Brian & Russ explore what it takes to create a compelling formulation and how to identify and work with a formulator.
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Brian Hill 0:02
I have a really good friend Georg, who's who's participated in this before. He didn't realize when he was coming over one day that he was actually going to be testing flavors with me. So he walks in and, and I have probably 20 different types of juices out. And we were just mixing them in. And we were able to narrow it down to about probably five or six. And then from there, we brought it down to our core set, our four and that that's all from the kitchen first.
Brian Hill 0:38
Hello, everyone. You're listening to making Maka, a podcast about a startup beverages journey into launching and scaling a CPG brand. I'm Brian Hill,
Russell Hirshon 0:48
and I'm Russell Hirshon.
Brian Hill 0:49
And we are your hosts.
Brian Hill 0:51
In this episode, we will be exploring what it takes to create a compelling formulation and how to identify and work with your formulator.
Russell Hirshon 1:02
So you've decided that you're going to make a beverage and now comes the decision of what flavors they'll be. How did you land? Where do you where do you go?
Brian Hill 1:14
This literally started in my kitchen, so I was just messing around with different flavors that I liked. So one day I wanted to try blood orange went out got some blood oranges, juice those, mixed it with the wheatgrass, mixed it with yerba mate tea. And I started concocting different flavors and just testing them that way.
Russell Hirshon 1:39
So the Yerba mate part of that. Yep. What was when At what point did you decide not only is it going to be wheatgrass, but it's going to have yerba mate as well,
Brian Hill 1:52
that was a very early decision for me because I didn't start drinking coffee until after college. I just never drank coffee. But then I went on a trip it just happened to be to Hawaii Kona which has some of the best coffee in the world. So I tried it there fell in love with it. And I had an addiction I had like I was drinking way too much coffee, so much caffeine. I was just trying to find different ways at that time. When I when I was formulating this to reduce my coffee intake not so much remove it but reduce it. That's how it came across yerba mate tea, guayusa tea. The two of them have smaller amounts of caffeine, but it's a different type of caffeine feel. So it was comparable. To me at least it was comparable to having a cup of coffee, but just like a third of the caffeine. I don't know if anyone listening has has tried yerba mate but typically served in a gourd. It's actually pretty bitter. I like the taste of it. There's some people that think it's a little too bitter. So what was also important was not only did I have to mask the the wheatgrass flavor, also had to offset the bitter profile that you get from the yerba mate and guayusa. So it was important to me to focus on strong, fruity, juicy flavors, and that's how we ended up with with the four flavors that we did is because they pleasantly interact with those two polarizing ingredients.
Russell Hirshon 3:30
So you're you're you're in your kitchen, and you're thinking flavor profiles, and you know it's going to be wheatgrass, it's going to be yerba mate. What were your Did you have a broad range of flavors you're thinking about or did you land on some that you just wanted to immediately focus on?
Brian Hill 3:49
There were some that I knew I just wanted to do. I was drinking, I was putting lemon juice in my water. So I wanted to make sure that there was a lemon version. I was binging on mangoes, so I was just like, Okay, gotta have a mango drink. And I can tell you it's not easy juicing a mango. That took some practice. But it was important that the ingredients were real. They tasted real, nothing artificial. No, no sugar alternatives. I did. I started by using stevia. But the aftertaste from from stevia or monk fruit or some of the other sugar alternatives to off putting couldn't do it. I don't shy away from sugar. It's just nice to have it in moderation. So all our drinks are in moderation. That's purposeful, because we wanted a nice, sweet flavor without overdoing it.
Russell Hirshon 4:52
And I can imagine you're you know, you're you've got your kitchen counter. You have your ingredients, you're kind of your mushing them up, you're, you're putting it up? And then are you getting it to a puree? Or is it? Is it something you can drink? Or is it something that you're kind of that? What's that format in which like in your, what you were saying is you can't really squeeze a mango too much. Maybe you mush it through a strainer, and you've got it in there is it just you in there just kind of getting to a point,
Brian Hill 5:23
my wife refused to come into the kitchen. When I was doing this. I took over the entire kitchen counter, I had juice, presses setup, there was juice everywhere. There was wheatgrass press, there was a lot of things going on in that kitchen. I have a really good friend Georg, who's who's participated in this before. He didn't realize when he was coming over one day that he was actually going to be testing flavors with me. So he walks in and, and I have probably 20 different types of juices out. And we were just mixing them in with a certain amount of wheatgrass and a certain amount of yerba mate that I had already figured out that I wanted, and just figuring out, okay, how much juice do we need? Which one tastes great, which is just terrible, just never gonna do that. And we were able to narrow it down to about probably five or six. And then from there, we brought it down to our core set, our four. And that that's all from the kitchen first.
Russell Hirshon 6:25
Was there? Was there one that you were like, hoping to have that just didn't work out? Was there a flavor?
Brian Hill 6:31
It just Yes, I hope? Yeah. Yeah, and I had mentioned it a little earlier. It's the blood orange like that is one I really, really wanted. I love blood orange. But I learned there's a very small amount of organic blood oranges available in the market. So if you can get it, it's expensive, prohibitively expensive as an ingredient for our type of drink. So unfortunately, that's one I just because of cost factors couldn't do it. There's also ones that I thought were just going to taste great. And they didn't. Now, I won't throw them out there yet, because I'm still working and retooling those, but yeah, there's definitely ones that I was like, This is gonna be amazing. No, it wasn't, didn't didn't make the cut.
Russell Hirshon 7:22
So how many sessions you know, I, I've seen you at work. But you you you know, you've you're going through the process, how was it multiple nights? Was it did you gather it all at once? And then somehow come very close to what you wanted? Or what was the what was the timeframe to get to your final set?
Brian Hill 7:42
Yeah, no, it was pretty methodical. It was it was certainly not a night it this was because of fits and starts. This is something that probably developed over two, three years before I felt comfortable enough to involve a formulator which we'll get into in a minute. Yeah, it was an extended period of time, testing flavors, sharing them with friends and family. Iterating once I felt that we were in a good spot, I was just like, You know what, I don't necessarily trust friends and family to give me unfiltered opinions. I started bringing samples out to people I didn't know and just say Be honest with me. And then that's how we just came out came up with like, a really great tasting end product iterating iterating iterating
Russell Hirshon 8:32
and imagining this someone coming over to your house is like we're gonna be guinea pigs. It's it's Brian's got, you know, you've got your, your your ingredients laid out. You're like, oh, by the way. Thanks for coming over for dinner. And I need you to try some beverages. I'm working on and I can see your point. You know, Friends can be too supportive where they tell you Yeah, it tastes it tastes fine. tastes great. And then at the same time you're trying to get to something that's commercially viable.
Brian Hill 9:04
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah. Trust me I was that weirdo that was showing up with a glass bottle with like the little plug on top. And the wheat grass is just collecting at the bottom the juices separated like people are looking at this thing like what are you about to give me is that even safe to consume. I thank everyone that participated in that because they really helped me hone in the flavors. I have a friend Stefan he tells me every time we talk about MAKA he brings up the story about how the first batch he tried he's like that is no luckily, with his feedback, we were able to hone it in a little more.
Russell Hirshon 9:46
Did anyone ever give a response where oh my god this this tastes horrible there was there any moments where something was so off that you're just like,
Brian Hill 9:55
luckily there was no like dogs. There was just ones where I'm just like, I'm not leading with these flavors.
Russell Hirshon 10:02
So you you got to a point, you've determined that these are the flavors you're going to lead with. What was the that step? What was that determining factor that you go to that the formulation stage,
Brian Hill 10:16
very common concept that people throw out there is MVP, minimum viable product. So the in theory, like you want to launch with something that is minimal enough that it gets traction, and then you can always iterate on it, improve it, what that means to me is just, you can't strive for perfection, you're never going to achieve it. And if you do achieve it, you've probably missed the opportunity. So I was at a point where I was just like, this is a very good product, could it be better, maybe? Sure. But it is good enough that the vast majority of people really like it. And that's when I was just like, Okay, now it's time to turn this into a commercially viable opportunity by turning it into a commercially viable formula. So I went out and found a formulator.
Russell Hirshon 11:06
What were the defining traits of this beverage when you went in there? Because there's the variables are amount of caffeine amount of sugar, amount of I mean, you've you've made this in your kitchen. And you've you've got your flavor profiles, and you're you're going to the formulator and you have to find a formulator, of course. But was there were there parameters that you had going into the this formulation stage?
Brian Hill 11:35
Yeah, real ingredients. Organic certifiable. Caffeine this first line is energized with caffeine. To me, I wanted to make sure it was not a super dose of caffeine, there's products out there that are 200 300 milligrams of caffeine. I don't feel good when I have those, I don't think they're particularly safe. So I just wanted to make sure this is something that could replace a cup of coffee and a cup of coffee being eight ounces, not what you get at Starbucks. So those traits were very important to me. It had to taste great. Had to smell great. It had to have all the organoleptic features that when you open it, it smells good, looks good, tastes good. Looks is something we can talk about, about our product later, but it at least checks all the other boxes.
Russell Hirshon 12:30
And something here also is the amount of wheatgrass
Brian Hill 12:34
Yeah, we have the chlorophyll equivalent of eight shots of wheatgrass pressed wheatgrass. So if you went to a juice bar, a shot of wheat grass, is about one ounce, we have the equivalent of those in eight. And as we talked about in a previous episode, we pasteurize it, so we are purposefully removing the enzymes that cause some people gastro issues, so that that is not an issue with us. And that's something that I wanted to make sure was also a trait, large amount of wheatgrass without potential side effects.
Russell Hirshon 13:10
Yeah. And to do enzymes have any benefits?
Brian Hill 13:13
I would say that depends on who you're talking with. If you're talking about with the purists, they would say absolutely. It's like having probiotic prebiotic MAKA is not targeted for the purist. I would love if purists are consuming our drinks. But really, we're trying to get the average consumer to consume something that is just a little bit better, and might help them feel better and get them on a healthier, active track. That's the purpose here. We can't be for everyone.
Russell Hirshon 13:44
Well, we get that feedback. We do get that feedback from from people who when they're when they're trying it the finalized product, they'll be like, this tastes nothing like I expected. And obviously to get to that point, you find a find a formulator. How did you find your formulator
Brian Hill 14:03
mine was was a lot of groundwork networking reaching out. There's no, there's great services out there. Now the startup CPG is a phenomenal organization that has created a Slack channel. They put on events all the time, they've now created resources, where you can go in and look for CO packers look for ingredients, suppliers, look for whatever your what you need. I didn't have that when I first started doing this. So it was a lot of effort on my part, to find the formulator that I did
Russell Hirshon 14:37
Brian I will ad one other thing. A lot of this happened during the pandemic right and maybe a little bit before in some cases, but other parts during
Brian Hill 14:47
Yeah, the formulation aspect occurred before pandemic production was pretty much right in the height of it. And that's going to be interesting to talk about as well. Not but not in this episode, but later on,
Russell Hirshon 15:02
what kind of costs? Should someone anticipate? When when? I mean, here you are, you've got your beverage, there is a monetary need to actually start beginning this process that you undertook. Was that how did that, you know? Did you use your own money did you? Where did the funding for that come from?
Brian Hill 15:23
It's hard to raise funds without market validation. To get to market validation, you have to have a prototype, at minimum, to have a prototype you have to have in CPG. World, you have to have a formula. So I knew that I was going to have to fund all the way up to potentially production. And I had been saving up for it. And luckily, I was in a position that I could afford to do it. But that was all self funded. Now, when it comes to cost, and what to budget, that is purely going to depend on what you're trying to produce. So my numbers aren't going to jive with whatever your product is. But whatever you think the budget is, double it, maybe triple it. And then if you think it's gonna take six months, give it a year. It takes time to get the first one, right. And you want to make sure the first one is right, because that's what everyone's judging you on.
Russell Hirshon 16:27
What are the things what are the things you need to do with the formulator to make sure that you're positioned well to move past that point.
Brian Hill 16:35
So the first thing I say in this is very important as you want to make sure you you dig into formulator's reputation, their scalability, can they grow with you? Do they have capacity? Do they have other capabilities? Can they co-pack for you do they have design and marketing arm are they able to do some pre sales for you. So these are all things you want to factor in depends on how much work you want to outsource how much you want to do yourself. Those are all things to consider. And then also you just want to make sure that there's a very clear understanding. And this goes into there's three key documents that you want to make sure you have in place. The first one and I'll just jump right into it is is NDA confidentiality IP. So I'll kind of one in the same. Just want to be very clear who owns what at the end of the day, good. Formulator is going to say it, once you've made final payment, it's all yours. There should be no issue with that if there if there's a formulator giving you any issue about owning assuming you've paid them for their services in full run, that's not a good formulator.
Russell Hirshon 17:45
Right, it needs to be yours and only yours and something that you don't have to feel that you'll be competing with later. There was a time that you had mock ups of your cans had you formulated the the product at that time or where the the markups of those cans that I saw was that pre formulation?
Brian Hill 18:08
The markups were, I would say simultaneous to doing formulation. They really didn't come together until after because I needed to know what was the end product like what juice was going to be in that can because it was really going to define what the brand and the mockup was going to look like. So the idea started while it was formulating, didn't really come together until after I finalized it.
Brian Hill 18:37
Now a quick word from our sponsor. Yep, it's us again.
Brian Hill 18:41
Our mission here at MAKA is wheatgrass for all one can at a time. Your first game 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 18:57
We started talking about the three documents before taking a brief break there. The first one being the NDA slash confidentiality slash IP that's just kind of a given once you're at that stage of signing on with your formulator. The other thing that you're going to receive and again every formulator has a little different process but it's all going to be relatively the same. You'll get your formulation agreement in there you're going to define the scope of work. Is this just formulation Are you going to be utilizing their other services if they offer them? Are you looking for guidance on specific ingredients suppliers certifications? What type of packaging are you looking to do? Like these are all things that that are extra services that formulators will provide if you need them, If you need branding work, they'll do some of that as well. And then also materials sourcing. You should be able to get direct contacts with your ingredient suppliers. At the end of the day, a good formulator will package all that together and make sure that you have direct connection. Some of them even have contract manufacturing. So you want to make sure that if they if they have contract manufacturing, if that's something you want to do, that you incorporate that into your agreement as well,
Russell Hirshon 20:21
did you experience any scope creep. And when I say scope creep, I mean, you know, you go in with a set budget. And and you're you're going and you're like, This is what it's going to cost me to perform. The the things that you hope will get you to finalized formulas and allow you to go to manufacturing, was there scope creep? And in the formulation, was there something that cost more than or did it stay within the boundaries of the pricing you had agreed to,
Brian Hill 20:50
we stayed largely within the boundaries of what we had agreed to, and I believe, firmly believe. That's because I came in with a very defined idea of my end product. It tested at home, I iterated at home. So by the time I involved the formulator, I knew what I wanted. And it just came down to making sure that it was commercially viable. So in that sense, there was not much scope creep. But that also goes into the creative brief, which is this third document that you should put together. And this is where you're defining the technical specifications of your drink. Like, what are your desired features and functions? Are there certain traits that you're looking for certain flavor profiles? Are you trying to hit a certain certification like organic certified, there's a lot of rules and regulations around organic certification that you need to know or your formulator needs to be able to guide you on. So these are all things that you need to define upfront, because it will ultimately determine what you end up with.
Russell Hirshon 22:04
So I'm super, I'm super curious. from kitchen to formulation. How great was the difference,
Brian Hill 22:12
I personally feel that I ended up with a better product, because the formulator knew how to hone in the flavor the sweetness, exactly how I wanted it. They knew how to do it. For me, I could mix it together at home, I had this little recipe sheet that I had made, which is also something that you should share with your formulator send them samples, if you've created some samples at home, send that to the formulator as well, that gives them the guidance and and direction on ultimately where you want to end up. And typically you will end up in a better position if you take all these steps.
Russell Hirshon 22:52
So you started with four, what would you recommend for someone thinking about starting their own their own beverage Line? How many? How many should they start with?
Brian Hill 23:02
So I would say it depends on your go to market strategy. If you are direct to consumer, you potentially could get away with one SKU, try it and iterate and expand from there. If you're looking to go to shelf in a retailer, I would recommend no less than than two. That's the bare minimum. Because you have to think about facings on a shelf. If you go in with one can one flavor your potential and get one facing that means one can looking out at the shelf at the consumer. Some retailers might give you multiple facings. But you have to assume you're not going to get multiple facings. So you want at least two. So that guarantees you two facings minimum. Maybe you can get four, if you're lucky. I wouldn't do more than four skus because it complicates things. You've talked about ingredient sourcing your there's a lot of factors that go into creating a single SKU. So you're when you multiply it by four or more, you're just you're overcomplicating a startup. And at the same time, these retailers have very limited shelf space, I wouldn't go in to a retail retailer thinking that you're going to get all four on the shelf. You're lucky if it's two to three.
Russell Hirshon 24:20
Yeah, and I would say during the time that that you were doing this and actually going to market that is it was COVID supply chain issues that we're impacting whether or not it actually be able to get the products to shelf.
Brian Hill 24:35
Yeah, yeah, there's there's multiple factors for a Category Manager to put a new product on the shelf. The first is they have to remove something. So you have to somehow convince them your product is going to sell more cans in our case, then whatever product they're removing, and it's a little easier to do that for two to three. It's tough to do it for four and certainly more if you're a brand new product then you have on top of that what you were just alluding to COVID supply chain issues, it's still ongoing, a lot of retailers have gone through SKU reduction, far fewer skews per brand than pre COVID. So your opportunities are significant less,
Russell Hirshon 25:17
right? So so half of this, right is the product. The other half is the actual packaging, and the branding, when did you decide the format of of the actual packaging,
Brian Hill 25:31
that's something I knew from the very beginning, what I wanted it to be had to be a 12 ounce, what's called a sleek can. So it's like the it looks like energy drink can several reasons for that one, carbonated beverages tend to be in this format of packaging, we also want to make sure that we use the aluminum, aluminum highly recyclable glass is is recyclable, but it's heavy. So it's tough to move around, the county I was living in at the time actually stopped recycling glass, they were telling us to throw it out, because they couldn't get a good price to recycle it. So I knew I didn't want to glass, plastic not even an option. In our case, light degrades ingredients. And we just want to make sure that with a longer shelf life, like our product, it stays as whole as possible. And that's where aluminum comes in by keeping light out. So that's how we ended up with the packaging.
Russell Hirshon 26:29
Were there any pressures, you know, you've you've, you've come to the final formulation to your decided, you know, what kind of cancer going to be in? I should say what what kind of deviations came across your the process that actually may have impacted? What you had envisioned to be either the contents of the can or are other things.
Brian Hill 26:53
Yeah. So this, this goes back to an earlier question that you had is like, did you have scope creep, we didn't really have scope creep. And I just want to reiterate that when you come up with your creative brief, stick with it, there's a reason that you designed it the way you did. And let if your formulator comes back to you and says hey, there's a very legitimate reason for not doing the formulation the way that you're saying like in my case with with blood orange, there was going to be an ingredient supply issue and a cost issue. Okay, that makes sense. That's no longer on the table. I made the mistake of not sticking with the creative brief, as tight of as, as I should have. And what was meant to be just like a great wheatgrass beverage started to look like a Red Bull competitor in the sense that the the formulator added vitamins in and taurine and all these other things that when in my creative brief I did not want. But for some reason I couldn't. It was a while ago. Now I don't even know how we got to that point. But it now made the drink. So it was not organic certifiable, it was now in a category I did not want to compete in the energy drink category. That's not what we are. So I was able to reel that back in get back on track. So that's one thing where you just really follow your creative brief and second guess any decisions that pull you away from it.
Russell Hirshon 28:31
The last thing is finalization what are the what are the final certifications documentation is needed. Once you've, you've you've gone through all these other steps
Brian Hill 28:41
just because you have your formula doesn't mean you're done. You're not ready for production yet. What you need to obtain is a process authority letter. And really what this is, it's a third party who reviews the formula and says okay, based on your pasteurization methods, this product is safe. This is the shelf life this is all that that takes time that costs money. So you want to make sure that your formula is final so get samples if you can, if you can make small batch samples do it create like 10 bottles of each go to what we were talking about earlier, go to your friends and family go to people that don't know you at all in our case and we will touch upon this in a different episode. I came into your bar and I was sharing it with random people at the bar who had no reason to be nice to me. And and that was great way to get feedback, unfiltered and it helped us iterate and finalize and come up with the with the final drinks.
Russell Hirshon 29:44
Do you remember he had brought in off one of each? And I drank them all?
Brian Hill 29:52
Yeah, I think it was 10 o'clock at night. I came in with one of these so for four bottles and I was like Russ try this thinking you were going to try had over a week, and you drank four and a night. I don't know if you slept that night. But I'm glad I'm glad you enjoyed them.
Russell Hirshon 30:06
I did. I was like, Hey, these are good. And I've never felt I've never felt more alive.
Brian Hill 30:17
That's great. So once you have that final formula, then you bring it to the process authority letter, get that all finalized. Once they sign off, you have your formula, you have your PA letter, you're almost there. If you are looking for additional certifications like USDA organic, certified, non GMO, gluten free, whatever it is, there's additional steps you're gonna have to take, you have to make sure that your formulator not so much a formulator, actually, but make sure that your co manufacturer has the capabilities to support the certifications. And that's something we'll get into later. You need to get those certifications in place as soon as possible because once you're ready to manufacture, you hand over everything, and then you go
Brian Hill 31:03
now you're one step closer to producing your first product. In our next episode, we will be discussing branding, standing out on shelf and designing for your target audience.
Brian Hill 31:16
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. On behalf of MAKA. Thank you for joining us on this journey.