Whether you know the Thankyou story or you’re just a fan of their hand wash, bottled water or baby care range, the Aussie social enterprise success story is a reminder that with doggedness and dedication to a vision, business dreams can come true no matter age or experience. We chat to co-founder Daniel Flynn about conceiving Thankyou 10 years ago, his recent expansion into New Zealand and why he’d rather change the world for the better than be a self-made millionaire.
Each day we, as consumers, throw billions of dollars at the world’s largest multinationals, sending profits to their shareholders. We want their stuff, they want our money. We each play our roles in a free market, right? Well, for Daniel Flynn, co-founder and Managing Director of Thankyou, consumerism was missing an important piece. Ten years ago, at 19 years old, with a big idea and little experience, Daniel set out to build a business with more than profits as his end goal. He set out to create a consumer movement.
In 2008, Daniel and his then-girlfriend, now-wife Justine Flynn (Thankyou’s Brand Director) and his best mate Jarryd Burns (Thankyou’s Head of Supply & Procurement) founded social enterprise Thankyou Water with a combined net worth of around $1,000. Today, Thankyou Group also sells a personal care and baby care ranges; in total, 50 products. With its 100% model, all profits from Thankyou’s products go to funding safe water, toilets, hygiene training, safe births and healthcare to empower people in need. As of May 2018, Thankyou has given over $5.8 million to projects in 20 countries, which has empowered more than 785,000 people.
“Essentially we’ve never had budget and that has really forced innovation.”
In June this year, Thankyou launched its personal care range into New Zealand, with a grassroots campaign of 300 supporters and a second wave of 4,000 more, which caused a ripple that, so far, hasn’t stopped. “We’ve had stores selling out multiple times in the same day,” says Daniel. “The quote that embodied our launch was that ‘a small group of people can change the course of history’. That’s really what we are seeing in New Zealand and it’s already given us some absolutely mind-blowing sales results.
“We can’t share the industry data yet, because we’re not in 100% of the market, but our Aussie team is like, ‘What the heck is happening in New Zealand?!’ These are just every-day people going, ‘Yep, we’re in, we’re going to help.’ The day we activated them, social media blew up. It really shows the power of word-of-mouth when you get the message and the product right.”
For those unfamiliar with Thankyou’s (originally Thankyou Water) start-up story, this sort of grassroots campaigning is part of the company’s DNA. Daniel, while studying Project Management at university in Melbourne in 2008, learned about the world water crisis, which juxtaposed his knowledge that the Australian bottled water industry (a “dumb product” in his own words) was earning $600 million from consumers. His idea was born – what if there was a bottled water on the market where 100% of profits went towards ending the world water crisis?
Not many of us have our defining moment at 19. Or, really, have the balls to pursue a course-altering idea at 19. Most of us at 19 are too distracted by the thrills of young adulthood. Instead, Daniel shared his idea with Justine, a Mackay-native who was on her way to completing her Business degree in marketing and HR, and Jarryd who was studying finance.
With a big idea, next to no money and zero experience, the trio set up meetings with manufacturers and retailers – removing the P-plates from the car as they arrived at meetings. They pushed their vision uphill, tirelessly, and didn’t take any payment for three years. To survive, they worked part-time jobs; Jarryd and Daniel as night-shift traffic controllers and at a mobile phone shop on weekends, Justine as a nanny. “We basically looked for jobs that gave us money outside of business hours so that we could build this Thankyou thing,” explains Daniel.
“If I could sum up the last 10 years, it would be ‘growing pains’.”
With cafes now stocking the product, Thankyou was alive. Three years in, with barely any marketing budget, they used social media to spread their vision to the people, and asked people to voice their support for Thankyou Water by asking 7-Eleven to stock it. It worked. The brand’s following grew. In 2013, after five years of not being able to get Thankyou into the major supermarkets, despite countless pitch meetings, Daniel, Justine and Jarryd launched another social campaign targeting Woolworths and Coles. Still with minimal budget (less than $20k for a major pitch), they asked their supporters to petition the supermarkets on Facebook to stock Thankyou’s personal care and food ranges. As that was happening, the co-founders had arranged two helicopters (donated by benefactors) to fly around Coles and Woolies’ head offices, waving personalised thank you banners like, ‘Hey Woolworths, Thank you for changing the world! (If you say ‘yes’)’. Again, it worked.
In those early years, they had deals fall through, one retailer they’d pitched to instead created its own version of Thankyou Water, they endured a major product recall during their launch and all the hurdles you would expect of a small, inexperienced band of passionate go-getters going up against a multi-billion-dollar industry. (For more on the inspiring story and near-course-ending hurdles faced by Daniel, Justine and Jarryd during their initial start-up, visit Success NQ’s Facebook page for Daniel’s video.)
“Essentially we’ve never had budget and that has really forced innovation,” says Daniel, who now employs a team of 58. “Now that we’re running with scale like any business we’re like, ‘we need more budget, we need more budget, we need more budget’. We do, because we are up against people who are literally throwing millions [into advertising], or tens of millions in some cases; but we also don’t, because I do think there is a trap that money can provide. If you have a really, really remarkable cut-through, crazy, world-never-seen-before-idea, you don’t actually need as much money, because people are willing to remark about what you’re doing. In my mind, word-of-mouth is where the game is won and lost.”
In recent years, Daniel has been named Victorian Young Australian of the Year, EY Entrepreneur of the Year, Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, and Smart Company’s Hot 30 Under 30 (alongside Justine and Jarryd – at #2 in 2015, and #1 in 2016). Last year he was one of three social entrepreneurs interviewed by Barrack Obama at the Obama Foundation Summit. Thankyou has even been named the 2016 Coolest Company in Anthill’s Cool Company Awards.
In 2016, Daniel authored and published a book detailing the Thankyou story and lessons learned, titled Chapter One. He took the unique approach of pricing it as pay-what-you-want. Some bloke paid $0.05, another woman paid $50,000. In total, Chapter One has so far has raised over $2.5m with 124,719 copies sold – averaging $20 per book. Chapter One’s profits have so far funded Thankyou Baby (which Daniel says took twice as much time and money than expected), and this year’s expansion into New Zealand. Currently, the remaining profits are funding a “top secret project”. We wish we could reveal more, but Daniel is tight-lipped.
Despite water being Thankyou’s flagship product, it didn’t make the cut for the NZ launch. “It was Justine’s culture that we’re not taking water to New Zealand,” says Daniel. “I was like, ‘We kind of have to – it’s Thankyou water!’ But her stance was, ‘It’s not where we’re going; let’s be bold and not just do things the way they’ve always been done before.’ I’m like, ‘you can’t quote the book back at me!’ You know
what I mean?
“Justine’s right though – New Zealand doesn’t need another bottled water; neither does our world.”
There’s a lot of chatter out there about millennials being lazy, unmotivated and ungrateful. The reality is that, as a group, millennials are more socially and environmentally responsible, and more motivated by creating good than just dollars. The ‘carrot and stick’ incentive doesn’t work for this generation. That goes for recruiting a team to a social enterprise also.
“There is probably a fantasy that Thankyou or Google or Apple or some company is just so amazing to work for. Thankyou I think even more so, because it’s social,” says Daniel. “Part of me is going, ‘it is totally amazing!’ but it is also inheriting all the issues a charity has and all the issues a business has and putting them in one room – that’s hard. So we make our recruitment process hard – it literally is a 10-step process – because we really are looking for that cultural alignment and that person driven by purpose, not just a step in their career.
“The day we activated [New Zealand], social media blew up. It really shows the power of word-of-mouth when you get the message and the product right.”
Looking at what he has achieved in 10 years, does Daniel ever regret not putting his business mind to a for-profit venture? If he had, he would likely be a self-made millionaire. “Justine and I live with a no-regret mentality. We’re really passionate about what we do and we love it. At the same time, just to be real, I turned 30 in August, and we are like, ‘man, we still don’t have a house yet!’ I look at some of those things and feel so behind. But at the same time, we’re grateful for the journey we’re on.”
The Thankyou story certainly isn’t short of setbacks and knockdowns, but it’s the persistence, doggedness, long hours and dedication to vision that has made Thankyou an Aussie success story. “If I could sum up the last 10 years, it’s ‘growing pains’,” shares Daniel. “I think any time you are pioneering, starting something, trying to change anything, growing pains is just part of it. People expect you to say the toughest part is the first three years, because, honestly, they were tough. But I’ve been sharing openly with our team over the last six months or so that I actually feel like the last two years have been some of our hardest. The highs are higher, and the lows are lower.”
Even as we prepare this magazine, Thankyou just announced another setback – that Coles has changed its strategy and placed its final order for the Thankyou nappy range. In Daniel’s words, “that’s business”. (Parent readers can still purchase Thankyou nappies at Woolworths, Baby Bunting, thankyou.co and Amazon.com.au.) Also news for Thankyou as we send this edition to print, is that co-founder Jarryd Burns will leave Thankyou after 10 years growing the company. In Jarryd’s blog post to the Thankyou website, dated 20 September and titled ‘Hanging up my boots’ he writes: what I’ve learnt and will take with me is that you really can achieve the impossible with the right mindset and team of people alongside you…. I’m a big believer in finding your why. My why has always been about the Impact. I wholeheartedly believe in the cause and why Thankyou exists…. I will always be a Thankyou supporter.
“I actually thought at the end of Chapter One, ‘man, Chapter Two is not going to have any lows’,” reflects Daniel. “I was so wrong; we have more content than I ever dreamed possible for Chapter Two.”