SOULBOTTLES: A SOUL-DRIVEN STARTUP AGAINST PLASTIC WASTE
"Everything makes more sense than buying a new plastic bottle" - Paul Kupfer
For this fresh new episode, I unpacked the brain of Paul Kupfer, co-founder and CEO of soulbottles (@soulbottles) - an amazing Berlin-based social startup. What they do? soulbottles produces the world’s cleanest drinking bottles and is on a mission to give people all over the world access to clean drinking water and sanitation. How they do it? Well, by offering soul-lutions through making sustainability cool, fun and sexy. They basically create colorful designs that rock and put them on beautiful glass bottles. On top, soulbottles are 100% made in Germany and 100% free of plastic.
I’m very very passionate about clean drinking water, because it is a global issue that is absolutely solvable! There’s no technology barriers whatsoever, it’s linked to giving access to resources - and everyone of us can really help to make it happen...
soulbottles is not only encouraging people to drink tap water instead of buying water in nasty plastic bottles. They also give 1 euro for each bottle sold to Viva Con Agua - an awesome non-profit from Hamburg that improves access to clean water in developing countries. So it’s really a win-win-win. You win, because you have a cool, beautifully designed and durable drinking bottle that everyone around you will be curious about. soulbottles wins, because they can sustain their business and raise awareness for a cause they believe in. And rural communities - in this case in Nepal - win because they get access to clean drinking water.
To give you some numbers: Soulbottles has supplied 8.000 households with 40.000 with access to clean drinking water, donating 37.000 euros of their profits. It’s a story about social entrepreneurship. Of shaping the for-purpose economy. Paul and his co-founder Georg built a social business completely from scratch at the age of 24! I tell you, their journey is full-on fascinating.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU'LL LEARN MORE ABOUT:
- Why you don’t need to be a born business crack to build a social business from scratch
- How a bottle of vodka can become the basis for a brilliant social enterprise
- How moments of crisis (in this case the London riots) can change your life for the better
- Why a “just see if it works” mentality is crucial to get you started
- The meaning of “company” in our current system
- Why raising money for clean water is much easier than for clean toilets
- Who inspired Paul the most on his journey & the biggest challenge soulbottles had to overcome in the last 5 years
- The current global state of clean drinking water & what plastic bottle producers have in common with the tobacco industry
- A moment Paul is most proud of - even though he hasn’t been there himself
- What Paul does that drives everyone in his team crazy
- Where you should go to connect with the Berlin social startup scene
- The realization that the biggest structures around us are human made
- The next steps in the FOLKDAYS story
- The advantages - and the challenges - of starting a sustainable brand in Berlin
- What makes Berlin “Berlin” & the effects of living in peaceful chaos
That is not all: we talked about a Kung-fu master in sales, Paul’s favorite secret spot in Berlin, the weird relationship Germans have with tap water and and and...
Oh yes: why are soulbottles made of glass? Because it tastes SO much better. Plus, glass is a great material that can be 100% recycled! soulbottles are made from around 30-50% of recycled glass. You can read up everything about the production and materials used on their website (see shownotes) - for our interview, I rather wanted to extract those stories from Paul, that you can’t read up on the web 😉
Another great fact about soulbottles: it is a certified B-Corp. Actually, they’ve been one of the first 100 companies in Germany to join the movement! A B-Corp is a for-profit business tested by the US non-profit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. And soulbottles nailed it.
NOW, I made you wait long enough, please meet Paul Kupfer of soulbottles!
SOULBOTTLES - FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:
CLICK HERE TO READ THE TRANSCRIPT:
Hey Paul, super excited to have you on the show today! You guys rock the social business world in Berlin and I’m sure your values and work is inspiring many many people. Not only that, Soulbottles is really changing lives out there!
I’ve been a huge fan of soulbottles pretty much since the beginning I guess - I think the first spotted the bottles at LOVECO, one of my favorite eco fashion stores in the city. And I was instantly fallen for your products: finally, a startup that makes sustainability cool and sexy and fun... Then later I’ve seen your co-founder Georg on stage at the DNX conference, an event that’s aimed at people who question the status quo and want to start their own business and work from anywhere. And Georg’s talk really stood out and I think shifted the mindset of many people at the conference from “just do what you love” to also: do something that matters. And has a positive social impact.
Now I get the chance to chat to you and am really curious to dive into the story behind soulbottles - and encourage the people out there that sustainability can be sexy and fun and also earn you a living.And you just celebrated 5 years of soulbottles last weekend - congratulations!
P: Thank you 🙂
C: What a huge Journey speaking of the journey. I want to travel right to the beginning of this journey and what was that big game changer in your life that triggered you to start Soulbottles. What was that like a pivotal moment or?
P: Yeah. So first of all, thanks for all the praise. Feels good to start an interview with a minute of just hearing how great one's achievements are. And thank you for the interview.
A big game changer - I have been asked that a few times already and it's really difficult for me to think of a certain moment. And often, when I think about what I am doing, or what we are doing at Soulbottles, I don't think of it of being so special. Like that I needed that special moment that changed everything. Because I'm really more or less kept doing what I was always doing. At least this is how it feels to me. I know that there are - if I have to break it down to a certain event - I think there were two incidents that I had just before we started the company.
One of them was an internship that I had. This internship was at a design company in London and I just had that feeling of "wow, this is how a company could be run??". Because, it was so chaotic in my mind and it was so... so unprofessional in a lot of ways I have to admit. At least that's what I felt at that moment. And it's not meant to be anything mean, because I totally get why it was that way. It was just a woman who started it, coming right out of college and, basically, it was just her working with freelancers. On each project she just gathered the freelancer that she needed. But for the outside, if you looked at her website, or you spoke with her on the phone, it felt like a real company. And I was doing the internship, I was the only one who was always there. I was the only permanent member of staff. And I had this feeling of "you know what, founding a company is really easy". Like, if they can do it, if this looks SO professional... you know, this is kind of this magic boundary probably. It was like a look behind the scenes, where I really got this feeling of "OK, this is really doable". You don't have to be a genius. You don't have to be rich. You don't have to have any clue about it. You can do it.
So it's really funny, that kind of changed a lot in my mood of being an entrepreneur and starting a business. That was one of the key moments. But for my general tendency of what I want to do with my life... I mean I grew up in... I was born in '88 and both of my parents are founding members of the green party in Germany. So I think I grew up with a pretty green and eco-friendly lifestyle or mindset.
C: Is there one main thing that really got stuck in your head that your parents always passed on to you, in terms of being green?
P: Both are critics of nuclear power, that was a very strong argument obviously for the green party in the beginning. But also driving, using the bicycle in general and, at least for my mother, having females in upper positions in companies... Those were kind of the things. So for me, it really felt logical to do something that was OK with my values. And nothing like "oh yeah, I am going to be a hippie now"
C: That's awesome. The moment that you just described is so great, because, actually, a lot of amazing social startups or great inspiring companies - at least as I am aware of - have started like that, or are run like this. I just recently finished the audiobook of the TOM's founder Blake Mycoskie "Start something that matters" - and it's basically similar. It's this whole 'fake it till you make it' thing. And so many people just think 'oh no, I can never do this'. But yeah, everything is possible. And I love that you are actually confirming that.
And then, Georg and you, you founded Soulbottles together. How did that happen? How did you come up with the idea?
P: I was studying in Vienna. I was studying communications science and George was officially studying French (but never really went to university). And we actually met at a job, we were both waiters at the Hofburg in Vienna, which is a very posh establishment with a lot of gold and decoration. We worked there one night, that's where we met. And I think we just became friends afterwards. Like, I remember when I was looking for a new flat, I think I crashed on this couch for a month, so we just became really good friends. He approached me with this idea of "oh, maybe we can print on drinking bottles so that more people would use them. And more people would use tap water instead of buying plastic bottles.
And I remember that I started to use a glass bottle which was an old vodka bottle, and old wine bottles, and he did too. Just as a test if it really makes a difference - and it made a difference! And it actually tasted a lot better and feels a lot better, too. But people look at you funny, right - if you drink out of a vodka bottle in the morning.
He said that we could maybe do that, but at the same time, he was wrapped up in so many different projects. He was just trying to be self-employed as a trainer for nonviolent communication and I obviously, was also working. Not only as a waiter, I had a second job, too. And I was studying. So, I never really got the feeling, you know, we should tackle this.
Then, at this internship that I just mentioned, that was in 2011 - and it was the London riots that year, just in the summer! You know, there were a lot of arsenal burning of houses and cars... And they burned one Subway sandwich shop - and just on top of that shop, there was my boss' apartment, where we had everything. All the material! We were doing a lot of video editing, video filming and everything...
Everything was gone and my internship just ended abruptly. So, I was basically sitting in London and Georg was visiting me for a week. He wanted to travel in the UK. And as I was sitting there, he approached me one more time with the idea. Like, maybe we could do this.
And then just a lot of things came together. For me at least. I had this feeling of, "OK, you could really start your own company, it's actually not that difficult. I just saw that. I also have a rough time right now, because my internship abruptly ended, which I did not expect! And I had all this graphic software on my computer, because I was doing the graphic design at the internship. So, these things came together. I didn't have any more excuses, like to say I have no time, I don't want to. I thought, you know what - actually, I have time. Actually, I have time to do this, because I don't know anybody in London. I have this computer sitting around, so actually, I could try it.
For me, this was the beginning, which was approximately a year before the real company was founded. But in the beginning, it was really just a student project. I moved back to Vienna, I kind of figured out how to print on glass myself, which is kind of difficult...
C: How did you do that?
P: Well, I went to the University of Arts - where I was not studying, but they didn't really care. And I talked to a guy who was normally working with ceramics. He was just a great guy. He was I think already 60 years old, but he was so open. Although he was really difficult to understand, because he was from Burgenland. It's a part of Austria when you have a very strong day. So, I was always trying to listen and understand - and he was basically screen printing on paper, then cutting out the designs and then sticking them with water on the bottom. Then you burn them in a ceramic oven at around 600 degrees - and the paper basically just burns away and the color goes into the glass.
It's a lot of work to do that. In the beginning, I was maybe doing like 30 or 40 bottles - which is not a lot. I had to go home and stick them on... There's this funny photo of me and Georg doing that (see below). We stuck these photos or papers on the bottles and drove them back - I didn't even have a car, I had a bicycle with a little cart behind it, and I was cycling with that to the university filling up the oven and then burned them. So, we had I think 40 50 and that was the Christmas of 2011. We just presented them and I remember I had them all up on my shelf in my room. I was living in a big flat with 10 people. We loved parties and sit-ins and having a drink... And every time somebody saw those they went "ah those look really nice, can I have one?". That was just in the beginning, we just gave them away and we didn’t even charge! Then they were all gone and people started calling and said "hey remember, you gave so-and-so a bottle. Is it possible to get one, we would also pay!", you know. I realized that this actually could be a business. And for half a year, this was really something that I did!
I was producing bottles, by myself, with this bicycle... and you know what, I had to go down the hill to get to the university and then up the hill to go back to my house, which was really hard to get to. There were 50 or 100 bottles in that cart. And I didn't even have a transportation box. I just remember sitting there trying to figure out what kind of box I had to build... because you have to move these bottles, with the stickers on, without them scratching and everything.
Thinking about it now, I can't imagine that somebody would really invest in such a weird team of two students with a bicycle. But they did. A friend, who was looking for drinking bottles for his kids, got to know me and Georg and he's like "let's turn this into a proper business." And that was our angel investment.
C: Amazing. Amazing. Really, I love every bit of that story. It just shows so much that, first of all, I think it happens to many entrepreneurs that they are at some point where you were when the internship didn't exist anymore. Like, ok, there's nothing left. So you kind of hit a bit the rock bottom - and then you get super creative. This is your chance and this is why I love when you get out of your comfort zone and aren't always in that safety net. Because then, everything is just possible. I really, really love that. Awesome.
What would you say is the major "why" behind soulbottles? I mean, of course, you want that people drink tap water and not from plastic bottles... But, yeah, why are you doing what you're doing?
P: I think that changed a little bit over time, because in the beginning I was more of the guy that said: OK, I want to try this out, if this could really work. And then the product just felt like: OK, this is something logical, something that I do to not destroy the planet anymore. Which was already ok with me, I didn't have that high standard.
Georg was a bit different. He was really striving for: I want to be a social entrepreneur. This is really how I believe changes this the culture enough to make a big change. And for me it was in the beginning more like I just want to see if it works. But then that moment where we got angel investment and we dedicated and said, OK, let's say we got to do this at least for five years… Like, for real now, we’re going to do this... Because, this was a strong moment for me, right, to give this commitment.
That moment, something changed for me. Like the way changed from “Okay, I just want to see if this works”... Even though this is still a part of me. Also with what we're doing right now with all our nonviolent communication and holacracy and how we built the company… It’s also still a part of me that is just experimenting and thinking: Okay, let's see if this could work.
But for me it changed in so far, that I've got closer to what Georg’s vision was. That the power of “company” in our economic system that we're living in, is so strong. So much stronger, in my mind, than NGOs or political initiatives. I really think, this part of our society - the company, the for-profit part - really needs to change. And I do know that this is not the only thing that has to change and that we won't save the world, just because we all eat vegan butter now or something like that.
Some people tell us: “Well, this is not really solving the problem”... But I think it's a really important part of solving the problem. This is what kept me running. And I also say why. I think it is written down in our constitution, or in our vision if you want, for soulbottles.. Why do we do this, our main purpose: We want, on the one hand side, of course save plastic waste, want to motivate more people to act more sustainable. We want to give more people access to clean drinking water, because it's really a huge problem for almost a billion people who don't have access… And at the same time also see how can you use the profits that you make to start other projects that help us to change.
C: Yeah. Yes yes yes, definitely. Like it's something that really keeps me busy at the moment, this whole social business versus nonprofit. And all the talks and discussions that sustainable businesses or projects with a social cause should not make money. But then, on the other hand, they either stay in their beta version forever or people burn out because they're making everything kind of for free. They sacrifice a lot. And I don't think we're in this stage any more. We’re at a moment where people are ready to pay money for a clean, ethical product, basically. And I think this is also a way how it can actually really make a difference. How it can really spread and grow.
So I guess that is one point that you agree with? Or how do you see that split? Do you sometimes get criticized because you're making money off it?
P: Yes, but I mean not often. I think most people can see that this is not the main focus. But of course. I mean, there's a lot of greenwashing. If you talk to a company like Nestlé, which is like selling a lot of bottled water… I mean, these guys win prizes. Sustainability prices! Because they reduce the weight of their plastic bottle!! Where you think “yeah, but the whole concept of bottling is kind of not sustainable in the first place!” So I can see that people are kind of fed up with this argument of sustainability. Because every company uses it. Even Nespresso, or Coca-Cola, everyone is using it. And maybe it's sometimes difficult to see the difference.
But to have a company like ours - and we're in a very lucky situation, I do know that... We started with kind of low investment and we bought out our investors very early in our history so the company is right now only owned by me and Georg. And we're transferring it to a version which is only owned by all the people who work here.
So it cannot be bought and people cannot skip off the profits. And I do know that this is a very rare case to have this. But for me, to have a for-profit, on paper... a for-profit with a clear purpose. And that clear purpose is not just maximize profits, but motivate more people, make fundraising for 14 more projects… I think this is a huge change. And I know that our part of contribution is maybe not the biggest. But I think it's an example for other companies to do similar things.
C: Totally! I'm such a strong believer that really everything you do matters. Of course, you cannot change the whole world. Start with one thing and as long as you find your way and you make your contribution… And it's not just that you're selling those bottles and people consume less plastic and so on - it's also creating a huge awareness for all the problems or the issues that are connected to it. Really, I mean what you created there is huge!
Did you have some kind of mentor or a special person, or another social entrepreneur that helped or inspired you on your way?
P: I remember that in the beginning, our angel investor was kind of kicking our asses a little bit. In the way of “you have to stop thinking of it as a student project, but start calling it a company and really act upon it”. I remember that I started my e-mails with “Hello, my name is Paul, I’m the co-founder of soulbottles. We are a young startup… blah blah”. And he's like “No you write: Hi, this is soulbottles company.” Baaam. They don't care who you are and they don't care if this a young company. Young company just sounds like “we don't have money”. These little things. He really pushed us strongly I think. I mean, in the end there were also too many differences in our approach. Why are we doing this and how are we going to do it... But yeah, this was a strong mentor in the beginning.
C: I guess it really helped you get it into this direction...
P: Yeah, and I think a lot, it was also me and Georg just for each other. Because, in a lot of things we are very very different. And yes, if I think about the person who challenged me the most, to personally grow - it was definitely Georg. And I know, at least from where we talked, that I had a similar impact on him as well. I also forced him to rethink things.
C: Nice! How important is it for you and your team to have fun, but at the same time spread kind of this vibe and your message out into the world?
P: I think that we call it a value fit. That you think of the people who share the values of us of the company as a whole. This is one of the strongest criteria for our hiring process. We really need people to share this idea of what we want to achieve here. So yeah, a lot of people already bring a lot of that with them. And then, normally the fine tuning or also the conflicts lie in “how do we reach this”. How do we reach a more sustainable world? Because, you also see that we have a lot of touching ground with the “normal world” and that obviously forces us to… we have to take money for product. We have to pay rent. All these things. And so you have to make compromises a lot.
So just because people share your values doesn't mean that you feel like you agree on everything. But this is a strong, strong thing that we do in our hiring process. We choose who we want to work with.
C: Yeah sure. You said that Georg and you were kind of inspiration for each other. Does it also happen that you have people in your team that really inspire you and push you forward? Or is it more the other way around that you see yourself in the role that you should inspire them?
P: No I think it's a mutual process. Obviously with some people more than with others. I think at least five, or almost 10 people in this company are older than me. For example the one who's doing a lot of finance and accounting and controlling is very inspiring for me. Because he really studied that and worked in a bank, you know he really was all the way over there. And now he's here. And he was founding his own eco startup before he joined Soulbottles too. So he brought at least seven years more experience in the field and I am looking up to him in a lot of ways. So, this is very inspiring for me.
And we have somebody else who's doing sales here who is a kung fu master. So he's doing Kung Fu, I think for 15 years now. And doing a lot of Qi-Gong and meditation. He’s also very inspiring. Just the pure calmness and how he approaches his whole life. I sometimes see him do Kung Fu on the balcony on a summer morning… No, this is a mutual process and also takes a lot of pressure from the founder.
C: Sure. Awesome. Sounds like something really nice and beautiful that you created there... All right. Switching back to soulbottles and also the purpose and the impact that you have. With every soulbottle you sell, you’re giving 1 Euro to Viva Con Agua - a very cool charity that is trying to improve the supply of clean drinking water in developing countries. Could you take us a bit deeper here? What is the current state in the world regarding drinking water? Is it getting better or is it getting worse? What are the most pressing problems, especially in the developing world.
P: Yes. The number of people, if you look over the process of the last 10 years is actually declining. So that's a good thing. But it's still very high and too high. Obviously every person who has no access to clean drinking water is one too much. This is the one thing. The project we support right now is a project in Nepal. But you can also project in Rwanda and Uganda. These are some of the regions that are also heavily affected by climate change. So these numbers that are decreasing right now can also be increasing again, say if the United States dropped out of the Paris climate agreement. I mean, it is not 100 % certain that this progress will stay the same.
What we do, we support projects that are conducted mainly by the Welthungerhilfe, which is an even bigger NGO. And why do we do that? Because I think, at least where I am with my knowledge, it makes sense to centralize at least your funds in a certain way. Not entirely, entirely. In fact, we thought a lot about founding our own NGO and then we decided against it. We said no, we are going to look for one that we think does a good job and that we can support. Which makes sense because you cannot do everything at the same time.
Then, in the areas where you like to help, you have to work with local NGOs anyway, which is a difficult process on its own. The projects that we do are called WASH. And this stands for for water and sanitation and hygiene.
Because raising money for clean drinking water… don't get me wrong, but it's kind of easy. You know, you have a fountain, there's clean water coming out and then you see kids and they drink water and they're so happy. The big problem is really sanitation. Sanitation means people go to the toilet - and it doesn't look nice on posters. But it's really a huge problem that almost always goes together. And a lack of hygiene too. So we think it's important that, yes we raise money for drinking water, but we also actually raise it for sanitation. I think this is one of the topics that doesn't get as much attention, because it's more difficult to promote and make look nice.
But those are the projects and those normally go together. So it's not only building fountains, but also building toilets, also educating the people on washing hands and all that.
C: That's great. That's a proof that you can even further your impact. It’s more than just: you make this product. This is one side. I just love that holistic approach behind you guys. That's really inspiring.
About the tap water - I mean you're German, I'm German. And strangely in our country, tap water has been frowned upon for such a long time. It still is, but it's getting better. I mean, isn't that crazy? Here, where the water is so clean. You quite often go to restaurants and they used to refuse you tap water. Or I also know from my family, no one really drank tap water until a little while ago. Why do you think is that?
P: it is actually funny if you, like me, studied in Austria for a time where they're very proud of their water. In Switzerland it's similar, because they have the Alps and they know the quality. And why is that? Well, basically in the 70’s, mineral water as a thing was invented. And then I think they always took Perrier as the French brand as the most... I don't know, the most successful one. But they basically ran campaigns, ad campaigns to promote their product and said “look, water from the tap is actually not good quality”... And it kind of worked.
It is crazy if you think about it, I totally agree. I think right now, more people realize it and choose to act differently. But at the same time we have the problem that we didn't take care of our water enough. Especially with fertilizers. Especially with the way we treat our agriculture in general. So this has an effect on our water. And we also privatized parts of our water, which is also very difficult. Because privatization of water, at least in Central Europe, almost always had the same effect. There was higher prices and lower quality, which makes sense if you want to make money with it. It doesn't make sense if you want to provide the best service.
I think these things combined lead today to even more doubts about tap water - which I can totally understand, because it's kind of similar to this greenwashing. If everybody says: there's something wrong, there's something green about the product and you cannot see the difference. With tap water it's kind of the same thing. Maybe I know that buying water in plastic bottles at the supermarket isn't sustainable. But then again, I also heard something about tap water not being so super clean like it used to be, which is probably also true. So it's difficult to say OK which alternative is now the better one.
For me this decision is very easy. The one gets bottled and transported a lot, which is ridiculously more expensive in production, but also in the CO2 emissions. And the waste of resources for the packaging...
C:... and I guess, isn't that from the plastic bottle, that there also some kind of particles or some toxins?
P: Yeah I mean, this is talked about and there was a big outrage when they discovered BPA in them. Then they replaced the materials with other materials, which you can always say, but sometimes I feel like this whole talk and the whole argument about plastic is very similar to the talk about tobacco just a few decades earlier.
And you have to see that, at least in the EU they forbid BPA in small bottles that are used for for babies, for milk, really for young children. And you have to imagine, like really?? This is forbidden, but only for kids younger than three years old?? And then at the same time, there's so many things in plastics that we do not know...
I wouldn't go so far, because I don't like to make people more afraid and preach and tell like “no, this is not good”. No, I will say there is scientific research and it can be problematic. But for me, the argument alone of bottling something and transporting it and moneywise that it is just more expensive, makes enough sense to drink tap water and not drink mineral water from bottles. Even if you do not trust your local tap water provider. I think it's more safe to filter your water at home if you want. Or if you really love sparkling water, then it really makes sense to sparkle it at home.
"Everything makes more sense than buying a new plastic bottle" - Paul Kupfer, CEO @soulbottles
C: Exactly. I mean, you also save heaps of money. Of course, first you have to get a drink bottle. And maybe you want to get a water filter. But still, if it is calculated on the long run it just makes so much sense in so many ways. Also, in a lot of bottled water, there is actually a part of tap water in it already, right?
P: Yeah. The two big brands both... There was the one from Pepsi in the United States, they were just basically filling up tap water.
C: Yes. Maybe you guys should come up with soulbottles water filters…
P: We have, we do sell filters in our web shop, the ones that we think are the best. Which is one which works with ceramics and coal and one that works only with coal. I think filters are kind of a high tech product and you can't just make and sell that easily. And I think there's a lot of really good companies that build very good filters. Here in Germany, for example, Carbonit is the filter I really like. Also on the global market, a very famous company for very high technology but also in the U.K. there are really good filter companies. I think this was already done pretty good. So I don't want to do it.
C: Sure makes sense. Makes total sense. Why do you think that, I mean your model and your product had such a huge success out there? What's the secret ingredient? What is it that gets people really excited about it?
P: I think it's not only one thing, but the designs definitely helped. I think most drinking bottles have no designs or just the brand logo on them. And from the beginning on, I think the first soulbottles didn't even have a logo. But they had the design.
I remember there were just friends of us who could draw or design stuff and this was the main thing. I mean that's the reason why people buy t-shirts, I think.
C: Because it rocks. Because it looks cool and actually it's colorful, happy. Yeah.
P: And I think that just motivates a lot. We still do these design competitions. We just had one for our 5th anniversary, where people could submit a design in an online voting - and it was incredible. We had over 200 submissions. 200 designs that people wanted to have put on the bottle. And then in the voting process we had almost 100,000… 99,000 votes on our website who wanted to choose a design. And it's amazing! As you see that is a huge part of us…
C: That’s amazing! You get people engaged with your brand. And they can contribute something.
P: yeah, not only engaged with our brand, but also engaged with the whole issue. This is the main thing that we want. Like people have to think about tap water at least. At least think about it when they go on our website…
C: True. That's awesome. Looking back at those past five years - what would you say was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?
P: So many! There were lot of little - well now I call them “little” dramas. But at the time they didn't feel little at all. I remember that the first producer already said they were going to print all of our bottles. It was an order of 20,000 bottles - which at that time was huge for us. And they basically just canceled a day before. Things like that.
Or we had one whole production that just had a huge error in it. We couldn't use them. We thought the world would end. So those were a lot of issues with production even though it sounds like such an easy product. It's still so much that can go wrong.
But I think the biggest challenge, if I have to make a choice, will be to stop working together with our first investor, our angel investor. Because there was kind of a clash of ideas and visions of how you want to run an organization. And the difference was that me and Georg... I mean I'm 29 now. At that time, I was basically just out of university. I was like 25 or something and I really had no idea and he was almost doubled my age, he was the age of my father. And there was a moment where you have to stick up for what you believe in and put your feet down. And at the same time not be an asshole. I still respect the other person for all of what he's done, all that you're grateful for. But still believe in yourself, that this is the right thing you want to do. I think that was one of the biggest challenges that I ever had.
C: I imagine. And what is an achievement that you are most proud of?
P: I remember that last year, there was a travel to Nepal to the project - which I didn't attend. We had two people who could go and people said “well, it’s probably you and Georg right”. And then we said, no we're going to have to just pull straws. One of the founders has to go. And one of the team has to go. And I didn’t get it… So I never went. It's ok I'm visiting other projects in the world, in Rwanda.
C: Super nice that you give someone from your team the chance to go. Your time will come.
P: Yeah. But when I saw the photos of the village that basically now has a water and sanitation system. And it's real. You see the photos and you see the videos and Georg talked a lot about it. So this was a huge moment for me.
At the same time, I have so many little moments of joy. Like I said, for example, I love answering the phone. Everybody else hates it, because it always interrupts and I should not be doing it, because it also interrupts me and it’s not productive, blah, blah, blah. But I just love when people that I don't know talk about soulbottles. Just, like, you know “ah, we ordered them and then this and this…” I don't know, to hear people care so much is just so cool. And I think it's maybe like when you're in a band or something and you hear your own song on the radio and it's just like “oh yeah, this is real, this is really happening” and people I don’t know talk about it, that's me. It's a great feeling. So it’s those little moments.
Like one customer called and said “yeah, the soulbottle, I bought for my boyfriend, because he didn't drink enough water, you know. I think it's really not good for him. He's like getting headaches. So I got him the bottle. And now he really drinks it a lot. And it was so great.” This was so funny...
C: That’s amazing, they really share their personal stories with you. You really kind of created a whole movement around it actually. So so nice. Let's talk about Berlin a little bit and switch gears one more time. Is starting a social startup in Berlin a curse or a blessing? I mean what’s good about it, or what's maybe a pitfall? If there is.
P: It's funny that you say “starting a social business in Berlin”, because for me, we started the company in Vienna. And then we moved to Berlin in two steps. So it's easier to found a GmbH, which is I think Ltd, in Germany. At least at the time, you just needed less money. So we had to have a German seat, even though we were both living in Vienna. Georg also wanted to move to Berlin because of personal reasons, just to see the city. But the whole soulbottles movement, the production and also the first customers and so on were all in Vienna. And then we thought about moving everything to Berlin, which was kind of difficult because the production was in Vienna.
And also my whole life. I had a girlfriend, I had a music band that was playing with, I had this huge flat that I told you about. So it was really difficult for me to leave all this behind and move back to Berlin, where I'm from. It kind of felt weird, going home again, where my parents live... So the really lame argument that was really strong for us in the beginning, was just the shipping cost. Because we had so many customers from Germany and it was so expensive to ship from Austria. And then, there were a few more changes in my life. My girlfriend moved to Granada, Spain. So I had to have a long distance relationship anyway, so I can do at least from here, from Berlin.
Then we had this crowdfunding campaign in Berlin and it was so successful and at that moment, it was just really exciting. It started to get clear that we have to hire people and things like this. The storm just started rolling, we had to do it now. And as time passes by, I just saw all the advantages of Berlin. Before I didn't even see them. Although I grew up here.
C: What are they?
P: Well first of all, the rents. To rent for business, but also like for private flats is so much cheaper and still is I think than in Vienna. And then also like just the huge amount of creative and talented and motivated people that come here. I remember when we had the first job offering. I think it just said “marketing” and we had 50 people applying. And I was like “You do know that you will not earn a lot, right”. I don't, know how much did they earn in the beginnen, maybe 1,500 or something like that. But they just didn’t care, they just wanted to do it. And you saw these CV’s, like people that had experience for years and years. This is a huge advantage, I think.
Obviously, you have the disadvantage that you are like one of many companies also. But I never felt like that. I always felt there's so much going on. There's enough room for you to grow.
C: That's so true, I think that too. I guess also what you just said about community. There is a community of eco-minded people and eco-minded businesses, social businesses that you can connect to and exchange. I guess that's probably helping a lot.
P: Yeah. And just in general, living costs. I mean not only rent, but general living costs. And this doesn't only mean living, but also having a great life. You know, having a great social life and being able to go out. You can have something like that. This is possible for people to have here. So this is a very startup friendly environment. And I think Berlin often underestimates this factor.
C: True true true. So now you basically fell in love again.
P: I'm from Berlin. And I think this is kind of part of me, that I always love it and hate it because I just see all these things that are not good. My father is working in city planning (Senatsverwaltung). So he knows a lot about what are the big projects in Berlin. So it's almost impossible for me to to see a street or see a district and not being “ah yeah, this is not…” No, but I obviously also love it in a lot of ways...
C: What's your favorite part? Where would you go in Berlin if you want to be creative and have some new ideas or some headspace?
P: I have a few favorite spots. There’s one which is really weird. It's in Spandau which is far away from where I grew up. I grew up in Rudow, which is basically the other end of the U7. There is one spot in Spandau, where there is a lake. A really nice lake, it’s really small. And they built a climbing rock just next to it. So you can climb and go swimming in the summer at the same time. Which kind of feels like this is one of the things that you normally have to go to Barcelona or to Granada. But you can actually do it, on a small level at least. And it's so far out, so it's not visited a lot and really empty. It's like this weird empty feeling. It's one of my favorites.
C: Awesome. Alright and then, if people want to learn or connect with the social business scene or the green scene in Berlin - what are the places or events that you strongly recommend them to go to?
P: I mean the Impact Lab has definitely a cool scholarship program, where you can apply and then you just have that workspace. But obviously you also meet people, so this is a great thing. We also applied for that scholarship, but never really used it - but that's a different story. I know that this is a great institution.
The Impact Hub I think doesn't have that kind of scholarship, but it's still a nice co-working space for all kinds of green initiatives, there’s always a great atmosphere there.
And, I think it's called Sense Camp or something like that, it's a French organization. They also have these gatherings where they team up together to solve problems. And it's also cool their environment. I think these are just the ones that pop into my head right now.
C: All right cool. Thanks for sharing that. And I mean before we dive into the final section - I don't want to stretch your time for that much longer… Where can people best buy soulbottles?
P: Where can people buy soulbottles? They can obviously buy them on our website www.soulbottles.com. The advantage there is that you can choose every design and choose the colors of the swing top and you can make custom bottles for a company... You can’t order them from stock obviously, they get produced, but we also do that. It starts at 10 pieces and we do it with laser engraving right here in Berlin. And then if you just want to hold the bottle first, you can also go on our website and in the left corner there there is the retail search. And you can see all shops. I think in Germany we have now we reached the 500 mark - so we have at 500 selling points in Germany.
C: Nice. I’ll put the link into the shownotes, so people can find it easily. Now the final section. Looking back to those five last years - what was your biggest learnings so far?
P: My biggest learning is that << all these structures around us are human made >> at least a lot of them. And there's a really stupid German saying “Die kochen auch nur mit Wasser” = they also just boil their food with water or cook their food with boiling water. And this is really true. Don't overestimate things that you don't know a lot about. because almost always, if you if you have a closer look, you see it's not that difficult.
I hardly met anybody from any organization, company, or whatever, and thought “Oh yeah, they are really organized. They're really structured”. No, everybody always says “This is a chaotic. I don't know, how they can survive. I don't know how.” And it doesn't matter if you go out and talk about someone from Siemens, or VW, or a a small NGO. Everybody always keeps saying the same story. So I think you always overestimate things that you don't know a lot about. And you think this is too complicated, or this is too powerful, or this is too.... No it's not!
<< It's normally just a bunch of chaotic people running around >> 🙂
C: That's a really good one. I love that. I really really love that. It happens a lot of times now that people just write to me like “Hey, team at GreenMe Berlin. Of course, I know you guys…” even though it’s actually, most of the time just me. I think it's a great learning.
Second question after that. If you could change one thing in Berlin, or in the world, within the next 24 hours, what would it be?
P: If I could change just one thing... I don’t know, maybe the production of firearms would be impossible. Because firearms really just contribute to a lot of killing and don’t help us to solve our problem without violence.
C: True true. Strong one. Alright, and what question should I have asked you but didn’t?
P: You didn’t ask how many bottles we produce. That’s a question that we get a lot. The answer would be the last year was 110,000. And in total we reached already over 300,000.
C: Wow that's huge. That's a number. You can be super super proud of that. Last question: if there was one thing you could pass on to the GreenMe Berlin community, to the people out there - what would it be?
P: Yeah, please go voting on Saturday, it it’s coming out before that.
C: Unfortunately, not.
P: If not…. Then there's always room to do something. And even if you are stuck in a “normal job” there's always some way to contribute and to find something. And it's really about doing these first steps, I think even if this sounds silly in the beginning. There is no silly stuff.
I don't know how your podcast started, but I remember that I was thinking about producing a podcast myself. So if you have something like that on your mind, you know what, just do it. Just listen to it, just once and this applies for everything. Just try to do it. Yeah don't think about it like it has to be perfect before it goes out. Because it won't be perfect anyway.
C: Oh yes. I can totally sign all these bits. Just do it. Don't overthink things too much. Like really every little thing has an impact. If everyone would just step out a little bit more of their comfort zones and just doing things without thinking what do other people think of me if I'm doing that or so... Like you touched really on that human factor as well. So that's absolutely a great message to share - and a powerful thought to finish.
I'm incredibly grateful that you guys exist. I’m incredibly grateful that you guys exist. You are a huge inspiration for me and really prove that you can change the world for the better, while building up a thriving business. It makes me feel excited and full of hope that Berlin is home to such dedicated social entrepreneurs like you. People who just go out there and make things happen AND have heaps fun along the way - I’m hoping that lots and lots of people out there get encouraged and inspired from the things you do….
Amazing guy, so much integrity, so much drive… Hope you got heaps of inspiration out of that - Remember? It’s often just a bunch of chaotic people running around who are changing the world. You can do it!
LISTEN TO THE EPISODE RIGHT HERE:
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SOULBOTTLES - IMPRESSIONS
Memories of the early hours - 2012 at Paul's student
flat in Vienna...
soulsurferin edition - clearly my favorite 🙂
Keep soulbottles in mind, Christmas is coming soon. And you heard it, you can even put your very own logo or design on it. You can find the link to their website, online shop and the stores that sell them all in the show notes. They ship to globally and are available in selected stores in 16 countries in Europe, plus USA, Canada + even Australia and New Zealand! Do you live in a city country where there’s no store selling soulbottles yet? Then drop Paul and his team a line, or encourage your favorite store to get in touch.
BEFORE YOU GO
... just a quick behind the scenes of GreenMe Berlin: over the last few weeks, we’ve been pumping all our energy into live events. We’ve been running a number of green guided tours through Berlin, visiting lots of exciting projects and bringing together a bunch of like-minded people. It really fills me with so much joy to build those connections. People from all different backgrounds learn about the eco-minded projects in the city, meet the people who run them and see how sustainability can be linked to so much passion and positive mindset. In the next months, If you wanna be part of one our next tours, keep an eye on our Facebook events page for the public ones, or simply shoot me an email to email@example.com and we’ll curate your very own, customized experience. Exciting times ahead guys
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That’s it! Thanks so much for listening! The next episode will come out again at the last Friday of the month, so stay tuned, and as always, have a blast while going green 🙂
SOULBOTTLES - SHOWNOTES & LINKS MENTIONED
- Connect with Paul & his team on their website | Facebook | Instagram
- Soulbottles Story & Production - Why Glass?
- DNX Berlin 2018
- Blake Mykosi Start Something that Matters
- What is Holocracy? (video)
- Viva Con Agua
- Viva Con Agua - soulbottles Support Project in Nepal
- Welthungerhilfe, WASH projects
- Carbonit Water Filter *
- Social Impact Lab - Scholarship program
- Impact Hub Berlin
- Video "What is a B-Corp ?"
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