by Natasha K. Hale, Program Manager, Native American Business Incubator Network
With one small red pick-up truck, Hopi entrepreneur Tyler Tawahongva is already keeping 40,000 pounds of cardboard, as well as metals and other recyclable materials, out the landfill. He’s saving reservation businesses, schools, and hospitals money, and, when he can afford it, employing Native community members as day laborers through his small business, Cloud Nine Recycling. Imagine what he could do with a fleet of his own.
As a NABIN client, Tyler is working hard to raise the $5,000 he needs to invest in a used moving truck to increase profitability and take his business to the next level. In 2014, he received the Green Business in Indian Country Start-Up Award from Colorado-based NGO Trees, Water, People. We talk to Tyler about the challenges of building a small business on the rez, how China and the price of oil impact his bottom line, and some of his more unusual dumpster finds.
I grew up in Tuba City, went to a school in Massachusetts for a few years, and returned home to Tuba City my senior year. I was interested in music. After I came home, I formed a band and ended up moving to Phoenix and got married. I worked in a call center for ten years. Ironically it was in the small business division of American Express, so I learned a lot about the plights of small business owners during my time manning the phones.
My ex-wife was the first person to start buying cans in Tuba City. She was relatively successful but decided to get a full-time job. After a few years of doing it on the side, I resigned from my job as a substance abuse counselor and decided to really give the business a shot.
I was doing alright until a big corporate operation came to town and pretty much took most of the business. That’s when I found out that cardboard could actually be sold and decided to give that a try to see if that could sustain me. It generated a little revenue—not much—but it enabled me to continue recycling.
I decided to name the business Cloud Nine Recycling after my Hopi name, which is Cloud. The price of cardboard has dropped dramatically—from over $100 per ton to about $70. When you’re baling it by hand, loading it into a rented truck, and driving it over 200 miles to the recycling center in Phoenix, that doesn’t leave you much profit margin. [Tyler must first drive 80 miles to Flagstaff to rent the truck, and then 80 miles back to Tuba City to load it, for a total distance of over 600 miles per recycling run]. It would be nice to have a baler, to bale cardboard and paper and take heavier loads. When the price of oil drops, plastics get cheaper, so demand for recycled plastic drops. China’s also a factor—a lot recycling ends up there, but their economy is down, and they’re getting pickier about the recycling they buy.
That's why I’ve been refocusing on metals—primarily copper, salvaged from small appliances. You have to be responsive to the market in this business. Metals are more profitable, require less space to transport and less labor. I even salvaged an old piano not that long ago—I’d never taken apart a piano before. You find some really cool things, and some of it I can salvage. I have a nice flat screen TV, a big one, that I managed to fix up. You learn a lot about fixing things by taking things apart. I found an antique reel-to-reel not too long ago. I hope I can get it working.
At this point, it’s the basic tools of the trade that I really need. Aside from a baler and a scale to keep track of the amount of volume, having a moving truck of my own would really be a game-changer. It would reduce the cost of a run, give me more freedom and control over my own schedule—whereas now I’m at the mercy of the rental company.
NABIN helped me register Cloud Nine as an LLC and get a website and, with Trees, Water, People, has been really vital in expense tracking, data analysis and accounting—all the nitty gritty of owning your own business. There aren’t a lot of resources for small business owners on the rez. It’s hard to find people to show you the ropes.
If I can get a moving truck and earn more capital, then I should be able to process more material. Right now I’m picking up recycling from local businesses and nonprofits for free—they’d have to pay the bigger fish in town to pick up their recycling. I’d like to form relationships with local governmental entities and companies to charge a small pick-up fee and set up a large scale community recycling program.
Right now I am a hands-on business. Literally everything is done by hand. I tie up the cardboard bales by hand, I load them by hand and take things apart by hand. If I had the basic equipment, such as a baler and loader, then much of the labor-intensive work could be eliminated and would free up time to collect more. Loading a truck takes at least half a day which takes me away from the normal collecting of material. After loading a truck by hand, there is not much energy left to do much else. Having my own truck would allow me to load as I go, instead of racing the clock, and be smarter and more strategic about how and what I transport.
As far as recycling of metal and other items, other businesses do exist in Tuba City. Cloud Nine's niche is paper products. Currently businesses and NGOs like St Jude’s Food Bank, one of my clients, would have to rely on outside entities to recycle their paper products or just throw them away. Cloud Nine is able to collect these products, saving them money and keeping trash out of the landfills. With my own truck, I could strike the right balance between cardboard and metals, and turn a profit.
Don't give up. Stick with it.