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Episode 87: Jonathan Byrt & Jesse Leeworthy – Bromance in a bottle

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All Xero Gravity episodes

Hosted by Elizabeth Ü

When you think of reusable water bottles, beautiful probably isn’t the first word to spring to mind. The practical, dull colored cylindrical bottles your grandad takes hiking, yes. A bottle the cool kids are lusting after, not so much. But the practical and the beautiful can coexist, because (former) financial consultant Jonathan Byrt and product design engineer Jesse Leeworthy made it happen.

A business born out of a frustration with single-use bottles, Memobottle has grown to become so much more than just an environmentally-friendly vessel. Working around the clock and around the globe for a business they love, Leeworthy and Byrt want to start a movement. Big heart and big ambition has them seeking to inspire the masses, and shift the world towards a more environmentally friendly, conscious society.
 

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The full story

It was the resource-draining life cycle of a single-use bottle, and the inability to find something better, that served as a catalyst for Leeworthy and Byrt’s endeavour.

“We were living together and starting our professional careers, always carrying around laptop bags, but couldn’t fit the cylindrical bottles into them” Byrt says.

“Jesse went to work on it and we started wondering whether it could be possible to make a slim bottle that would make for more convenience in transport. That led us to the end design of a bottle that was completely reusable, but also created improved life convenience.”

So they made a commitment then and there. A commitment to design not just any reusable water bottle, but one people wanted to use, and so the sleekly designed Memobottle came to be.

Speaking on the finer design details, Byrt says they “decided to flip the equation and design something that was optimized for transportation. So you could fit it neatly in your bag, it’s elegant, it’s transparent, it’s beautiful. It had to be beautiful to change people’s minds.”

It’s the deeply rooted habits that are hard to break, but a challenge the pair are more than happy to take on. Byrt says they knew going in that “people’s minds won’t be changed unless they’re provided with a more convenient option. It’s sad, but it’s true. While we want our products to improve the current environmental situation, it also needs to be more better than what’s currently on the market.”

While design plays a significant role in luring people in, the environmental benefits of the Memobottle sit at the business’ core, Leeworthy reiterating the importance of this saying “Yes, reusable bottles need to be cleaned, but if you’re buying a single-use water bottle that’s come from another country you’ve got transportation energy, then there’s the refrigeration while it sits in your shop.”

And just like that, with an idea and passion for the cause, Memobottle became a business.

When crowdfunding goes… too well

With the design in place, it came time to fund the business. So what do you do if you’re fresh out of university, aren’t sitting on a trust fund and sure as hell don’t have private investors banging down your front door? You start a campaign on Kickstarter.

“After 45 days we wanted $15,000 AUD. We did a little bit of market research with friends and family beforehand, but the real market research was the campaign itself,” Byrt explains.

So they made $20,000? $60,000?

Nope.

Quadruple that, then add some.

“We got the $15,000 within 36 hours of launching the campaign and ended up making $260,000 and selling 10,000 bottles,” he says casually, as if it were no big deal.

Things began moving at a speed the pair admit was challenging, but say it was ultimately a blessing in disguise, allowing them to rapidly move through growing pains many start-ups face for months, sometimes years, on end.

“It was amazing, and we’re so grateful for our Kickstarter backers, but there were definitely a couple of sleepless nights,” they say, fully aware of just how lucky they were to go from absolutely nothing to a global business practically overnight.

Then what?

Both still working full-time in their respective jobs, Byrt and Leeworthy had to figure out how to get the 10,000 bottles made to a Kickstarter deadline looming just two months after the campaign’s close.

“We were all hands on deck. We had to make it work and we had to find solutions, so we just went for it. We implemented logistics systems and other things that were going to be able to service globally,” Byrt says.

It was during the manufacturing stage that any honeymoon period ended. A number of problems arose and the pair had no choice but to head for Taiwan. “We essentially moved to Taiwan for five weeks, living in the factory day in day out, and working with the team over there. A slim bottle with an off-center neck has never been made before, and they just couldn’t do it,” Byrt says.

Manufacturing delays then caused frustration with backers, who were under the impression their bottles would arrive before Christmas. “During the Kickstarter campaign we had over 6000 backers, which meant we had over 6000 different personalities to manage,” Leeworthy says. That number wasn’t helped by the fact 80% of those who pledged for Memobottle had never used Kickstarter before, instead stumbling across the “purchase now” button after seeing viral articles featuring the soon-to-be-released bottle.

“The campaign finished October 2014, and we didn’t end up shipping until the beginning of July 2015. Most pledgers were supportive and loved the process, but there were others that wanted their bottle now” Byrt says.

Who’s using a Memobottle?

With a desire to market the Memobottle as a fashion accessory, it makes sense that its image needed to appeal to a particular demographic. In Memobottle’s case, the young creatives, the corporates, and the university students.

This is key to Memobottle’s success, because for Byrt and Leeworthy, who’s buying the bottle is nearly as important as the message behind it.

“We really don’t want people to buy the Memobottle who aren’t going to use it, because otherwise it’ll be used once to show their friends then throw out,” Byrt says.

It’s not difficult to see that behind every seemingly small detail is a direct link to the big picture. Memobottle will never be just a drink bottle, because Leeworthy and Byrt are creating a movement. And despite the business’ success, they say they’ve only achieved 5% of what they want to do long-term, meaning Memobottle supporters can rest easy in the knowledge that the best is very much yet to come.

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