Learn About Your New KOR One Hydration Vessel: An Interview with Eric Barnes

Posted on 08. Nov, 2009 by in Business & Policy, Design & Culture, Entrepreneurship, Interviews

KOR Causes

KOR Water co-founder Eric Barnes says KOR’s mission is to inspire people to transform the way they think and feel about hydration in everyday life. It is so important to reduce the massive waste generated by disposable plastic bottles, and KOR provides a stylish, accessible, proactive way to do that. Now that you have your very own KOR One companion, read the story of how it all began.

Eric: Thank you for having us. We’re very excited about Opportunity Green.

OG: Thank you! Tell me about KOR Water, how did you start out?

Eric: It’s been in the works since 2004, when I (not as an entrepreneur, just as a consumer) was looking for a re-usable water bottle. I went to some sportswear stores and it struck me that the bottles available were all focused on the outdoors, they were mostly canteens, things that you would take on the trail. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and I wanted something that I could use in my normal lifestyle, something I could bring to the office, use at home as well as at the gym.

I was also inspired by the founders of method and what they were doing. I read an article about how they were reinventing a dormant category through the use of industrial design, bringing meaning and sustainability to cleaning. I thought a reusable water bottle could address what was going on with bottled water. Voss and Fiji and Smartwater were accelerating as more and more people were migrating to higher-end bottled water, so it was an opportunity to bring aesthetic design to the problem of a reusable water bottle.

People drink water because they want to be healthy, and now people want to be sustainable too. That’s one of the pillars of KOR: “Better me, better world.” The paradigm used to be, “Better me, screw the world.” And then as sustainability caught on it was, “Better world, and I suffer.” So the opportunity for all of us today is to create the alignment of a product that does not sacrifice on performance, aesthetics, or price. We don’t need to pay a premium to be green. That alignment, of putting the consumer on same side of the table as the environment, is where products can really succeed.

OG: Why do you call it a hydration vessel?

Eric: We’re cognizant of the fact that it’s a very cheeky term. We have fun with it, we joke that it’s too highbrow, even for us. KOR as a brand is more than just a bottle manufacturer, we locate companies in our segment, our competition, as bottle makers, whereas we are a lifestyle brand focused on sustainable hydration. It’s about water first and foremost, KOR is a brand about celebrating water, it’s personal, we’re focused on consumers, and it’s sustainable. We thought the term “resuable bottle” lumped us into a category with all the canteen, so we wanted to differentiate ourselves from that traditional reusable bottle segment.

OG: It feels a lot broader, as a term.

Eric: Yeah, it is a lot broader. We didn’t want to just make a better bottle, we see that as a small market. We see the $50 billion bottled water market as our market, and as this latent opportunity. Bottled water drinkers are always pitted against those in favor of resusable containers and tap water. We call that the picket line, and you’re not going to get too many people to cross over. Mainstream consumers don’t want to sacrifice the taste and the experience, and go back to drinking out of a tap. We think a better way is to create products and services that incentivize drinking tap water.

OG: You’re “supposed” to drink a lot of water, 8 glasses a day. So there’s an idea that it makes you, if not a good person, at least someone that is taking care of yourself and your own body if you do drink a lot of water. I think that by having a vessel that you feel good about and you want to have with you, it reminds you to get those fluids and it makes it a positive experience.

Eric: Exactly. The move from carbon beverages to bottled water is a good thing. And bottled water has it’s time and place, we’re not rabid enemies of bottled water because there are places where you can’t get reliably clean water in another way. But people turn to bottled water to promote their health. If you’re drinking water, you’re typically on some kind of personal journey, whether you’re trying to get in shape or just live healthier, and that’s great stuff. But the waste that is created is an ironic consequence of this shift. You can spend hours talking about why bottled water is perceived differently than carbonated sodas and beers, it’s just this idea that water when put in packaging is somehow different. Bottled water actually missed out on a lot of bottle bills, where states actually tax the product to encourage recycling, and bottled water is in most cases not included in recycling laws, and therefore the recyled percentage of water bottles is very low.

Drinking water is a good thing, and I think the next step is to not just be healthier, but also be aligned with our values, so that our consumption is not doing unnecessary harm. There’s certainly an element of wanting to be the center of attention, when people drink out of KOR One, the common feedback we get is “Everyone stopped me and asked me what I was carrying, and when I explained that it was a reusable water bottle, they remarked, ‘Cool,’” and I think there’s an element of all consumer products where we like to stand for what we are.

OG: I really see KOR as a quintessentially contemporary company in a lot of ways. You are deeply involved in not just sustainability, but you’re also transparent, you give back, and you’re very involved in design. How did you come up with your S.E.T. standards – Sustainable, Ethical, Transparent – and when did they come about?

Eric: So, Paul, my cofounder and I, have had plenty of years of talking about the kind of company we wanted to create. We looked at the example of Patagonia, which has had plenty of opportunities to sell, and they’ve been very progressive in their growth. We looked at companies that were sustainable in a market, and we wanted to be ethical. We also wanted to be the best at sustainability that we could possibly be, and we’re not perfect, we have this comment that we don’t judge others, we like to say that we’re on the path. You have to be willing to be the best you can be today, and be willing to accept the challenge of how you’re going to improve tomorrow. Sometimes the economics of sustainability don’t line up, so you have to make choices, but as long as we’re on the path, it’s a positive thing.

The last one, transparency, was one that was missing from a lot of companies. It’s easy to be transparent when you’re small, and we are small, it gets a lot harder as you get bigger. To admit mistakes, to listen to your stakeholders. Sometimes you make mistakes with your product. At the end of the day, if you’re transparent, today’s consumer will embrace the company, whether it’s bad news or good news. This is an area where we thought we could really innovate, so we’re trying to be as transparent as possible. The bombshell that dropped in August on Sigg is a perfect example of how a lack of transparency can bite you.

OG: Would you say that it’s easier to run a company that is transparent?

Eric: No, it’s actually a lot harder. There are different levels. I think in the long run it’s easier, you have to spend a little more effort day in and day out. It’s like insurance, it costs a little bit over time, but it’s worth it in case you get a big incident. We consider it a very valuable thing to do.

OG: I want to talk a little bit about the design, because I know you partnered with a wonderful design firm and also partnered with Eastman to come up with the KOR One. You had a lot of sustainability requirements going into the process. What was it like?

Eric: Design, from the start, was critical. We sought out the best design firm we could find, RKS. We’re entrepreneurs, we didn’t have much in the way of resources, so we had to counter that with great enthusiasm and a great idea. At the time, the RKS guitar had won a design award from BusinessWeek and they were featured on the cover. We interviewed several design firms, but RKS won the job because they really understood what we were after. So it was very exciting. KOR came to the equation with a lot of deep thinking about where we could innovate—a cap that stays on the bottle so you don’t have to hold it, a threadless spout so you can put your lips on it without it feeling like you’re drinking out of a garden hose, little subtle things like the bevels. It’s sort of an obelisk in shape, in the way it tapers. We knew that we wanted to touch the senses the way a cologne bottle or a nice liquor bottle does, there’s a lot of thinking that goes into bottle design. In the resuable market at the time it was all about utilitarian functionality, and that was good enough. So design can really add that special layer, and I think RKS really succeeded. And we also got connected with Eastman. In 2005, if you did a little bit of research, it was already evident that BPA was a big issue. It wasn’t mainstream, but it was on the top of our list of requirements that the bottle be BPA-free. So poly-carbonate was not an option. We sought out Eastman when they were in the preliminary stages of developing Tritan, and it was a great match. Up until 2008 you had companies like Nalgene that were still holding onto poly-carbonate and defending BPA. It’s still not outlawed.

OG: Do you think it will be outlawed?

Eric: Well, I think it depends, the studies are mixed. It’s like global warming, you can find studies that support it and studies that don’t. A good rule is to err on the side of caution when there’s doubt.

OG: I’m sure that’s something parents feel very strongly about. If they’re going to have their kids drink water out of a plastic container, they want it to be the safest possible.

Eric: Yeah, a lot of people feel that way. Why take chances?

OG: You had a very positive response to KOR One when it launched. What’s it like when you talk to a retailer about being a distributor?

Eric: We’re a different animal, so retailers and distributors and even the consumer, in the traditional food chain of how you bring a product to market, are all used to certain things. This is a new category, which we call sustainable hydration. We said from the start that having our product be in a sporting goods store, while still nice and not a bad place to have our bottle, is not how we envisioned growing the company. We saw this idea of hydration as part of a lifestyle, like a new accessory. We’ve been breaking a lot of conventional norms about where a water bottle is sold, and I think the whole category is opening up to that. So you have the traditional Whole Foods, the traditional REI type of establishments, but we’re starting to see more gift stores, housewares, and we hope one day, the Apple store, and places like Abercrombie and Fitch. When we go to traditional retailers, because of our different design and consciousness, it kind of takes them aback. It’s a $30 hydration vessel. So we have to work a little bit harder to educate the retailer on the value proposition. But the amazing thing is we’ve had explosive growth and we have about 400 retailers now, up from about 100 retailers as recently as May. The machine is clicking in, and seeing growth in non-traditional places, like Fred Segal, and Harriet department stores in London. Two or three years ago that would have been unheard of.

OG: Are consumers also drawn to the fact that their purchases will go toward helping the four non-profits you partner with?

Eric: I think so. It’s the “Better me, better world,” concept. Consumers like being green and enjoy doing the right thing, but they love it even more when it’s extra credit that comes on top of an already great experience. We wanted to focus on water, which is a huge and looming issue for the next century. It’s not a third world problem, it’s a global problem, and we call ourselves and each of our consumers water advocates. It’s pretty cool because when somebody stops a consumer with the KOR One and asks them about it, they get a chance to tell that story, whether it’s recycling or the global water crisis. Our ability to influence and educate is worth a lot more than our percentage of sales at this stage of the game.

OG: How did you form partnerships with these 4 non-profits, the Blue Planet Run, Algalita Marine Research, Containter Recycling Institute and The Wetlands Initiative?

Eric: We see what those organization stand for as the four key issues around water. Ocean protection, wetlands protection—which is very misunderstood, and a lot of people aren’t even aware of it, Paul and I weren’t either and we’ve been learning about how they act as a biological filter or membrane for water systems—the global water crisis, the fact that some countries don’t have water is not someone else’s problem, and lastly container recycling, which may not be a sexy issue but if we’re going to drink bottled water, let’s at least have a proper recyling process in place. We tried to find the leading not-for-profit charity in those four issues, and when we took our vision for KOR and what we were doing for bottles to these four, they got it immediately, just a great match. They need all the help they can get fighting the fight on the front line, and we’re thrilled that they allow us to donate to them and talk about the work that they do. We could have just written a check to 1% for the planet, but we wanted to be more involved and take on the cause as part of who we are as a brand. It’s always a balance between mission and margin.

OG: How do you see your mission expanding in the future? What would you want to achieve if there were no limits on what you could do?

Eric: That’s a great question. We’re just starting with KOR, and we’ve thought about what this lifestyle brand could be. It’s a category that has yet to be created, and that’s an exciting thing. Bottled water has reached a crescendo, it’s not the just economy, we believe that consumer behavior and their mindset about how we hydrate is changing. It’s not just a temporary green fad. We find ourselves at a crossroads where this new concept has to be created, and we see a whole ecosystem of people at work and businesses at work, Brita, PUR, the filtration companies, many of which are small and local, to create this sort of ubiquitous filtered, clean water. We hope to play a role in this new category, we think deeply about design and performance, and we want to have loyal and engaged customers. There are a whole slew of new ideas out there, how you filter your water, what you put in it, whether it’s electrolytes or vitamins, these are all opportunities. We say we want to build, buy or partner, we don’t have to create everything. The category of sustainable hydration is huge, and we’re hoping that the $50 billion bottled water market will start to shift over to something else.

OG: What does your KOR stone say right now?

Eric: Let me see, it says “Never settle.” We’re actually going to have a sort of twitter feed for KOR stone messages. They’re all about your mission statement, what you’re working on right now. It could be 26.2, it could be carpe diem, it could be beat cancer, and we think it would be really cool to be able to share that in a community.

OG: It’s so cool that you’re giving away the KOR One at Opportunity Green.

Eric: Yeah, every attendee gets one. The other cool thing is that we’re going to showcase what sustainable hydration is like by having no bottled water at the conference. Not that bottled water is evil, it’s just unnecessary at a conference. We’ll have have great partners like Everpur providing filtered water at a few stations, and everyone will have a KOR One. We want to show how easy it is. We like to say that there’s no excuse anymore, because every Starbucks will give you free filtered water if you bring a reusable container. It’s been a well-kept secret, but not anymore, with 11,000 water outlets on the grid.

OG: I didn’t know that either!

Eric: Yeah, they don’t publicize it, but they’ve never turned anyone down to my knowledge.

OG: You mentioned putting electrolytes in water. What are you envisioning?

Eric: Well, in the market of sustainable hydration, there’s a need to filter water, dispense water, carry water, and sometimes there’s a need to enhance water. Consumers like Vitamin Water and Propel, they’re looking for healthier lifestyles. We’re working with a company called Yoli that makes a blast cap that fits the KOR One that’s loaded with vitamins and nutrients. It’s a sustainable energy replacement for Monster or Redbull.

OG: You’ve mentioned the term “deep thinking” a couple of times. Is that something where you and Paul shut yourselves in a room, or what does it take to get there?

Eric: No, it’s more just taking the time to consider every aspect of the product, what it’s made of, how it feels, how does the consumer feel when they’re carrying it around, how does it map back to our mission of celebrating and protecting water. It’s kind of an ethereal and ambiguous mission, but for us it’s about, “How do you put water on a pedestal and show real respect for it?” Because when you strip it down, water is all about life, it sustains life. We try to think broadly about the product. We’re not trying to get too big too quick, in fact one of the things we say is that we want to be more like Radiohead or Coldplay and be in this business for a long time, rather than being like Hootie and the Blowfish with one hit. We want to find our market and find our loyal customers.

OG: It’s also a very sustainable model of growth. Rather than expanding in a way that’s unmanageable, it’s taking your time. And I think that the kind of deep thinking you put into the products you’re creating really shows up in a big way, with the consumer experience, with the way it looks, the impact it has on people’s lives who want to be a part of the sustainability story, and be a part of great design.

Eric: Thank you, that’s a great way to summarize it. We’ve succeeded when we find consumers that want to be fans of our brand, or be part of it. This bottle has the power to touch people in a way that they get excited about it. It’s like the difference between an Apple and a PC, it’s that deep thinking.

OG: I think that any product that benefits from that kind of deep thinking ends up being a product that consumers want to identify with, and it becomes a value proposition that’s beyond just being convinced to buy something. It’s having a brand and a product that is more of a companion, that you see as an ally, rather than having somebody try to dupe you into buying it and then kind of forgetting about it.

Eric: I’ve never heard someone say that before, but I think that’s a great term for it, a companion. I’ve said before that the KOR One is like your little buddy that you take everywhere. It’s graduated from its utilitarian purpose, it’s doing more than just its functional job, you actually have feelings for it.

OG: And I’m sure it has feelings for you too!

Eric: Yeah, it’s pretty cool.

OG: Thank you Eric, it’s been great talking to you. I’m looking forward to trying out my first KOR One at OG09!

Paul and Eric, Co-founders of KOR One

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2 Responses to “Learn About Your New KOR One Hydration Vessel: An Interview with Eric Barnes”

  1. Mary

    08. Nov, 2009

    Why is it called KOR One? The aesthetics took me a little time to get used to, but after seeing so many at the conference, I really love them! The handle makes it great for grabbing quickly and the material shines in a lovely way. It makes the water look so crisp!

  2. Gaia Dempsey

    11. Nov, 2009

    Mary, I felt the same way at first, but now I love it too – it sounds silly but I picture it as something that a really beautiful woman would drink out of in some futuristic time… :) To answer your question, according to the KOR website the name has to do with “core issues,” everyone has something that’s really important to them, and water is at the core of life. You can see for yourself on the website and also learn more about the non-profits they are partnering with. http://www.korwater.com/ Enjoy!

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