After the premature birth of her youngest son, Matthew, Julie Atherton of Weston found herself spending hours in front of the television, pumping breast milk to bring to the baby in the hospital.
"I was watching a lot of TV, and I kept hearing stories about all of these plastic water bottles going into landfills, and I thought about the juice boxes kids drink. I told my husband, 'Why doesn’t someone put it in a box,' " Atherton said. "Then I thought about it, and I said, 'Why don’t we put it in a box?' "
In 2008, the Athertons created h2O Spring Water, 16.9 fluid ounces of Canadian spring water packaged in recyclable paper cartons. The water has become a favorite of celebrities including Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake and The Jonas Brothers. The product also was the official water of music festival Lollapalooza 2010.
The big idea
H2O Spring Water is an alternative to plastic-bottled water. The product is packaged in screw-topped paper cartons that are kosher, BPA-free, sodium-free and printed with water-based, solvent-free inks to prevent chemical leaching. The product sells for $1.29 each, or $5.95 for a six-pack.
"If you leave a plastic bottle in the hot car while you’re at soccer with the kids, you have to throw it away because of chemical leaching," Julie Atherton said. "I wanted to create something that had no chemicals or BPA leaching into the water."
Julie Atherton, president of Refreshing Ideas LLC, which markets h2O, describes herself as entrepreneurial. A former owner of lingerie and athletic shoe stores, Julie handles sales, marketing and promotions. Her husband, Richard Atherton, is a civil engineer. As vice president, he handles logistics such as shipping and inventory.
Julie Atherton researched the bottled-water industry and alternate methods of packaging. She contacted Tetra Pak, which manufactures juice boxes, and asked if they had a larger container, suitable for adults. They offered her the "prism," an eight-sided box with a screw top that was used for wine.
Atherton found a Canadian water source with the equipment necessary to fill the boxes. After a cost analysis, she placed the minimum initial order of 100,000 boxes. It was June 2008, two months after she got the idea.
The Athertons spent about $500,000 on product and web design, trademarking, initial production costs, travel and promotion.
"While we were waiting for production, I thought, 'How can we compete with the big guys?They’re going to gobble us up,' " Julie Atherton said. "I needed to come up with a way to make a loud splash, with very little bucks. I thought about product placement. If a celebrity is holding it, it’s going to get immediate attention."
She contacted Distinctive Assets in Los Angeles, a gifting company that places products at celebrity events. She was invited to give away her products at two charity events in Las Vegas in October 2008. One was sponsored by Andre Agassi, the other by Justin Timberlake.
The problem was, the product wasn’t ready. For the Agassi event, Atherton set up a bar with sand-filled prototypes of h2O boxes and coaxed celebrities to take pictures with the product. She greeted entertainers like James Taylor, Mariah Carey and Donny Osmond, then secured their addresses so she could ship them h2O.
The product arrived in time for Timberlake’s event, and Atherton gave out water, chatted up VIPs, and was invited to supply the water for the singer’s concert the next night. Sitting in the audience, the Athertons were stunned to see Timberlake on stage, drinking h2O.
"Richard and I looked at each other and said, 'We made it!' and our product wasn't even in distribution yet," Julie Atherton said.
In February 2009, h2O was given away backstage at the Grammys. The Athertons continue to field calls and emails from celebrities seeking the product, from Pink’s staff to the moms of The Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift. Lady Gaga now requests that the water be shipped wherever she travels.
"That was our plan, to test our product with celebrities. If it worked with them, we knew regular people would buy it," Atherton said. "We were getting more and more exposure. We had become a hot brand."
There was one problem.
"We had no distribution. 2009 was a hard year. We were running out of money, and we said we just couldn’t keep on giving out water with no distribution."
Produced in Canada, the water is warehoused in Baltimore and Los Angeles. H2O is sold online atH2Ospringwater.com
. It is also in Super Kmart, some specialty natural markets and in Meijer, a Midwestern food chain. It has been picked up by national distribution centers Nature’s Best and Tree of Life.
In 2010, Paramount Pictures made h2O the official water of the animated movie Rango, released in March, and h2O produced a million special edition Rango containers.
The Athertons have been unable to break into a major grocery chain.
"We can’t get it on the shelf. Every film studio has called us, but we can’t get into a Publix," Julie Atherton said. "They don’t think it's relevant. They think it's a niche product. The first question is, 'Where are you distributed and what are your (sales) numbers?' "
Balancing work and family
The Athertons work from home, scheduling conference calls and meetings around school, soccer and swimming lessons for Adam, 5, and Matthew, 3. Extended family steps in when they travel.
"We take a lot of red-eye and midnight flights to be home for them," Julie Atherton said.
The next step
The couple continue to work with movie studios on product tie-ins for film and DVD releases - and are trying to get it on the shelf of a major grocery retailer. One day they hope to expand the product line.
"I would love to be able to walk into Publix one day and buy our own product," Julie Atherton said.
Advice for other moms
"Research the Internet voraciously to learn every detail about your product's industry. No one should be able to ask you a question you can't answer," Julie Atherton said. "And do not invest any money until you are confident you have a winner. Confidence is key because you have to be able to convince people with your passion and commitment."