Dopper: Building a Social Impact Startup | In Practise

Dopper: Building a Social Impact Startup

Founder of Dopper

Learning outcomes

  • The founding story of Dopper
  • The power of using offline events in the early days of a startup
  • How to target and find your early customer
  • Building a mission and culture at your startup
  • Challenges stepping down and passing your company to another leader
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Executive Bio

Merijn Everaarts

Founder of Dopper

Merijn founded Dopper, one of the world's leading sustainable water bottles, in 2009 after a walk on a beach full of plastic set him on a mission to a plastic-free future. Dopper sells over 2.5m bottles each year and donates 10% all net proceeds to the Dopper Foundation which builds water projects in Nepal and other poorer regions. Read more

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Merijn, a good place to start would be to take us back to the beginning and the founding story of Dopper.

That’s a little bit over ten years ago when I was at the beach at a very nice sunny day. The sun was setting, and I was leaving the beach going up to the dunes and looked over my shoulder/back, as I always do the last glimpse of how nice it looks. Instead of seeing the sun setting in the water, I was more looking at the beach. I saw something which I actually saw always but never realized, is this carpet of plastic which is left behind on the Dutch beaches. I don’t now about the UK, but in the Netherlands, we tend to leave our stuff behind, which is a real mess, but because this is part of our DNA in the Netherlands, it’s our normal, you don’t really see it because you think it’s going to be cleaned up or who cares, maybe it’s not going to be cleaned up. This is our attitude on the beach. Then I really saw that it’s not being cleaned up, only around the bins and that the wind and the tides actually are taking all of this plastic, most of its plastic into the sea. It’s always after a hot day, there are a lot of mineral water bottles. That evening, I came home and for the first time on national TV, there was a mini documentary about plastic soup. Then two things, two worlds came together for me.

I realized that everything that was left on the beach is going into the ocean or the sea and what’s there is out of sight, out of mind. Also, for me, it was for all of these years, until ten years ago, I saw it, but never realized what was actually happening, because as soon as it hits the water, you don’t see it. I did some research, I found out the enormous impact it has on the ocean, that actually all the plastic sinks to the bottom of the sea. It slowly biodegrades into the ocean in the so-called plastic soup. A lot of times, it’s not even visible because it’s torn down into such small particles that you don’t see it, but it’s part of the marine life. I was so shocked about it that I really wanted to do something about it because especially in the Netherlands, the water quality is excellent, which runs from the tap. I really thought always already in my life, I thought it was so stupid that people are buying mineral water from wherever, Spain, from Fiji, from Norway. I was not drinking water at all; I was always drinking tea. I thought or all of those people, why don’t we make a vehicle, to transport our tap water, which is really nice, looks really slick, is not something you want to lose. I interviewed a lot of people and they all mentioned to me that they are reusing their plastic water bottle, so the mineral water bottle for tap water.

They really use it as a vehicle. I initiated a design competition and then this beautiful Dopper bottle came out. Yes, actually, it was instant success because I engaged the community right from the start. First, I saw the problem. I was part of a network of 25 entrepreneurs. I pitched the idea that we as a group should look for a solution for this plastic problem. I said, let’s design water bottles, something that’s really beautiful. Everybody was cheering, everybody was enthusiasts. I initiated a design competition for anybody. The bottle was actually crowd-sourced, which means it was in the newspaper.

I organized a flash-mob, one of the biggest back then in the Netherlands. It got so much attention that it was really clear to the people why we were doing these amazing things, to look for a solution for all of the stupid plastic water bottles. I engaged all the public, again, by the announcement of the design of the water bottle. I engaged the whole community which was there to actually source for a producer. I really asked the whole time the public and the words crowd funding didn’t exist ten years ago in the Netherlands. Of course, the word existed, or wasn’t used in a way that was used now. That was really a strong point of Dopper in the beginning. I was engaging the whole time with my friends, the friends from friends, it really had a good kickstart for the design and also to find a producer. I got so confident because I got only positive feedback from the community, that I was really sure also when I had to do an initial huge investment of €110,000 to make the molds. It was my savings plus I needed to crowd fund a bit with family and friends. I was so convinced that this was necessary for the world, that I believed so strongly that this will happen. Yes, this gave me also the power to go for it and launch it. As you talk from the start.

Could we talk about that passion? Clearly, Dopper has a huge social mission. Why do you think it’s so important to have a passion for a business that you’re founding?

Yes, I think with any business you do and whatever the motivation is, I hope it’s not money, most of the time if it’s money, it doesn’t work. If it’s something you’re intensely motivated for, then it will also work. If you have a good idea to clean the streets or give the trees some flowers. If you really believe that this is helping the way the world works, then if you really feel this passion, it really works or doesn’t work. Then somebody else may go with your idea and make it happen. That trust I also found that it’s very good to spread your word, what you think is good for the world. Maybe you will not realize the idea, but somebody else. I really felt it. I really felt like you fall in love with a girl or a man. You really feel this spark. I really felt this spark, that this is the one I’m falling in love with now.

How do you balance that between the realism and delusion? You can fall in love with things that maybe you’re just delusional. In the early days, if you’re investing a lot of your savings, it’s scary.

Yes. It’s scary and it’s the gut feeling and that’s why sometimes things don’t work and sometimes people go bankrupt because they so much believe in it and then it doesn’t work out. I made I think at least 50 plans to start a restaurant. In the end, I started a catering company, after one year, yes, it didn’t work. I felt the same passion, I felt the same motivation, I was working my ass off. It didn’t work. Also, sometimes it doesn’t work. I had savings and I thought I can invest it in bricks, which is a very good return on investment. I also thought I can invest it, I have a house, I have a living, it’s small but I can put this in my passion.
What I see as a problem, I also really saw the solution. I thought, let’s put it together.

I’m from the restaurant and catering business. There you also team up and you build up to an event. One way or another, the event is always happening. That’s what I learned also. It doesn’t come easy. I knew I had obstacles. I knew I had rocks on the road. Yes, then you start to maneuver yourself between everything and keep the eye on the goal. I understand what you say if it’s realistic sometimes, sometimes people are pitching to me ideas and I must be honest and say, I don’t think this is a good idea. I don’t think the world is ready for this. I never got negative feedback from anybody. Then I thought, okay. That’s the nice thing about crowd funding nowadays, the platforms, you can test if people like it or not. If you don’t get funded, you better not start it.

Back to those early days when you were communicating your vision and you mentioned a community allying behind your vision. What were the specific strategies you used to setup events or drive that engagement in the early days?

I think with the eye on the goal, that’s what I always said, I want to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles. I also hope Coke and the rest will follow. This was my focus, because it was so clear and understandable for people, it was very easy to get them on my path.
We used the bottle to make it happen, to make impact. I was trying to look for events where I could spread the word and resonate with people who understand. I was talking with people who are already in the green sector and in sustainability. Going for the low-hanging fruit was the target in the beginning to engage people. On the other hand, also focusing on places where they use a lot of single-use plastic. We had some hiking events, some sports events, where normally, it was very normal that everybody grabs for this mineral water. Everybody was grabbing for a Dopper.

Once we blocked the central station in Amsterdam, only one door, but we blocked it. Everybody who was passing, who wanted to pass this door with a mineral water in their hand, we changed it. We just changed it with a message, please continue your life outside in a sustainable manner. Yes, we’d be active on places where the low-hanging fruit is, or where the problem is the biggest.

It seems like lots of offline events were powerful?

Yes, of course. When I started, social was not so big as now. Still, I see with Dopper, our social is not so big, but there are a lot of people buying it. It’s really going from peer-to-peer. Really, people are telling each other or having a bottle and showing it to people and people say, “That’s a nice bottle.” Luckily, around 20-30% of the people can replicate our mission or part of it. Then the story continues.

What were some of the early challenges of getting Dopper off the ground?

The initiative itself went very well, as it resonated and we were found in the right events. Finding a producer was really hard. Then we found it, then it was really hard to make the bottle itself. I wanted to produce in the Netherlands. That was the goal for me. I wanted to make it that it has the same feeling as a plastic water bottle but in another form. To do plastic but then durable plastic. My standard was Tupperware ware because Tupperware never goes bad. To make a water bottle watertight is one of the biggest challenges. We still have a challenge with it. You need the tiniest little leak and it starts leaking, unfortunately.

The initial launch was in August and in the end, we launched in October. Then I thought it was watertight. Then still, we had to work on it for more than a year to make it watertight. Dealing with it, I never dealt with a producer. I’m not from a product market. I have no clue how you build a mold or what are the specifics. I put a lot of faith and trust in the producer. It was also a challenge for me because I had no clue what they are talking about. I needed incorporate all kinds of experts into it. I thought it was also very clever to actually challenge the producer in the material use and how they produce. I introduced a cradle-to-cradle certification to them and I said it’s the minimum standard I want to have. Yes, you can tell me, you have an excellent product, but I cannot check it at all. Yes, this was one of the challenges. Yes, we overcame it and it was in the end a good thing to do.

That’s how you dealt with that asymmetric information between yourself and the producer. You’re like, okay, let me set a standard with experts, you get consultation from experts to set a standard, send that to the producers and then you know exactly what they’re providing you.

Yes, and every time I think in general life and also when talking to employees, asking the second question. It’s often you say, okay, I just rebuilt my house and I didn’t ask many second questions. Then you rely on the builder and then it’s built. After it’s built, why is this like this? Yes, you didn’t ask me. Always ask the second questions, not ten second questions, but there’s always a second question.

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Dopper: Building a Social Impact Startup

April 1, 2020

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