Malte Niebelschuetz, the founder and CEO of innovative toy company, Shore Buddies, makes stuffed animals from recycled plastic bottles to educate children about the importance of keeping plastic waste out of our oceans.
When Malte Niebelschuetz left his native Germany in 2010 to come to sunny San Diego, he embraced beach life. Coming from his landlocked hometown of Kassel, Germany, he didn’t grow up around the ocean, but his parents loved to vacation by the sea every summer in Croatia or southern France. Those summers instilled a fondness in Malte for the sea, and as he says “the ocean was always kind of a dream location for me.”
The ocean convinced Malte to make California his new home, but it also inspired his entrepreneurship journey. One day, while eating at an oceanside restaurant at Pacific Beach in San Diego, Malte saw a group of people combing the beach, picking up stuff. “I was wondering what [they] were doing,” he recalls. “The waiter explained to me that it was a beach cleanup.”
A beach cleanup is when a group of citizens volunteer to clean up the beach by picking up plastic trash left behind by other beachgoers. Malte didn’t expect all the litter on the beach when he made his move to San Diego, and at the time he knew little about how plastic pollution on the beach and in the ocean was endangering marine life.
Having an inquisitive and socially conscious mind, Malte immediately began researching the environmental impact of plastic pollution on the beaches. What he learned, moved him to act.
“Every year, more than one million marine animals die [due] to plastic pollution,” Malte says. “They die in the most painful way, with their bellies full of plastic.”
Plastic to plush
During his research, Malte read an article about a sports apparel company that was making clothing out of recycled plastic. That got Malte wondering: what else could be made from recycled plastic? Given his love for the ocean, keeping plastic waste out of the ocean became a priority for him, along with creating a socially conscious business. That’s when the idea of making stuffed animals out of recycled plastic bottles came to him.
Malte believes real change can happen if we start teaching our kids at an early age about the need for reducing plastic waste. So, he set out to create a product that not only reuses plastic but educates kids through play.
His first challenge was to create a prototype of his innovative idea. So, Malte turned to the internet to research how stuffed animals are designed and what it takes to create them out of recycled plastic.
“I have no background in toy or stuffed animal design,” he says. “After finding a designer, the next step really was finding the right manufacturing partners who were open to that idea to use new concepts; to use recycled material to create a toy.”
Malte launched his brand Shore Buddies in 2014. The recycling process to make Shore Buddies toys starts by turning plastic bottles into pellets, which are then melted and spun into fabric that “looks a little bit like cotton-candy,” as Malte says. Then, that fabric gets turned into yarn and is made into a cloth to create the stuffed animals. “It takes six plastic bottles to make one Shore Buddies,” Malte says.
I am a big believer that we can only turn the tide around if we have a generational change.
Turning the tide
One of the most pivotal moments for Shore Buddies—and when Malte knew he was really onto something—was when he saw kids get excited about the stuffed animals, and helping them learn about reducing plastic waste at an early age. “I am a big believer that we can only turn the tide around if we have a generational change.” Malte says.
Shore Buddies began selling in Amazon’s store in 2020, and Malte says it’s helped with brand recognition and credibility. It also created repeat customers for Shore Buddies. “Customers who found us in retail stores are buying Shore Buddies from Amazon; and [sometimes ordering] additional Shore Buddies after they got their first one.”
In 2021, Shore Buddies was selected as one of the finalists for the Toy of the Year award by the US Toy Association. Later that year, Shore Buddies was also selected to receive the Amazon Launchpad Innovation Grant.
Like most small business owners, Malte’s entrepreneurial journey has been filled with big moments. Malte shares three things that helped him overcome challenges while launching Shore Buddies.
1. One step at a time
Malte learned early on to take things one step at a time, instead of solving everything and expecting big results right away. “There are always many challenges,” Malte says. “I learned once you see a big mountain in front of you, don’t focus on the top, [on] how you get there.” Instead, focus on the first step and tackle the journey one step at a time.
2. Develop a resilience muscle
When your product is innovative, there will be many people along the way that question your ideas. You have to be able to demonstrate the merits of your idea and not give up. “When everyone says, ‘No, that’s not going to work,’ you have to be the one to keep on going.”
3. Execute on ideas
It’s not enough to just think of new ideas. It’s important to follow through on your ideas and do the hard work to turn your idea into a product, especially if it is innovative. “When you have an idea, you have to execute,” he says. “You owe it to the people, it benefits people. It’s your job as a founder, as an entrepreneur, as a business owner to get recognized in this world.”
Small Business, Big Moments is our new series, where we talk to Amazon selling partners about overcoming challenges and learning lessons in their entrepreneurial journey.