The Thank You range of products stampeded onto the shelves of Coles and Woolworths recently, after overwhelming demonstrations of social media support from customers. But the innovative tactic only occurred to the founder after two years of supplier struggles, collapsed deals, tears and perseverance.
Dan Flynn, founder and chief executive of the social enterprise pairing products such as muesli and moisturiser with aid projects in developing countries, started pitching his original product, Thank You Water, a few years ago.
He told StartupSmart their first terrifying moment happened about a year into the journey, when 300 of their 350 hard-fought for stockists dropped off in a five weeks after their supplier failed to meet demand.
“We’d put all our blood, sweat and tears into getting those cafes and outlets on board. Understandably, our clients turned to us and said they weren’t going to work with us because we were just kids, and they’d go with a brand that could keep up,” Flynn says.
“That hurt because yeah we were just kids, but we’d put a year or two into a partnership that wrecked most of the rest and we lost 90% of our future income in one go.”
Flynn says after a tear-filled walk around the oval near his home, he returned to his team of eight as they sat around a table reeling, realising it was probably over.
“It was too hard. I felt hopeless, that we had failed and I had failed. But at the end of that walk, a little bit of me thought we’ve come this far, we’re going to find a way to get through this,” Flynn says.
His team rallied. They lined up a new supplier, and started organising meetings, pitching the product and locking in new stockists.
Part of their revised plan was partnering with a new distributer with a network of over 4000 cafes and outlets. They told the Thank You team their bottled water product would be in 2000 outlets a week after they signed the new deal.
“We’re there on the calculator doing 2000 times anything and it’s awesome. We’re thinking this is the biggest thing ever and struggle time was over and we’d start creating a big impact in the development projects,” Flynn says.
A couple of weeks after signing the deal, the new distributor went into liquidation and declared bankruptcy.
“Our relaunch fell flat on its face. It was really hard. I’m ok to say it, I cried again,” Flynn says. “It’s easy when you succeed to go on and try something big but when you’ve failed? To try and launch again is even harder than launching the first time as you’ve almost had the hope kicked out of you.”
Flynn and his team stayed focused on the two negotiations they had underway with medium sized retailers.
Two-and-a-half years into the start-up journey with few sales, diminishing capital and a rising sense of urgency to prove the “how” of his social enterprise could work, Flynn says he and his team had never worked harder to make the partnerships work.
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When both came out with their own water brands that backed development projects, Flynn realised it was time to change tactics.
“It was cool they were doing that for the cause, but it kind of sucked for us,” Flynn says, adding he was deeply rattled as a leader.
“I felt like a fake. I was constantly saying ‘yeah but if this’ or ‘if this happens, it’ll all change’ and then we’d all be excited because it was happening and then it would all fall apart. I wondered if maybe I was out there pushing a dead horse.”
The game-changer for his start-up emerged during Flynn’s soul searching. He realised the reason he kept going, the development progress they could back and the fact every single customer they spoke to about the product said they’d buy it over the competition every time, needed to become their main message.
The time had to come stop mounting a business case to convince the gatekeepers to get the product to the customers, and start leading with the validation.
“One of the biggest struggles for any start-up is getting people to buy into your vision. When you’ve got no runs on the board, they’re looking at some young dreamers who they don’t buy into. So we realised we had to put the people who did believe us, those who loved the product, front and centre,” Flynn says.
The Thank You team orchestrated a social media and email campaign to convince the 7eleven buyers to stock their products in convenience stores across the country. After a deluge of contact, 7eleven said yes.
“Telling your team something has fallen through are the hardest moments. But that moment it all comes together, when three years of effort are go from wasted to wow, there’s nothing like it in the world,” Flynn says.
Flynn shares more details about how they stayed resilient and positive, and ultimately pulled it off, in the video below.
This article first appeared on StartupSmart.