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Taking the plunge(r): Young alum forges a creative path to business success

Chris Moss got the job that launched his career by attaching his resumé to a bathroom plunger.

“I told my mom that night that I had either nailed it or totally screwed up,” recalls Moss, DMSB’17.

He’d nailed it.

By the time he graduated, he was already CEO of his own company. But his path to this dream was far from conventional.

In high school, Moss played tennis at a national level until a serious back injury put an end to his athletic aspirations. He turned this setback into an opportunity, teaming up with his trainer to launch a clothing company that produced high-quality cotton shirts for tennis players.

The new company, Christopher Reed, collaborated with Lacoste to lease an unused factory in Peru, where the company could produce shirts made from Peruvian Pima cotton at prices below the competition. The company quickly gained traction and expanded into the music world, producing T-shirts for bands to sell at their concerts.

In 2012, Moss enrolled at Northeastern with a determination to build a life as an entrepreneur. His second major setback came during his sophomore year, when he discovered that his business partner’s undisciplined spending habits had driven the company to the verge of bankruptcy.

Moss closed the shirt business right around the time he was supposed to be applying for his first co-op, so he got a late start, and the pickings were thin for the highly coveted co-ops with startups.

Again, Moss had to adapt.

“Chris embodies what we want our students to learn,” says his co-op coordinator, Esther Chewning. “No experience is going to be perfect; nothing is going to go exactly as you planned. But resilient people will pick themselves up and learn in the process—even when it doesn’t work out.”

Unable to find the co-op he envisioned, Moss drove to New York City to interview at a company called Atrium.

“I sat through four hours of interviews, but it turned out to be a recruiting firm, and I knew pretty quickly that I didn’t want to work there,” he says. “That’s when a man walked into the conference room without introducing himself and struck up a conversation. It wasn’t an interview—we just talked about all kinds of random things.”

Then the man handed Moss his card—Adrian “Wildman” Cenni—and told him he was the owner of the recruiting company, and he was looking for a personal assistant.

“This guy was a serial entrepreneur,” says Moss. “He had several successful companies, and he’d been a stuntman, a race-car driver, and had been cloud surfing from a helicopter. I thought, ‘I want to be this guy.’”

So Moss said he was interested. Cenni liked his enthusiasm, but also warned him that he’d have to be prepared to do all kinds of jobs, no matter how trivial.

“He told me that if he was on an important phone call and the toilet needed plunging, I’d have to do that, too,” says Moss. “So after the interview, I went out and bought a plunger, taped my resumé around it, and brought it to his assistant.”

Moss got the position. He cleaned carpets, washed windows, and on a few occasions, even used the plunger.

But he also managed operations for three of his boss’s ventures and had daily conversations with Cenni. Moss kept a notebook with all the tips and advice his boss doled out, and tried to act on at least one of them each week.

“The rule of thumb is that an entrepreneur has to start 17 businesses for every one that takes off,” says Moss. “Yet Adrian had started a dozen with only a few failures. I wanted to learn what it takes to beat that 17-to-1 statistic. I figured that if I stuck around this man long enough, it would rub off on me.”

Five months into the co-op, Moss got his big break. Cenni pulled him aside and explained that he was trying to develop a new kind of sports and health drink—the first high-alkaline flavored beverage that doesn’t have the acidic qualities of sodas and fruit juices. But so far, he hadn’t been able to clear various hurdles that involved beverage chemistry. He brought Moss to his lab in New Jersey and introduced him to his chemist, Bill Franke, head of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center.

“He told me that if I could figure it out, I could have an equity position and run the company,” says Moss.

Moss was at a crossroads. His co-op was nearly over and he had to decide whether to return to Northeastern with his friends, or stay in New York and try to get this company off the ground.

He leapt at the new venture, completing his Northeastern education through online night courses. Meanwhile, he immersed himself in the beverage industry and Franke’s lab.

For a year and a half, every attempt to solve the drink’s chemistry puzzle ended in failure. Finally, the answer occurred to him: What if their product wasn’t a bottled drink at all, but a flavored drink additive that dramatically reduced the acid level in existing beverages? It all fell into place. The major obstacles—chemical stability, shelf life, mold, and bacteria—were no longer a problem.

As CEO of Basic Water, Moss launched the company’s flagship product, Phit, in September. The squirt additive fills a gap in the alkaline water market, because all other flavored drinks are highly acidic, which contributes to tooth decay, throat irritation, and acid reflux.

His co-op advisor says that Moss embodies the Northeastern ethos of persistence and adaptability.

“He didn’t even tell me about the plunger until after he graduated, but it says a lot about his personality,” says Chewning. “He isn’t afraid to fail. He’ll do whatever it takes to get to a place where he can thrive. He’s willing to take the risk.”


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