One year after founding Thankyou Water, 20-year-old Daniel Flynn hit a wall. His bottling factory had not supplied product for five weeks, which meant he’d lost 300 of his 350 customers and about $20,000 from the cash reserves. “From a personal perspective, I felt like I’d failed everyone,” says Flynn, now 26. “When you’re the guy saying ‘It’s going to take off soon!’ and it all comes crashing down, it can be so hard to deal with.”
What got Flynn through were two things. Firstly, he reminded himself why he and co-founders Justine Flynn and Jarryd Burns had started Thankyou in the first place: to help people in need. Already, profits from their bottled Aussie H2O were beginning to fund sustainable water projects in developing nations.
He couldn’t stop, because if he succeeded, lives would be changed and maybe saved. Secondly, there was his team. They’d got the business off the ground from their parents’ garages – holding meetings in lounge rooms while juggling uni and work schedules. They’d come this far, and if Flynn had learned anything, it was that together they could make great things happen.
The idea for Thankyou Water first hit Flynn in 2008, when he was studying project management at Melbourne’s RMIT University. “The research I was involved in was all about water,” he explains. “For me, it was this mind-blowing thing: we were living in a world of 900 million people who didn’t have access to clean water. There were 4,500 kids dying every day from waterborne diseases.”
As an Aussie with water safely on tap, Flynn couldn’t have been further from the problem. He certainly wasn’t about to die from thirst, or disease. He even bought bottled water from shops at times. “To us, that was a starting point,” Flynn remembers.
“It felt like such an easy concept. Water for water; turn a stupid product into something of significance. Why not? The market already existed.”
As a nation, Australians spend around $600 million a year on bottled water. Flynn connected the dots, and his mates Justine and Jarryd rallied behind him. With a net worth of about $1000, they began visiting bottling factories. “We had no start-up capital and no prospective investors,” Flynn remembers. “So we decided to go down a different path: to obtain support from businesses by proving our idea had momentum.”
The first step was to get a water factory on board. After some persuasive conversations about the Thankyou vision, Flynn and the team managed to secure a deal with no up-front costs. They then locked in bottle donation from an established packaging company, and a major distributor signed up. Finally, they received a one-off $20,000 gift from a business mentor to cover basic start-up costs, and Thankyou was born.
Six years on, despite factory closures and distributors going under, Thankyou has “helped over 90,000 people access safe water”, Flynn reports. Every 600ml bottle sold provides at least one month’s worth of water to someone in need, which means Aussie water now funds water wells, tanks, bio-sand filters and gravity-fed water solutions in the developing world. “We’ve donated over $1.4 million so far to water, food, health and hygiene programs across 11 different countries,” Flynn says. “And to be honest that does feel good.”
Flynn is also honest about the gall of getting Thankyou to this point. “In the early days we met with huge manufacturers and most of the time we had no idea what they were saying,” he admits.“We learned the fine art of smiling and nodding, while writing down every acronym to research later.”
What Flynn does know is his organisation’s mission. “I live and breathe our vision,” he says. “I’ve also learned it’s OK not to know everything. I’ve even found it a benefit sometimes to be upfront if I don’t know what someone is talking about, because it gives them an opportunity to feel like they have something to offer us.”
Thankyou has now diversified into 24 products that span water, food and hygiene, each directly linked to different programs: a food range that funds food, and a body care range that funds hygiene. Thankyou make muesli, oats and bars for the pantry, and hand wash and sanitiser for the bathroom.“ Importantly, we make products we’d actually buy and like,” Flynn explains. “We say the product has to be better than competitors’, and by buying it you’re changing the world.”
But are you also harming the planet? For all the good impact Thankyou has, its bottles come at a cost to the environment. It can take three litres of water to produce a one-litre bottle. Transportation of bottled water requires fossil fuels and many bottles end up in landfill. On this point, Flynn has something interesting to say: “If you don’t buy bottled water, don’t buy Thankyou Water,” he states. “There’s a market already. People in our country spend $600 million on it. While the industry exists in Australia, we will try to get as much money as we can to people who really need water.”