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How We Bootstrapped A Water Brand That Became One of The Largest Independently-Owned Bottled Water in the U.S.

Rachel Steinford
Rachel Steinford

TEN Alkaline Spring Water is an independent company co-founded by Jose Fernandez and Jorge Sandrini. It has become the #3 alkaline water in retail and is one of the only at 10ph. They recently unveiled their water in aluminum cans to reduce the plastic impact in retail and on the planet.

Was it a lightbulb moment or gradual process of TEN Alkaline Spring Water?

It was definitely a lightbulb type of moment. There was a small but growing interest in the health benefits of alkaline water. Many people had  filtration systems at home and the market at the time wasn’t offering what we would consider to be the highest ph, most natural possible water in retail. We knew by developing an alkaline water with 10ph that had a great brand and purpose behind it, that we could penetrate the market and bring more awareness to its benefits.

How did you get your first three customers?

TEN Water started from humble beginnings as a local brand in the South region, with our springs located in and around the Appalachian Valley. In fact, our first retailer selling TEN was a little corner market store in Atlanta, 7 years ago. At that time, I was personally delivering 5 cases of water per week to the store in the trunk of my car. True story!

TEN Alkaline bottled water

Today that little market orders more traditionally -- through distributors -- and TEN Water has now grown to more than $15 million in annual retail sales making us one of the largest independently owned bottled water brands in the entire eastern U.S. TEN is now available at 6,000 locations nationwide – and in the Southeast at Publix, The Fresh Market, Ingles, Earth Fare and Whole Foods Florida among many other locations.

In the early days of the brand we were also giving water to friends, family and even athletes. They all absolutely loved the quality, taste and story behind how and where we process the water from. From there they began to spread the word, and when we started bringing retailers on board awareness really grew from there.

How did you validate the idea?

TEN is a product we were looking to purchase ourselves but was not on the market, so we created it knowing there would be others out there who valued the quality and ph level of what TEN would ultimately provide. I think any great company or entrepreneur finds a need in a market and fills that gap, so we like to think we are helping the water industry in that way.

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

We actually came from different industries but when we had the “ah-ha” moment, we really dove into figuring out everything necessary to develop expertise in the industry. We also teamed up with others who were experts in their own right to really launch at an accelerated pace. We didn’t try to do everything ourselves, and realize we needed to have partners in logistics, packaging, water sourcing, bottling and more to do a great job.

Have you raised any money? How much?

We bootstrapped most of the company at startup. We did take out some loans and leverage credit lines, but have become profitable and have been self-sufficient financially. As one of the largest independently-owned bottled water brands in the category who is #3 in the alkaline water market we are thankful and impressed with where we have positioned ourselves.

What regulatory approvals did you have to go through?

Essentially you have to be aware of and be ready to pass standards by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the State Department of Public Health and the CDC. The hoops to jump through and ongoing standards are constant but our quality control team is always there to ensure we are up to date.

Who is your target demographic?

We find that those are into health and fitness tend to appreciate the 10ph and TEN product overall. You would be surprised about some of the converts we attract as well, people end up reading about the benefits of alkaline water and are hooked on the product after that. It can be one of the early adjustments in many people’s journey to better health.

How did you fund the idea initially?

We self-funded the company through savings, credit and profits made in other ventures throughout our recent careers.

Where did you meet your cofounder/founding team?

Jose and myself have been family and business partners for a long time. TEN has a great “family business” energy.

Jose & Jorge TEN Founders

It’s a nice combination to have as an independent business, but obviously not everyone at TEN has that type of history together.

Any tips for finding first employees?

That’s a tough one, I think you’ll go with your gut when finding the first handful of employees and partners for a company. You shouldn’t just hire your friends or a close family member though, it should only happen if it makes absolute sense and not because it's convenient.  Using social channels, recruiting websites and asking your network is always a great way to drum up some staffing options.

What motivated you to start your own business?

I don’t think it was really an agenda to start a business until the need and opportunity presented itself. When we had the moment and knew TEN needed to happen, it was just a part of the responsibility to put the business hat on and figure out all the logistics.

What were your family and friends first thoughts on your company?

They were all very supportive, even though some of them totally gave us the partially confused look and question “why alkaline water??”. Once we explained the vision, purpose and they could feel our enthusiasm, they were 110% sold and have been huge fans of TEN ever since.

What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?

Over time you realize that having problems is just a part of being in business, and if you didn’t have problems you are probably playing it too safe. We understand that there is always something to fix, learn and adjust upon. If something goes wrong, we take a moment to process, learn and ensure it doesn’t happen like that again. Dare we say, if you have things go wrong, you’re probably doing it right.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

Study your industry, competitors and get a feel for whether the market could use what you have to offer. Don’t wait too long for answers or to get things perfect though, it’s better to get started, create momentum and learn as you go.

What has driven the most sales?

Our expansion into retail stores has been a huge success for us, and being on Amazon and Walmart doesn’t hurt either. It’s really a combination of different SKUs/products and studying what sells best via the different channels. It’s critical to study the data, and pivot where needed. Our social media channels and marketing also help us get discovered and to remain credible with buyers and retailers.

What is stopping you being 3x the size you are now?

I believe it’s only a matter of time, distribution and awareness are really the key to getting to that 3X mark. There’s no fast track to that unless Oprah told everyone about TEN everywhere she went, of course.

How do you protect yourself from competition?

We don’t really worry about competition honestly, we know they are out there but we have carved out our own niche having 10ph, high quality product.

TEN waters

We focus on consumer trends and have created different mediums to sell our product in (jugs, cans, bottles etc). Having a thriving alkaline water niche with other brands only helps everyone sell more product long term.

Do you have any trademarks/IP/patents? N/A

TEN Water has a United States Process Patent which is totally unique in the category.

What are the next products you’re working on?

We recently released our 10ph alkaline water in an aluminum can, and are the first alkaline water brand to do so.

TEN water in a can

In the future we may consider different packaging and bottling solutions, but for now this recent aluminum can unveil is our newest focus.

Where do you see the company in 5 years?

We see ourselves with further expansion West into more and more retail stores. It will be exciting to see how our online business has grown via Amazon, Walmart and whatever else happens to be around at the time. Things move and change quickly.

Company Name: TEN® Alkaline Spring Water
Founders: Jose Fernandez, Jorge Sandrini
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