Cirkul recently raised $70 million, boosting its valuation more than 500%.
When Garrett Waggoner saw visits to his company’s website surge about 400% in early 2021, he thought it was a mistake. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was another example of TikTok’s power. The firm’s Cirkul water bottles had gone viral on the social media platform with thousands of videos eventually racking up more than one billion views.
The company surfed that “TikTok Made Me Buy It” wave to the shelves of Walmart Inc. Since debuting in US stores in mid-April, Cirkul has sold 1.5 million units and is one of the top-performing items in the home department, the world’s largest retailer told shareholders this month.
Cirkul is sold in home sections because it’s an appliance of sorts. Users fill the Cirkul-branded plastic bottle with water, insert a flavor cartridge and set an intensity dial to customize options ranging from iced coffee to strawberry lime. Starter kits with a bottle and two cartridges sell for about $20.
The success at Walmart helped the startup recently raise $70 million in a funding round that boosted its valuation more than 500% to $1 billion. (The company declined to provide sales or profit figures.)
Bloomberg spoke with the 31-year-old Waggoner, Cirkul’s chief executive officer and a founder, and Philip McKeating, its chief operating officer, about the brand’s origin story, going viral and sustainability.
How did Cirkul get started?
Waggoner: In a locker room at Dartmouth College, where we played football. I was pouring powder into a water bottle, and it made a mess. That was the proverbial lightbulb moment, and we came up with the concept of a flavor cartridge. Cirkul was founded in 2018 with fellow Dartmouth graduate Andy Gay. Trying to break through in beverages must have been daunting, given all the seltzers, sodas and flavored water. How did you do it?
Waggoner: We’re bringing innovation to a space that hasn’t seen a ton of it. We’ve got a vast assortment of flavors, more than 50, and growing to 100 different varieties by the end of the year. And the bottle’s design enables the hyper personalization of the beverage experience in a way that hasn’t been seen before.
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What’s the secret to going viral on TikTok? Is there one?
Waggoner: It wasn’t a kind of one trick pony. It was a bunch of different folks with not a ton of followers going viral by their reaction to a product that really delighted them. We don’t really do much paid influencer activation, if any.Many startup brands have struggled to maintain growth after splashy debuts.
How does Cirkul plan to avoid that?
Waggoner: We want to grow fast, but in a profitable manner. Our success to date reflects that. We’ve been profitable the last two years.
What’s it like to ramp up a startup during a global pandemic that’s caused supply-chain disruptions and high inflation?
McKeating: We’re very fortunate to have significant control of our supply chain and be highly vertically integrated. That’s made us resistant to inflationary pressures.
Waggoner: We learned our lesson with TikTok that you can never be too prepared. Our orders grew astronomically in just a handful of months, which meant we had to be agile in meeting that increase in consumer demand, like hiring extra customer support reps, logistical support and making sure vendors are tapped into how things are growing.
Sustainability is a big part of the company’s messaging, and you said “Cirkul” represents the cyclical nature of the reusable bottle. But how sustainable is the product if people could just drink tap water and avoid plastic altogether?
Waggoner: The amount of plastic in the cartridge itself is equivalent to an average standard bottle, and then on average a consumer is able to refill their Cirkul bottle six times. By no means is Cirkul a perfect solution. But at its core, what we do is we make it fun and convenient for folks to enjoy water in their way and also do a good thing for the planet.