The Thankyou story
To use the profits from the sale of everyday products to fund life-changing projects in a number of developing countries
‘Disruptive’ is a term ubiquitous in discussions about entrepreneurs and innovative business. It is used to describe a new concept or process so powerful in its novelty that it has the capacity to turn an entire industry on its head. Examples of disruption are easily found in fields where innovation is nurtured and glorified but its use is relatively uncommon in the not-for-profit sector.
Enter Daniel Flynn, Justine Flynn and Jarryd Burns, the co–founders of the Thankyou Group. The three have married charity with business, selling products that we all use such as bottled water, food and hygiene products, and redirecting the profits to fund crucial life-changing programs in a number of developing countries. As a social enterprise, Thankyou’s interests are anything but tokenistic and Daniel tells me that to date, they have been able to use profits to fund projects that provide access to safe water for over 90,000 people, health and hygiene training for 87,000 people and short-term food access and long-term food security to over 15,000 people. It’s disruption where it matters most.
With inspiration and a lot of hard work, Thankyou has become a subversive force and their products can now be found in over 4000 retail outlets across Australia. We were keen to find out more so we caught up with Daniel, who is now managing director of the Group, to hear his story.
Where did you get the idea for the Thankyou model, and how did you get it off the ground?
The idea came to me in 2008 when I was 19 and in my first year of university. While researching for an assignment I stumbled across the World Water Crisis and the fact that 900 million people in our world did not have access to safe water. I had this moment where I put myself in the shoes of kids my age that didn’t have access to a basic amenity which was easily accessible in Australia with a simple twist of the tap. Not only that, I imagined what it would be like to have the sole responsibility of collecting water for my family – water that wasn’t even safe to drink – and then seeing that same water I had collected make my family sick and even cause death. In that moment, something changed in me. I couldn’t just close my laptop, forget about what I’d read and go about my day as normal.
Despite the enormity of the issue I felt so compelled to do something about it. I decided to pull together a group of friends from university and we came up with the idea to launch a social enterprise called Thankyou Water that would provide consumers with the opportunity to change the world through the simple act of buying a bottle of water.
Getting it off the ground was tough, especially in those first few years. We had zero experience in the industry and no resources but our passion drove us and we didn’t let anything stand in our way. I remember back when we were first starting out, before we’d even officially launched the company and we were trying to gather information on how to run a bottled water business. We managed to land meetings with some pretty important executives, and the first few were pretty raw. We had our parents' suits on, made sure we took our ‘P’ plates down as we drove into the car parks of mega companies, and we told these people that we were launching a brand new water product in Australia.
To be honest, half the time we had no idea what they were talking about when it came to industry terminology – so we just nodded and smiled. Even though they were small beginnings, we always knew that with passion and persistence and a great idea, it would catch on - and we were right. In 2013, we rebranded our company to Thankyou and launched two new ranges – Thankyou Food and Thankyou Body Care – in order to address short-term and long-term sustainable food security and lack of health and hygiene education as well as water solutions.
Admittedly sometimes it felt like it was taking longer than first expected. And it still can feel that way. It’s hard sometimes when you have a dream because you see where it could go but in comparison to where you are now, it seems like such a long way off. Now, when I look back at where we’ve come from, just a few teenagers with a bold idea, it’s so encouraging and rewarding to see how it’s developed.
I think it’s rewarding for the consumer too, who only need to make a change in the brands they buy without compromising on price or quality. To be honest, in the Thankyou model it seems like everyone is a winner - what sacrifices do you have to make to ensure this happens?
From day one, we've been passionate about the fact that Thankyou exists solely for the cause. Essentially, after all the costs involved in bringing great products to the market are taken care of, every cent left funds projects overseas. This is rewarding, but it does come with its challenges, such as being innovative, creative and producing quality outcomes with limited resources. It goes without saying that we've always worked extremely hard to keep our costs down in order to maximise the impact we make.
We're lucky to work with great suppliers who really believe in our cause and give us great terms, as well as corporate partners who supply services at low cost or sometimes on a pro bono basis. We're always looking for creative ways to carry out marketing campaigns on a budget, which has actually become a positive for us because it's forced us to always think outside the box and dream big.
In traditional business models, directors take all of the organisational risk and in return they get shares and profit. At Thankyou, our directors take on all the same commercial risk but instead of getting ownership and profit they get a salary based on the charitable sector.
I’m one of the directors and can happily say that we do this because it’s about impact, not personal profit, but I know a lot of people in the business community are a little surprised we’d take on so much risk for no financial return.
I’m sure that you surprise the business community a lot, as Thankyou has grown into a social enterprise movement that completely reinvents the traditional business model. What skills, knowledge and advice have been vital on such a learning curve?
That’s a great question. From the start, we learnt quickly that impossibility is not a fact, it’s just someone's opinion. Over the years, people have said things to me like “That's impossible!” or “You can't do that!”. We've learned that along the way you may be faced with someone – a close friend, family member, or business acquaintance – who will tell you what you can't do. I believe that success is defined by the ability to turn stumbling blocks into stepping-stones. Looking back on every roadblock, every time I felt like it was all over, I see that those were the times that I really learned a lot. And those first few years were an extremely steep learning curve!
Another piece of advice that has become a key value in our organisation is “always keep learning”. Be like a sponge and absorb all you can in your field. Find people who are doing what you want to do well and learn from them. We’ve been fortunate enough to have some incredible mentors along the journey and their perspective and input has been essential in shaping the leader I am today.
Recently Jarryd, one of our co-founders, said something profound that he had heard somewhere – “it’s not the big that eat the small, it’s the fast that eat the slow”. We are up against some massive competitors and it’s very evident that we are small.
Sometimes, particularly as a start-up, you wonder if you’re size is your greatest weakness. The truth is, size isn’t everything. The ability to innovate and move quickly is king. One of my biggest lessons learned is that an idea isn’t worth much, but the value is found in its execution. We spent years telling people our great idea, but it wasn’t until we found a way to execute it through creative marketing campaigns that the game changed for us.
Speaking of creative marketing campaigns, I’ve heard the stories about Thankyou and Coles and Woolworths. Are they really true?!
After five years of unsuccessful attempts to get Coles and Woolworths to stock the water products, we had an idea to launch ‘the Coles and Woolworths Campaign’ that would enlist the help of Australians in getting their attention. We announced the campaign in July 2013 and asked our fans to post on Coles and Woolworths Facebook walls something along the lines of “If you stocked the Thankyou range, I’d buy it”. The campaign allowed us to engage with our passionate community, calling on them to join the movement and inviting them to be a part of our story.
The end result? The campaign video went viral with hundreds of people posting on the Facebook walls of Coles and Woolworths. Both supermarkets said yes, in record time. Products were then rolled out in a timeframe that industry experts said was unheard of. We grew our social media fan base by thousands, and saw demonstrated increase in our brand awareness, reaching over 90 traditional and online media mentions and receiving a total of 15.5 million impressions via media, social media and online traffic.
A crucial step for us was finding a way to engage with the community and raise awareness for the cause. We were convinced people would want to be a part of such a great idea and cause - they just had to know about it and be given the chance.
I think people can be sceptical of social enterprises though and I read an opinion piece that you wrote about the potential issues that the term can have because there is little to no regulation of the area. Ideally how would you define this term and what changes would you like to see, if any, in the Australian ‘social enterprise’ sector?
I would define social enterprise as a business that exists for the sole purpose of fulfilling a social outcome. Ideally, if there were some form of certification it would provide a framework as to what qualifies under that banner. The way I see it is that it will provide a chance for those companies that are making a really big difference in the community to be recognised for their contribution. There are many organisations in Australia doing incredible work in the social enterprise space including companies like Feast of Merit and STREAT. Certification would provide the opportunity to give credit where it is due.
It is great to see how supportive you are of local businesses despite having such an international focus with Thankyou. How important is it to you to have your products produced in Australia?
We believe that introducing Thankyou products on our home turf is absolutely essential in helping Australians to ‘live every day, give every day’. As we support development projects overseas we also want to support Australian industry and economy. We want to give to both, while empowering the everyday Australian to do the same.
I appreciate how easy you’ve made it for all of us to join in the Thankyou movement! Is there a long term plan, or will the goal posts always keep changing?
We are always thinking of new ways we can make a greater impact and new ways to engage the Australian community so we can become a household name. I don’t think we could ever say that we’ve arrived or that “we’ve made it”. There is always more work to be done and more people’s lives that can be changed for the better. So I guess in that sense we will always broaden the goal and widen the vision. However the ultimate goal or ‘win’ for Thankyou will always stay the same, which is to make as much impact as we can in the lives of those in need.
The most incredible part about this is we know it is ‘just the beginning’. In the scheme of the impact we know we could have, we are only just getting off the ground!