“Do it because you have a deep desire to make lives better”: Interview with social enterprise soulbottles’s CEO Paul

soulbottles founder

soulbottles is a social business on a quest to fight plastic pollution through its reusable glass bottles that sport beautiful and colourful prints – literally, like a message in a bottle.

Its glass bottles are fair, climate neutral, free from plastic and most of all, encourage people to drink more tap water. With every bottle sold, €1 goes to the German NGO Viva con Agua to support their WASH project (water, sanitation and hygiene) in countries like Nepal. The project not only gives access to clean water, but also provides education on sanitation and hygiene for kids, through workshops and trainings.

Founded in 2011 in Vienna, soulbottles is currently based in Berlin. Its products are available via its online store and through retailers in 20 countries. Just recently, soulbottles added steel bottles to their product offering.

We spoke with Paul Kupfer, their co-founder, to learn more about the impact startup, their journey in social entrepreneurship, what drives them, how the team works together and what’s next.

What’s the story behind soulbottles?

soulbottles started in Vienna when Georg (my co-founder) and I were students. We saw the 2010 documentary ‘Plastic Planet’ and saw the effect of plastic on oceans, our health and our bodies. We saw the inequality in the production of plastic in advanced countries, with developing countries eventually ending up with lots of plastic waste. We started drinking from old wine and vodka bottles. We thought we could do the same thing with bottles that other people are doing with t-shirts.

Working from our student dorm room, we put a special kind of stickers on to the re-purposed bottles and burned them in the ceramic oven available at our university. This was in 2011 when we first produced small batches by hand, initially for friends and our immediate network. From there it continued to grow and now we use industrial machines, but maintain the same quality as we had with small batch production.

How have your objectives and goals changed since soulbottles was founded?

soulbottles will always be about impact. What we do will always be defined by the impact we bring. We will continue producing glass bottles, as glass is always a wonderful material. We also recently started producing steel bottles.

What is the soulincubator?

The soulincubator is our funding programme that focuses on plastic reduction. We support environmentally conscious initiators of social initiatives, and startups that rethink the use of plastic in everyday life and thus avoid plastic waste in nature. It is a way for us to diversify the business, increase impact, fight plastic and not just lessen plastic consumption.

There are already people working on the plastic crisis and we want to help them via the soulincubator’s two-part programme. The digital component of the programme pairs the projects with coaches. They then get scholarships and training for half a year, so that participants can focus and not worry about money while working on their projects. The soulincubator is targeted at people already working on plastic reduction projects. Of the first 150 applications, 100 received digital coaching from soulbottles employees and external coaches, and about 15 projects went onto the second phase. The soulincubator receives funding from the EU and participants are given EU scholarships.

What is your long-term vision for soulbottles?

Our steel bottle production in China started last year. We have to take into consideration the recent events (coronavirus, the factory is closed right now) but hopefully we can still go into full swing this year. In the long run, we want to improve the working conditions there through better salaries, better work environment and shorter working times. We are looking at scaling-up production in China. We plan to go full-on with all projects at our soulincubator.

What are your plans for international expansion?

We get a lot of requests for partnerships and exporting. We will always take a close look at shipping – both for the online and physical stores. We should be able to ship in bulk as a condition of expanding into new territory.

How did you finance soulbottles up until this point? Do you plan to achieve additional funding/other modes of funding in the future?

We self-financed soulbottles. We then got an angel investor on-board and secured bank loans, then went on to launch two crowdfunding campaigns. After our crowdfunding campaign in 2013, we were able to switch from producing the bottles in small batches by hand to industrial scale. From there on, we have been able to supply directly our end-users and bigger customers. In general, we are not interested in funding for fundraising’s sake.

You are based in Berlin. What is your opinion on the environment for creating a social impact company there?

In Germany, like everywhere else, there are legal forms for charitable companies. When you apply to be a charity, the state looks at your revenue and it has to be used only on the charity which is quite limiting for social businesses. On the other side, there is always the option of a normal company that follows a for-profit system. Recently the “purpose economy” has emerged in Germany that emphasizes “steward-ownership”. It harnesses the power of entrepreneurial for-profit enterprise, while preserving a company’s essential purpose, to create products and services that deliver societal value and protecting it from extractive capital.

soulbottles is a certified B Corp, meeting higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance. Legally we are a GmbH, a limited liability private for-profit company, but we are also a purpose company that gives shares to employees and re-invests all revenues back to the company. For us it boils down to ownership, allowing employees to own stocks that are not entitled to profits.

We heard about your use of holacracy and non-violent communication in how you work as a team. Tell us more.

In 2014 we reached 10 employees and realized we needed more structure. A small team is easy to keep track of, but with more people, we need more clarity. Most people turn to founders/CEO’s for advice and answers. With holacracy, we empower the team to make use of their entrepreneurial side. In holacracy, rules are set on how to manage and even how to make new rules. Everybody gets to be their own boss and the rules prevent chaos. For example, one of our rules sets a fixed budget for IT support for each department. The department is then free to spend it in any way they see fit. Holacracy is very much part of our culture. We believe that people love to make decisions.

Both Georg (my co-founder) and I are trained in nonviolent communication and are trainers in nonviolent communication. At soulbottles, we want people to be real, where they can express emotions, where they can be themselves and reflect upon their personality. Non-violent communication makes it easier to stay in connection, in spite of arguments and disagreements. It helps in conflict resolution as well as foster reflection and self-introspection. Our new joiners are introduced to our nonviolent communication through an introductory workshop.

What advice do you have for social entrepreneurs?

Do it if you have a deep desire to make lives better – sustainability that is felt from the heart and soul. Do it with passion. Be uplifting and positive, but also allow yourself to feel sadness if it is there. Have fun and surround yourself with people you love. Look at yourself and what you are doing with love, clarity and humour. Be clear about things and don’t lose your sense of humour.