How This Founder Built a $1.7 Billion Business Around a Product That’s Normally Thrown in the Trash
Really talking to people helped show this founder where his customers were going–well before the giant brands had any clue.
Bai Brands founder Ben Weiss created a low-calorie, low-sugar, antioxidant-rich beverage based on coffeefruit--the bitter pulp that surrounds coffee beans and is usually discarded. After launching from his Princeton, New Jersey, basement, Weiss spent years giving out samples, and landed on the Inc. 500 in 2015. This year, Dr Pepper Snapple Group bought Bai for $1.7 billion. --As told to Will Yakowicz
If you get shelf space and think you've made it, you're mistaken. On the shelf, you're just inventory. The game is to get off the shelf and into the hands of the consumer.
In 2010, we noticed that customers were turning bottles to see how much sugar was inside of them. You'd win or lose on that basis, and I saw it coming--a growing unwillingness in customers to drink sugar. This is the issue that has fueled our growth. We spent five years handing out samples, telling customers about coffeefruit and how Bai has only five calories and one gram of sugar. It wasn't glamorous, yet it worked--no other beverage could make the same claims.
The longer you're in the beverage industry, the more you realize you're really in the distribution industry. In 2014, we signed a national distribution deal with Dr Pepper Snapple Group. Sixteen months later, DPSG made a $15 million investment.
I wanted to maximize the brand's potential--we couldn't be just another product on a company's truck; we needed to be a top priority. It was a tough decision, but I initiated the process and told J.P.Morgan, which had given us $50 million of financing years earlier, that I wanted to change the industry with a company embracing our vision. Eventually, DPSG said that it wanted to go where we were going, and to be part of the solution: to help the industry end its dependency on sugar and artificial sweeteners. That's the bedrock of our relationship with DPSG.
Bai was early, but we were on to a fundamental change. This is the first year bottled water has surpassed soda in sales. Ten years from now, the beverage landscape is going to be very different, and Bai will be a big part of that change.
Update, July 12, 2017: Ben Weiss left Bai Brands on June 22 and was replaced by Lain Hancock, who was an executive vice president of Human Resources at Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. Weiss would not comment on his departure. In a press release, Weiss said: "This is the culmination of an amazing journey for me and my family. What we created at Bai made history. I could not be prouder of the Unbelievers I worked side-by-side with growing Bai to be a disruptor and leader in the beverage industry. This extraordinary brand has been embraced by millions of consumers, and I am confident in its future."