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Dads' efforts to baby proof their houses spawn a million dollar business

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 13, 2011 - A lot of people go through the ritual of babyproofing their homes. But for St. Louis fathers Tim Barklage and Kevin Tibbs, comparing notes on where to keep household chemicals turned into a wider-ranging idea.

The result of those discussions was Better Life, an eco-friendly cleaning products company they founded in 2008 with a lot of science, a fair amount of social consciousness and a dash of groan-inducingly bad puns. (Their window cleaner is named "I Can See Clearly. Wow!" while their wood polish goes by the moniker "Oak-y Dokey.")

Whimsicality aside, Better Life is serious business. The enterprise has expanded from four product lines at its inception to 15 and is featured in about 2,000 or so stores in 49 states. The business has more than doubled in size just this year and now grosses over a million dollars annually.

"It's been really nice from the standpoint of the acceptance and the excitement that people have for the products," said Barklage. "That's what's really sustainable about the model."

That, and the products themselves, which are all eco-friendly and derived from plant extracts rather than harsh chemicals. The cleaners feature no ammonia, bleach or alcohol and lack the dyes, solvents and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found on the active ingredients lists of other cleansers. The stainless steel cleaner combines vegetable and coconut oils with a sugar-based cleaner. Natural amino acids power the nursery spray cleaner. The cleansing scrubber combines corn-based ingredients and vegetable wax with the natural abrasive calcium carbonate. The granite cleaner includes not just a coconut-based cleaner but essential oils of grapefruit and pomegranate.

If some of this lineup sounds more like personal care lotions than under-the-sink chemicals, there's a reason. Tibbs was once a formulation chemist for skin care products and those roots came in handy. Barklage said some green cleaning products are simply watered-down versions of the original cleaner but Better Life was looking for something completely new.

"Part of that background allowed [Tibbs] to look at some innovations that people in the cleaning industry typically hadn't looked at before," Barklage said. "A lot of companies just hire a cleaning formulation person. They are in their mode of thinking of how they do things. They just make it a little safer. We took a radically different approach of creating products from the ground up."

Tibbs agreed. He said that it wasn't that big a jump to go from cleaning skin to cleaning homes and the environmental aspect was already built in from the beginning.

"For the latter part of my career developing these formulas, there was definitely a big push for natural and organic ingredients for those formulations," he said.

Tibbs said that the babyproofing experience really stuck with him.

"When you have kids, your perspective changes, your life changes, everything," he said. "While I was evaluating our home, it seemed like one area where there was a real void in the industry was cleaning products."

The duo offered their product initially to St. Louis-area Whole Foods stores. It's now in 250 of the chain's locations across the country. Locally, Schnucks and Dierbergs carry Better Life while nationally, natural food stores, co-ops, independent groceries and regional chains have stocked it on shelves.

"You can go to market a couple of different ways," explained Barklage. "You can get a lot of money and get everywhere you possibly can and hope that it sticks or you can do what we've done. We have a lot of faith in our products that once people pick it up off the shelves, they are going to buy it again."

That's allowed for reinvestment and expansion over time, he said. It also means Better Life hasn't invested much worry in the global financial situation.

"There are always lots of challenges being a start up but the economy isn't something we've really thought too much about," he said. "We started when the bottom was falling out so we don't really have an insight into what the good times were."

The good times seem to be now as Better Life broadens its reach to include skin lotions and liquid hand soaps, which have been introduced just in the last two months.

Barklage said it's still too early to know how the new line is faring but he's optimistic.

"It's got the texture of a synthetically made product but there's no mineral oil or silicones in it," he said. "We take it to a level where we don't even try to necessarily say how we are different than the conventional brands. We say how we are different from the other natural competitors."

Barklage said his company's products can be more expensive than conventional cleansers in some instances but not as often as one might think.

"If you look at something very commoditized like a window cleaner, sure. When you look at things like our stainless steel cleaner, our hand soap and hand lotion, not always," he said.

He also said it can be difficult to judge price differences between Better Life and its conventional competitors since the pair's gentler organic line can often clean a wider range of surfaces such as leather, wood and LCD TVs. The lack of solvents also makes them less damaging to the sealant on granite counters.

"I think the dynamics of what people think cleaning is are starting to change," Barklage said. "It's not an apples to apples comparison anymore. A lot of people have spent a great deal of their life savings on the surfaces of their home and they are looking for products that are going to be appropriate for cleaning those surfaces."

He said the company continues to develop new products but says they always ensure their naturally based alternatives will perform as well or better than their conventional counterparts.

"In fact, we have a lot of residential cleaning services who aren't necessarily using our products from a green standpoint but from an efficacy standpoint," Barklage said.

Tibbs said it's a good feeling knowing that other families are using the invention he uses around his own kids.

"To this day, I'll go into the store, see the product and get excited about it," he said. "Definitely it's never worn off. That's for sure."

David Baugher is a freelance writer. 

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