h2O Founder Julie Atherton Is Quenching Her Thirst For Success

You know that you should drink about eight glasses of water a day, but do you really? Maybe, maybe not. If you were drinking h2O, though, it just might inspire you to hydrate more. Julie Atherton found herself mere months after giving birth to her third child with an incredible idea: how to keep people hydrated without piling even more plastic into the environment. From there the idea for h2O (bottled water that comes in a mostly paper packaging) was born. We spoke with Julie about her skyrocketing success, hanging out with A-listers (Lady Gaga or Justin Timberlake, anyone?), and why she believes, sadly, that many people don’t even know what water really tastes like.


Julie, it takes many entrepreneurs years (and in some cases, a lifetime) before they see the success you’ve achieved in only a few months with h2O.

I’m so grateful. My youngest son, Matthew, was born early and in the NICU for months. After his birth, I was at home watching more TV than normal and there was so much on about plastic and the environment. It was so crazy, and I turned to my husband and said, “Why not put water in a box?”

I’ve always been entrepreneurial — I had an athlete’s foot franchise, and I had a lingerie store. I’ve always been in some form of business. It’s not hard for me to jump into something but still I didn’t know how my water idea would work. I did some research and found this great packaging company and asked them if they had something for adults and water. They did but no one in the United States had done it yet, and I thought, “Well, the better for me, then!”

We started there and they told me about a factory in Canada that has the most wonderful spring water that comes from this snowcapped mountain. I got in touch with them, and they sent me samples. It was certified sustainable by the Canadian government.

And you’re doing all this while juggling a newborn and two older sons.

The idea was in my head and then once I’m on something, I become consumed. I had the adrenaline from the baby, and I wasn’t sleeping anyway! [laughs] In my mind, I think it’s the biggest thing in the world, like I invented the wheel. Still, I was thinking how was I going to do this, with my tiny budget? In 2008, the world was collapsing, so to say to my husband, “I know we don’t have any money, but I want to do this,” was tricky, but he was so great about it. Before we started spending anything, we just knew it was going to work.

Sometimes you just feel in your gut that it’s the right moment.

Absolutely. The wave was there, and we didn’t want to wait until it was more convenient or that we had more money. When you come up with something great, though, the big boys are going to follow. So we had to start with a large splash. We had a great design, but what was the name of the product going to be? Oh my goodness, pages and pages of names. In my notes, I just called it h2O because it’s water. One day I went on the U.S. patent website and typed in h2O and believe it or not, there was no h2O bottled or spring water.

That’s really surprising.

There was h2O makeup. There was h2O boat builders. H2O watches. I then immediately contacted a patent attorney and she said, “Julie, that’s stretching it. It’s like buying the name ‘Table’.” But we kept going and it took a year until it was trademarked.

Let’s talk about this celebrity following you’ve amassed.

We decided to run the product, but I wasn’t sure how to promote it. I didn’t have money for a commercial, so I turned to gifting suites and contacting celebrities. There was one company that was very highly regarded, and I emailed them a picture of something that did not exist, but they didn’t know that! They had an Andre Agassi event and a Justin Timberlake golf event and the next day, the woman called me back and said that our product would be at both events. The problem was we had no water. We had a box that was a mockup filled with sand and the event was like two months away.

Oh my goodness.

Luckily, we did the Andre Agassi event, and we were at the gifting suite for Justin’s event. A guy comes through, drinks h2O, and asks, “Are you doing our concert tomorrow?” and I find out that he’s Johnny Wright, Justin’s manager. I said, “Of course we are!” And then, because we were the only water at the suite, I stood back, blocked the bottles, and said, “No one can drink any more water. This is all for Justin now.”

The following night, Justin had a big concert in Vegas. We were there, he was drinking h2O on stage. He drank some, and then put it on his piano. Then he drank some more. It was incredible. I mean, I thought of something in April and it’s on Justin Timberlake’s piano in October. So we thought, “That’s it! We made it!”

Attention also started coming not from retailers but other things like that. We did the Grammy lounge after that. We contacted music festivals because they use a mountain of plastic water bottles and that was successful. We were the only water sold at Lollapalooza, and there were just like 200,000 people stroking our baby!

On top of all that, I got an email from Lady Gaga’s manager saying, “She loves h2O. She wants nothing else. Can you do the tour?”

Wow. Just wow.

We met her after her concert in Fort Lauderdale. Her caterer cooked dinner for us, we went to the concert and then saw her afterwards. She was like, “I love h2O; I don’t drink any other water!” I wanted to say, “Tweet that. You can send all my children to University!” [laughs] But it’s incredible the celebrity fan following we have and we have never paid one dime for it.

And then along came Rango.

I got an email from Paramount. “Hi, there’s a Johnny Depp movie that we’re working on. Could we talk to you about it?” Our graphic artist did concepts to send to Paramount of how the image would be, and they said, “Julie, we know you’ve never done this before, but a character never holds a bottle. That’s too much of an endorsement, that’s never happened in Paramount’s history, never ever.” They were meeting with the director, and they told me that they would see what he said. They called me back the next day and said, “Julie, you’ll never believe this. He’s approving Rango holding h2O.”


How are you able to keep up with such quick success and in such a short amount of time?

Well, each run is 100,000 units at a time so we had lots of water! By that time we were starving and needing drinking water just for dinner! But no one would ever know. We asked for success, and it came fast.

How is your husband involved in h2O?

My husband is an engineer, a builder. But it’s not just me; it’s our company. He is completely and totally with this. I’m the promoter and I get the deals. I’ve never spoken to a warehouse or done logistics; he handles all of that. And because he’s an engineer, he has a mind for that and keeps things organized.

I have to say, the packaging is sexy.

Yes! We call it sexy green. The new tagline is “a sip in the right direction.” It is not for Birkenstock wearing people. This is for everyone, it’s incremental steps to a better place. If something wants to do something green, it helps make it easier.

My recycle bin before h2O was always spilling over with bottles. When you’re done drinking h2O, you just squash it down. It’s hydro pulped and turned into paper towels and cereal boxes afterwards. It’s made from a very high-quality paper, too. It’s BPA-free, and it’s over 70% paper so you can throw it in the car and there’s no chemical leeching.

I think people don’t know how real water is supposed to taste.

Yes! It’s like what Lady Gaga said to me: “Why does h2O taste so clean?” It’s because you’re not tasting the plastic. You’re so accustomed to tasting it and you think that’s how water tastes and it doesn’t. There’s no magic. It tastes like water. It’s just that you don’t know what water tastes like.

Julie, you have a lot going on. How are you able to stay centered?

It’s hard. I have a nanny because I need to. I work from home, and my kids always have access to me, but I can’t be on a call with Paramount and hear, “Mommy, turn on Dora!”

Nothing is perfect but it is perfect actually. This is what it is. I’m not overwrought with guilt. If I didn’t do this, I would feel like I gave up my thing, but I don’t have that mindset. I am a great mother — I feel better, and they get a better mommy when I can do the things I love. It’s funny; at school, they ask, “What does your Mommy and Daddy do?” and they say, “They make water!” And I’m like, “We don’t make water. God makes water!” [laughs] Sometimes it’s balanced and sometimes it’s not balanced but then somehow it all ends up the way it should.

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