Social enterprise making a splash
Money may not grow on trees, but water certainly falls from the sky.
Go back not all that long ago, and the concept of paying $3+ for a small plastic bottle of water would have prompted gasps at the sheer audacity of such a ‘product’.
In a country with fresh, clean, running water available to everyone – it simply defies logic, but the bottled water sector in Australia is now worth some $710 million, and growing rapidly. Indeed an August 2014 report into Bottled Water Manufacturing from IBISWorld forecasted industry revenue for 2014-15 to grow at a rate of 5 per cent.
Growth is buoyed by an ongoing consumer desire for healthy, convenient beverages, yet at the same time, (and as noted in the report) the industry also faces downward pressure from consumers’ increased focus on its environmental footprint.
It is here – at this precise sweet spot – that one can understand how Thank You Group has not only entered the beverages market, but made a splash.
In 2008 the three co-founders of Thank You Group, Daniel Flynn, Justine Flynn, and Jarryd Burns, decided to see how far they could take an audacious plan to exploit the bottled water fad, and use the profits to fund water projects in developing nations.
As a then 19 year old, Daniel tells Dynamic Business that happening upon a startling statistic – that 900 million people don’t have access to safe drinking water – was a pivotal moment in his life.
“At the time I was studying Project Management, and I was just planning on finishing uni and getting into business somewhere. But I started to become more and more aware of global poverty versus consumerism, and back then just in doing some research I started to click into the fact that we have 23 million people in Australia, and I just realised: how could 900 million people still not have access to clean drinking water?” Daniel says.
“The stats say that 4,500 children die everyday from water born disease – some of those kids are spending half a day or even a full day walking to collect water for their family. I guess knowing that people were stuck in this situation while I’m in Australia just doing my thing and making future plans, was something that got me uncomfortable enough to have a conversation with Jarrod and Justine and a couple of others.”
“We thought, we spend millions of dollars a year in Australia every year on bottled water, and it’s all so silly! But what’s even sillier than bottled water though, is millions of people still stuck in this cycle of extreme poverty. So we thought, why not give people a choice – and so when you’re out and about, you’re also doing a bit to fund water projects overseas.
The wheels were in motion, and looking back Daniel laughs at how little they about the industry. After literally typing ‘how to start a company’ into Google, it wasn’t long before they found themselves with a plan of attack, and meetings lined up with the biggest beverage distributors in the country.
“These companies were talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars – and to be honest we were just bluffing our way through it. We even took our parents along to some of these meetings to make us seem more credible! We were writing down every acronym they ever said and thought we need to learn whatever the heck that is!
A surprise order from a major distributor for 50,000 bottles of water launched Thank You Group into the market, and a number of retailers signed on to stock the product.
But this early win also marked the beginning of a very difficult 3 years, replete with a product recall, distributor issues, factory and retail issues, people committing and then pulling out, and a struggle to get it into the mainstream.
“There were so many times we thought ‘Look, it’s just not going to work’” Daniel reflects. “But we stayed motivated as a team, and we all fundamentally knew why we were doing it, and we knew that if we could persevere and find a way to make it work – it wasn’t just going to help a few people, it was going to have ripple effects for hundreds of thousands of people.”
Even by the third year the group was still not hitting the figures they envisioned, but it proved to be a tipping point. “The next year we hit $156,000 – the year after that was $400,000 – and the year just gone was $850,000 – so the impact of that is not just felt by a few people, but around 90,000 people who now have access to safe and clean drinking water,” Daniel says.
The group partners with the likes of Oxfam and World Vision, but works on a project-based model, which means any group can submit a proposal for funding.
As a disposable water brand though, a key issue is the plastic used for its production, and the environmental impact of such a product. To this end, Daniel says the company is making good progress towards using 100% recycled plastic, and has switched to a European bottling process, which got rid of wasting water during manufacturing, and reduced the amount of plastic significantly.
“Essentially, we exist to take on a market that already exists. Our position is, if you don’t buy bottled water – don’t buy Thank You water. But at the same time, as a responsible business we need to take on as many responsible measures as we can,” Daniel says.
Having now diversified into a broader range of products, including muesli to fund food projects, and hand and body wash for sanitation and hygiene projects – Daniel says being able to ‘prove’ their impact is paramount, and that it’s not serving the customer to just expect people to trust that the money is making it to a good cause.
“I think we’re all a bit over that, and it’s like ‘well where’s the proof? So we developed ‘track your impact’ – even the hand wash has its own unique tracker code. You type that into our website, and through our system it zooms into the exact GPS coordinates of the project your item is assigned to fund. Then you can sign up, and in 6-12 months later you can receive photos and info as proof of that project.
The issue of ‘Western aid’ is also one not lost on Thank You Group, and they see their social enterprise as fulfilling more than just donating short-term funds.
“We certainly don’t see ourselves as ‘saviors’ from the West. To be able to fund projects initially is a great thing, but our team is committed to sustainable development. We are very aware of issues around dependency on aid, and wasted funds, but ultimately there is a short-term need for aid because there are people literally dying. Our long-term goals for our projects is what gets us really excited.
“Working with Oxfam, World Vision, and then really grass-roots local organisations as well, it’s not about a quick fix or a ‘handout’ – we want to have a sustainable impact and that’s why we only partner with organisations who have the goal of ultimately transitioning out of the affected areas.”