2013-09-18

The Inside Story Of Soma, The Gorgeous Compostable Water Filter Company

Before he was launching Kickstarter-famous design projects, Mike Del Ponte was well on his way to becoming a priest. But then he found he could impact the world through other, more tangible, means.

If you’ve ever looked regretfully at your Brita water pitcher, imagining a day when you could pour filtered water out of something slightly more pleasant than a yellowing plastic clunker filled with black charcoal flakes, then Mike Del Ponte has a product for you. What’s more, he feels your pain.

“About a year and a half ago I was hosting a dinner party, and had everything perfect: the food, the music, the wine,” recalls Del Ponte. “As my friends started coming in, one of them asked for a glass of water. I walked in my kitchen, opened my fridge, and I grabbed my Brita. And I’m like, ‘There’s no way I can put this on the dinner table.’ I started pouring the filtered water into a glass wine decanter, but as I got about halfway through, the lid of the Brita fell off, it spilled all over my floor.”

Granted, this scenario would fall pretty much at the center of any First World Problems Venn diagram, but for Del Ponte, it was a frustrating moment that became life-changing when a dinner party guest named Ido Leffler—who also happens to be the co-founder of natural/sustainable beauty products line Yes To Carrots—walked in on the kitchen chaos. “He’s like, ‘What the heck is going on in here?’” Del Ponte remembers. “So I tell him the whole story, we both start cracking up, and I’m like, ‘Why don’t they just design something that’s beautiful, that works well, and that’s good for the environment?’ And he’s like, ‘Why don’t we do it?’ That was the lightning bolt.”

This week, Soma Water Filters opened for business, following on the heels of two multi-million-dollar seed funding rounds and a popular Kickstarter that easily reached its $100,000 goal last December. Del Ponte and Leffler’s solution to the unsightly/unwieldy Brita problem is a sleek glass carafe reminiscent of an Erlenmeyer flask, made of pharmaceutical-grade glass (watch it pass an impressive drop test)and featuring a 100% compostable filter designed by renowned water expert David Beeman.

In fact, there are quite a few fancy names attached to the project, including 4-Hour Workweek author and professional lifehacker Tim Ferriss, Joe Tan and Markus Diebel of Incase, former Apple art director Tom Crabtree, Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker, and Eric Ryan of Method. It’s not a coincidence that Del Ponte was able to assemble an all-star cast for his first manufacturing venture: He’s been working towards this moment for years, gaining experience in the nonprofit and marketing sectors while developing a strong network amongst the San Francisco entrepreneurial elite. But it is a bit strange that Del Ponte has somehow wound up at the helm of an upscale water pitcher company, given that he attended Boston College and Yale Divinity School, with every intention of becoming a priest.

“I have a really strong faith,” Del Ponte explains, “and I was really inspired when I went to Boston College, which is a Catholic school, by all these women and men who had committed their lives to serving God. I thought that was a really inspiring thing. In American Catholic churches, there’s a huge shortage of priests, and particularly American priests. With the sexual abuse scandal, it not only was rare, but it was almost a bad thing. So I thought, well, I’ll step into the void and I’ll be one of the good priests and step up.”

But along the way, he got some life-path-defining advice from a professor: “He said the most important thing you can do is find your calling in life,” Del Ponte says. “And if you want to find your calling, you have to answer three questions: What am I best at? What brings me joy? What does the world need? From that point, I essentially spent my life searching for where I could have the biggest impact by doing the things I love.” He spent time as a microfinance consultant for the untouchable caste in Nepal, volunteered at an orphanage in Jamaica and a child health care program in India, and worked as a peacemaker in the West Bank, documenting human rights abuses. He even bootstrapped his own nonprofit called Conscious Lifestyle, aimed at giving young people tools to live more sustainably.

And then he realized that he wasn’t so much being called to the church anymore.

While he was at Yale, Del Ponte says, “I kept meeting all these young passionate people who wanted to change the world but they really didn’t have the resources.” It was during the 2008 recession, and spare capital was scarce. So Del Ponte set out to find other ways to build teams around an entrepreneurial vision. “I learned a lot about storytelling and inspiration and the sense of momentum,” he says, “and the opportunity to motivate people by things that are non-monetary, which I realized were actually the most important things.” He changed his path of study from priesthood to an academic degree, and began work on a nonprofit organization called Sparkseed that would eventually provide launch support for social ventures around the world.

Calling found? Nope. After four years at the helm of Sparkseed, Del Ponte says he realized, “I wanted to be one of those entrepreneurs, not just support them.” He merged his nonprofit with an established organization called Mobilize.org, and went to work as the head of marketing for a startup called Branchout, a Facebook-based employment networking service that grew to 25 million users in the 16 months Del Ponte was on staff.

“My experience at Branchout was primarily to learn,” Del Ponte says. “I didn’t know what I would be doing next, but I knew I wanted to start something soon, and so I set three goals. The first was to learn how to be a great CEO through mentorship. Number two was to increase my reputation for getting results. And number three was to build relationships with investors who would fund my next company. I ended up being there for about a year and a half, and then got the idea for Soma, and once we had it, it was just crystal clear that was what I was meant to do.”

Del Ponte, perhaps because of his brief background in the ministry, is fond of things that come in threes. Soma, however, was founded on four guidelines: “It had to be beautiful, it had to be sustainable, it had to be fun to use, and it had to be charitable,” he says. “From there, we just started talking to people about that vision, and we got all these introductions.” The first was to designers Tan and Diebel, who handled the beauty angle; the next to Beeman, who’s worked on water solutions for big-name companies like Starbucks and Keurig. “He heard we wanted to do a water filter that outperformed our competitors in terms of efficacy, but that actually was sustainable,” Del Ponte says. “That’s when he decided to join the project. And so we challenged him with making a 100 percent biodegradable water filter.”

The result is a combination of coconut shell carbon, four layers of silk, and a plant-based plastic. It’s a revolutionary design, made even more revolutionary by Soma’s plan to deliver fresh filters to carafe owners via a (fun) subscription-based model. “When you’re supposed to change your filter, you get it in the mail,” explains Del Ponte. “Every time you receive your package, it’s a fun experience. It’s just like a little tap on the shoulder to remind you.” And then there’s the charitable aspect, in which Soma will make a donation to charity: water for every carafe sold. “I like that they’re fully transparent,” Del Ponte says of selecting that organization as a partner. “When you donate to charity: water, 100 percent of that money goes to projects in the field, and they tell you exactly where. You get a report that has GPS coordinates.”

By this point it’s pretty clear that Del Ponte and his co-founders have deep connections and well-honed entrepreneurial muscles. Did they really need Kickstarter? After all, according to TechCrunch, they raised $1.2 million in seed funding in the summer of 2012, and closed another $3.7 million in June of this year. Del Ponte says yes, and credits the crowdfunding site with establishing proof of concept. “From a big picture, I think there are so many businesses that are started that the founders think they’re a good idea, but no one really wants,” he says. “Kickstarter allows you to put an idea out there, and really test it. We’re like, ‘This is perfect, we want it, but does anyone else?’ Fortunately, we had thousands of people jump on board. We now have this amazing community of people that love Soma, and they’re helping us spread the word.”

Perhaps a bigger question is, has Del Ponte finally found his calling, or will he pivot again? “Soma is about water and water filters, but it’s also about elevating your every day,” he says, by way of answering that question. “Water is one of the most important things in the world. You can’t live without it. Yet for most people, it’s completely taken for granted. We wanted to take this everyday thing and elevate it, with the design and sustainability and charity aspect.”

He says they’ve got several other everyday products in their sights that they feel are primed for elevation, and while Del Ponte is keeping them under wraps for now, it’s fairly easy to zero in on their general aesthetic. “I’ve always loved Method, Warby Parker, Nest thermostat,” Del Ponte says. “There’s so many things that we interact with that are important to our lives, but they’re poorly designed. I love companies that not only make them beautiful and sustainable, but they also make them fun. For the last five or so years I’ve wanted to have a company like this, and fortunately at that dinner party, we got the idea for it.”

At least he’s sure of one thing: “I’m a better entrepreneur than I would be a priest,” Del Ponte admits. “I could have a greater impact doing this. I don’t know if aggregately it’s greater, but for me, it’s a better fit.”

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