Liz Reitman

5 min | Leadership & Management Musings

Founders in Focus with Liz Picarazzi

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Liz Picarazzi, Founder and CEO of CITIBIN

Liz Reitman: Hello, everyone. I am here with Liz Piccarazzi as part of my founders in Focus series, which is so fun. I love, love having a female owner with us – and a Brooklyn based company. She’s the owner of CITIBIN, which designs and manufactures upscale trash enclosures. And you said lockers, Liz?

Liz Picarazzi: Package lockers. Package delivery lockers.

Liz Reitman: Awesome. And you’ve been in business for twelve years, which is incredible, amazing. As many people know, I have a lot of EO entrepreneur organization individuals that join me, and we’ve met through EO. So welcome.

Liz Picarazzi: Thank you, Liz.

One of the first things I was curious about is what the heck inspired you to create trash collector bins? I know I'm not putting it in a nice way, but it's such an interesting space and I would love to understand what the inspiration was.

Liz Picarazzi: Yeah, well, it’s a good question, because when I was a little girl, I definitely did not envision designing trash enclosures for a living. It actually only kind of occurred to me, you know, really, like only 12/13 years ago. But I used to have a handyman company in New York City called Checklist Home Services, and a lot of my clients had issues with trash, you know, putting trash cans in front of their nice homes, which rats were getting into. So checklists did custom carpentry. And so a very common request was for custom made trash enclosures. So that got me seeing I’m a marketer, too. Customer need, obvious customer need.

Liz Picarazzi: This is welcoming innovation into a space where if someone doesn’t want a rubber made shed and they want something that looks nice, there was an opportunity to create something that both functionally and aesthetic wise was really great. And so we started doing the custom enclosures, which then turned into mass manufacturing over a couple of years. The demand was such that doing the custom fabrication was not sustainable, and we moved into pre-fabricated modular design. And that then evolved into other products relating to outdoor storage, including packaged delivery lockers.

So I'm just curious, as you're designing this, obviously you have to test stuff out. Did you have clients that were giving you feedback? What was that process? I'm always curious of the iterative process because I'm in the design space, not necessarily working specifically with items like that. But, I'm just curious, how you tested it.

Liz Picarazzi: Well, I mean, it really was a blessing that I was in this sort of handyman company business because I had amazing clients that I had become close with. And so with the first few clients that asked for this, I said, you know, honestly, we haven’t done this before, but I’m willing to do this for you, like, at cost, in exchange for you providing feedback on, you know, the features, everything from how it looks to how it works. And so the first three or four trash enclosures were definitely experimenting with many different materials. That was a big thing because we wanted something that was going to be very durable for outdoor use. We used a lot of different materials. Our first few trash enclosures were actually not rat proof. We didn’t know how very important that feature was.

Liz Picarazzi: So that was something that really, we started adding, interior sheathing to make it rat proof. And being rat proof became part of our brand. It wasn’t part of the original design. And then we thought, in New York City, you really can’t have a trash enclosure that is not rat proof, because those rats, they can eat through plastic, they can often eat through metal. So that required a lot of iteration. And then sometimes we would have clients ask for things that we didn’t yet do. We didn’t used to do delivery lockers or mailboxes and now we also do those and storage boxes.

Liz Picarazzi: So the modular approach, which I often kind of compare to, like, a container store alpha system, where you get the components that you need for the needs that you have and the size of the space that you have. And now that’s really what we’ve evolved into, is sort of a plug and play prefab approach. But it all started with those original customers that were willing to take a chance on me and realize that their feedback was so valuable to me that I basically was willing to do the projects at a loss.

Liz Reitman: Liz, I love that. Like, it’s funny. One of my largest first clients was Barnes and Noble College, and they would ask me to do things that I’d never done. And I kind of feel like that’s at the core of an entrepreneur. I thought, I’ll figure it out. I don’t know how to do this, but I’m smart. I have good people in my world, and you also have to have that drive. I love how you pivoted, right? How you, took advantage. You saw a need from your other business, and then were able to make this explode. There’s so much news in New York about this rat czar who’s gonna get control. There is a lot of conversation about, you know, garbage in New York City, rightfully so.

So my first question is, do you know the rats czar. Have you met her? It's a her, right?

Liz Picarazzi: It is a her, yes. I think her name is Kathleen Carrado. I have actually not met her because I’ve been really working more with the sanitation department and then they collaborate with her. I probably should try to reach out to her, but I guess there’s a part of me that sees that some of the plans with sanitation for containerization were developed in conjunction with her, so it would make sense. We haven’t met yet.

Liz Reitman: Well, you know, it’s fun for me. When I’m walking around the city and I see your CITIBIN, I get so excited. I’m think to myself, I know the owner of that! And what’s also fun for me is that the Sanitation Department was my client a number of years ago. We worked with them on a campaign to promote composting in the city and we did a report for them.

So I guess one of my questions is— are you working with the city? And how is that looking? Because I know they’re taling about not putting garbage in bags anymore. I immediately thought this is going to be huge for you.

Liz Picarazzi: Yep, yep.

Liz Picarazzi: So the containerization effort over the last two years has been huge and very aggressive and definitely, you know, at least doubled my business, both with the city, with experimenting with residential trash containerization. So we were part of the original pilot for that. But then the area that kind of became our sweet spot was with business improvement districts. So there’s 76 business improvement districts in New York City and we’re in 25 of them now. So starting with Times Square, our bins are all over Times Square. You know, we’re near Lincoln center, we’re in Tribeca, we’re in Flatiron, and then we’re also moving into public parks and libraries. So public use enclosures that keep the trash that otherwise would be on the sidewalk in a bin. We primarily, at least in New York, are dealing with sort of almost like a corral.

Liz Picarazzi: So the business improvement districts who have sanitation people, like private sanitation people, they go all around the commercial corridor picking up all the trash bags and then they put them in the CITIBIN. And then DSNY comes and collects from there. So there definitely is really close collaboration with DSNY. We’ve gone through many applications for our business improvement districts with DSNY and with the Department of Transportation to get permits or the rights. They don’t call them permits, but it is really. You have to pass through this process that’s called clean curves to be able to put the containers in the street. And that’s the part that’s the most debatable in New York, because New Yorkers don’t want their trash or their parking spaces being taken away. So it’s sort of a trade off, like parking spot or rats.

Liz Picarazzi: Like, which one do you want? A lot of people actually will choose the rats because they want the parking spot. So it really depends on the perspective. They’re calling it now a trash revolution. The sanitation commissioner, Jessica Tisch, is. She’s a machine. I mean, I am so impressed with how she has attacked and analyzed all the trash in the city. They did a year long study just to study the trash and the various ways it could be containerized and coming up with a different approach for each type of trash. So when I first started getting into this, I didn’t really realize that commercial trash was different from residential trash, which is different from commercial restaurants.

Liz Picarazzi: And then you’ll get other categories, you know, compost, which if you worked on some of those efforts, you know about that. But they really have a plan for every type of trash. And by 2026, the goal is for every bag to be containerized. No more black bags on the sidewalks, which anyone would know- that’s going to curb the rat problem. Like, the rats are going to be packing. The rats are going to be pissed.

Liz Reitman: It’s interesting listening to you talk about the whole parking spot. I am that typical New Yorker that gets in her car and does the opposite side parking. But, you know, I think about this is almost comparative to the CITIbikes. And I remember I was pissed. There’s a whole slew of bikes right outside my apartment. We lost, like, eight parking spots. And then we just got used to it—it’s just part of our life, and it makes sense.

I'm wondering, how did you handle the growth? Because it sounds like, this has become such a hot topic, out of nowhere, at least to me. As somebody reading the New York Times or watching the news, I had a feeling it had to have impacted your business. So what do you do when you have this explosion?

Liz Picarazzi: Yeah, so our supply chain, like, our pace of ordering from our factory increased like crazy. Trying to get customers products as fast as the city wanted them was really a challenge because we’re kind of used to working on a cadence, but then to have a spike where not only was the new policy for clean curbs put forth, but the city was providing funding for it. So there was a budget for what they wanted. So it wasn’t like I needed to convince clients, you know, buy a CITIBIN. Cause at that point, I was still kind of the only game in town. We were absolutely right time, right place, but also right product.

Liz Picarazzi: So, yeah, it wasn’t entirely a surprise, because pre-pandemic, there were some articles in the New York Times about sanitation planning for a containerization effort. And I took note of that and thought, if this ever comes back, this initiative, basically, I’m going to pounce on it. And I did. Growing quickly. It was a big adjustment from having residential enclosures that are right in front of people’s homes to public enclosures that are on the street. So, you know, worrying, are they going to be tough enough if they get hit by a car? You know, we’re building with aluminum should we switch to steel? Which is tougher, even, like, the hardware on it, the opening hardware for, like, the latches and the locks, those were all built for residential use, and people are not beating on the residential enclosure.

Liz Picarazzi: So if you think about it, my first market was Park Slope, Brooklyn, primarily, you know, single family homes, where they come and they take their trash out maybe two, three times a week, whereas in the city, they’ve got these big, burly sanitation workers opening, slamming the doors, throwing the bags in, tons of garbage juice, especially in Times Square, being compacted, not by a solar compactor, we don’t have anything like that, but by the volume of the trash itself pushing down, and then all the garbage juice leaking out around. So one great growing pain I can say I had, and I’m kind of past it, but it was really scary as a business owner, was that the New York Post ran an article in the summer of 2022 about the garbage juice coming out of the trash enclosures in Times Square.

Liz Picarazzi: And they had a photo of a really disgusting looking CITIBIN. And I was quoted for the article thinking, I don’t know, maybe I can turn the thought around about it by appearing in the article. I gave them a photo, and then they did a hit piece with my picture in it, which has never happened to me before, and it was really devastating. But what it caused was some innovation around how we handled the garbage juice. I never, ever thought I would be this, an anthropologist looking at the trash juice, trying to figure it out, you know, even trying to tell Times Square, can you sweep around the trash enclosures more often so I don’t look bad, really.

Liz Picarazzi: So to answer your question on that, there needed to be a lot of very fast innovation to upgrade all of those components that needed to be really for public use, and particularly for primarily men working with them and men that are really clocked on the time they spend collecting the trash. So you know, if the city of New York is clocking, how much time do these guys spend tending to the trash? If you suddenly need to open a door where before the men were just picking the bags off the sidewalk, that adds time, which is a pressure on me as the manufacturer to make it faster. So we’ve done a lot of iteration, and it’s so much better.

Liz Picarazzi: But that, too, was something where I had the benefit of having client feedback, and they were very patient with me to make the iterations. That, at the time it was happening, was terrifying for me. You know, my reputation, my ego got really involved, and it forced me to innovate much faster than I’ve ever had to do before.

Wow. That's fascinating about the time involved and how you had to factor that in and I've never heard of trash juice. These are new terms! So we're talking about how men are a big part of this space, of this industry, right? In fact, if I think about the men that come and pick up the garbage in my neighborhood, I don't think I've ever seen a woman. I follow you on social media, you go to some trade shows and events to market your product. Do you see women in this space? Is this a challenge as a female?

Liz Picarazzi: Definitely is a challenge. there’s not a lot of women in waste. There actually is a trade association for women in waste, which is kind of cool. I don’t know, percentage wise, what we are, but based on the trade shows I go to, it’s very small. One thing I’ve noticed is that if I go to a trade show with a couple of my male employees, people that come to the booth, assume that I’m, like, a booth girl, that, you know, a lot of trade shows, they hire women who are at the booth, usually much younger women than me, who are wearing a lot less clothing than me. And so I guess I should have taken it as somewhat flattering. But if they come up to me and say, can I talk to the owner? I find that really offensive, that they wouldn’t assume that I’m the owner. Like, am I surprised? No, I’m not. But it happens a lot, and we find it kind of funny. You know, when someone comes up to my male employees at a trade show and says, can I talk to the owner? And they gesture to me, then there is sort of an incredulous, but also like, a, wow, good for her. Or there might be a little of… Well, a woman, she’s creative. She can come up with this, an assumption that maybe the functional side of it is not going to be one that I understand. But I think it helps me, and I do think there’s not been a lot of innovation in the space. And that has helped me a lot.

Liz Picarazzi: You know, it’s a challenge, and it’s one that I really like, because it’s been pretty easy at this point to distinguish our product from others, because some of the others are not modern. They don’t look good. They often don’t work well. So, yeah, I’m a woman in waste. I sometimes even use that as a hashtag.

Liz Reitman: Oh, my God, I love it. I mean, I know I’ve had that experience. My husband worked with me, and I just remember, here we are in New York City when I opened up a bank account, and the person helping us would only look at him, even though we already defined that I was the owner. And then when they referred to the assistant or the receptionist, she would look at me. And it’s kind of fascinating to me because still, in this day and age, there’s those assumptions or stereotypes. But I love the fact that you’ve got the form and function, like the beauty and the modernization, yet it’s super functional. And you’ve brought both of those in one.

Liz Picarazzi: Well, the other thing that happens with me being a woman is, I don’t know if you know this, but my husband Frank is my COO.

And so people will assume that we started the business together because oftentimes couples start together. That’s not the case. I had my business for eight years before I hired him, and he very much honors me as the founder. There’s no sort of power struggles, but he, too, sees that there is an assumption that we both have the name Picarazzi. Well, who’s in charge here? They’re going to assume it’s him and not me. And I kind of delight in that because it’s nice to surprise people.

Liz Reitman: Yeah, well, what’s that like? I mean, how is that working together? Are you guys talking about CITIBIN twenty four seven – at the dinner table – when you go out? I know, for me, my therapist said, stop talking about REITDESIGN at the dinner table. Your children don’t need to hear about your clients.

Liz Picarazzi: Yeah, no, we. We talk about it a lot. Last night I went to an EO event, and after the event, I actually went to a restaurant where I knew that they would be taking the trash out of the basement to put it, you know, on the curb in bins. And we’re doing a video about restaurant trash. And I was delighted to find, just surprised it wasn’t planned that the, whether you call it b roll, I don’t know what you call it, but I needed footage of a man taking tons of bags out of a basement and taking them to the curb and the physicality of that. So I come home and I’m immediately telling him about this great footage, the exact footage I wanted for the video that’s been in my head for about a year.

Liz Picarazzi: So for me, it’s like I have been waiting for this opportunity to get film of these men taking the trash out of the basement. And he was doing something else. He was unplugged, and he wasn’t very happy with that. So he brought it up with me this morning, like, couldn’t you take the hint? But then I was like, well, you know, baby, I have been talking about this footage that I want. It is really exciting. And then he had to say, you know, we do need to unplug more. But, you know, we work really well together. We have, as any couple, as any colleagues, issues. He’s not really an entrepreneur. He’s more of an operator. I’m the visionary. He’s the implementer, if you think in EOS terms.

Liz Picarazzi: And that plays out in different ways. He does all of the inventory planning, for example. So the ordering, which most of our money goes into inventory. We’re a product business. I’m going to say order more. We’re going to grow, order more, plan for success. And he’s going to say, well, this is basically our money. What if we’re gambling on this and something like the pandemic happens again and we’ve got all this inventory, he’s going to either try to put on the brakes or really he will be more conservative with it, which then, for me, I don’t love, because it often means that our clients wait. So we’re in a position like that right now where most clients are waiting twelve to 14 weeks to get their bins.

Liz Picarazzi: There are a lot of reasons, but a big part of it is due to his conservatism with ordering. And that is the thing that we probably, with work, we argue the most about.

Liz Reitman: But it sounds like it’s such a great balance. I know when I worked with my husband, I loved that he did everything I didn’t want to do or wasn’t good at. And I was so appreciative. He managed the back end of the office, helped with insurance. Like, all that is, la la to me, you know, being an entrepreneur and a creative. I was so appreciative and I saw so much value. So I think that’s wonderful that you guys have such different thinking. And of course, you’re not necessarily going to agree, but even if it wasn’t your husband and you had a different colleague, it’d be the same issues.

Liz Picarazzi: Well, and sometimes what will happen is that I’ll have an instinct on something that will mean I’m going to swing high on. He doesn’t swing high, and he’s not really ever going to swing high. And so if something happens where, like, we don’t order enough, there is a little bit of a feeling with me of he’s kind of learned his lesson because he also does sales. So if he’s got a client complaining about having to wait 14 weeks, he’s going to know. Well, if I had kind of listened to Liz and ordered more than this might not be happening. And then he’s kind of moved over more toward what I would say is preparing for success. In my bad moments, if we’re fighting about it, I’ll say you’re planning for failure. You’re not buying enough because you think we may fail.

As an entrepreneur, you don’t want anyone to think you’re going to fail. And I’ve swung high many times, and it’s worked, and I know it can work. I try not to be super impulsive, but that’s a difference we’re already going to have. And he compliments my skillset, like you say, crap with insurance and tariffs and anything like that. I can’t stand that stuff. And before I had someone working on it, I did a lot of it, or some of it I just neglected completely.

Yeah. Wow. Well, and it sounds like that's amazing that he's in sales. I love that. So then he really is hearing directly from the customer and, you know, obviously is going to start to maybe tweak certain things or try to find that middle road. Okay, my last question for you, I really appreciate this is just ahead, what do you have aspirations or goals for CITIBIN?

Liz Picarazzi: So I’m really excited for nationwide expansion, which we’ve already started. We’re in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Greensboro, and then a big pipeline of other cities. It’s not easy for a city to make a decision on something as big as this. So the sales cycle takes longer than a single family homeowner who just is like, hey, I want my bin next week. I’m going to pay for it, and you install it. So I’m really excited about that expansion and also some of the product development we’re doing around that. So beyond just like, the containerization, we’re also working on the corner litter basket and rethinking that. And, you know, there’s a main player in that space that really has a corner on the market. And I’ve been really excited that we’ve actually taken some business from them.

Liz Picarazzi: That was one of my goals this year, and it’s happening. And I know I sound really aggressive, but I love that. I love that our product is differentiated because we’re able to design this product based on what they’re not doing well, both with product and with service. And that’s really gratifying. And the expansion is fun because we get to go to other cities. We’ve had business in Aspen with bear resistant enclosures that we developed. And that means we traveled there a lot the last couple of years. Multiple times every season. We can go out there and ski, you know, expand the time a little bit. And working with a different market that has different needs for me, is a big part of being an entrepreneur.

You're a disruptor. I love it. I like the fact that you're able to kind of get in there and, it's not even take business from somebody else, but it's disrupting the waste space. Very inspirational, Liz! I'm so excited for you. I had no idea that you were actually in other cities. That's amazing. I really appreciate you being on.

Liz Picarazzi: Thank you. I’m really honored that you asked me. And it’s always great talking to another woman entrepreneur.

CITIBIN was created by serial entrepreneur Liz Picarazzi, who couldn’t find a durable and attractive enclosure for her own trash. She didn’t like the design or limited durability of plastic, wood, and metal trash enclosures on the market, so she created her own. CITIBIN became a neighborhood sensation, and what started as a pet project in the backyard is now a national brand that designs and manufactures outdoor storage solutions for trash, recycling, packages, strollers, bikes & more.