Published: Wednesday, 3 Oct 2012 | 3:37 PM ET
By: Cindy Perman
CNBC.com Staff Writer
Low-overhead businesses are always appealing but at no time do they have more appeal than during a tough economy.
Remember Jason Sadler? He started a business mid-recession wearing T-shirts for a living and now he has a mini T-shirt wearing empire ( www.iwearyourshirt.com). Or Ben Huh, who, in 2007, saw commercial potential in a blog devoted to silly cat pictures and saw his business explode during the recession into a funny web-site empire (www.cheezburger.com) that gets 20 million visitors per day and was recently ranked one of the top 50 start-ups by the Wall Street Journal.
Enter Adam Ruhf and Alex Venet, who have come up with what some may argue could be one of the most brilliant business plans ever: Selling New York City tap water.
I know! You wish you'd thought of it, amiright?!
What's more, they want you to bring your own container! Hello, how low-overhead is that?
The company ' the Molecule Project ' actually takes New York City tap water, which New Yorkers will argue to death is already some of the best water around (save for the 100 year-old pipes that deliver it) and run it through a $20,000 pharmaceutical-grade filter. It's an eight-step filtering process that is more thorough at removing contaminants than a Britta filter (Ruhf is insulted at the very comparison) and even better than home filtration systems to make water 'soft.
' My dad used to brag to anyone who dared enter our house about our 'reverse osmosis' system from Culligan that got it down to 6 ppm ' parts per million.
Ruhf wouldn't specify how many ppm their filtered tap water is other than to say, 'Our PPM is better than your dad's. It's by far less than 6 ppm.'
Their intentions are a little more noble than 'Hey, buddy, wanna buy some tap water?'
'We have an increasing level of contamination nationally and internationally and it grew out of concern for what I was drinking,' Ruhf said, adding that they were inspired by the water stores in California and wanted to bring a variation on that idea to New York.
The idea behind their Molecule water (www.themoleculeproject.com) isn't to compete with Poland Spring, Dasani or Aquafina and have bottles of Molecule water in every Walmart and health-food store. It's taking this 'shop local' trend to another level. They want to be a sort of neighborhood well, where locals bring in canteens and jugs come in to refill their water.
'I love the idea of clean drinking water with almost a zero carbon footprint,' Ruhf said.
They charge $1 to fill up a canteen with Molecule water, $3 to fill up a gallon jug and $10 to fill up a 5-gallon jug. If you don't have a container, you can buy one at their store.
For an additional buck or two, you can get a cocktail of vitamins and supplements added to help give you energy, boost your immunity, relax or recover from a hangover.
The 'Fountain of Youth' mix includes vitamins C and E and green tea; the 'Night Vision' is vitamin A and B complex; and the 'Glamour Shot' includes ingredients to help your hair, skin and nails such as biotin, grape seed extract, zinc and silica as well as B complex.
Oh yeah, this water will make you pretty!
(Or at the very least, have a healthy coat.)
The difference between these and other vitamin waters, Ruhf said, is that their additives are all natural ' with most vitamin waters one of the first ingredients is some form of sugar.
Since the Molecule Store, located at 259 East 10th Street in Manhattan, opened in July, Ruhf said business has increased steadily and they now get about 20 to 50 people per day who come in to fill up their jugs. They also deliver. (True to the low-footprint model, delivery is by bicycle.)
And here's the best part: They haven't even advertised! It's all been word of mouth.
'I love it!' said Mike Michalowicz, a consultant for entrepreneurs and the author of 'The Pumpkin Plan' and 'The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur.' 'Instead of trying to compete in that catgegory [Poland Spring and other bottled waters] they say, 'How do I make New York's water the finest?'
Michalowicz, who did such good branding for himself he was actually accused of overbranding for being known as 'The Toilet Paper Guy' (for the record, he has never actually sold TP), said he thinks the Molecule guys have an excellent strategy for capitalizing on the environmental trend.
'And I love that they use canteens, too,' Michalowicz said. 'It's a throwback. When I hear 'canteen,' I think camping, which makes me think of fun. That's invoking an image in someone's mind with a favorable experience.'
The business has taken a beating by the critics, who are outraged that two guys would try to sell them the water out of their tap.
For those who are still dubious, Ruhf said they encourage people to do their own research about what's in NYC tap water ' and to come in and give their water a try.
And Michalowicz said he thinks it's all about how they position themselves. They're not competing against tap water, they're competing against bottled water ' and doing it cheaper and more environmentally-friendly.
'They could make their tagline: 'Finally, tap water perfected!'' Michalowicz said.
Ruhf said they plan are to have a franchise of Molecule stores throughout New York. Business is going so well, he expects they'll open another store in New York City within six months.
And, while the business may seem like a turnoff to investors who love products with a short life that are on every Walmart shelf and need to be quickly replaced, Michalowicz said all that a small business has to do to attract investors is to show proof of revenue stream, that they can get customers coming back and he thinks these water boys have done that ' and shown the potential for growth with franchising.
The only thing Michalowicz cautions on is the branding. Their idea for super pure water taps into the whole environmental and zero-emission trend but the name Molecule goes more toward the biology field.
'They may be playing the whole molecular thing a little too much ' you need to exploit one differentiator,' he said. 'Either you're an environmentalist or a biologist. You run the risk of confused messaging.'
And being known as 'The Toilet Paper Guy,' he knows a thing or two about confused messaging! 'Everyone thinks 'this guy is all about bathroom humor!'' Michalowicz quipped. 'People couldn't distinguish me from toilet paper.'
Sure, selling tap water is always going to attract its fair share of critics. At a recent staff meeting, however, it was a source of inspiration.
'We could sell New York City air!' one colleague suggested.
'Or New York chutzpah!' another chimed in.
Dude, if you could bottle it, you could totally sell New York chutzpah in Topeka.
Indeed, it does require a significant amount of chutzpah to sell New York City tap water ' to NEW YORKERS!
And these guys just may pull it off.