The Entrepreneur's Eye

By Brent Sonnek-Schmelz

Welcome to Entrepreneur’s Eye, a column dedicated to expressing the viewpoint of the beverage marketers whose growth and positioning often comprise much of the coverage base for this magazine. I’m Brent Sonnek-Schmelz, the CEO of RelaxZen, and I’ll be writing the first few columns, although the management tells me that other entrepreneurs with strong voices and important topics are always welcome to pitch columns (and give me a month off).

Why did we need it? I think of Beverage Spectrum as the voice of the independent brands – the startups, the orphans, the giant-killers. I read it, along with BevNET.com, to sort out trends and learn more about my new industry. I have gained a great sense of the people and the products, but only from a third party perspective. Missing from the voice of the independent brands was the actual voice of an independent brand. This column will fill that void.

What you will find here over the coming months are my own observations about my brand, RelaxZen, and our industry. Granted, I am still a beverage newbie, but maybe that’s a good thing: it gives me a different perspective, one that may not be constrained by common wisdom and industry practice. As Coco Chanel, that timeless symbol of women’s fashion, once said, “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.”

My point of difference, other than being a little quirky and having a penchant for dropping Coco Chanel quotes, lies in having an incredibly varied background: I have experience in private equity, education, publishing, business process outsourcing, retail, automotive, market research and law. What I tend to do well is recognize opportunities, learn as much about them as possible, and try to exploit them by making linkages to everything else I have experienced.

With RelaxZen, I recognized a unique opportunity to launch a differentiated brand in a new category that addresses two key pain points of a huge number of people. No one can sleep all the time, and everyone suffers from too much stress. It made sense. I soon discovered that it made sense to a lot of other people, too. There are now in excess of 30 “relaxation” brands seeking market share – a competitive situation that, while difficult, is also exhilarating.

With so many relaxation brands emerging at roughly the same time, I knew that I would need to learn about my brand, the category, the industry, the supply chain, distribution and messaging extremely fast. I’m a quick study, but I also know that the key to learning is not memorization and regurgitation. It is critical analysis, application and change.

As a result of us remaining constantly attuned to the learning process, I believe that, right now, RelaxZen sits in a pretty good place. It has been only 18 months, but even with mistakes, some bad judgment and countless changes in direction, I feel confident in our trajectory. Plus, much of what I have learned I know will remain foundation pieces of my career.Here are some of the highlights:

• Don’t spend any money in the beginning. All of it will be wasted. But when it is time to spend money, be ready to move very quickly and aggressively. Spending money too early, before customers can buy your product or before you have a solid message, never generates a strong return on investment. But, if you keep lots of dry powder around, when it’s time to flip the switch good things will happen.

• Everything will take two to three times as much time as you expect before it actually happens. This applies to production runs, raising capital, hiring, getting product on the shelves of retailers, receiving payment and everything else. Planning becomes more difficult as a result, but even more vital.

• Expect at least two to three calls a month from someone trying to sell you an ad on a big screen in Times Square. They always have the same story: A big customer dropped out at the last minute, and they can offer you the incredible deal of $17,000 for a six month run. It sounds cool the first time, but it loses its appeal after 20 or so calls.

• Competition is irrelevant. Nothing they do matters at all if you don’t execute. If you do execute, nothing they do matters anyway. If you pay attention to others too closely, you will always be playing catch up and making bonehead decisions in the name of “blocking maneuvers.” Basically, just execute and forget everybody else.

• Don’t fixate on being first to market. It does not matter. Was Google first to market? Nope. Was Facebook? Nope. How about Dawn dish soap? Nope again. Execution, as per above, is so much more important.

• Most important: Keep smiling.