In this episode, we’re joined by Chris Hunter, Co-Founder and CEO of Koia.
Chris is an entrepreneur who has developed a 100 percent plant-based protein drink which is sold in stores nationwide.
Chris recounts his experiences investing in another drinks company that ultimately didn’t succeed.
This led to the rebranding and repositioning of the beverage which eventually became Koia.
Furthermore, he talks about the three-tier system of the alcohol market and the differences between that and the non-alcoholic beverage market.
Chris gave us some great insights into the challenges and opportunities that exist in the beverage space, specifically around distribution, as well as the moments where he hit it out of the park!
Ken: Welcome to the Physical Product Movement, a podcast by Fiddle, we share stories of the world’s most ambitious and exciting physical product brands to help you capitalize on the monumental change in how, why and where consumers buy. I’m your host, Ken Ojuka.
In this episode, I speak with Chris Hunter, Co-Founder and CEO of Koia. A healthy and convenient line of plant-based protein drinks sold in Walmart, Target, 7 Eleven, Costco, Whole Foods, and other stores nationwide. He explains how an investment in another drink company that ultimately didn’t succeed led to the rebranding and repositioning of what eventually became Koia.
He talks about the three-tier system of the alcohol market and the differences between that and the non-alcoholic beverage market. He explains from deep experience about the challenges and opportunities in the beverage space, specifically around distribution. What I loved about my conversation with Chris is that he’s an open book and is willing to talk about his failed businesses, as well as the ones where he hit it out of the park.
He’s a great entrepreneur with an ability to see upcoming trends and Intuit, what customers are going to want. I learned a lot from his journey. Enjoy!
Hey Chris, thanks for joining me.
Chris: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.
Ken: Hey, uh, yeah, I appreciate you, uh, just jumping on and, uh, you know, being willing to speak, speak with me for a little while. I love your product branding and you guys’ website. And, uh, so I’m just very interested in hearing the story, but first we’d like to kick off with like, uh, with a quote or, or, um, you know, a quote that maybe means something to you or has influenced you in some way. Do you have one in mind that you could share?
Chris: No, there are so many great quotes and I see them daily because one of my, uh, morning journal practices has inspirational quotes in it. But there’s actually two that stand out that I thought were kind of appropriate here and there. They’re kind of reflective of my mindset. So the first one is by Mark Twain.
And the secret to getting ahead is getting started. Um, and the second one kind of plays on that as from Martin Luther king or Dr. Martin Luther king, but it’s taking the first step in faith. You don’t need to see the whole staircase just to take the first step. And, and the reason I think those both play well, first of all, together, and then in my lifestyle or mentality.
Is because sometimes there’s, you know, paralysis by analysis over-thinking things and starting a company is one of those things that is often over-thought. And throughout my career, I’ve realized that, you know, all the planning and all the preparation and all of that stuff that you do, um, can be good. But if it stops you from taking the first step then it’s pointless. Right? And the reality is most of the time you get into whatever it is and you gotta figure it out along the way anyways. So I think it’s really important just to talk about, you know, taking the first step in that.
Ken: I love, I love both those quotes and, uh, I always love a good Mark Twain quote.
So, that one’s great. Um, so I actually want to dig into something that you just said, which was the morning journal practice. Can you tell us just a little bit about what that is?
Chris: Yeah. So I’ve gone through a couple of different practices and, um, Just like everybody, I’m not perfect at it. So it kind of ebbs and flows.
But I started with doing the five minute journal, uh, which was like, kind of just this quick questionnaire and, and, um, and kind of like daily practice of answering a few questions, showing some gratitude, a couple of reflections and ultimately. This great tool is called the best self journal that I use. And so each morning you kind of write out what’s, uh, or the night before you write out what’s, um, what’s on your schedule for the day, a couple of key priorities or items.
Um, you show some morning gratitude with three items, your, um, on the next page, you do your daily goals. So you know what you’re focused on or hoping to achieve, uh, not on that day, but in the next quarter or a year. You know, a couple of today’s targets and then there’s followed by a quote. And then in the night, uh, in the evening it offers some reflections.
So the lessons learned throughout the day wins the day and then is grateful at night. So I, I just really enjoy it again, not perfect at it, but, uh, I just find that it’s, it helps me, you know, get in the right mindset for the day and, um, to end.
Ken: Right. Yeah, I think, um, I think that’s great. So is there somewhere, like people could go to, to find out more information about this?
Did you, did you learn it somewhere?
Chris: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a, it’s actually a company called best self journal. Uh, they sell journals, they have different, um, you know, calendars and they can just look it up on the web.
Ken: Yeah. Sounds good. Um, let’s uh, let’s dig into your background just a little bit. Um, where, where are you from?
Where’d you grow up?
Chris: So I’m originally from a town, small town in Northeast, Ohio, our Youngstown it’s, I’m best known as a midway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. And, uh, and that’s where I grew up. It’s a blue collar town. Like it was fueled by the automotive and steel industries back in the day.
Um, Yeah. I grew up there and then went to Ohio state. So I spent my first 21 years in Ohio. Um, and then moved to Chicago, which is, you know, the, kind of the central city hub for the Midwest. If you don’t go to New York, uh, most people end up in Chicago, which is great. I spent almost 13 years there and started my first company.
My wife had our first child. Um, and now I currently live in north county, San Diego in the town.
Ken: Right. Okay, cool. Um, I’m thinking of Youngstown. I think I watched it in a video. This was about Rockefeller and, um, starting his oil empire out there outside of Cleveland. I dunno. Is there a big oil, uh, presence there in Youngstown?
Chris: Um, I don’t know if there’s, I don’t think there’s an oil presence again, go steel and automotive, but it was once, you know, as I got older, I was really intrigued by it. I remember as a kid, you know, my family’s very young, so I knew my great grandmother and great grandfather very well. And I remember them talking about downtown Youngstown and how it was like this thriving city.
And that was very different from what I knew. And as I looked back at the history of the city, Uh, almost a year before I was born. So I was born in 78 and 77. They called it, uh, I think they called it black Monday and, and one of the steel mills closed and for something like 40% of the population lost their job overnight.
And so the city had a continual down downward spiral, uh, both in terms of the economic status. The population because people were just fleeing for, for a long time. But uh, at one point it was, it was one of the larger cities in the country.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. Um, and then Carnegie steel. Yeah. So that makes sense.
Um, you know, out of that area as well, I’ve kind of made a practice of, you know, I always liked reading about entrepreneurs and, um, you know, kind of hearing those stories. Uh, and so I’ve actually gone kind of old school. So going back to the Carnegie’s and the Rockefeller’s and these guys just had such an influence on, you know, the way that we live today.
You know, um, but a lot of people just don’t even know who they are.
Chris: It’s fascinating. I mean, when I think about those guys and how they dominated certain industries and I try to equate them to modern day, uh, you know, entrepreneurs and it’s fascinating because there are the equivalents right now, right.
Just in different sectors. And it’s pretty amazing when you see the modern day, you know, people that fit that. Profile and then, and then things back, and that was all up in that part of the country. You know, you talk about like mentalities of people. Youngstown is known for a very specific mentality. I mentioned it was blue collar, but it was also a thriving city.
Um, you know, pretty diverse in terms of the nationality mix is heavily Italian and Irish. That city is also very well known, um, for the athletes that have come out of it, particularly in, in football and, um, and boxing. So there’s a certain grit that, uh, that is associated with the area that I can relate to.
And, and it’s funny. I have three young children now. And my wife is from just outside of Youngstown called Warren. And we talk about how, you know, we love having grown up there. I mean, it really did instill a work ethic and kind of a mentality that I think helped me in life. Um, and it’s, it’s been obviously a big evolution in the 42 years, but, but we’re also saying, man, it’s, it’s crazy because we love having grown up there and it gave us so much, but we’re also not raising our kids there. Um,
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. Well, let’s dig into that. You know, you, you’ve got a pretty interesting history. Um, it sounds like you were always looking at starting a business or, you know, pretty entrepreneurial from, from, you know, from a young age, is that true? Um, you know, your path definitely makes you, makes you look that way, but, um, is that what you were thinking as you’re growing up, but you wanted to start your own business ?
Chris: Yeah. I don’t know if I thought that far into it. I mean, I realized that, uh, I think what I realized was that I could do things and I could, I could make money in non-typical ways. And what I mean by that is, you know, not a job, right. As a kid, you can’t just go out and get a job. But I wanted to have some money to do some things that I wanted to at a very early age.
And so I was the kid who. Color, you know, coloring books, which most kids do. But if my mom or my aunt or somebody told me I did a good job, I’d rip it out and go down the street and try to sell it. And, uh, you know, that continued. I was the kid who bought bulk candy and sold it on the bus or, uh, you know, those kinds of things continued throughout my life.
I remember in high school, I was, I didn’t know what they were at the time, but they were basically bootlegs, you know, kind of knockoff. Oh, please, or t-shirts and sweatshirts, and I could buy and low and sell them high. And, um, no gardens, all these different interesting kinds of quote unquote businesses. So I would say I equate it to just having a hustler mentality, you know, it was always looking for a way to, to kind of get ahead and, um, you know, do it a little bit.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. Well, tell us a little bit about your, your path, um, and specifically kind of what led you to, you know, physical products, uh, you know, especially, um, you know, Koia today, you know, I’m sure we’ll, we’ll get the founding story, but, um, you know, you’re in the beverage space, you know, which comes with its own set.
Set of challenges and I’d say opportunities as well. Um, but, uh, you know, what about some of the businesses that sort of relate to, um, to food and to consumables, to maybe beverages? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll give you, I’ll try to give you the relatively abbreviated version. Cause I think I could talk, uh, for hours about a path, but, um, it’s, it’s interesting, you know, these cliche sayings. No hindsight is 2020 they’re cliche, but they’re cliche for a reason because they’re true. Right. And they’ve just become used so often. And when I look back, it’s so obvious why I’m a beverage writer.
So when I think back, I, I moved to Ohio, uh, down at Oxford, Ohio, and my freshman year of college. And then I transferred to Ohio state and, uh, at Ohio state, I joined a fraternity and, and ended up going to. Work for a spring break company in can Coon for a quarter. And I realized, um, what the, you know, promoting nightclubs was these people were getting paid to get people in the doors.
So when I went back to Ohio state, I said, well, this sounds like an amazing job in college. You know, going out all the time anyways. And so I threw my first party and made money and, and was like, this is a great way to pay my way through college. Pay my way through college with loans, grants, and my own money.
And, um, and so that started me down a path of just building a really big network, right. Meeting a lot of people, both in college and not. And the beauty of being in Columbus was that it was a large city. So it wasn’t just a, you know, a small campus of 17,000, like Miami of Ohio. It was a 50,000 student undergrad with a million people in the city.
You know, uh, location. So, I got to meet a lot of people and ultimately that led to a bunch of different things. Since I knew a lot of people, when red bull was first launching, I got to meet some of the brand ambassadors that were hired by that company to spread the word. And so. Bring me cases of red bull as it was launching and, um, and asked me to just give it out to people that, you know, I knew and, um, and bring it into some of the parties that I was throwing.
And so that was an early example, kind of, of this path being laid for, uh, laid out for me. The second thing that happened is, um, Ohio has some various specific for hollow falls and so to sell distilled spirits there, um, it’s all run through. And so I had a friend who worked for, um, a wine distributor and they were representing a spirits brand of flavored vodka that would ultimately sell in like the college campus bars or the nightclubs.
But this distributor didn’t have those relationships. And so she called me and she said, Hey, the guys that started this company are coming to town. They want to meet with these types of people. We don’t have those relationships. You do, you’re throwing the parties at them all. Can you take us around? And I was just intrigued.
Yeah, of course. Right. And so we went to all the bars and nightclubs that I knew the owners of set up meetings with. And I watched this guy who was one of the founders of this company present his brand. And I saw how he was selling the product. And, and, um, I thought it really interesting for a couple of reasons.
One, I thought. We as consumers in that market, we think we like what we like, because it’s what we like, and that’s true to a degree, but we also drink what we, what we think we like, because it’s, what’s available. Right. And so like the state and, and the companies actually control that. And so that was a fascinating kind of revelation for me.
Anyways. I kept the guy’s business card as I did with everybody at the time. And just always figured they might come in here. Um, in the meantime with one of my buddies, I started, uh, a company that was, uh, it was going to be kind of like a high-end travel company that could get you access to whether it was nightclubs or, uh, exclusive resorts or whatever it may be.
And that failed. We gave it a shot though. Um, I started a magazine in college that was interesting. It was a free publication. Um, centered around activities in the area, it was called for Columbus magazine, had four different sections and that ultimately failed. And, um, and I was going to open a bar slash restaurant in Columbus, and I had this realization that, you know, if I don’t leave now and try something else, I may never leave.
And so I just said, I’m going to, I’m going to go somewhere else and give it a shot. I was originally going to go to LA and decided not to go with my girlfriend. That was my wife, but had just moved to Chicago. And so I landed in Chicago and I got in Chicago and I had no clue what I was going to do. I racked up credit card debt.
I had no job. I was the kid who liked it. It’s like, I’m not going to go get a corporate job. I would be miserable in that. I hear a lot of people say this, and I guess that’s true for me. Like I was unemployable, right? Because I was probably the young kid who thought he knew everything and, uh, and people would get sick of, so I, I just, I racked up debt until one day I was like, I have to do something or I’m going to get, not gonna have money to feed myself or for rents.
Right. Um, I found a job, uh, with some guys that were making a lot of money. They were essentially storm chasers. They’re climbing on roofs, um, identifying hail damage, and then crews would come in and repair it. And these guys made a lot of money. The irony, the irony there is that I’m afraid of Heights. And so it was a little bit out of character, but it paid the bills. I won every sales contest while I was there because I had to, I needed a hundred dollars to pay rent or to eat right. Or whatever. So, um, on the flip side of that, which is kind of funny too. Uh, you know, I never went without, I never didn’t go out with my friends.
I always found a way. So anyways, all that’s to say, I knew I didn’t want to be doing this for long, but it paid the bills. I started going through my old cards that I had kept and I’m one of them. Uh, this guy that I had met in, in Ohio who had started a Vox with company, and basically I realized he was in the suburbs of Chicago, Chicago, and I bugged the shit out of him called him every day until he finally answered and then just, you know, laying it on thick until they finally hired me.
And, uh, I remember at the time I was making. He asked me, what do you think you should make? And I had no clue my first real job. So I just looked it up on the internet. Like, what is, what does the area manager for an alcohol company make? And it said $42,000. And I went back to him and said, $42,000. He hired me on this.
Oh, man. I probably under shot that. Right. Just too fast.
Ken: Yup. Yeah. If they agree too quickly, you know, you probably, yeah.
Chris: Like that buyers, buyers remorse or seller’s remorse. And so, you know, but I was like, whatever I have a job is that it doesn’t matter. And ultimately learned the alcohol and through that job, I started off selling.
In what might be one of the hardest markets in the country on premise, which is bars and restaurants in Chicago. And ultimately, um, within two years I was managing five states. And so I learned how alcohol is a three tier system, right? You, so there are suppliers or manufacturers, there are distributors, and then there are retailers or, or bars and restaurants.
Right. And, um, and I learned how to navigate that. And the reason all that’s relevant is because at one point, uh, our number one selling product was a cherry flavored vodka. And we were selling a bulk of that product to be mixed with red bull in bars. And we called it a cherry bomb and, you know, 24 at the time, this was like, this was the go-to drink.
I’d go out all the time. I’d drink BOM shops or red bull vodka. So it just made sense. And I was traveling on a sales blitz to California with that company. I was out here in a store and I saw a product called sparks, which was a, which was essentially an alcoholic energy drink. And I asked the store owner if it’s so good.
And he said it did, he said, but mostly bums buy it. And that was kind of crazy to me. Cause in my head, I’m thinking I’m interested in this product. I’m not a bum there’s clearly, you know, it’s clearly a, uh, a miss here. And so I went back and this idea was percolating in my head and, um, and uh, I guess you’re not getting the short version, you’re getting the longer version, but
Ken: There’s some good lessons here, so please continue.
Chris: Yeah. This idea is percolating in my head. And, um, and then I realized, um, that I, you know, I’m selling vodka and I have these energy drinks samples in my car. Because companies were giving them to me to kind of pitch in the bars at the same time. I’m like, God, I know in my head, I’m thinking I might be able to do this.
And then. What really sealed the deal for me to kind of make the jump and start. My first company was that I was going to a comedy show with my wife again at the time. It was just a, it was my girlfriend and it was a BYOB comedy show. And, um, we stopped at a liquor store. I’m in downtown Chicago. I stayed in the car, she just ran in.
She came out, she had Smirnoff ice and she said, you know, I’m kinda tired. I was going to get red bull and vodka, but it’s just the two of us. I didn’t want a whole bottle of vodka. All the reasons she didn’t get it. And it clicked. I was like, there’s clearly a need for this product. And so I think I told her that night, I was like, oh, I’m going to, I’m going to start an alcoholic, energy drink, or a caffeinated alcoholic beverage.
And she’s like, yeah. Okay, whatever, let’s go to the show. Right. And, um, and I, I called my buddy the same buddy that I had started that, uh, that. Or the attempt at the high end travel agency. And we both said, let’s, let’s give it a shot. And, um, we started working on it probably a couple months later, I quit my job and, um, we ended up calling the third partner and, and that’s how fusion projects are, are.
My first company was born. And, um, that company ultimately went on to create one of the most notorious alcoholic beverages in history called Four Loko. So that was where I got my start and that. Put me into beverages. Um,
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. Um, and I mean, it grew, grew like crazy. Um, and it looks like you, you were there for what, 15 years or so, um, running that, are you, uh, are you still involved with the company or are you fully on, on, on Koia now?
Chris: Well, I don’t manage that company, so I’m not involved day-to-day at all. My partner completely ran it. I still own my share of the company. We only raised a little bit of money, so, um, so the three of us own that company, but they.
Ken: Okay. Okay. Well that, that definitely tells us how you got into beverages.
Um, uh, so, uh, in that story, you mentioned the three tier status system. And so I was wondering if maybe you could explain that a little bit to those who aren’t familiar with that at all.
Chris: Yeah. So in alcohol it’s a little bit different. And now that I live in a world where I’ve had a lot of experience with alcohol ended, Nonaka realized the differences.
So in non alcohol, as an example, you can sell a product to anyone I can. Make a product literally taken in the back of my car, go to a grocery store, gas station, bar, rush restaurant, and say, do you want to buy this and sell it without alcohol? It’s a highly regulated industry. And so after prohibition, one of the, um, I guess the structure they put together is called the three tier system and it’s essentially to prevent, um, what they call tied house, which means someone that owned the brand.
Um, doesn’t own a distributor or someone that owns a distributor doesn’t own a retailer or a bar. And the idea is to make sure that it’s kind of a fair, uh, you know, an even playing field. And so, again, remember obviously illegal at one point then becomes legal again. So that’s the structure. There’s the brand or the supply.
So in our case fusion projects created the products. We would sell it to distributors who, uh, cover a certain geographies, right. In, in distilled spirits and wine. Those are usually statewide distributors in beer. They normally cover certain counties. And then there’s the third tier, which is the, either the retailer, uh, or the on-premise account, the bar.
Um, for the restaurant. And so it’s, so the interesting thing with that is you have to really facilitate multiple levels of stakeholders and customers, right? So our customer as a supplier was really the distributor and they’re the ones who bought it from us and paid us, but we had to facilitate the deal.
I mean that in, so the retailer, so establish relationships with retailers and make sure our product was featured and sold in. And then we ultimately had to establish relationships with the end customer to make sure they went in.
Ken: I see. Yeah. And so what’s the difference between that and, and, you know, typical beverage market.
Um, and then also, you know, what does this knowledge do for the, you know, anybody who’s looking to get into beverages, you know, w w what do they have to take away from, from that, uh, that from that structure.
Chris: Yeah. So there’s, there’s multiple differences. So like I was saying in non ALC, I could, I could make a, I’ll just use an example.
I can make a tea basically out of my house and I could go sell it to a. A retailer or a local out of my truck. Right? There’s no regulation. I mean, obviously it has to be safe. Right. But there’s a regulation to say you can’t do that. So that’s the basic level I can go to a farmer’s market. And so, so the product couldn’t do that with alcohol, without licensing from a, from a macro level, what happens is there’s just layer upon layer upon layer of distributor or. Options. And so I’ll use koi as an example with Koia. Um, we sell our first large, uh, national account. Our first large account in general was whole foods. We launched them nationally to sell to whole foods. We need to use UNF that’s their preferred distributor. So we sell to you NFI. They sell the whole thing.
But to another retailer, I might sell directly to them, say, Albertsons, Vaughns. Right. I can sell directly to their warehouse. So there really is no distributor. That’s their own distributor. Then there’s, what’s called a DSD direct store distributor. So that’s the person that really is hitting. They’re sending a person into the account to take an order.
And then also to merchandise the store, make sure the product gets on the shelf. They deliver it to the store. Um, they go kind of up and down the street to independent accounts. Then there’s food service distributors. There’s military distributors. And so there’s, it’s just, it’s not broken out, clean by a geography like in alcohol as an example, um, you said you’re in Utah.
It’s not a good example. Uh, I’ll say San Diego, San Diego county may be covered by one distributor and that is the exclusive distributor for alcohol. We may have five distributors in non out that touch all the different accounts within that same county. So it’s just different, and we can do it directly.
Ken: Right. Well, let’s say you did touch on Koia and I realized that we haven’t even told the audience what Koia is. Uh, do you mind explaining what it is and what led to the founding? Of Koia.
Chris: Yeah. Sure. So, so Koia, um, at its core is a convenient, nutritious, delicious plant based. Beverage. And I used to say it was a plant-based protein drink, which is true, and that was our first line of products, but we’ve diversified.
And I can touch on that in a minute, all around the idea that there can be nutritious and delicious. Plant-based. I guess my own personal evolution. So, uh, kind of at the end of my tenure at fusion, I started investing in better for you food and beverage brands, partially because it was aligned with my lifestyle, right?
So I’ve always been into health, but what health meant changed. And so when I was younger, that was lifting a lot of weight to play football or wrestle, right. Uh, I was worried about trying to look good. Right. And then as I grew older and my wife became a nutritionist, I’ve understood more about underlying health issues and how food is medicine, and you can prevent that.
And so we changed our diet and then our second son was born dairy and tolerant. And my wife kind of discovered that through the process of elimination. And so we became a dairy free household. At that time. I had a friend in Chicago who called me and he said, Hey, we’re looking at this beverage, this plant-based protein drink to potentially invest in.
It’s really small, but he’s like your beverage guy when you take a look. So I took a look at it, and it sounded interesting. Just happened to be in my gym and they have a little, like a little store there and I came out and the product was there. It’s like I got it. And tried it, it was six bucks. It was expensive, but it was really good.
Um, and so I met the original founders of this product that was called raw nature. Five. I call it coil 1.0 or it’s proof of concept. It was in this Squatty bottle with this homemade, you know, label and kind of a bad name. It’s called her on nature five, like I mentioned, but I was like, there’s something here and the belief for me came from the fact that we were in Chicago, typical like meat and potatoes town, right? Not known at least historically for being on the cutting edge of health, around food or beverage. And it seemed to be doing really well. And so I invested along with a bunch of other people in the industry and after a few months, The company was having some trouble.
Oh, all kinds of different things. Like we weren’t confident that, you know, it was living up to the nutritional panel. There were some concerns about, was it safe because of the way it was being produced. And so ultimately, um, the company got into a tough spot and it was on the verge of insolvency. And I got together with the guys that I invested with and we said, we think there’s something here.
Um, we’re going to come in and fund this company. And with that, um, I was coming, becoming a co-founder of the new company. We transitioned from an LLC to, to be incorporated because we were going to raise money, raise more money, and that I was going to play an interim CEO role. So in that time we evolved the brand from raw nature, five to become Koia at its core.
It was still the same in terms of plant-based protein. High plant protein, low sugar. Um, but it changed. Everything changed about the name, the aesthetics. Um, and so that’s, that was kind of the original story around it. We had some great partners, uh, who invented and who helped us get an audience with whole foods.
Uh, there’s two pretty, pretty crazy stories around it. Um, you know, early on there was, uh, an approval for a national whole foods launch. And this was before I had officially come in as co-founder and CEO. I was just an investor at that time. And unfortunately the company was unable to meet that, that deadline.
And so, you know, this is back when whole foods was really a regional company. So to get a national launch is a huge deal. Right. And we, we missed it and we’re like, oh shit, you know, this isn’t going to happen again. And so there were three criteria for me to do this investment in and come in and take this role as co-founder CEO.
Um, one of them was we had to prove that the product was scalable from a production standpoint. The second one was they had to make sure that this particular broker was on board. And third was, we had to get some level of support from whole foods and we actually ended up doing all three and so on in September.
In 2015, we launched nationally with whole foods. And so that’s awesome. Um, so the brand has evolved since then. So our mission is to deliver convenient, nutritious plant-based options to everyone. And there’s a lot to unpack there, but I just kind of circle back to the original statement. It started out with, with plant protein drinks.
We look for ways to bring that to life in other lines. So we were the first plant-based keto line. Then we launched what we call an elevated coffee line. And then most recently we launched what we think is our, our most exciting line, which is a plant-based low sugar smoothie line to compete with naked smoothies in Boulder.
Ken: Okay. Yeah. Um, yeah, so there’s a couple of things that I wanted to drill in on there. Um, you know, you said that when you were first introduced to the product, um, that you actually said a couple of times that there was something there, right. You knew there was something there. What do you think it was about those products that, you know, that captured your attention?
Chris: Um, what, uh, what captured my attention and I think, uh, became one of the kind of cornerstones for how I think about developing and, and investing in products is that it has to translate across multiple diverse audience and by diverse, I mean, ethnicities, geographies, economic status. And what I noticed with Ron is your five in, in that form.
There was something buzz-worthy about it. Like people, I went into a store that it was being played in and I watched somebody pick it up and they were telling their friend about it. And ultimately they were like, this stuff is delicious and it was almost shocking. That the nutritional panel was as good as it was in the, in the end, we learned that the nutritional panel was wrong.
So it was probably over, probably seemed overly, um, amazing. Right. It was truly delicious for this nutritional panel. But, I think that was a big part of it. Realizing that again, There were different angles to it. So for people on the coast, as an example, and I’m just giving you the broad sweeps of mentalities for people on the coast, they are willing to pay $14 for a smoothie that doesn’t taste that good because they think it’s healthier for them.
But in the Midwest and particularly in Youngstown is always my example of the Midwest people aren’t doing that. If it doesn’t taste good, they’re not buying it regardless of the supposed, I suppose, the benefits, which I realized early on with coil. We had two approaches, depending on who you’re talking to. And that’s carried over to this day.
One is if you’re a label reader and very health conscious, we start with the fact that it’s plant-based, it’s low sugar, it’s, uh, you know, an excellent source of fiber, all those attributes. And then when they drink it and it’s really good, they’re surprised and they become loyal customers. The exact opposite happens in different areas.
Now use seven 11 as an example, we were in seven 11 recently because we just launched with them. The issue. I told somebody who was plant-based and they were like, ah, I don’t want to, I don’t want to drink it. And I said, it’s a healthy milkshake. And as soon as we said that, they went, okay, cracked it open, tasted it.
Wow. This is delicious. Then the follow up was, by the way, it only has four grams of sugar in the whole bottle. They could not believe that. And so it was a different approach. Oh, I don’t have to sacrifice. I can, I can do better. I can make better choices at every meal and it doesn’t require a sacrifice.
Right. And that’s how they become loyal fans. So that’s what I think the it factor of Koia and all the beverages that have tried to develop.
Ken: And, um, so you mentioned also that you guys rebranded from Ron at your five, you know, w why did you guys choose to rebrand the chorea and maybe, you know, not saying that it was a bad name, but why, why didn’t you continue with, with Ron nature five as, as the brand.
Chris: Well, there were a couple of ones. One of the easy ones was that it wasn’t Raul. So, you couldn’t say that it was, you know, raw nature five and it not be wrong. Or there was some risk around that and originally started out as raw and then it evolved. Um, so that was one, two was the brand was confusing. People didn’t get that.
And, uh, And my partners at the time, like the, the thinking behind the name was right on it, it was raw, it was natural. And there were five ingredients, but that all changed throughout the course. And so when it was just a small regional product that was being made in a commercial kitchen. And so, so 20 stores that made sense, it didn’t, as we scale, our goal was to.
Make sure that this was available to everyone as I mentioned earlier. And that means not only selling in whole foods and natural health stores, but selling in Walmart, selling in seven 11. And so we hired a branding agency called Interact, which is out of Boulder, which is a great job, um, with a bunch of different naming options.
Ultimately the Koia was the one, um, that stuck there’s a cool spin on it. It was what’s called an empty vessel. There’s really no meaning behind. Right, but it was inspired by the Nicoya peninsula, which is one of the blue zones, five blue zones around the world. And those are places where people live longer than anywhere else.
And so the principles of the blue zones kind of applied to how I wanted to. Uh, the values I wanted to have within the company, not only the product. And so, um, you know, that’s, that’s how we decided to rebrand. It was kind of necessary. And then we found some meaning behind it. And then ultimately we rebranded again, um, in terms of a redesign, because the original look of Koia was very natural.
And then as we expanded into conventional retailers and even mass, it didn’t really pop. The bright color package that you see today.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. Your branding’s awesome. I love it. And I, and it’s also memorable, you know, um, I was in a seven 11 just the other day and, uh, and saw it. So, um, I remember the product, um, that’s important too.
Um, and then you mentioned, you know, several different trends, right? So keto plant-based protein, um, even smoothie, the smoothie trend and then low sugar. Um, and so I think that maybe there’s a lesson there in terms of, uh, kind of following, you know, the market or, or, you know, trying to be where the market’s going.
You know, what are your thoughts around that? What do you think about it?
Chris: It’s a double-edged sword. Right. So I think, uh, it depends on the size of the trend. And so I’ll give you the example, um, early on, uh, the low sugar move meant, uh, was apparent, right? There was the article, there was an article in the New York times that revealed that, um, you know, the sugar industry had.
Uh, successfully pinned fat as the enemy. And that, that wasn’t actually true and sugar was the enemy. And so the tide had, had been, and was significantly changing before. And clearly after that article, so low sugar was, it was an easy one. Plant-based was really interesting. It was an evolution of, uh, of a prior trend being vegan.
Right. But plant based was more friendly, less Xclusive more welcoming. And so we really centered around this idea of flexitarian isn’t like, you don’t have to be plant-based or vegan all the time. You can just try to make better decisions at each meal. So that was an easy one to kind of see, and for us to ride in terms of product development.
Ketos and an interesting one that worked out, but we thought that Kito could have been a flash in the pan. Um, and, and, and maybe could have gone the way of Atkins, right? I think now that that’s not going to happen, but, but the idea we talked to one of our brokers about this that helped us crystallize this.
The idea was that the underlying trend of Quito is that it. Low sugar, low net carbs. And that fat is good. Right? And so our thought when we developed that was we’ll ride the wave of the name KIDO. But even if Hito the name becomes negative or falls out of fashion, we think the idea that low sugar and healthy fats is here to stay.
And so our product can still live. That line can still live, but I’ll give you an example of maybe going too far outside of the core. We jumped on the adaptogen trend. And I personally love them. I put ashwagandha online in my coffee every morning. We developed a coffee line that put some of those in it and it failed.
And since the brand had been built out and what it meant was now established. We later realized that this was too far of a stretch from what was authentic and interesting. It also depends on the life cycle of the company, uh, how you follow those trends.
Ken: Hmm. Yeah, that’s interesting. Um, well, Chris, I’m looking at, I’m looking at time, then I know that, uh, that you’ve got a hard stop here.
Um, so I wanted to just make sure to jump right to sort of, uh, our quick fire rounds, you know, the four questions for you. Just give me the answer that comes to your mind, the fastest name, one tool or resource that has helped you in your current position. Uh, Google calendars, uh, what is one book that has helped you here?
Thinking grows rich Napoleon Hill. I love that book. Yeah. Um, have you read the, what is it the 11 principles or the much bigger volume that they can go Richard was based off of.
Chris: Have no. Um, but I remember thinking grow rich and I followed it to a T. I wrote it down and I read it out loud every morning and every night. And I remember asking. Shortly afterwards, looking back and saying, wow, what I wrote has come true.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah, no, it’s a remarkable book. Um, what is one piece of advice that you would give your 21 year old self?
Chris: Uh, don’t get so wrapped up in the current moment. It’ll all work out.
Ken: And, uh, who is, uh, one person in your, in your field of work or, you know, another entrepreneur, another investor that you look up to that you would love to, to take the lunch?
Chris: Oh gosh, I’ve taken a lot of them to lunch. I had the pleasure of meeting, but I think, uh, maybe someone who’s not around anymore would be Sidney, Frank, you know, uh, learning about him. If you don’t know, he was the importer of Jaeger Meister, and the person that turned this bitter beverage into a phenom across the country.
Um, and he was, he was a marketing genius. And so I would love to have some time with him to pick his brain.
Ken: Well, uh, look, uh, Chris, I think, um, I think this is awesome. The time flew by. Um, I think you’ve got a fantastic story. Um, you know, there’s, there’s lots more we could have dug into, but you know, maybe you could leave us with some, some parting words for other entrepreneurs that are in the physical products space, you know, what, what would you say to somebody that’s currently grinding it out and that’s.
Chris: I think just to remember that, um, it takes time and especially if you’re a physical product that needs to be in brick and mortar, which I think most, if not all of them do like distribution just takes time. And so, you need to be patient.
Ken: Well, I think that’s a good note to end on. I appreciate you jumping on with us today.
I think you’ve been a great guest and, um, you know, just, just best of luck with everything and, um, you know, let us know when you have another launch and we’ll promote it. Yeah. Yeah, I appreciate it.
Chris: Well, our smoothies just came out, so we have our low sugar smoothies and we were fortunate to get a lot of, um, recent press.
Um, Kim Kardashian mentioned them on, uh, on social media as, as one of her favorites. And you also mentioned that wasn’t an ad and Chris Paul who’s, who’s killing it in the NBA right now has done the same. So, uh, that’s the most recent stuff. Uh, and people should check it out.
Ken: And where, where can they find that? What seven, 11, whole foods,
Chris: Whole Foods, Walmart, Target. Um, uh, it’s not in 7 Eleven yet, but it should be soon, uh, about 16,000 retailers across the country or on our website https://drinkkoia.com/.
Ken: Okay. Awesome. Well, thanks Chris. And I’ll let you jump off. Appreciate it.
Chris: Okay. Thank you, man. Appreciate it.
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