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How to Sell High-Performance Building Products to Builders

Innovative, high-performance building materials can be difficult to market and sell. This week’s guest not only has a brand new, innovative product, but one that’s high-performance and sustainable. He talks to Zach about how he’s been able to market and sell this innovation to builders.

Photo of Zach Williams
Photo of Beth PopNikolov
by Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov

More About This Episode

The Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast helps industry professionals find better ways to grow leads, sales and outperform the competition. It’s designed to give insights on how to create a results-driven digital marketing strategy for companies of any size.

Josh Dorfman is the CEO and co-founder of Plantd, a company dedicated to making carbon-negative building materials. He talks with Zach about the difficulties in marketing high-performance, innovative products to builders and how manufacturers can overcome those challenges.

Meet Josh

Josh has focused the majority of his career on the intersection of sustainability and business. In fact, he created not one but two sustainable furniture companies.

The first was headquartered in New York and focused on furniture design using reclaimed, recycled and responsibly harvested materials. That company led to a (now ended) radio and television show called The Lazy Environmentalist, where Josh would travel the country — “America helping lazy Americans go green in ways that fit their lifestyles.”

The second was headquartered in North Carolina, where he focused on domestic manufacturing in order to strengthen and shorten supply chains. It was going well — and then COVID struck. Demand didn’t die out, but his supply chain did, and he couldn’t get material to fill that demand. “It really got me thinking about a bigger opportunity around materials to drive the values that I care about around sustainability and really push that mainstream,” says Josh.

That’s when he met Huade Tan, now CTO of Plantd, who spent seven years leading the team at SpaceX that designed the life support systems for the Dragon spacecraft. Tan introduced him to Nathan Silvernail, the build engineer on Tan’s team.

“We came together and said, ‘Is there a way to rapidly remove carbon from the atmosphere and turn it into useful durable materials in order to lock that carbon away?’ Could we identify a biomass, a micro way faster than trees through natural photosynthesis, just absorb more carbon? Could we design a new kind of factory and new mill, so to speak, to actually then take whatever that biomass is, turn it into something, and could we create a material that would delight builders in the process?” explains Josh. From those conversations, Plantd was created.

Plantd’s Revolutionary Product

Plantd’s goal is to create high-performance structural building materials through a full value chain approach. In plain words, they are contracting with farmers to cultivate a fast-growing, tall perennial grass that looks like a combination of bamboo and sugarcane for its fiber strength.

At the time of recording, they are designing a new production line factory that is 100 percent electrically powered, unlike many OSB and plywood factories that run off of smokestacks. Instead, it’s a much smaller and more modular line that is so environmentally friendly, it could be built directly next to a residential development.

And because the production line is so modular, they are able to produce a 7/16th inch, 4x8 sheet for structural sheathing, while also producing a 3/4 inch subfloor on the next line over, while also making 1.5-inch thick engineered lumber — all in the same factory at the same time. “It just gives us incredible flexibility,” says Josh.

This new material is twice as moisture resistant as standard OSB and 1.5 times stronger. 80 percent of the carbon that is captured on the farms growing the grass goes out the door in the panels. Essentially, they’ve created a higher-performance product for builders to use in homes that also removes carbon from the atmosphere and locks it away.

“We're excited to partner with home builders and come up with this very innovative climate change solution that turns new homes into front-line solutions for solving one of the biggest challenges of our time,” says Josh.

221 Plantds Revolutionary Product

Challenges of Selling High-Performance Products

Plantd isn’t just trying to sell a high-performance product — they’re trying to introduce a brand new structural product into the industry. That comes with its own set of challenges on top of the high-performance ones.

The first question they get from builders is always about price. Plantd has been designed to ensure they can compete with commodity products. Then, the question becomes performance.

“We're able to say to a builder, ‘Look, we're not selling you on sustainability — we're selling you on a higher performance material that can replace what you're using right now,’ and that has resonance,” says Josh.

To get builders to change their purchase behaviors, it’s not enough to say you have a sustainable product at a good price. You have to give them the full picture because change is hard. You have to give them sustainability, price and performance.

The message they are using to open the door with builders is being a carbon-negative panel. “The novelty that people are grasping when they encounter Plantd is that we're doing something really unique from a sustainability perspective. So that's our way in, and then we talk about performance.”

Then they can go into the fact that they own their entire supply chain, which means their price does not have to fluctuate with the commodity market. It’s an incredible value prop to be able to tell builders that they’ll get a consistent price they can plan around. Josh discovered that price fluctuation is a huge pain point for builders.

Educating Customers on Innovative Products

While converting builders who are already green-minded is an easier conversation, converting large publicly-traded builders who interact with private investors questioning them around climate change is more difficult. Josh’s team has to educate these builders on the benefits and performance of their sustainable product.

“Introducing something that's novel is often about connecting builders into our process, connecting them into our factory of the future, showing them the technology,” explains Josh. Whenever possible, they try to get people into the actual factory located in North Carolina. Then, they put out samples that have been put under swelling tests, along with commodity and premium competitor products, so they can literally see how this new product will solve their pain on the job site.

“As a young company, we really have to bring them into our process to get them excited about the future that we want to build with them. That's the best way that we can sell.”

However, not everyone can travel to the factory. So Plantd is trying to figure out how to take the in-factory experience on the road for the people who can’t come to Plantd. “We can do it in a presentation, and that has an impact. But when you really see it, it is a kind of a wow moment,” says Josh. So how can they recreate that in a moveable format?

Want Even More Insight?

Josh leaves us with one piece of advice on how to market high-performance products — get creative in your digital marketing, have a robust online presence and most importantly, have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

“Do some things that will capture people's attention in unique ways that you can show your performance that is kind of culturally interesting, too.” The more you can show them how the sausage is made, the more they connect to your brand and your process.

To learn more about marketing high-performance products, listen to the entire episode here. You can reach out to Josh at [email protected].

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