Ryan Emmons – Founder and CEO of Waiakea

Have great data. Report that data. Act on that data. That and show your appreciation to your team- they got you here.

Back in 2011, Ryan Emmons had an idea. Raised in California and Hawaii, he wanted to transform the beverage industry from the inside out with a variety of social initiatives that he believed could be the new norm. He set out to create an impactful lifestyle brand that could benefit people and planet. In 2012, Ryan Emmons finally launched Waiakea and its unique triple bottom line platform into what it is today- one of the fastest growing beverages, and the fastest growing premium bottled water, in the United States. Emmons was selected as a Bridge Entrepreneur by SVN (Social Venture Network) and was more recently featured by Beverage World Magazine as one of the 10 most disruptive leaders in the beverage industry for Waiakea’s initiatives and groundbreaking social platform. He is committed to Waiakea’s vision to sustainably provide healthy, delicious, Hawaiian Volcanic Water, while contributing to and promoting clean water access, conservation and education to people in need in Hawai’i and Sub-saharan Africa.

Where did the idea for Waiakea come from?

I was very involved in a few clean water NGO’s in Sub-Saharan Africa, and knew that whatever company I would start, regardless of the industry, its focus and mission would have to be on improving conservation and access to clean water and education. When live in Hawaii and you don’t stay at a resort, you can’t help but ignore the unemployment and poverty in some areas that is directly relevant to education. It bothered me and so I told my family that I wanted to work on a business that somehow could incorporate addressing these things I cared about, but also could address some important consumer concern. Then when I was in the Entrepreneur program at USC, I saw an opportunity in the beverage and premium bottled water world. Every premium water was differentiated solely through an exotic source origination story and design. These are obviously important, but I was surprised no one had attempted to address consumer trends towards environmentally friendly packaging, social causes, functionality (minerals, electrolytes), and powerful lifestyle brands. I had tasted some amazing water from my family’s well a few years before that, and thought even though it was a long shot, that the mineral profile and smoothe taste of the volcanic water was fantastic and unique. So I started to put together the Waiakea brand with my Hawaiian cousin and my co-founder Matt over the next 3 years focusing on these 3 pillars of Health, Sustainability, and Ethics/Charity, and we finally launched in 2012.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I plan out my day the night before and I list 5 things I want to accomplish that day. I typically get up at 7:00am, do 100 push-ups, eat some eggs, meditate and then go to work at either our Hilo or LA office. I have departmental meetings in the morning, and usually schedule other conf calls in the afternoon so I have 10-2 to work on more important long-term projects. Then from 4-6 I’m back to my emails and closing things out before hitting the gym, surfing, or climbing. Obviously there are times this changes up but I’m pretty consistent lately.

How do you bring ideas to life?

First you have to qualify that there is actual demand for that idea and that it serves a purpose in reality, as much as it might have in your head. With smaller product launches like online subscriptions, new designs or case variances that requires less thought because you already have a product that sells. When it comes to an entirely new concept altogether, I do a formal feasibility analysis to make sure there is really a market for it and see how much it will cost me. If the barriers to entry are low, then the creative part starts. Make sure you have a great group of mentors, advisors, and teammembers to bounce things off.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m sure half of the people you may have interviewed before have said this but I would say the trend of online consumption. In the years ahead we will be seeing that more and more people are going to be buying not just durables online, but we will increasingly see people purchasing their daily non-durables, specifically food and beverage. This leaves an incredible opportunity for emerging food and beverage brands to bypass the slotting fees that are typically required from the larger grocery chains.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Working out and meditating have enabled me to be much more efficient with my time and have made my work more fulfilling. I have great energy throughout the day and my meditation gives me a positive mindset that allows me to handle and put into perspective the daily stresses that can consume an entrepreneur.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I had a job in real estate finance after my job as an editor at a local public television channel. I learned a lot about financial modelling which was very helpful in my own business but it was a lot of deck preparation and number crunching in a cubicle as an entry level analyst. Made me come to the realization that finance wasn’t for me and ultimately led me to start Waiakea.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I wish, like any entrepreneur, that I would have done a lot of things differently but there is a certain level of acceptance of your journey that comes with running a business for more than 3 years. At the end of the day these mistakes and the decisions we made in the past got us here. Wouldn’t trade that for anything.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Have great data. Report that data. Act on that data. That and show your appreciation to your team- they got you here.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

When Waiakea launched in 2012, we only had $12,000 for marketing and branding. This forced us to look at marketing in a different way, and focus on ROI driven marketing opportunities. This means a shift away from traditional media like traditional print advertising and tv, which are insanely costly. In addition to standard pricing promotions that you simply can’t avoid, 80% of our marketing is digital, with a special emphasis on developing content, social media advertising, and SEO. This has been extremely important in developing a loyal consumer base and increasing our in-store velocities, and surprisingly the rest of the industry is lagging behind substantially.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

One of my first failures as an entrepreneur was feeling as though I wasn’t up to snuff. I found myself always comparing my own path, my own struggles, to that of other entrepreneurs. I would read about all these bad-ass entrepreneurs that were working crazy hours, had the most incredible minds, and were achieving incredible results and growth. You rarely hear about the struggles of entrepeneurs and startups. It took me 2-3 years to realize what type of entrepreneur I was, and to be ok with who I was and then find the right people who could fill the void of the things I wasn’t the best at. This acknowledgement of one’s self is extremely important, and if entrepreneurs are lucky enough to experience it early they will avoid countless pitfalls.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Tunnel Air Turbines 🙂 The wind generate in car tunnels is significant and can be utilized!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Just bought a Hepa Filter which has improved my sleep quality and allergies substantially. Definitely a must!

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Hubspot is the most amazing digital marketing tool available. It enables me to coordinate and plan the entirety of our digital marketing campaigns in one central location, with great and easy-to-use custom landing pages as well.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

“Tools of Titans” by Tim Ferris. So many gold nuggets for entrepreneurs.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Haha like I just mentioned Tim Ferris has been a big influence, same with Dan Maccombie who is an advisor and founder of Runa Tea, Seth Goldman who is the founder of Honest Tea and wrote an incredible book everyone should read, my cousin Alex Preston (Heart Machine and Hyper Light Drifter creator), Robert Reich who is an incredible economist and activist, and of course my Mom and Dad 🙂


Ryan emmons on LinkedIn:
Waiakea on Facebook:
Waiakea on Instagram: