Turning a ‘concrete’ idea into a business: catching up with Master of Science in Entrepreneurship alum Zachary Dodds

MS in Entrepreneurship alumni, Zachary Dodds, had been thinking about the concept of working with artists in concrete for a couple of years.

Zach Dodds and Keisha Credit, co-founders of Paca y Paca

Just after graduation in June 2019, Zach and co-founder Keisha Credit founded Paca y Paca (pronounced pah-kuh yih pah-kuh), a refillable artisan candle company that specializes in concrete holders and luxury scents. The name pays homage to the folktales of the Southwest region where Zach’s family roots go back 150 years. “The word has a crazy amount of meanings for it within the Spanish language. It came out as something that sounded fun, but was also actually meaningful,” Zach shared. Fun and meaningful are good descriptions of the type of product that Zach has launched with Paca y Paca.

Humble but Grand Beginnings

Paca y Paca was an idea brought to fruition during Zach’s time at the MS in Entrepreneurship program at the University of Washington, although it was not his first business venture. Like many entrepreneurs, Zach’s business inklings started early, his in particular at the age of four. “So my story is basically that I tried to draw comic books,” he shares, and caveats, “but I was horrible at it.” His entrepreneurial spirit continued throughout his childhood. At the age of ten, he recreated cooling neckties filled with gel beads meant to keep you cool in the brutal hot months of summer in Scottsdale, Arizona, Zach’s hometown. From the ages of 14 to 28, he pursued music, professionally. “That was probably my first actual business,” he recalls. “We were going out and meeting with venue owners, selling tickets, talking to producers, and paying the money to make, record, and sell records.” Although music was a passion of his, Zach realized that he didn’t necessarily have the momentum to keep going with music, so he quit.

Luckily, by this time, Zach realized he had a knack for business, so instead of entering a traditional workforce he started a company…and then another. His first venture was a sticker company that in its prime made $1,000 a day, after going viral. His second company was an automation program that compiled visual data and pure data into an infographic video to be uploaded and tagged on YouTube. He made over 30,000 videos in under two years. It was the success of these companies and self-reflection that led Zach to seriously consider the MS in Entrepreneurship.

Leaning Into the MS in Entrepreneurship Program

Zach had some challenges to address as an entrepreneur. “I knew I had a gap in my knowledge of finance because with both of my small businesses and in the music business, I always had cash flow issues,” he reflected. “I think there’s natural cash flow issues, and then there’s cash flow issues where you’re thinking, ‘I should have known about this six months ago.’” From his sticker company, Zach knew he had the talent and knowledge to launch a six-figure company, but thinking ahead, he wondered if this knowledge was enough to launch a seven-figure company. In the end, he decided it wasn’t. “I knew I was going to keep doing this for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what businesses I would launch over the course of the next 50 years, but I didn’t want them to be limited by this lack of knowledge.” With this reasoning, Zach decided the MS in Entrepreneurship was a good investment of time and money.

Zach stands behind his decision to attend the MS in Entrepreneurship program. When asked about notable people or projects that helped him on his journey, he has trouble answering. “There are so many characters who have been so helpful. It’s almost like talking about the NBA and asking, ‘Who in the NBA do you think is good at basketball?’ Well, they’re all really good at basketball because they wouldn’t be in the NBA if they weren’t.” He also shares how faculty, classmates, and business competitions have aided his education and journey with Paca y Paca. “There’s a few classmates who were really skilled in specific areas. For example, one of them is really experienced in patent law, the whole patent process, and how it looks within the context of VC investment. So he’s really helpful. And I know other friends who are really insightful about user interface and the list goes on.” Zach also mentions the access to the VC community. “I don’t necessarily view them as courting us for investment, but it’s been really valuable to learn about that entire ecosystem and have a friendly experience with the VC community.” One of the skills he’s found to have a compounding effect has been the art of pitching. “I had no clue how complex it is to make a good pitch, especially with ideas that are more complex themselves. It’s difficult to take a massive idea and distill it down to five words. It helps you communicate with people and that has this cumulative effect of networking, getting people to dial into your business, and helping you out, in ways that wouldn’t be possible without the skill of distilling your business into a few sentences.”

The pitching skills Zach developed in the MS in Entrepreneurship certainly had a great outcome for Paca y Paca. It is how Zach reeled in his co-founder, Keisha. Part of the curriculum is designed to have students pitch their ideas to guests at the end of the year. Keisha was one such guest. “Keisha came up to me after my pitch and said, ‘I think this is an amazing idea!’ We talked some more about the product, I explained I was still trying to get it off the ground, and she wanted to help.” They met up again a few weeks later and eventually became partners. “I think it’s been a really good growing opportunity for both of us. We were both solo entrepreneurs before this, so we’re learning how much extra work it takes to just communicate.” Despite the extra work it takes to communicate, Zach appreciates the skills his partner brings to the table. “She’s able to dial into the storytelling element and to connect with broad audiences better than I can. She also understands social media and messaging really well. And me, I’ve always done niche products. So basically, she’s doing sales and marketing, and I’m doing product and manufacturing.”

Paca y paca products in process

Going From Concept to Launch

It’s been 15 months since Zach toyed with the idea of concrete planters in Professor Emily Pahnke’s Opportunity Recognition and Validation class. “She has this ‘get out of the building’ methodology where you go and interview people for market research, and that’s where my idea morphed from planters to candles. I had interviewed a handful of people about the planters,” he explains, “and I could tell from the feedback I was getting that the idea was okay, but not substantial.” Zach attributed his background in the music business as a skill that helped him read people better, as they answered questions. It’s what led him to the insight that he should change his idea. “One of the questions I asked was ‘If this [concrete planter] was filled with a wax candle, would you be interested in buying it as well?’ The question seemed to make people light up in really genuine way, and so I switched. I knew it was a product that would help sell itself. And so, Paca y Paca was born.”

The product has proven to be increasingly complex, which is a pivot from the simplicity with which the idea was born. “The data said people loved the idea so I moved forward, but on the back end, I didn’t think through executing the idea. Overall, I just super underestimated the complexity of this entire product.” Zach found that working with concrete was a lot more difficult than he anticipated. “The manufacturing is really toxic, and there’s a lot of health aspects to it,” he explained. Zach came across issues he had never anticipated such as possible heightened exposure to chemicals, waste disposal complications, and barriers to production. On the latter, he shares a detailed intricate example. He describes how he spent two weeks diving into the molecular shape of coatings–gloss vs. matte, what distracts from the product design vs. what adds to it, what’s resilient to scratches and breaks vs. what’s not. “It’s just been crazy. I’m absolutely maxed out in my intelligence levels. Every single thing is complex. There are all these intricacies to it. I had no clue some of these things were issues when we started,” he says adding, “And there is a lot of stuff we’re developing that is insanely proprietary, like with manufacturing.”

Taking Advantage of MS in Entrepreneurship Resources

Where many entrepreneurs build franchises off traditional business models, Zach has had to innovate for much of the way. “It’s been really interesting for me to now be out of the program and realize how extremely different ‘DIY organic growth entrepreneurship’ is versus a ‘high-speed investment entrepreneurship’. There are even more unknowns. It’s constant innovation and it’s much harder.” He jokes that he should’ve started a T-shirt business instead.

Though Zach jokes about taking on an easier business venture, the fact of the matter is that he is very well equipped for the complexities of his current venture. Zach holds a biomedical engineering undergraduate degree. Because of it, he is able to get into a workshop and build things, an advantage that not many entrepreneurs have. “We have a small workshop. It’s like 500 square feet and it’s mostly a ridiculous amount of custom tooling that we’ve made through 3D printing.” Zach learned 3D printing through UW’s The Mill, a hands-on workspace open to all students at the University. “I was there almost every single day for a year. It has every single tool you would need to make anything.” His workshop now has many custom tools that he has made with his own two hands, with the 3D printing skills he learned at UW.

The Future of Paca y Paca

Despite the hardships, Zach is passionate about his business and proud of the momentum they’ve built thus far. “There are a few people, maybe three or four people in the world, who are doing really cool stuff with artisan concrete right now. They inspired me to get in on the ground level of what they call decorative concrete, I think. There’s so much research on concrete for building structures, but as far as using concrete for its textural and aesthetic purposes, that’s somewhat recent.” Zach shares that concrete is becoming more of an intentional pop in architectural decorative touches in homes and offices (like with exposed concrete walls), but seeing it in products like candles is new. He predicts the trend will stick around in the future.

Paca y paca candles

As of this interview, Paca y Paca has sold out pre-orders within 24 hours of the pre-launch, but has yet to officially launch. Still, like a true entrepreneur, Zach is already thinking ahead. He is considering expanding both the product line and the business model. “We may possibly, eventually, do a ceramic version because it’s easier to scale up that business and there’s other people who might love a ceramic version with different kinds of texture and coloring. We are also looking at scented cards to sample.” He is also building out a business plan that revolves around a subscription service for their candles. Given the initial success of Paca y Paca, the possibilities are endless.

Alumni Questions

Okay, so the first one is, what is your favorite app?

I have a dumb phone that I use. Really, one of mine broke and it was really hard to find a replacement. I have a smartphone to test the website and access the business side of things, but for my personal use, I felt like the internet was already distracting enough so I never upgraded.

What is the most likely place to find you brainstorming good ideas or bad ideas?

Oh, the shower. I don’t know why, but that’s just always been where I have eureka moments.

Finish this sentence, my workspace is not complete without…

A calculator.

And, the best medium to get your entrepreneurial news fix…

I’m subscribed to Medium now. But, it’s just a conglomeration of everything.