Their senior year at Baylor University, Sam O’Brien’s and Kolton Lye’s apartment was filled with bottled water.
“We had to make a pathway to our kitchen and our living room,” Lye said.
“Cases were literally lining the walls,” O’Brien added.
Now, they’re able to keep the product for their new business, Whol-E Water, in a warehouse. The two recent college grads have begun selling alkaline water while donating part of their proceeds to a local charity. Now all they have to do is explain to people what it is they’re selling.
O’Brien and Lye have moved back to Austin to be near to their West Lake Hills families as well as their customers. The two Westlake graduates have been friends since kindergarten, played together on Westlake High School’s varsity soccer team, started a neighborhood business together when they were in high school, then roomed together in college.
As luck would have it, they also got into Baylor’s coveted entrepreneurial class Accelerated Ventures together.
The class gives students $5,000 seed money and the guidance to start their own business. O’Brien and Lye teamed up with finance student Todd Leitgeb, who now works as the company’s CFO out of Houston, and decided to start Whol-E Water (pronounced “holy” water).
A portion of their proceeds will go to the Austin-based charity A Glimmer of Hope, which brings clean water, education, health care facilities and loans to Ethiopia. Through fundraisers where O’Brien and Lye also market Whol-E Water products, they have raised $2,500 for the charity so far, they said. Their goal is $3,500, which will allow them to fund a tap for a well in the Gonok region of Ethiopia to bring water to a community.
Philip Berber, who co-founded A Glimmer of Hope with his wife, Donna, was O’Brien’s soccer coach when he was young. A Glimmer of Hope puts 100 percent of all donations into their programs in Ethiopia and does not fundraise for operating costs.
As athletes — Lye is a former Baylor University football placekicker — the students were interested in creating and marketing a drink that would be hydrating and replenishing. After doing some research, they settled on alkaline water.
“Health water that’s also charitable is perfect for an Austin market,” O’Brien said.
When a liquid is alkaline, that means it’s not acidic. On a pH scale, one end is acidic and the other end is alkaline. Anything from stress, to exercise, to eating certain foods can minimally make the body’s pH more acidic.
“All the good foods are acidic,” Lye said.
The idea of balancing one’s pH for health reasons originated in Asia, though products are now being introduced into the Western market. Research suggests that the best way to lower the body’s pH is by drinking high alkaline water, O’Brien said. Whol-E water has a pH of 9.4, compared to other brands which can be acidic.
“It helps your body reach equilibrium. … That’s how we fight disease and infection the best,” O’Brien said.
Alkaline water isn’t sold in many Texas stores. This meant there’d be little competition, but the scarcity made production difficult for three college students with limited money and resources, they said. They eventually found a company in California that could sell them the minerals they wanted to raise their water’s pH — calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium and phosphorus — and a company in Dallas that could mix the minerals into water and package the water.
They started out with 2,400 bottles. A couple months ago, they ordered a truck-full: 18,000 bottles.
Whol-E water is stocked in 23 locations, including CrossFit Central, Westlake Crossfit, Lola Savannah, Wheatsville Co-Op, all JuiceLand locations, Royal Blue grocery, Thom’s Market and The Co-op Market on Guadalupe Street.
O’Brien and Lye said they have been interested in entrepreneurship from a young age. They started a business in high school called Westlake Express. They laugh as they remember the Westlake Express, because it began as a transportation service and later became the name they used to ask anyone in West Lake Hills if there was any work that could be done.
“Call us if you need something done,” Lye said, recalling their pitch. “If you pay us, we’ll do it.”
O’Brien said he remembers installing a chandelier and helping a band set up. Their friend, Bailey Hinners – who made a lot of the Whol-E water deliveries this summer – once gave actor Dennis Quaid a ride while in high school.
O’Brien and Lye said they’re excited about their newest business venture. Although their initial checks to A Glimmer of Hope will be small as long as their profit margins are small, and the business partners are still making the deliveries themselves out of their own cars, they’re optimistic about their future.
“We’re emulating how a lot of other local brands have started,” O’Brien said.