At just 27, Daniel Flynn has raised millions of dollars for water-related development projects by selling consumer goods in aid of the emerging world through his Melbourne-based social enterprise Thankyou.In 2008, Daniel launched the enterprise with one key product: bottled water, branded Thankyou, which stood out in a crowded market because it promised that profits from every sale would fund programs to provide safe drinking water in developing countries.
Flynn was a 19-year old university student when he became aware of his nation's warped relationship with water. Despite almost universal access to reliable fresh water, Australians splurged over $600 million a year on bottled water - while some 900 million people around the world lacked safe drinking water access.
He was backed by a team of RMIT university buddies, who toiled beside him on his grand, new project, balancing college commitments with part-time jobs.
The Thankyou crew had no funding, but persuaded a factory to produce the first products with a promise of payment down the track, and after a product pitch to large national distributor, Metro Beverages, Flynn ended up with his first big order, for 50,000 bottles.
Getting retailers to re-order his product wasn't quite so easy. Despite many knock-backs, the team persisted, pursuing a sustained social media campaign that kicked off in 2008, just as Facebook was starting to catch on with Australians. The campaign was based on almost no budget, but Flynn compensated with extraordinary perseverance and chutzpah.
In 2011, just before a meeting with 7-Eleven, Flynn told his Facebook fans that he was meeting the company. He asked his fans to jump on their Facebook wall and tell 7-Eleven that if they stocked Thankyou. water they would buy it. The tactic worked: 7-Eleven and next Australia Post agreed to stock Thankyou goods in a time-span unheard of in the grocery sector, according to Flynn.
At the end of 2011, the crew at Thankyou developed an innovative product feature - each bottle of water included a code on the label, which – when entered into a web app called Track Your Impact - informed buyers of the exact water project that their purchase has funded. The web app, which launched the following year, would later make the SMART 100 index run by the entrepreneurship site Anthill.
In July 2013, Thankyou Water rebranded to Thankyou. (with a full-stop), boosting its product range to include food and body care goods. Products are now stocked by over 4,500 outlets, including Coles and Woolworths.
Thankyou. runs a range of projects in the fields of safe water, food aid and health and hygiene. The company covers 11 countries, from Cambodia to Kenya and Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of developing-world poor have benefited from the company, which has raised over $3.7 million on their behalf.
“It's such a tough sell in retail, such a tough sell in corporate”
Flynn's success has made him a poster-boy for Australia's fast-growing social enterprise movement (businesses with a core aim of improving society). Australia has over 20,000 social enterprises and the sector grows by around 7 percent a year.
Naive would-be social entrepreneurs often assume that everyone will love their cool idea, Flynn says – but he warns that success relies on much more than a great cause.
“It's such a tough sell in retail, such a tough sell in corporate," he says. What makes it harder these days, is that nearly every corporate and retailer has already established charity partnerships.
“So you walk in and say: 'Hey, I've got this great idea - we really want to change the world, and we're really passionate. They say: 'Hey, that's really cool, but we've already got our CSR program full.'"
When your precious social-enterprise product is snubbed, the knock-back can be confronting and frustrating, Flynn says. When your mission to save the world falls flat, it seems a bigger blow than a straight commercial rejection.
He has discovered that more than half his products are bought by people who know nothing about his cause. Clearly then, the product trumps the cause, although the latter is why he wakes up every day, he says.
He's won plenty of accolades, including being named in last year's SmartCompany Hot 30 Under 30.
The crux of his success has been persuading others to "catch our vision". That pans out as getting his merchandise put on the shelf.
But before his stock gets on that shelf, the stockist has to let something else go - and it may be a product from a huge fast-moving consumer goods company with a massive advertising budget.
“They're taking a huge punt to take them off to put us on. And I think for me the biggest challenge is: how do you convince them? How do you show them?" It takes a lot more than a great Powerpoint presentation, he says. He has found that a cool idea twinned with passion only get you so far. His tangible results came on the back of his aggressive social media amplification.
What drives him is a vision: the idea that Thankyou can make inroads into reducing poverty. As Flynn has discovered, this is a vision that has plenty of tangible stepping stones that he can work on.
“If we nail the product, if we get the marketing right, if we get the sales and the distribution right, if we build this consumer buy-in..."
That's a lot of 'ifs' – but now that he's pulled it off, he says it's all worthwhile.
Contributing Writer: David Wilson
Photography: Vikk Shayen