SIMON WATERFALL, MANAGING DIRECTOR, SODA FOLK
They say you shouldn’t regret anything in life, and for entrepreneur Simon Waterfall, never a truer word has been spoken.
After losing his business in his early 40s, his world fell apart. Now, eight years later, he’s running a company he loves with a £20 million turnover in his sights.
“None of that would have happened if I hadn’t lost my first business,” he says. “It was an awful, awful time, but when I look at where I am now, I can’t say I have any regrets.”
Where he is now is Soda Folk, a dynamic challenger brand producing all-natural, Americana-inspired sodas, while championing the selfless acts of people around the world through its Good Deeds Charity.
Self-proclaimed ‘Chief Soda Maker’, Simon took the reins as Managing Director in 2019, when the founder, Ken, returned to the USA. He was brought in to restructure the business, something that he has done incredibly successfully. Despite the impact of the pandemic, the business saw 35% growth last year, with sales on Amazon alone up a staggering 250%.
“Lockdown actually gave us some breathing space,” he says. “We did lose sales initially but we developed our digital offer faster than expected and the slowdown allowed us to look at lots of elements of the business and get things fit for the future.”
FINDING PURPOSE BEYOND PROFIT
As a result, there is a clear roadmap for the business over the next 3-5 years. However, Simon is keen to emphasise that it’s not just about the profits. “Losing my business made me realise that money isn’t the most important thing in life. Doing something honest and transparent, that adds real value, is just as important as selling a can of cream soda or root beer.”
You might think it a contradictory view from someone who has just recorded a record month’s turnover with products stocked in Ocado, Sainsbury’s and Holland & Barrett, but Simon says it’s more than possible to build a profitable business and give something back at the same time. “Part of our mission and values is to inspire people,” he says. “Ken had already identified individuals doing good deeds in the States and was showcasing them on the cans. I wanted to champion people in the UK that deserved recognition and tell their stories too.”
People like Mike Miller-Smith, who founded disabled flying charity Aerobility, Shannon McAuliffe who, when he was furloughed last year, set up Feed the Nation, or volunteer Krishna Raghvani who is constantly looking to help the community. “If bringing these people to life and telling their stories inspires just one person to do something good, we’ve succeeded in our mission,” Simon adds.
More than just telling these people’s stories, Soda Folk also supports their endeavours through its Good Deeds Charity. Anyone can nominate a worthy individual via the website, and one is chosen each month to receive a funding boost. Simon says: “Part of my job is to go and visit these people and I get to see first-hand how much being recognised, thanked and rewarded means to them. It makes a massive impact on that person and their friends, family and community.”
FROM BUST TO BUZZ ALDRIN
Making a difference in this way really matters to Simon, and to understand why, we need to go back to those dark days when all seemed lost. He explains: “I spent 13 years running and growing my sandwich delivery company into a £2 million business. It was my life but, when a couple of customers went bust, I lost everything virtually overnight. It broke me – I didn’t know who I was anymore. My wife suggested I take a year out and I volunteered to work as Head of Fundraising at Aerobility, which is where I met Mike.
“I’d never worked in the charity sector before, but I found that I had lots of transferable skills that applied. I set up a round-the-world flight-simulator challenge and a year on from my business folding I was in an office with Buzz Aldrin and Stephen Hawking, listening to them talking about going to the moon and Mars. That was a pretty special moment!
“The whole experience taught me a lot about myself, my values and what is important. And it’s not money in the bank.”
This sense of perspective is something that Simon still carries with him today: “It’s why I’m adamant that everything we do is done with honesty and integrity.“
It’s so important that he’s nominated a custodian of the brand so that the company’s values remain front of mind. “We’re a very emotive brand,” he says. “Customers have an emotional connection to our soda that they don’t get with regular fizzy drinks because of the nostalgia attached to it. The flavours of our sodas reminds them of a particular time in their lives, they tap into things they used to enjoy and a period when there was a sense of community and people looked out for each other.
“Good Soda, Good Folk, Good Deeds – it’s what we’re all about.”
IS B CORP ON THE AGENDA?
With values like those, it sounds like the next step would be to become a certified B Corporation, but Simon shakes his head. “B Corp’s a good thing and we understand the value of it, but we like to think that we tick B Corp’s boxes through our own integrity. It’s a lot of money to pay for a badge, money that could be spent going towards our own charity, a charity that directly impacts those we seek to support.
“We’re already authentic and transparent and I’m confident we have the structures in place to remain so. I never want us to find ourselves in a situation where we forget any of our core principles and get caught out,” he says. “They’re part of our DNA now and as we grow we must keep them front of mind.”
STAYING LEAN & SEIZING A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
Often easier said than done, Simon says that one of the ways he retains this focus is by operating an outsource business model. “Only one other employee works alongside me, every other function within the business is outsourced,” he explains. It means I’ve been able to work with very high calibre, director-level people right from the start and access expertise on a part-time basis that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.
It’s also allowed him to distance himself from some of the nitty-gritty that a founder would usually be involved in and stay focused on the priorities. “I’ve been there and I know how easy it is to get caught up in things like people management or operational issues. This way I ensure I’m surrounded by like-minded people, with a common vision and purpose for the business, who understand the values and integrity behind it and want to drive it in the right way.”
The journey has certainly been an exciting one so far. Simon likens it to the way that Green & Black’s opened up the chocolate category, offering a premium product with good credentials.
“No-one was doing Americana soda well,” he says, “and we saw an opportunity to not only do it well but to do it with authenticity. So, we have a great product that connects people emotionally to good times, underpinned by an amazing purpose and told in a really honest and truthful way. It feels like we’re on to something. A testimant to that is the recent launch of our newest flavour, Blueberry Muffin Soda featuring the real life hero Krishina.
“There are a host of other challenger brands in the FMCG space that have achieved a turnover of £20 million in 3-5 years. Yes, they’ve all had incredible things to underpin that growth – but so have we.”
Spoken like a true entrepreneur, there’s no doubt that Simon and his team are on a mission. Does being an entrepreneur make you resilient? Or do you become an entrepreneur because you are resilient? Either way, it’s clear from Simon’s story that the two are inextricably linked. Out of adversity, Simon has emerged stronger and, in his words, with the coolest job in the world.
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