Ninety degrees, parched in downtown San Diego after devouring half a pizza with my friends, my frugal student mind was focused on searching for a public water fountain or just something to quench my thirst that wasn’t ridiculously priced. Josh Cliffords, Founder of Free Water, might help me avoid a scene I’m all too familiar with. His Austin-based company provides a solution for frugal students like me and people in real need everywhere: naturally spring-sourced water at the price of – free?
Meet Josh Cliffords. As an 8th grader who once held $30,000 worth of Microsoft in 1995, saying Josh is an intelligent entrepreneur would be an understatement. You’d think that investing in Microsoft in the 90s would’ve set him on a path to become the next business-obsessed prodigy, but Josh’s path was anything but that of a typical CEO. A brief stint owning a gym for athletes in Los Angeles. A quick trip in an RV traveling the United States. Another stint trying to become a Green Beret in the Army before being honorably discharged. Josh was uncertain which path he’d like to commit to, and like many today, he was unsure how to do it. “My goal was 100 countries in 4 years”, Josh remembered in the Blake Zonca Podcast. Josh never ended up hitting all 100 countries. He only made it about a quarter of the way through before his trip came to a halt. Throughout his journey, Josh helped over 10,000 refugees in 18 months. His efforts in assisting refugees and realizing that more than 20% had left their countries because they couldn’t access basic human necessities were enough for Josh to cancel his trip and lease an office building in Austin, Texas, for his new startup. “That’s how FreeWater began”.
FreeWater started by handing out prototypes and collecting consumer feedback in the lines outside of Josh’s local Walmart. However, fast forward two years, and some of you may have been on Instagram or TikTok and seen Josh’s company pop up. “FreeWater?” is the line uttered by the team’s content manager. A consumer hesitantly grabs the environmentally friendly aluminum can, examines it hesitantly, then hounds, “Is this water? What’s wrong with it?”. “Nothing’s wrong with it. It’s all-natural spring water. The water is free because it’s paid for by the ads.” the FreeWater’s content manager tries to reassure him. The consumer tries the rebuttal, “What if I don’t want to read the ads?!”. FreeWater’s content manager quickly replies, “You already read them!” and the viral clip ends. While it may leave you with more questions than answers, the clip from TikTok that has been replayed over 35 million times explains FreeWater in a nutshell.
“How does a company selling a free product even survive?” That was the question I was met with when I told my family I was interviewing FreeWater’s Founder. Whether you realize it or not, there are a plethora of companies that live off free products. Pornography, Google, YouTube, and complimentary newspapers have all been around for years. Those industries and companies survive off selling a free product; why can’t the sectors that provide human necessities do the same? That’s Josh Cliffords’ aim with FreeWater. The sourcing, shipping, and distribution of FreeWater’s products are all covered by the revenue from their ad space. They can do all this while operating off what Josh calls a “negatively priced” product, as FreeWater donates 10% of its revenue from each water to charity. However, it doesn’t stop there, for more background information and to see what Josh’s future FreeWater plans were, I contacted him and organized a sit-down interview.
With a glass of iced water next to my right and my notes highlighted, I was primed to make a personable impression with the 15-minute interview I’d been anticipating all week. Except it wasn’t 15 minutes. And Josh wasn’t the stern, time-crunched CEO who I had imagined him to be. Without asking, Josh expanded our 15-minute window into an hour, and the scheduled interview felt more like an intimate conversation. I wasn’t prepared for the revolutionary topics he began to discuss with me.
“Free products will be done differently,” began Josh, leaning forward with a confident yet enigmatic smile while introducing a revolutionary step for FreeWater. The goal for Josh was more than just a free beverage company. “I’m going to invent a new industry that’s so large financially that if I take a slice of that and give it to charity, we can solve [these] issues without the government.” Josh articulated as he unveiled FreeWater’s plan to begin the release of FreeWater’s free vending machines and, ultimately, free grocery store. I know what you’re thinking: free vending machines? Free grocery stores? How is this possible? Not only is it possible, but as Josh went on to explain, it’s profitable. “[Coke] can’t make $1,000 per can, but there are more than a hundred ways to do this with our platform,” Josh explained after my initial skepticism. He then further expanded that FreeWater is evolving its business model. When FreeWater initially launched, it just sold its ad space as marketing for companies like NBC and American Ninja Warrior, but now they’re moving onto something more profitable – charging a commission from their ads. “$1,000 from one can of water“, Josh explained how FreeWater recently earned a substantial commission after one of FreeWater’s ads led to the sale of a Jeep Wrangler. As I began to notice the scalability of this model, I tried to catch Josh off-guard and ask what would happen if a large beverage company like Pepsi or Coke were to adopt this model from FreeWater. “You can’t make $1,000 from a Desani Water. It’s going force them to copy us.” Josh replied before starting again, “But I want the world to copy us. What are they going to do? Put me out of business by opening a better free supermarket that donates more money to charity than us? We’ll throw the biggest party in all of Austin the day that Pepsi or Coke copies us”. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t a ‘try to change the world’ mission. This is essentially a ‘charitable social experiment.” his closing statement rang in my head, and I realized Josh isn’t simply trying to manage a business that turns a profit, he’s trying to play his part in positively impacting the world.
When was the last time you accessed free content online? I’d be willing to be that it was today. There’s no denying that the free content and products industry is exponentially growing. Numerous companies survive off free products, yet only FreeWater envisions a sustainable future without the expense of exploiting the customers of its products. The question is, will free products and content get implemented for sustainability and societal improvement? Or will it be used as a vehicle for corporate profit and consumer data collection? Amid a day and age where customers need to be wary of the beneficiaries of free products and content, FreeWater and its ambitious CEO lead the way to utilize these free products to create a tangible, positive impact on our world.