Steve Fortuna is an entrepreneur with a background in engineering and finance. Steve holds Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Boston University, as well as a Master of Business Administration degree from Columbia University. He began his career as a hardware design engineer at Raytheon Company, followed by a position as senior software engineer with top secret government clearance at the MITRE Corporation. After receiving his MBA with a major in finance, Steve leveraged his engineering background into technology equity research on Wall Street. Analyzing and recommending stocks across a full spectrum of computer hardware and software companies, Steve held increasingly responsible positions at PaineWebber, Deutsche Bank Securities, Merrill Lynch, and Prudential Equity Group. While First Vice President at Merrill Lynch, he was ranked #2 on Institutional Investor’s 2001 and 2002 All-America Research Team. In 2006, Steve became a portfolio manager at Stratix Asset Management where he oversaw a $100 million long/short “book” of technology stocks. In 2008, Steve decided to make the leap to entrepreneurship. He and a Stratix colleague co-founded S2 Capital Management where they ran a $125 million long/short fund specializing in technology and energy stocks. After a while, Steve realized he was feeling more satisfaction from his business-building responsibilities at S2 than from his daily portfolio decisions. Coincidentally, he was also spending more time at his country house in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. There he came to know local entrepreneurs catering to burgeoning demand for foods and beverages that were unique in some way, as well as natural and healthy. An intrepid foodie himself, this exposure resonated with his own appreciation for such products, and created fertile ground for his eventual inspiration to do something similar. Once again, he took a leap. In 2011, Steve became Founder and President of Blossom Water LLC, where he began developing a product line based on his concept of a water beverage infused with flower botanicals. In 2013, Blossom Botanical Water™ was launched in the metro-Boston area, and is now available throughout many parts of the country. Steve’s current responsibilities include developing product and marketing strategy, cultivating distribution and retail channels, and managing day-to-day finance and operations – all in service of his vision to make Blossom a nationwide mainstream brand.
Where did the idea for Blossom Water come from?
Gardening is one of my favorite pastimes, a way for me to get out in nature, do something physical, and unwind from pressures at work. One hot and humid afternoon in early summer, I was in my Berkshires cottage garden planting a mock orange shrub. Kneeling with my head among the blossoms, I was captivated by the soft white petals, glowing translucent in the sunlight and wafting their subtle citrus fragrance. They lifted my spirits like a tonic, seeming capable even of quenching my thirst. Suddenly, I thought: Wouldn’t it be intriguing if there were an essence water marrying the lush appeal of flowers with traditional fruit taste? Couldn’t that create a drink with the familiar burst of fruit, yet fresher and brighter, the floral accents adding naturally delicate nuance and aromatics?
I did some research to assess the idea’s viability, and learned cultures across the globe have been using floral botanicals in beverages for centuries! Rose water and orange blossom water are traditional in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. So are jasmine tea in Asia, and hibiscus tea in North Africa and Latin America. And Western Europe has long dabbled with lilac, lavender, and elderflower in making sodas, liqueurs, and cocktails.
With growing excitement, I saw an opportunity to turn this proven multicultural concept into a product that would be delightfully novel for U.S. consumers. I could also see the timing was right, as my investigation showed floral flavors were actually trending around the world, and poised to break out in mainstream America.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I’m in the habit of getting up about 6:00 AM and hitting the treadmill for 45 minutes while I sip coffee to get the blood flowing. Afterward, I skim the Wall Street Journal over breakfast, then review a task list for the day which I created the night before. That typically means I begin a series of conversations with members of our team and partner network, often lasting until late evening. In between, I try to carve out at least three hours each day for tasks that require my concentrated planning and execution.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I believe in vetting any important idea or decision by soliciting a wide array of opinions. The more these conflict, the better, as that stimulates incisive thinking and discussion, usually leading to a better outcome.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m most excited by the botanicals trend in foods and beverages. Botanicals add an authentically natural “pop” to traditional tastes, such as fruit, as well as layering on aromatic characteristics that contribute greatly to a flavor’s allure. They especially appeal to consumers looking for an interesting and more sophisticated twist on well-loved flavors, as well as those who put a premium on healthfulness and clean label. Millennials are in the vanguard of this trend since they are a diverse, internationally-savvy group who tend to have expansive palates, demanding more innovation and distinction from their flavor choices. It’s no wonder that they are the sweet spot of Blossom’s customer demographic.
We’ve been a first mover in the use of floral botanicals for the beverage category. Our introducing them to the U.S. marketplace is not unlike what happened with coconut water several years ago. Coconut water was a staple drink in South America long before it was marketed and became a success story in this country. That’s a model of how to bring something with established foreign appeal to the American consumer. We’re doing much the same with floral botanicals, taking what’s been appreciated in other parts of the globe, and making it available here in a fruit-plus-flower combination that’s simultaneously recognizable and unique and, above all, tastes great.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Because of my background as both engineer and financier, I bring a systematic and strategic mindset to entrepreneurship. The concept for this brand was perhaps whimsical in its inspiration, but my approach to the nuts and bolts of running this firm is anything but that. I lean heavily on the problem-solving discipline honed by my engineering education and work history for almost every aspect of operations. And my financial training, with years of experience analyzing companies for securities analysis, enables me to maintain a 360° view of the current business, even as I project and assess possible future scenarios. I feel this habit of analytical perspective has been invaluable in helping me to manage the challenges and opportunities that arise when building a business.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Dare to dream big and then focus like a laser on the day-to-day tasks of trying to make it happen. If you fail, reassess your options and try again. You may well decide to change your dream, one or many times, but perseverance will eventually pay dividends.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I am a space enthusiast and also a big admirer of Elon Musk. Like him, I believe humans will land on and eventually colonize Mars. I think we could see this begin happening within the next 20 years.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Keep up with competitive dynamics of the marketplace. That is a daily priority for me, as much now when an entrepreneur, as before when a Wall Street analyst and hedge fund manager. All that’s changed has been the nature of the relevant market. It’s really the only way to stay ahead of the game and succeed.
I credit this imperative with leading me to make a couple of timely modifications to Blossom’s product line. Our drink started out using a touch of agave nectar for sweetness. But I could see that the consumer trend in reducing sugar was gaining momentum. Projecting that even a small amount of this sweetener would be moving onto consumer radar screens, I eliminated it, cutting calories in half to just 10 per serving. (An unanticipated bonus was crisper but still well-balanced flavor.) Also, I could see that, in addition to a clean ingredients deck, beverage makers were increasingly competing on the basis of targeted health benefits. After careful research, I decided to fortify our drinks with 50 mg of postbiotics clinically proven to support immune health. This directly addressed the desire of today’s consumer (particularly Millennials) for beverages that offer a specific functional purpose in addition to overall healthy hydration and drinking enjoyment.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
We designed our product’s packaging to be quite differentiated. It’s essentially our on-shelf billboard and, in many cases, consumers’ first touch point with our brand. You’ve got to encourage trial, and a crucial way to do that in a crowded marketplace is through shelf visibility. When consumers walk into the supermarket, they’re facing a sea of beverages. So how do you stand out? You have five seconds to get their attention — to have them actually pull the bottle off the shelf — and if they pass you by, they’re not coming back. Of course, once you get it in consumers’ hands, and they bring it home and try it, the trick is making sure the liquid in the bottle is good enough to generate a repeat purchase. But no one is going to know that if they don’t buy it in the first place.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
With any start-up, inspiration is only the first step. Even product development, while complex and time-consuming, is usually not that difficult to accomplish with a strong enough vision following on from the inspiration. The hardest part, where choices become less clear-cut, is developing a strong business model and executing against it.
A failure I had in my early days at Blossom Water was devising a route-to-market approach that depended predominantly on wholesale distributors and brokers. I figured the wholesalers could quickly provide our product with national distribution, and the brokers could minimize costs of expanding an internal sales team. But I learned the hard way that the former didn’t provide high enough touch at the retail level, such as nurturing account relationships and ensuring our product was kept in-stock while properly displayed and promoted. And the latter, despite our best-of-breed selection, generally failed to allocate enough of their resources to our young brand. The fallout, following the first wave of growth, was a stall in Blossom sales. Fortunately, I learned from my mistake and was able to remedy it by putting more emphasis on DSD (direct store delivery) distributors who really service our product at retail, as well as by building a robust team of salespeople, each exclusively dedicated to Blossom for a given region and set of accounts. The higher cost has been more than paid for by renewed growth.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
That’s a tough one. Honestly, if I had one, I would be looking into implementing it!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently had lunch with two of our younger employees. I like to do this periodically, not only with employees but also with others within the organizations comprising our company’s supplier, distributor, retailer, and consultant network. I pick a couple of topics that interest me at the time, and we just have a casual chat. I relish hearing fresh perspectives that are quite different from, but often just as insightful as, those of senior staffers with whom I regularly communicate.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I’ve begun using Slack, a real-time collaboration app, to replace many of my email exchanges. The ability to organize discussions into channels by subject, team, region, etc., is a big help in keeping abreast of all the context related to a given channel. It’s also much easier to search than email if you’re trying to dig quickly into a specific issue.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters. It really puts the focus on innovation and thinking outside the box when creating a new company and brand. Differentiation from the outset is key.
What is your favorite quote?
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” ─ Winston Churchill. This keeps me grounded in my best times, and motivated in my worst times.
• Take Risk. Dare to be different, a first mover even.
• Get Your Product Right. Balance product differentiation with the need to conform to trends in your marketplace.
• Be Flexible. Don’t be afraid to make changes to your product or your business model as you learn and as circumstances warrant.
• Emphasize Teamwork. Communicate often across all organization levels.
• Persevere. Churchill’s quote says it all.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.