Rebecca Cotter wasn’t always an entrepreneur.
In grade 11, she took a class on building your own business and said to herself “I’m never going to do this.” She left the class thinking she would never be a business owner.
Rebecca worked as the outdoor event coordinator for Downsview Park in Toronto, an open space for concerts and large-scale events. Quickly, she began to see a problem that needed a solution.
“I was standing outside in a field every weekend all summer producing festivals and concerts,” she says. “At the end of the night, I was standing amongst tons and tons of garbage. It only take so long to identify that the overwhelming feature in the garbage is half-consumed plastic bottles.” She knew her staff were being paid to clean up this waste, that dumpster service was coming out of her budget, and that there had to be a better way.
And that’s when the entrepreneurial itch came to her.
Rebecca started Water on Wheels, a portable water station to hydrate concert goers, marathon participants, and other outdoor event participants.
“Water on Wheels provides mobile water refill stations to special events both indoor and outdoor,” she says, adding that they’re at over 100 events every year. “Our stations are stainless steel stations that connect to a continuous flow water source, which means the stations themselves don’t hold any water—there’s no reservoir inside. We connect to something like a fire hydrant or a regular hose faucet to receive continuous flow water. The water goes through our stations, it’s charcoal-filtered and chilled, and then users with their reusable bottles come up to the refill faucets on the station and self-serve.”
The idea is simple enough, and is saving countless tonnes of garbage at each event. Rebecca says that businesses with an environmentally conscious mandate are important but can be more difficult to keep afloat.
“If you have a sustainable mandate like Water on Wheels, we’re there to keep people hydrated but more significantly we’re there to decrease the presence of commercially packaged bottles of water,” she says. While some businesses can just focus on the bottom dollar, others have work that will cut into profits, with good reason.
“Certainly Water on Wheels is not a get-rich-quick scheme and I don’t think any sustainable model of business would be,” says Rebecca. “I would suggest there are probably others, like the ones on Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den, who are more fiscally focused.”
That said, this doesn’t mean environmentally focused startups can’t be successful. Water on Wheels is coming up on its fourth summer in operation and has experienced exponential growth, meaning more water stations, more trailers, more staff, more events. They’ve even invested in a new model of water station called the water table for smaller gatherings, like baseball tournaments or family fun days.
Rebecca’s even been approached with the offer to franchise, but she says it’s not within her mandate of her business model. “I don’t need to franchise in order to expand,” she says. “I believe my gross model can sustain going across provinces or even into the US, still being locally owned.”
As for young people thinking of starting a business, Rebecca has some key advice, coming from her unique perspective on entrepreneurship.
“I launched a business inside the industry I already worked, so I knew a lot of people I could call up and say ‘Look, I’m not going to charge you. Take one of my water stations and put it at your event because I need the exposure.’” She says this networking is helpful in moving a good idea into a sustainable business model.
She also believes there’s a lot of value in doing your research. “I’ve found from my experience, in networking with other entrepreneurs, to run into something too hastily and not do the research will probably cost you a lot of money and might not get your concept off the ground in the way that becomes the most sustainable or the most viable, so there’s a lot of value on sitting on a good idea and doing the most research.”