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."
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.