We talked to Daniel Schindler, founder of Buoy, about squeezable electrolytes and this is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Daniel Schindler: Fortunately, we’ve been happy, healthy, and hydrated–thank you for asking. As hard as it’s been to stay connected with friends and loved ones, our socially distant, mask-wearing holidays haven’t been as bad as I originally imagined.
On a personal level, I’m itching to travel again so I can accomplish my goal of visiting 100 countries before I turn 30 – a goal my brother just accomplished.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Buoy.
Daniel Schindler: After being invigorated with a classic “set the world on fire” speech at my undergraduate graduation, I pretty quickly felt stifled and stuck in my first job out of college.
I was a software consultant for an automotive technology company, touring the Midwest’s car dealerships and teaching them how to attract and nurture potential customers. The first six months on the job illuminated a somber picture of what the rest of my life could look like if I stayed in corporate America.
Inspired by my brother’s entrepreneurial spirit and his success as a founder of an innovative textile company, I decided to pivot from employee to entrepreneur. I received a full-ride scholarship to Washington University’s Olin Business School’s MBA program where I used my network of classmates, professors, and courses to springboard a minimum viable hydration product.
Buoy is an intersection of my personal pursuit of health and wellness and an outdated industry ripe for disruption. Hydration was something I always overlooked, often because I avoided sugar-laden sports drinks like the plague. When I really looked at ways to improve my well-being on a daily basis, staying properly hydrated was one of the simplest yet most effective things I could do.
Yet, to put it simply, I couldn’t find a solution that worked–and it’s not because I’m picky. At the onset of starting Buoy, we took all the things that were wrong with the current options to hydrate and partnered with a pharmaceutical expert to make it easier and healthier to do so. Pretty quickly we saw how important clean, efficient can be to communities like people diagnosed with POTS, so we launched Buoy with a mission to give back to those using hydration to manage chronic illnesses.
I knew I wanted to start a fun, disruptive company but I wasn’t ready for how impactful it would become. Hearing how helpful Buoy is to communities of people diagnosed with chronic illnesses breathed a deep sense of purpose into the work our team does.
How does Buoy innovate?
Daniel Schindler: I pride myself on how our team employs creativity to stay agile, add product features and boost our social responsibility. At Buoy, we’re focused on the triple bottom line: people, planet, profit–in that order. When we look at ways to innovate, we start with how our product experience and ingredient quality translates into the everyday people using it. Then, we take that solution and transform it into its most environmentally friendly iteration, regardless of cost. Lastly, we weave creativity into building a long-lasting brand that helps keep the lights on.
We started with a vision for hydration that feels more like an afterthought than something you’re consciously doing. Whether it was frantically looking at sports drink’s nutrition label, ripping open single-serving plastic powder sticks to dump into water, waiting minutes for effervescent tablets to dissolve or searching the baby aisle in your pharmacy, we knew hydration could be easier and healthier.
We also knew we could innovate with more than just basic health benefits: No sugar, no calories, no artificial ingredients–in 2021, that just gets you in the door as a health supplement. We’ve added specific vitamins, minerals, and herbal extracts that work dynamically with electrolytes to hydrate you faster and for longer. We spent two years working with a pharmaceutical expert to make sure people could add clean, effective hydration into any drink without compromising its taste, from water to green goddess smoothies to coffee and alcoholic beverages–even soup!
We pivoted away from the popular single-serving powder packets because we knew they were bad for the environment and they weren’t the easiest to use. Why did hydration have to feel like a task: rip, dump, stir, wait, etc. We found a healthier way to get the most out of the drinks you’re already drinking in just a half-second squeeze.
The hydration industry is literally littered with single-serving plastics. From our biodegradable shipping mailers to our bottles made from 100% Post Consumer Recycled materials, we’re pioneering the way for hydration to cut ties with plastic while reducing the number of materials used per serving.
We’re also expanding our routes to market. We’re partnering with RTD beverage companies to make their drinks healthier and more hydrating without changing their taste or adding sugar and calories. We’ve got some exciting new products our partners are hoping to bring to market in 2021 and early 2022 in the hard seltzer, beer, soft drink, tea, and coffee space.
Lastly, we have two design patents with the United States Patent Office on supplemental products we’ve invented over the last four years: our hydrating liquor spout and a single-serving delivery method designed for bars and restaurants when normal life resumes again.
Our team is always questioning what’s currently on the market and how we can make it healthier, easier, and more environmentally friendly.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?
Daniel Schindler: If there are any silver-linings to be found among the death and despair of this global pandemic, our team has found a few. From the onset in the United States in March, people have doubled down on health and wellness. We saw e-commerce sales shoot through the roof while people scoured grocery aisles and Amazon to stock up on anything they thought could boost their health and immune system.
We used this momentum to focus on growing our team, building our brand, and connecting with like-minded brands to partner with. Working on Buoy became a welcomed distraction from the chaos and craziness outside the window.
The pandemic has taught all entrepreneurs the importance of DTC. It’s too risky to rely solely on Amazon or big-box retailers as your main streams of revenue. For brands, harvesting a direct connection to your customers and doubling down on their experience with your product is the best way to grow a sustainable business. If you can’t figure that out, someone else will.
On a personal growth level, I developed health habits that I’ll carry with me long after the last vaccine has been administered. Before checking my email in the morning, I run through a series of breathing exercises and meditate. I take a cold shower and, if I have time, get in a workout. I’ve found that by prioritizing mental and physical health before starting work, it’s easier to focus on high-level priorities without being distracted by the monotony of daily run-the-business tasks.
From a team perspective, we’ve had to learn how to work better together without letting burnout and small frustrations blindside us. We’ve navigated onboarding new team members and managing them in ways that spark empowerment and motivation. No doubt the pandemic has taken a toll, but we’ve made the best of a bad situation.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Daniel Schindler: We had our fair share of hard lessons learned in 2020. Early on, we had to choose between building a sustainable brand or ramping up sales efforts. It was to either raise a bunch of money and grow at lightning speed or to focus on slow, sustainable growth while ironing out the fundamental blocks of our brand and customer journey. We chose the latter. I think we’re making the right choice, but it’s a tough pill to swallow seeing funds and resources move away from conversions in the cart.
We’re building the Buoy brand, not just another supplement. Brand-building investments aren’t the type of quick returns that keep most young entrepreneurs invigorated–they take a lot of time, money, and bandwidth to do it right. As we continue to invest in building a brand, we’re siphoning funds from other parts of the business that focus on scaling sales like paid advertising. We’re confident in this strategy but can’t help but feel like we could be doing even more, quicker.
Last year taught us we can’t say “Yes” to every opportunity that comes our way. Production costs and miserably long lead times have taught us to plan cautiously and strategically as we’ve started to scale. Finding clean vitamin sources can be expensive and time-consuming.
Early in 2020, we had more opportunities than time, resources, and funding to take advantage of. In April, CVS approached us with a retail opportunity through their Retail Innovation Program that streamlines how small staged businesses can get onto their shelves. In June, we partnered with subscription health box companies that depleted most of our inventory. In September, a surge in Amazon orders caused us to sell out a week before the next shipment arrived.
Lately, it’s been a delicate balance of deciding when to raise money so that we can walk through every open door of opportunity we have and riding our current momentum to a high valuation. We’re entering a phase of hyper-growth and the current valuation we can demand doesn’t do the potential this company has justice.
Lastly, and perhaps the most important, we learned just how valuable finding the right team members can be. It’s a cliche, but it doesn’t make it less true. Like every small team, we’re hungry for people to come on and start adding value right away. But after months of onboarding and costly retainers, we’ve uncovered that an unstructured work environment isn’t for everyone, even if those people were rock stars at their other job.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Daniel Schindler: Any team that’s growing as fast as ours needs to prioritize a healthy work/life balance. Sure, it’s a cliche to say so, but it’s often the first thing that’s thrown out the window when work needs to be done, which in our case is always.
Like most companies, finding the right communication platform, teleconferencing software, CRM, and project management tools has been the key to generating productivity and motivation while working remotely. We use Slack, Google Hangouts, HubSpot, and AirTable to communicate and keep organized.
More important than the tool we communicate with is how we’ve learned to communicate with each other. Every team member is carrying more than their weight which can lead to shorter tempers and endless amounts of stress. We’ve prioritized and pioneered ways for us to keep the proverbial weight off our chest while forcing a work and life balance that won’t burn us out.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Daniel Schindler: Although we have beef with sports drinks, our main competitors are the companies in the hydration supplement space: Liquid IV, Nuun, Hydrant, Skratch Labs, etc.
It’s easy to feel threatened by big wins from established competitors and the emergence of smaller competitors in the space, but really it’s just more money and time is spent educating people on the importance of hydration.
Everyone has to hydrate, but most people aren’t good at doing it. As awareness for hydration grows, we’ve positioned Buoy to be a compelling product from ingredient quality to price point and ease of use. Having a world-class nutrition label, a superb product efficacy, a novel dispensing system, and a strong mission helps us sleep at night.
How we can generate enough brand recognition and equity for our competitive advantages to matter, however, is what keeps me up at night.
Your final thoughts?
Daniel Schindler: Have you ever squeezed an electrolyte? Try it some time–doctor’s orders.