Interview conducted by Audrey Cheng (1871 intern)
What is Portapure?
Portapure basically invents, designs and manufacturers affordable, easy-to-use water filtration products for individuals in developing countries. It’s addressing a huge global problem: there are a billion people around the world that lack access to clean drinking water. So in researching what was on the market, we really found that in disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti, there’s a lack of easy-to-use but highly effective systems. That’s why we launched Portapure, because systems that require pumps, electricity and chemical disinfectant are products that are hard to understand and overcomplicated for the intended user, which is a family in a developing country that may only have a second-grade education level. We found that our opportunity to really create a unique solution is to simplify the process, so that filtration allows a family to have clean water to drink. So we developed this technology and product market fit for that technology to make sure that we have a product that people will want and need.
How did you become an entrepreneur and what were you doing before?
Before this, I spent nine years running two of the world’s largest water treatment plants for the city of Chicago. I was a filtration engineer—I was responsible for treating up to a billion gallons a day of water. We would take water from Lake Michigan and it was an entire treatment process and I did that on a day-to-day basis.
How did you know you were passionate about this idea?
I reached a point in my career where I put nine years in. I kind of was at the point of deciding whether to continue to work and still it out 20 to 30 more years, and then retire, or take the opportunity, which I had in front of me. I don’t have a responsibilities right now, so I could go ahead and have this decision—I didn’t have kids and I wasn’t married—so I was it as an opportunity to create a business, knowing that if things didn’t work out so well, I could always return and go back into the work force. So I looked at that and the opportunity, which for me, I’m passionate about water, but I’m also interested in traveling, so understanding the international context of things and the opportunity there to really create a sustainable solution and business was kind of a crossroads of all of those things coming together.
What appealed to you about entrepreneurship?
There’s the feeling of worth. Sometimes when you’re in a large business structure, it’s hard to feel like you’re making a difference. But in entrepreneurship—especially at the early stages—what you do has a significant impact on the company and on your potential customer. It’s having the feel of worth and presence in what you do and having that really be valued in the total picture of customer relationship and impact that the business makes. That’s a significant motivating factor. The other is that I’ve just always had a history of entrepreneurship in my family. I’ve had very influential relatives that have been really successful. I’ve looked at their model and seen the value that they created, the accomplishments they made, and seen how it impacted our family and how it benefited our family.
Why do you think Chicago is a good community for entrepreneurs?
There’s so much energy now in the startup world in Chicago. Just listening to other advisors and mentors, 5-10 years ago, it wasn’t here. So it’s a great forefront of synergy that has developed in Chicago. It’s a great opportunity—while it’s at a developing phase of growing and gaining momentum, it’s a great time and place to be involved in a startup.
What is it like working at 1871?
There’s a great vibe here. The way they’ve set this up is really beneficial in that you have a lot of the investor groups here and mentors. A lot of the events are here. The Friday happy hour is a great opportunity to network. I actually found a customer at a happy hour and was able to close a purchase order. It was a NGO that came and I was able to sign them up right away.
Tell me about your failures. Have you had a lot and how did you overcome them?
Product development—there are always failures. When I make a product that goes through 12 prototypes, the first 11 are failures right? So I mean it’s always understanding iteration being a good thing. It was an important lesson to learn. Continuous improvement in product development. The thing is—everyday you fail until you’re on the cover of Forbes magazine. So you want to look at: how can you be better? How can you improve and do things differently? Whatever success is—until you get to that point, you have to look at it like, until you get there, you’re failing every day. That’s a healthy way at looking at continuous improvement.
What are your words of advice for budding entrepreneurs?
Understand that you can only do so much as an individual. So always look for your needs to strengthen your business, team or value proposition. Also look for ways you can grow, some of which don’t require resources, such as partnerships. Also, looking at resources for your businesses—understanding that you’ll have milestones and things that you’ll want to improve on. It’s all about prioritizing also: what is the most important thing you have to accomplish today?
Words that you live by?
Success is hard.
What is your biggest fear right now?
I fear that the product will be misused or pirated in the market. Those are the two biggest fears, which is why we’re doing an international patent.
What are some of your successes?
Success is a happy customer. When you are able to make someone’s experience better—for us it’s health—I think there were over 8,000 deaths in one calendar year from cholera. If we’re able to show that our product was the reason that the number lowers, that is tremendous success for us. No matter how much money you make, when you look back on your life, it’ll be measured by the impact you made that was sustainable. More so than Fortune or Forbes, sustainable impact is really success.