Millennial CEO Disrupts Bottled Water Industry
Anytime there is a disruption, there is usually a signal of opportunity. This is no different in the bottle water industry. We had the opportunity to hear from Ryan Emmons, the CEO of Waiakea on how he's disrupting his industry and tips that he has for fellow millennial entrepreneurs.
Tell us your story:
To be honest I didn't have much of a background. I worked as a public television editor while in highschool, and in college worked two different jobs in finance while I started to develop Waiakea. I also did a lot of volunteering.
I was very involved in a few clean water NGO’s in Sub-Saharan Africa, and knew that whatever company I would start, regardless of the industry, its focus and mission would have to be on improving conservation and access to clean water and education. When live in Hawaii and you don’t stay at a resort, you can’t help but ignore the unemployment and poverty in some areas that is directly relevant to education. It bothered me and so I told my family that I wanted to work on a business that somehow could incorporate addressing these things I cared about, but also could address some important consumer concern.
Then when I was in the Entrepreneur program at USC, I saw an opportunity in the beverage and premium bottled water world. Every premium water was differentiated solely through an exotic source origination story and design. These are obviously important, but I was surprised no one had attempted to address consumer trends towards environmentally friendly packaging, social causes, functionality (minerals, electrolytes, alkalinity), and powerful lifestyle brands. I had tasted some amazing water from my family’s well a few years before that, and thought even though it was a long shot, that the mineral profile and smoothe taste of the volcanic water was fantastic and unique. So I started to put together the Waiakea brand with my Hawaiian cousin and my co-founder Matt over the next 3 years focusing on these 3 pillars of Health, Sustainability, and Ethics/Charity, and we finally launched in 2012.
Tell us about your business and what you do.
We market and sell Waiakea Hawaiian Volcanic Water, one of the fastest growing premium bottled water and beverage brands in the country. Basically its a Carbon Neutral, Naturally Alkaline Fiji meets Tom's Shoes with a Red Bull approach to lifestyle branding ;). Originating as both snowmelt and rain on the Big Island’s Mauna Loa volcano, Waiakea is filtered through thousands of feet of porous volcanic rock, producing one of the most delicious, alkaline and electrolyte-rich natural waters in the world.
Waiākea® was founded in Hawai’i in 2012 as the first Hawaiian volcanic water and triple bottom line premium water of its kind, adapting an unparalleled platform of healthy, sustainable, and ethical attributes and initiatives. Waiakea’s mission is to sustainably provide naturally healthy Hawaiian volcanic water with the blessing of indigenous kapuna and konohiki, while contributing to and promoting clean water access, conservation, and education for those in need in Hawai’i and throughout the world.
How are you able to disrupt the industry that you are in?
We at Waiākea sought to create a resonating lifestyle brand that can inspire and create meaningful, positive change in a variety of ways. Our goal was to create a transformation within the bottled water, beverage, and greater CPG industry, moving away from singular profit and towards a triple bottom line model that emphasizes people and planet. We realize that these industries are only growing larger, their products multiplying, and in order to create positive, real and systemic change, it had to come from the inside-out.
Better to light a candle than curse the darkness if you will.
I think that starts with us being the first major premium brand to use 100% RPET bottles, meaning our bottles are made entirely out of other post recycled bottles. This gives us a 90% smaller CO2 footprint than competitors. Then its being the first to offset the entirety of our logistics and manufacturing to 0 with our reforestation projects and landfill bio-capture projects. We also have been working on a nano-additive for the past few years that will enable our bottles to degrade if they end up in oceans or landfills, while still being fully recyclable. This is really just the environmental side, not even touching on our social impact (2% of revenues), that go towards our clean water projects in Africa and our non-profit partners in education and conservation in Hawaii.
What advice would you give to aspiring millennial
- If you start a company that embodies certain things you love or feel strongly about, you will take it a lot further.
- Make sure you have a business model, not just users, with a pathway to profitability and cash flow break even. Otherwise, just stop.
- Be scrappy, and realize what VC money and losing ownership in your company can entail. In our age of flashy startups and an insane VC atmosphere, it can be easy to think of a completed Series A as a success. It is, and you should celebrate, but I see too many entrepreneurs that don't realize they just dilluted their ownership significantly and if they had been scrappy and raised just enough capital for their next inflection point, they might have been able to have 2x the valuation and give away 2x less of their company.
What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Entrepreneurship means putting it all on the line in order to pursue one of three things (or all of them): a dream, financial independence, and/or a lifestyle change. It means embracing hardships and proving your resilience to the world while enjoying the process itself.
What entrepreneur do you look up to and why?
Elon Musk. He has an incredible foresight into the oncoming issues of the 21st century, has built some of the largest and most innovative companies in the world, and has built himself management and self-education systems to continuously improve his productivity and intelligence. Elon Musk for President haha 😉
Where do you see the business and the industry in the next 5 years?
I see the water space continuing to eat soda market share over the next 5 years as we shift towards better eating habits and away from sugar. Regarding the business, I see most of our business coming from online sales, and I see Waiakea diversifying into a number of different lifestyle products, all which embody our healthy, sustainable, ethical brand mantra, not just beverages. I think we will also get into more home delivery bulk packages as well.