Steven Fortuna is a small business entrepreneur with a background in engineering and finance. Steven has both a Bachelor and Master of Science degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Boston University. He also has a Master of Business Administration degree from Columbia University. Steven first worked as a hardware design engineer at Raytheon Company, then as a senior software engineer at the MITRE Corporation. After his MBA, Steven leveraged this engineering background to move onto Wall Street. Analyzing stocks in the computer hardware and software space, Steven held research positions at PaineWebber, Deutsche Bank Securities, Merrill Lynch, and Prudential Equity Group. While at Merrill Lynch, he was ranked #2 on Institutional Investor’s 2001 and 2002 All-America Research Team. In 2006, Steven became a portfolio manager at Stratix Asset Management, overseeing a $100 million long/short technology portfolio. By 2008, Steven made the leap into entrepreneurship. He and a Stratix colleague co-founded S2 Capital Management, where they managed a $125 million long/short fund of technology and energy stocks. In 2011, Steven decided to take another leap, this time into the world of consumer products, becoming Founder and President of Blossom Water LLC. The company’s product line is based on his inspiration for a water beverage infused with flower botanicals. In 2013, Blossom Botanical Water™ was launched in the metro-Boston area, and is now available throughout much of the country. Today, Steven’s responsibilities include product and marketing strategic development, distribution and retail channel cultivation, and finance/operations management.
Where did the idea for Blossom Water LLC come from?
Gardening is one of my favorite pastimes and one afternoon I was in my Berkshires cottage garden planting a mock orange. Head amid the blossoms, I was enchanted by the soft white petals, glowing translucent in the sunlight and wafting their citrus fragrance all around. 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 a natural essence water marrying the delicate aromatic appeal of flowers with traditional fruit taste? Couldn’t that create a drink, still familiar but also refreshingly new, with more delightful depth and balance of flavor?
So, I did some research and quickly discovered cultures across the globe have been using floral botanicals in beverages for hundreds of years! Rose water and orange blossom water are traditions 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 added lilac, lavender, and elderflower when making sodas, liqueurs, and mixed drinks.
I saw an opportunity to turn this proven international concept into a product that would be truly novel for U.S. consumers. I could also see the timing was right, as my inquiry showed that 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 get up at 6:00 AM and hit the treadmill for 45 minutes. Afterward, I skim the Wall Street Journal over breakfast and review my task list for the day. I then engage in a series of conversations with members of our team and partner network that often last until late in the evening. I also try to reserve three or four hours each day for tasks that require concentrated thought and implementation.
How do you bring ideas to life?
While the buck ultimately stops with me, I generally try to get a wide range of opinions from my employees and other industry partners on any key idea or decision. Opposing points of view are particularly helpful in allowing me to understand better all of the pros and cons, in order to optimize an outcome.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I find the trend of botanical use in foods and beverages quite exciting. Botanicals add a pleasing brightness and aroma to familiar flavors such as fruit. They especially appeal to consumers looking for a novel twist on well-known flavors, as well as those who put a premium on a natural and clean label. Millennials are in the vanguard since they tend to have expansive palates, demanding more innovation and distinction from their flavor choices. They are the sweet spot of Blossom’s customer demographic.
We’ve been a first mover in the use of floral botanicals for beverages. Our introducing them to the U.S. is similar to what happened with coconut water over a decade ago. Coconut water was a common drink in South America long before it was marketed and became popular in this country. That serves as a template for how to bring a concept with established international appeal to the American consumer. We’re doing much the same with floral botanicals, taking what’s been appreciated elsewhere in the world, and offering it here in a fruit-plus-flower combination that’s both recognizable and unique and, above all, tastes great.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Having a background in both engineering and finance, I take a systematic approach to entrepreneurship. I rely on the problem-solving skills honed by my engineering training for virtually every aspect of operations. And my years of experience analyzing companies for securities analysis helps me to maintain a 360° view of the current business, even as I 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?
Dream big and then focus like a laser on the everyday tasks of trying to make it happen. If you fail, reassess your options and try again. You may well decide to change your dream, but perseverance will eventually pay dividends.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I am a big admirer of Elon Musk. Like him, I believe humans will land on and eventually colonize Mars. I think we could see this start to unfold within the next 20 years.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Stay abreast of key trends in your marketplace. That is my daily mantra, 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 market in question.
I credit this mandate with inducing me to make a couple of timely tweaks 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. Realizing 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. So, 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.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome 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?
I am an entrepreneur, and if I had a new idea, I would run with it myself!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently had lunch with two of our junior employees. I like to do this regularly, not only with employees but also with others in the organizations comprising our network of partners. I pick one or two subjects of interest to me, and we just have a friendly 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 become a fan of Slack, a cloud-based collaboration application that now supplants much of my email exchange. 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.