uFlavor: Open Source Beverage Startup

Call it long-tail CSD manufacturing. Call it Jones Soda crossed with Threadless. Call it a virtual Freestyle machine. Call it the world’s biggest Sodastream.

To use the parlance of the entrepreneurial world, you can just plain call it disruptive.

At least, that’s what the founders of Indianapolis-based uFlavor hope that you’ll call it, before you start drinking a soda that you — or someone whose taste in beverages you’ve come to enjoy — have designed. The basic idea? Put a bottling plant inside a small machine, and let everyone start contributing flavor and ingredient combinations.

The company, founded by a pair of young engineers and a veteran technology entrepreneur, ultimately hopes to offer a way for consumers to design their own drinks, name and label them, and then offer them to anybody who wants to buy them (potentially with even a small amount of money going to the combination’s creator). Right now in a web-based “Beta” version (http://www.uflavor.com) that is shipping drinks designed by Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, among others, the eventual goal is to allow users to pick their own flavor combinations, their own labels and their own names, and also to allow those combinations to be accessible from vending machines around the country.

Already, some roller derby teams have created products, along with Zappos' Tony Hsieh.

The ultimate idea is to create a system where a single drink can be made and bottled, either on the spot or via direct-to-consumer shipment.

“We knew we’d need to be able to produce drinks in a quantity of one,” rather than the traditional runs of thousands of bottles for a brand, said Nathan Altman, one of the two high school friends behind the company. “That’s what we spent the last three years developing and prototyping. We want to take that and expand it beyond prototype.”

To get attention for the idea, Altman and partners Mike Mitchell and Michael Cloran recently took their prototype flavor mixing machine — using a set of 42 base flavors developed at FONA that can be used to “paint” an even wider range of tastes — on a bus around the country, stopping at tech-coverage media hubs like Mashable and Fast Company. They recently added Activate Drinks co-founder Burke Eiteljorg as an investor, according to Altman.

“It’s been an exciting time, especially being able to pull together the right group of people,” Altman said. “Everything from the right partners to the right disciplines and fields.”

While the company is currently trying to market its service as a way of offering corporations and brands an alternative to trinkets like custom-labeled water bottles, the ultimate goal remains the consumer model. The set of raw materials for customization by users is akin to a software platform, say its tech-centric founders, and from that platform they expect thousands of combinations to arise — some good, some bad, but some that will eventually become so popular that they “trend up” to other users.

Such a phenomenon has already been played out on a smaller scale with the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, which offers consumers the chance to create their own flavor combinations from Coke and Coke-affiliated brands. Last year, a social media campaign created a set of crowdsourced flavors for the Freestyle machines.

Altman said he isn’t concerned about the Freestyle.

“They make us look less crazy,” he said. “We’ve been following them over the past several years, and it’s a benefit for us that they are doing it, but I don’t know if Coke would ever go to the extreme of where we are.”

Right now, one of the most extreme parts about uFlavor is the pricing: the introductory four-pack, featuring flavors designed by Hsieh (“Happiness Delivered” — a blueberry flavored water), chef Neal Brown (“317” — a clementine/vanilla soda), SEOMoz founder Rand Fishkin (“Link Juice” — a coffee-flavored energy drink) and Zaarly CEO Joe Fishback (“Zaarly Pop” — a grape and apple soda) — goes for $15 (shipping included) and cases are going for $59. The

Currently, products are only available in 12 oz. glass bottles, although the eventual idea is to be “packaging agnostic,” Altman said.