I had the pleasure of interviewing Winston Ibrahim, founder and CEO of Hydros. Winston Ibrahim is a purpose-driven entrepreneur focused on other sustainable products, organizations and initiatives. Winston saw an opportunity in the water vessel category because getting 8+ glasses of water was a chore filled with clunky solutions that all failed to meet the needs of a modern healthy lifestyle. In 2009 he launched Hydros– the most efficient, sustainable approach to filtered water that lets you live more freely whether at home, work or on the go. Prior to Hydros, Ibrahim worked as an investment banking analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia. He received his Bachelor of Art degree in Political Science and International Relations from the Johns Hopkins University in 2009. While a student he served on the executive board of the Jewish fraternity AEPI.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?
It’s been an interesting trial by fire! I bought out my initial partners and became official CEO of Hydros in late 2013. We’ve been buried in product development ever since with the goal of taking the inspiration of our first generation product to its ultimate expression of potential success. Along the way we got burned by designers, manufacturers, and spent way more time and money than we thought on getting product on the market. But it has been worth the wait. Our new product line of fast-flo filtering vessels, all with one universal filter, has the potential to redefine our daily experience of access to great tasting water.
What is your definition of success?
Building a world where no one is limited by poor health/wellness to maximize their personal potential and contribution to humanity.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We had a former employee who was obsessed with design and Philippe Starck in particular. He was leading our design process back in 2013/early 2014. Foolishly I had let him persuade me to take a backseat in the process due to his long industry experience and “expertise.” The final prototypes were at long last presented to me and our new fancy Philippe Starck filter looked exactly like an engorged male organ (if you catch my drift). It gained inches in length and girth when submerged under water. I had one concerned Board Member inquire seriously as to whether we were transitioning into the sextoy industry. 🙂
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
We’ve had several design failures. It’s very frustrating to have spent so much money and time on something, then have to start from square one. Especially if the folks you hired were not shy in bragging about the quality of their past work and constant assurances of success. We’ve had manufacturing and supply relationships go sour at the eleventh hour resulting in costly litigation and having to start back at square one. Each failure though was a great learning experience and led us to double down on developing our filter technology. They also forced us to eliminate excess components and complexities, focus relentlessly on optimizing our supply chain, and keep a lean team. We are very careful in vetting potential business partners now and I’ve learned how extremely important it is to listen to your gut. If you have a bad feeling about someone or a situation, don’t just let yourself be led into it by others. Go for a hike, clear your head, and think about how to investigate your concerns or just walk away from the deal. There is almost always another option.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes Hydros stand out is the absolutely relentless focus we have on offering customers high quality products at an incredible price. We have had numerous opportunities to cut corners in our design and development and have steadfastly refused to do so. A few years ago we hit a significant snag in the research and development of our filter. At that point we had easily already spent seven figures on the process. Many well intentioned people were advising me to just walk away or pivot to a simpler reusable water bottle without a filter. Convinced that we could accomplish this our way, the core team and I refused to give in. Instead we found a new product development partner and took personal charge of designing and testing our filter. Following several months of non-stop work we finalized the design. After some arm twisting with a few potential suppliers, we were able to find a source that could produce the product to our specifications andat costs we needed to price well for consumers of all budgets. At Hydros we are not inclined to easily give in, and will happily go the extra mile and spend the extra year or two to deliver quality at an affordable price point.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
As someone who was bitten hard by the entrepreneurial bug, I’ve found myself somewhat accidently involved in a number of different great projects. In particular, I’ve developed a fascination for regenerative medicine after a nasty accident a few years ago which almost resulted in my death. Despite the meticulous efforts of personal trainers and physical therapists, I had hit a ceiling in my recovery and was still in relatively constant pain. I stumbled across an incredible doctor, Matt Cook, who had quietly developed an expertise in using various cutting edge practices to get people out of chronic pain, reset nerves, and rebuild damaged tissues. I was very hesitant to go to my first appointment — he didn’t even have a website at the time! But I figured I had nothing to lose. After an hour session I found myself able to move and use my body in ways not possible since before my accident. My trainers and physical therapists were floored by my progress. Recently I helped Dr. Cook finance the opening a brand new clinic, BioReset Medical, in Silicon Valley. It is packed 8am-8pm every day. The goal is to eventually expand his practice nationwide so these techniques are accessible to everyone.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is doing to become be more sustainable? Can you give an example for each?
Sustainability is at the heart of Hydros. Thanks to both the size of our fast-flo filter and the lack of an unnecessary filtering reservoir, we inherently use significantly less plastic than the leading pitcher filter systems on the market today. We have consciously designed all of our packaging and processes to use as little excess material as possible. We are also working on an exciting new development that will shortly make our products recyclable nationwide! In addition, we partner with terrific nonprofits working to clean up ocean plastic by donating 1% of our revenue to them each year; our first partner is Oceana. We are excited to continue supporting them in our united goal of keeping oceans clean, and to work with others who are also leading the charge to limit the damage of single-use disposable plastic.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Develop a friendship with or invest in the world’s best stem cell doctor! Jokes aside, as the CEO you set the culture for the company. If your employees see you actively taking care of yourself, it sends a powerful message. It’s even better if this message is reinforced by healthy food and beverage choices at company outings, allowing people flexibility to adjust their schedule so they can get regular workouts in, see family/friends, take mini vacations, etc. I generally don’t care where people are or how long they work provided the quality of their outputs are high. Having people know that they aren’t being micromanaged makes them feel comfortable and cared for so that they will happily work overtime when needed without prompting from me. I’m well known for my walking meetings or conference calls. In addition to promoting mental wellness, we have some very high-tech fitness gear at our HQ from NASA-technology exercise machines like Vasper, to our own infrared sauna and Joovvredlight therapy. And of course lots and lots of Bulletproof Coffee.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My father SA Ibrahim. Although he was initially adamantly against my pursuing Hydros and forgoing a traditional Wall Street career in his footprints, he has since become my and the company’s biggest champion. My father is an amazing man with an incredible rags to riches story. Coming to America with nothing, he worked his way through Wharton, started on the bottom rung of a career in finance and went on to run several companies. He successfully guided Radian Group through the financial crisis a decade ago when the stock had cratered to 60 cents. When he retired last year it was around $20. It has been great help to rely on someone with so much wisdom and experience. One particular example of his support comes to mind from a few years ago in 2014. Having bought out my co-founders and hired a new team, our initial re-designs had failed immensely. I was starting to wonder if I hadn’t made a big mistake, just as I had been offered a lucrative job elsewhere. My dad encouraged me to turn the position down and continue with Hydros — reminding me of the fact that everyone had written him and his company off in the depth of the 2008 housing crisis and that by sheer persistence and refusal to give in they had managed to pull through. This really inspired me to push harder and to force myself to be patient with the seemingly glacial progress of product development, sourcing, and quality testing. I think the results have been worth it, and I’m very grateful for his support!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m very focused on giving back. Ten years ago as a student I founded an initiative called the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project. We have sent dozens of young college student leaders on all-paid trips to the Middle East. Over the years we’ve secured unique access to top business, political, and spiritual leaders. Our goal is to provide young American leaders of diverse backgrounds unprecedented nuanced access of the region a useful resource in their own careers, for the Middle Eastern region, and for students’ broader communities. Uniquely we have been able to get access to both Israel and Saudi Arabia on the same itinerary. I’m proud to serve on the Board of Directors of the India Community Centerin Silicon Valley. We are the biggest NGO serving the Indian American Diaspora. We perform significant activities ranging from subsidized meals, elder care, childcare and schooling. We also have the largest table tennis training facility in North America and train a high percentage of US Olympic Champions. Finally, I’m heavily involved in an organization called Nexus Global.We are a global social network for young wealth holders, social entrepreneurs, and non profit executives. The goal is to create an environment of cooperation for those who are willing and able to make a difference with their success to build a better world. We are most well known for our flagship summit in NYC every July, but now have events on a regular basis in cities and regions across the world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
- Learn to take care of yourself:Being an entrepreneur, especially a CEO, is incredibly stressful. You are always on, the buck always stops with you, there are always more things to do than hours in the day, etc. Find a time effective way to take care of your core needs. Eat a healthy diet. Exercise regularly, even if it is for short periods. Spend time in nature. Find time for friends. You need to prioritize yourself enough to not degrade your capacity to be an effective worker/leader. Going all out all the time without taking steps to keep yourself at your peak is not sustainable. Obviously easier said than done, but being conscious and intentional about making the best choices possible here will go a long way towards preventing burnout and keeping you in the best condition to run a company. Without you, there often is no company, so it is vital to take care of yourself!
- Expect all your personal plans to be flexible: I’ve learned not to book anything out too far in advance and to warn all friends, family, and significant others that my plans may have to change at the last second. Meetings come up and critical events happen in the blink of an eye in the life of a startup. Spontaneous vacations, hangouts, and meals are the best.
- Sending handwritten notes are powerful: One little trick I’ve found, especially to get the attention of influential people, is to send handwritten notes. One of the first things I did when we finalized our brand design language was to commission several hundred custom Hydros stationary cards. They are a great way to make an impression on people who get thousands of emails. It means a lot these days to get a handwritten note — it really helps get a critical relationship off on the right foot!
- Don’t be afraid to delegate: I see so many young entrepreneurs who want to do everything themselves. This is not practical, sustainable, or scaleable. Hire great people who make up for gaps in your experience or expertise. Incentive them well with the best pay you can afford, and generous but long-term vested stocks options tied to their performance. Then get out of their way and let them do their jobs with only the occasional tweak where needed.
- Hire great lawyers and listen to them: We have unfortunately had to go to the mattresses with litigation a few times in our short life as a company. There are lots of shady people out there looking to scam young startups. Our saving grace in all of this, even vs much bigger opponents, have been our great legal team. Hiring great lawyers early on is expensive, but it’s a lot less expensive than having no recourse when a deal goes bad. Skimp on other things, make sure your contracts are tight and that you, your employees, and your Board are well protected.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“After a victory, tie the cords of your helmet.” This quote is from a personal hero, Tokugawa Ieyasu. He was the most successful political leader of 16th century feudal Japan, who after a century of civil war was able to finally consolidate unified control of the whole nation and bring peace to the land. The quote has been reflected accurately in my journey at Hydros, and I think will resonate with any entrepreneur at any stage of their career. All successful outcomes are temporary victories, but there are always more and greater challenges for you and your business ahead. Don’t get cocky because something big went your way and lose focus, because it may result in you missing other big opportunities or making big mistakes that could cost you everything. Keep your head in the game and keep going forward.