funny because my dad’s an entrepreneur and my parents really wanted to start up a school. And my parents were able to rent out a lot, an empty lot, and he got permission to start building. So I was 10 at that stage and my dad needed someone who would help him do the wiring of the classrooms and laying the bricks. I always observed him in his workshop. He wasn’t a carpenter or an architect. He was a businessman and he studied business, but that resourcefulness is kind of within my DNA, not only our Number 8 Wire mentality here in New Zealand, but also my dad was very resourceful.

And just by observing, and then when I was here at university, every summer I would go back to Colombia. There’s an NGO called Un Techo para mi País, which is A Roof for My Country, very similar style as Habitat for Humanity. I’d volunteer time and we’d build little shacks in the slum areas in Bogotá for families. So it was right then and there I started to get accustomed to power tools and all of that, but I didn’t come from a family of tradesmen or artisans.

Looking at some of the pieces that you’ve created (see gallery above), it’s probably surprising for many people to see what pallets can become, and at some of the fanciest restaurants and cafes around Auckland, and probably further afield, you can see some of your work. So what kind of things have you created out of these pallets?

Yeah, so we’re based on this concept called frugal innovation. I had the definition of frugality right on my iPad but I kind of know it off by heart. I can give you a little bit of a sense what frugal is, and basically, it’s using materials to cut costs or be more resourceful. And we spotted those pallets everywhere around Auckland. Actually, coming to the studio today this morning, I saw a pallet on my way here and I was like, ah, there you are.

No doubt you will be picking that one up on the way back.

I will be picking that one up on my way back. So what we do is that, instead of using the pallet as such, even though some clients like that pallet shape, we want to reutilise the timber, because it’s beautiful pine. And you’d be surprised that all the countries that these pallets come from. They have stamps from United Arab Emirates, Japan, Ecuador, USA, Canada, Singapore, China. It’s all over the place, so there’s different colors and there’s different grains and everything.

So we utilise those colours and we use the timber. Obviously, we do lots of sanding and it’s kind of like our main trait because usually pallets are rough and hairy. We sand them so much that they’re really nice and smooth. So tables, bedheads, chairs, walls, cabinets … I showed you a picture before we came in of a suspending bookcase. That's pretty heavy though.

So when you look around, and when I look around, some of the best and most innovative companies are looking at waste as a potential revenue stream. Now you can see T-shirts made from plastic bottles. You can see beer rings made from edible substances so fish don’t get caught up with it. You can see a company down in Christchurch [Offcut Caps] making caps with leftover fabrics that would normally go into a landfill. Do you feel as though that is something that defines innovative companies, the way that they look at their waste? Peter Yealands is another example around how his whole vineyard operates.

Yeah, talking about Peter Yealands, they sent me all their waste into my workshop once and we built a wine-tasting mobile container. I guess there’s different concepts of innovation, overall. You know there is the high tech form of innovation that's really ground-breaking, but then, because of the nature of today’s day and age, with The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and fossil fuels and all of these negative things that we’ve done in the past with our industries, I guess this is a new way of doing innovation. It falls under the umbrella of being frugal, of utilising what’s about to be thrown away, that’s about to be written off, pretty much, and being able to implement them back into the commercial system.

I’ve seen wine bottles made into glasses and coat hangers and little bells. It’s really fascinating to see how creative we can get if we’re set up to a challenge. Like for us in The Pallet Kingdom, we didn’t have furniture and that’s why we started building our own furniture. I was still at AUT and my partner [Gabriel Acuna-Carvajal] is currently still finishing his masters, and he’s flying down to Victoria every week. Yeah, it’s just really fascinating that we were put in this condition that we couldn't go out and buy our furniture, and we thought 'well, there’s all these pallets lying around. You know I have quite a few tools. Let’s just start making stuff.'

I was listening to a great podcast on Freakonomics about the idea of maintenance. So there’s a fascination with the new and the new shiny, understandably, and that's where innovation comes in. But their argument is that it’s probably more important to maintain what we’ve already created and, in this case, obviously to use some of those resources that are there and available. That resourcefulness you mentioned, is there a similarity there between where you grew up in Colombia, because of the circumstances, and also in New Zealand?

Well, obviously because I was a young kid in Colombia, my  parents aren’t that well off but they’re quite financially stable, I didn’t see myself looking to be resourceful, but I did observe it in my dad. He was always the hustler. He was always looking for a bargain. He would go out of town to find a cheaper supplier to bring in his prime materials to build for school. My dad has a studio like this one and he built it himself, and it’s for the kids at the school to use. And he was always really resourceful when he had to find things.

And then when I moved here into New Zealand and I didn’t have many resources myself, and I was studying and I was working fulltime as well, you start becoming very limited and with the amount of money that you need. You want to think of a different alternative, because I wanted to have a big table. I wanted to have a beautiful bedhead. I really wanted to have a welcoming space for my friends and family to come, but obviously I didn’t have the money to do it. So I guess it’s a bit of both. Obviously, my dad being a prime example of how to be resourceful and being put in the situation where our city’s an expensive city and we like things, and we like to show our things. And if we don’t have enough money to buy them, you’ll have to look for a different alternative.

There are some other social enterprises that we hear quite a lot about and often they’re the simple ideas that you can grasp onto, like the buy one, give one model. There are examples overseas like TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker, a glasses company that give glasses to people in need. In New Zealand, Eat My Lunch is probably the most well known. They do seem to be doing good but they are for-profit companies. Can those things exist together, do you think?

Oh, I’m a big fan of for-profit social enterprises, mainly for the fact that my grandparents ran an NGO, and it was really restraining to see how always they had to beg for money so that they could fund their initiatives, fund their projects. I was really stressed when I came into New Zealand and I started studying the not-for-profit sector. And it’s really engrained in us that we just like to reach out our hand and wait for the grants to come in, and we don’t actually push ourselves to do anything with our ideas.

And moving into this entrepreneurial space, it’s not about the profit you can generate, but it’s mainly about, in my opinion, about how to be self-sustaining and keep on pushing that idea. And Frank’s Stationery, and Eat My Lunch, with that one-for-one model, they’re just great business models that will have an aggregated value. You’re helping someone who is in need, you know, like The Pallet Kingdom. This is something that I wish TOMS Shoes would do, is go into a more sustainable state as well as being a social enterprise with the one-for-one model, is being able to create those products in a more eco way would be my only way of thinking that it would be a perfect form of a social enterprise.

But we are all about profit and I think that's the only way that we can sustain ourselves. So I personally have nothing against it. I’m not really into the not-for-profit space. I love to sell and negotiate, so, yeah, I think it’s good.

Profit is always a good lubricant, I think, and it makes things happen. Do you feel as though there is more of an understanding now, as you mentioned, about supply chains and more transparency over where things come from, more demand for provenance from consumers asking where did that food come from, where did my T-shirt come from, how are these shoes made? Is that something that makes you optimistic about the future of business?

Yes, it’s true. Coincidentally, I was one of the people that was able to start Conscious Consumers up here in Auckland, and I got really fascinated with this concept of who is a conscious consumer and what do they demand from the general commercial sector. And yes, this is primarily young people but there was a research that came out in 2013, and showed a bunch of young Kiwis sustainable products and some cheaper alternatives. They would always go, or 80 percent of the people always went to the most sustainable alternative.

So I guess it’s in people who are in our day and age, or our age range, we’re a little bit more conscious and a little bit guilty as well. It’s like 'oh I shouldn't actually have five plastic drinking bottles, and then throw them away'. So it’s all of this being able to be efficient and be conscious of what you’re spending. I’m vegan, for example, and my coffee that I have right here is from Innocent Packaging, because I know it’s compostable. I think there are many people like me and I think we’re driving this demand of all sorts of trends. So there are consumers that are a little bit 'lite green' but fully making this as a trend if you’re getting your compostable packaging, you’re not eating specific products because they’re harmful for the environment. There are people who are catching onto that bandwagon.

I’m optimistic as well, but you do see a big difference between what people say and what they do in reality, and so there are still a lot of decisions that get made, for example, in the supermarket, they will go for the cheapest thing. But there is a trend there. And Al Gore gave an update to his Inconvenient Truth documentary earlier this year and he was surprisingly optimistic about the future for the environment, and some of the innovative techniques that we’ve been using. He was of the belief that we’ve got to a point where the economics stack up for solar and wind and other renewable forms. Kevin Kelly, another hero of mine I guess, he co-founded Wired. He was talking about how there will probably, like over the past centuries, be gradual improvements. Is that what you see when you look out?

Yes, but not particularly here in New Zealand. I think there’s lots of work that we have to do here in New Zealand, starting from the fact of legal structures for social enterprises. For The Pallet Kingdom, we’re registered as a company and we have to operate as a company. It would be good that if people understand that we’re working with people who are in need. We’re not asking for people to be nicer to us. Obviously, we’re not a charity and aren’t treated as a charity, but banning plastic bottles, banning styrofoam, banning plastic overall in San Francisco, and now it’s happening in France. And the food waste structure that's being implemented in France, all of these things get me excited because if it was for me, if I had the chance to be involved in this policymaking, I would definitely ban plastic here in New Zealand. It’s a small country. We have awesome companies that are already doing different alternatives like compostable packaging and stuff. I feel that we need to be a little bit more risky in terms of our implementing stuff.

What kind of things have been the most challenging for The Pallet Kingdom? A little birdie told me that you may have had slightly too many pallets on your front lawn and maybe got a knock on the door from the council, but are there other issues aside from that that have cropped up that you’ve had to deal with?

Yeah, insane. So obviously, I didn’t really know that the industry I was stepping into was going to be so expensive. Obviously, machinery is pretty expensive and that was a challenge itself. I didn’t know personally that I was going through sugar problems, and I didn’t know that my dietary change was going to help me improve my sugar, so I kept on taking insulin pills. I was working out in the sun, a very long day, and I fainted. And sadly, while I was fainting, I was using the drop saw, so I chopped the tip of my thumb.

I had a similar circumstance where I was really, really tired and I was pushing myself to an extreme and the sanding disc broke and it landed inside of my finger. And those two were really challenging moments because I had to look back and I was like, you know, health and safety is up to the standard. What’s happening to me as a person? Why am I getting injured? Coincidentally, straight after that, a car landed inside of our house, a stolen car going 140 kilometres per hour. It destroyed our trailer. It destroyed our bathroom. It destroyed our workshop. We had to start over again. Our car engine blew up. We had to start over again.

We’re not a big business so we don’t have a reserve in our bank that you can come up with a quick solution. We worked really hard for our trailer. We worked really hard for our car, so those little challenges were really hard on us because we didn’t have that safety net behind us. So our only option was to stand up and keep on going.

And even after all of that you’re still keen to keep going with it? It was rewarding enough to justify that hardship?

Yes, I think it’s very gratifying to see the amount of pallets that we’re recycling, the amount of people that we’re influencing. I guess for The Pallet Kingdom, it’s the time to expand. It’s the time to look for a proper workshop, to invite the community to be a part of it. I’m potentially wanting to talk to Mitre 10 of being able to provide pallet slats that are already pre-sanded, because it’s a trend here that we want to do things with pallets. I get numerous emails from dads who are wanting to do pallet projects. Have you had a pallet project in your house, by any chance?

Not yet, no. I don’t have any practical skills so I might just buy one from you.

Oh great, awesome, that's even better, but I thought I might be looking at one of these who people who like to do their own kind of stuff. So we’re just wanting to diversify our channels of distribution.

Are there real opportunities do you think for this idea to move into other businesses, to try and find other products or waste that you can turn into new things that people want to buy, and also create work for people who need it?

Yeah, well that would be an ideal. I guess The Pallet Kingdom, as such, we’d keep as pallets, but I’m very open to opening different businesses and different ideas. Coincidentally, I had lunch with the Colombian consul on Sunday and he presented to me one of his friends who had a pallet business in South America. He’s really into wanting to just start everything. He wants to recycle plastic. He wants to recycle bottles. I’m a little bit more funneled into one specific idea, developing it and then making sure it’s self-sustainable before I turn the other side. But I think it’s time for us and hopefully I’m encouraging a lot of people to start their own ideas with pallets if they want to, but different resources as well.

Often you see smaller entrepreneurs or small businesses who get some help from a larger network who see an opportunity. You mentioned before that you’re trying to get into big companies like Mitre 10. I think you’ve done some displays and presentations in store. Is that something that you feel like that bigger companies will come onboard with this?

Yeah, well, I’m having a little film that Mitre 10’s doing about The Pallet Kingdom tomorrow, which will be really cool. Peter Yealands was a good example. They sent us all their waste from their vineyard and we did beautiful pieces of furniture with what they gave us. We have had different companies who are pretty big, franchises like Mexicali Fresh and Mad Mex and Habitual Fix, who want us to do large-scale production. Unfortunately, we’ve had to reject all of those. We can do a big fit out, but we can only stick to doing that at one specific time. We can’t be doing 20 chairs on one side and 40 stools on the other, but that's where I want to go. I think that we’re in a space and we’ve improved our quality to an extent that we can do things at a mass production.

And is it sustainable from a profit point of view? Are you making a profit with the things that you’re creating?

Yes, well, here’s the awesome thing; our timber is free. Fine, we have to pay for the petrol and the labour to go and collect it, but we’re already starting at a point that's more accessible for people. So our price range, and we’ve compared it with other companies around, we’re cheaper by 40 percent. I’m not going to mention the companies of course, but if you’re wanting to buy a table that’s made of recycled wood, it’s in the $2,500 price range. Our most elaborate table isn’t more expensive than $1,500 and this is with hooks and doors. It’s versatile and all of that.

And you feel good after you’ve bought it.

And you feel good after you’ve bought it, and it feeds my humans and it pays for our rent. 

One thing I’ve noticed in looking back over history, in a way, is business typically used to be seen as an important part of the community, whether it was a corner store or the butcher or the large behemoths who became quite philanthropic throughout their time. More recently, it feels like economists and financiers believe the main role of the company is to make money, if not the only role. That can lead to some pretty poor decisions around what they do and the impact that they have. It seems to be changing slightly. Even the bigger companies have realised that corporate social responsibility is something they have to do. Sometimes it’s lip service. Sometimes it’s actually baked in, but increasingly, as you have mentioned, the newer companies seem to have this as part of their DNA. Is that something you’re seeing from other businesses that have started up? That if they can, they’ll create a business that’s profitable, but also has a social purpose attached to it?

I’m a member of Social Enterprise Auckland, and we’ve been approached by many people who want to have these ideas and they want to do it self-sustainably. But with what you just mentioned Ben, it was really interesting because now that I’m a local board member and we’re the representatives of the community. I started looking at the key stakeholders of our area, as we’re in the Waitemata, and business associations take a major part of it. And I think that on a political spectrum, we consider part of the community, and obviously, we’re the voice. We do check back with Businesses Associations, so I think in terms of representing the community and being a voice and being connected with customers and stuff, a business plays a really important role. I’m not sure if you know about the big problem that happened in K Road a couple of nights ago, that there was a bunch of teenagers that started attacking each other and they just lost the plot because they had too much alci in their system. But then businesses were the ones that were there to attend to this issue.

So there’s two sides of this. Businesses are key to connecting the community together, but also, these people, these customers, have to start demanding things to be different. I’m a very picky customer when I go into a takeaway store and I refuse to use styrofoam, even though if they want to charge me $2 extra for something that I could reuse in the future, but it’s both sides.

Bird on a Wire is a perfect example of a great role model business. It isn’t a social enterprise, but it’s waste-free and it also does free-range chicken if you’re really into you wanting to have your free-range chicken, and they pay really well for their employees. So it’s hopefully getting these businesses like Bird on a Wire as showcasing them to lift the bar for normal businesses around our areas to start competing. It is expensive and you won’t have as much profit as you did when you were doing things the cheapest way, but it’s all about that aggregated value and about that feeling of accomplishment.

Speaking of accomplishment, you’ve just been elected. You’re probably an anomaly, I imagine, in the council, being 26, I believe now.

That's correct, 26.

What led you to make that decision to get into politics?

Well, interestingly enough, it was all about sustainability and it was all about being able to advocate for stuff, and I’ve been advocating for this for a few years now. I wouldn’t like to see plastic bags around our beautiful city or plastic bottles. And I was talking to ministers and I was talking to local board members and I saw, not in everyone, but I saw in some people that they’re just stuck with this bureaucracy of, “Oh, yeah, we’ll see.” And they send an email to someone and they’ll wait a few months until they respond back. And, “Oh yes, so we’ll have to just wait until the next elections and we can advocate for this.” It was just really like staggering and I guess you relate with me in this that, especially in the entrepreneurial side, we like action and we like to make things and make quick decisions, and things that benefit the community overall.

So being able to represent not only my age range, because us young people don’t vote and don’t really say much about what we want to see in the city … So it’s inspiring those younger generations to take the courage to fork out their little bit of money to start campaigning and stuff. But for me specifically, just being able to make sure that our city has protective cycling lanes, that we have alternative methods of transport, that we can incentivise solar power, and if we can ban waste or implement the resource recovery centre that the Waitemata board funded for. It’s in Great North Road and it’s currently in process. It’s a great example of the awesome things that local boards could do for the community.

So, I think the local board was my aim and I’m very grateful that I got voted in. I am Mrs. Nobody. I have a small business. I was competing against media personalities and everything, so to be one of the people that made it in is just a huge blessing and a great opportunity.

The future is bright. I hope you don’t get ground down by the machine. There’s also a sense of experimental behaviour with some of the entrepreneurs. Over in the US I was reading about Y Combinator, a very well-known business incubator. They’ve started to move from tech startups for wealthy people, generally, to actually starting some social experiments. So they’re giving 100 families a universal basic income, trying to use some of the things that they’ve learned through their business incubation to try and make the world a better place. Do you feel as though the government could learn a little bit more from that attitude and to trial things in small spaces to see if they work, rather than having big all-encompassing plans?

Exactly. I fully agree with you. I’ll talk in terms of a council perspective, in my opinion. Well, our only channel of distribution is ratepayers, right? It would be great to see how council could diversify their services and generate revenue from it. This is a silly idea and I don’t think council will like this, and I know that Auckland Transport has issues about this in the past, but there’s heaps of people that come in ships into our ports every day, and there’s thousands that come down and have a wander around our city centre. It would be great to have a system in place that someone could hire a bike and go around our beautiful city and ride a bike, and that's generating extra income.

I think that we could be innovative in terms of hiring out public parking spaces for a food truck so that they could park there all day, and make it accessible for the food truck to park there and people can buy stuff from there, utilising the streets more and not making it only for cars, getting more markets around the city. All of these things are small ideas that could potentially generate revenue for the big institute of the council.

So, maybe to finish Adriana, you seem like a bit of an overachiever. You’ve already done a lot more than most people probably would in their entire life. What do you see coming next?

I guess now that I’ve been able to start The Pallet Kingdom and have it operating for a few years, and now that I’ve been blessed with the chance of being on a local board, I think I’m going to stay grounded on those two, make sure that I nurture them well enough so that The Pallet Kingdom is a self-sustaining company that I don’t have to be there and watching everything and making sure that everything works really well.

Obviously, these next three years as a local board member are going to be fascinating. I’m very happy because we have a really progressive chair. Her name is Pippa Coom, and being able to work alongside her, and she’s open for design thinking skills. She’s open for sustainability-driven projects and all of these things are going to be great because it’s going to impact our city in such a positive way, especially all the Waitemata area, and obviously, we work as great advocators and we encourage other local boards to do so as well.

So I guess now it’s time for action. In my opinion, it’s time to keep on doing awesome stuff and keep on incentivising and inspiring other people to do some more things. I don’t think I’m an overachiever. I just think I’m crazy stubborn and sometimes dumb.

That helps, I think. Is that something you’ve noticed from other entrepreneurs and people who have started these social enterprises?

Yeah, I guess many of the entrepreneurs I’ve talked to have started at a later stage in life than myself. I went through a big business failure when I was 19. I thought I could lease out a space in Newmarket and that was insane. That put me in a lot of debt actually. I guess, yes, there’s a lot of people that like to take risks. I guess we have to be careful as entrepreneurs, because we like to say ‘oops’ rather than ask for permission.

You seem like an optimist though. I was listening to an interview and one of the questions I think they ask at Google is 'when you’re driving to the airport, do the traffic lights go green or red?' It’s not as simple as that but if they say green generally it shows that you're an optimist, you make your own luck and I think we see that a lot in successful entrepreneurs.

Interesting. Obviously, in The States, you say it’s a yellow light but I’m the kind of person that tends to run off in an orange light, and now I know it’s not appropriate, it’s actually illegal.

It’s very satisfying though.

Yeah, I think I’m that kind of person.