Moses Lam isn’t watching his export sales disappear into thin air – in fact, just the opposite. The Edmonton entrepreneur is selling compressed, fresh mountain air from Canada’s Rockies to consumers around the globe.
“It started off as a joke, but I quickly realized I was onto something,” says Lam, president and CEO of Vitality Air.
No doubt. An e-commerce fishing expedition resulted in two export sales to the U.S. in the span of a week. It started in 2014, when he posted a Ziploc bag, full of fresh air captured from Jasper, Alberta on eBay for 99 cents. He was surprised when it sold within hours. He never expected the second bag, same size and contents, to sell for $168 less than a week later.
“I sat back and laughed for a minute,” says Lam. “Then I had to figure out how to ship them.”
His crash course in exporting was a little expensive, he admits as he had to ship his little Ziploc bag in a “massive box” so it wouldn’t get damaged. But those first sales led to the creation of Vitality Air just four months later.
“It was explosive and totally fuelled by demand,” Lam says of his foray into going global. “We really didn’t have a choice. The global market wanted fresh Canadian air and we had a choice to grow or stay stagnant. We chose to grow. ”
Timing helped, too. Last December, 10 Chinese cities posted red smog alerts – advisories for people to stay inside, schools to stop classes, and restrict vehicle use — at the same time as the company’s first 500 bottles arrived in the country. They sold out in less than a week. Word-of-mouth promotion in a market with 1.3 billion people sent demand through the roof.
“It was unbelievable,” says Lam. “ Literally overnight, it was adopted as a lifestyle product in China. ”
Today, the company ships its fresh air worldwide with the largest markets in those plagued with pollution – China, South Korea and India. It has distribution agreements with partners in the U.S., China, India and Mexico, but sells to other markets via its e-commerce site. Export sales account for an overwhelming majority of the company’s revenue.
“Fresh, Canadian air is in demand in polluted cities,” Lam says. “People want to breathe the air they see in the picturesque scenes with snow-covered mountains and pristine lakes [in the Rockies] that they see on the web.”
Moving from Ziploc bags to robust, proprietary metal bottles complete with an accompanying inhaling mask has resulted in a sizeable investment in research and development. It’s also the company’s competitive advantage.
“People say, ‘You are selling something you can get for free,’ but what they don’t realize is the amount of technology that goes into putting fresh, breathable air into one of our cans,” he adds. “[With the bottles] Our customers can get more product and carry it around safely with them in a purse or backpack. It’s a lot more economical for us to ship as well.”
The air-capture process is quite tedious and takes approximately 40 hours utilizing a large vacuum that secures air from locations at Lake Louise and Banff. The air is then transported to the company’s Edmonton facility where it is packaged in the company’s branded metal cans. There are various purchase options, but the standard three-litre (80-inhalations) can of Banff air retails for $23.
The company also offers three varieties of flavoured oxygen – grape, root beer and strawberry. Those products are more popular in North American markets as a hangover cure and with athletes looking for a post-workout boost.
Lam says that becoming an exporter overnight has been a steep learning curve, especially navigating the maze of red tape that come with selling a new, innovative product like bottled fresh air.
“I haven’t travelled very much, so I had to learn all about our major export markets and the cultural differences,” he adds. “A lot of countries don’t know how to classify our products either, because they’ve never seen anything like them before. That adds both time and money to the entire process and can be a bit frustrating.”
Nevertheless, he says what he’s learned the past two years is invaluable.
“It’s been quite the education on taxes, regulations and duties,” he adds. “What I’ve learned since I started this journey is truly remarkable. At times, I admit it’s been difficult and at times an uphill battle. But we keep on plugging away.”
And Vitality Air is going to keep plugging away as it eyes the near-term goal of selling five million bottles per year to consumers around the globe.
“This started off as a joke and being creative with both technology and marketing to test a product,” says Lam. “I never dreamt I would come this far. It’s turned into something I am very proud of, is fun and definitely very unique. Best of all, it makes my day job very enjoyable.”