6 business and life lessons from Daniel Flynn, Thankyou co-founder
You may have seen Thankyou bottled water, cereal, muesli bars, hand wash or nappies in your supermarket aisles, but have you heard the story behind the products?
I first noticed Thankyou Water in convenience stores and cafés several years ago, and based on what I read on the product label I was aware that the organisation aimed to create positive social impact, but I didn’t know much more than that. I don’t buy bottled water regularly, but when Thankyou began to make body care products I started purchasing their hand wash ('botanical patchouli and vanilla' is my favourite from their range), attracted by the natural ingredients, modern-apothecary-brown-bottle packaging, and the opportunity to use the purchase of an everyday item to support a good cause.
Thankyou co-founder and Managing Director, Daniel Flynn, was the opening speaker at the Kick. Start. Smart. conference I attended in November last year, and I was excited to learn more about the brand and the social enterprise. I wasn't disappointed. Daniel was an inspiring speaker with a remarkable story. He came across as genuine and real, humble, energetic, and funny, and though he's probably told his story hundreds of times by now, he still sounded like he was speaking with sincerity and heartfelt enthusiasm.
Based on what Daniel told us, here are my six takeaways from the Thankyou journey so far:
1. You don’t have to know everything to start
Daniel was inspired to start Thankyou Water in 2008, when he ended up in tears as a 19 year old uni student. He’d watched a documentary online that showed children in developing countries walking for hours to collect water for their families. Despite this hard work, the water was not always clean, and thousands of children were dying every day from water-related disease. Daniel imagined what his life would be like if he were in that situation, if he or his sisters had to walk kilometres to collect water, and how he’d feel if he inadvertently gave one of his siblings contaminated water that ended up killing them.
Around the same time that Daniel learned that 900 million people around the world did not have access to safe drinking water, he read that $600 million of bottled water was purchased every year in Australia. Recognising the irony in this situation, he had the idea to take advantage of the demand for this 'stupid product' and create a bottled water company that channelled its profits to fund water projects in developing nations.
He asked his best friend Jarryd Burns and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Justine Hart if they were interested in joining him. So in August 2008, Daniel and a group of his friends established Thankyou Water, volunteering their time in between full time uni studies and part time work.
One of Jarryd’s first questions to Daniel was, "How do you start a bottled water company?" Daniel admitted he had no idea.
So they simply googled it.
(The answer? You start with bottles and a factory.)
2. Choose your focus and mindset
In the beginning, the Thankyou team had a series of meetings with four bottling companies, and learned that they required large minimum order quantities that cost hundreds of thousands to get started. Daniel, Jarryd and Justine had about $1,000 between them.
Though it would've been easy to give up at that point, fortunately they didn’t, as the fifth bottling company they met bought into their vision and agreed to supply their first run of production without any upfront costs. Packaging company Visy also donated an unused bottle design and 30,000 bottles.
With the factory and bottle sorted, Thankyou needed to find a distributor. They were able to organise a meeting with a large distributor of beverages, but almost didn’t go because people were warning them to be realistic about how difficult it would be get a distribution agreement if they weren’t a multi-national or established brand. Despite feeling discouraged, Daniel ended up going because he thought, "What if we learn something?" And it paid off, as the distributor ended the meeting with an order for 50,000 units.
I loved hearing about Daniel’s attitude: his perseverance, spirit of adventure, and his willingness to learn and give things a go. As Daniel said, "The fear of failure kills more dreams than failure ever will."
3. Know your why
It wasn’t all smooth sailing in the early years of Thankyou. Despite the initial wins and momentum, Daniel described many obstacles, disappointments and tough times in the months and years that followed.
Their first product launch became a product recall: the joy and excitement of having their product on shelves quickly turned to stunned dismay when they realised that the labels on a third of the water bottles were damaged.
Later in that first year, their factory didn’t supply product for five weeks, leading to a loss of 300 of their 350 stockists.
After 12 months of discussions with one of the major supermarket chains, the Thankyou team celebrated a huge win when the category manager agreed to give them national ranging. However, a few weeks later, a new category manager was appointed and he told them the previous commitment didn’t stand.
Despite so many ups and downs and the temptation to quit, the team kept going, motivated by their mission and big dream to see an end to extreme poverty around the globe. Daniel believes that knowing your ‘deep why’ will anchor you through setbacks and knock backs and carry you through when you feel like giving up.
4. Embrace the power of community
By June 2011, despite some success with cafés and independent stores, Thankyou were still trying to get their water into a national retailer. They decided to try something different. Two weeks before a meeting with 7-Eleven, they asked their Facebook fans to post a message or video telling the retailer about their willingness to buy Thankyou water if it was available in 7-Eleven stores.
Hundreds of fans posted messages or uploaded videos (there was some hilariously creative dancing, singing and skits), and the media backed the campaign too. The wave of support helped win over 7-Eleven, who agreed to sell Thankyou water and ultimately even replaced its own private label water with Thankyou as the low-priced offering.
Fast forward a couple more years to July 2013, when Thankyou were ready to expand their product range to food and body care so they could make even greater social impact. They knew that the major supermarkets were crucial for growth. They were five years into their journey, and their water still wasn’t stocked in Coles and Woolworths, but they had meetings with the buyers scheduled. Knowing they didn’t have the multi-million dollar marketing budget that supermarkets typically want their suppliers to provide for product launches, Thankyou again turned to their community.
Two weeks before the meetings with the supermarkets, Thankyou launched a social media campaign that asked supporters to demonstrate the demand for their products by uploading videos or posting messages on Coles’ and Woolworths’ Facebook pages.
Thousands of people responded. Helicopter pilots even volunteered to fly huge banners (paid for by a private donor) above Coles and Woolworths’ headquarters to attract the retailers’ attention:
Hey Coles, Thank you for changing the world! (if you say 'yes')
Hey Woolworths, Together we can change the world! (if you say 'yes')
Bold, a little cheeky, and a potentially risky tactic, but the campaign worked: five hours after the Coles meeting they said yes, and a couple of days later, Woolworths said yes only three hours after their meeting with Thankyou.
Tapping into the power of community and social media has helped level the playing field for newer, smaller businesses like Thankyou. They may not have a big marketing budget, but they have loyal and engaged customers, and the creativity to help them stand out in a crowded market.
5. Question tradition
In the early days, Daniel and his co-founders took care to appear as professional as possible, knowing they were young and therefore may not be taken seriously. They borrowed their parents’ suits and took the P plates off the car as they drove into carparks for business meetings.
They were a little embarrassed to be called 'naïve' in the beginning. And Daniel felt the sting when one of their distributors dismissed them as 'just kids who don’t know what you’re doing'.
But now that the business has matured, Daniel explained that Thankyou strives to maintain some of that early naïveté that enables them to be creative, challenge convention, disrupt the status quo and change the game.
Daniel said that though they learn from experience, they also question traditional approaches by asking, "Who says we have to do things the way they have been done before?"
One recent example is the way they raised funds to enable them to scale the business. Thankyou chooses not to have shareholders or investors because they want to give 100% of their profits to international development projects (though they do receive some financial and pro bono support from donors), so finding a way to fund growth and expansion posed a bit of a dilemma. Last year, they turned to crowdfunding to support the launch of a baby care and nappy range, as well as expand into New Zealand.
The crowdfunding campaign invited supporters to buy a book Daniel wrote about the Thankyou journey so far, called Chapter One. The book's text was rotated 90 degrees (i.e. printed landscape rather than portrait) as a metaphor to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and to attract attention from people observing others reading the book. Thankyou took a risk and launched with a 'pay what you want' price and no recommended retail price. They weren't sure what would happen, but the book became a best seller and they ended up exceeding their target of $1.2 million, raising $1.45 million in 4 weeks.
6. You have the power to change stuff
Despite many significant setbacks in the early years, Thankyou continues to grow and, according to their website, as of October 2016 they've been able to give $4.8 million to safe water, sanitation, food, and child and maternal health programs around the world. (Update: this is $5.5 million as of February 2017.)
Daniel’s story and the Thankyou journey are inspiring reminders that every one of us can make a positive impact, even if you think you’re 'just' one ordinary individual. The 'impossible' can be possible.
And by making conscious choices as a consumer in your everyday life, your actions make a difference.
If you were inspired by this post, share it with a friend or colleague who could do with some inspiration as well!