A simple bottle that crushes fruit to encourage people to drink more water fell flat as an idea on TV’s Dragons’ Den. But now Charlotte Rogers is proving the dragons wrong. Steve Dyson reports.
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She was standing up and he was sitting down, but fledgling entrepreneur Charlotte Rogers still felt dwarfed by the six foot, seven inch frame of Peter Jones. It was in May 2015 that she found herself facing Jones on TV’s Dragons’ Den at the BBC’s Manchester studios, along with his co-dragons – Deborah Meaden, Sarah Willingham, Nick Jenkins and Touker Suleyman.
Rogers was only 22, and her little heart was beating fast as she stood – all five-foot two inches of her – awaiting the dragons’ verdict on her Aquatiser bottles, designed to squeeze fruit into tap water to encourage healthier lifestyles. “I had some really good comments,” says Rogers.
“But they all decided it was not for them. And then one bad comment came from Peter Jones. He said he didn’t like the concept. He thought you could just put fruit into a normal water bottle and shake it. He didn’t understand it, nor could he understand why I’d sold so many.”
That was less than a year ago, when Rogers’ business had only been running for eight months, and yet she was already selling hundreds of her bottles. And although no dragons invested and her part in the show was never aired, she was already convinced that she had a successful product.
Born in Castle Bromwich, near Birmingham, Rogers is the daughter of local girl Susan Rogers and Cynrick Lescott, who was born in St Kitts and Nevis. Her parents have split, although between them they gave Rogers a close family of two half-brothers and two half-sisters.
She attended the local Hodge Hill Girls School, then took A-levels at Sutton Coldfield College, scraping a D-grade in Biology, a better C in Psychology, and a smart A in Sociology, along with a BTEC distinction in Dance.
Rogers had originally dreamed of taking a science major at university but her grades meant she had to find a course that she could both enjoy and qualify for. She headed off to Birmingham City University (BCU) in 2011, but soon transferred to Nottingham Trent where she took a degree in Exercise, Nutrition and Health.
She says: “I wasn’t happy at BCU, where there were lots of mature students, but when I moved to Nottingham I loved it. It was just how I expected university to be: living away, meeting people more like me, and building a social life and my confidence.
“I wanted to do science but couldn’t do the course I wanted because of my A-levels. But I’d always been into health and so browsed courses which involved biology. When I saw Exercise, Nutrition and Health I thought: ‘Here’s a course I can do.’ It had all the elements I wanted, and specialised in sport. There was still a lot of biology, but it was practical.”
In her third year, Rogers took an optional module in entrepreneurship, and was asked to come up with a sports-orientated business plan. “That’s how Aquatiser started,” she recalls. “I wanted it to be something that included nutrition and health, as well as sport. My dissertation had been around hydration, and I’d found out that lots of people didn’t know what the recommended daily intake of water was.
“What was worse was that so many people were not drinking anywhere near enough water. And from hydration – or the lack of it – I started thinking about water bottles, and how to make them different, to stand out and to be attractive.
“As I was getting my idea together I thought about fruit-infused water. I’d been working as a waitress, and people were always asking for water but saying: ‘I want lemon in it,’ and this made me realise that people don’t like plain water. I thought there could be a demand for fruit-infused water, encouraging people to drink more and enjoy it at the same time.”
Rogers’ idea is simple: the Aquatiser bottle contains a juicer in a screw-in base, allowing users to insert their favourite fruits to infuse into plain added tap water. The result is water tasting of any fruit you choose – but without sugar or harmful additives.
As part of Rogers’ course, she worked with a product design student, and he took detailed notes on what she wanted, producing a 3D computer-aided design, while she kept the intellectual property.
“I told him exactly how I wanted it to look and work. I paid a small fee – about £250 – but that was a bargain as it would have been far too expensive outside university. Then I had to source a manufacturer. My brother, Michael, is a businessman and had a contact in China, and they found a specific firm to make the original glass moulding. I did it all online, and they shipped the result to me here in Birmingham.”
At university, Rogers hoped the project would impress her teachers, but was surprised and worried when they only gave her a 2:1 mark (equal to a B-grade). “When I launched the idea they didn’t seem to like it, and I was really disappointed because it was one of my best pieces of work, and I’d put so much time into it. I’d been getting first-class marks in the rest of my studies and so this 2:1 really got me worried.”
As it turned out, Rogers got a first-class degree anyway, and since then Nottingham Trent have been back in touch – typically impressed after the event, asking her to write a student profile on how she succeeded.
But at the early stage of launching her business, she says there wasn’t much support – not from the university, nor from anyone else who should be supporting and encouraging young entrepreneurs.
She applied to her local Solihull Council for a mentor programme, but found the application process too long. “They were at least willing to come out and meet me,” she says, “but there wasn’t much apart from pointing me towards a couple of workshops. I could see it was going to be very difficult to get a mentor, because it was so competitive.
“At university, we had student membership of the Institute of Directors, and that was useful, mainly for networking. But I think there needs to be more support for people like me – something that’s easy to access.”
Eventually, with her networking and one or two ideas from the workshops, Rogers researched the market and launched the business largely by herself – with a bit of helpful advice from family and friends.
Her brother and mum loaned her a total of £8,000, which along with her own savings of £5,000 she ploughed into Aquatiser’s start-up costs. The first bottle was made of glass, primarily for home use, and she quickly designed a second plastic model with refinements that made it easier to use during sport and exercise, like a better drinking nozzle.
Both Aquatiser products cost between £3 and £4, including the cost of importing them to the UK from China. Rogers then sells the glass model for £19.99, and the sports version for £17.99. To date she’s had 10,000 units made, and has sold more than 7,000.
Aquatiser as a company was launched in October 2014, its revenues reaching around £100,000 in year one, making £14,000 profit after costs that included a small salary for Rogers. In year two, she estimates revenues will grow to around £250,000, with profits of around £40,000.
She employs a part-time worker assisting with warehouse, picking and packing orders at her Castle Vale business unit, which itself costs around £600 a month in rent. A trademark for the UK cost around £150, and she’s recently spent another £600 on a European trademark.
“When I started there was nothing like it in the UK,” says Rogers. “Now there are so many different water bottles involving fruit. But the Aquatiser’s juicer component is unique. There’s a US version but not one in the UK, which makes it stand out.
“Being first to market in the UK was my advantage. It means I’ve built up a large following of loyal customers, which is a great head start. Now I’ve invested in a better website, and in better target marketing through social media.”
Although Rogers has a couple of wholesalers and one or two small retailers who stock Aquatiser, more than 90% of sales are direct via her website. And her main marketing budget – in terms of time and resource – is invested in Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.
She’s also made the big decision to put herself at the centre of her marketing – in pictures and videos, engaging in sporting activities. Luckily, her own good looks and body frame stands up to this, although many people probably wouldn’t like the public scrutiny.
“For me it’s the main route to marketing,” says Rogers. “I’m trying to get customers to know me rather than just the product. I want to be part of it.” Rogers’ warm and confident manner only cracks when I ask too much about her family: her elder sister Camille died a couple a years ago, in what was a tragic end to quite a long-term depression. But while her death rocked the family, Rogers says it now helps her to keep her focus. “We lost Camille,” she adds, “but work has helped me to keep going.”
She’s already got year three expansion plans: a bigger range of products, which include a branded bottle cooler at £2.50 and fruity ice ball-maker at £3. “I started giving these away as freebies but soon realised they were popular and so started to sell them,” she says.
The next idea is a branded foam roller – the cylindrical device that you see people rolling on after exercise to massage their muscles. Rogers’ version has handles and a hollow tube which can carry a compressed towel, headphones and an Aquatiser bottle.
“It’s almost a bag,” explains Rogers, “and I’ve already had a sample made. There’s nothing out there like it.” Once her brand is more established she wants to launch gym clothing under a new Aqwear brand, including sports bras, leggings and tops.
Aquatiser sounds to me like a business that someone on Dragons’ Den should have invested in, but Rogers is not at all bitter: “The whole experience did so much for my confidence,” she adds. “If I can face the Dragons with all those cameras and lights, I can do anything. And besides, if nothing else, I’m enjoying proving that Peter Jones was wrong..!”