Tom Szaky, 28
Founder and CEO of TerraCycle
In the annals of startup lore, Tom Szaky’s story is one to remember. He started his company, TerraCycle, after harvesting worm poop in his Princeton dorm to create an organic fertilizer so he could, as he says, “grow better pot.” Why not make “sustainable and affordable” products from waste materials? he thought. Since 2007, TerraCycle has convinced more than 7 million people in 60,000 locations to collect over 1 billion pieces of trash. TerraCycle “upcycles” this waste into a variety of high-quality products, from fertilizer and fire logs to tote bags and kites. Szaky, who immigrated at age 8 from Hungary to Canada, continues to have fun thinking of ways to “manipulate waste” and help save the planet.
What Does Szaky Hope to Achieve with His Business?
“To create solutions for all nonrecyclable waste. If we eliminate garbage, everyone benefits.”
His Measure of Success
“Profit (without profit there’s no sustainable way to do this). The more money we make, the more we can do for the environment.”
Communism Wasn’t the Best Teacher of Entrepreneurship
“I came from Hungary, which had been a Communist country. My parents were doctors so I had no access to business and the pleasure it brings. When I moved to Canada I saw the ‘rags to riches’ successes.”
One of Szaky’s Business Idols
“Don Green, the cofounder of Roots, the Canadian clothing retailer, because I saw how he built a real core [company] from nothing.”
His Generation Isn’t All About Money
“How much we make is important, but it’s secondary to how much good we can do.”
But His Generation Is Special
“We’re an empowered generation. We’re a blessed generation … we have access to [so many] resources.”
Does That Mean the Millennial Generation Really Can Change the World?
“Absolutely, no doubt.”
Szaky’s Do-or-Die Moment
“We had a number of potentially running-out-of-money situations where there didn’t seem to be a solution to reverse that outcome. It happened three times — and each time it led to our biggest innovations. The do-or-die [moments] are the best if you can endure them.”
The Worst Advice His Parents, Both Doctors, Ever Gave Him
“Be a doctor.”
Szaky Finally Gets Eight Hours of Sleep Each Night
“Because I focus on that. I went 7 years with no sleep. Got close to burning out. [One] sign of success is I can relax and sleep.”
His Best Advice for Others Considering Starting a Business?
“Stop considering, just do it. The concerns will figure themselves out if you do.”
The Technology He Can’t Live Without
“My computer. I could let go of everything, even my phone, as long as I have my computer.”
SLIDESHOW: See all 10 Superstar Entrepreneurs Under 30
Interviewed by Rieva Lesonsky, AllBusiness.com’s Editor-at-Large