Fresh off finishing his PHD in Mathematic Finance at The University of Manchester, i recently caught up Edwin-Broni Mensah, founder of GiveMeTap to talk about his startup and also his journey so far.
GiveMeTap allows owners of GiveMeTap brand bottles to get free tap water refills from a selected number of cafes and restaurants on the go, allowing owners of the bottles to save money on bottled water and also reduce waste of plastic bottles in the environment.
70% of their profits are used to fund water projects across the world.
Here is the full interview.
How did you get into business – is this your first business?
I first got into business back in 2006 when my flat mate, Alex, asked me to join his new business, Origin Signed. That was my first taste of the entrepreneurial bug and that made me really want to become an entrepreneur. The business was to produce laptop skins and covers that would protect it from scratches and also give it a fresh look.
I was quite taken aback because he took me to a really fancy dinner. I realised that this is how the other side live, the entrepreneurs, because I was quite committed to going into a life of investment banking because I like that environment, but having seen what I saw at the award ceremony, I knew that this could be quite interesting.
Explain to people that still have difficulties understanding what GiveMeTap does as if you were explaining to my grandmother.
GiveMeTap is a scheme where you can buy a GiveMeTap bottle from our website, you can take it to participating cafes and restaurants and they will then re-fill your bottle with tap water. We’re trying to make water easily accessible to everyone around the world by using 70% of our profits to fund water projects across the world. We’re starting in Africa, where our first water project has now been completed.
How has it been going so far? How many bottles have you sold?
The response has been amazing. We’ve had a really successful start in Manchester, which is where I first launched the scheme during my PhD. There we had about 50 different establishments. We’re now operating in London, which we’re trying to expand quickly in time for the 2012 Olympic games. Up to date, we’ve sold around 800 bottles.
Why did you decide to start GiveMeTap? What is the story and inspiration behind it?
I was soon to be turning 25 and I felt that I needed to get into the best physical shape of my life as after 25 it would be more difficult. So I started a program called P90X, which pushed me to drink about 4-5 litres of water a day. When I was out and about I was often caught out and had to purchase bottled water. I didn’t understand why restaurants and cafes wouldn’t just allow me access to their water.
So I tried to go to a few places where there was often a cultural barrier of being refused water and was given weird looks at the fact that I was even asking for water. So this was something that I wanted to remove given that we have some of the best water here in the world and yet there are people who don’t have that same advantage. Both of my parents are from Ghana and they’ve told me about people in Ghana who don’t have water. This is why we give 70% of our profits to funding water projects around the world.
How did you fund your business?
During University I was a maths tutor, so I saved a lot of that money to then invest in the initial stock. I’ve also been fortunate enough to get quite a lot of support and backing from different organisations. The first was the social foundation for entrepreneurs called UnLtd. They were amazing in the support they gave me and they still give me support today.
They gave me initial seed funding in February 2010 and then development manager, which allowed me to shape the business. Off the back of that I got an award with virgin media. I went on to win the Shell Live wire award and The University of Manchester’s venture further business plan competition where I was a runner up. Then in September I won another UnLtd award which was backed by the Arthur Guinness Fund..
How did you manage to convince so many restaurants and cafes to come onboard with the GiveMeTap project?
I was very specific with who I approached first. I approached people with the same view I had. I cared a lot about sustainability and helping people get access to water. The people who I went to felt the same way and wanted to get involved for those reasons. There are a few companies who have also got involved as help them attract more customers into their establishments, which can potentially increase revenue.
What you’re doing with GiveMeTap is amazing. I know 70% of all your profits go towards funding independent water projects. What projects are you currently working on?
Last year we finished a project in November where we worked in Nama Bay, Namibia. We installed a water bore hole to serve about 1200 people. This year, we’re looking to go to Botswana where we are going to drill a borehole there to supply fresh clean water to a local comunity. We’ll be partnering with Redbush Tea company who we partnered with on the last project. We do have large ambitions to help a million people by 2015.
What has been the hardest part of you starting your business?
When I started my business, I was doing my PhD, so the most challenging thing for me has been making sure I finished my PhD. I loved my business and the challenges it presented so I threw myself into that. The most difficult thing was reminding myself that I still had my PhD to finish.
What would you say to someone that is looking to start up a business? Especially a charitable business like yours benefiting the environment. What advice would you give them?
You’ve got to try and make meaning especially if you’re going to do something social. So make it personal and try and make meaning in what you do. Really understand why you’re doing what you do. That’s crucial when you’re giving away such a large amount of your profits, because it gets challenging and if you don’t know why you actually exist it’s difficult to see why you should carry on.
I really have a sense of understanding about why GiveMeTap exists: to make water easily accessible to everyone, and I keep that message in my mind at all times. The decisions that we make are around that. We’re trying to make meaning rather than just trying to make money.
What have been some of the key lessons you have learnt so far?
Planning is important. You can have a great idea but the way it’s executed is much more important. So really understanding how to be effective with strategic planning and how to execute a plan is one of the key things I’m starting to learn.
Also, how working with other people is really important. I started GiveMeTap alone and I’m currently the only full time employee but there are so many people that have helped me out in different areas, like pr, journalism, bottle manufacturing, logistics, even strategic planning, branding and legal services.
As you said earlier you were formally pursuing a career as an investment banker after your PHD. Are you now looking to settle down with GiveMeTap full time?
Yes, definitely. Banking is an amazing area and I still really like the company that I was previously working at. I had an absolutely phenomenal time. But the love and passion I have every morning when I wake up to go and work for GiveMeTap is where I am at the moment. I love doing what I do. I love the work that I do and I just want to do that for as long as I can.
What has been the most memorable moment on your journey so far?
It has to be when I was in Namibia. Being there was a life changing experience, which really reaffirmed why I wake up every day to push and expand GiveMeTap around the world. I saw firsthand how it had a direct impact, how water changes absolutely everything. The bore hole meant that children didn’t have to walk 15km every day which meant they could go to school and get educated.
Women didn’t have to do that same thing and they could look after their family, get educated, or start a career/business. After installing the water tanks, we then used the water to irrigate the land so that vegetation could grow. Then we gave them a community centre to give them a sense of empowerment so they can manage the resource.
Seeing the resourcefulness and joy that they had when they don’t have much material things was phenomenal. This has effected the way I live and run GiveMeTap and it really reminded me that happiness isn’t found in things, it’s found in living in the moment and that’s something they do really well.
What would we at YHP be expecting from you next?
Expect a lot. We’ve got massive plans and ambitions for London and for the rest of the UK. We want to be national by next year. We’re also looking to expand heavily into London in time for the Olympic games. We’ve got an iPhone application (http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/givemetap/id424838506?mt=8 ) out now where you can find GiveMeTap places when you’re on the go, so if you’ve got an iPhone you can easily tap in and say where you are and it will pinpoint where the nearest taps are for you.
We are going to be releasing one for Android phones too. We’ve got a lot up our sleeves so stay tuned.
Do you think that attending University has been beneficial in getting you to where you are or do you think it doesn’t matter. What value has it added to you starting up a business.
I’d been at University for seven years, so my opinion is bias. I think University is crucial. The amount of resilience you get and having done my PhD, I don’t think many things can phase me now. My viva was six hours, which prepared me mentally for any interview that I am going to have in the future. University is a great time to really explore and discover yourself. So I would recommend it to everyone.
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