By Carolyn Cakir June 30, 2016
CHICAGO (Medill)– When John Bauer walked into the building, he looked more like an adventurer going on a hike than a president of a company going into an interview.
His mountain-ready outfit choice, green cargo shorts and a plain T-shirt, reflects his decision to change careers in his 50s. After 35 years as a marketer working for companies like Pillsbury and Tropicana, he forged a new path as an ecological entrepreneur.
Serendipitously, Wahaso co-founder Stuart Bailin approached Bauer in 2007 with a business idea to design water harvesting systems for commercial buildings, just as the marketing consultant was looking for a change.
Bauer had been a consultant for four or five years.
“There’s a frustration with being a consultant in that you do a lot of recommending but you don’t get to see the results,” the Duke University alum says. “You do a lot of work for other people on how they should run their companies. I was very interested in finding my own gig.”
At the time, Bailin was an engineer designing for water bottling factories. He had experience with water treatment products, water pumps and filters, but Bailin wanted Bauer’s opinion as a marketing consultant with experience launching new products and businesses.
“[Bailin] said, ‘Hey, I’ve been requested to provide some equipment for water-harvesting—greywater or rainwater—systems. I’m thinking there might be enough of an opportunity here to start a business, what do you think?’” Bauer recalled.
At the same time, Bauer was looking for a business, where he could use his skills in marketing, brand development, sales and product development.
“Would there be an opportunity in the market where I could enter, where I could bring the skillsets and be able to have my own company?” he says. “Ideally, something that would have a socially responsible role.”
The commercial sector in the U.S. accounts for 17 percent of the withdrawals from public water supplies, making it the country’s second-largest consumer according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Commercial buildings in the U.S. used an average of 23,538 gallons of water per day in 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Buildings Energy Data Book reports.
Wahaso, which is an acronym for “water harvesting solutions”, designs systems for commercials buildings that collect and process on-site rainwater from rooftops, storm water from run-off and slightly-used greywater for re-use as non-potable (not for drinking) water.
Toilets, heating and air conditioning, and landscaping are the three biggest uses for water in commercial buildings, and all three can be performed using non-potable water.
After doing some market research on water re-use, Bauer discovered that not only did this kind of company not exist but that the demand was there, and the industry was “destined to grow.”
“The concern about the water supply long-term, water shortages in some areas [and] the whole green movement were real big drivers that were going to drive this interest in water re-use,” he said.
Bauer was persuaded that a company like Wahaso would be good for the environment and a perfect fit for him.
“The interest in having my own company, first of all; the trends and the opportunity in the marketplace that was there for a company to be in this space, commercial water re-use; and then just the timing,” he said. “All those things came together to say, this is something I would like to do.”
Bauer decided that he wasn’t going to simply help Bailin; he wanted to team up. The two men had been friends for years—their sons were in Boy Scouts together—but they were going to embark on an entirely new phase in their relationship as business partners.
“We are very different, very complementary, in what we do,” Bauer said. “It was a perfect match between someone who had the technical side—the industry side—and me, who had the marketing, sales and kind of this vision that [Bailin] didn’t have.”
Still, leaving a career in corporate America that spanned 35 years to start a company in an industry that doesn’t exist is tough.
“Talk about defining a business,” Bauer laughed. “It wasn’t like we could look at all the other companies and take the best of all of those. We really were forging a pathway.”
They spent the first few years defining the business model, building the website and marketing themselves to potential clients. “It’s a long runway,” he said. “It’s a long time you need for a lot of energy and effort before you really start seeing revenue coming out.”
Funding was a challenge in those early days; the co-founders were financing the entire project themselves. There were a couple of years, Bauer said, where they weren’t making any money.
“We didn’t have anybody coming with a whole lot of capital saying, here’s $30 million, here’s half a million dollars, to start this company,” he explained. “That meant that we had to be very careful about what we were spending and try to avoid losing money while we’re waiting for that revenue to come in.”
For the first few years, Bailin and Bauer continued working at their old jobs. They were, as Bauer explained it, ways of “providing money at the time when Wahaso really wasn’t.”
Since then Wahaso has expanded to a team of seven employees—five full-time and two part-time—and have worked on projects both big and small. They’ve developed water-harvesting systems for Whole Foods and Starbucks stores, an MGM casino complex in Virginia, Cornell University’s Klarman Hall, state parks and government buildings.
Now, Bauer works at Wahaso full-time. He is able to set up projects with clients across 44 states from the comfort of his waterfront condo in downtown Chicago.
He doesn’t think his situation is unique. In fact, Bauer thinks there are plenty of people his age taking on “second careers,” as he calls them. People get to an age, he explained, when they realize they have “plenty of good years to do what [they] want to do.”
“When you are younger, with the kids at home and financial responsibilities greater, [you] need a salary to sustain that lifestyle,” he said. “Now, there is the freedom to earn less [and], at the same time, get more satisfaction out of what you are doing.”
“Actually, I would say, freedom to earn less but with the promise of earning more,” he added. “There’s always the back end. It’s a capitalistic endeavor.”
After working for other people and companies the past 35 years, Bauer is finally getting a taste of what it means to be a business-owner.
“Having your own business is a romanticized thing,” he said. “It’s special to have a business that you start from scratch with no revenue, see it grow, start making a profit, hiring employees. It’s a very exciting thing.”
Plus, he no longer has to wear a tie to the office.