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Disruptor | Adam Lowry, Method

Disruptor | Adam Lowry, Method

Posting in Design

The co-founder of the green cleaning products company flaunts traditional consumer products design strategies and encourages every employee to be weird.

With a shock of brown hair, Method co-founder Adam Lowry wears the lean physique you'd typically associate with a professional basketball player or fashion model -- towering over most of his employees at 6 feet, 6 inches tall.

But the Stanford-educated chemical engineer and avowed environmentalist isn't all that concerned with conforming. The highest compliment you could probably pay him is to call him weird. To his face.

Being weird is a quality that features prominently in the natural cleaning products company's "humanifesto" (one core value is "Weirdness is next to Godliness") and one that Method's managers are taught to seek in every new hire. Every candidate gets a homework assignment with three questions during his or her interview, including this one, "What would you do to keep Method weird?" One candidate in London created a scavenger hunt for his interviewers, using elements of the company's brand philosophy for clues. He's now a general manager.

"Keeping it weird is one of our values, and we think that keeping it weird is incredibly important to being able to do something remarkable and stand out in a category that is one that consumers don't generally think about," Lowry, 38, explains. "The products that they generally buy are really boring and mundane, and in some cases toxic. What we believe is that the greatness of what we create is a function of how we work, and being different, being weird, being an individual -- and then creating a culture that can actually celebrate that stuff rather than squash it -- is one of the great keys to our success."

Lowry and his cofounder, Eric Ryan, really embraced the weird after an early hiring frenzy at the fast-growing company brought in people who didn't necessarily fit the collaborative product development culture espoused by the unorthodox consumer products manufacturer. The workday might bring spontaneous dance parties and funky colors light the elevators. The philosophy is detailed in the management tome co-authored by the high-school friends and former roommates: "The Method Method: Seven Obsessions That Helped Our Scrappy Start-up Turn an Industry Upside Down."

Method -- which merged in fall 2012 with a Belgian firm, Ecover, that shares many of its environmental principles -- had a big hand in inventing the green cleaning products category 13 years ago. Lowry, a chemical engineer then working as a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, was tired of preaching to the environmentally converted, the "dark greenies." He recognized that few consumers will sacrifice better for greener, especially when it comes to the stuff they use habitually in their everyday lives. Why not turn green-ness into an attribute of quality, he wondered?

"I think part of the reason that the adoption of green products is still frustratingly small to the converted is that the converted puts the onus on consumers to get educated about it and know the reasons why they should do everything green," Lowry muses. "Most people are going through their lives not thinking about the environment. So, why aren't we as the makers of stuff just designing it so that sustainability is part of the quality and then just create something that is, quite simply, better?"

Lowry's earlier experience incorporating biodegradable and recycled materials into automotive components (he holds two patents and still has a thing for muscle cars) convinced him that the massive $5.2 billion household cleansers category -- everything from laundry detergent to dish soap -- was ready for a cleanup. The green portion of the market is estimated at $623 million in 2013, according to recent research by consulting firm Air Quality Sciences. (While Ecover and Method are private, their combined annual sales are projected at $200 million.)

Ryan, a marketing and branding expert who worked with the likes of The Gap and Old Navy, brought invaluable design insight -- which has shown in the company's unique packaging approach (lots of slim bottles and concentrated formulations that require less bulk) and in its fragrance choices (another humanifesto philosophy is "good always prevails over stinky.")

Their messy, dirty apartment in San Francisco was the proving ground for their startup, and the two Michigan-raised entrepreneurs washed away nearly $100,000 in personal funds getting their first products -- four cleaning sprays -- onto the shelves of a small grocery store chain in Burlingame, Calif. Method's breakthrough came in 2002, when Target agreed to test the sprays and a line of dish soaps.

After rescheduling our interview twice because of his busy meeting schedule, Lowry spoke with me via telephone from the Method "Laundry Room." No, this is not an on-site corporate amenity offered up for employees working around the clock. Lowry has simply been catching up on upcoming ideas and product plans by reviewing notes and comments written all over the room's "Wiki Walls." These are floor-to-ceiling whiteboards scattered throughout the headquarters where Method's roughly 100 employees are encouraged to jot down brainstorms, random thoughts, feedback, whatever they are thinking. When he's in the office, Lowry strides the building's three floors to scan the ever-changing content. His job while in the office is to connect with as many people as possible.

"Everybody has free reign on every wall to comment," he explains. "The whole point is to get the ideas up before you whittle them down."

The approach reflects Lowry and Ryan's belief that endless focus groups and PowerPoint presentations aren't the best or quickest way to get a new product, fragrance or packaging approach out onto the market. Method's culture encourages a frenzy of unedited creativity, following by a prototyping phase (the company makes liberal use of its 3-D printer). Even if it takes seven iterations.

"Ultimately, we are the ones responsible for designing killer product experiences for our consumers," Lowry declares. "In order to do that, you have to come up with great raw ideas, and you have to be able to manifest them quickly and get reaction, to see whether or not what you created is having the effect that you desired when you created it. That's why you prototype. The traditional approach in consumer products marketing is to do gobs of consumer research. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that what that produces is a lot of really ordinary products that are pretty uninspired. We need to have a point of view."

One dramatic example is the company's 8X concentrated laundry detergent, which requires just a small amount for each wash load -- a far cry from most conventional formulations that require far more liquid. Another is the company's limited edition run of products designed for Whole Foods bottled in plastic reclaimed from oceans. While Method already makes most of its packaging from 100 percent post-consumer recycled material, the product line was created to draw attention to the intensifying ocean plastics issue, one of Lowry's personal passions outside the office (he helped pen the evolving international policy to address it).

These days, Lowry is the designated "chief greens keeper" for both Method and Ecover, which are maintaining separate brand identities. That means he is responsible for ensuring everyone incorporates sustainable design, ingredients selection, packaging and logistics into their job. There isn't a separate sustainability function, although Lowry works closely with two employees on research to help inform decisions. Both have a science, rather than a marketing background.

"It's sort of shocking to me how many people in the sustainability profession globally don't have degrees in science," he says. "Sustainability is not a marketing function. It is about science. It is about creating social and environmental welfare through the products that you manufacture."

Back when Method started, Lowry worked 100-hour weeks toward that mission and often slept in the office to save time. But his responsibilities as a father to two young daughter have set new boundaries between his personal and professional life. He's not the sort of dad who sits in the park with his children, checking his smartphone. It's not in his hand when he's with them. But although it may sound "cheesy," Lowry routinely consults his wife, Mara, after the kids are in bed about big projects or challenges where he needs a more objective point of view than either he or his long-time friend and business partner, Eric, can offer. "I respect, value and need her opinion on matters that I'm struggling with in the business," Lowry says.

This year, most of Lowry's energy is devoted to the integration of the Method and Ecover cultures -– refining a combined corporate identity that will foster sustainable innovation from both brands. He's also working on a secretive project he's not willing to talk about yet, but I'd be willing to bet it will send conventional cleaning products companies scrambling for a response.

"The winners in the new economy are going to be those that are the very best at designing deep sustainability and high design into wonderful product experiences," Lowry predicts.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure