Julie Austin says she created her company, Swiggies, with “literally $5 and a ball of clay.” Today, swiggies—water bottles adults and kids can wear on their wrists—are sold in 24 countries worldwide. What Austin created to meet her own needs for hydration while running is now helping people around the world stay active and healthy.
Why did you start your business?
I had no previous background to be a business owner. I was working as an actor doing commercials and infomercials for other people. I was running in the heat one day in the middle of the summer, and I passed out from dehydration. I thought, “You know, this is really not a good idea to keep running without water.” I kept looking for a product that was something like a water bottle you could put around your wrist. Nothing like that existed, so I ended up inventing it myself.
I was going to just license the product and move on, but I was working on a deal with a big sporting goods company. Literally two or three weeks before we were supposed to launch and sign the contract, they went bankrupt. All this time had passed by. I didn’t want to keep swiggies off the market anymore, so I just did it myself.
How did you get the funds to get going?
I worked two and three jobs for years. I know that’s going to sound daunting. I really had no idea what I was doing and I had no idea how much it was going to cost. This happens to a lot of inventors, they get going and then realize, “Wow, I am spending a lot of money!” But, once you’re into it, you have to keep going. I would have gotten a loan if that was available to me, but at the time, it really wasn’t. I’ve bootstrapped everything.
Have you heard of business credit?
Yes. I used to have all the finances under the business name, but in California, it is so expensive to keep up the corporation. I was paying the taxes through my own name anyway. It didn’t really offer any protection to me to keep the corporation because the business wasn’t really big enough. So now all the finances are in my own name.
Managing the Business
What’s most challenging about running your business?
In my case, because I’m an inventor and I have trademarks and copyrights and patents, the hardest thing is keeping people from stealing my intellectual property.
How do you finance your business to manage cash flow or growth?
The best market for me is the promotional market, because when you put a company’s logo on your product, you can’t sell it to anyone else. So, they have to put 50% up and then pay 50% when it leaves the floor. That way, I haven’t had any issue of someone not paying, which helps me manage cash flow.
Do you use trade credit from your vendors or suppliers?
Yes. When I get the 50% upfront, I pay the factory. Then they have to get the rest before they release it.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
Like many business owners, I reached a point where I said, “This is just too much. I can’t handle it. Somebody, help me!” When you get to that point, you’re at your most vulnerable and weakest. I knew better than to trust this guy, but I hired a “marketing guru.” He came recommended through someone I knew. My gut instinct was not good, but I looked him up and he had worked with some very well known celebrities. What I didn’t know was that those celebrities were conned, also.
I signed a contract with him, and the very next day it was like Jekyll and Hyde. He sent me a 25-page contract. I would have had to pay a fortune to get an attorney to read it. I didn’t do that and signed it anyway. It ended up being the biggest nightmare. I had to hire an attorney anyway, which ended up costing me more money that it would have in the first place. I had to take the product off the market for a year.
To this day, I use a simple one-page plain English contract. If people won’t sign it, I won’t do business. I work with some of the biggest companies in the world, and they sign it.
What’s the smartest thing you did in your first year?
It was really kind of dumb luck and not knowing any better. I didn’t know you couldn’t drive up to the office of a big corporation, walk in, and talk to the head buyer. I did it anyway. It was a big chain on the West Coast, and I ended up getting into all of their stores. Just being fearless in the beginning has meant a lot. Another thing I did was I jumped in my car with no plan and drove cross-country, doing the news in every city. I just called ahead and said, “I’m coming into town, what do you think?”
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning a business?
The freedom. All entrepreneurs will tell you that you work insanely long hours, especially in the beginning, but it’s your own business, which is extremely different than putting those same hours in at a job.
What does the future look like for your business?
I have a drink mix that I would love to launch in the future. I did not realize how expensive it was going to be to get on the market. It’s fantastic—sugar-free and all natural. But it’s going to take money, and I would need to have investors for something like that.
As far as growth, I’m in 24 countries. I manufacture in three countries. There are many, many more countries left! I really don’t have a presence in the U.S., believe it or not. It’s easier for me to sell in other countries than it is to sell here. I would like to have more of a presence in the U.S.
What advice do you have for someone starting a business?
You have to trust your own instincts, ’cause a lot of people will try to talk you out of it. It’s not a straight line, it’s not like you’re going to open up your doors and everything will be wonderful. Being a small business owner is a lot of ups and downs. If you don’t have money, and I didn’t in the beginning, you’ll struggle a lot without a safety net.