Setting Yourself Apart in a Crowded Industry: Heather McDowell of Tickle Water

They say ideas without actions are just dreams, but in Heather McDowell’s case her business embodies all of the aforementioned. When Heather’s son took a sip of her sparking water one afternoon and loved the way the bubbles tickled his tongue, she knew she had just stumbled across the perfect business: A bubbly water for kids that would act as an alternative to sugar-laden juices.

In only 11 months, Heather took her concept to reality by stocking her products in stores all over New York. Though Tickle Water only officially hit shelves in February of this year, we knew we had to talk to the woman who found a way to launch a new product in the saturated beverage industry (with no institutional knowledge or background in the field) in less than a year’s time—and she is already celebrating being restocked in several stores.

Today Heather is sharing what she quickly learned was most important in separating her product from an already crowded market, her most successful marketing tool, and how she manages her tight-knit team of five.

Name: Heather McDowell
Age: 37
Current title/company: CEO & Founder of Tickle Water
Location: Tribeca, NY
Education: Westmont College, BA in Spanish and Minor in Fine Arts

What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
Right after college I moved to Madrid, Spain to explore and really delve into the Spanish culture I had spent four years studying. After nearly two years in Madrid and traveling throughout much of Europe, I decided it was time to move back to the United States, and I knew without a doubt I wanted to live in New York City. My first job was working for US Concepts (now MKTG), an event marketing company, as a brand ambassador. I represented the Diageo premium portfolio of liquor and wine.

Tell us about life before Tickle Water.
Professionally, I was the head of the Bid Department for Antiquorum Auctioneers, the world’s largest auction house for timepieces. I managed all aspects of the traditional auction, processed all bids, verified clients as bidders, and worked in post-auction management. I was also responsible for selling online advertising on an online forum and resource for watch enthusiasts. My position required me to travel often, as I would run the auctions every three months in Geneva and Hong Kong.

Personally, before becoming mom to Jayger, now three-and-a-half years old, I would regularly go to art gallery openings, fashion events, museum galas, and store openings. My husband and I loved to travel and explore different places, since we had the freedom to do so.

Now, and as a mom, my priorities, desires, and interests have shifted. I wanted to be fulfilled in a new way and, having always loved being a creative person, I knew creativity would have to be an important aspect of my next position. I found something that did just that: Tickle Water, which challenges and satisfies me, all while making a positive impact.

Why did you decide to start this business?
One day my son, Jayger, wanted to try the sparkling water I was drinking and I thought, why not? I told him it was going to “tickle” his tongue because the water had little bubbles in it. After he took his first sip of carbonation, he laughed and giggled as the bubbles tickled his mouth and nose. From then on, he started calling sparkling water “Tickle Water.”

A light bulb went on (with a nod from my sister-in- law) as I realized bubbly water for kids should be created. Not only was the sparkling water fun, but our children also needed an alternative to the sugar and sweetener-laden juices, sodas, and milks that saturate the kid’s beverage aisles.

Be patient. Everything has its own time and will naturally happen when it is supposed to.

When did you officially launch Tickle Water and how has it grown since the launch?
We went from concept to shelf in 11 months, and our first account officially opened in Manhattan mid-February 2016. We are a relatively new company, but we have already secured distribution for our official launch date of May 20, 2016. We are very excited to have a wonderful partner to work with who distributes natural, organic products.

Despite only being on store shelves for a few months, we are listening to our consumers and already making some changes to the product line. We are now adding new flavors and creating four-packs and 12-packs for the consumers who want to buy for the whole family, or just buy more than a single serving.

Take us back to the beginning of Tickle Water. After you had the initial idea, what were the next steps?
I knew nothing about the beverage industry, so I basically put myself through “Beverage University” on overdrive. I did extensive research, visited BevNet Live, attended beverage conferences, and participated in a two-day food and beverage university.

I asked every question I could from anyone I could find in the industry and quickly learned that the first, and most important, step to creating a successful product in a very crowded space was packaging. I scoured all resources for unique packaging that would be recyclable, good for little hands, and fit in lunch boxes, all while holding carbonation. Having each of these boxes checked was not an easy find, but we found the clear plastic BPA free PET can that Tickle Water comes in.

After that, the next step was finding a co-packer near my backyard of New York and then hiring the most qualified staff.

 I quickly learned that the first and most important step to creating a successful product in a very crowded space was packaging.

What kind of behind-the-scenes work goes into launching a consumable product? 
There are many challenging, but rewarding, aspects to creating a healthy, delicious, and convincing product. An important step for us in creating a better-for-you beverage for kids was receiving certificates for each symbol: OU Kosher, Non-GMO, Vegan, and Gluten Free, on the label so consumers know exactly what they are purchasing.

In addition, we must make sure our nutritional label and ingredients are FDA compliant. Other important measures include: Testing for microbial growth before any product is released, testing the level of carbonation to hit the “perfect bubble,” and finally tasting the quality and flavor of the waters.

And how did you begin to understand the beverage process, specfically?
Reading and research gave me a good start, but more importantly, I hired key staff members who had experience in the food and beverage industry. They educated me on some of the essentials of the business and how creating a new product is a step-by-step process.

No matter how hard we try, we are sure to encounter issues and problems. We have to be flexible and work through these setbacks to find solutions. Sometimes things happen that are out of our control, so we find a way around, over, or under it, if you cannot go through it! We take one step at a time until our beverage is sealed and delivered to the consumer.

Is there anything you would do differently, if you did it all over again?
I do not think I would do anything differently. Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. But those mistakes have been the best tools for learning and making improvements in the process.

Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. But those mistakes have been the best tools for learning and making improvements in the process.

What marketing tactics have you found to be the most successful?
Social media is simply the best tool out there in this day and age. It is the way people communicate and stay in touch with the current and relevant trends. Life moves so quickly these days and our consumers have very short attention spans, so we must continuously remind them we exist.

We have also found doing in-store event demonstrations where customers can try and engage with the product is the best way to convert them! I’m excited to say we are sponsoring “The Free Ride” in the Hamptons this summer. Families will be able to receive a free ride in a Tickle Water open-air shuttle to and from the beach, while enjoying delicious Tickle Water!

What has been one of the hardest lessons you’ve learned since starting Tickle Water?
It is not easy to change people’s habits, especially when it comes to food and drink. Humans are creatures of habit and like what they are comfortable with. In order for a consumer to adopt a new product, you have to change their current habits. This is not as easy as it seems!

In order for a consumer to adopt a new product, you have to change their current habits. This is not as easy as it seems!

What has been one of the best business moments so far?
Having a store re-order the product! Not only does this mean the product is selling off the shelf, but it is validating that customers are enjoying the product. And, I must add, having my son see Tickle Water in store and wanting to buy it “to share with his friends” is pretty great too.

Tell us a little bit more about who is working behind the scenes at Tickle Water.
We are a small team of five and are growing. Each staff member—myself, sales, production, and accounting—knows their role and is thankfully self-motivated. I believe communication is key to a successful team, so I emphasize open communication and encourage everyone to ask questions.

My sister, who is working her first job since having three children, does all of my accounting and inventory control. It is encouraging to have my sister and best friend on my team! I have a veteran from CPG and Beverage who has been instrumental in helping me sort through production issues like labels and packaging. In addition, our sales team is outstanding. They are great at what they do because they are selling a product we all believe in and love Tickle Water as much as I do. They not only drink it themselves, but give it to their children as well.

While not officially on my staff, I could not forget my husband and son who support and cheer me on daily, whether in voice or spirit. Having them believe in me is the best encouragement I could ask for.

What advice would you give your 23 year-old self?
Be patient. Everything has its own time and will naturally happen when it is supposed to.

Heather McDowell is The Everygirl…

Go-to weeknight dinner?
I love grilled chicken or fish and a huge green salad with all kinds of seasonal vegetables.

Favorite way to blow off steam?
Working out! I box at Aerospace HPC or I lift heavy weights.

Best advice you’ve ever received?
First and foremost, be myself and be proud of the way I was created and the qualities that make me, me. This leads into number two, as without the first you will never have the second. Confidence is the most beautiful thing you can put on.

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
Angelina Jolie Pitt. Apart from being stunningly beautiful, I admire her work with refugees, the UN, and her advocacy for human and women’s rights. Mom to mom, I admire that she is a mother of six! I commend her generosity of spirit and motherhood to bring those children into her life and give them an opportunity to be loved and have a family of their own. Angelina seems to be a woman rich in depth and wisdom through her vast life experiences—I think she would be an inspirational woman to meet.

I wish I knew how to…
Fly a plane. I plan on learning one day!