Transitional Times at Runa

Runa LogoSince its inception Runa has been a company driven by the story of its founders Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie, two environmentally minded Brown University classmates who built a “clean energy” beverage brand rooted in the little-known Ecuadorian tree leaf guayusa.

Because guayusa was so unheard of (outside of the indigenous people of the Amazon, that is) Tyler and Dan spent a great deal of time getting the word out on the “superleaf”, educating consumers about the array of benefits of their all organic, antioxidant rich, naturally caffeinated teas. In the process Runa’s story also became a model for social entrepreneurship, similar to Honest Tea, with Tyler and Dan becoming regulars on the speaking engagement circuit of young entrepreneurs. They’ve been featured in the New York Times, landed on Forbes’ coveted ‘30 Under 30’ list, and were included in billionaire Richard Branson’s 2011 book Screw Business as Usual.

With virtually no experience in the beverage industry – Gage studied creative writing at Brown, MacCombie pursued marine biology – the duo took a scrappy approach to the business. They recruited heavily out of their alma mater with an aggressive internship program and eschewed conventional methods of hiring for video cover letters to assess candidates’ enthusiasm and passion. Their outside the box efforts proved worthwhile.

In 2012, Runa raised $3 million in its first major capital raise, and two years later it closed a second round of funding which drew high profile investments from Zico founder Mark Rampolla, as well as luminaries like Channing Tatum, hip-hop producers Dr. Luke and Mike Dean, and Coran Capshaw, manager of Dave Matthews Band. The company had a knack for raising money early — Gage has spoken in the past of his willingness to take on small checks from multiple investors during its first years in business.

Last October, Runa opened its doors to a much bigger cash infusion from MetaBrand Capital, a newly launched investment arm of MetaBrand’s food and beverage consulting firm. With a $5.75 million investment, MetaBrand secured 25 percent of the company making it Runa’s largest stakeholder.

MetaBrand’s already made its presence felt at Runa, orchestrating some major additions to the company’s upper level management. Richard Matusow, formerly of Sambazon, has come aboard as interim company president. Mike Kirban, co-founder of Vita Coco and a recent investor in Runa, has joined as a member of the company’s advisory board. Additionally, Jeff Rubenstein, formerly of Vita Coco’s senior marketing team, has come aboard as chief marketing officer, also on an interim basis.

As to the reasons behind the new hires, Gage says the company’s rapid growth demanded the support of experienced industry veterans.

“The word that comes to mind as to what Richard brings is precision,” Gage says. “He’s got the expertise, from start to finish, on how to bring a company to $50 million in sales and the operating structure for that.” entry of Matusow marks a transitional time for Runa, as it looks towards the goal of mainstreaming guayusa. Given his experience at Sambazon, the company that introduced açai — a similar kind of miracle product, but from Brazil — to the United States, Gage says Matusow’s the man for the job. With him at the helm of Runa’s operations, Gage will turn his attentions to the company’s marketing efforts, while MacCombie focuses on Runa’s sales. The brand recently launched a third variety in its energy drink line and, despite having redesigned its 8.4 oz. cans as recently as six months ago, is once again working with a handful of design firms on another redesign.

“We’re constantly trying to be more effective in how we communicate the different features of the brand and we’ve had some exciting partners and awesome support working on that,” Gage says. “We’re excited to unveil some news on that soon.”

Runa’s ability to be successful has major implications for MetaBrand, whose investment in the company marks the first major venture for the “conscious capital” private equity firm that debuted last year.  As previously reported, the company’s currently in the process of raising $25 million for a second fund that will invest in 5-10 companies within the natural food, beverage, and supplements space. But having already plowed most of its first raise into Runa means that the company is something of a test case for the new fund. In moving from a key vendor to the company to become its largest shareholder, Schnell has called Runa “the perfect guinea pig model” — but the same could be said for MetaBrand itself. With Matusow, a MetaBrand advisor, in the fold as an executive, and Schnell taking credit for bringing aboard Kirban and Rubenstein, the group has made its influence on the company clear. Its role in the company’s fate will surely be a signal to other potential investment targets.