“Sometimes, I really don’t want to talk about glass bottles.”
Luckily for us, when inventures.eu meet up with Paul Kupfer (24), he is eager to tell us about Soulbottles, the social enterprise he co-founded with his friend, Georg Tarne. Through producing and selling stylish, partly crowd-designed, reusable glass bottles, they aim to solve a number of problems with one strike.
“Yeah, we should all work together! I don’t see others in the industry as competitors, and we are not fighting to take over marketshare. We are all pulling on the same rope, why shouldn’t we work together?” Paul Kupfer (24) says with a smile on his lips and a sparkle in his eye, exemplifying the concept of social entrepreneurship.
With Soulbottles, the company he co-founded with his friend, Georg Tarne, the two aim to solve a number of problems with one strike. Firstly, to offer a responsible and sexy alternative to plastic-bottled water, which is both ecologically unsustainable and usually not better than the one sold in stores – at least in more developed countries – by selling stylish, partly crowd-designed, reusable glass bottles. Secondly, while promoting the image of tap water in Europe, they also support the development of safe drinking water in less fortunate regions through “Soulwater” – tap water sold at restaurants in soulbottles with 50 to 90 percent of the retail price going to water related projects of EZA, the Austrian organisation for developmental cooperation.
As Paul talks about Soulbottles, his charismatic energy pulls you in. He has studied communication science in Vienna and is certainly using these skills while working out the technical details of getting Soulbottles up and running. During our interview he reaches into his backpack and pulls out a new bottle designed and created cooperatively with the company Viva con Agua based in Hamburg. This prototype, scheduled for release next week, is part of the Soulwater project and Paul couldn’t be more excited.
Paul Kupfer is passionate about the social impact of Soulbottles
The beginning: It started with a fire
During the summer of 2011, Paul was working at an internship in London, which abruptly ended due to fire damage in the course of the riots. His friend Georg Tarne, passionate about his idea for creating sustainable drinking bottles from glass was visiting for the weekend. Georg was living in Vienna at the time, already laying the groundwork for the company. When he told Paul about glass printing options he had found in Vienna at affordable rates, they both saw an opportunity. Moreover, with the sudden end of his internship, Paul had free time to devote to the new project.
What started with the positive idea of promoting the image of tap water by using design, was not that easy to tackle. Finding a bottle producer that fit Soulbottles as far as the ethical aspect as well as the quantity was concerned (most companies require minimum orders of 50.000 bottles, which was too much for Paul’s home office to take) proved to be quite a challenge.
A risk averse background
Paul admits that he didn’t tell his parents for a long time what he was doing with Soulbottles. When he did, the reactions were not too positive: “They weren’t particularly enthusiastic about me founding a company. It was more like ‘Do you really think that will work?’. So, they were pretty critical but right now they seem to be fine with it. The thing is, in my family we don’t have anybody who ever went into business.”, he sums up the problem encountered by many young entrepreneurs in traditionally risk averse Central Europe.
However, he does encounter lots of encouragement as well. When he recalls the best moments from this past year, Paul refers to the positive feedback he gets for Soulbottles. “People come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ and sometimes that is even better than if they were buying the bottles.” The favourable responses from supporters keep his spirits high.
Living in a chandelier
After Soulbottles were selected as finalists in the 2011 Investment Ready Program and sales were continuing to rise, everything was looking great – until their Italian provider stopped producing the bottles they needed in summer of 2012. Paul tells us, he thought that this might be the end of the project altogether. Quick thinking and angel investmentfrom Bernardo Saorin, the next member of the Soulbottles team, enabled them to purchase the remaining 500 bottles from the company. These bottles were stocked in the Soulbottles Vienna Storage Facility, otherwise known as Paul’s apartment,
Surrounded by hundreds of boxed glass bottles adds an interesting tinkling sound to one’s life, much like living in a chandelier. While mentioning that his girlfriend only has one Soulbottle in her flat, Paul doesn’t seem to mind the tinkling for now, admitting that “There are days when I really don’t want to talk about glass bottles.” However, the next moment, as though feeling obliged to the cartons of Italian glass containers he shares his flat with, he excitedly exclaims, “The more you work with glass bottles the more details you find out about them. It’s really interesting.”
“In Berlin, you’re just one of many”
Since starting out as a project of two friends in Vienna, Soulbottles has grown to a team of four people, three cities and two countries in less than a year. This was as much coincidence as part of a marketing strategy to appear more international, the “Head of the Austrian Office” tells us with a wink.
Both Paul and Georg are from Germany originally and met in Vienna while working as waiters during their studies. In summer 2012, Georg relocated to Berlin to found Soulbottles as a GmbH. According to Paul, it was both easier and cheaper make the official base of Soulbottles in Berlin.
However, having a branch in Vienna has also proved to be an advantage: “In Berlin, you’re just one of many companies doing something cool and sustainable. In Vienna we are a little more special, which is a good selling proposition, I guess. Moreover, the economic power is stronger here. In Berlin, nobody has money. It’s sexy but poor, right?”, he argues.
Bigger than the money
What’s new for 2013? While Paul doesn’t really believe that new year’s resolutions work, he does have high hopes for the new year. With his studies recently completed at the University of Vienna, he says that he wants to put “all possible energy” towards getting Soulbottles all set up and running smoothly as a company, so that he can turn his attention more to Soulwater, the humanitarian arm of the company designed to raise funds and support projects to help people in developing countries gain access to good clean drinking water.
The pilot project was launched earlier in the year in cooperation with two local restaurants and one hotel in Carinthia. As a social enterprise par excellence, Soulbottles, as Paul says, “is bigger than the money, it is about doing something sensible and having a positive impact.”
Learn more about the company, subscribe to their newsletter and get involved in the Soulwater projects online: