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"A lot of people who start a company are control freaks ... I think it's cool to see other people take ownership of your ideas," Ryan says. "I mean, this company started with a simple folder – I still have it, actually – and it'll be amazing to see where we are in a year."
Then the pragmatist in him returns, drawing on his extensive knowledge of consumer and corporate trends. "Most people fail a couple of times before they're successful in start-ups," he says, shifting a tad uncomfortably in his chair. He lets out a hoarse chuckle. "If you had asked me to place money on whether we'd be here or not, I would have bet against it."
Lowry frowns. "Well, that's nice to know."
Method's office occupies the second floor of a converted Victorian house, beyond a sign on the door that simply says, "Method, since 2001." The interior is cramped and intimate, redolent of the households Method seeks to serve. Former bedrooms have been turned into offices, which are shared among three or four employees, and the bathrooms are even stocked with reading material – shelves upon shelves of old-fashioned magazines, waiting to be plumbed for design ideas. But Method has outgrown the space, and an upcoming move will be the company's fourth office relocation in 18 months. Despite the success, Method still somehow feels like a grass-roots operation.
After a sales meeting breaks up on a recent Tuesday morning, the company's CEO, Alastair Dorward, emerges from the boardroom cradling a conference-call telephone, its wires spilling out of his arms. Lowry, who has been waiting for Dorward to come out so he can run his own meeting, stops the CEO with a hand on his elbow. "I need the conference phone," Lowry says.
Dorward, wearing a smart green vest and a brown suit, pauses, glances over his glasses at the taller Lowry, and answers in a prim British accent: "I'm going into another meeting, and I need it." There's an awkward pause. "We have only one conference phone."
"I know." Lowry rubs his face.
Dorward steps aside so someone can file past him, and after a few seconds' hesitation, hands over the phone and its dangling cords. "You take it."
Dorward, 35, who calls himself "the gray-hair in the company," joined Ryan and Lowry in November 2000, by which point the two young entrepreneurs had realized they would need an older guiding hand to help them transition from their apartment operation to one that could serve retail giants like Target. Dorward, who earned his M.A. in politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford University and his M.B.A. from a business school in France, had excellent credentials: He had founded and presided over a successful venture-backed soup business called Covent Garden Soup Company, which was worth $40 million and at the brink of sale when he left in 2000; he had spent the previous six years providing strategic consulting for executives at leading corporations in London, Warsaw, and San Francisco. Plus, he already knew Eric Ryan, having recently rejected him for a job as head of marketing at his previous company.
"I knew we'd wind up working together someday," Dorward chuckles. "Instead of me hiring him, he wound up hiring me."
Dorward was attracted to Ryan and Lowry because they exhibited a mixture of "passion and humility" that he found relatively rare among young entrepreneurs in the roaring late '90s. He was also struck by how well the two friends blended their respective skill sets – Ryan concentrating on the external forces of fashion and marketing, Lowry on the internal processes of chemistry and product development. When they first told him of their idea for a product, Dorward says, his initial gut reaction was, "Duh. This should have been done before, and I couldn't come up with a good reason it hadn't."
Neither can Tom Vierhile, executive editor of Productscan Online, a trade database that tracks new consumer products and packaged goods. Method's emphasis on look, scent, and safety contrasts sharply with its more established competitors, Vierhile says, who have always tried to sell themselves on efficacy alone.
"The company is really to be applauded, because they've tried to do several things – packaging, formulations, the aromatherapeutic angle – in a pioneering way," Vierhile says. "And if you can come in and be first in something that's defined as a niche, you do have a leg up."
But, he adds, the nonproprietary nature of the packaged goods market makes it easy for large corporations to simply copy the upstarts, and this is one reason the consumer cleaning aisle remains the province of so few companies. There are no trademarks or patents to prohibit a company like Clorox from introducing a line of cleaning supplies mimicking Method; the only obstacle is the high cost – in both dollars and consumer trust – of re-engineering a mass brand.
"But Method may be harder to copy, because they're not just hanging their hat on one thing," Vierhile says. "If a company knocks 'em off, they're probably not going to do five varieties of every cleaner. And I really doubt Procter & Gamble is going to come out with a shower cleaner that smells like cucumber or ylang-ylang."