Being an avid water drinker (as I hope everyone reading this is as well), I’ve always hated the typical water filtration device. They are alway so big and bulky, which made it difficult to store, the top part loved falling apart every time I poured, and the charcoal pieces present never made my water look appetizing. This is why I immediately became interested in Soma after I discovered their crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.
In short, Soma is a beautifully crafted 100% biodegradable water filter that is delivered every two months to your door through a subscription service. Instead of getting filtered through charcoal, its filtered through coconut shells instead. It’s founder, Mike Del Ponte came up with the idea after an embarrassing episode one night at a friends dinner where he spilled water all over himself and on the floor after using a conventional water filtration device. He then quit his full-time job and recruited a few people in his network to begin creating Soma. After launching a Kickstarter campaign last December, it managed to raise $147,444 after 38 days – almost $50,000 over their target goal of $100,000.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Del Ponte in an interview over Skype. Here, we talk about how he managed to build an all-star team for his startup and his advice for people looking to build an optimal crowdfunding campaign.
You guys have some really talented people on your team, like including David Beeman who has worked for brands like Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee. You also have guys like Tim Ferriss who is one of your advisors. Were these prior relationships that you already had or people who reached out to you?
Yeah. So it was a blend of those. We’re so lucky to have Tim Ferriss as an ambassador and adviser. [He’s] been an incredible investor and adviser. And I actually met him through Branchout, which is the company I work for previously where he was also an adviser. We built a relationship and very early on, I reached out to him and asked if he’d be interested in getting involved with Soma and we’re so fortunate that he said yes and so he’s been fantastic. And yeah, we have a lot of great people like that. There are others though like David Beeman, our water culture designer — whom we only met through our industrial designers Joe Tanner and Mark Stegall and they met him at a tea conference. So he’s a full random connection, but we’re so fortunate to have him because he’s one of the top water filter experts in the world. And so it’s kind of a blend of current relationships and introductions.
What is your process when essentially building a perfect team for startup for your process?
Well number one you just have to have really high standards. So while we’re looking out, putting all the pieces of the puzzle together — our water-filter designer, our industrial designer, our investors, our first hires — you just got to realize if your standard is anything less than world class, you’re killing your culture and probably killing your product too. And so my rule is I always have to be the dumbest guy in the room. You know, like if someone is a designer and I know as much as him, there is a serious problem. We’re hiring a marketer or a customer service person. And so I always try to find people who are super passionate, well-experienced, and very smart and have great attitudes, and quick learners. Almost everyone involved in Soma has come through referral so posting on LinkedIn or MonsterCommerce that doesn’t really work — for us, at least. What works is just selling the vision, getting a lot of people inspired, getting introductions to great people, and doing a lot of background checks and having them add value and do homework before you actually make them officially part of the team.
What have been your biggest challenges so far in building Soma Water?
You know, as a startup, we were moving super fast. I think the two challenges that most companies run into are number one, related to product and number two is related to people. So on the product side, for us where ecommerce direct to consumer online, if you want to buy Soma you buy at Soma.com and so we got a website and building that platform is a big project — it takes a lot of time and money — but as a startup, we’re moving fast so how do you go fast and do it with a tight budget and have great qualities? That’s always a challenge and a lot of issues are kind of about management, prioritizations, making sure the team does not get distracted, and everyone is inspired and motivated.
We also have the physical product of course — the Soma Water Filter itself. It takes a lot of time, money, and effort again to develop that and so a lot of this comes out to being clear to your expectations, focusing on big winds and prioritizing right, incentivizing people properly and just making sure you have the right people in place who can move really fast, and be collaborative with all the different partners.
What are some tips that you’ve learned and you would like to offer readers with regards to raise funds through crowdfunding platforms?
So Kickstarter and similar platforms like Indiegogo or Crowdfunder are amazing platforms — I am so happy that we did it. They are great not only for raising your money but also you have this community of supporters which are fantastic — they got your back for you — you get a lot of market research because there would be feedback, you understand who your early customers are, you have some early social crews and traction because there are different articles and maybe win some awards and so I highly recommend it.
Also a lot of it has crew value of concept before you invest too much money into it. So we put Soma on there and we did our best to respond to thousands of people trying to buy the product. We probably would have gone back to the drawing board and say “Hey, before we actually go into the production, what’s going on here?”
I’d say my three biggest tips for Kickstarter: number one is to activate your network. So even if you don’t have a large network, you have to be able to be strategic about how you lever that network. So a really quick and easy thing to do is log in to Gmail, export all your contacts, and put them into an Excel file and sort that. And so we did this when we launched our Kickstarter — I have a few thousand contacts because I’ve had this Gmail account for 12 years. And I went through it and everyone whom I lost touched with I marked at 3 — meaning I wasn’t going to contact them. Everyone whom I knew pretty well and I put into a big email blast, I marked 2 and then everyone whom I felt needed some special attention like maybe I didn’t talk to them for a long time; maybe it was an investor; someone who is really close, I marked one and we sorted that spreadsheet and did a big blast. We basically said “Hey, we poured our hearts into this thing, we need your help. Can you share this on social media and I actually wrote an article on Tim Ferrissi’s blog on hacking Kickstarter with the exact template of everything we did, down to downloading our code to build a viral landing pages.
So people can check that out for the full details. But the first thing is activate your network, the second thing is more on PR. You want to hit the right people and so we actually hired virtual assistants from an amazing service called zirtual.com and for like $400 a month, we had virtual assistants making this amazing media lists like who are the relevant targets? What are their email addresses? How can we engage them? Can someone make an introduction because they are a Facebook of ours? So they kind of found the relevant PR targets for us.
And then the third thing that I always say is you got to win the game before it starts. So a lot of people, they launch their Kickstarter campaign on let say January 1st; and on January 1st they start pitching media. That’s not what you want to do. Before you launch your campaign, like two weeks before, you want to be pitching all the media for coverage. And if you have time, before that, just be friends with them. You know, take them out for coffee, invite them to event, and get on the know of the human side of your company and why they’re so passionate. And also for all the people you’re emailing when you launch your campaign, that first 48 hours you’re just blasting out to your network and asking for help, tell them your vision. Share with them in advance and write all those emails. You can even set them up to a certain time to an app like Boomerang and your saved drafts. That way when your campaign hits, you’re not starting from ground zero but you already have a lot of traction that’ll help you become more successful.
Did you really sort through every single one of your thousands of contracts to promote Soma Water ? How long did that take you?
So we launched our campaign in December so during Thanksgiving vacation when I’m hanging out with my family or on a flight, I would go to the excel spreadsheet. It doesn’t take that long, to be honest, because you’re just sliding through it. There are a lot of people that you haven’t talked to for a long time and then there were people who were your buddies and you can just quickly sort them. We actually just did it again because we have a Soma’s launching in September and the spreadsheet’s grown quite a bit and it took a while but it’s really, really important. You want to be relevant. I hate getting those emails when I haven’t heard from someone for like six months and “Hey, I’m doing something. Can you help me?”
The other thing that’s cool sorting all your contacts — you can also do it on Facebook; you can do it on the writing platforms — is you recap all these people you haven’t talked to forever. So like, I’m sure reminded “Oh man, I need to call my friend from college. So I’m texting him, giving him a call, or connecting on Facebook. And so it’s a great opportunity to remember who’s in your network and rekindle all those relationships.
In terms of manufacturing, obviously selecting a good manufacturer is really crucial in developing a product at great prices. Let’s say I’m a person or an entrepreneur that has a great profit idea but has zero connections in the manufacturing industry, what would your process be? What would be step one to go to that process?
Yes I’m actually here south of the Union City, California. Our glass crafts are made in Germany but our filters are actually made here in California. And so I’m sitting with one of the guys of this today as we Skype so I’m actually at the manufacturing facility and we are manufacturing and shipping today.
You know that’s a really good question. All of your partners are so crucial — manufacturing partner especially. You know, I didn’t have any connection; I never got any manufacturing before. It came from a lot of conversations and the people who are involved in your company share a connection so if you hire an industrial designer that’s brought from the market, they either know the manufacturers or they know consultants who can kind of guide you through the process.
Depending on your product, the materials that you’re using, there are different specialists. We use this process called injection molding and essentially what that means is you’re hot, molten plastic resin and you’re shooting into the mold the shape of your product. And so there’s a limit on the amount of the injection molders. We wanted to do it close to home and we’re based in San Francisco so we made a long list of these guys — to be honest, you can Google them, you can look in the yellow pages but do your home work. Get referrals, talk to their clients, make sure they have good enough facilities, so how they clean they are, and what their track record is. It’s a long process — it’s going to take a couple of months to get down to your top three and then from there you give them your engineering drawings to the products that you want to create and they’ll give you a quote and you can use that information as well to make a decision on who to go with.
My last question to you is do you have any general tips or words of wisdom for our readers who are aspiring entrepreneurs or people who want to start a business someday?
Number one is: wait for that idea that just pulls you out of your seat. So I think a lot of people want to be entrepreneurs right now, which is great, but they’re really jumping on ideas. And you got to make sure that number one, you’re passionate about your idea; number two, that people actually want your product; and then number three, there’s a true business model.
So for me, I am super passionate about Soma because not only is it a beautiful product but it’s sustainable, it’s charitable, and it’s innovative. I know that people want this product because there’s a lot of paying. A lot of people have bought filters that they don’t enjoy and when we did the Kickstarter we got some proof of concept that there’s thousands of people that are willing to pull out their credit card and purchase this, even though we are at prototype stage. And the last is you got to have that business model.
And so for us our model’s really simple: we make the product that we can sell for more than the cost of manufacturing it and we direct the consumers online — so it’s an ecommerce business — and we also actually deliver the filters every two months to your home so you don’t forget to change them once with subscription and so we have a recurring revenue element in our business. It’s a really simple business model. We know how much it’s being cost, we know when people are buying and how much we sell them for — and I think that’s really crucial too that not only I have an idea that people want and they’re passionate about but you really understand that business model so that you can sustain yourself and grow.