After four years of studying at Elon University, the end of this month Elon will switch from my school to my customer. And this is how it happened.
I created the idea for Wabo in the spring of 2015 while studying abroad in Australia. Part of the study abroad program, focused on sustainability and environmental action, concentrated on a two day workshop on Action for Social Change. We were instructed to spend two days exploring the adoption of social movements, the innovation diffusion theory, and studies on how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. As the workshop came to a close, my teacher announced an assignment. A two-day workshop AND an assignment. Study abroad life was rough. Little did I know the assignment and the experiences to follow would change my life.
The instructions: Write about your own social impact movement.
“A social impact movement,” I said to my buddy Sam as I slammed down on the couch with an open beer in hand. Study abroad time. “What are you going to do?” I asked. And for the next few hours we bounced around some ideas but nothing stuck.
As I took a sip from the Tooheys Extra Dry, I saw a reusable water bottle on the counter. It was one made of metal sporting a sticker shaped like a water faucet and below it the text: “Drink water.” It belonged to my friend Jack.
Another bottle stood next to Jack’s on the counter. It held a Koala sticker and was made from clear plastic. It belonged to my friend Brontë. Huh. I thought. Isn’t that odd. I can tell who owns what bottle just by looking at it? Pretty interesting.
As I finished my thought, Sam picked up his own dented blue metal bottle. It was beaten, with scrapes and scratches, but he loved the thing. It was his own.The story of the dent was one I had heard a million times, but Sam never tired of it:
Coming back from happy hour Sam complained to our friend Julia about how his water bottle didn’t have any character, he attempted to dent it just slightly but nothing happened. Immediately, Julia grabbed the bottle and smashed it against a curb.
Sam proudly shows the bottle as he laughs at the story. As I noticed this, he grabbed it from the counter and sipped from it. I stared in fascination. I was fascinated at a liquid container. It’s funny, the different things that interest people.
Sam’s dented blue bottle
Water bottles. There’s my social impact movement. So many people have their own water bottles. They make them their own, they become attached, they find meaning. Why did Sam love dented blue bottle? There were stories behind it. Why was there a Koala on Brontë’s bottle? There must be a story behind that too.
So why doesn’t everyone have their own reusable water bottle? Disposable bottled water is costly, the average American spends $242 on bottled water a year. With the average American using 167 bottles a year they’re definitely not doing the environment any favors. And so I wrote.
Eight pages later (double spaced in 12 point Times New Roman, of course), I felt I had nailed down why this was important and how I could use the lessons from the workshop in creating this movement. I would get people to take pictures of their water bottles and submit them on an Instagram account to promote the use of reusable water bottles. The social impact movement: to rid the world of bottled water. And I handed it in. And a few days later I thought: I could actually do this. So I did.
Jack’s “Drink Water” bottle
First, I needed a name.
Well it’s about water bottles.
So what’s a wabo? Well at this time, the basic idea of a wabo was ANY reusable water bottle (it ends up changing later). If people are really attached to their wabos, as Jack and Sam and Brontë were, they take them everywhere. And the Jacks and Sams and Brontës of the world go cool places. And people like taking pictures. So why not take a picture of your wabo in a cool place? On a hike, rock climbing, surfing in Hawaii, skating in an abandoned pool.
I started with the easiest and simplest thing I could think of. The first thing any millennial thinks about. Social media.
I snagged the social media accounts on Instagram (@mywabo), Facebook (Wabo), and Twitter (@mywabo, although I barely use Twitter) and launched. I don’t even remember the day I launched but I remember it not being as exciting as one would think a “Launch Day” was.
To help mark the Wabo brand I had stickers printed and gave them away whenever and wherever I could, explaining the idea behind Wabo. At first, friends and family would send pictures to me. And then people I didn’t know started sending pictures too.
I’d spent countless hours (and still do) on Instagram liking photos with the hashtags #adventure, #outdoors, and others to get the brand/movement out there. I didn’t have any money and didn’t do any social media advertising (although I do now) but just liked others photos. I was featured in the school newspaper and felt like there was potential.
Brontë’s Koala bottle
With things on the upswing I wanted to start selling these stickers I had been giving away. I scoured over post after post on how to sell online, rented books and talked to as many experts as possible. I spent hours reading website design articles and hours changing what the design looked like. Then changing back the design. And then scrapping the whole design and switching back to the original. It was quite the back and forth. You know what the easy part was? Actually being able to accept payments.
So this brings us to about late August/early September of 2015 at Elon University (we started in Australia in the spring of 2015). I hadn’t sold many stickers and I was kind of bummed. It was way easier to get people to follow on Instagram or submit a photo than to purchase a sticker on the website. I’m wondering to myself why? Because it’s way harder to get people to give you money. That’s why. People give money for value and my stickers just valuable enough to them. So now I’m stuck in a spot, do I continue to try to sell stickers or just focus on the movement?
Over those past couple of months I had been spending hours learning about types of water bottles and the reasons why people bought their specific bottle. You could even say I was getting to know the water bottle market pretty well and I found something interesting.
There were cheaper plastic reusable water bottles (the Nalgenes and the Nathans of the world) that people were sticking their stickers on and were making them their own — the kind we were talking about before. These are what we call “storytelling bottles” at Wabo. And then there were expensive high quality metal bottles (the S’wells and the Hydroflasks) that kept liquids hot or cold for X amount of hours. But there never seemed to be any stickers on them. So where were the high-quality “storytelling bottles?” The metal thermoses with stickers?
I couldn’t find them anywhere. I had found an opportunity, a way to create value. To introduce the market with something it doesn’t have and needs. I told myself I was going to introduce that.
So I dedicated much of my time to look for the right manufacturer. And this isn’t easy — way past a first page Google search. And after a few prototypes from different manufacturers, we came out with what we know today as the wabo stainless steel water bottle.
The wabo bottle
So being the student that I was I played conservatively and sent just 100 of the wabo bottles straight to myself to test out the waters. I repeated what I had done originally — turned to social media. And you know what? At first only friends and family bought them. It felt like a pity party. One of those, “Hey my friend is starting this thing, I figured I should support him” kind of thing. They say your first sale feels ecstatic. I disagree. Your first sale to someone you don’t know is what feels ecstatic.
My first large order came from a start-up accelerator, Groundwork Labs. At that time my boss offered to give them away as parting gifts to the start-ups going through their program. They needed 27. TWENTY-SEVEN?! Bombs are going off in my head. I’m ecstatic. To me, that’s huge. In a state of euphoria and naivety I quoted her a price 25% lower I should have in fear of losing the order. But, oh well, I got the order.
So now I’m thinking: Hey wait a second, maybe other organizations would want this as well? My school would probably order some. I know every year they give out a gift for faculty and staff day. They could give out wabo bottles.
So I sent an email to the person in charge of gifts for faculty and staff day. How did I know who was in charge? I just asked.
I sent the email:
After four days of anticipation I received this email:
And now I’m in talks with other organizations for similar orders. And the rest is history. So what did I do to do this? I just asked. It was really that simple.