Founders of S'wheat
Amee Richie and Jake Elliot-Hook, the co-founders of S'wheat Bottle. S'wheat Bottle has developed a reusable plant-based water bottle made from sustainably sourced bamboo and wheat straw For every bottle sold. The company plants a tree and removes plastic from the ocean.
[00:00:00] Maiko: In today's episode, I speak to Amee Richie and Jake Elliot Hook, the co-founders of Sweet Bottle. Sweet Bottle has developed a reusable plant-based water bottle, which is made from sustainably sourced bamboo and wheat straw. For every bottle sold, the company plants a tree and removes plastic from the ocean, and the product has just recently been launched and is available now. So I'm really excited to talk to Amee and Jake about their entrepreneur journey and about the product, welcome to the show.
[00:00:31] Amee: Thanks so much for having us.
[00:00:32] Jake: Yeah, thanks so much for having us.
[00:00:33] Amee: It's great to be here.
[00:00:34] Maiko: Thank you. So tell us about your journey, why do you do what you do? Why did you decide to build a water bottle company and how did you become entrepreneurs?
[00:00:45] Jake: Yeah, so we started back at the end of 2019 and we launched with a pre-sale crowd funder, and the whole goal of that was to raise 10,000 pounds within a 30-day timeframe. And if we raised those 10,000, we would have enough to get our mold and tooling in place and start producing our product. But if we didn't hit that 10,000 goal within those first 30 days, we wouldn't get to take any money away with us, so it was really kind of make or break.
So it was quite intense quite scary 30 days. But luckily by the end of those 30 days, we actually doubled our funding goal, we raised about 23,000 pounds and that was enough to get us up and going and get our first production running, so that's how we started, and that launched about the start of 2019. No, 2020.
[00:01:32] Amee: Yeah, 2020. Yeah, and the whole idea came around when we were both studying. So I was at college and Jake was at university, and, you know, we were seeing the amount of single use plastics, unfortunately, the students were going through lunchtime and things.
So at this point knew there was some reusable war bottles already on the market, plastic, steel and glass, mainly. And we wondered why people weren't tending to opt for these and they were still using single use. So we've done a little bit of market research about that and we found that typically people weren't happy with the options because of plastic, you know, they're quite difficult to clean, you can get black molds, can accumulate, it can be quite smelly. Glass is quite impractical for on the go, especially if you're a gym goer, if you drop it, that's it. And with steel, people don't know that they're actually really energy intensive to manufacture, and also, you know, if it dents or it gets a metallicy taste or use maybe a hot drink in it, you can't really get that taste away afterwards.
So we just want to create something, that was a lot more practical, very sustainable, very circular, but also functioned well and looked nice, and that's kind of how we started Sweet, and then yeah, as we say, launched that pre-sale crowd funding campaign.
[00:02:52] Maiko: Yeah, I'm just looking at your crowdfunding page, obviously the bottle design was a little bit different than what you have now. I actually got one of your bottles here, I don't always buy the products of podcast guests, but I was in the market for one, so here I am. But tell us more about that crowdfunding campaign and what place. Were you in at the time? Was it like pure idea and some mock ups, or did you have everything lined up just ready to go? How far were you at that time? And then what did you do up straight after that?
[00:03:23] Jake: Yeah, so we literally just had our CAD file for our product, so we had our 3D prototype and that was it, we didn't have anything else, we didn't have any physical products at the time. And when we first started, we literally just sketched up a design of a bowl that we wanted it to look like and sent that to our factory.
And they were like, oh yeah, sure we can do this, and they made up our CAD file for us. And then based off of those CAD files, we could make up some renders and some nice photography that we could use for the crowdfunding page.
[00:03:54] Maiko: Wow, amazing. And then from there you basically promoted the crowdfunding in your own kind of circles, or how did you go about marketing and actually getting the funding amount you needed?
[00:04:05] Jake: So it is quite funny at the time, if we're being honest, I don't think we had a clue what we were doing, we were just trying everything we could. And it's not until after that we started realizing what we actually done. And we didn't realize that we'd done that by accident.
So there wasn't anything planned, we didn't have a strategy at all. It's quite funny because sometimes we've come across articles about people writing about our crowdfunding campaign and how it became a success. and it's like, oh yeah, Jake and Amy done this and this and this, and they planned this out beforehand. And it was like, that's not the case whatsoever, we just completely winged it.
But yeah, we ended up picking up a lot of PR. And you find that when you get PR it kinda snowballs into different articles, so once one big media outlet picks it up, you'll find that a lot of smaller outlets will pick it up, so it kind of snowballs like that. So PR was a really big one that pushed us to hit that funding goal.
[00:04:57] Maiko: Oh wow, amazing. And did you stumble into the PR opportunities or were you very strategic at the time?
[00:05:03] Amee: No, it was totally just stumbling into it. We, initially told some contact that had originally helped us, like mentors and things that had helped us. We told them about the campaign, you know, asked them could you share it, things like that. A lot of people shared it on LinkedIn, which done really well.
I think it was actually the hashtag was trending on LinkedIn that day, which was really cool as well. And then our local, quite big outlet in Edinburg, well, got in contact with us wanting to learn more. So we told her story, she wrote a whole article on it and posted that on Facebook and the Facebook page that that was posted on, had a lot of following and it got shared locally and then nationally, and then it really grew. But that was literally, we just stumbled on it, it just happened to be that the journalists had seen it by accidents through the kinda network sharing.
[00:05:54] Maiko: Wow, amazing. And then once you got the money in obviously 20K is a great amount but obviously you are not in the same position as a huge company that can then put hundreds of thousands into product development. How much could you actually get done with that initial funding? How far did it get you and what did you do basically do step by step from there?
[00:06:15] Jake: Yeah. So I mean, first thing we done was paid for our tooling, got the mold made for our product.
[00:06:21] Amee: If I think back now, it wasn't quite enough money, we did then have to apply for a few grants as well. So we did spend, about a year applying for different grants that were available, competitions, basically anything we could get our hands on.
Which helped a lot as well, and then we put that on top to help with the production, coz obviously those costs can just be really high, especially when you're starting with something totally from scratch and totally unique, costs are really high, so yeah, it did take quite a bit.
[00:06:50] Jake: Yeah, so the first thing we done was our molding, tooling costs and then buying our product. And I think, how many units did we get when we first started
[00:06:58] Amee: Like 5,000?
[00:06:59] Jake: Yeah, I think it was about 5,000 units. Yeah, and then of course our storage facility, which at the time was a 20 foot storage container in the back of a temporary yard just because it was really cheap. Our first office was actually half of a builder's portable cabin.
In the back of a temporary yard as well, and those things are not insulated whatsoever. So like when you're working away in the winter, it is freezing, it's so cold. But yeah, humble beginnings and it was very cheap, yeah, so that was the main reason that we went there.
[00:07:27] Maiko: I'd love to talk a bit more about your product and understand what goes into making this and what kind of a typical life cycle of this looks like. Tell us the materials that I use to create this and the process that you use to create this?
[00:07:43] Amee: Yeah, so we use materials that would've otherwise been burnt, so byproducts, so that's the wheat straw, and then we also use bamboo fiber as binder.
[00:07:53] Jake: Yeah, it's important to know that we don't use actual wheat grains, we only use the stocks of the wheat plant.
[00:07:59] Amee: Yeah, so that makes it safe for people with gluten intolerances, gluten-free diets, that type of thing, which is obviously very important, and yeah, we want you to be as circular as possible. So of course all of our, what we're using that waste material, but then also our packaging is made from recycle materials and is fully recyclable. So we have a nice cheap packaging. And yeah, I think, I mean that's our, product.
[00:08:23] Maiko: Wow, so the materials are really wheat and bamboo. Is there anything else that needs to be, obviously, I guess some maybe natural colors or something like that to get that color, but anything else that you need to put into this to actually make it this like a solid bottle? It's hard to, for me, as somebody that's not in that space, to imagine how the materials transform into a bottle like that?
[00:08:46] Amee: Yeah, so we have to use a small amount, a very small amount of biodegradable PP and then we, yeah as Jake said, there's some silicones and things which are also unavoidable. You need those to be able to stop, for leakage and things like that, but apart from that it's the plant-based materials yeah.
[00:09:03] Maiko: Amazing, great. And then How does it work? Now we're getting into some detail, and I know you just launched, but like, how does it basically look for a life cycle of a bottle like this? What would happen at the end of the life cycle with that? Obviously I can't put it in plastic recycling. It's a different material. What's the concept there? Or maybe also your vision if you are, trying to still improve on that, where you're at with that?
[00:09:28] Jake: Yeah, so sometimes people get in touch with us and they're like, Oh how long's all gonna last? Is it gonna fall apart in my hand? No, it's not, it's not gonna biodegrade in your hand or anything like that. It'll last as long as you look after it, and then when you want to upgrade to one of our other products, all you have to do is just throw that in your normal bin, it'll end up in landfill, and it'll biodegrade naturally in landfill.
[00:09:48] Maiko: Wow, amazing. Let's talk a bit more about lessons learned. We already got into that actually very quickly, but I'd love to learn a little bit more on your journey. What do you think have been some of the biggest mistakes made by you so far? What have been like difficult lessons learned?
It feels like founders usually, you know, we all make mistakes all the time, but then sometimes we quickly move on from it, obviously, and learn and adapt, and it feels like even what you just shared, that you didn't have the ultimate master plan from day one, maybe it didn't even matter that much because you managed to adapt and react quickly and actually then build a company and you did build a company.
So, Maybe everything should be done step by step, I think sometimes that lesson is really valuable because there's people that do the opposite. They just plan, they have the master plan, but they don't have a company at the end, they just have the master plan. So tell us a bit more about your journey and like mistakes or difficult lessons you had to learn.
[00:10:44] Jake: Yeah, so when we first started we were very stingy with our money, we didn't have much money, so we didn't want to outsource anything. So things like packaging, design, branding, marketing, we would do that all ourselves, we didn't outsource that at all was great cause it saved a lot of money.
And we kept that idea going forward, especially with our storage units and stuff like that. We would go for like the cheapest storage unit I don't recommend cutting corners on storage costs. A huge problem we had was we got a 20 foot container like...
[00:11:14] Maiko: I'm just gonna interrupt there, on storage cost, what were like some of the stories there that happened?
[00:11:19] Jake: I wish I could describe what our storage yard looked like, it was like something out of Mad Max. It was these steel containers on top of each other with stairs bolted to them, and the way up to our storage container was a metal stair that was bolted to a van, like a dilapidated van, it was absolutely insane.
It looked completely mad. I don't know how it worked, it was really sketchy walking up and down it for sure. Definitely didn't meet any sort of health and safety regulations, but it was super cheap, it was about 80 pounds a month, it was so cheap. And it was a 20 foot container, so it, worked for starting off, but, a few months into that, so we had about 5,000 units sitting in it and then there was a huge fire, massive fire.
Somebody had a...
[00:12:08] Amee: Power tool.
[00:12:09] Jake: Yeah, it was some sort of power tool that was Propane powered. The propane tank blew up huge fire, and flames actually stopped right outside our storage unit, so there was about six or seven melted and warped storage units.
And people lost all their stuff that was inside, but luckily the flames stopped right outside our storage unit. And we thought everything would be mell and our bottles would be destroyed, but thankfully everything was absolutely fine. We were super lucky and dodged that bullet, but then six months later there was a massive robbery in the place.
And it was a proper heist. It was really, really weird.
[00:12:42] Amee: Yeah.
[00:12:43] Jake: So like people came in, cut security, cameras, spray painted everything they touched, cause apparently that gets rid of fingerprints or something. They broke into everybody's containers. Luckily they weren't looking for reusable water bottles, so they, didn't take any our stock, but they lot of power tools and things like that.
They also stored classic cars in the place we were in, so they stole classic cars. I think they took about four of them and then they hooked this big chain mechanism up to the back of one, drove it down to the borders, and pulled out an ATM machine from the wall, and then they got away with an ATM machine and then lit the car on fire.
It was a proper heist. It was really, really strange. And after that we were like nope, we're done, we're moving our stock, that's it.
[00:13:24] Amee: Cause you know, people say everything comes in threes, right? We were like, okay, this is two things, we cannot afford a third. And because insurance providers don't actually insure, for that type of storage because it is so risky. We weren't insured for the stock either, so if something had happened, we would've lost everything. So we were just like, we cannot be taking that risk anymore.
[00:13:50] Jake: Yeah. So my bit of advice would be to not cut too many corners.
[00:13:56] Maiko: Got it.
[00:13:56] Amee: And get good insurance.
[00:13:58] Maiko: get good insurance as well, right? That's also something that you may not think about in the first days, especially if a physical product you know, you may just focus on the product. Did you kind of get insurance the day after that these things happened?
[00:14:10] Amee: We moved place straight away, got the best insurance that we could, and yeah, we're like, okay, we're never making that mistake ever again.
[00:14:20] Maiko: Got it. That's some good lessons and then, I don't think either of you have product development experience of bottles, right? So you kind of got started with the idea, you made some mockups, you raised some funding through Crowdfunder, and how did you actually get that expertise? Did you collaborate with manufacturers out there and how did. Make sure that you could design like a beautiful product?
[00:14:44] Jake: So we actually met some people from Barclays Bank. It was from their Eagle Labs actually, and they were really great, they had a few engineers that were just kicking about day to day there. So we got along well with them, and then we just kinda asked them, would you be able to help on this? And they did, and it was super cheap for us which was great. Especially for getting started, it didn't cost us thousands and thousands of pounds.
[00:15:06] Amee: It was under like a thousand pounds, which is just insane to be able to get help with product design it was very cheap.
[00:15:12] Jake: Yeah, it's really just trying to find the right people out there who are just wanting to help, and that was a big cost saver for us when we first started.
[00:15:20] Amee: Yeah.
[00:15:21] Maiko: Got it, amazing. And then I assume at the moment you're probably producing of a partner manufacturer that's manufacturing everything for you. How was that product development phase working with them?
[00:15:32] Amee: that it takes a long time to find a suitable partner, and yeah, it just took a really long time to find someone who meet all of our needs and, you know, even down to, because we not only have our manufacturing partners, but we have our printing partners and our laser engraving partners, we had to find the right people for those as well.
And even up till printing, we didn't get that sorted until more recently. Yeah, it's quite a big chunk of time, I'd say if you can try to keep and allocate for that and instead of rushing into maybe one that isn't quite right or isn't quite the right fit.
[00:16:09] Maiko: Got it. I've seen quite a lot of case studies of startups, some of which I've actually backed that did crowdfunding campaigns for physical products, and that really struggled either honestly, just struggled and underestimated how much it actually takes to develop a physical product, you know, Having issues with product quality and things like that in the end.
And I'd just love to see if there was any lessons learned from your site on that. Because there's quite a lot of failed stories of startups like going out there very naively. Maybe working with the wrong partners and ending up with very low quality products that they can't then they spend a lot of money on, but they actually can't really sell.
And what you've created here, this is just your first product, but it's really solid. I really can't imagine this breaking anytime soon. So, would love to hear about that process?
[00:17:00] Amee: Yeah so, when we first initially launched and we launched throughout presale card funding campaign, the product was slightly different. We originally had this concept of having the bottom month screw so that it would be super easy to clean. However, what we didn't take into effect that that's actually really difficult to achieve
And so that led us down the path of having products that we weren't completely happy with and then ended up not selling. Which of course again, was a lot of money that we didn't anticipate for, and that's, we then had to go back and redesign the product. We still want it to be super easy to clean. So we needed to take into effect, how we would actually do that.
Which meant making it a wide mouthpiece, instead not additionally, water bottles have quite a narrow mouthpiece. We wanted to have it wide so that you could actually fit your hand in clean the bottom easily, because again, our whole concept was about making it sustainable and practical, functional.
So yeah, that was another big cost, it took a long time to then redevelop the product because now you have that fear that it's got to be perfect this time. And so we wanted everything to literally be perfect, so yeah, that was a mistake in our part.
[00:18:13] Jake: Yeah, I think we went through about six different prototypes. Yeah. That took a long time.
[00:18:18] Amee: Yeah, it took a long time.
[00:18:20] Maiko: Got it. Yeah, definitely can't imagine it takes quite a bit, . So I'd like to actually, think back to when you decided to co-found together and developing this product together because I work with a lot of solo founders. You know, Sometimes they're looking for co-founders and they're trying to find a good framework on who should I be looking for. You know, how did you actually decide to become co-founders and is there any kind of clear division between the two of you in terms of skill sets and focus that works really well for you?
[00:18:53] Jake: Yeah, so we met back in high school and we've been together since we've kind of known each other forever, so we know we work really well together. Amy definitely has her own skill sets, amy handles the whole logistics side of everything I handle, market and sales. That's kind of the area that I like to be in. So yeah, they're two completely different size, but they work really well together.
[00:19:13] Amee: Yeah, I think because we had known each other a long time before starting the business as well, we both knew where our brains functioned better in, so Jake was a bit more creative and I was a bit more logical.
And so it made sense for him to take on more of the creative side and for me to take on a bit more of the boring side but it works really well as a dynamic as well, and of course, people always ask us, Is it hard being a couple and being co-founders? I wouldn't say that it's hard, it's just different.
Because like we never really switch off. If you, not co-founding together, you would go your separate jobs and then come home together and be able to talk about it, but we are with each other every day, all day, and then come home and still talk about the business. So it's not, yeah, it's just different, isn't it?
[00:19:58] Jake: Yeah, you can't really switch off, you'll still be in bed thinking about, oh, did I send that invoice off today? Oh, I've got to do this tomorrow, I've got this going on. So yeah, you don't really switch off.
[00:20:07] Maiko: Has that ever become like a bit of a burden where you feel like, okay, we need to do something to be able to switch off, like we can't think about the business 24/7?
[00:20:16] Jake: I don't think I can to be honest, I'm just kind of of used to it. We've been doing it for years. It doesn't bother me either cause I'm always thinking about the next thing. So yeah, I'm just used to that way of thinking.
[00:20:25] Amee: Yeah. I think you just become accustomed to it.
[00:20:27] Maiko: Got it, yeah, amazing. I mean, If you love what you do and you love, building the products that you do and building the company that you do, that's really great. I think there may be a bunch of people out there are skeptical about, couple studying companies together, but I think I've seen actually quite a good few success stories. And if it's done right, it can work really well.
What do you think has been like part of that success between you in terms of how you communicate with each other or in terms of how you operate a company with each other? Is there anything that you had to learn to not just be a great couple, but also great business leaders together and great co-founders?
[00:21:01] Jake: I think it's really important to have the same vision and the same goal for the company.
[00:21:06] Amee: I was literally just gonna say that.
[00:21:08] Jake: Yeah, I think if you have that same alignment, you're gonna always follow the same road. So I think that's the main point.
[00:21:16] Amee: Yeah, definitely. Because you can have disagreements about the small things, get into that end vision but as long as you have that end vision there, you can make compromises about those small things. Whereas, you know, if you don't share the same end vision, those small things are gonna be much bigger things. So I think yeah, vision is keen and maybe just communication skills as well.
That's something we're always working on, but just, yeah, talking to each other in the right way, being very honest and taking criticism on a professional level rather than personally, cause of course, when it's your significant other and they give you criticism, you're gonna take that to heart. It's remembering that in this circumstance, your colleagues and he's not having a dick at you or whatever. So yeah, it's just kind of the communication skills working on that all the time as well.
[00:22:11] Maiko: the best co-founder relationships are very often about challenging each other as well, and kind of really, testing assumptions, you know, rather than just blindly celebrating what everybody does, like actually questioning it and trying to, for the sake of building a better company, really, always focusing on that, so it seems like you're doing that really well. That's great.
[00:22:32] Amee: Yeah, we try.
[00:22:35] Maiko: Amazing, yeah. One, thing I'm wondering about is a little bit the kind of vision for the company and how you see the company fit into kind of what's out there already. Obviously you have quite a unique product quite a unique vision of, what's important to you in terms of sustainability.
At the same time, this is a very crowded market in general in terms of, bottles being available. So would love to learn a bit more from your side. How do you think about kind of differentiating yourself in the long run? What kind of customer segments you're focused on? Obviously I assume at the moment it's mainly sustainability to conscious people, but how do you see yourself grow from that and really grow the company from here?
[00:23:16] Jake: It's really important for us to target people who are interested and be more sustainable, and we wanna make it easy for people to be more sustainable. Cause right now there is a lot of people that want to go sustainable, want to be eco-friendly, they just don't know how. So it's really kinda putting out to them and making it much easier.
Especially in terms of the end stage of the product as well. A lot of people wouldn't know what to do with the product. And yeah, and then they just end up sitting in landfill, so it was really important for us that our product could biodegrade at the end of its life cycle, and just keeping things really simple for people.
[00:23:48] Amee: Yeah. And then another part of our business that's huge is obviously our trackable tree planting, as you know. and we wanted that to be as transparent and again, as simple. And we have seen so many brands come out nowadays and say, Yeah, we plant trees with every purchase, but where is the evidence of that?
Where's the proof of that? We really didn't want to be categorized in that we want you to do a tree plan. We wanted to make a difference, but we didn't want people to think, yeah, are they actually doing that? So that's why the whole trackable system was really important to us, and I think long term we're looking at, you know, how we can evolve that. We're really excited about the opportunities we have within that, so yeah.
[00:24:30] Jake: Yeah, transparency is very key, especially being paired with sustainability.
[00:24:37] Maiko: Got it. Yeah, and what I love about what you do as well is kind of really taking sustainability throughout every bit in the company, right? Like, I mean, there's plenty of companies now that just plant a tree and basically sustainability doesn't actually affect their product development, right?
They may just produce whatever product they've already produced and they're like, okay, plant some trees, it doesn't cost us that much, and we'll compensate whatever bad the product is doing. But, the reason I wanted to have you on the show as well is really showing that it can be done.
You can think from first principles and design a product that sustainable, and then also plant the trees on top of that and take the plastic outta the ocean. So yeah, I think brands just need to be better than what, they're currently doing in very many instances. I guess the challenge there that I could see is, really fighting against greenwashing from better funded brands and companies.
I assume that, I don't know if that's already a challenge for you, you know, at some point that may be a challenge where big incumbents come in and make bold claims that maybe are difficult to verify for consumers, but that sound like nice. So how do you think about that? How do you combat that?
[00:25:54] Amee: Yeah, I mean, it's always gonna be a challenge. Especially, as you say, with bigger, more funded companies. But I think that's why we are really excited to evolve our trackable aspect with everything, all aspects of what we do because, that will again, show exactly how everything works and allow people to interact a lot more with it.
[00:26:16] Jake: Yeah, and kinda playing on the UN sustainable development goals as well and making sure that you fit those boxes and that your company actually does what it says. So yeah, I think a lot of companies are gonna be looking at the UN sustainable development goals going forwad.
[00:26:32] Amee: Yeah, I think for us, we done all of this work right at the start, and I guess, if you're listening to this, you might be at that stage, which is, I would say the best point to do it because it's easier to do it at the start rather than make all these things in place.
And you've got to go back and look at how can I now make this more sustainable? How can I, cut down the emissions of that? that'll be more challenging because you've already got things in place. So if you can do it at the start, and I think that's what really helped for us and what makes the brand stand out as well, cause that's, I think, quite a unique journey.
[00:27:07] Maiko: Got it. Amazing. I've got one more question for you before we wrap up, and that's if you think 10 years ahead from now how does the word look like if Sweet Bottle succeeds?
[00:27:18] Jake: Well, hopefully a lot more trees. We really want to fight against deforestation, so we always plant trees where they're needed most in the world. So that's an aspect that we want to grow more, for sure.
[00:27:28] Amee: We wanna work with even more companies through our corporate branding to be able to, remove their plastic from their workplace. Again, plant more trees, make a real impact there, and then obviously work, with more individual consumers as well, help them with, living a sustainable lifestyle on a simpler way.
[00:27:47] Jake: Yeah, and especially with these companies having their net zero by 2030 goals and their ESG goals coming up yeah, we definitely wanna help those companies as well.
[00:27:56] Amee: Yeah.
[00:27:57] Maiko: Amazing. Thanks very much for making the time today. Really excited to hear about your journey, about lessons learned and about developing physical products. Really appreciate your time and see you next time again.
[00:28:10] Jake: Thanks for having us.