The journey from startup to major brand – and the nebulous in-between – was a line through many of the presentations and fireside chat interviews on stage during BevNET Live Summer 2018, held June 6 and 7 at the Metropolitan West in New York City.
During Day One, BevNET CEO John Craven, discussing on stage with Vita Coco CEO Michael Kirban, recalled first seeing Vita Coco during a tradeshow 15 years ago when the brand was young and “scrappy.” Kirban highlighted lessons from his company’s transition from startup to the top of a category with 25 percent household penetration, and among them was the benefit of competition. Early on, as brands like Zico and O.N.E. were introducing coconut water at the same time, the category gained instant legitimacy with buyers and distributors, Kirban said. Vita Coco’s early partnership with family-owned investment firm Verlinvest also provided the company with leverage and leeway to scale.
Essentia Water CEO Ken Uptain also charted the 20-year journey of his brand, during which he credited Essentia’s growth to patience and a steer-by-gut management style. Like Vita Coco, Essentia entered the market when the alkaline water category was virtually nonexistent. But in 2008, as consumers began to catch on, Essentia began using outsourced sales representatives; five years later, it enacted a plan to develop a nationwide DSD network to penetrate markets across all 50 states.
In a panel discussion highlighting the importance of increasing diversity within the beverage industry, VMG Partners co-founder and managing director Kara Roell, BIGR Ventures managing partner Carole Buyers, AccelFoods managing partner Jordan Gaspar, and Stripes Group partner Karen Kenworthy shared experiences from their careers and talked about how the rise of women in beverage over the past two decades has benefitted brands.
Other speakers highlighted or identified some of the key elements of a healthy business. Presence Marketing CEO Bill Weiland spoke to the power of having a strong CEO and a positive, gossip-free work environment as vital to creating a successful company. Later, Bhakti Chai CEO Sarah Bird discussed building a brand on culture and mission, using brands like Rebbl, Annie’s, and Clif Bar as examples of how companies can use social activism and wellness platforms to transform internally.
On day two, the featured presenters focused on exits, acquisitions, and platforms. During the morning, Nick Giannuzzi, managing partner of The Giannuzzi Group, discussed how to cover the bases during a brand’s infancy to prepare for future acquisition. He warned against making bad deals with co-packers, distributors, and early investors who may demand more control over the company or its intellectual property than expected.
Later, Nestlé Beverage Division president John Carmichael and managing director of Pepsico Ventures Group Daniel Grubbs explain the rationale behind recent acquisitions and what founders can expect after the buyout. With platform and portfolio playing such important roles in both company’s investment and acquisition strategies, the day’s panels also touched on knowing how and when to build out the platform. WTRMLN WTR CEO Jody Levy, Q Drinks CEO Jordan Silbert, and Brad Barnhorn – a board member of both KeVita and Chameleon – discussed how to approach adding SKUs and why having too little in the portfolio can be as bad as having too much.
Other presenters included Hiller PC partner Lauren Rudick and Erik Knutson, president of the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, who discussed legal efforts to declassify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under federal law and the small but growing market for cannabis-infused drinks, which includes beverages with both psychoactive (THC) and non-psychoactive (CBD) compounds.
BevNET Live Summer 2018 also included the fifteenth edition of the conference’s annual pitch competition, the New Beverage Showdown. The participants reflected a broad range of products, from upcycled coffee waste beverages to bold drinkable soups. Out of a field of 12 contestants, Bevea, Waku, Bold Brew Coffee, Origin Almond, Liquid Death, and Poppilu were eliminated in the semi-final round, with NITRO Beverage Co, Simply Soupreme, Sip City, Cusa Tea, Drink Peloton and Element Shrub all advancing to the final.
Simply Soupreme, a premium, ready-to-drink soup brand available in nine SKUs, emerged as the eventual winner. Founder and CEO Jackie Greene said she will use the $5,000 cash prize to make design changes to product label to be more clear and concise and “remove the guesswork” for consumers.