Allow water utilities to sell water conservation devices directly to customers. The utilities could use part of the profit to replace aging infrastructure, which would decrease the burdensome rate increases water utilities often request every couple of years.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Springsteen.
Susan Springsteen is the President and CEO of H2O Connected LLC, a woman-owned QOZ Business whose multi-patented product line can detect every type of water loss problem that can occur in the 350+ million North American tank-based toilets. H2O Connected resulted from the divestiture of the water tech division of nth Solutions LLC, a vertically integrated product development, business incubation, and manufacturing company co-founded by Ms. Springsteen in 2006. Nth Solutions advances innovation from concept to commercialization with “Made in America” products that save lives, save money, and preserve natural resources. A graduate of Wheaton College, she spent over 25 years in wealth management and corporate finance and provided stock market and business commentary for KYWNewsRadio 1060 for over a decade.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in northern Wilmington, Delaware. To connect with my Father, I became interested in the one thing he was passionate about — his business. This was my first exposure to how businesses work, as well as the operational decisions and strategic thinking that are required to be successful. In addition, I was a horse-crazy girl since I was a toddler, yet no one in my family rode. So, my first sales job (as an 8-year-old) was to finally convince my mom I needed riding lessons! We did not have a lot of money and horses were expensive, even back then, but between convincing my dad to buy a $50 pony and bartering barn chores in exchange for riding time on fancier horses, I immersed myself in the horse world. This taught me so many life lessons that I still draw on today — the value of hard work, the importance of delayed gratification in order to achieve a desired result, how to map out long term goals with intermittent steps, resilience, how to be “results oriented” with an openness to the path it takes to get there, just to name a few. In addition, in equestrian sports, men and women compete as equals. So I grew up with an assumption of gender-equality, which was helpful when I entered the investment industry in the ’80s and most of my peers were men.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
From an environmental impact perspective, we are promoting wise water stewardship with an inexpensive tool that takes seconds to employ yet can save trillions of gallons of water per year in the US alone. Only 1% of the world’swater supply is available for potable use. Population growth and changing weather patterns are tapping our ground water supplies and underground aquifers, resources that can take hundreds of years to replenish. As of Sept 24th, almost 40% of the continental US was in a moderate to exceptional drought…. and this is not unusual.
Many people do not realize that the number one cause of water waste in a home or business is the toilet. An undetected running toilet can waste 4.5–5.5 gallons of water per minute. That is over 7,000 gallons of water per day. Not only can that one occurrence add $100 a day to your water/sewer bill, run a well dry, or saturate a septic system, it is a complete waste of a precious and depleting resource. Homeowners or property managers had no cost effective or reliable way of knowing if a toilet is leaking, running, about to overflow, or improperly calibrated…… until now!
We have developed multi-patented products that can detect every type of water loss problem that can occur in a tank-toilet — and they install in seconds. The LeakAlertor® 6000 is perfect for homeowners. It hangs on the wall of the toilet tank and gives specific alerts when the toilet is flushed, not only indicating when there is a problem, but also identifying which component needs to be repaired or replaced. The LeakAlertor Pro is a wireless in-tank system for property managers. It sends a text or email message to maintenance personnel identifying and quantifying the problem and provides water usage analytics through a dashboard for efficient toilet repairs.
From a social impact perspective, we were early adopters of the Qualified Opportunity Zone (QOZ) Legislation, part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Under specific guidelines, investors in QOZ businesses or real estate receive substantial tax benefits that dramatically increase their ROI. This private capital flows into the distressed communities as an engine for broad, and hopefully, inclusive revitalization. We incubated H2O Connected, the parent company of the LeakAlertor® product line, as a QOZ Business located in Coatesville, PA (the first QOZ Business in Chester County, PA). As a high growth company that is also a USA manufacturer, we can provide a growing number of jobs in an area of traditionally high chronic unemployment. These jobs can start at entry level, and through on-the-job-training stair step to higher skilled, higher paying positions within manufacturing or other areas of the business, which then fosters first time home ownership (only 40% of Coatesville residents own their own homes), and decreases the risk of gentrification.
H2O Connected also participates in a long term, paid, high school internship program developed by product development company nth Solutions. Over a dozen junior and senior high school students from 5 different high schools work alongside the professionals to develop products, support patent filings, and launch products into the marketplace. In fact, 15 of our interns are named inventors on issued and pending patents due to their contribution to the inventive process. The job skills, real-world experience, and critical thinking they acquire during their time with us often results in full rides to first choice universities or high paying job offers directly out of high school.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I would like to tell you that it was my passion for the planet! The truth is, originally, I thought solving this problem just made terrific business sense. Even back in the early ’90s, I began thinking that someday water would be the new oil….that the cost of water would go up, the concern for water would go up, and that investing in water would be a BIG idea. Then I met my business partner and he had developed some preliminary technology for preventing toilet overflows (his daughters kept overflowing their toilet at home and he needed a solution!) After in-depth market research and considering development and production costs at the time, we decided to focus first on toilet leak detection. There are 350 million tank-toilets in the US and Canada alone, so the market for a scalable solution exists. As I studied “all things water”, the positive environmental impact of our technology became obvious. It’s extremely rewarding when one can merge scalable innovation that has enormous profit potential with large humanitarian and environmental benefits.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
In 1984, I read a study that concluded writing down goals drastically increased the probability of accomplishing them. So, I sat down with a legal pad and wrote down everything I wanted to do before I died (I was 25 years old). I filled the front and back of three pages! Some were easy — #1 was to learn to drive a car with a standard transmission (check). Others were more difficult — #2 was to train a horse from barely “backed” into an Olympic level dressage horse (check). I would revisit this list often, cross off the accomplishments, and add new ones. Over time, I think this helped develop a mindset of setting a goal with a plan and seizing opportunity.
Before starting H2O Connected, I co-founded a vertically integrated product development, manufacturing, and business incubation company, nth Solutions LLC. We have an amazing team of smart people with complimentary skill sets, who work well together. The LeakAlertor technology, intellectual property, and inaugural product line was developed and initially marketed by nth Solutions. As we evaluated the timing for developing a wireless solution for property managers, it became clear that IoT was quickly gaining traction in the main stream, the specific markets needing this solution were enormous, and the component costs were coming down so we could meet our profit margin targets.
It did not take long for the team to unanimously decide to move forward. We knew we would need to raise capital to quickly scale product sales, so it made sense to divest the water-tech division into a separate company located in a QOZ. H2O Connected was born! Rather than one “Aha” moment, it was a series of fact finding missions and decision trees that made the opportunity foolish not to pursue.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
I start any new endeavor with research. We did an enormous amount of market research, stress tested different business models, explored the “Law of Unintended Consequences”, and the QOZ legislation. We identified our key team and advisors. We also produced a full business plan. Today, a lot of entrepreneurs only put together a slide deck. I am glad we committed the time and discipline to create a full plan. That process validated our approach, helped us think through potential pitfalls, and clarified greater detail across the team.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
It’s hard to pick just one — interesting stories occur around here every day! One memorable day was during our first field test of the LeakAlertor Pro wireless system. A day earlier, we installed devices in the hotel next door. The hotel had been renovated a year earlier with new toilets, so we did not really expect to find many problems. The team was gathered in the engineering lab excitedly watching data come in from a leaking toilet. Suddenly, an alert signaled a running toilet in room 431 at a rate of 5 gallons per minute. My business partner (the lead engineer) went flying out the door over to the hotel to validate the alert. We held our breath, hoping it was not a false alarm. I’ll never forget that phone call from him. Sure enough — when the housekeeper finished cleaning the room, she flushed the toilet and the chain hung up. She never knew it and left the toilet running. The hotel did not rent that room for another four days. If the LeakAlertor Pro had not indicated the running toilet, that one incident would have added more than $300 to the hotel’s water bill and wasted over 28,000 gallons of water! That is when I knew for sure we didn’t just have a product — we had a phenomenal product!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Under the heading of “Good Judgement Comes from Experience and Experience Comes from Bad Judgement” …. not long after I graduated from college, I landed an interview with IBM. It was in the early ’80s and IBM was one of the most sought-after employers. They had recently entered the copier market and were trying to grab market share from Xerox, the dominant brand in that space. The interview was going well when the interviewer asked to see my resume. I only brought one copy and he wanted several, so I suggested he “Xerox” it. He looked at me horrified and said, “Here at IBM, we don’t Xerox anything!”. Interview over. I was much better prepared for my future interviews!!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
The number of people who have come alongside me, encouraged me, offered advice, taught me the ropes in so many different areas could fill an urban phone directory. If I had to pick just one, my biggest influence has been my mom. Even at a young age, I knew she was confident I could do anything, and I believed her! There is a quote that says, “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and sings it back to you when you forget the words.” That is my mom. She also lives her value system, which makes her a terrific role model.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Put a LeakAlertor on every toilet! We would collectively save trillions of gallons of water a year!
- Expand the EPA’s WaterSense Program to include toilet leak detection. This would enable these products to qualify for LEED points, an added benefit to commercial property owners. The WaterSense label also adds credibility to consumer products, which is especially important now, when the category is so new.
- Allow water utilities to sell water conservation devices directly to customers. The utilities could use part of the profit to replace aging infrastructure, which would decrease the burdensome rate increases water utilities often request every couple of years.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
There are numerous ways to “do well by doing good”. For example, installing the LeakAlertor Pro often produces a positive ROI within 6 months because of the reduction in water and sewer costs. Not only does the sustainability initiative of conserving water increase the property’s Net Operating Income (NOI), but also the entire property’s market value, since valuation is assessed as a function of NOI. For example, saving $36,000 a year on a water bill can add $300k or more to the market value of a property!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Murphy’s Law puts entrepreneurs on speed dial: No matter how hard you try to prepare for the unexpected, there is always something (or numerous somethings) that will blindside you. Ten years ago, a new harmless but disgusting insect called the Stink Bug wreaked havoc in homes across the Mid-Atlantic States. There was no viable solution. Nth Solutions developed a Stink Bug trap from prototype to shipping to retailers in 5 months in order to have the product in stores during peak infestation season. It was an amazing feat. Just as we started shipping product to stores, a tropical storm, Hurricane Irene, and a 7-day deluge poured down on the Mid-Atlantic region wiping out the Stink Bug population. We ended up with canceled orders and a lot of inventory. We survived, but I had many sleepless nights!
- You need at least twice as much capital as you think (see above).
- Leadership can be lonely: Develop mentor and peer relationships early on: Leaders often carry burdens on their shoulders that are not shared by others; not every decision they make is popular; times can be hard. They often put their needs last. It is a blessing to have access to people who have walked the same road (and survived) or are dealing with the same issues.
- Competition is good. Your competitor will help educate your market (and you!): For instance, there are a few companies offering different approaches to toilet leak detection. Since many potential customers are unaware of the cost, waste, and frequency of the problem, it has benefitted us to have others spreading the word.
- AMAZON 1 STAR reviews can be lethal. Do everything you can to avoid them. Fortunately, I have learned this through observation, rather than first-hand experience. Amazon is the “go-to” place to check out the credibility of a new product or brand. If you sell on Amazon, make sure customer service, product quality, and reliability are stellar. When developing a product, thinking through the Amazon customer experience is vital.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born — and the day you found out why.” The world should be a better place because you were born, so strive to make a difference.
In building H2O Connected, the positive impact we can have on our employees, interns, the City of Coatesville, the planet, as well as the stewardship responsibility to our investors, is not just a career — it’s a calling. To be called to make that kind of difference is a blessing beyond measure.
Winston Churchill summed it up best,” We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It would be a quote by Jesus as recorded in Matthew 22:37–39 “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “
To paraphrase Ravi Zacharias, people make decisions based on what they believe and the degree to which they believe it, in four key areas: origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. My belief is that the truth regarding these four areas converges at the Cross. So, adopting God’s greatest commandments as explained by Jesus is a great framework for my own decision-making and personal growth…. Although I must admit, I frequently fall short of the standard.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Mike Rowe: I think he is the ideal person to produce a documentary on historic town Opportunity Zones. The job creation, community entrepreneurship, economic upswing, and positive energy zero-beats with the types of stories he likes to cover and the initiatives he believes in. I would love to pitch him the idea!
Arne Sorenson, President and CEO, Marriott International: His ability to lead 174,000 employees with confidence, transparency, empathy, and a plan during the height of COVID, when his entire industry was being decimated, is incredible. I hope someday to be a fraction of the leader he is.
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This was very meaningful. Thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!