First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jess Page: We’re alright! We’ve been spending a lot of time in parks and exploring nature preserves nearby. There’s no doubt about it that the pandemic has strained everyone, and shifting all relationships and communication online isn’t ideal. My family has been fortunate to stay healthy and safe through all of this, though, and that’s really all we can ask for.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Open Water.
Jess Page: My co-founder and I met in college at the University of Miami, where we played on the club soccer team together. While we were in school, we ended up wandering into the screening of a documentary about plastic pollution. We walked out of the theater in absolute disgust at our world’s plastic problem—1,500 plastic bottles are used every single second of every single day…and nearly all end up in landfills and oceans. The scale is monstrous.
We knew there had to be a better option, and as we learned more about packaging and recycling, it became clear that aluminum packaging was the more sustainable answer. Nothing will be more eco-friendly than tap water, and people should always choose it when they can, but when for whatever reason, it’s not an option, Open Water provides an option that’s more than 2x as likely to be recycled and is entirely carbon neutral.
Open Water hit the market in late 2014, is now distributed nationwide, and has eliminated the need for tens of millions of plastic bottles.
How does Open Water innovate?
Jess Page: We have a lean, agile team that allows us to make decisions and take action on those decisions quickly. We’re all driven by a passion for the environment and sustainability, so finding ways to lead the category on that front is the easy part. We’re always looking for incremental improvements as we grow.
We started with the packaging, and this past spring became the first Certified Climate Neutral water brand in the world. There are a lot of things behind the scenes that we’re doing to improve on sustainability, too, from sourcing and bottling to streamlining our transportation logistics. Our entire business is built on a proprietary software called Lifeboat, so we can easily dive deep into the data to make better business and environmental decisions.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jess Page: We’re lucky to have been in a really strong position before the pandemic hit—we run Open Water as a true business, and the unit economics all make sense. Surprisingly, we’ve read about and heard from a lot of other CPG companies who don’t make that a priority.
The pandemic has left no facet of life unaffected, and our business is no exception. April was the toughest, but we’ve seen a lot of promising signs in the months since. Lulls in some channels have given us more time to focus on building up other ones.
One thing is for sure: the pandemic has really focused a lens on sustainability. We’ve seen how the changes in our day to day routines have reduced global greenhouse gas emissions as we social distance and work remotely. At the same time, the increased use of plastic gloves and masks has been a burden for the ocean, which is where many of those PPE will end up. The faltering oil market has made plastics cheaper than ever to manufacture, and scaled-back city recycling programs exacerbate an already massive problem.
Despite this, we’ve been encouraged to see that the demand for more sustainable products isn’t slowing down. Much like the shift away from plastic straws, the move to eliminate plastic bottled water is unstoppable. It’s more important than ever to make decisions that consider the people and planet around us.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jess Page: Did our 2020 plans change? Absolutely. We’ve had to put off partnerships and launches, but we were very fortunate to have been able to keep our whole team on board. We’re so lucky to have such smart, passionate people working on Open Water.
Nobody could have predicted anything that could have had an effect like the pandemic. We’ve always been mindful of our operations and were fortunate enough to be in a position to weather the storm. We’re constantly evaluating things but feel confident that Open Water is serving a gap that customers are eager to fill. The pandemic is shining a light on how important it is to provide solutions that genuinely better the planet or help us connect or better relate to each other, in some way or another.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and Open Water in the future?
Jess Page: We’re all working harder than ever, and usually, that means stress. For me, going outside for a 20-minute walk can be the perfect reset. Without a physical commute to the office, I’m finding that running or biking at the end of the day helps separate work from non-work time.
If we don’t take care of ourselves, we’ll all burn out, which puts our work’s mission at risk. We’ve always prioritized a really healthy balance between work and the rest of life, and I feel like right now, this is more important than ever.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jess Page: The beverage industry and, more specifically, the bottled water category are suuuuuper competitive. A couple of other water brands have come into the market with a focus on sustainability. Some use aluminum packaging, and others are using other packaging options like cartons or recycled plastics (both of which face recyclability issues). All in all, we’re very pleased to see the category growing because it points to the fact that we all care more and more about the issue of plastic waste. Our planet needs a change, so the fact that there’s momentum behind this is really encouraging.
Putting water in non-plastic packaging, though, isn’t all it takes. When the “why” and real passion behind the packaging is missing, it’s easy to let other things shape the business and products. We pioneered aluminum bottles for water, and it’s been pretty cool to see others recognizing the benefits of the material and following in our footsteps. For us, sustainability is why we started Open Water, and it’s the driving force behind every decision we make, so staying true to our mission is simple.
CPG and sustainability might seem to be a bit at odds with one another since every physical good creates some environmental impact. The fact that we’ve been able to grow substantially while staying aligned with our sustainability goals is something I’m really proud of. Here are a few things that have helped along the way:
· Transparency. We LOVE taking on complicated issues. When it comes to sustainability, things are rarely black and white, and we spend a lot of time dissecting problems, so when we take action, we can do so armed with the facts. We’re always happy to explain our research and thought process on everything we do. Digging into these problems is the only way we’re ever going to make the type of progress we need. We’ve run out of time for greenwashing and gimmicks.
· We’re genuinely nice people. Not that our competitors aren’t. But it’s something that makes us who we are. Everyone on the team talks to our customers and partners like humans. It can take more time than the alternative, but that’s okay with us.
· Science first. Science and facts are where it’s at. We make important decisions on real data and smaller, less consequential business decisions on a mix of data and gut. It’s served us well so far and lets us grow with confidence.
Your final thoughts?
Jess Page: Going dark for a minute with French President Emmanuel Macron here.
“What’s the point of our life, really, if we live and work destroying our planet?”
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