Venture Capitalists? No. Nerf Guns? Yes.

August 23, 2013
Gonzaga University News Service

Five years ago, Josh Neblett was a senior business major at Gonzaga. His girlfriend, Sarah Wollnick, was in her final GU undergrad year. Chance put them in touch with Tom Simpson, an adjunct professor who taught a class on creating new ventures, and who fosters entrepreneurial ambitions outside the classroom through his Northwest Venture Associates.

Fusing Simpson’s expertise with Neblett’s strategic savvy and Wollnick’s interest in green living, the trio developed GreenCupboards, a website that would sell bundles of eco-friendly cleaning products. After starting with just $288,000 in funding and $5,000 in sales in 2008, the firm’s scope has increased – along with its balance sheet. It’s now on track to be a $25 million business and has begun acquiring likeminded companies under the umbrella name Etailz.

What was the original idea?

Josh: It was to be the first industry leader within the eco-friendly product space online – with everything from baby and kids’ products, to toys and games, home and outdoor.

How has GreenCupboards evolved?

Josh: The idea was to bundle eight or nine products in your kitchen cupboard or bathroom cupboard. We quickly figured out that wasn’t a scalable e-commerce business. You can’t force a pre-made bundle on the customer. People want options. Through all the relationships that we established – getting the samples, running the tests – we had hundreds of green vendors wanting to work with us. So we expanded our model.

How did you choose your products?

Josh: We put a big emphasis on testing, making sure that the products we offered were actually green. There’s a lot of “greenwashing.” Early on we went as far as to have a green chemist on the team that looked at the ingredients of all these products.

How did you filter out “greenwashed” products?

Sarah: Greenwashing basically means making marketing claims that don’t necessarily impact the product itself. When we look at products and ask what’s going to make it something we can stand behind, first we look at the materials. Then we look at the end use. Finally we look at how it’s manufactured and where it’s coming from. We don’t believe that certifications (i.e., organic) always indicate what is great.

Josh: We have a green compliance team. Every manufacturer goes through this team. They interview the company, they do due diligence online. You can figure out pretty quickly by looking at the ingredients or what the company stands for – if you just put in a few hours to research the brand and products.

Why is the Etailz story unique in e-commerce?

Josh: The standard e-commerce model is: I’m going to go out and raise venture capital – tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars. For the next few years, we’re going to lose that money. At the end of the day, we hope we can acquire market share, and if we do, we can be successful. At Etailz, we took a different approach. We said we’re not going to deal with the venture capital side. We’re going to grow this thing a little bit slower, a little bit smarter, and in a bootstrap way. I think this approach is going to be more and more what you see in the future.

The Milestones

05.08 – After winning the 2008 Hogan Entrepreneurial Business Plan Competition GU students Josh Neblett and Sarah Wollnick co-founded GreenCupboards with adjunct professor Tom Simpson
09.08 – GreenCupboards made its first sale
12.08 – Logged $5,000 in sales for the year
01.09 – Hired first official employee
12.09 – Logged $430,000 in sales for the year
01.10 – Landed Seventh Generation as a supplier
03.10 – Moved out of Northwest Venture Associates and into its own building
07.10 – Childhood sweethearts Josh and Sarah married
12.10 – Logged $1.7 million in annual sales
12.11 – Logged $7.2 million in annual sales
02.12 – Made first international sale
12.12 – Logged $13 million in annual sales
03.13 – Acquisition of
04.13 – Changed name to Etailz
07.13 – Relaunched ecomom


Three Smart Things that Josh & Sarah Did

Norm Leatha, entrepreneur in residence in the Hogan Entrepreneurial Leadership Program, offers perspective on the success of GreenCupboards:

  1. “They did a lot of trial and error. They would try a product one way, then another way. They were very sensitive to their market and to feedback. They moved in a measured way, not at snail’s pace. And then they took off.”
  2. “A lot of companies want to do bricks and mortar, inventory, website, packaging – everything. They said, ‘We package bundles of products and we do evaluations.’ And they put together only an electronic inventory.”
  3. “By using Amazon as their primary marketing channel and not doing their own shipping, they saved a lot of money. Instead, they focused on the company image.”