Since a fateful trip to Burning Man in 2015, Nicholas Reichenbach has been on a mission to bring wellness to the world through the positive power of water.
Wading through an ocean of plastic bottles at the end of the festival, the serial entrepreneur dreamt up the idea of a sustainable premium water company to challenge the major conglomerates.
More than 17 million devoted customers, a roll call of A-list investors including Shawn Mendes and Post Malone, and public markets thirsty for sustainable investments have inflated Flow’s private valuation, with the company on the verge of going public on Canada’s Toronto Stock Exchange.
Now, having just announced a further $90 million raise that could set the company up for a potential US listing, Reichenbach is setting his sights on becoming “the Beyond Meat of the beverage category”.
Here he talks about the pressures of going public amid a pandemic, shares his most valuable lessons, and explains why COVID-19 has been the ultimate litmus test that should set Flow up for success for decades to come.
On Flow’s natural evolution…..
At the beginning, we were focused on producing high-quality mineral water in an eco-friendly pack and retailers listed Flow because of its sustainability. At the same time, the category of alkaline water exploded in North America. It jumped from 100 million in global retail sales and 50 million from the US in 2014 to 1.2 billion and 600 million in 2020. Now Flow is in the top five alkaline mineral waters sold in the US market. We just hit at the right time with the right product and with the right category growth.
On tapping into the wellness market…..
We’re riding the new trend of what was electrolytes in water. Now it’s all about alkaline water and we really appeal to the wellness user. Once people try Flow, they really like the taste profile and the health benefits. Then it’s our job to explain that not only do we have an amazing high-quality alkaline mineral water with organic flavours and ingredients, we also have an eco-friendly, non-plastic bottle. It’s better for you and it’s better for the planet, which is really our mantra as a brand.
On scaling in a responsible way…..
Before going public, we raised over $100 million through a series of financing rounds, which we have used to buy assets internationally, like our spring in Augusta County, Virginia, so we can lower our carbon footprint and deliver a high-quality domestic product in the US.
Before Flow, I learned not to prematurely scale. I did with multiple businesses before and it forced me to sell too soon. We put so much money into scaling before we had revenue. So with Flow, we want to scale in a responsible way, in a sustainable way, and the US is where we’re really focusing our next growth.
On rolling with the pandemic…..
When the pandemic hit we focused on supporting our retailers through the initial “pantry loading” phase. We were able to open up our production, so we got a big burst of revenue in March and April. Then when the pandemic reduced foot traffic to stores our e-commerce business went up in direct proportion, if not higher, than any reduction.
Unfortunately, Covid knocked out our international expansion in the UK because we just could not physically manage the business there. But overall last year we grew 44%. Our average growth rate over the past four years is 91%, so we saw a little decline, but we still grew 44% during Covid, which is a testimony to our customers and retailers. Returning to Europe, via the UK, will probably be the focus for 2022.
On following the lead of Beyond Meat…..
Consumers don’t just want good products any more. They want good products that are good for the planet. Beyond Meat was a great example of a company that has a great product and a great mission at the same time as trying to make the world a better place. We’re the Beyond Meat of the beverage category.
The strength of this category is also driving investment. When Beyond Meat went public in 2019 it really opened up the ESG [environmental social governance] category for companies like Flow. It’s a very strong and growing category for big, large institutional funds that are being mandated to invest in environmentally and socially responsible companies. Now it’s growing to a multi-trillion dollar investment strategy led by some of the biggest funds in the world.
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On going public amid a pandemic…..
For Flow, we were very successful at raising money during the pandemic. As an essential product, we actually had increased sales and were able to mitigate any losses. For food and beverage, the pandemic, although it slowed some growth down at a top-level, it’s been very good for everybody. People are drinking and eating more healthily. And so we didn’t find it too difficult to raise capital.
As we see the light at the end of the tunnel now, in the US and Canada, it’s just getting better because people are saying, hey, wait a minute, these companies are not only pandemic proof, but they’re still in hypergrowth. We’re going to be around for decades.
On IPO possibilities…..
When Beyond Meat went public, they brought CPG [consumer packaged goods] food and beverage, along with ESG into a completely new public market investment strategy. They paved the road for going public in both Canada and the United States in a category they call “better for you”. Beyond Meat now appeals for the better for you and ESG category. They’re hitting both of those. And that’s what Flow has hit on too.
On a new era of ESG investment…..
ESG is going to become incredibly important for companies wanting to raise capital at large scale. The world is starting to react to the environmental concerns that we’re having and companies are starting to pave the path for a new level of responsibility driven by consumers intent on purchasing better products.
Even companies that have been around for hundreds of years will have to innovate to make sure they are doing good for the planet. That shift will probably take 20 years but it’s a big megatrend.
On putting the planet first…..
With Flow we were designed for ESG. That’s why I started the whole company. We’re going to see that be a very important aspect to being able to raise and scale globally. And guess what? The consumers are driving that trend and they’re not going to go away.
For companies motivated by ESG, it will get easier for them to raise capital and it should because they’re being rewarded for being good stewards of the planet.
On valuable lessons and biggest mistakes…..
My most valuable lesson on raising capital is to try to give yourself at least 18 months worth of burn. Take on as much capital as you need for at least 18 months of growth – and you should probably times that by two. It’s a lot of work for entrepreneurs to raise money so if you’re continuously raising money, you’re not building the business.
The biggest mistake people make in entrepreneurship is they think dilution and ownership of the company is the most important thing to them. From my experience, the most important thing is being able to build a large company and a large consumer base that love your products. Everything else will follow after that, whether you own 100%, 50%, 20% or 5% of the company.