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Alexandre Mahe: “And NEVER focus solely on raising money, which was one of our mistakes”

As a rule my advice would be to always try to raise funds but bootstrap what you can. And NEVER focus solely on raising money, which was one of our mistakes. We took nearly six months to find an investor and that was a waste of valuable time. We were still bootstrapping some smaller tasks, […]

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As a rule my advice would be to always try to raise funds but bootstrap what you can. And NEVER focus solely on raising money, which was one of our mistakes.

We took nearly six months to find an investor and that was a waste of valuable time. We were still bootstrapping some smaller tasks, but with hindsight we would be further along the process if we hadn’t spent so much time on raising funds.


As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandre Mahe.

Alex is an industrial engineer with an entrepreneurial streak and a strong passion for health and wellbeing. His water purification company Sküma has grown from a dream born in a small Montreal apartment to a company worth more than half a million pounds. Alex is now studying in London for a master’s degree in International Law, while also scaling up his company, Sküma.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

First of all, thank you for having me!

When I was a child, we moved around to different countries every couple of years. I was lucky to have so many experiences that I might not have had if we had stayed in one location, which I think made me more open minded. And it also made me more curious about simple things that some people might take for granted, like the availability of drinking water.

When I was 15, I started my first small business while we were living in Qatar. I used to import poker chips from the UK and sell them on to my friends. It gave me a taste of what it would be like to run my own company later on.

And then as a young adult, I became fascinated by the way that water is used as a strategic resource, when it should be available to everyone. We’ve seen more evidence of this during the droughts experienced in South Africa in recent years.

My Engineering studies have shown me the massive impact that can result from small improvements in systems. So I felt that it had to be possible to use my knowledge to create new ways to deliver clean drinking water.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“No one will complete a task you need as well as you will”

When I started my business I used to think that I’d get the best results from using ‘professionals’, so I outsourced a lot of work to other people. But I was rarely happy with the results I got from them, and then ended up doing the job myself anyway. So not only had I wasted money on the job, but it had taken twice as long as well.

I soon learned that the best way to feel satisfied is to do the job myself the first time!

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’m a big fan of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, I’ve been listening to it for about three years on Youtube and now on Spotify.

One episode that really stands out is a discussion that he had with Jordan Peterson, who was at that time a professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. The conversation was about self-discipline, and how it is the most important characteristic that a person can have. They related the concept to daily exercise, but I think it applies to entrepreneurship as well.

For instance, Rogan and Peterson were discussing the idea that if you’re aiming to exercise every day, self-discipline will get you through your workout when your motivation is low. We all get those days when motivation goes missing but if you have self-discipline, that will keep you on track.

In entrepreneurship, self-discipline will keep driving you forwards. Without it, a task that should take a day may take a week and that can really hold your business back. And because self-discipline is a skill that can be learned, it’s something that we can all embrace and apply to our business.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

Well, I don’t think there was a specific ‘ah ha’ moment. Most business ideas come about through a gradual process rather than being born in an instant.

But when I moved to the UK last year, I was shocked to see how many people choose to drink bottled water rather than tap water. It’s similar to what I saw when I lived in Angola, but the tap water in the UK is pristine quality compared to the water in Angola. I knew there had to be an answer to this, and that’s what drove me on to create the Sküma device.

These days everyone is talking about reducing plastic waste, and that’s fantastic. We know that bottled water is one of the major causes of plastic waste, but consumption of bottled water is still increasing by about 10% every year. And that’s even true in countries like the UK and US, which have high quality water literally available on tap.

That’s because although the tap water is clean, people don’t like the way it tastes. And most importantly, they don’t trust it in the same way that they trust bottled water.

So we created the Sküma water mineralisation device, which purifies the water to the highest standards and then adds back a specific level of minerals into the water. This gives it the same specific mineral content and great taste that you get with popular brands like Volvic or Evian.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

That’s very true, in fact I would even say that EVERYONE has good ideas.

But I think that there is one main difference between the people who just have good ideas and the people who actually take their ideas onto the next step. And that difference is perseverance.

You’ll always hear entrepreneurs say that their initial idea wasn’t good enough, and they’re right. So you have to be ready to pull your idea apart and put it back together in a different way, even completely change the idea if that’s what is needed.

You may even have to pull your company apart and start again. For instance, PayPal started off as a security company and now offers installment solutions. Apple started off making computers, but most of their income now comes from mobile phones and internet services.

Too many people give up on their ideas when they come across a stumbling block, but perseverance will get you through to the next stage.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

It takes a lot of diligent research, contacting the patent office and a lot of searching on the internet.

In fact, this is exactly what happened to me when I started developing the Sküma device. I thought that someone must have already thought of a device that could be used in any country to transform tap water into mineral water like Evian. And sure enough, we found that three other startups were working on similar products.

Some people will find that there’s a similar product to their idea and they give up on the spot. Or on the other hand, they might find that there’s no product like theirs on the market so they go full steam ahead with their research.

But it’s not always a bad thing if you find that other products exist. We found out about our competitors when we went through the patenting process. But instead of giving up, we used the knowledge to slightly change our technology and refine our target market. It allowed us to create a unique device, one that appeals to the customer much more than the current alternatives.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

I’m lucky to have a very supportive family, who have always given me their full backing in whatever I chose to do.

In particular, I would say that I turn to my father for help with technical questions or business advice. And my mother is always there for guidance on the big life questions or when times get hard.

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

Our story starts when we incorporated the company in the UK in early 2019. We quickly started applying for government grants and startup accelerators, and were soon accepted for the Design Council Spark program from the Ministry of Technology and Innovation in Quebec, which also gave us access to a grant from them. This gave us the opportunity to refine our idea by making us examine who our competitors were and assess the market for the device we were trying to introduce

We also used a Quebec-based Intellectual Property law firm to help with the patenting process. Our application took around a month to draft and file, and cost around 10,000 dollars. This included the prior art research, which allows you to assess your competitors’ patents — a very useful step that I strongly recommend to anyone.

By June 2019 we had started working with a London-based product development agency called Alloy. Together we worked on developing the product concept, and this stage cost us round 20,000 dollars. However this figure also includes around 2–3000 dollars which was lost on unsuccessful relationships with different product developers. With hindsight, it is always better to work with very elite and reputable product development agencies, as the feedback you get from them is unrivalled.

A month later we had our working prototype for the Sküma water mineralisation device. This really made it easier to explain our product to people, as well as helping us to build our social media and email list.

It has also been incredibly useful when it comes to approaching investors for our pre-seed round of funding. After about three months of talking to potential investors, we met our perfect match in a Hong Kong based company who develop water purification devices. After extensive negotiations, we finally reached a pre-money valuation of 800,000 dollars (£600,000).

Right now we are finalizing the development of Sküma with the help of Alloy, and optimizing the device in readiness for manufacturing. We are set to launch in January 2021!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There was one incident from early on in the development of Sküma which really showed me that mistakes are an important part of the process.

Most of the early development work was done at home with prototypes that I created on my 3D printer. One day I was doing some testing, which involved running the system under high pressure to purify the water.

My older brother was watching, from a safe distance of course, and I could see that he looked really nervous. He said ‘I’m sure that’s going to explode’, but I told him that he was worrying about nothing.

As you might have guessed, the whole thing blew up and drenched us both. At least it gave the plants a good watering at the same time!

That day I learned the importance of mistakes and to listen to advice, especially from my older brother!

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

For me, the tipping point came on the day I realised that if I wanted this company to be a success, I would need to fully commit and work on my own self-discipline.

Before that I was only working 1 or 2 hours a day on the business, which was just enough to finish the particular task I was working on. I realised that development was stalling and we weren’t really advancing. At that rate it would take months to see any real evolution in the product or in the company as a whole.

My co-founder Georges joined me in the company in nearly 2019, and that made an immediate difference. I felt a responsibility to deliver because now I was accountable to him just as much as he was accountable to me. And that responsibility helped to establish the self-discipline I needed to keep driving the company forwards.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

“There is no clear path, since no one has done it before” — I heard this recently on a podcast about entrepreneurship and it really resonated with me. When you’re a startup owner, it doesn’t matter if your product is similar to other products on the market. There’s no-one else who has created your specific product in your specific circumstances. You might be able to find some answers from other people, but you’ll need to figure most of them out yourself.

“Hardware is MUCH harder than software” — This might seem obvious to some people, but I only realised the difficulty of bringing a physical product to market when I was trying to raise funds. At start up events or in meetings with investors, I kept on hearing the same questions: “Do you guys have a SAAS (software as a service) element to your business?” or “Will you develop an app to go with the device”. It was almost as if they were saying that hardware is so old-fashioned, why can’t you just develop an app like everyone else?

‘Don’t focus on raising money, bootstrap it!” — A potential investor told me this, after I’d spent nearly six months trying to raise funds for Sküma. I was investing so much time and energy in the search for an investor and it was taking my attention away from other matters. Identifying what can be bootstrapped and what can’t is a crucial element to successful entrepreneurship.

“There is always something to do” — As I mentioned earlier, I used to do the bare minimum necessary in terms of work. Now the Sküma team and I use Scrum Sprints to set a tight schedule of what needs to be done during the week, so not one minute of the day is left idle.

“Give a realistic deadline rather than an optimistic one” — When I first started my business, I always wanted to deliver everything immediately, without really considering the actual feasibility of the deadline. And of course sometimes that meant that I failed to meet my own deadline, which was frustrating for coworkers and partners. These days, I always make sure I set a realistic deadline and check that it is agreed with everyone involved.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Research must come first, as with any idea. Are there any similar products already on the market and if so, what makes your product different? Set up a simple document to keep track of your findings.

Next bring on a co-founder, whether that’s a close friend or someone you’ve found on a website like AngelList (angel.co). If you can’t find anyone, pay freelancers to work on the project and share your vision with them. You may find your co-founder that way, even if it’s just on a part-time basis.

Apply for grants — I really can’t emphasize this enough. It might take you months of sending applications out every day, but you’ll always end up finding an organization who will sponsor at least part of your project. And this gives your project more credibility as well as making it easier to raise funds in the later stages.

And learn about patenting as soon as possible. If paying a certified lawyer is too expensive, try to reduce the cost by completing parts of the patent application yourself. The prior art research is one of the most important steps of the process and you MUST commission a search as it will uncover competitors that you never knew existed. You can then use this information to differentiate your product from theirs.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

This is a very good question, and one that we struggled with for a long time.

If you can commit to learning at least one 3d modelling software package (like Solidworks, Onshape or AutoCAD) then you can probably do most of the early product development in-house. This will allow you to run up a quick model and prototype it to see if your idea is even feasible.

But ultimately you will need to partner with a product development agency. And choosing which one to work with is a very crucial step.

We worked with 5 product design agencies, and the results from 4 of them were not impressive. In retrospect, we chose them for their attractive pricing rather than their track record in product development.

So our advice would be to aim higher, and look for the very best product development agencies in your area. Don’t hesitate to have several calls with them before committing to one, and you can always negotiate on the final price when you find the right agency. In our case, we agreed on a deal consisting of 50% cash and 50% equity.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

As a rule my advice would be to always try to raise funds but bootstrap what you can. And NEVER focus solely on raising money, which was one of our mistakes.

We took nearly six months to find an investor and that was a waste of valuable time. We were still bootstrapping some smaller tasks, but with hindsight we would be further along the process if we hadn’t spent so much time on raising funds.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We hope that our plans to disrupt the bottled water industry will leave the world in a better place. But what we have achieved so far is only the beginning and we have much bigger plans than this. We are also looking at tackling the supplement industry with a product that will make the consumption of supplements much easier for everyone. Quick hint: it involves water!

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Everyone is talking about cutting back on plastic these days. But it’s difficult for people to really grasp the scale of the problem because you can’t see the consequences right in front of you.

If you traveled to the Philippines today, you’d see plastic from Europe washing up on their shores. Plastic waste isn’t just a theoretical issue, it’s a real and serious problem that’s happening to people right now.

But what if everyone who is reading this interview pledged never to buy bottled water again? The average person buys bottled water 3 times each week, so just think how many millions of plastic bottles would be kept out of landfill or the ocean after just one month.

It has to be worth a try, if not for our sake then for the generations that follow us.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Interesting question — I haven’t been asked this before! To be honest I look up to many people, especially modern scientists and space tech startups. But I have a special passion for debating and podcasting, so sitting down for a meal with someone like Joe Rogan from the Joe Rogan Experience podcast would be my dream!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Thank you for having me, this was fun!

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