Case Study: Bigbelly

Topline Helps Bigbelly Expand Product Line To Grow Sales

CLICK HERE  or the image above to view an interview with Brian Phillips, CEO of Bigbelly.


Twenty years ago, the trash bin industry was a dirty business.

It usually involved open trash cans, which filled up and, often, spilled because of vermin or because they were overturned or overloaded. Then they would be picked up by garbage men – sometimes as many as six times per day in high-traffic areas – using big trucks that got two miles to the gallon.

“The whole concept was that public-space waste is really inefficient,” said Brian Phillips, CEO of smart waste and recycling company, Bigbelly. “Pretty soon the costs really start to add up.”

In 2003, Bigbelly’s founders brought innovation to the garbage bin space, designing the world’s first closed and secure, solar-powered, compactor-enabled garbage bin. These smart waste and recycling bins could leverage the compactor to dramatically increase trash capacity while keeping the surrounding environment clean. In addition to improving overall cleanliness, this design also allowed cities to reduce garbage pickups and landfill space.

Eventually, the company refined the product even further, integrating telematics that would let local governments know when the bin was full, reducing required pickups even further.

Taking Stock

The company was operating in a niche, smart-waste-and-recycling space. Still, Bigbelly’s product seemed to be showing up everywhere – all over Manhattan, Philadelphia, in major sporting arenas, and even at Trinity College in Dublin. On the back of these high-profile sales, the company saw a steady increase of market share through the end of 2019, when private equity investors came on board.

That investment was a major milestone for Bigbelly, and a validation that Bigbelly had become a world leader in smart waste and recycling.

To be sure, these solar-powered, heavy-duty, telematic-enabled trashcans didn’t come cheap. They cost four-figures dollars – a high multiple on the few-hundred-dollar price tag for a regular, city garbage receptacle. And there were many municipalities that did not need all the capabilities that these top-of-the-line bins offered.

While the company had started rolling out trash cans without telematics or built-in compactors, they were still considered a pricier option than regular trash cans, which led to some municipalities buying once, and never again, or buying never.

“There were only certain customers who were looking for a smart-waste or solar-compactor company,” said Phillips. “We realized that we needed to find new avenues for growth outside of where we typically operated.”

By late 2019, Bigbelly sales had begun to slow. Management realized that it would need to leverage the additional capital from the private equity investment to explore new strategies for growth.

By early 2020, the situation had degraded further, as municipalities were wrestling with the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. For Bigbelly, that meant many of their clients were budget constrained, and switching focus away from managing outdoor spaces that were not being used.

Knowing What It Didn’t Know

As Bigbelly sought out new sales opportunities, management realized it knew a lot about the smart waste and recycling business, but not enough about its customers.

“When we spoke to our own clients, we got excellent feedback from repeat buyers, but incomplete feedback from those who were not regularly buying more,” said Phillips.

Bigbelly needed to get to the bottom of those inconsistent results. But that wasn’t going to be as easy as sending out a customer survey.

To get those insights, Bigbelly started looking for a consulting partner in mid-2021.

After meeting with a large number of consulting firms ranging from sole-proprietorships to the Big Five, Bigbelly realized that size was an important factor.

“We’re not huge, so we weren’t going to be an important enough client for one of the massive consulting companies,” said Phillips. “At the same time, we were too big for a one-person shop.”

A Goldilocks Firm and Methodology

From the perspective of client- and firm-size, Topline was a perfect fit – not too big, not too small.

Topline also had a methodology that would allow the company to partner effectively on recommendations, and to know what was going on with the engagement before the final recommendations came in.

“We didn’t want to end up with a process where the consulting firm went away and came back with an answer many weeks later without a lot of check-ins,” said Phillips. “What we really liked is that we would have weekly check-ins where there would be reporting all the way through.”

Topline provided a process where there was clear, frequent, and regular communications from the beginning, which allowed everyone to know what everyone else was working on, set clear deadlines, and make sure that everyone had the information that they needed to succeed.

“It was an agile process, similar to what you would see in engineering,” said Phillips. “That worked really well and made us feel like we were in sync all the way through.”

After a rigorous analysis of the market landscape and existing clients, Topline was able to ascertain that most customers appreciated the innovation of Bigbelly’s flagship product but didn’t need all that innovation for every trash bin it purchased… or the high price.

New products, pricing, approaches

Topline’s key recommendation was the need for Bigbelly to expand its portfolio, to provide more tailored solutions for its existing customer base and new markets.

“The company was originally reaching only a small part of its current market segment but through Topline’s research we realized that we could expand our total available market substantially,” said Phillips.

The underpinning of the new strategy is to look at municipalities’ needs beyond a single product. A park’s department might want to have a single, compactor, and telematic-enabled machine in one location, and might need other, less advanced but fully enclosed bins elsewhere.

“A lot of what we learned through this process is that we needed to be a complete waste solution for public spaces,” said Phillips. “That was a big change for us.”

As a result of the Topline Strategy research, Bigbelly discovered that they can substantially expand sales, and sell more to existing clients, by creating “light” versions of their existing products.

Confidence to Change

It’s always expensive to develop products or features and then test them in the marketplace but the stakes are even higher with physically manufactured products.

“The work with Topline allowed the company to get a clear sense of demand before we started building new products,” said Phillips. “The Topline research really gave us the confidence to expand our portfolio. This allowed us to expand the markets we could serve, and lower prices. There were a number of markets in the public waste space that we really couldn’t get to with the products and pricing that we had.”

The growth story at Bigbelly isn’t just about selling more products after a price-cut, or developing an entry-level product line. The company is now selling more of its top-of-the-line products as well, as municipalities used the lower average price across all products as a reason to buy across the line.

“We’re basically doubling our product portfolio,” said Phillips. “We were selling super high-end solar and e-trash compactors but there was a huge market for more basic, enclosed trash containers at a quarter of the price that we had historically overlooked.

Topline Strategy

Topline Strategy is a boutique consulting firm that specializes in growth strategy for Business to Business Technology and Innovative Healthcare businesses and their investors. Our clients range from core IT infrastructure companies to technology-enabled business services. Since 2001, we have completed hundreds of engagements for companies ranging from start ups to Fortune 500 companies. Our work has enabled our clients to generate hundreds of millions to billions in new revenue and market capitalization.

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