There was a moment, in mid-2016, when Shadi Bakour thought it might be time to abandon his bottled water startup and go back to a job in consulting. He and his co-founders had just lost one of their original partners and, a year and a half into the venture, their sales strategy wasn’t working. Back at their warehouse, they had 20,000 units of inventory collecting dust.
“We were sitting on the curb outside of our office, our heads in our hands,” says YPO member Bakour. “We were just kind of looking down and wondering, what are we going to do?”
Bakour’s company, PathWater, packages its water in aluminum bottles designed to be refilled and eventually, easily recycled. He and his partners had banked on selling it to environmentally conscious consumers at stores like Whole Foods. But instead, their wares were the new kids on the crowded, bottled water block, lost in a sea of options on the shelves.
At the time, Bakour and his partners were living the quintessential startup life: living with their respective families in the Bay Area and doing whatever they could to earn money while they built the company. Between looking for investors and places to sell their water, Bakour worked in restaurants and drove for Uber, while defending his idea to his concerned parents.
“But the great thing was,” he says, “we had nothing to lose.”
They knew they needed to shift their strategy, so they decided to go grassroots. The next day, they got up at dawn and loaded Bakour’s Prius with 60 cases of water. Their mission? Get PathWater into a 7-Eleven. Store by store, day by day, the group approached owners directly to hawk their wares. They loitered in parking lots, staking places out until they could make their pitch.
Their new strategy worked. Within three months, PathWater was in all 227 7-Eleven stores in Northern California. They then set their sights on Southern California, and, by the end of 2018, they were eventually in stores along the entire West Coast. Instead of loading up Bakour’s Prius, they were now driving a fleet of minivans, filled with pallets of cases. The small wins, they learned, added up. PathWater was conquering the convenience store water market, one bottle at a time.
From the Bay to the world
Since those early days of hustling, PathWater has grown exponentially. In 2019, a food brokerage firm took them national. The reusable bottles are now in every state, as well as 7-Elevens in Mexico, and a growing number of other countries.
Along the way, Bakour continues to iterate and shift tactics. One of PathWater’s hallmark distinctions is their co-branding program. In part because they think of themselves less as a water company than a bottle company on a quest to reduce plastic waste, they’ve discovered that sharing 50% of real estate on the aluminum bottles is a means of offering a bespoke product that speaks to a brand’s values.
“People are starting to realize that single-use plastic doesn’t work in the long run for us as a civilization,” says Bakour. “They’re aligning themselves with brands that speak about what they consume as a person.”
Carrying a reusable PathWater bottle, he says, can be considered a badge of honor. And as companies and organizations begin to ban the distribution of plastic water bottles, PathWater is a logical step closer to sustainability — on the path, as it were, to a healthier planet.
As of this year, the company’s partnerships have flowed into numerous sectors. Some of their co-brands include Alo Yoga, Orangetheory Fitness, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and even Yellowstone National Park.
Yet, their arrival at the collaborative approach was an accident. As a thank you to one of their investors, who runs the luxury eyewear brand Oliver Peoples, they issued a co-branded PathWater bottle for customers who purchased glasses at a certain price threshold. The bottles were a hit.
Before that, Bakour says, “We were stingy with partnering with other brands.” Since then, though, the co-branding has become a central component of PathWater’s strategy. “What we found out at the end is that the new world is about collaboration. By working off each other’s strengths, it’s win-win.”
That strategy is working. PathWater has attracted a bevy of high-profile investors, including Guy Fieri and Ryan Seacrest, and is the fastest-growing bottled water brand in the U.S. At the start of 2020, 7,000 retailers carried it. Today, that’s jumped to 18,000. Bakour anticipates reaching 25,000 retailers by the end of the year.
Matching brand with mission
Still, like any startup, PathWater has had its growing pains, particularly in its mission as a pro-social brand while making and growing profits. So far, it’s been able to walk that line by keeping its purpose front and center, despite some headwinds.
“To be the first bottled water brand that’s in the business of not selling more water scares people, because they have to make money,” says Bakour. “That’s definitely a consideration, to make sure that there is still a way to make money.”
Part of that way forward is Bakour’s focus on the core concept, which could be summarized as disruptive — but not jarringly so. “The reason that PathWater is so great is that we’re not telling people to completely get rid of single-use bottled water, we’re just offering the logical next step,” he says. They make it easy for these retailers, schools and even airports to move away from single-use plastic bottles.
What we found is that the new world [of branding] is about collaboration. By working off each other’s strengths, it’s win-win. ”
— Shadi Bakour, CEO PathWater share
“That said, whenever you’re making a change, it’s a constant uphill battle, so there’s education behind it,” he says. “But we’re not trying to ride a trend and make money, so I think when you put planet before profit, the profit comes back in a bigger way.
Bakour continues, “We’re trying to disrupt something that’s been one way for so long. But as this movement starts to pick up speed, there’s going to be a mass awakening on a global level about what we need to do to combat single-use plastic.”
As PathWater’s profile has grown, Bakour’s has, too. Among his personal goals, he says, was getting into Forbes Magazine’s annual list of young, high-achieving entrepreneurs, 30 Under 30, and qualifying to join YPO. This past year, he achieved both.
“When I finally got in [to YPO] and really started engaging with the group, it blew my mind,” he says.
“I quickly started to engage in these MicroForums, for example, and [noticed] the level of connectedness with the literally the biggest organizations in the world. A very, very high level of discussion happened extremely quickly — much faster than I would have imagined. And I’m just going to continue to dive in deeper and engage more. I’m really excited about it.”
Since joining the organization he’s made a few, pivotal connections that he credits to YPO. As he builds both his relationships and his company, however, he also acknowledges the uncertainty ahead. If he has strong feelings about single-use plastic, he’s also philosophical about building businesses.
“Life and entrepreneurship [are] a flashlight on the path,” he says. “Seek advice, but at the same time, do take risks — that’s part of business. If you do that, you’ll find yourself on a different path from all the others. It’s about continuing to take those chances, take those risks. Roll with the punches and figure it out on the way.”
One of the biggest hurdles that Bakour’s company has faced is the ostensible contradiction between PathWater’s twin purposes: Get consumers to buy fewer bottles of water – but still make money. Yet to him, prioritizing mission – even if it means skepticism – pays off.
Seek advice, but at the same time, you need to take risks — that’s the risk of business. You’re going to be in a different place than anyone else. ”
— Shadi Bakour, CEO PathWater share
“How can a business make money if the business model is to sell less,” he asks. But he has an answer: “Consumers are going to vote with their money for the companies they believe are solving a problem, not just trying to make a profit. If you are doing what’s right, rather than just what’s most profitable and you are able to clearly communicate why, you will find that people care very deeply about the products that they purchase and their effect on the environment.”
Bakour also believes that consumers can see through green-washing, a pejorative term to describe how some companies falsely claim or overstate their degree of environmental friendliness. In this case, transparency and conviction again win out.
“At the end of the day, every product has some sort of carbon footprint,” he says. “But there has to be a balance. The ideas that ultimately win are those that produce both a high economic and environmental ROI at the same time.”
For PathWater, so far, both have been true. It is, indeed, a balancing act. But it’s bearing out Bakour’s belief that pursuing big, global problems doesn’t preclude a thriving business.