SMBs to Big Business: Interview with Josh White, Co-Founder of CanO Water
SMB to Big Business
Around the world, people are used to drinking water from plastic bottles. But, as we all know, this causes enormous pollution problems, with vast numbers of bottles ending up either in the sea or in landfills rather than being recycled.
That's the background to a product idea created by three young men from London. In this interview, Albert Robinson spoke with Josh White, co-founder of CanO Water, who is passionate about providing consumers with water in a can that can be recycled.
When did you start your business and how did it come about?
The idea came about in 2014. I was 22, and I went with my friends (and co-founders) Ariel Booker and Perry Fielding to Thailand and we came across so much plastic pollution on the beaches. We had grown up in north-west London and had never seen such plastic pollution before.
We wanted to create a solution. We saw all the drink brands that were marked as fun and became obsessed with how we could make a change and solve the problem. We all had full-time jobs at the time, and so we started meeting up and looked into packaging.
We saw that aluminium can be recycled again and again, and comes back to shop shelves in 60 days. 75% of aluminium made and used since the 1800s is still in use. Plastic bottles do not have any of these advantages.
We started off in 2016 selling in Selfridges and at the London Fashion Week.
What drew you to starting a business/becoming a business owner initially?
To be honest, it was less about owning a company and more about making a difference. The three of us yearned to do more rather than simply owning our own business. Our starting point was about purpose and authenticity.
Six years later I am a different person and I am happy it all started with authenticity.
What was your mission when you started out as an SMB?
To provide more recyclable products, and the education we do at schools, for example.
How many employees does your company have? How many did it have when you first started out?
We started out with the 3 of us and now there are 9 employees in the office who deal with operations, marketing and sales.
What services or products do you offer, and what’s your USP?
We were the only canned water product, but now there are other brands. We have never sold a plastic bottle and never will. We believe that we are the most authentic. Our vision was to inspire. Cans can be recycled forever.
We went from sales of a few thousand cans to 10 million in 2019, and this year we will probably have sales of just over 12 million cans.
The water category is so enormous and we want to make money but also have a purpose. Aluminium cans are collected because they have intrinsic value and can be recycled.
What was the impact of COVID-19 on your business?
From a growth perspective, Covid has been a massive distraction and held back sales since many places that sell our cans were closed. But we are hopeful now as the world moves away from Covid.
What are your company's goals?
To build a brand and educate people by spreading awareness of who we are and what we do. We want to stop single use plastic bottles getting into landfills and inspire other businesses to achieve this goal. We know that because tap water is the most sustainable alternative and convenience is critical and a lot of people don’t have access to water, so unfortunately plastic bottles are popular.
Was growing the company a conscious decision or something that happened over time. Can you talk to us about how you scaled from SMB and grew?
We were the first people in world to successfully produce water in a can. It was tried in the past but had failed. No-one had created such a brand. There were many elements to consider. For example, you have to be careful about the taste profile which means that the pipes carrying the water have to be extremely clean.
We went into something that we were told would be impossible. The only place in the world was a manufacturer in Austria. All the production is outsourced. We have an innovative lid that has been used on energy drinks and the only one that is sustainable. We had made calls to manufacturers across the world about the lid, and then found that was made 10 miles away from the tin manufacturer in Austria. There were so many things that fell into place like that.
We worked so hard and handed out cans and called manufacturers but they wouldn't listen. Only when consumers start to move in favour of or against something does a trend begin. The turning point was also helped by David Attenborough’s Blue Planet TV series which was widely viewed and gave a push to the environmental care. It was then that people told us, “We need your product”.
Nobody at that time thought about buying canned water. There were many others who tried it and thought it wouldn't work. We were very naïve, but it was our naivete that made it happen. A lot of people thought we were crazy. Nobody understood it.
Consumers need a push, and we were in the right place and time as resistance skyrocketed against plastic. If we had started a few years before, then we wouldn't have succeeded, because the time was not right.
What changes have you made to your business strategy over the past few years? And how often do you reevaluate it?
As a start-up, and being just three guys starting out, there was no plan for growing sales. Because we were the first to do this, it was difficult to create a strategy, but now we are building the brand. It is the first time we have been able to do this. An agency is helping us to find our audience.
At what point did you start thinking about marketing?
We have done marketing since the beginning. I have always been keen on organic marketing. We, as founders, would do the work that other brands pay for. We went out of our comfort zone. We recognised our audience and knew what was cool and that was how we built the brand in the early days.
How involved do you get in your marketing as a business owner?
I am 100% in it. I like being in the firing line and hearing what people think about the brand.
What do you like most – and least – about running your own business?
The good part is that we have sold 25 million cans and that is what gets me up every day. We are also growing a team of likeminded people.
On the other hand, business can be very tough. You need to always be concentrating. And if you don’t look after your mental health, especially in the fast-moving consumer goods world, it can consume you.
In addition, you have to be able to troubleshoot, and also be resilient and thick skinned. Other companies will copy you and you must make sure that you don’t take that personally.
What is the biggest difference between running a small business and a large one?
Money is a big one. A company that has lots of money has more thinkers, but we have to do it for ourselves. We are not at the top level yet but still need to be creative. We are small and nimble.
What is the biggest challenge your business is facing today?
Covid-19, because that is what stopped our growth when it started in 2020. In addition, we are always having to fight “greenwashing” in the market, and the lies from plastic bottle firms that say that they can be recycled. They claim that using plastic is ok, but it will really go to landfills and into the ocean. Recycling plastic is not an easy process because it is made of materials that cannot be broken down.
How do you define your successes? We’d love to hear more about your perspective on goal planning and strategy building.
I define it as growth of the brand rather than making money because that’s not my main aim. We bootstrapped everything at the beginning. CanO Water is the number-one water brand because we are honest and cool and authentic.
Of course, we would love to be globally known, but I have learned that to do good is what defines success. We have won some big business deals which will help remove millions of plastic bottles every year. We never thought that we could accomplish this five years ago.
What do you believe is the secret to your business success?
Authenticity and a team who cares about the planet.
Was there a moment in your business journey when you thought you wouldn't make it and were close to closing your business?
There have been a few occasions. We have faced some big challenges. For example, in 2018 we received a call from one of our main stocklists, who said the water didn't taste right. We checked and found that it was in 200,000 cans. I was nearly in tears. We were able to turn it around. That’s when you need to be thick-skinned. Now, we are geared for moments like that.
At what point did you feel your turned from a small business to a big one? What it scary? Exciting? Tell us everything!
That was in 2019, which was our biggest year. It was exciting and scary. We brought in a really good managing director and got everything in line.
What are the biggest changes you have made to the business in the last 5 years?
No real big changes, just learning curves. We are still the same brand.
Where do you see your business in 3 years from now?
We hope that it will be more of a household brand. We are in growth mode for the coming 3 years. We want to educate people and to run quirky campaigns. We aim to wake up a tired and boring industry. We just raised some funds so we have the money to do that.
What do you wish you knew when you first started your business?
How hard it is. I speak to a lot of company founders, and it’s not easy.
What impact has being a company founder had on you?
I am glad I did it because I am a different person now in a positive way. I always had learning difficulties because I have ADHD. Running a business has made me much more confident.
Which social channels does the company use and who manages your social platforms?
We run it in-house, and our main platforms are Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and TikTok. We will be concentrating on them this year. We will be running a lot of digital campaigns. It's important that the cans are widely accessible before we advertise widely.
What's the weirdest comment you ever got on social media? And the most heart-warming one?
The most heart-warming is when people say, “You are saving the planet and doing great work”. The weirdest thing is that there are a lot of trolls and hate comments.
What is the most difficult/challenging aspect of marketing? What advice can you share for other business owners?
Go with your gut, and be honest and authentic. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can't do it.
How important is company branding to you, and how far does that extend through the business?
Brand is massively important, and a refreshing brand defies the norm.
Can you tell us about the biggest mistake you make since launching the brand?
There have not really been any mistakes. Otherwise, we wouldn't be where we are now!
Who is your ideal customer and why?
Our audience is everyone. Young people care a bit more about the issue and the brand. I speak at schools about plastic pollution and landfill pollution. Young people are hearing about it more and want to make a difference, but older people also care. There’s the health side with poisons in plastic and older people might think more about that. Our demographic is the 18-35 age group.
Where is your canned water on sale?
We sell in the UK, Ireland and UAE for now. Conquering the UK is a passion and it’s going really well. Our cans are sold in Tesco, Spar, the Co-op, Morrisons, WHSmith and many independent stores, tourist spots and schools and universities. We haven’t really scratched the surface.
What is the smartest thing you’ve done so far as a business owner?
To go with my instinct, and to ignore people who told me I couldn't do it and that we wouldn't succeed.
When looking back at your business journey up until now – what moment makes you the proudest?
Getting plastic out of the ocean and landfills.
How did you come up with your business name and logo?
My business partner, Perry, came up with the name and logo in one of our WhatsApp group discussions.
Give one bit of advice to people looking to grow their businesses? What do you value most at this stage of your journey?
Just do it. Like our slogan says: Don’t bottle it. Go with your gut, and don’t let people stop you and say that you can’t do it.
Now you’ve seen just how big SMBs can really grow – are you ready to do the same for your business?
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