In 2015, Samuel Hopkins had a squeak in his bike chain that wouldn’t go away.
Determined to fix it, the avid biker and outdoorsman bought a collection of chain-lubricant products and greased up his bike — only to realize that rainwater would wash the petroleum-based residue directly into the local pond.
“There’s 186 million bikes in the U.S., and it takes 6 million gallons of petroleum oil every year (to lubricate them),” said Hopkins, a Pittsburgh-area resident. “It’s one of the biggest oil spills in America, every year.”
A longtime inventor with more than 40 patents to his name, Hopkins happened to have lanolin — oil secreted from sheep’s wool, often used in cosmetics — in his workshop for another project, and he found that it stopped the squeaking. He quickly got to work developing EcoSheep, a line of eco-friendly bicycle lubricants that he produced at home and sold on Amazon.
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In spring 2016, Hopkins pitched his line of EcoSheep bike lubricants — including Mountain Sheep, Everyday Sheep, Sheep on the Road and Sheep on the Go — to a Walmart buyer at the retailer’s annual open-call event in Bentonville, Ark. He walked away with a deal to sell EcoSheep at 500 stores across the country, and within three months, that number soared to 900.
Soon enough, emails started pouring in from people who were using his bicycle lubricant in their homes, on squeaky doors and other items.
So Hopkins created a line of multipurpose EcoSheep products. At this year’s open-call event in June, he secured a deal with Walmart to sell his new line at 200 stores.
“I was so excited last year to go to open call, and it was the same excitement again this year,” he said. The only difference was that this year, he knew more Walmart lingo going in.
Unlike many competing products — petroleum lubricants with glaring warning labels and numbers to call if it’s ingested — EcoSheep is biodegradable and non-toxic, and it’s designated a USDA BioPreferred and EPA Safer Choice product. The 3.5-ounce cans sell at Walmart for $6.86 each, and $7.99 on Amazon.
Hopkins can’t disclose sales of the bicycle lubricant line since it started selling at Walmart, but said said he is selling tens of thousands of cans this year. He surpassed one year of projected sales in his first month in the discount retailer’s stores.
He also pitched complementary products, including an eco-friendly version of chain cleaner to remove the lubricant, after finding that 10 percent of people use gasoline to clean their chains, even if they do use green lubricants. He also created a bicycle lubricant that can be washed off with a hose.
His products are now collectively being sold at 1,100 Walmart stores nationwide.
He usually wakes up at 5 a.m. and can be up until as late as 2 a.m. working on EcoSheep. Until recently, most of the time was spent manufacturing the product at his home.
“It was getting out of control,” he said. “We were having drums of oil show up, tens of thousands of cans show up, freight trucks were showing up. … Walmart orders and Amazon orders were really taking off, so I was forced to get a warehouse.”
Since May, the company has operated out of that warehouse. Hopkins also works out of a co-working space. He recently outsourced production to a filling company in Ohio, which he says now runs three shifts to meet demand. His most recent order was for 90,000 cans.
Hopkins is looking to hire three people to work at his warehouse, his first employees. Until now, he was filling, labeling and packaging it all himself. Calling it “definitely a family business,” Hopkins said his wife’s special task is tagging each can with a plastic tab so it can be hung from Walmart’s display cases.
Now that another company handles the filling, Hopkins can spend more time getting business, talking to distributors and refining his product.
Consistent with Walmart’s initiative to buy more American-made products, EcoSheep’s cans are made in Connecticut, lids are made in Pennsylvania, and the lanolin comes from an agricultural company in Connecticut.
This year was Walmart’s fourth open-call event, which was created to increase the retailer’s efforts to invest $250 billion in American manufacturing over the course of a decade. The initiative, which is predicted to create 1 million new U.S. jobs, was announced in 2013 in response to criticisms that the retailer wasn’t sourcing enough inside the country.
Walmart spokesman Scott Markley said that this year, more than 500 entrepreneurs from 46 states pitched more than 750 products. Nearly 100 companies landed deals for Walmart store shelves, and every shelf-stable item was offered an opportunity to sell through Walmart.com.
Markley said people can pitch their products to Walmart all year, even outside of open call, through an online application process.