Small Business

Taking on the giants: a bottler of an idea for the greater good

A group of young social entrepreneurs is taking on the giants of Australia’s $600 million bottled water industry for a good cause: fresh, safe water for countries in need. Marcella Bidinost speaks to Thankyou Water founder Daniel Flynn.

“When you think about it, bottled water is kind of stupid, especially in Australia where you can still get water virtually free from a tap,” says Daniel Flynn, 23-year-old head of social enterprise Thankyou Water, which produces 600ml bottles of water.

'If the idea is good, the money will come'

We talk to social entrepreneur Daniel Flynn, founder of Thankyou Water, about solving the water crisis, drop by drop.

It seems a daft thing to say for someone who’s hell-bent on seeing his water in every Australian retail fridge possible, but that’s the point: Flynn is a Robin Hood of Australian bottled water. His priority is selling Thankyou Water as an alternative to major drink company bottles, so any profits can directly fund water projects in developing countries.

“Of course, it’s far more effective to donate directly to charities that fund water projects but if you have to buy a bottle of water, Thankyou Water is a conscious alternative,’’ Flynn (pictured above) says.

‘‘Each bottle’s profits provide a month’s worth of drinking water to someone in need rather than simply boosting big companies’ profits.”

Read last week's story: Meaty idea makes millions for ex-Wall Street banker

For the first three years, Flynn, his co-directors Jarryd Burns, 23, wife Justine Flynn, 25, and their 13-strong team of volunteers worked without pay to get Thankyou Water off the ground. For his efforts, Flynn was named a Victorian finalist for the 2012 Young Australian of the Year.

But it hasn’t all been water and skittles. The team has come up against bottled water giants whose clout and whopping marketing budgets are lapped up by major retailers. Going into battle was the last thing Flynn wanted; he just wanted the major stockists to “get it”, but that hasn’t come easily.

Despite some major setbacks, Thankyou Water now has more than 2000 stockists nationwide, including 7-Eleven, Australia Post, Provender vending machines and independent cafes.

In December, Thankyou Water reached a monthly peak of 220,000 sales. Depending on the retailer, each bottle’s profit ranges from 8.5 cents to $1.20 with totals donated quarterly to water projects in Cambodia (pictured below), Kenya, Uganda and India.

Flynn started Thankyou Water in 2009, after seeing a video of a man his age living in sub-Saharan Africa whose life was jeopardised by poor-quality water.

“They say boys don’t cry but I sure did,” Flynn says. “I couldn’t imagine spending a whole day to collect water, only to discover that the quality of what I’d collected was so poor that it could kill my family. At that point I felt I had to do something.”

Flynn was just 19 and completing the first year of a project management degree at Melbourne’s RMIT. He knew nothing about starting a business and was told he’d need at least $250,000 to start the social enterprise.

“That was interesting because between the three of us, we had a net worth of $1000.”

Still, wearing their parents’ suits and removing the P plates from their car before each meeting, the trio visited bottling factories around Victoria.

“When we got to the fifth factory and shared our vision, the manager told us he’d been in the water bottling business for 15 years and thought bottling water was stupid, yet he agreed to produce our first 100,000 bottles, saying we could pay the cost of the goods when we could.”

They next met the CEO of Visy who, several weeks later, agreed to donate 30,000 bottles and the use of bottle moulding equipment worth about $160,000.

“We’ve since adopted a new bottle shape and reduced each bottle’s plastic use by 38 per cent,” Flynn says. “Each Thankyou Water bottle weighs 12.5 grams, which is about half the weight of others.”

Then came their first distributor, which offered to transport their first 50,000 bottles. By that point, revised start-up costs amounted to $20,000.

When Flynn’s business mentor asked how his “little water project” was coming along, he was so impressed by Flynn’s response that he and his business partner handed over $20,000 as a congratulatory gift.

“That closed the gap, but the challenges didn’t stop there,” says Flynn.

He had to recall Thankyou Water’s first order because one-third of the bottle labels were damaged. Six months later, the factory stopped supplying for five weeks.

“We lost 300 of our 350 stockists, including our Queensland distributor, who’d just got us into 80 outlets. The distributor completely lost confidence in us, telling us ‘you’re just kids; you don’t know what you’re doing’. It felt like the whole thing was crumbling.”

Another major blow came after spending 18 months pitching to one of Australia’s major supermarket chains. “They told us ‘Congratulations you’re in’ and we were high-fiving them, it was great. Then, two weeks later, a new buyer replaced the one we’d been dealing with and didn’t want a bar of us.

“We also almost had another even bigger retailer, but at the last minute another brand of water came and did a knockout deal, which meant the retailer could no longer talk to us.

“Basically, there were lots of times when we thought, ‘This sucks, why keep doing it?’. But it was just that – the why – that’s kept us going.”

Lifting the lid: Flynn’s five tips for entrepreneurs

1. Impossibility' is someone’s opinion, not a fact
We were told many times that without millions of dollars behind us, we would never do it. Nearly without a cent to our name we were able to launch what many saw was impossible.

2. I've heard it said that success can be defined as the ability to turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones
We have had setback after setback and at many times felt like giving up. What we didn't realise was that each setback made us so much stronger and refined what we did. Without them we would not be where we are today.

3. Teamwork makes the dream work
Without a good team around an idea it's almost impossible to push through the hurdles and get where you need to go.

4. Momentum is everything
It's not easy but get momentum and keep momentum.

5. Don't let your age or money hold you back
Too many people say they’ll wait until they’re old enough or have enough money until they start. If we’d waited we’d be 50 and still saving to cover the start-up costs.

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