Ellicott City start-up 'rethinks' bottled water

For Howard Magazine
These 30-year-olds are aiming to change the way we consume water.

The first time Matt Swanson and Chris O’Donovan, both 30, dipped their toes into entrepreneurship, they failed.

In 2010, the founders of Ellicott City-based Rethink Water envisioned creating a flavorless, vitamin-enhanced, no-calorie water. They spent six months researching the concept and developing a business plan. But after sharing the idea with a flavor developer, they discovered that the beverage would quickly spoil and have a short shelf life.

So they went back to the drawing board. For several years, they researched water quality, packaging and demand.

“We kept seeing how plastic was so bad for the environment,” says Swanson, who grew up in Highland.

To reduce packaged water’s environmental impact, Swanson and O’Donovan designed a recyclable container using 70 percent paperboard, a renewable resource, and filled it with highly filtered water. Rethink Water, named to reflect Swanson and O’Donovan’s drive to reimagine the packaged water industry, was born in October 2015.

“We’re all about building an incredibly successful company that creates needed change,” O’Donovan says.

Unlike Rethink’s packaging, most plastic water bottles are produced from crude oil, a nonrenewable resource. And while plastic bottles are recyclable, Americans still throw away 2.5 million of them every hour, according to Recycle Across America.

Swanson and O’Donovan met as students at Washington College in Chestertown. After graduating in 2009, they went their separate ways to build their careers, both in sales — Swanson, who splits his time between Michigan and Maryland, at Procter & Gamble and then Google, and O’Donovan, a Chevy Chase resident, for Body Armor sports drink and then Tessemae’s All Natural, a Maryland-based condiment maker.

In their spare time, they built and raised $500,000 for Rethink. Among the early investors: Ken Ulman, former Howard County executive, and Gary Rezeppa, a Glenwood resident and former executive with Vitamin Water.

Both founders eventually quit their jobs to focus on Rethink full time.

“There’s entrepreneurs and wantrepreneurs,” says O’Donovan, who sold cases of Rethink Water out of his car. “You have to go all in, or it’s not going to work.”

The concept seems to be working so far. Rethink has reached $500,000 in sales and can be found in more than 2,000 Mid-Atlantic stores, including Giant, Wegmans and Target. This year, with distributor partners on both coasts, plans to double their staff and a line of children’s flavored water due out this spring, Swanson and O’Donovan are projecting $5 million in sales.

George Boarman, manager of Boarman’s Old Fashioned Meat Market in Highland, was one of the first to sell the Rethink Water soon after it launched.

“I thought it was a fantastic idea,” Boarman says. “I believed in the product more than anything.”

The price, at $1.49 for a 16.9-ounce carton and $1.99 for a liter, is close to other, less environmentally friendly packaged waters, he says, and customers like the local connection.

“It’s quickly becoming a brand people recognize,” he says. “I think it’s something that’s going to change the dynamic across the board for water.”

That’s what Swanson and O’Donovan are hoping for.

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