Story by: Laura Bergells (@maniactive)
Photography: Katy Batdorff
Earlier this year, 30-year-old Benjamin Gott spoke at Ottawa Hills High School about following dreams.
“I ask most people, like, ‘When you wake up in the morning, what really inspires you? And almost everyone has an answer. Y’know, when they don’t — it’s a little weird.’”
As for Gott, he feels inspired by ideas. And lots of different ideas.
“Most things go from an iteration of an idea, then they turn into a project, and then if you’re lucky, they turn into a profitable business,” said Gott.
Quite a few of Gott’s ideas have transformed into projects or businesses. With Chuck Anderson of NoPattern, Gott co-founded a ‘just for fun’ culture blog with a lo-fi design called TheBrilliance.com. In the early 2000’s, Gott started a music distribution site. The site didn’t work out, but Gott met entrepreneur Rick DeVos because they both used the same programming company. Gott and DeVos have since collaborated on a number of projects and businesses together. Currently, Gott runs Boxed Water and designs clothing for his fashion collection “BENJAMIN EDGAR, or whatever”.
Yet at age 12 or 13 in the South Chicagoland area, Gott claimed only two main interests.
“I skate boarded and I programmed computers,” he said. “Those were the things that were fascinating to me.”
That was in the mid 1990’s — well before most people enjoyed the internet in their homes. Gott landed his first job offer to do a little website, and before he knew it, he was wrapped up in exploring creativity with computers.
“School? I wasn’t terribly good at that,” he admitted. “And, uh, I wasn’t bad at it, I just didn’t really care for it.”
But Gott kept himself busy on Chicago’s South Side.
“I was working for a little web programming company there and working at the movie theatre, too. And working with my dad doing construction at the same time. And there was a company in Holland, Michigan that my Dad had a connection with, a startup… that needed a web programmer.”
Gott began working with the Michigan company. He even skipped school from time to time — with his mother’s permission — to go to business meetings in Holland.
“It was a very small company, but when you’re that young, it’s like ‘my goodness.” Gott said.
As his senior year in high school was wrapping up, Gott’s Holland boss asked Benjamin if he would go to college. Gott said he had been accepted at Columbia and Chicago, but didn’t feel ‘into it’. Rather, he liked his job in Holland.
Gott moved to Holland two weeks after graduation, kept working…and loved the work.
For the next 3 or 4 years, Gott bounced around in the programming world during the dotcom boom. Gott worked for startups and freelanced for some companies on the east coast… while living in Holland, Michigan.
In the early 2000’s, Gott moved to Grand Rapids and began working for Supply Chain Solutions. While there, Gott worked on warehousing projects — inventory visibility, supplier portals, and return systems — for the firm’s larger clients like Haworth, Steelcase, and Zondervan.
“Before I knew it, I was very young and I was in front of people that made bigger decisions. And only in retrospect did I realize that’s how I got my chops, I think,” said Gott. “Being confident about your ideas, I learned how to public speak at that point because I had to present a lot.”
While Gott worked for Supply Chain Solutions, he found himself in a warehouse. He saw huge stacks of plastic bottles. He thought, “Well, that’s got to be expensive to ship all these empty plastic bottles. They don’t weigh anything, but they take up all this space.”
And then he all but forgot about it — for about 4 years. As Gott’s music distribution site dwindled, he enjoyed a conversation with his friend Kevin Hockin about the evolution of bottled water. The pair discussed how bottled water was first viewed as weird in the 1980’s, and then became a near fashion accessory in the 1990’s, and then received a backlash from environmentalists in the 2000’s.
Curious, Gott went to his office and researched the bottled water industry. He discovered that it was massive…and growing. But the environmental backlash triggered his memory of the warehouse filled with empty bottles. This sparked his imagination.
“What if we rethought it?” mused Gott. “Let’s put it in a package that’s more sustainable. Let’s ship it more efficiently. And let’s be philanthropic. And now let’s design like nothing else anyone has ever seen in a water bottle before.”
That was 2-1/2 years ago. Today, Gott and Hockin run Boxed Water. Boxed Water cartons ship flat, reducing the bulky, costly transportation issues Gott witnessed years ago in the warehouse. And the company is working on making its fashionable, simply-designed container more sustainable.
But Boxed Water is but one idea transformed into a concrete reality. Gott also created a clothing line, “BENJAMIN EDGAR, or whatever.”
“Because I don’t take it that seriously,” explained Gott. “I did it entirely for fun, for almost 4 years ago.”
Through a friend, Gott met a pattern maker in town. They ‘just started making stuff’ – lean, classic, simply designed pieces that Gott preferred for his slim frame. After a few years, Gott found himself with a clothing line. At a friend’s wedding in New York, he showed his collection to a designer friend. The designer introduced Gott to the owners of a boutique in the West Village, who almost instantly agreed to sell some of the basics in Gott’s collection.
Design. Enthusiasm. Friends. These are the common threads Gott sees between his ideas and projects. In Grand Rapids, he finds few barriers between creating ideas, meeting helpful people, and making valuable connections.
“Things are easier than they appear to be,” said Gott. “If you want it, ask.
Locally, Boxed Water is available at Mad Cap Coffee, Grand Central Market, Cherry Market, and many D&W stores. You can also find it at select locations in Chicago, Southern California, New York, Dallas, and Orlando.