Naïve isn’t usually a word associated with a successful entrepreneur. But for Justine Flynn, 26, co-founder of social enterprise Thankyou Water, it was her naivety and that of her two co-founders, Daniel Flynn and Jarryd Burns that she credits with a lot of their success.
“That really has been our strength. We were trying to do something that hadn’t been done before, so there was a naivety to that,” said Justine Flynn.
“We were really open about admitting we didn’t know what the heck we needed to do to start a bottled water company. But the years of learning since have been incredible. Dan always says true success is using the knockbacks and stumbling blocks to our advantage. We have found that people’s passion is more important.”
Justine and her partners founded Thankyou Water in August 2008 while still at university, after realising that 900 million people around the world do not have access to clean water and each year Australians spends $600 million on bottled water.
Thankyou Water is a social enterprise, a growing sector of the business landscape and one that is attracting some of the best and brightest innovators in Australia – all them young, keen and passionate.
A social enterprise generates profits to achieve social, cultural, community, economic or environmental outcomes.
For Thankyou Water, its mission is to give millions of people around the world access to safe drinking water and to use its profits to fund sustainable projects that benefit communities in the developing world. To date, the business has funded 52 such projects in Cambodia, Myanmar, Uganda, Sir Lanka, Kenya and Timor-Leste.
“We were driven by measuring our success by the impact we made,” said Justine Flynn. “We make a claim on our water that one bottle provides one month of water to someone in need. On our food packaging it is one weeks’ worth of food.”
“Most businesses would be lucky to make a profit after three years, but we didn’t have that luxury because then our claims would not be true. In the first two years the three of us volunteered our time and worked part-time jobs so we could meet the claims we made. After three years we could afford to pay ourselves.”
“We also realised early on that to grow we would have to invest in staff and marketing to generate bigger profits and since we have done that we have made great inroads,” she said.
To start up Thankyou Water, they needed $250,000 of seed money the trio didn’t have. Not to be deterred, they approached one of Australia’s largest bottle manufacturers to ask for help. After hearing their story, the company donated 30,000 bottles.
They then needed to find a distributor and decided to go straight to the top, scheduling a 10-minute meeting with one of the country’s largest beverage distributors. Ten minutes turned into 90-minutes and they secured their first order of 50,000 units of bottled water.
Today, Thankyou Water now employs seven staff, dozens of volunteers and is stocked in more than 3000 retail outlets, including 7-Eleven, IGA and Foodland stores and Australia Post. The business has sold more than three million bottles of water and has expanded into food and body products.
“The reason we started with water was because of the statistics of how many people were without clean water,” said Justine Flynn. “When we went overseas to see what projects we could put our profits into we realised clean water goes hand-in-hand with hygiene. There is no use giving someone clean water if there is no hygiene.”
“So we started to sponsor projects on health and hygiene education and training. Food was another given because there is a worldwide food crisis so we thought creating a brand of oats and museli was a good fit.”
“We don’t just give funding to charities. We ask people to submit a proposal for a project they think will line up with our mission. There is a big list of requirements to meet. We then assess that charity or project to make sure it has an active code of conduct, is sustainable and includes the community so they can take ownership of it.”
In their latest and perhaps biggest coup, Thankyou Water products are now also being stocked by Woolworths supermarkets thanks to a social media campaign in July that asked their more than 70,000 facebook supporters to convince the retailer to take the products onboard.
“There is a lot of social awareness in my generation,” said Justine Flynn. “All the people we have been associated with in the past five years have been Gen Y and from my perspective, it is this generation of people that want to make a difference in the world.”