Founders: Here’s How To Balance Staying True To Your Values While Still Building A Practical, Scalable Business
At Hydros, the water filtration startup I co-founded where I serve as CEO, it took us several years and a lot of patience to get our product ready and out to market.
But we were fortunate enough to be in a position where we had the time to refine and thoughtfully develop our product over a long period. Many companies don’t.
When we finally brought our product to market, it was well worth the wait—because that extra time allowed us to develop a product and business true to our company values.
Keeping those values in clear view every step of the way has been fundamental to our growth and ability to create a high-quality product.
The top company values at Hydros are quality, functionality, affordability and sustainability.
The general perception is that it’s pretty much impossible to create a mass-market consumer product that’s well-engineered, affordable, and has efficacy. We’ve set out to prove that notion wrong.
We didn’t cut corners when developing our product line, and we’re still continuously working to improve it. Our industry is rife with products of poor quality—likely a result of rushing to market—and we see that as both an opportunity and a lesson.
We want our products to consistently work the way they’re supposed to work, and do it in a way that’s easy to use and attractive. We think that our current product line is about 90% of the way there—there are certainly ways we can keep improving and refining over time.
For instance, we decided we wanted all of our products (water-filtering carafes, pitchers, and bottles) to feature universal functionality, so you could use the same filters, caps, etc. on any vessel.
It could have been easy to create an exceptional product with high-end materials that few people could afford. But that’s not what we wanted to do. Not only because it’s not a viable business model, but because it would work against our overarching goal to reduce the amount of plastic in our landfills and oceans. Which brings us to …
Really, this is what inspired our company in the first place.
It is estimated that by 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish. A recent study by Ghent University in Belgium found that Europeans who regularly eat shellfish ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic each year. And while recycling certainly helps, in the U.S., only about 23 percent of plastic water bottles are recycled.
Investing in a quality water-filtering bottle makes sense for your wallet (Americans spent $18.5 billion on bottled water in 2017) and our environment. That’s our main sell.
It’s not easy to deliver on all four of those company values simultaneously.
But we’ve always pulled it off—in large part thanks to our like-minded private investors. Our investors understand our long-term vision and don’t pressure us to achieve short-term growth at any cost. (It helped that we already had proof-of-concept and had seen significant product revenue when we approached investors.)
We were able to find the right investors through connections. That’s been a huge competitive advantage. Many of our competitors took the venture-backed funding route, which often results in being pushed in the wrong direction by self-interested investors. An investor’s idea of success, which is typically early-stage growth, doesn’t always align with a founder’s.
Right from the start, we made sure potential investors understood that our company values were part of our DNA they couldn’t change.
Here’s my advice for anyone hoping to start a values-driven business.
1. Don’t be afraid to pivot.
When I bought out my co-founders a few years back, we totally scrapped most of our products—even though they were selling well, we had hundreds of retail accounts across the country, and we had a strong social media following. Why? While the product was popular, we didn’t love its back-end functionality and scalability. In other words, the company was doing well but wasn’t in a position to ever truly take off the way we wanted it to.
So we tore it all down and rebuilt it from the ground up. We began a complicated, expensive, long-term research and development phase. Sure, it was risky. But it proved to be the right decision and paid off in the end.
2. Hedge on the amount of capital you need.
If possible, raise 25-50% more capital than you think you’ll need. This is particularly important for consumer products companies.
Costly, unexpected issues will inevitably arise. It’s better to be safe—and have the financial ability to address problems effectively—than sorry.
3. Seek out the best advisors in your field.
Find advisors who have experience in the same industry or similar industries. Get them involved in your processes wherever possible so they can help spot issues and identify opportunities. Keep them incentivized and give them enough room to run and create things.
Just don’t let them push you away from your vision. Always stay true to your values.
4. Be flexible but firm.
Building a company is a balancing act. You may have to compromise on your vision if it doesn’t perfectly translate to the real world. In some cases, it may make sense to bend if something just isn’t possible, but also don’t immediately shift course on anything that’s a core value to the business.
For example, when we ran into some roadblocks in designing our filters, an advisor suggested we roll back our ecosystem of products (pitchers, carafes, and bottles) and focus on bottles only. We pushed back and said, “No thanks.” Today, the people who pushed for that pivot tell us that we made the right choice.
You have to understand when to be flexible and when to stick to your guns.
In the consumer products industry, the CEO’s job is to be the master chef of the business: He or she has to create that special sauce with just the right combination of values and practicality. The CEO has to be both creative and technical and flexible and unwavering in his or her commitment to the overarching company vision. Only when all of these ingredients blend together harmoniously can you create a truly exceptional product.