As Founder and CEO of Blossom Water LLC, a maker of botanical waters fortified with probiotics, Steven Fortuna has traveled far from his engineering roots. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston University in electrical and computer engineering, Steven began his career at preeminent defense firms Raytheon and MITRE, where he held top secret government clearance. After later receiving an MBA in finance from Columbia University, he leveraged his technology background into equity research on Wall Street. Over the years, he held increasingly responsible positions evaluating computer hardware and software stocks at PaineWebber, Deutsche Bank Securities, Merrill Lynch, and Prudential Equity Group, becoming ranked #2 on Institutional Investor’s All-America Research Team.
In 2006, Steven crossed over to the investment “buy-side,” becoming portfolio manager at a Manhattan hedge fund. Two years later, with the trading acumen gained there to complement his analytical strength and industry knowledge, Steven decided to make the leap to entrepreneurship, co-founding a $100 million hedge fund. He focused on delivering outsized risk-adjusted returns for investors, achieving a 40% rate of return in just the first year. To his surprise, however, Steven began to realize he was feeling more satisfaction from the new business-building duties than from the investment work itself.
Coincidentally, he began spending more time at his country house in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, as a respite from the frenetic pressures of hedge fund life. There he came to know several small business owners catering to local demand for foods and beverages that were not only natural and healthy but offered some differentiating quality. A foodie himself, this exposure encouraged Steven that he could do something similar, something that would also allow him to feed his growing passion for establishing and nurturing all facets of a business enterprise.
While renovating the cottage gardens of his 1815 Lenox home, inspiration struck. Again he took a leap, founding Blossom Water LLC to create a unique drink made with natural flower and fruit botanicals. In 2013, Blossom Botanical Water™ launched in the metro-Boston area. Since then, Steven has improved the product in many ways, with enhanced flavors, fewer calories, and the addition of probiotics for reinforcing healthy immune function.
In addition to product development, Steve Fortuna oversees all aspects of the business, including manufacturing, sales and distribution, marketing, and finance. Blossom Botanical Water™ is now available in more than 1,500 stores in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest.
Let’s start by telling us about your business.
Blossom Water LLC makes premium, ready-to-drink flavored waters using flower and fruit botanicals. It sprang from one of my favorite pastimes, gardening, which I’ve always enjoyed as a way of getting out in nature and being physically active, helping me to unwind.
One hot and humid afternoon, I was in my Berkshires cottage gardens planting a mock orange shrub. Kneeling with my head among the blossoms, I was captivated by the soft white petals, glowing translucent in the sunlight and wafting their subtle citrus fragrance. They lifted my spirits like a tonic, seeming capable even of quenching my thirst.
Suddenly, I thought: Wouldn’t it be intriguing if there were a healthy water beverage marrying the lush appeal of flowers with traditional fruit flavor? Couldn’t that create a drink with familiar fruity burst, yet also fresher and brighter, with the floral accents contributing taste nuance and aromatics?
Those questions framed my vision for founding Blossom Water.
Please tell us how you make sure your customers will become raving fans of your company?
We make our drinks with the highest quality ingredients to maximize flavor and wellness for our customers. All Blossom Water botanicals are derived from the named flower and fruit source, extracted by steam distillation for best taste and aroma.
Botanicals have become a trend in foods and beverages, as customers appreciate their authentically natural “pop.” They especially appeal to consumers looking for an interesting and more sophisticated twist on traditional flavors, as well as those who put a premium on healthfulness. Millennials are in the vanguard of this trend because they are a diverse, internationally-savvy group who tend to have expansive palates, demanding more innovation and distinction. It’s no wonder they’re the sweet spot of Blossom’s customer demographic.
Please tell us the one thing that separates your business from the competition?
In the United States, we’ve been a first mover in the use of floral botanicals for beverages. But other countries have been using them for centuries! In researching the feasibility of my garden inspiration, I was excited to see the product concept validated through a longstanding multicultural heritage. Rose water and orange blossom water are traditional in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. So are jasmine tea in Asia, and hibiscus water in North Africa and Latin America. And Western Europe has long dabbled with lilac, lavender, and elderflower for sodas, liqueurs, and cocktails.
Our introducing flower botanicals in the U.S. is not unlike what happened with coconut water several years ago. Coconut water was a staple drink in South America long before it was marketed and became a success story in this country. That’s a model of how to bring something with established foreign appeal to the American consumer. We’re doing much the same with flower botanicals, taking what’s long been appreciated in other parts of the globe, and making it available here in a fruit-plus-flower combination that’s simultaneously familiar and novel — and, above all, tastes great together.
And to finish this section, please tell us what is the one major key to your company’s success?
With any business start-up, a sound product concept is only the first step. Even product development, while complex and time-consuming, is usually not that difficult to accomplish with a strong enough vision following on from the inspiration. The hardest part, where choices become less clear-cut, is developing a strong business model and executing against it.
Because of my background as both engineer and financier, I bring a systematic and strategic mindset to entrepreneurship. The idea for this brand was perhaps whimsical in its inspiration, but my approach to the nuts and bolts of running the firm is anything but that. I lean heavily on the problem-solving discipline honed by my engineering education and work history. And my financial training, with years of experience analyzing companies for securities analysis, enables me to maintain a 360° view of the current business.
For our readers just starting to build a company, what advice can you give entrepreneurs just starting out with a new venture?
Dare to dream big and be different. Then focus like a laser on the day-to-day tasks of trying to make it happen. As you fail at things along the way, reassess your options and try again. You may well decide to change your dream and its business ramifications, one or many times, but perseverance eventually pays dividends.
For entrepreneurs seeking to build a business as successful as yours, what one big piece of advice can you give them when times get a little challenging
Keep up with competitive dynamics in your marketplace. That is a daily priority for me, as much now when an entrepreneur, as before when a Wall Street analyst and hedge fund manager. All that’s changed has been the nature of the relevant market. It’s really the only way to stay ahead of the game.
I credit this imperative with leading me to make a couple of timely modifications to Blossom’s product line. Our drinks started out using a touch of agave nectar for sweetness. But I could see that the consumer trend in reducing sugar was gaining momentum. Projecting that even a small amount of this sweetener would be moving onto consumer radar screens, I eliminated it, cutting calories in half to just 20 per bottle. (An unanticipated bonus was crisper but still well-balanced flavor.) Also, I could see that, in addition to a clean ingredients deck, beverage makers were increasingly competing on the basis of targeted health benefits. After careful study, I decided to fortify our drinks with probiotics clinically proven to boost immune health. This directly addressed the desire of today’s consumers (particularly Millennials) for beverages that offer a specific functional purpose in addition to overall healthy hydration and drinking pleasure.
In today’s fast changing business environment, how do you stay abreast of things?
In addition to active communication with Blossom’s own staff and business partners, I cultivate a wide network of other industry participants, often soliciting their opinions and feedback. I also read lots of business books. Some of my favorites include:
Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters. It really puts the focus on innovation and differentiation when creating a new company and brand.
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. This book embraces the uncertainty inherent in any new organization, emphasizing the need for responding to both changes in your industry and your own customer input.
Mission in a Bottle by Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff. This is an entertaining story by the founders of Honest Tea, providing anecdotal support for how perseverance and creative problem-solving can lead to success within the highly competitive beverage space.
What is your “Why”? In one sentence, why do you get up in the morning?
I know I’m transforming an innovative inspiration into a tasty drink, using only clean ingredients topped off with immunity boosting benefit, all for the purpose of making people happier and healthier in a way sustainable for our stakeholders.
In one sentence, what is the most important thing one has to do to be a great leader?
While it can be frustrating to hear conflicting viewpoints, I generally try to get a diversity of opinions on any key decision since doing so helps me understand better all of the pros and cons in order to optimize the outcome.
In one sentence, describe how important your customers are to your business?
Meeting the needs and wants of our customers is of paramount importance – nothing else matters otherwise.
In one sentence, describe a positive way that technology can make the world a better place?
The revolution in online and mobile communications, which began in earnest around the turn of this century, continues to gain momentum in bringing greater choice and ease to almost every transaction and task we undertake.
In one sentence, tell us how something positive to motivate our readers?
Don’t let mistakes get you down, learn from them and keep going.
In one sentence, tell us how you start your day to get ready?
I get up at 6:00 AM, hit the treadmill for 45 minutes and then, over a breakfast of plain yogurt and granola, skim the Wall Street Journal before reviewing my task list for the day.
In one sentence, describe how you handle rejection and setback?
I try to understand what I might have done to contribute to it so as to better avoid something similar happening again, usually allow myself an hour or so to absorb any sad feelings while doing something physical like taking a walk or bike ride, then move firmly on to the next task at hand.
In one sentence, describe what your hiring philosophy is?
Beyond seeking someone with proper skills for the job, I look for an attitude of enthusiasm and commitment, valuing hard work even over talent.
In one sentence, describe how you keep your sanity in a competitive business environment?
While looking ahead to strategize, of course, I take things one day at a time with a focus on being productive and moving the business forward, at least in some small way, each and every day.