Guy Jeremiah of Ohyo

This week I'm talking to Guy Jeremiah, founder of Ohyo.

I've been a huge fan (and user) of Ohyo's collapsable drinking bottles for a few years now, and it was a real pleasure to meet the man behind this brilliant product.

Guy's mission is quite simply "to make drinking tap water easier".

Like so many great ideas, it was borne out of necessity. Guy found himself at a train station with no water fountain in sight, and with no option but to buy a bottle of the stuff. As a natural problem-solver, he knew there had to be a better way; and from his background as an environmental consultant he also knew the wasted resources that go into producing the bottled variety.

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Getting Started - funding, prototypes, and a mauling from the Dragons

Guy started his career as an environmental consultant, building up his first business, JP Envirosystems, before selling it to the Waterman Group.

Following his epiphany at the train station, Guy faced his first challenge - how does someone with no experience of actually making anything go about creating a physical product from scratch?

Making viable prototype products is not cheap, but this is where Guy made his first smart move. Like so many entrepreneurs he went to friends and family for his initial funding. But rather than just asking for money, he swapped equity for expertise. This bought him engineering, design, programming, legal and PR skills for no capital outlay.

I can see that pulling in friends and family like this can be a great way to bootstrap a business. They were delighted to be involved in such a fun and worthwhile project, and Guy built his initial team for next to nothing.

Next he secured matched funding of £20,000 from Yorkshire Forward (a regional grant giving body). This was used to build the prototype bottle.

After that initial round of funding all of Ohyo's growth has been financed from sales revenues. But let's not get ahead of the story ...

Armed with his prototype bottle, a great story and a handful of initial sales, Guy ventured into the Dragon's Den.

Yes, he asked for a ridiculously large amount of money for a ridiculously small percentage of the company - but that's just part of the game isn't it?

The reaction? A bloodbath!

Guy's pitch was slick and confident. In the two second pause before the Dragons laid into him he must have been pleased with how everything was going! I don't really watch Dragon's Den any more as it seems to be all about the TV these days, but seldom have I seen such a hostile and negative reaction.

"A TERRIBLE invention" Duncan Bannatyne

"I'd rather stick pins in my eyes" Theo Paphitis

For the sadistically inclined amongst you, here's a link to the video.

Guy took it all with good grace and never looked back. With over 600,000 bottles sold to date, why would he?

Guy Jeremiah

Re-branding and the big breakthrough

From initial idea (in 2008) to prototype took two years.

In 2010 Guy started selling his first bottles under the "Aquatina" brand.

In 2012, the company rebranded to Ohyo, and at the same time Guy got his first big break - a major deal to stock the bottles in Marks and Spencer.

Because of the sustainable angle, Guy was able to target the Sustainability Director at M&S who in turn introduced him to the appropriate buyer. A great example of how sustainable credentials can help to promote a product.

The Ohyo bottles were the first product stocked by M&S to receive their "Plan A" logo (in recognition of their sustainable pedigree). The bottles are "carbon neutral" after just two uses!

As well as M&S, the bottles are now stocked in Boots, and the company has recently opened an office in the United States. The next concentrated push is into Germany, and Guy is planning to use German Business students in Sheffield to spearhead a social media campaign for him.

Along the way there have been challenges; notably couple of major clients going bust and leaving big invoices unpaid. In one case the only way to get paid was to camp out in reception until someone from accounts came down with a cheque!

Where to manufacture?

Making stuff? Surely you'll be doing that in the far east? Well, apart from the obvious carbon footprint of transporting them, Guy's got an interesting take on that. All of the bottles are manufactured in his hometown, Sheffield. It's not the cheapest option, but Guy's view is that if something goes wrong in the manufacturing process those faulty bottles could be a couple of months on a container ship before anyone knows. With a local manufacturer any problems can be identified and rectified in hours and days, not weeks and months.

Find a Fountain - a campaign for free water

Guy's mission started out with two goals, to create a reusable water bottle, and to create more public access to clean, free, water.

Ohyo has certainly ticked the first box, and it's the Find a Fountain campaign that's ticking the other.

Again, another fantastically simple idea (there seems to be a pattern emerging here!)

  • make an interactive map of all the drinking fountains in the UK
  • create a website where people can upload details of fountains near them
  • let people access the crowdsourced data through a mobile app so they can find the fountains while they're out and about

Oh and yes, when you're at the fountain why not fill up your reusable water bottle...

To kick off the campaign Guy and friend used a Freedom of Information Request to find the locations of all the drinking fountains across London. They then got on their bikes and researched each of the fountains (were they there? were they working?) to build the initial map. They secured a grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation to build the website and the app, and they partnered with the Drinking Fountain Association (formed in 1859 and still going strong!) to promote it nationwide.

The foundation now works with schools, and has lesson plans and presentations on the website to support the Schools Drinking Water Campaign - aimed at getting kids to drink more water and fewer soft drinks.

Guy has a dream that we'll start to leave water fountains as legacies to our communities, in the same way that people commonly dedicate benches to loved ones. And if Guy thinks it should happen, I wouldn't bet against it with his track record!

So there you have it; from environmental consultant, to sustainable entrepreneur, to free water campaigner. The story is best told by Guy himself, so do listen to the interview using the player at the top of this post, or subscribe in iTunes using the link below. And if you've got 10 minutes spare and can stomach it, check out that Dragon's Den pitch...

Resources from the Podcast interview with Guy:

Motivational Quote:

"Make drinking tap water easier" - the company mission statement!

Favourite Business Book:

"Marketing: Real People, Real Decisions" by Solomon, Marshall, Stuart & Barnes

Productivity Tools:

Highrise

Dropbox

Survey Monkey

Links:

Ohyo

Find a Fountain

Business Inspired Growth (the replacement for Yorkshire Forward)

Marks and Spencer "Plan A"

The Garfield Weston Foundation

The Waterman Group

Contact Guy:

On twitter @ohyobottle

Thanks!

I really hope you enjoyed Guy's story, whether you just read it here or listened to the podcast. If you have any thoughts or comments about this episode, please do leave them below in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!

And finally, if you did listen to the show I would be hugely grateful if you could leave an honest review for The Mission Driven Entrepreneurs Podcast on iTunes. Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and greatly appreciated! They do matter in the rankings of the show and I read every one.

Click here to open the show in iTunes where you can leave a review and you can also subscribe to get new episodes automatically.

Thanks again to Guy for sharing his story with us.

Next Time...

I'm talking to David Ralph of Join Up Dots, the enormously successful podcast show. David interviews people doing fascinating things with their lives and, in the spirit of Steve Jobs, encourages them to share their paths to success and fulfilment by "joining the dots" of their lives backwards. David's fantastic fun and Join Up Dots is a goldmine of inspiration, so until next time...