Business 17 April 2017
Although “sleek" and “sexy" may not be terms one would typically ascribe to a water bottle, for Bkr founders, Kate Cutler and Tal Winter, that's exactly how they see their product.
“Bkr (pronounced 'beeker') was created from the principals of good design," says Winter. “It's just enough, but not too much. It's restrained and simple. We knew edited minimal design is the most difficult thing to achieve."
What began as an idea for a chic reusable water bottle has today become a robust line of more than 100 iterations of fashionable glass bottles, covered in colorful soft touch silicone sleeves, in sizes that range from Big to Teeny. Bkr is available in more than 20 countries and over 1,000 global doors, including the beauty floors of Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. According to the ladies, the multimillion dollar brand has experienced 2,400 percent growth since year one to five, seeing between 114 and 131 percent growth year over year. To be sure, at the core of the Bkr brand is a very purposeful decision to market itself as a beauty product as opposed to a commodity or sports accessory.
Giselle spotted with a yellow BKR bottle. Courtesy of Josie Girl
“Water is the foundation of your beauty regimen," says Cutler. “Even if you buy expensive products, they don't really work if your skin isn't hydrated from the inside. There's some kind of magic to our brand. We tell people it will change how you hydrate forever. If that sounds dramatic you just haven't had one. It actually helps people drink more water."
Photographed in the hands of celebrities like Gisele Bȕnchen, Jennifer Garner and Jessica Alba, it's clear these female founders set out what they aimed to; making a common commodity into a must-have accessory that just happens to be a water bottle.
“From day one we envisioned that we were the 'it bottle,'" says Cutler. “We knew who our customer was; we said she is the 'it girl' and this is the 'it bottle.' Our goal was to build a brand that was consistent with that vision and we never veered away from that."
The idea for Bkr began in 2011 when Winter says she found herself drinking from a ton of disposable bottles, despite knowing that they were not the best option for daily hydration.
“I had the idea because I have always known that drinking water is the the precedent for gorgeous skin," says Tal. “It didn't make sense that intelligent sophisticated people like me and Kate were drinking out of trash. Plastic water bottles are not good for your health and they are not good for the environment."
The two did some guerilla research to see if there were fashionable alternatives to plastic water bottles on the market. What they found were plenty of sports-styled offerings in steel or aluminum, which can be filled with neurotoxins. What was missing was anything that a young, stylish woman would want to carry around in her purse.
“The thing that bothered me the most was that steel bottles smelled gross," says Winter. “They reminded me of the horrible canteens we used in Girl Scouts. I wouldn't drink my wine out of metal so why would I drink water out of it? Knowing what I know now is that steel is three times worse for the environment than even plastic. From the cradle to grave, steel's effect the environment is three times worse. We both have legal backgrounds so one of our strengths is knowing how to thoroughly research something, and steel wasn't a solution for us."
“We wanted something that was reusable, that would be chic, clean, clear, and effortless. We wanted an iconic design that stands the test of time."
The glass Winter and Cutler decided on for their prototype is thick, crystal clear ,“endlessly recyclable," and already about 60 percent recycled. With the goal of creating a timeless shape, the two settled on a soft rounded bottle with a hypoallergenic silicone sleeve, which can be removed and washed separately from the glass component. “If you look under a microscope, plastic is porous so bacteria goes in the material," says Winter. “The bottle, sleeve, and cap are dishwasher safe, so it's so easy to be out the door with a clean bottle."
Bkr founders, Tal Winter and Kate Cutler - Courtesy of Bkr
When It All Began
The two, who met in law school and worked as practicing attorneys before Bkr, joined together with the goal of replacing disposable water bottles. “The very beginning I didn't know what to do," says Winter. “I started talking to people who could mentor me and help me. We hired a designer and put together a pitch and worked with one main advisor, who introduceduse to some engineers and manufacturers. Every day it was one foot in front of the other. You keep pushing yourself, and you just figure it out." After four years of research and development, Bkr officially launched in April, 2011, with five color options. Despite having no website at the time, Cutler and Winter flew to LA to scout potential distribution for their new line.
“We rented a car and went around in different neighborhoods to see [what kind of store] we should be in," says Kate. “We were showing buyers pictures of Bkr on our phones. We just tried to see where it fit; where we wanted someone to discover the brand."
In true startup fashion, the two co-founders took on the customer service themselves, while Winter did the social media for five years. They also did plenty of research to see how exactly they should position the brand, deciding on a luxury fashion accessory. “We're a beautiful design, but at our core we are a beauty product," says Cutler. "We wanted to make sure we were creating a relationship with a customer that was into fashion and beauty."
To keep the line as fresh as possible and to “give cult fans something new and exciting," Winter and Cutler create multiple Fashion brand-inspired seasonal capsule collections per year. “We are pop culture, fashion and magazine junkies," says Cutler. “We go to museums, we pay attention to street chic, runway trends, and we are curious, interested, artistic people. We create what we can imagine. We trust ourselves and if we like something we believe others will too."
According to Cutler some of the best selling shades to date include Naked, a match-with-everything nude, and Tutu, which Cutler and Winter describe as the perfect pale pink. “We are always on the hunt for the more pink," says Winter, adding that nudes, pinks and pale shades tend to sell the most. “We feel we've hit on the best tones of pink." The company, which is completely self-funded, and was started on a $200K friends and family round, is currently made up of about 14 employees, plus consultants and is based in San Francisco. Available in luxury beauty retail doors in 21 countries, Bkr's top markets include Sweden, the UK, Germany, South Korea and Dubai.
“It's a bootstrap self-made company," said Winter. “Neither of us is a risk taker but we are definitely risk takers when it came to being entrepreneurs, but when we go to Vegas we don't gamble." When asked what was next for the brand, the girls didn't give details, but they promise that there is excitement to come.
“There is so much more we are going to do," says Cutler. “We will be growing our product offering in the direction that resonate with our audience within luxury and beauty in exciting different ways."
It seemed like everything happened overnight because, well… it did.
One moment, my team and I were business as usual, running a multi-million-dollar edible cookie dough company I built from scratch in my at-home kitchen five years ago and the next we were sitting in an emergency management team meeting asking ourselves, "What do we do now?" Things had escalated in New York, and we were all called to do our part in "flattening the curve" and "slowing the spread."
The governor had declared that all restaurants immediately close to the public. All non-essential businesses were also closed, and 8.7 million New Yorkers were quarantined to their tiny apartments for the foreseeable future. Things like "social distancing" and "quarantine" were our new 2020 vernacular — and reality.
What did that mean for us? Our main revenue source was the retail part of the business. Sure, we offered delivery and take-out, but that was such a small portion of our sales. I had built a retail experience where people from near and far came to eat edible cookie dough exactly how they craved it. We had two stores, one in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn, which employed over 55 people. We have two production facilities; an online business shipping cookie dough nationwide; a wholesale arm that supplies stores, restaurants, and other retail establishments with treats; and a catering vertical for customizable treats for celebrations of all sizes. And while business and sales were nearly at a complete halt, we still had bills. We had payroll to pay, vendors we owed, services we were contractually obligated to continue, rent, utilities, insurance, and none of that was stopping.
How were we going to do this? And for how long will this go on? No one knew.
As an entrepreneur, this certainly wasn't my first-time facing challenges. But this was unprecedented. Unimaginable. Unbelievable. Certainly unplanned. This control-freak type-A gal was unraveling. I had to make decisions quickly. What was best for my team? For my business? For the safety of my staff? For the city? For my family and unborn baby (oh, yeah, throw being 28 weeks pregnant and all those fun hormones in there, it's real interesting!). Everything was spiraling out of control.
I decided to take the advice I had given to many people over the years — focus on the things you can control. There's no point worrying about all the things you have no control over. If you focus there, you'll just continue spiraling into a deeper, darker hole. Let it go. Once you shift your perspective, you can move forward. It's not going to be easy; the challenges still exist. But you can control certain things, so focus your energy and attention on those.
So that's what I did. I chose, for the safety of staff and customers, to close the retail portion completely — it wasn't worth the take-out and delivery volume to staff the store, open ourselves up to more germs and human contact than absolutely necessary.
I went back to our mission and the reason I started the business in the first place — to spread joy. How could we continue to bring happiness to people during this uncertain time? That's our purpose. With millions of people across the globe stuck inside, working from home, quarantined with their families, how can we reach them since they can't come to us? So I thought back to how and why we got started.
Baking, for me, has always been a type of therapy. I could get lost in the mixing bowl and forget about everything else for a moment in time. Sure, I have a huge sweet tooth, but it's about the process. It's about taking all of these different ingredients and mixing them together to create something magically sweet and special. It's about creating and being creative with the simple things. It's about allowing people to indulge in something that brings them joy — a lick from the spatula or a big batch of cookies.
It's about joy in the moment and sharing that joy with others. So my focus is back on that, and it feels good.
We could still ship nationwide, straight to people's doorstep. So we are making it easier and less expensive to send the ultimate comfort food (edible cookie dough) by introducing a reduced shipping rate, and deals on some of our best-selling packages.
In a way for us, it feels like we are going back in time… back to our roots. When I first started the business, we were only shipping nationwide. There were no stores, no big team, no wholesale. It was just me, a small crew juggling it all, and we made it work then. And we'll make it work again. We have to leverage our online business and hope it floats us through this time.
We are focusing our digital content strategy on sharing recipes, activities, and at-home treats with our engaged, amazing social following so they bake with their families and stay busy at-home. We started live baking tutorials where our fans can bake-along with me and I can share all the tips and tricks I've learned over the years with them.
I've leveraged the cookbook I published last year, Hello, Cookie Dough: 110 Doughlicious Confections to Eat, Bake & Share, to come up with fun content and additional things to do at home. We started shipping it and our at-home baking mixes for free to encourage people to get busy in their kitchens!
And as a business, we will continue to connect with our community to bring them joy and focus on what we can control, including our attitude and outlook first.
During times of uncertainty, which this certainly is, you should do the same. Identify the things you can control and focus your time and energy on those things. Distract yourself with the positive. Force yourself to stop asking and worrying about all the what-ifs. Do what you can for the moment and then the next moment. Make a list, and take it day-by-day.
It's going to be okay. You will be okay. We will all be okay.