A Few Doubles Will Do

This is the time of year that, as the “Boys of Summer” return to Florida for Spring Training, I get to think about my favorite things: the Yankees, and my annual baseball analogy column. I just love the chance to compare the comings and goings of the sport I love to the action in the business I love.

This year, I’m going to play the grizzled vet, dispensing lore and wisdom to a group of eager rookies wondering how they’ll break into the lineup. Wait, I tell them. We aren’t even done stretching yet. It’s a long season, and to make the team, you’ve got to start hustling, not worrying about swinging for the fences.

For baseball reinforces annually that there is only one winner, and that we all must be realistic in our approach to our business.

Like that veteran of many springs, I tell the rookies to be patient with their expectations, but to work hard. Everyone wants to be the next champion, but there are few major success stories. First, you need to figure out what you need to do to stay in the game. Too often I hear that a brand wants national distribution, inclusion in the top retailers’ plan-o-grams, and a strong media presence. In this current environment that’s not going to happen.

If you want to play in the majors, you need to build a track record, I tell the entrepreneurs. I don’t want to dampen their spirits, but I tell them it’s better to start small, build a base in a few markets, and don’t take on too much debt. Early on in my beverage career, my favorite brand was West End Soda Brew. It was a fantastic product, with sublime packaging and a unique value proposition. The brand was well received by all, and the sky was the limit. But they were like bonus babies who believed their own newspaper clippings: they expanded into every nook and cranny across the geographic map. If you wanted to take on the brand, it was yours for the asking. They wanted a grand slam home run, and wouldn’t settle for anything less. But they got nothing. They were another team with all the potential that didn’t stay on the field and in the game.

I never forgot the lesson of West End. You don’t need national distribution and a million facings to make it. Create a strong network with distributors and wholesalers who can actually help your brand. Don’t make unrealistic contracts with retailers that you can’t make money on. It is essential to have the right players on your team. Expand regionally when it makes sense. Don’t give away the franchise to investors who don’t love the brand as you do, and avoid focusing on the dreaded exit strategy I wrote about last issue. Figure out a way that makes economic sense and stay with your plan. Take it slow.

A bunch of singles with a few doubles thrown in will give you the scoring and support you need to make it. Count success when you are growing each quarter, scoring a few big retailers and not making too many errors. A team that I admire is the Tampa Bay Rays. They live within their means, play the fundamentals well, and get the most out of their lineup. Most important of all, they have fun. After all, isn’t that the reason you play ball. Have a great season.