In our latest installment of SBC’s new monthly small business feature, we meet Marty Spindel and Nadine Cino, co-founders and co-inventors of Tyga-Box, an innovative system of re-usable plastic boxes and dollies designed for office moves. In an interview at their New York City headquarters with business writer Susan Caminiti, the husband and wife team explain how they came up with the concept, what it took to leave lucrative careers to launch Tyga-Box, and how they kept the faith in their idea even through the darkest times.
SC: So how did a senior tax accountant at a law firm and a successful fashion designer come to start a company that makes plastic moving containers?
NC: About 20 years we lived in lower Manhattan and we were moving. It was a short distance, maybe six blocks. But the very next day I’m standing in front of the incinerator feeling like a tree murderer because I have to incinerate all these cardboard boxes. Remember, back then there really was no recycling going on. It was that colossal waste of cardboard boxes that was so offensive to me. And since I’m half Cuban and half-Italian, I launched into a Latino rant over dinner with Marty that night about how somebody ought to have a business where you could rent reusable plastic boxes for a move. And he said, if you just stop and listen to yourself I think you have a really good idea here. So, rather than look back in 10 years or 15 years after someone else had done something with our idea for the business, that night over dinner we decided we were going to do it.
SC: You were both pretty well established in your respective careers at that point. Were you feeling some sort of dissatisfaction that made the idea seem more appealing?
NC: I wasn’t. I was at the peak of my career and having tremendous success working with international clientele.
MS: I had the career problem. I was too comfortable in my career planning estate taxes for high net worth individuals. I had a gorgeous office, a great salary, and most nights a car service to take me home. But I remember many times thinking there’s something I’m not getting in life. I thought if I stay where I am, I’m going to look back and think I had a really comfortable career, but I never really did something with my life. And so when Nadine’s idea came up over dinner we talked about it all night. And with no business plan, with no forethought, we made a commitment to each that we were going to start this business and we kissed on it.
NC: We weren’t looking to become inventors; we just wanted to change the material from cardboard to plastic. So we bought existing plastic totes in different sizes and quickly discovered that they were really designed for residential moves. The business clients that we were dealing with liked our concept of the reusable plastic boxes, but said the ones we had were too small. Then a wonderful thing happened: they invited us in to just observe a move.
MS: That’s when we saw that commercial moves are focused on getting lots of stuff through a chokepoint—the freight elevators—on a Friday night when employees aren’t there. The insight we were able to bring as outsiders was that the process of packing a box and loading it on the dolly were two separate moves. The employees would pack the boxes and leave them on the floor. Then on moving day, the movers would come and load them on the dolly. We thought, if you could combine the process of packing and loading, it could save time and money. So we came up with the design for a bottomless dolly where our boxes could be packed and stacked simultaneously. Then, once they’re transported to the new location, they can be unpacked right from the dolly. No one has to pick up a box unless it’s empty.
SC: Once you designed it, where did you go to get it made?
MS: We found this mold-maker out in Deer Park, Long Island. We needed injection molding to make the molds for our Tyga-Box designs and it wasn’t cheap. In one day, I wrote out a check for the entire value of my 17-year pension and profit sharing plan at the law firm to pay for them. This guy said he had the capability to do the molds, but when they were complete, they were all wrong. One side was too thick, the other side was tissue paper thin and you could crush the whole thing between your hands. That’s how weak it was. But because of legal technicalities, we couldn’t get our money back.
NC: We were out of money and in tears.
SC: At that point did you think of just throwing in the towel?
MS: No, because soon after that Nadine left for a fashion industry trade show to try to find some new customers. Even though I had resigned from the law firm shortly after we decided to start the company, she kept her business for a while so we’d have some cash coming in. But we were going through it fast. While she was rushing between flights, she called me and said, ‘Call this mold-maker!’ She had seen a tiny little ad in the back of an in-flight magazine for a Wisconsin-based mold-maker who was willing to finance the cost of production. A few days later, I took a flight to meet him and he became our mold maker.
MS: We originally named the company Eco Move. Of course, we had this ecological vision about reducing the number of trees wasted in making boxes, and our slogan was, ‘Economically Sensible, Ecologically Essential.’ But when we would call companies to market it they’d say they already had a mover.
NC: And they’d hang up on us.
MS: They’d hang up before we could get a second word in. So we changed the name to a cartoon character, Mighty Box. And we had a slogan, ‘Mighty Box is here to save the day.’ We sent out an advertising campaign to companies in the New York area, and we received a letter back from one of them, saying that we were violating their trademark or copyright and they demanded that we stop. Frankly, I was forever grateful that came up in the early stage before we had hot stamped that expression on a lot of plastic boxes. So, for a couple of weeks we were talking about nothing but this box and one day it just popped into my head, Tyga Box. Of course, a tiger is fast and strong and our system is fast and strong. And Nadine just loved it right away.
SC: Who were your first commercial customers?
MS: Our first customer was AT&T in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. We went to visit their head of warehousing for the northeast and as we walked down this long corridor we saw all these posters for sustainability.
NC: And since I’m still the sustainability queen of this business, I thought we had such an in. What a perfect fit! And I’m going on and on about the ecological aspect of our boxes, and this gentleman we came to see leans over to me and all he wants to know about is the cost. So after we ran through the numbers, he gave us an order to rent 8,000 Tyga-Boxes. When it was done, the company wrote us a recommendation letter saying we helped reduce their moving costs from $209,000 to $143,000. That was huge for us.
SC: What’s the scope of the business now?
MS: We’re national and count many major corporations as customers. We also work with many moving companies who use our boxes for their customers. About 70 percent of our business is renting the boxes and the other 30 percent comes from corporations and moving companies that purchase them for their own use or rent them out.
NC: Sometimes it’s hard to believe that an idea that was born out of my bad moving experience has turned into a company that has really helped change the way companies move.
This interview has been condensed and edited.