Your hosts, Brian Hill and Russell Hirshon, introduce Making MAKA - a beverage startup's journey from launching to scaling a Consumer Packaged Good (CPG) brand.
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Making MAKA is a recap of the leadership team's personal journey & experiences, your entrepreneurial journey will and should be different, so please take this podcast for what it is, war stories, not specific recommendations or guidance.
Brian Hill 0:05
This all stemmed from a personal desire for me to live a healthier life. And somehow I don't know how I did it. I tricked you to join me on this this journey.
Russell Hirshon 0:27
Lucky me. Lucky, lucky me.
Brian Hill 0:21
Hello, everyone. You're listening to making Mako, a podcast about a startup beverage journey into launching and scaling a CPG brand. I'm Brian Hill.
Russell Hirshon 0:31
And I'm Russell Hirshon.
Brian Hill 0:32
And we're your hosts. In this episode, we will bring you up to speed on where the company is today, how we got here, and what to expect from our future episodes.
Brian Hill 0:49
All right, Russ, since this is our first episode, I figure we should probably start with some quick intros. So I'm Brian Hill, Founder, CEO, my background it was very circuitous to get to where we are today. Started in real estate brokerage then got into real estate development project management and leaped over into startup and I've been in that field for probably what the past decade if not a little longer. MAKA, this this is a personal journey. For me, MAKA has been a six plus year journey. It's been fits and starts along the way, getting it going. But it was fun. And we were going to talk about a lot of things that I experienced along the way in different episodes from ideation, formulation, prototyping. That's a fun one, financing launching, market validation and a lot more. But this all stemmed from a personal desire for me to live a healthier life. And somehow I don't know how I did it, I tricked you to join me on this this journey.
Russell Hirshon 1:59
Lucky, lucky me, lucky, lucky me. It was it was a quite an has been quite an adventure. I come from a dual background of agency work over the last many years in brand and digital. Always working with extremely talented people putting forth some pretty compelling brands and bartending nights for many of the early years, until I realized I just wasn't capable of moving quick enough to to complete those basic tasks of serving nighttime entertainment. But the last 10 years or so it was my own brand and digital agency. And that was where I had the opportunity to do work with you. And we met and then one day you brought me some samples, as well. It's also spending some some time speaking about your mission to create a beverage and and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to join you on this opportunity. This adventure.
Brian Hill 3:13
It is crazy to think back and we're like, Okay, that was like 10 years ago, if not a little longer that you and I met for the first time now
Russell Hirshon 3:23
and strangely. I remember that well. Yeah, it's it's, uh, one thing that stood out about you is that incredibly hardworking, highly focused, detail driven, always overly prepared and focused. And that was amongst all the other people we were dealing with it was, you know, you were kind of standing out. And I got to interface with you. And it was memorable. And then the those interactions after that, and leading up to the introduction of when you said you wanted to create a beverage.
Brian Hill 4:00
Yeah, which happened to be in a bar that you had just started. We'll save that for another episode with it. But that was great.
Russell Hirshon 4:10
But yeah, it was it's one of those moments where you know it to me it was, who makes a beverage. It's a lofty goal. And what is the driving force in someone's head to say I want, I want something so bad that I'm going to create my own. And that has driven us I think it's guided us from day one, and it certainly set the bar. And thankfully, leading with that first moment where I sampled the beverages. They were great. And that was a moment where I just a little light bulb went off and said, I need to hang around this guy.
Brian Hill 4:57
Well, at the same time and your marketing mind has been amazing. The outreach that you're able to do in the field is just incredible. And I think between the two of us, we've kind of come up with a formidable team. And we're looking to continue to build that out.
Russell Hirshon 5:15
Well, that's, that's what makes us adventure is so much better. It's one you have an expertise and command of things I don't. And ironically, me being in the food and service industry has prepared me for a position that you typically would never hire someone like myself. I mean, honestly, you do go when you find someone with a numerous experience in, in beverage CPG. But here we are, and we do play extremely well off each other.
Brian Hill 5:53
Absolutely. Well, let's, let's move on from the back slapping here and move into some of the attributes just so people are aware of what what is MAKA. And and I'd say the short story is, we've come up with this amazing drink that has the equivalent of eight shots a wheatgrass within it. Yerba Mate, I use a tea within our first line, which is our energize line, 90 milligrams of caffeine. We're not trying to overload anyone with the caffeine, but it's just enough to give you a little little boost throughout the day. And then that's paired with your I'm sorry, with organic fruit juices, as well as Agave organic certified, it's a delicious, refreshing drink. So that's MAKA in a nutshell. And what we'll do is move on to where we are today, I think it's important to set the stage like why are we? Why are we even talking on this podcast? Why do you care about what we're listening to. And we're just gonna set the stage and bring you on that journey with us. So you ready to jump into what we've been up to?
Russell Hirshon 6:58
I am, I am ready and rearing.
Brian Hill 7:03
So as I had mentioned, this, this has been a personal journey for me that had been over six plus years. But we we launched the physical product, March of 2021. And we have been bootstrapping Ultra lean for about 20 months. So two employees, Russ and myself. And we have built out this incredible advisory network, which has really I would say shortened and reduced the learning curve for us probably saved us a lot of headaches.
Russell Hirshon 7:39
Yeah, and I would just say the advisory network has made a monumental difference because the learning curve and some of the things, some of the agreements that you've we've created with the vendors, so much expertise coming to bear and shortening the error cycle and shortening the any issues that could have popped up, I think I think they really, really made life easier.
Brian Hill 8:07
Without a doubt without a doubt. And we're definitely going to be talking about that. Hopefully, we can get some of the advisors on here talking about their take on on advising a startup brand. But 100% Integral to get strong advisors involved early. definitely agree with that. So given given our product attributes, we've decided that our primary target is the natural channel. So when you talk about grocery, there's natural, there's conventional, there's convenience, big box, there's a lot of different things and it's really important. And what we did is we decided that we're going to primarily target natural from the beginning. And because of that, we were able to also build out a strong distribution network pretty early, I would say earlier than a lot of brands in our lifecycle. And the first one was KeHE. KeHE, he in and I hate to admit this, KeHE invited me in to essentially a pitch competition for new items. I didn't realize that it was a competition. So I just go in and I'm just talking about the product and and sharing our story. And they go We don't normally do this, but we're going to award you the golden ticket right now. Typically, we have to involve a few other people. But we're giving it to you. We love your product, love your story. So they gave us was called the golden ticket and that kind of fast tracked our distribution through their network we were able to open up two or three key distribution centers And that has now grown into, I would say almost national coverage in the natural channel through KeHE. And then what we did is we we moved, or we moved our efforts over to building out UNFI, because each of those distributors works with different key accounts. And we obviously, some, some major retailers, such as whole foods and and some other great ones are almost exclusive to UNFI. So it was important to bring them on early just to help us build out our pipeline
Russell Hirshon 10:41
prior to this amazing structure of distribution through the two largest organic and natural distributors. The the self distribution journey that was that that first, would you say six months as we got involved? That was yeah, that was That was crazy.
Brian Hill 11:04
Well, that was six months all the way up until I would say 18 months that we were self distributing, because we had to still self distributed.
Russell Hirshon 11:12
Yeah, there's still a couple stores that but if you know national distribution, KeHE, UNFI integral, lifesaving. It comes with I'm sure some aspects we'll be talking about and other episodes. But the self distribution of the product is pretty intense. I mean, you're loading up cars, in all sorts of weather, we're accepting deliveries, we're dropping off, and we're driving all over. And the adventure we took to Richmond is another story as well. It's just it's to get to national distribution is one of those moments where you're going like, Okay, now we have the ability to get into stores without having to physically lift them ourselves.
Brian Hill 11:55
Yeah. But there's real, there's pros and cons to to doing it. And the big one is, wholesale price, it's much different than selling direct to retailers. So you got to make sure your margins are there. And that's something we'll get into as well. So make sure you build that into your financial model from the beginning. Yeah, absolutely. The the self distribution journey was incredible. We learned a lot. I would say it's actually integral because we were out there interfacing with the category managers with the store owners understanding how they look at new products, our product. So yeah, there's a lot that we can dig into.
Russell Hirshon 12:37
They would pick up your cans and say, give an honest opinion of one thing or the other. But and some of the best part is those instances where they crack open a can in front of you, and we're not knowing which way it's gonna go. Yeah, and you're explaining, they look at you with like, dumbfounded, like, explain to me what again, wheatgrass. They might make an expression, and then they pourtant and then they drink and they look you dead in the eye. And go, wow. Yeah. And is that what a feeling that is?
Brian Hill 13:09
Yeah. And we're lucky because we do have a phenomenal tasting product. But when it comes to going into the stores, there's there's a right and wrong way to do it. And we'll get into that in a future episode as well and hopefully get one or two of the retailers on. So they can they can tell you in their own words how they want to be approached with a new product,
Russell Hirshon 13:29
what they thought when one or both of us went into a store like hey,
Brian Hill 13:33
yeah, I'm sure they're like, Oh, no. But luckily. Luckily, they gave us a chance.
Russell Hirshon 13:43
Another product vendor coming in,
Brian Hill 13:45
built building on the story of like where we are today, we were in a very lucky position, where early indicators are showing that we're onto something. And what I mean by that is we have nearly 24 months of operations really, it's 20 months, so we can compare this year to last year. What's great is there's indicators that traction is occurring. We increased 300% year over year when we are in what we're calling fully activated stores meaning we're on shelf we have good placement, we've done some demos. Our velocities are exceeding our expectations as well as I would say category averages in most cases, MAKA is three to four times the category averages if not more. We have some stores where we're we're number two beverage in our category, which is just incredible to me, considering we have no marketing budget. Yeah. But what helps there is great placement, multiple facings killer sampling program.
Russell Hirshon 14:50
It's in store support as well, like the supportive employees within the stores is critical.
Brian Hill 14:56
Yeah. And that's part of the sampling program that you put together which is just phenomenal. And we'll get into that one in greater detail. But when you talk about a killer sampling program like you embody it, in average brand averages, what 5 to 10 cans if they're lucky during a sampling session, because typically you're outsourcing the sampling to a third party group, they might not be aware of your product, there's many reasons that the average is low. But when we go into a store, even with our semi outsourced team, we're averaging 40 cans in a sampling session, not unusual for you to call me after after one and be like, I just sold 140 cans. So like that that's just unreal, unheard of
Russell Hirshon 15:38
very fortunate scenario. Again, it goes back to if we're sharing a beverage that inherently tastes good exceeds expectations, has the wellness attributes that we aligned with having wheatgrass and being organic and gluten free, vegan, non GMO, lower in sugar. And in this instance, having another function and being energized with a trending category into itself. Yerba Mate is a lot for someone who's sampling it's to take in, but there is a level of skepticism, and they'll just they'll they'll be very hesitant, I would say, almost everyone is hesitant. And then they try it. And they're like, look up and surprise and go, Wow, I didn't expect that. And so when you have that baseline, when sharing with someone, as well as the what I think is an incredibly compelling story of, of how you began your journey, then they say like, well, this is something special. And we do benefit from that.
Brian Hill 16:48
Yeah, it but this comes down to formulation, iteration, market validation, these are all things we'll get into, that helps set the stage for that. And a lot of people like to say it's, it's an art to do that. But it's also a science, I think that we were able to remove a lot of the potential hiccups and headaches early on, just through the process that we went through. But then also to your point, when when going back to sampling a little bit, engaging with the staff is critical. They can become your biggest advocates. And I think you have done that incredibly well.
Russell Hirshon 17:26
you know, the irony is, is if you were looking to create a team of individuals, let's say just two of us. Most, I think most founders would say, I'm going to find someone with with 20 years of beverage experience, a background in marketing and CPG and understanding of distribution. Certainly someone who likely would have had been in the footsteps of creating or working with a brand before. That wasn't me. So I found that kind of ironic that you would still have conversations with me through this. So I did try to work exponentially harder knowing that this wasn't a typical role for someone like myself. And to the point, the irony of, of this kind of success was the fact that the 20 plus years of of working in restaurants and bars, literally made me the perfect person to share a beverage.
Brian Hill 18:31
Russell Hirshon 18:32
like, no problems, no barriers to starting a conversation with anyone. And then speaking fluidly about and aligning with, with them on on one thing or another, but being able to just roll straight into a beverage that, to me is exceptional.
Brian Hill 18:50
But our life experiences I think actually set us up for this.
Russell Hirshon 18:55
I would, I would say that's ironic. It's just, you know, because I don't think you were thinking of a beverage 10 years ago, but I do remember you going out in the other startup you've been in. And whenever I've known you, you've just been working on a level that's a level above Individuals I typically associate with so it's just we kind of see it in each other and it has given us the benefit of being where we are today.
Brian Hill 19:25
I do I probably should thank my wife for for sticking with me through this because she can attest to how many ideas I have had. And how many of those failed but I think we've we've finally found one the that's great because one it's I'm passionate about it. It's a personal thing to me. And I'm happy to share this because I do think it enhances people's lives.
Russell Hirshon 19:54
You've got me curious now because when you say number of ideas where it hit particular filter, and then it got either dismantled or fell by the wayside. Because I've seen you work on things I haven't often heard about the other ideas. But I do know that the moment that you focused on this, that it was every conversation we had, it was an aspect of the brand and the development and the beverage. And this goes back to the very moment we first started talking about it, it just was very iterative, you know, from the I want to make a beverage because I want more wheatgrass and it's inconvenient, and expensive. And I'm like, I'm not that healthy. I'm not an athlete, obviously. But But you've literally, it was compelling enough that when once you shared it with me, it became an absolute part of the 24/7 of both of our lives, like absolute all the time commitment, beyond any reasonable and likely with any startup, if you're if you're doing it, this is what it takes. But we've dedicated every hour of every day for the last over two years, and in your case, much longer. To the success of this brand,
Brian Hill 21:19
entrepreneurship looks beautiful and sexy from from the outside. But people need to realize if you're gonna go down this path, this this is a major commitment, time, money, emotion,
Russell Hirshon 21:30
emotional, yeah. emotional commitment. And I would say there are moments in which during this journey, where I was freaking out. Yeah, there was just moments of and this is, of course, to be expected that this stress level is off the charts. And you're wondering, how do we how do we handle this? And I think we've talked about this that this journey is, is an a series of events in which there are obstacles that appear. And it's not what happens, it's how we react to what happens. And that is what leads I think to success. It's, it's your ability to successfully navigate the issues that absolutely positively will occur.
Brian Hill 22:14
Yeah, yeah. And that's important. It's how you, you handle it. Of course, there's times where I was mad, sad, even, like scared, because you just don't know where it's gonna go. It's okay to have that feeling. Own it for a minute, and then move on figure out the solution. Is it short term? Or is a long term issue that short term, just figure out how to get past it, if its long term, maybe you just need to change your path a little bit?
Russell Hirshon 22:41
I think I think anyone would say you have to make a decision on the on the issue or problem. And you have to be okay with it. And then, and then it's going to resolve one way or the other. And if it doesn't resolve, we've had many things that did not resolve the way we wanted it to. And we still have things that aren't resolving. But actively, we're actively looking for solutions, like what is the best solution? Is this working? Is it networking,
Brian Hill 23:07
these are all things we're going to dig into deeper. So bring it back to where we are today. Just to reiterate, we've been on the market for about 20 months, two of us plus a strong advisory network, we're in the natural channel, we have built out a strong distribution team. We have great early indicators. And because of that, we've been able to pick up important regional accounts, we're still working on that national key account. But the regionals are very important as well, because you have to build out a territory, build out the awareness. If you try to go national from the beginning, it's going to be very difficult to build that traction, the awareness, the velocities. So we've targeted and we're probably a little more spread out than I would advise most startups to be. We're in several different regions. Probably the biggest one at the moment would be Southern California. And we picked up some amazing accounts out there. Erewhon, Bristol Farms, Jimbos, vintage grocers. These are all incredible Southern California players and we are thrilled to be a part of them simultaneously. We're building out DC and in DC. We are in streets market, Dawson's market, Common Market Fredericksburg Co Op. That's that's a funny story that we'll get into in another episode. Hopefully we can get Chris on here, as well as is Ellwood Thompson's, and so we had the two coasts covered. And as of as of now while we're speaking, we're bicoastal I'm sitting on East Coast, you're on the West Coast if you can't do that, do not try to launch two coasts, it there's too many issues. And and we'll dig into that one a little bit later as well as you can tell We have a lot to dig into and a lot to talk about. A surprising territory that just kind of came up on its own and has been phenomenal for us is actually the Midwest. Plum market, we just we launched a couple months ago, Woodman's market which is significantly bigger than any store that we're in, we're more we're talking about size of the retailer. That one's been really interesting. As of today, we can we can announce that we're actually launching wild by nature in New York, another phenomenal regional retailer, and we're thrilled to be a part of that. And then to build out those territories beyond like the key accounts like multi multi store, retailers, we also been going after independents. And the best way to support independence is working with the cooperatives. And there's two main ones to know about INFRA so this is long, let me see if I can remember, I think it's independent natural food retailers association. So that's what INFRA stands for. And that's a cooperative of 300 different independent retailers that have come together, they account for 550 Plus stores across 45 states. What these cooperatives do is they they have collective buying, they help with operational issues as well as marketing. So you have INFRA and then its counterpart is NCG, national Co Op grocers, that's 150, retailers approximately it accounting for just over 200 to 220 stores. And they're in, I believe, 38 states. Between those two, you have incredible independent accounts. If you're going natural, they're super supportive of natural organic products. So definitely target these takes a lot of work, though, because you have to go pretty much store by store.
Russell Hirshon 26:57
I'd add that the stores the employees that work in this stores are absolutely passionate, they care about their community, they they care about the foods they offer they, you know, when you when when they put local up on there, they mean local like something
Brian Hill 27:14
Russell Hirshon 27:15
yeah, some of the larger stores are kind of like putting a badge up for local. But they say local, I think it's less of a meaning then when you go into a cooperative and because they've literally the the founder or or someone representing the brand comes in and it's it's within a short distance. And with Dawson's It was exactly that they work, they cared about our story. They wanted to see us succeed, they gave us prime location in the store, they helped us move and made everything available to us to succeed. So we're grateful for that
Brian Hill 27:52
they are incredibly passionate, they are strong supporters, as long as you support them as well. It's not like launch and forget, you have to constantly engage constantly show the love, and they'll show up back for the most part. So we're super thankful and super supportive of those that helped us launch in the market and will continue to continue to be I think now we stopped for a quick message from a sponsor. I don't know who we're kidding, though we don't we don't have any sponsors were the sponsor. But I can promise you, you want to listen to this one.
Brian Hill 28:24
Our mission here at MAKA is wheatgrass for all one can at a time, your first can is on us go to LIVINGMAKA.COM/MAKING Select your flavor of choice and check out with the code MAKING2022 to enjoy your free can.
Brian Hill 28:39
Okay we are back and quickly running out of time. So we're just going to sum up this episode. We are at a point where the I would say the company's at an inflection point we have up until now had no marketing budget. Pretty much everything has been done by word of mouth. Our awareness is low and slow because of that, but what we're doing is we're building a very passionate community. I think you're seeing that when you're out in the field engaging
Russell Hirshon 29:11
I've had I've had people literally start crying when they hear one, I tell them the truth that I'm on the most amazing adventure that that someone could be on. And I mean, the stories we'll go into later are insane. And second, when they think that an individual can undertake such an auspicious level of effort to to single handedly for the first four years, create a beverage from their kitchen and then and then they hear this and then they look and they go. So it's just you and Brian. You're here now in this store in the middle of wherever we may be sharing a beverage that that Brian created, it tastes amazing. And you're the happiest you've ever been in your life. It is, it's amazing. So we interact with individuals, they support us, they give us the energy to carry on, we don't know where the future will lead. This is certainly an inflection point, because we know, we don't know what the future holds. But we have this gut feeling that something amazing is happening. And we see it from the response of individuals who just say, I'm going to tell I'm taking this, and I'm going to tell some friends about this. And, and in some cases, Brian, you've seen the emails that come in, and they say, um, I feel different, I'm happier, I feel better. And I think it's your beverage. And all we know, is we're sharing a beverage in which we hope people live a healthier active lifestyle, and that it makes some aspect of their life better. It's just amazing. And Brian, to your point, you know, it requires the support of stores that requires customers to, to not only engage but to walk away thinking that they one love the product that two, the story is compelling. But this is a beverage and I don't know, I can't think of too many beverages of any that I've ever drank and said, Oh my God, I feel emotionally compelled by a beverage or a story. I just I you know, and that's why I think people who we have the pleasure of interacting with become our ambassadors, they they literally turn on a dime and go, I found something that that that gives me hope or I want to align with or, or through word of mouth, which is incredibly important will be crucial to our success that they take upon it to use their own time to amplify our brand and story,
Brian Hill 31:55
I can tell you that, that I have shed a tear or two, launching this thing. So I look forward to hearing about those stories where a customer is shedding a tear. that's incredible to hear.
Russell Hirshon 32:05
Right? Right. It's even, I gotta tell you, even I've teared up because, you know, typically, it could have been in like, all weeks are pretty insane. But it could be the culmination of what it just gone through that week. And I'm just explaining it to someone and they're like, going, wow, you know, you guys are onto something, and I'm so glad to have met you. And, you know, we're so, so supportive, and they do things. And this will be we'll be discussing it another podcast. But you know, on a lean budget, we're able to do things that I think eclipse would normally could be achieved by two people on a very, very lean budget.
Brian Hill 32:50
That's, that's for sure, it will definitely share some things that we have done and maybe our listeners can incorporate into into their journey, if they're looking to start a CPG brand. Our podcast isn't just for CPG, I think there's a lot that can be taken away from here. It's just entrepreneurship in general, you just have to have good practices in place, and just make sure that you're constantly hitting it. You're passionate about it. If you're not passionate about your product, or what you're doing your service, whatever it is, don't do it. Just get out of it. You shouldn't be looking at this, like I'm gonna make a lot of money. No, you need to really enthusiastic about what you're offering.
Russell Hirshon 33:29
Yeah, it just, it just can't be it found a way to make money. That can't be it. If you're in it for the money. It's the wrong reason. The money may or may not come ideally it does. But you have to be insanely Yeah, ideally, I mean, that's, that's, that's the success of the brand that goes part and parcel. But you need to have an absolute passion and be able to weather the most difficult of times and have a great support community.
Brian Hill 34:00
So over the over the next several episodes, you can expect that what you'll hear is is an exploration of our path to market, what we learned along the way. And then what we'll do is once we get up to where we are today, in our episodes, we're going to start providing real time as possible insights into our business. So we're inviting you as a listener behind the curtain into the into the room with us to listen to our decision making process
Russell Hirshon 34:34
and join us on our adventure.
Brian Hill 34:36
Also along the way, what we're going to do is interview people that have been integral to our success as a brand, as well as invite other thought leaders in to discuss parts of their journeys and how they got to where they are. Ideally, they're gonna be a lot further along so you're going to learn different things and different tactics from them that might be more relevant than what we're Doing not many chances to get behind the curtain to see what it takes to take a startup from an idea to a market validated business, and then scale it from there, and we'll see where this goes.
Brian Hill 35:16
That brings us to the end of this episode of making MAKA. If you have any questions, comments or ideas about our episodes, please send an email to HELLO@MAKINGMAKA.COM. If you like what you hear on Making MAKA, please share the podcast with friends and family and review us on your preferred listening platform.
Brian Hill 35:35
On behalf of MAKA, thank you for joining us on this journey.