Dubai-based British expat starts reusable drinkware business while still working a corporate job

It’s not always that one must leave a corporate job to start a business. Sometimes both can go together, as is the case with Dubai-based British expat Jodie Fowler. Alongside her fulfilling event management job, Fowler started a small business amid the pandemic in 2020. Fowler’s business which sells reusable and personalized water bottles has taken baby steps to grow while she continues to be content with her corporate career.

However, juggling a full-time job while managing a single person driven small business must not be easy. “Even though I love my extremely demanding, full-time job as well as my entrepreneurial endeavor it has been quite difficult managing both. It’s hard to strike a work-life balance. I don’t have a co-founder, so I’ve to do everything on my own. It requires being organized and as efficient as possible and be willing to put in extra hours after work or over weekends to grow the business. At the same time, it’s important to take breaks,” Fowler shared.

Even though I love my extremely demanding, full-time job as well as my entrepreneurial endeavor it has been quite difficult managing both.

-Jodie Fowler

A business that took off “by luck”

A self-proclaimed fan of ideation, Fowler claims to be the kind of person who comes up with “a million ideas”, some of which she easily forgets. “That’s why I never really thought I’d end up converting one such idea into a small business,” she said.

The way her business ‘Sip’ came about was happenstance and not so much a planned endeavor. Towards the middle of 2020 as pandemic related restrictions were eased in the UAE’s hospitality sector, there were attractive deals on staycations as traveling abroad was still restricted. Fowler and her friends went for a beachside staycation and realized that their cold beverages heated up in no time. For their next staycation Fowler bought three insulated water bottles and got their names printed on them.

“When I posted photos of our personalized bottles on my social media account, it caught attention and people started asking if I could make one for them. That’s how ‘Sip’ started,” Fowler recollected.

Lesson #1: Try to solve a problem – “Even though the business came about by chance, the idea was to solve a problem – how to keep beverages cool during peak summer months in the UAE. However tiny a business might be, I think it should always try to solve a problem faced by a specific cohort, a community or a wider audience.”

Although unplanned, the timing of the environment-conscious start-up’s launch was strategically aligned with the initiatives being undertaken in the UAE to promote the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle.

Unplanned yet launch time was strategic

While the business idea was good, there were other factors to consider, such as product sourcing, pricing, packaging and more. “I had no idea about margins nor any knowledge about sourcing. I was clueless about pricing benchmark,” she admitted. “So, literally seated in my couch I did basic math by calculating the cost of the reusable bottles, the time that I’ll spend on customizing and packaging them and came up with a pricing, which I later realized was too low. I had not even factored in the cost of delivery, as I was delivering the products.”

Although unplanned, the launch timing was strategic as the brand’s environment-friendly values ​​aligned with the UAE’s 2030 sustainability goals. Several initiatives are being undertaken in the UAE to promote the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle. For example, the ‘Dubai Can’ initiative to reduce single-use plastic bottles aligns well with Fowler’s business proposition.

Lesson #2: Pivot as you go – “Throughout 2021 I worked on several areas of the business including sourcing, delivery and even price benchmarking. This exercise helped me to come up with a revised and a more sustainable pricing model. Moreover, I had started with reusable bottles and within six months transitioned to reusable thermal tumblers that I currently sell. That was a massive pivot. I’ve realized that it’s okay to make a start if I’m open to learn and if required pivot along the way.”

I had started with reusable bottles and within six months transitioned to reusable thermal tumblers that I currently sell. That was a massive pivot.

-Jodie Fowler

Learnings along the way

Fowler has bootstrapped to launch her business, investing a total sum Dh30,000 from her personal savings to get a license, inventory, set up the website, install different tools and software and packaging. She allocates a monthly budget of Dh300-Dh500 for social media marketing through adverts.

“For now, this amount is optimum for my business since I’ve to fulfill the orders efficiently to maintain a good customer experience. What I’ve learned is social media marketing is crucial to build awareness but can be quite expensive if outsourced. Instead, it might be prudent to first understand who your customer is and what their expectations are to create engaging content that will resonate with them. This can save a significant amount of money almost around Dh5,500-Dh6,500 per month. For example, I made a one-time investment of around Dh3,000 to get some templates and illustrations done. Now I only use Canva for artworks and work with a freelance designer from time-to-time. Having said that it’s important to smartly use time in order not to get overwhelmed. For example, repurposing content across social media platforms is a smart strategy.”

Lesson #3: It’s okay to make mistakes but crucial to learn from them – “One of my biggest learnings is that getting product samples can be very expensive. One sample bottle with custom color and finish can cost $80, excluding delivery. I didn’t foresee such high cost of sampling. Only once the product line is established the cost reduces. Now I make it a point to factor in the cost of sampling.

“Another crucial learning has been the need for financial readiness to expand the product range. To ensure that I’ve enough runway to build the business, I continuously plow back earnings from the business to grow the business. I’ve also learned how crucial economy of scale is in case of customized products. When I launched two new product lines, I had to order at least 1,000 reusable straw packs and canvas bags for the manufacturer to create a new range at a reasonable price.”

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Over the past two years one area that Fowler has tirelessly worked on is relationship building with suppliers to get the best price when buying in bulk.

Relationship building is key

Over the past two years one area that Fowler has tirelessly worked on is relationship building with suppliers to get the best price when buying in bulk, delivery partners to get friendly terms and customers to build a sense of loyalty.

“I’ve realized the importance of having open communication with customers as well as those I work with at the back end of the business. For example, when I foresee a delay in delivery, I always inform my customer. And I’ve noticed that they are more accepting of delays by a small business. They understand that it’s a one-woman show,” Fowler shared.

“I follow the same principle even when it comes to collaborations. I’ve seen several businesses of different size collaborating with social media influencers to create brand awareness. While I won’t comment on whether it’s a good strategy, as opposed to giving freebies to influencers, I’ve chosen to collaborate with micro influencers within my network who are keen to embed sustainable practices in their daily lives. After all, the idea is to create a community around the brand who will feel part of my story and identify with values ​​that the brand stands for,” she concluded.

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