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Two young San Franciscans have the hottest new brand in the staid but cutthroat national soap market. It's based on a simple notion: Cleaning is cool.

Wednesday, Dec 24 2003
After their first sale, Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan borrowed a few wine boxes from a friend so they could transport their plastic bottles of cleaning fluid to the store. The bottles had been filled from Lowry's "laboratory" – his bathtub – and some of them weren't even really filled. But the manager of a Mollie Stone's Market had unexpectedly agreed, after a frantic backroom pitch, to buy two shelves' worth. Perhaps he liked the strange shape of the bottle – long sides and slender shoulders meeting a trigger-nozzle top – or the subtle, startling hue of the liquid solution inside. Or perhaps he just liked the two guys in their mid-20s who had tried to convince him, fervently and earnestly, that their all-purpose spray cleaner was going to change the way people clean.

When Lowry and Ryan returned to the store a couple of days later, they discovered a few of their precious bottles missing – gone to the homes of happy shoppers, presumably, and not simply slid aside. "It was so surreal to think of people taking your product, putting it in a cart, and using it at home," Ryan says. "I mean, imagine that."

Elation, however, quickly gave way to panic: The shelves would have to be replenished.

"So that Saturday," Lowry recalls, "my packaging guy and his 7-year-old son, we got a bunch of pails, a bunch of funnels, and about 50 rolls of paper towels. Cleaning products foam; when you fill them up, they overflow, and you have to wipe the bottle. So we spent an entire Saturday and part of a Sunday filling up a couple of hundred cases of product. Each one of us hand-filled with a funnel, wiped the bottle down, hand-applied the label, and put it in the box. That was our first warehousing."

Three years later, Lowry and Ryan oversee warehouses and production facilities across the country, and one in China. Their company, called Method, has its cleaning products on the shelves of 10,000 U.S. stores, including Safeway, Albertsons, and Target, and will be available in London next month. And the products certainly stand out among their competitors: Method's dish and hand soaps, shower and kitchen sprays, floor and surface cleaners come candy-colored in bottles of stylish design, boasting fragrances such as cucumber, bamboo, and ylang-ylang. In an industry long dominated by a few well-established corporations churning out look-alike products that often smell bad, tend to harm the environment, and sometimes don't work very well, Ryan and Lowry see Method as more than just a breath of fresh air. They view their company as a means to redefine the very essence of cleaning, transforming ugly objects that hide under the sink into chic, must-have countertop accessories. By creating environmentally friendly, well-performing cleaning products that look hip and smell great, Ryan and Lowry want to turn a chore into a delight and renew the emotional bond between a home and its hygienist.

"It's kind of the same way Williams-Sonoma approached cooking," Ryan says. "They really came in and closed the gap between the love of cooking and food. We're trying to do that with cleaning."

In one corner of the Method conference room, overlooking the boutiques and BMWs of Union Street, stands a gigantic steel shelf. Like some kind of horrific, oversize closet from a housewife's nightmare, the shelf is crammed to overflowing with squeezable bottles and spray canisters. Most of the bottles on the shelf are produced by one or another of the few corporations that dominate the household cleaning products market. Ever mindful of the competition, Lowry and Ryan have spent much of the past three years eyeing this shelf. Ryan adjusts his wire-rimmed glasses and leans forward in his chair, pensive. "Bottom line," he says, in a dry, deadpan voice, "it's pretty foolish to try to go up against P&G, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, SC Johnson –"

Lowry, seated across the table, picks up on his friend's mock naysaying. "On their turf."

"Break into a category that has tiny shelf space –"

"No room for growth –"

"And to do it on a zero marketing budget." Ryan smooths the front of his tan shirt, tucked into a pair of black striped pants, and gives a sarcastic laugh. "Yeah, it was pretty stupid."

The rapport between Ryan, 31, and Lowry, 29, isn't forced. Method employees playfully refer to them as "the boys," and the two interact almost like brothers. Ryan has a hipster's fashion sense and a confident, professional demeanor, occasionally leavened by self-deprecating humor. His ruffled blond hair makes for an interesting contrast with the brunette spikes of Lowry, an avid sailor who competed for a spot on the Olympic team in 2000 and hopes to make the team in 2004. His athleticism is evident: He stands well over 6 feet tall, and his lanky limbs and dark, angular features give him a streamlined look.

Growing up in suburban Detroit, Lowry and Ryan were high school friends, and they kept in touch sporadically throughout college, when Lowry went to Stanford and Ryan attended the University of Rhode Island. After graduation, they happened to bump into each other on a plane coming back from Thanksgiving vacation in Michigan. They got to talking and realized they were living only a block from each other in San Francisco. A short time later, when one of Lowry's roommates moved out, he invited his old friend to move in.

Lowry had earned a chemistry degree at Stanford and gone on to develop a couple of products that were patented by companies he worked for. He had also held a job developing software, computer models, and interfaces for the Carnegie Institute of Washington. But his parents had started their own business in 1981, which focused on improving product quality in automotive parts; Lowry yearned to start his own company, too.

He was unemployed when Ryan, also the product of an entrepreneurial family, moved in. Ryan's great-grandfather dropped out of pharmaceutical school to work on one of Henry Ford's assembly lines for $5 a day, and later started a family-run company that made doors, hoods, and other car parts. From an early age, Ryan seemed destined to replicate his path: In middle school, he reopened the campus' shuttered bookstore and kept it afloat by selling Fruit Roll-Ups. When he was older, he parlayed his more marketable skills – spotting consumer trends and studying corporate brand imaging – into consultant jobs for Gap, Old Navy, and Saturn. But after several years of working on other people's advertising campaigns and product rollouts, Ryan was ready to introduce his own ideas to the public.

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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