Originally posted on Wired
Much of the United States is sweating through a heat wave, but a company calledSoma is preparing to quench the thirst of design fans with a cool new water filter. Soma just finalized a $3.7 million dollar round of fundraising, and along with $147,444 they raised earlier in 2013 through Kickstarter, the San Francisco-based startup is looking at a glass way more than half full.
Their first product is a clever, hourglass shaped carafe that offers elegant style and environmentally friendly bonafides to desiccated design connoisseurs. At its core is a proprietary filter made of a vegan silk mesh filled with “organic catalytic activated coconut shell carbon,” also known as burnt coconuts, all packaged in a biodegradable plastic shell. The Soma system is intended to be a centerpiece that can be proudly displayed on a table rather than a utilitarian vessel hidden in the refrigerator.
Soma is following the path of companies like Method who washed away decades of silly branding and brought a minimal sensibility to the dish soap market and Warby Parker who gave people a new way to look at designer eyewear. They’re trying to bring a museum quality aesthetic to a product category filled with chintzy plastic pitchers and hope to soak up a portion of the $420 million dollars customers spend on rival Brita products annually. For those who want to bring refreshing design to a dry product category, the Soma story provides three lessons.
Small Droplets, Big Ripples
At the start, Soma couldn’t point to independent studies that showed their filter worked better, because they didn’t exist. However, CEO/Co-Founder Mike Del Ponte knew a strong design could help convince customers that their technology was legit. “Soma’s exterior is simple and elegant,” says Del Ponte. “There is complexity inside the carafe that we obsessed over, so the user can enjoy the benefits, without having any aesthetic compromises.” The Soma carafe doesn’t have any obvious, visual, technical advantages—it just looks smart. The hourglass shape eliminates the need for a handle which in turn makes the carafe consistently attractive from every angle. In the absence of evidence, customers and investors took these tiny cues as a sign of Soma’s strength.
Go With the Dollar Flow
Good design doesn’t come cheap. Most product designers have to cut corners and keep costs low to provide retailers with a large profit margin. By going against the flow and choosing a subscription model Del Ponte and the Soma team could cut out the middle man freeing up funds to spend on the product. Instead of having to use a petroleum based plastic Soma was able to order glass vessels blown to exacting standards in Germany. Most competitive pitchers have a dinky LCD gauge that shows how much utility the filter has left. Soma didn’t have to worry about addressing this requirement and the attached costs since they send out new filter on a regular basis. “Selling direct to consumer gives us the freedom we require to put aesthetics, health, and sustainability at the top of our criteria list when making decisions,” says Del Ponte.
True to Its Roots
Before starting Soma, Del Ponte was considering becoming a priest and while he possesses a keen style the CEO was a fish out of water when it came to carbon filtration and consumer product marketing. In order to make Soma a success, he needed to fill out the team with a well-tested crew.
Del Ponte recruited a world class “water designer” who had previously worked for Starbucks and Keurig to develop the core filter technology. He also convinced uber-hip executives from companies like Warby Parker, Birchbox, Method, Incase, Vitaminwater, Coca-Cola, Google, and Seventh Generation to help steer the company as advisors and investors. Despite all that star power, feedback from the 2,316 people who crowdfunded the project originally still guides the company in important ways.
“Our Kickstarter community provides helpful feedback on a daily basis,” says Del Ponte. “For example, we’re entering the long and expensive process of certifying all of the health benefits Soma provides. There are many and we need to prioritize them, so we asked our backers what is most important to them. They want to hear first how Soma reduces chlorine and lead, then other contaminants like arsenic and chromium, so we’ll go through the certification process in that order.”