Kevin Tibbs | Chemists in the Real World
Kevin Tibbs is passionate about his work — and about Better Life, the company he co-founded in 2007. Better Life manufactures household cleaning products that meet high standards for safety and environmental impact, but that don’t sacrifice cleaning power. Tibbs’ position calls for him to play a number of roles — including managing the company’s operations and research and development activities, and occasionally serving as the face of the company in sales and marketing opportunities.
Tibbs’ career began in a different direction. After graduating, he worked for 14 years as a formulation chemist at various companies including; Tyco, Bristol-Myers, and Steris Corporation, specializing in skin care and cosmetic products. However, he found his real calling when he was inspired to venture into the world of household cleaning products, and hasn’t looked back since. In the big scheme of things, his company is still a young upstart — but with revenue at $3 million, the company is doubling in size each year, and Tibbs derives a great deal of satisfaction from his career.
How did you find your first chemistry-related job after you graduated from college?
When I graduated, it was a pretty tight job market, and I didn’t have the work experience that many employers wanted to see. One of the places where I did manage to get an interview was a temporary placement service with a specific focus on scientific fields. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of taking temporary work, but shortly after talking with them, they let me know about a very interesting job opportunity at Bristol-Myers, which I took.
As it worked out, within six months of starting my temporary assignment, I had a permanent job offer with the company. In my opinion, it’s important to realize that some companies use temporary positions as a way to try people out on a trial basis (with “no strings attached”), which means that if it’s a good fit on both sides, there might be a permanent job offer!
What's a typical day on the job like?
Every day is a surprise! However, my day usually starts with a brief status update (15-30 minutes) from operations and my assistant when I first get into the office. I then make a task list for the day. About two hours are taken up by phone calls, emails, and managing staff, and another two or three hours during which I’m in my office or at my lab bench, working (often with headphones on) at broader focus, long-term goals and various tasks, projects, and assignments. I might also spend an hour or so on a lunch meeting with vendors, business partners, or my production staff. We all need to eat, so this is a good way to multitask! It is also nice to spend time casually with my colleagues. A typical day also includes one or two hours where I focus on my tasks list and making sure they have all been completed! Last but not least, if I feel inspired after I get home and the kids go to bed, I‘ll bring out the laptop, log in, and do some more work.
Typically, how many days each month do you spend away from your workplace on travel?
I usually spend between six and ten days per month. One of the things that takes me out of the office quite a bit is sales. I’m a guest host on the Home Shopping Network (HSN), where I periodically present our product line. I also go to various trade shows and sales presentations across country, talking with buyers about how our products are different, or providing details on a more technical level regarding formulations.
I sometimes still get a few butterflies right before I go on the air at HSN, but as soon as the camera starts rolling, I feel like I’m in my element. I actually find it fun and exciting to talk about our products — and there’s nothing better than hearing a call from a customer who says that buying our products literally changed their life! For example, I’ve heard customers say that because of our products, they can finally clean, even though they have asthma … or that their child got some of our cleaning product in their mouth — but thankfully, it was Better Life! When I hear that kind of feedback, it keeps me inspired and motivated.
Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?
I am not the most tech-savvy person, but I would be absolutely lost without my smartphone. It is loaded with a bunch of apps that make life so much easier to manage. I love DropBox and Google Drive for file sharing, and my laptop goes with me everywhere. Between my phone, laptop, and file sharing apps, I am pretty mobile. I can setup office anywhere and have everything I need. I’ve also started using a project management and collaboration tool — ASANA — on the recommendation of a friend, and have found it to be really helpful for organizing work-related tasks and projects.
Describe your work environment.
My company has two locations: a warehouse, where our main offices and my lab are located, and the production facility. I have an office at both locations, but prefer to spend the bulk of my time at the main office since my lab is there too. The office setting is very casual and it is a large open space with shared working areas. It has a lot of energy with everyone sharing the space.
Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?
My job is very fast-paced but fun! It is a small company, so there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit in the office. I usually put in about 55-60 hours a week, but my days are flexible and I often spend time working from home after the kids are in bed and the house is quiet.
What do you like most about your job?
Everyday is a new day! It is always interesting, fun, exciting and filled with surprises (good and bad). In fact, sometimes a single surprise can contain both opportunities and challenges. For example, when we were selected to appear on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” it was a wonderful opportunity to pitch our product to some of the world’s most accomplished business people, and definitely created a lot of excitement for our company and brand. But at the same time, it created a challenge, since we didn’t know what (if any) impact the appearance would have — whether our sales would stay flat or increase by 10 or 20 times, or even more. You can’t really know how such exposure will change things, so we did a lot of prep to be ready for what might happen.
What is your best productivity trick?
I use lists and ASANA to keep focused and progress in motion.
What’s the best career advice you've received?
Do what you love, since you’ll spend half your life doing it! For example, some people have the type of personality that lets them thrive when working at the pace of a smaller entrepreneurial organization. Others may be more suited for a large corporate setting. As a result, it’s worth a little soul-searching to decide which is best for you. At Better Life, fit is very important — and we’re very careful to make sure anyone we hire is the right fit for our company. It’s very fast-paced, and each of our people has a lot of different responsibilities. Positions aren’t as narrowly focused as they would be in a much larger company.
What personal talent or trait makes you a great fit for your job?
I have creativity and the ability to problem solve. I also love the fast pace of business and not having to go through layers and layers to effect change. It would be hard to think about going back to working for anyone else!
Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?
There is something so exciting about seeing a product that you personally created being sold and used by people all over the country (or world)!
It’s gratifying for me on a personal level, because the inspiration for Better Life came partly from an incident involving our daughter. When she was a toddler, she had asthma and very sensitive skin. Her doctor was giving us advice about baby-proofing our house, and suggested that it would be better if we cleaned the house when our child was out of the house, so that she would not breath the fumes. It suddenly hit me: if it’s not good for a child to breathe the fumes, how could it be good for anyone else?
I started looking into the cleaning product industry, and it seemed broken. I knew that I could make something that performed better than the existing chemical cleaners, yet was also safer for people and the environment. I was also sure that there was a tremendous market for this type of product — and that with my chemistry background, I could help fill a need.
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?
Be confident in what you do well and honest about things you don’t. For example, I’ve always felt comfortable with the chemistry part of our company, but the business side is more challenging. My approach has been to go with my instincts, but I also try to surround myself with smart people who were good at those areas where I may not be as strong.
What is your favorite ACS resource?
The membership. Having a network of friends and colleagues in the ACS (and other professional societies) is invaluable. Whether it be career advice, a chemistry question, or a lively conversation — I have found these professional societies to be a fantastic resource throughout my career.
There is something so exciting about seeing a product that you personally created being sold and used by people all over the country (or world)!"