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“I always wanted to get into dream space. Maybe part of being an entrepreneur over the years, maybe that dream space is where I nurtured some of the patterns and thought processes that enabled me to do what I'm doing today.” — [0:06:09]
“I have a cold plunge. I get in my 45-degree plunge three, four times a week for four minutes or so. I got to tell you, the norepinephrine release out of that—talk about an amazing reset! Those are some of the things I do to keep myself balanced, and refreshed, and invigorated, and driving 7x24, which is what it takes to compete in building a brand.” — [0:11:52]
“There's something I love about building a company, and creating a culture, and watching people actually put liquid to lips, and have it be something that you created or crafted. That's really cool, but the grind of building and breaking through with a new brand is really hard.” — [0:17:59]
“Coming out of COVID, I really had to rethink things. I think the business suffered a bit because I wasn’t really sure, [after] having a near-death experience, that I wanted to jump back in.” — [0:18:21]
“When you're driving a brand and you're growing a brand, there's no time for idle thought.” — [0:20:15]
“Every company that is meant to win is a team of destiny.” — [0:24:02]
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going—you know what I mean; that cliché. That's a key piece to any entrepreneur’s success across any industry.” — [0:26:37]
“Sometimes, some of the best-conceived plans require pivots, adaptations, and alterations based on the learning, the market, target market, psychographic, demographic, usage, and occasion. All these things are very fluid in the early years, and sometimes, even as trends change. In food and beverage, they change quickly. Know that—whatever you believe today—you need to have an open enough platform to alter and innovate, to meet consumer preferences in the future.” — [0:35:30]
I would say to any entrepreneur out there, if you're taking meetings with folks that have done it and made it in the past and you have a weak spot, make sure you close that gap. And if you can't close the gap soon enough that in that meeting you have someone present that could address that topic or that particular function, corporate function in order so that you don't look ill prepared. — [0:37:50]
“In today's world of TikTok and Instagram, etcetera, you’ve got to be a storyteller. You’ve got to tell stories about your brand that's relevant to your audience and the usage occasion.” — [0:40:12]
[00:00:00] LG: This episode is brought to you by Evermill. Evermill makes the world's most elegant spice rack that features text-to-refill organic spices in compostable packets, as well as a suite of kitchen products that help you cook so you can focus on sharing meals with the ones you love.
This episode is brought to you by Equipt. Equipt is a modern luxury fitness brand that creates stylish, compact, portable, and versatile fitness equipment that will inspire you to move anytime, anywhere, whether you have half a minute or half an hour. Stay tuned for a special offer for Stairway to CEO listeners later in the show.
Hello, everyone. It’s Lee Greene, and welcome back to the Stairway to CEO Podcast. It's my mission to bring you real, honest, and unfiltered interviews with some of the most innovative founders and CEOs from all walks of life. We'll talk about their climb to the top, their stumbles along the way, and the steps they took to get them to where they are. So, tune in to get inspired, listen to some real talk, and enjoy the show.
[00:01:18] LG: Hello, everyone. I'm your host, Lee Greene, and welcome back to the show. This is Episode 144. Today, I sat down with Bill Moses, the Founder and CEO of Flying Embers. Flying Embers is an alcoholic beverage brands offering delicious canned cocktails, such as flavored mojitos, margaritas, hard kombucha, and hard seltzers that are all certified organic, gluten free and vegan, with zero sugar and no carbs.
Bill and I talked about how he used to go to the nurse's office in junior high school just to take naps so he could enjoy dreaming, how he started his career working on Wall Street, and his first startup exit at just 32 years old, which set him on a path to move to Ojai, California, where he started the popular sparkling probiotic beverage brand, KeVita. We talked about his experience in selling KeVita to PepsiCo for $220 million in 2016, how he came up with the name, Flying Embers, and how a near-death experience with COVID in 2020 changed his perspective and enabled him to reestablish the business for success.
If you like what you're hearing on the Stairway to CEO podcast, don't forget to click subscribe, leave us a review, and check us out on stairwaytoceo.com where you can catch up on past episodes and read product reviews on our blog. Thanks so much for listening and I hope you enjoy this episode.
Hi, Bill. Thanks so much for joining us on the show today. I'm really excited to hear your story in building Flying Embers, among other brands. Thanks so much for joining us.
[00:02:54] BM: Really happy to be here, Lee.
[00:02:55] LG: Bill, where are you calling from?
[00:02:58] BM: I'm calling from Ventura, California,
[00:03:01] LG: Ventura, California, and whereabouts in Ventura?
[00:03:04] BM: Well, whereabout in Ventura? I'm actually off of Victoria Road.
[00:03:07] LG: You're like, "My address is…"
[00:03:09] BM: Yeah, 3200 Golf Course Lane, for those of you that want to send gifts. So yeah, here in Ventura. We founded the company in Ojai, California, where I live and I moved from New York City some 20 plus odd years ago. So, born in Ojai and manufactured in Ventura, California.
[00:03:29] LG: Oh, I thought you're going to say manufactured in New York, like yourself.
[00:03:33] BM: Yeah, a little bit of New York in my blood, for sure.
[00:03:37] LG: So you grew up in Ojai?
[00:03:39] BM: No. Actually, I was born in Pittsburgh, where I grew up for the first nine years of my life. Then, I went to high school in a place called Boardman, Ohio, which is a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio. [Inaudible 0:03:52] kind of roots. Then, via UVA, to Aix-en-Provence, to Wall Street in New York City, were sort of my earlier travels and sort of business history.
[00:04:06] LG: So as a kid, let's talk about little Bill. When you're growing up, what kind of kid were you? What did you want to be when you grew up?
[00:04:12] BM: Really great. I mean, I remember – like some of my early memories when I was probably six or seven, in a place called Homestead, where I was born in Pittsburgh. My neighbor had a little garden. I remember going over there as a kid and helping him garden. I was really an introvert. I didn't speak much, didn't have a lot of friends for some reason at that time, but really had a real affinity with the dirt, and the plant material and what he was growing in this borough of Pittsburgh. I think that was my connection with any and everything natural. That was one very memorable part of my childhood.
[00:04:49] LG: Did you have any siblings or what did your parents do?
[00:04:53] BM: Yeah, I have four siblings. I'm the youngest of the four.
[00:04:56] LG: Wow.
[00:04:57] BM: Being youngest of four, I was probably the most, you know, big brother and big sister abused in a healthy way. Yeah, I was really challenged.
[00:05:07] LG: Get pushed around a little bit?
[00:05:09] BM: Yeah, pushed around a little bit. It was a great childhood. Then, I played –I think when I went to high school, I mean, one of the things I really loved was just the wilderness and moving to Ohio. While there was a lot of forest land, and stuff, and again, I was a big acorn collector. I mean, that's about as close to sort of where I live today, figuratively and literally. That relates to my childhood specifically.
[00:05:36] LG: Did you ever tried to sell your acorns or did you have any kind of entrepreneurial stuff?
[00:05:43] BM: Yeah. No, I was never like the paper boy. It wasn't like this young, industrial kid. Again, I think, dreaming though, I was really a daydreamer. I remember actually – great story. In junior high school, I would almost always complain of a stomachache after lunch, which I didn't always have. But that would enable me to go to the nurse's office or place, and then I'd lay down and I take a nap. I always want to get into dream space. So, maybe part of being an entrepreneur over the years, maybe that dream space is where I nurtured some of the patterns and thought processes that enabled me to do what I'm doing today.
[00:06:24] LG: And making your way into the nurse's office. She's like, "You're here again, Bill."
[00:06:29] BM: It was two, three times a week, and then she knew, "Oh, you just need a little nap."
[00:06:33] LG: Caught on.
[00:06:34] BM: You just need a nap.
[00:06:36] LG: You're like, "I love to dream." That's interesting. I don't think I've had anyone at least admit that they love dreaming when they were a kid.
[00:06:46] BM: Yeah. It wasn't just dreaming. It was napping and dreaming. Like, there was this siesta thing that was really quite appealing to me.
[00:06:55] LG: I went through a phase, I don't know, I think it was like 10 to 12 or something. I went through a phase of loving to sleep. I mean, I hate sleeping now and I have the majority of my life, so it's a very quick little blip of my time enjoying sleeping, and really want to just curl up in bed and go to sleep. But I miss wanting to do that, like I don't really enjoy that anymore. I have too much on my mind.
[00:07:19] BM: What's interesting is, even today, I take siestas. All through my professional career, I've always managed to find my way to have some sort of couch or something in my office. In this particular office, I have a hyperbaric chamber, which is like a cocoon that I get inside and I knock off for about a half an hour and so. I like to nap. Sleeping? Yeah, it comes and goes.
[00:07:42] LG: So do you go in that chamber like every day? Is that part of your daily routine?
[00:07:48] BM: I'd say, about three times a week, something – I mean, [inaudible 00:07:49] working lunch. Usually, I'll throw in on salad, and some sprouts or something. I eat light for lunch and then I'll hop in there. Yeah, I have my phone. I'll look at some emails for a little bit, check out the stock market. Okay, I do dabble there a little bit. Then, I'll call it for about 20 minutes, and then wake up and feel refreshed. Of course, I have full flow of oxygen that I'm inhaling at the time too. I actually really got into hyperbaric chambers coming out of – I had a COVID experience, early in the pandemic. I got super COVID pneumonia from Delta strain pre-vaccine and I was in the hospital for three weeks.
[00:08:26] LG: Wow.
[00:08:29] BM: Like I said, severe COVID pneumonia. Really, it was really an act of God and an act of the head of the Infectious Disease department at UCLA that happened to come in my room, that happened to give me an experimental drug, that happened to get me home two weeks later. But out of that, I really needed to recover the damage in my lungs, so that got me into the hyperbaric. Since that time, I've been a fan.
[00:08:55] LG: Is that the experiment he did on you or what was the experimental drug that he did?
[00:09:00] BM: He actually gave me a drug called leronlimab, which I did get emergency use authorization for it for compassionate use. At the time, we had nothing and it did help. It was – they did a clinical at UCLA, like about 25% of the people he said, "It helped immediately and the rest of it did nothing for." He had a hunch, and he got the FDA to give me emergency use authorization, and he gave it to me and it really was a miraculous –
[00:09:25] LG: Wow! The chances that he saw you or walked in or –
[00:09:31] BM: He's a physician scientist, Dr. Otto Yang, and head of the Infectious Disease Department. Physician scientists, they're a rare breed. There aren't many scientists that also go and have patients. He goes around the hospital once a month, and he visits patients, and talks to them and gets to know them. It happens to be that once a month happens to be my – he came by my room and came in, and as luck would have it. I was at the right place at the right time.
[00:09:59] LG: Well, that's amazing. Amazing and scary at the same time to be in the hospital.
[00:10:04] BM: I mean, I said goodbye to my kids. I had smuggled into the hospital room a last will and testament that I had to update. Yeah, I said goodbye. I was on full flow oxygen. I didn't want to get intubated. I was on full mask all the way up. They had an extra machine in there. They're shooting me up, everything. I had a lot of blood clotting going on, so they're shooting me up twice a day with heparin to keep my blood thin. It was really scary. It was really something that I'll never forget.
[00:10:36] LG: That's so terrible to go through that and to get to the goodbye phase. At least, in some scenarios, at least there is that option to say goodbye. There are so many tragedies that happen where no one gets to have that opportunity.
[00:10:49] BM: What was interesting is that, when you know that you got hypoxia, and you're just not going to be able to breathe, the real sad part for me was saying goodbye was a nice thing to do for my kids, and my wife, and everything and my loved ones. But I really wanted them to come visit me. During the COVID pandemic, you died alone.
[00:11:08] LG: I know.
[00:11:08] BM: No one was there holding your hand, or whatever.
[00:11:12] LG: Horrible.
[00:11:12] BM: It was really intense.
[00:11:13] LG: Really horrible. I mean, I also think about all the women that were pregnant, giving birth alone in the hospital by themselves, without their partners and their loved ones. That was a crazy, crazy time. I'm so happy to see you on the other end of it and strong, and just doing so well in your business, and hopefully your health as well. That sounds like that was kind of the introduction to the chamber that you're talking about that you kind of routinely nap in. That's kind of become a health routine, sounds like.
[00:11:44] BM: That's right. That's been health routine. Also, I do, I think – any and all that. I really love doing yoga, and I really love – I have a cold plunge. I get in my 45-degree plunge three, four times a week for four minutes or so. I got to tell you, the norepinephrine release out of that, talk about an amazing reset. Those are some of the things I do to keep myself balanced, and refreshed, and invigorated and driving seven by 24, which is what it takes to compete in building a brand.
[00:12:17] LG: Yeah, it really does. I appreciate you kind of bringing that to the forefront, because so many times during interviews, it's like, "Oh, it's just so hard being a founder, and no one really talks about actually what that is, how hard that actually is, and why it requires having a balanced routine of some sort to keep yourself healthy. I'm sure there was moments maybe that you had early on where you weren't as healthy, and probably learned the hard way, potentially. I think that's where a lot of us learn that balance is actually really important because you can get burnout.
[00:12:44] BM: For sure. I think, especially, we have what we call better-for-you alcohol and it's alcohol. There's only so much of that you could do and still maintain a really healthy constitution. Even in this category I'm in today, going from probiotic drinks that were nonalcoholic to protein drinks, to alcohol. Different categories of CPG require different kinds of unique demands, and all that needs to be measured and weighed as you craft your life driving a business, whatever it might be.
[00:13:20] LG: How did you get into building a business. Your first one, I think, was KeVita. How did you get to that point? Can you kind of go through your early career and then kind of how you had the idea?
[00:13:34] BM: I'll kind of give you my career and what gave me the tools. I guess in consumer-packaged goods, the first real foray was Casa Barranca, which is an organic winery I started back in 2000. It was the first certified organic winery in the central and southern coast of California. But before foods and beverages, which was like 2000, 2001, I was working at Bear Stearns on Wall Street and I was learning the capital markets. Never thought I'd be there. I've studied art history and lived with a French winemaker when I was going to school in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France as a student at UVA. I went to New York City, followed my high school sweetheart, lived above McSorley's on East 7th Street, for those of you that know that establishment. She was working for a company at the time called Apple and was really amazing.
I just had no idea coming from a liberal arts background education, studying psychology and biology. Anyway, ended up taking a nap. I saw an ad. It was at Bear Stearns, and then I ended up, after 10, 12, 15 years, migrated into having my own firm. I was a partner in a company, which still exists, Axiom Capital, and got really involved in managing money to hedge funds. I had a hedge fund, to eventually get into the business development of the company I started called Capital Formation Group with some [inaudible 00:14:59] lawyers, et cetera. Then, got into business development. I think really learning like how to put a business together, how to put a business plan together, how to evaluate it. We were like a Mackenzie of some sorts, but much more early stage. So, that was a big part of my life.
Then, fast forward, one of the deals I did was in 1989. I was in Tiananmen, during the Tiananmen Square crisis. I was at the Beijing Hotel and I was developing a joint venture with the Chinese Academy of Sciences for the first computerized reservation system for airlines in the People's Republic of China where they were doing paper stock and abacus. So I did that and George Soros funded it, installed it, had an exit, made some money very young, 32 years old, moved to Ojai, California, to change my life. Fell in love with California being a Midwestern and northeast guy. Oh, here was California. Oh, wow.
Anyway, when I moved to California, I just said, "Look, I want to grow stuff. I want to plant stuff." So, I got very involved in permaculture, biodynamics, biodiversity, learned a lot about that. Planted a 52-acre property, old historic Greene and Greene—no pun intended—home, and really, retold my life to really get more tactile and get more into the earth. Out of that, I started planning on growing grapes, and fell in love with stuff that you eat and make you feel good.
From there, it was the winery. Then from there, from the winery, it went to – since I was really in the fermentation and understanding all that stuff, I was partnered with my wife's best friend and we started a company called KeVita, which was a probiotic and drink company. The fermentation, we had a water kefir ferment, we had a kombucha ferment, and we had an apple cider vinegar ferment. Again, from there, we grew it five years, five and a half, six years and then sold it to PepsiCo. That was quite a journey. Sold it to PepsiCo. Then, after that exit, I got involved in some other companies, and help develop, and nurture other young entrepreneurs, and got them money, and strategics and decided that, well, you know, I don't want to just be an advisor. I don't want to be a board member. I really want to dig my teeth into something again.
[00:17:19] LG: Which is pretty amazing, by the way, because you've already had two exits by now, right?
[00:17:24] BM: Right.
[00:17:24] LG: I think a lot of people would be like, "Why not just enjoy life? Go to Europe."
[00:17:31] BM: That’s a really good question. Yeah, I mean, I don't need the money, so I was – but that's a good question. Even to this day, I wake up and I look at myself and went, "Okay. Hey, are you all right?
[00:17:42] LG: What's wrong with me? Is that what you're asking yourself?
[00:17:43] BM: I think there was a level of sobriety to some extent in jumping in full go. I mean, there's always a sense of confidence and capability, which you have because you've done it. There's something I love about building a company, and creating a culture, and watching people actually put liquid to lips, and have it be something that you created or crafted. That's really cool, but the grind of building and breaking through with a new brand is really hard. I think that it was only probably recently. I was probably coming out of COVID, I really had to rethink things and I think the business suffered a bit, because I was not really sure, having a near-death experience, that I wanted to jump back in.
[00:18:33] LG: Well, where was your head at at that moment? Jump back in in general, into another business, or –
[00:18:38] BM: Well, when I came out of COVID, I was at home for a couple of months as well, just recovering. I was thinking of every way I could exit really quickly. That was where I was. Yet, at the same time, the company wasn't ready for that and it needed me to double down. There was a real moment of really surrendering to the fact that I'm here. I've got my money and other people's money involved. I've got a company and I had to find and source, that touchstone of that old Bill that really loved to be involved in scaling and building something.
[00:19:14] LG: Real quick, because I want to get the audience up to speed because I don't know if they're completely on page with – you started Flying Embers in 2018, right? So, you had been in business for at least two years before you got COVID. I assume that was in 2020?
[00:19:30] BM: 2020, right.
[00:19:30] LG: Then, that's when you were like, "Okay. What am I doing here? Am I going to keep going? Do I close this up?" So, I just wanted to bring everybody listening up to speed on the timeline of things in case they got lost.
[00:19:42] BM: Yeah. It was just sort of a psycho-spiritual crises around, what am I doing? But all this time, coming out of that, and it took me about a year to really get through that PTSD and all that stuff that I went through. But you know, I think that was really an amazing time. I would say, it's been probably six months now, where I have just finally found my footing and to get to really love and really be inexhaustible in what I'm doing. Because when you're driving a brand and you're growing a brand, there's no time for idle thought. There's no time for existential crises around, "Oh, who am I? What am I doing? What happens upon death?" Whatever you go through when you have a near-death experience, like –
[00:20:30] LG: Or like the, "Why am I here?" question.
[00:20:32] BM: Yeah, exactly. Or how do I find someone to take over quickly? How do I sell this thing fast?
[00:20:38] LG: Or am I giving life another chance here? I don't want to waste it. Okay, what do you want me to do universe? What's next for me? It's a lot.
[00:20:46] BM: There's something about your circumstance and we're not victims of our circumstance. Ultimately, like really like finding the value and the love. What I do do is really what I had to reestablish and re-source, really re-source. Right now, I got to say, we just closed around financing in a very tough market to raise money, as you know, for growth-oriented companies. I got to tell you, I'm so excited about the opportunity that the private equity groups and the strategic has given me in this brand to get to the finish line. But you know, there's a lot of gratitude and a lot of hunger.
[00:21:25] LG: When you say reestablish and resource your passion and love, I'm sure there's a lot of founders probably listening that may have been in their business for like the past five years, and maybe they're getting tired, and they're trying to figure out how do re- get going here with this business? How do I get re– what's the word? Invigorated with this again?
[00:21:46] BM: Yeah, recharged.
[00:21:47] LG: Yeah, recharged. Perfect word. How did you work to get recharged?
[00:21:50] BM: Well, first off, since I came out of the hospital, I had two months at home. So there was a lot of that. But even coming out of that, there was still some questions about my vigor and my interest. I think it really comes down to a core value and really touching into a core value. How do you get recharged? Time off. Absolutely time off. Another way of getting recharged is reorg. If you need to recharge, your organization is not humming in a way that is nourishing, it is depleting. So you got to cut out anything that is not fully positive, optimistic, and you need believers and you need competency.
I think taking time off, and really reorg-ing your business so that when you come back in, you want to be replenished and not depleted by the culture and by the people that constitute the culture.
Then I go back to this, and then also you have to reestablish your relationship to your core value. Anybody that's an entrepreneur, there's a core value of drive, competitiveness, a sense of responsibility for those that have believed in you thus far. Like I looked at it, and I was like saying, "There is a core value to me that I'm so committed to the people that have entrusted in me their millions, millions. That for me to just, ugh! Because I went through a crisis, I’m just going to walk away." No, I actually had to say to myself, "If God forbid, I dropped it dead at my desk. Am I okay with that?" I had to find a source of fact that, yeah, because I love what I'm doing and that's okay.
[00:23:33] LG: Yeah. You got to enjoy what you're doing, and thankfully, you did enough to keep going, and keep persevering. That takes a lot of self-reflection. Again, going – like you said, to your core values. It's tough to keep it going as an entrepreneur, even without being in the hospital, which is even harder.
[00:23:56] BM: Well, you know, let me tell you. I mean, you have to have un-daunting faith, and believe in fate, and remember, every company that's meant to win is a team of destiny, it really is. I got to say, like there's this phrase in life called, "Pitch your tent" and it really is. Man, you have to pitch your tent because there are brands that make it straight up, and it's really a flawless trajectory and flight. But most of us that have brands, it's not so much that way. You have to really dig deep and commit and believe. When you think you're done or not, you got to stay in there.
Great story, with KeVita, we had a situation where we had problems with our ferment, our culture, with what was ultimately making our drink. We just got – Whole Foods just launched us nationwide. I remember our culture dying and basically, what we make it with. Then, I was noticing that product on the shelf was getting moldy, and funky and then I tested the product in our plant. There's E coli everywhere, and all of a sudden, I'm thinking, Odwalla. If those of you that have been around long enough know that Odwalla had gone through a period where they had E coli and people died from it. I was going through a real crisis, where I was sending my team out to pull product from shelf and the board was like, "What's going on?" I was trying to get my bacteria in my culture to clean up.
I'll never forget, how we got to the last time of doing different kinds of processes to get it so that it was healthy and clean. Anyway, I think when others might have thrown in the towel, all got it cleaned up, and we went back, and we got back on shelf. But there are a lot of stories that I'm sure a lot of us brands could talk about where there's product defects, and manufacturing challenges that ultimately make one thing. Can I get through this?
[00:25:56] LG: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's really tough when we fall to the ground, I guess you could say, and kind of faceplant. Really, it's like, I don't really – physically your head or maybe your body is probably saying, "I don't want to get up again. Can we just stay down and rest for a little bit?" And your mind is like, "Nope, we got to get back up. We got to get back up." There's one direction. We either go, or we stop and you can stop now. You're going to let this take you down.
[00:26:26] BM: What's interesting is that, there's a lot of different personality types that one possesses, or that exist in order to know that you've got that characteristic. When I look at investing in other brands, it's really about – is there someone there that, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. You know what I mean; that cliché. That's a key piece to any entrepreneur’s success across any industry.
[00:26:46] LG: Yeah. How do you filter for that as an investor? How do you find out if someone has that?
[00:26:50] BM: That's a really great question. Well, you look at their background, first off, and you kind of assess through their business trajectory, how long have they been there. I question all them, what have been your challenges, the greatest challenges you've overcome. There's something about a person's personality, how they hold themselves, how they speak. That gives you a sense that they can work through it. Obviously, when you see people that have done great adventures, or have excelled in school at high levels, or maybe was a great athlete, or maybe it was in the military and was a vet, because there are certain life experiences that you know they've had to get through some tough stuff. There is no one assessment tool, right? It's a combination of things you look at.
[00:27:40] LG: Have you used any of those assessment tools before, like the DISC assessment? Have you taken any of those?
[00:27:44] BM: I don't use them, but I've definitely taken them and they've been part of those assessment tools before. For me, it's about meeting the person, and talking to them and getting to know them.
[00:27:53] LG: Right. That's interesting. I think that being an entrepreneur, and also just having the show, and talking to so many great founders. Resiliency, I say this a lot, is a muscle that you have to build. I don't think it's something that anyone is really born with. I think that this is something that they over time and going through several different challenges, they just keep persevering, but it's not an easy muscle.
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[00:30:35] LG: Moving on to kind of the product, which we're both drinking. Are we drinking the same one? I have three flavors here with me actually that I've been trying out. My favorite is the Flying Embers' hard kombucha orange passion mimosa, which is really, really good. Thank you. What is your favorite flavor?
[00:30:58] BM: Thank you. We've got three lines. In my hard kombucha lime. The cherry hibiscus lime is really amazing. It's 7.2% alcohol, sugar free, carb free. No carbs, no sugar.
[00:31:12] LG: Yeah. I mean, there's a list of great stuff on my can. It says live cultures, USDA organic. I noticed like everything is organic, which is really cool. Gluten free, adaptogens, non-GMO, vegan, keto, all the keywords.
[00:31:28] BM: Everything you need to feel good about drinking something –
[00:31:31] LG: With alcohol.
[00:31:32] BM: Yeah, alcohol. Then, the other thing I usually save for a little bit later, it's our margarita, strawberry guava margarita.
[00:31:38] 0LG: I have the watermelon one here. The mojito.
[00:31:42] BM: Oh, pretty nice, that mojito. Those are pretty good.
[00:31:46] LG: Oh, you've got the margarita.
[00:31:47] BM: Yeah.
[00:31:47] LG: Okay. I've got a margarita too. I've got the classic, classic lime. This is actually really accurate. I was at a Mexican restaurant last night with a friend. We had margaritas, of course. So I can tell you, from recent experience, that very authentic Mexican restaurant.
[00:32:05] BM: The value proposition that we try to bring forth with all the products is, we’re really clean label, no sugar and something that tastes great, but doesn't make you feel lousy the next day.
[00:32:20] LG: Well, I can appreciate that. I mean, the size of the cup, it was like a water glass margarita. My friend and I were like, "Is this – are they having any margins on this, or is there no alcohol in this, or what? How can you put like a full-sized glass of water full of margarita?" And you're thinking, "Oh, boy, all the sugar I'm going to get from this is going to be not a good thing." But yeah, so it's great to know that you can have a great tasting sweet – it looks like you guys use organic monk fruit for the sweetener?
[00:32:45] BM: Mm-hmm, monk fruit.
[00:32:46] LG: It tastes great. It tastes great. The watermelon mojito is pretty good. I didn't try the other flavors, but I'm sure they're all really good. Just this orange passion mimosa is like, just my favorite.
[00:32:58] BM: Yeah, I appreciate that.
[00:33:00] LG: Yeah. What flavors do you have over there?
[00:33:03] BM: What I have on my desk currently - of course, we have them all here in the facility. My office also has manufacturing facility, but I've got just a strawberry guava and the cherry hibiscus lime.
[00:33:13] LG: So those are your two favorites?
[00:33:16] BM: Those are my two favorites. Correct.
[00:33:17] LG: That's awesome. Do you have any exciting kind of flavors we should keep an ear out for or eye out for in the coming months?
[00:33:25] BM: Well, we do, but that would –
[00:33:27] LG: You're not allowed to say?
[00:33:28] BM: I don't want to jump –
[00:33:29] LG: You can't spoil the news? You can give us a hint.
[00:33:34] BM: Innovation is really, really important to us. We think we've got some great innovation. I'll give you the name of the pack, the variety pack. It's an eight pack, but I can't give you the flavors yet, but it's called Birds of Paradise. Birds of Paradise. So you can think of where that your mind can go there with regard to a variety eight-pack. Excited about that.
[00:33:54] LG: All right. If anybody listening can guess what it is, email us and we'll send you a free pack of Birds of Paradise.
[00:34:01] BM: You get five free cases if you can identify what the –
[00:34:04] LG: There you go. Well, when's the expiration date on this? When are you guys launching it?
[00:34:09] BM: By two weeks after airtime.
[00:34:12] LG: Oh, really? Like Q2 2023?
[00:34:16] BM: Yes.
[00:34:17] LG: Okay, by the end of Q – well, they'll be launched, so before the launch. If it's not out yet –
[00:34:22] BM: Yeah.
[00:34:24] LG: Awesome. So, you've learned a ton and being a leader, not sure how big your team is now, but you've obviously had a ton of experience being CEO, and founder and building a company. What kind of advice do you have for the entrepreneurs tuning in that are maybe managing people for the first time or trying to build a brand for the first time and they're just trying to figure out how to be the best CEO they can be?
[00:34:47] BM: That's a great question. I just had a young man, a young guy in here probably in his late 20s or mid-20s, who's launching a new brand and he love to have me sit on the board and be an advisor. The most important thing that I think he got from me was that it's going to take way longer and a lot more than you ever imagined. He was a little, maybe perplexed. He was like, "No, my business plan shows 22,000,003 years" and he was really giving me –
I think, having belief, and commitment, and conviction on the brand, and the opportunity, really important. But also knowing that sometimes, some of the best conceived plans require pivots, adaptations, alterations based on the learning, the market, target market, psychographic, demographic, everything, usage, occasion. All these things are very fluid in the early years, and sometimes even as trends change. In food and beverage, they change quickly. Know that, whatever you believe today, you need to have an open enough platform to alter and innovate, to meet consumer preferences in the future. I mean, that's an important part of food and beverage.
[00:36:11] LG: Absolutely. I'm sure you have a ton of meetings like that, because you invest in brands. So you get – I'm sure entrepreneurs, kind of pitching you all the time, and having been an entrepreneur yourself for so long. We were talking about; how do you identify these great entrepreneurs to kind of partner with or to help build their business? What are some meetings you had where you're like, "This is not going to work"? What are some of the, maybe the people or maybe the attributes of someone where you're like, "I don’t know. This probably isn't going anywhere?”
[00:36:41] BM: Well, look. I mean, anybody that comes in with, like I said, too formed a belief or just arrogance, where you know that their own ego may get in the way of visibility, or things that they need to see that they're not seeing. So that's a definite, like, "Oh, this person is just a little too full of themselves" for my ability to have impact on me changing or being adaptable to changing times, et cetera.
The other thing is, is that, I'm pretty conversant with what questions you ask to determine whether they know their market, their product, their margins. If they stumble on any one, then it's usually a no. I mean, any entrepreneur that's looking for money or partnership, they need to really understand brand, they need to understand how to build brand, they need to understand route to market, they need to understand trade spend, and product margins, and all those things that go into winning. And if they stumble along the line, or if they just have a blind spot, if they're incomplete as a founder, let's say that they're not financial people, it’s a tough thing for me.
I would say to any entrepreneur out there: If you're taking meetings with folks that have done it and made it in the past, and you have a weak spot, make sure you close that gap. If you can't close the gap soon enough, then in that meeting, you have someone present that could address that topic or that particular function, corporate function in order so that you don't look ill prepared.
[00:38:14] LG: So bring your, I guess, fractional CFO.
[00:38:17] BM: [Inaudible 00:38:17]
[00:38:19] LG: – to the meetings.
[00:38:21] BM: Yeah, exactly.
[00:38:22] LG: It's a very common thing, though for a lot of founders to not have that financial back or knowledge. It's really common, because they're creative, they're adventurous, so they come up with these ideas and they can bring a product to market. But then, ask them what their LTV is, or like these certain fundraising terms or financial things, and they're like deer in headlights.
[00:38:45] BM: Yeah. Well, those folks got to do more work, more homework.
[00:38:48] LG: More homework.
[00:38:50] BM: To get and keep my attention.
[00:38:51] LG: I think there's a balance that entrepreneurs have to kind of be able to be a little bit of both. You have to be confident and super strong, so that in the investors that you're pitching to feel confident in you that you have the confidence enough to drive this home. Then, you also have to be coachable, and adaptable, and be able to listen and be a little bit more fluid too with feedback, or suggestions or like you said, kind of just like coachability, I think.
[00:39:16] BM: That's right, yeah. I mean, have a conviction and passion is really critical. And also having some suppleness to new thinking and new ways is also pretty critical trait for, I think, winning.
[00:39:29] LG: Before we wrap up just a few more questions. What are some of the – we've talked about some of your challenges, but what are some maybe like early mistakes that you made in building your businesses that you kind of learned the hard way?
[00:39:42] BM: I've always been a product person. I think one place I've been a bit nearsighted has been influence marketing, I think really, like building a brand through association or affiliation. I think that might have been a place where many of the brands would have probably have had faster trajectories if we had really thought through that aspect of marketing.
I'm a big liquid to lips or experiential sort of marketer. But I think in today's world of TikTok, and Instagram, etcetera, you’ve got to be a storyteller. You’ve got to tell stories about your brand that's relevant to your audience and the usage occasion, and ultimately, have some noteworthies that they really trust versus another ad coming from another brand. I think all in combination is really important. But I think in retrospect, had I put more emphasis and money behind that, it would have been a better, faster outcome for me
[00:40:47] LG: Influencer marketing.
[00:40:48] BM: Influencer marketing, right on
[00:40:50] LG: That is the world actually I come from, so I agree with you.
[00:40:55] BM: Well, we're deep in. So, if you have any words of wisdom, offline, I'd love to talk to you.
[00:41:00] LG: Yeah, we'll have to chat after, for sure. So, that's interesting. Influencer marketing is important thing as part of the strategy and it sounds like you wish you kind of would have prioritized that before. Now, you guys are doing that. That's awesome. You mentioned something about fundraising. I know that you guys raised, in the news that said $20 million in January, I think 2021. Just curious, what fundraising has been like for you? I mean, you're a seasoned founder, I assume that's like – it must have been pretty easy. Are we wrong?
[00:41:31] BM: Having a track record helps. Being able to present a business and a business opportunity to institutional thinkers, strategics is really important. I have experience from my prior work on Wall Street all the way through other brands, that really helps engender confidence by the fundraising community and strategic.
[00:41:56] LG: I'm also curious. When PepsiCo acquired your business in 2016, A, I guess, what was that like? Did you have to stay at PepsiCo at all for a certain amount of time? Weren't you on non-compete of some sort? Didn’t they want to wrap you up and say you're not allowed to do another beverage company?
[00:42:13] BM: Yeah. Part of my transition, I was involved in post-acquisition, sort of as an advisor to them. I wasn't an employee, so I didn't want to get the middle of that big institutions and what they had. But I was very instrumental in really working, getting other key employees to actually join up with them. That was really important for PepsiCo, of course, and for the brand to continue to live on. Actually, it was really interesting. Since I had at the time already, a winery and I so I carved out alcohol. I had a non-compete in fermented beverages that were non-alc. So, I didn't go there, but I did go in alc.
[00:42:55] LG: Did you have to do that redline yourself and put in the non-alc?
[00:42:59] BM: Oh, I negotiated that really hard.
[00:43:00] LG: Sure, they did not offer that, right
[00:43:03] BM: I'm here to tell you, like towards the exit, we're in the conference room, and we're sitting around talking about how hard it was to keep in that fermented beverage alcohol out. Because in PepsiCo, they don't mess around with compliance. Then in the non-kombucha space, there's a lot of compliance issues, right? One of the muscles we had to develop was how to really create a best-in-class manufacturing capability that enabled us to have standardization of ingredient packages, where the thing was in continuing to ferment in the can and all that stuff that PepsiCo really mattered.
I'm sitting there, we're talking, I'm talking to a couple of my associates and we're like, "Gee, imagine if we just let the alcohol – let it just keep fermenting.” So, that's when the idea of having a hard kombucha company or product was birthed actually, in the board room near an exit, talking about how hard it has been to keep the alcohol out of the non-alc kombucha.
[00:43:56] LG: So you kind of knew already that you might go –
[00:43:59] BM: I had an idea what the next play might be.
[00:44:02] LG: Awesome.
[00:44:03] LG: And Flying Embers, how'd you come up with that name?
[00:44:06] BM: So you know, in 2017, there was a fire, it was the largest North American fire in history, called the Thomas Fire that swept through Ventura and Ojai. At the time, we were still –in my winery, we were still developing the product with a couple of other co-founders and the fire was coming down. I had nine folks that stayed back, and the place was evacuated and the fire came. I was sitting there with first responders for three days and three nights as the fire was consuming houses and everything else. I was watching one night and it was probably, we would do night shift and the embers were flying through – I live up in the foothills, and they're flying through the sky, and I was just watching these embers fly and like hit and catch the brush and the trees on fire. I was like, "Wow, it's all about the flying embers." That's all fire is about, is wind and embers.
At that time, "I was like, "What?" It really is a metaphor. It's transformational. It really does transform your topography, your world. We’re trying to do the same thing in transforming alcohol to be something that is, let's just say, less bad for you. That whole moment of transformation, and that moment in defending the winery, and the product is when I came up with Flying Embers. Since that time, our cause is to give back to first responders. We've given probably close to a million dollars over the last four years to first responders' mental health groups and talent. Anyway, we've been very supportive of those that care and protect us.
[00:45:46] LG: Wow! It sounds like nothing was harmed, hopefully, on the property. Sounds like you guys were lucky.
[00:45:51] BM: We were lucky and it was another story.
[00:45:54] LG: Yeah. Another story for another time. Many amazing stories. Thank you so much, Bill. Really appreciate your time in sharing your incredible, inspiring journey, and story in building many brands, but also Flying Embers. Thanks so much for joining us
[00:46:09] BM: Thank you, Lee. Yeah, have a beautiful day and talk to you soon.
[END OF EPISODE]
[00:46:18] LG: Thank you so much for listening to the Stairway to CEO Podcast. Once again, I'm your host, Lee Greene. If you have any burning business questions, please feel free to reach us at www.stairwaytoceo.com. We'd love to hear from you. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe to the show. Tell your friends, leave us a review, and follow us on Instagram, @stairwaytoCEO. Until next time, guys. Keep on climbing.