Chris Hunter: Author of Blackout Punch and Co-Founder & CEO of Koia

Episode 532

Chris Hunter, Co-Founder & CEO of Koia and Author of Blackout Punch, shares his journey as a serial entrepreneur and the lessons he has learned along the way. We hear about his experience co-founding Four Loko, once a highly caffeinated alcoholic beverage which experienced rapid growth but also faced challenges from government agencies. We also learn about his transition into the non-alcoholic space and how Koia came to be. Chris’s motivation and resilience are nothing short of inspiring. And I can't wait for you to hear our conversation. Now on the #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, its Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. I’m so excited to have my next guest, another fellow beverage entrepreneur very, very thrilled to have some experience in the house of somebody who has launched multiple beverages, Chris Hunter, who is the current co founder and CEO of Koia. But he also launched another beverage years ago. So he’s a serial entrepreneur, a beverage that you may or may not have heard of, that we’ll get into. He also is the author of a brand new book called Blackout Punch. That is quite excellent. If you haven’t read the book yet or haven’t heard about it, you’re going to be very, very excited to hear what Chris has to say about his journey and building this this company. That was called Four Loko. So I’ll leave it at that. And we’ll get into talking about Chris and his journey, his early venture into the beverage world really led to kind of the story of what he talks about in Blackout Punch. And currently as the co founder and CEO of Koia. He’s making waves in the health and wellness industry very different than what Four Loko was. But Koia is an incredible during call that is a plant based protein drink. And they’re doing lots of incredible stuff in that market. Lots of new innovation coming out, too. So very, very incredible to have Chris on the show with us here today. So welcome, Chris.

Chris Hunter 2:25
Yeah, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be on. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 2:27
absolutely. So your path to entrepreneurship is both incredibly inspiring and filled with so many lessons. Could you share a little bit about your life early on. And before you actually launch the beverage with a few other founders, where you were launching for loco, but I’d love to have you kind of share what you were doing even before that? Yeah, I

Chris Hunter 2:55
mean, if I think back and it’s kind of the the journey I share and Blackout Punches you mentioned, but I kind of was born an entrepreneur, I always had this entrepreneurial spirit, I grew up in a in a lower middle class, blue collar family where, you know, the aspirational bar, at least in the area I was in was to get a stable factory job with good benefits. And that meant you were living the good life, right. And I also got to see firsthand the struggles that money or lack thereof, you know, created. And so I think that’s probably what inspired me to, to start an entrepreneurial journey. I mean, that coupled with a little bit of rebelliousness, and never wanting someone else to tell me what to do, which I think is inherent in all of us. So like, the early days for me, were, you know, I buy bulk candy and sell it on the on the school bus or, you know, even earlier than that color pictures in my coloring book and take them around and sell them in the neighborhood. And that evolved into setting up stands at flea markets and starting a magazine in college. And I was always trying different things. And I just, I just never really felt like I was employable. And I always wanted to do my own thing. So so that really started the journey. And one thing leads to another as you know, with the entrepreneurial journey in college, I was I started a promotions company, we did a lot of nightclub and bar and restaurant events around Columbus, Ohio and across the country. And, and I got to meet a lot of people there. And I had no idea what I wanted to do after college I was going for, you know, a business degree and I liked marketing, but I didn’t know what that meant, or what that would mean from a career perspective. And ultimately, I decided to move to Chicago without a real plan. And a few months in I said I really need a job and and I just dug through my old business cards and found a guy that I hit met in Columbus who was part of a startup vodka company. And it just bugged him until he gave me a job and that’s how I got started in the beverage industry.

Kara Goldin 4:59
That’s So funny. Did you have friends in the beverage industry? Or were you just did you know anybody or other than this guy? I mean, my

Chris Hunter 5:08
closest friends in the beverage industry were bartenders, right. I mean, I was I was a young college kid and I had met a few people. Fortunately, when I was in Columbus, I met someone from Superior beverage or central beverage. It was called at that time, which was the Miller Coors distributor. And so I kind of learned about this distributor world. When I was in college, it was right when Red Bull was introducing their product throughout the US and not in the first markets. We were in Columbus, Ohio, right. So this is years after I got introduced to New York and LA. So I met someone who was a rep for Red Bull. And then I met this guy who, who was with this startup vodka company. And essentially what happened is, he was his vodka company was represented by a very niche distributor that mainly focused on white tablecloth accounts, so high end restaurants, but his product really fit in the party bars because it was being sold as it was a cherry vodka. It was being sold in Red Bull as a cherry bomb, they called it. And so the woman that worked at the distributor, recently graduated college, she was a friend of mine, and she called me and said, Hey, will you take this guy around to meet the bar owners? And I was like, Yeah, sure, why not? And I did. And I watched him pitch this. And it really opened my eyes to how beverage work with distributors, and particularly alcohol with state laws and all these things. And so that was really my introduction to beverage.

Kara Goldin 6:30
So in your book, Blackout, punch, your brand new book that is just coming out. Congratulations, you. Thank you. you delve into your experiences with Four Loko? Could you explain what was Four Loko and the journey it took you on?

Chris Hunter 6:49
Yeah, it was a wild journey. For logo at its core is essentially a caffeinated alcoholic beverage. So it was inspired by Red Bull and vodka. And we decided to make a pre mixed ready to drink version of that. It started out in one form and over the years iterated and innovated to become Four Loko that was over the course of two years. And then it was immediate work rise, we went from, you know, very little revenue just hanging on as a company to being one of the fastest growing in the alcohol industry and a top five brewery in the matter of two years. And then the FDA, the TTB, Attorney General’s, every government agency under the sun stepped in. And that’s where I got a PhD in crisis management. And so we navigated those waters. You know, reformulated quickly, we removed all the stimulants from the product. So it was a still a high alcohol flavored product that still exists today. And it’s very relevant. I don’t manage the the company anymore, and my partners do, but they’ve done a really good job keeping the product relevant. So so that’s what it is and what it was. So

Kara Goldin 7:58
I think with every challenge that we all have in life, not just as entrepreneurs reflecting on your time with Four Loko, what key lesson did you carry forward from that experience? Boy,

Chris Hunter 8:16
there are so many, so many lessons, I think one from a company perspective is iterations always matter, right? We were, as I mentioned, on the verge of of going out of business, our product was not really pulling off the shelf. And we have this false sense of success or security because distributors ordering the product, right. But as you know, the distributor ordering the product is how we get paid them selling to the account is how they get paid. And then the store selling it to the end customers how they get paid. And ultimately, we get paid because they reorder, right? Well, those reorder happening. And so as we listen to the market, and paid attention, you know, feet on the street, we were in the stores ourselves, we noticed that higher alcohol products were selling, we noticed that 24 ounce cans were really becoming popular and so iterating based on customer feedback is very important. And as I have examples, both in for logo, as well as in Koia, that being relevant, I can say that, you know, working on partnerships is is really important. And a lesson that I learned I am a very much a move fast and break things type person. And some people thrive in that environment, and some people do not. And it takes a lot of communication to make that you know work and make sure you’re on the same page. And I unfortunately, did not see the value in that I saw the value in moving fast, right. And so that can can sometimes cause disruption. So I think, you know, if you choose to go into an entrepreneurial venture with partners, really make sure that you guys are clear in your partnership and you’re taking time to nurture the partnership is a lesson that I took away from that. I could go on and on. We could spend the whole time on that, but there are endless lessons.

Kara Goldin 10:02
Yeah, that’s awesome. And obviously the alcohol industry very different than what you’ve jumped into. Now with Koia. Do you want to describe koi as core mission and values and, and maybe how that just fits with what you’re doing now in life as well? Yeah,

Chris Hunter 10:21
so at its core and simplest, as simple as possible, quit is a delicious plant based protein drink, right? That’s what it is and how it exists today. Now, as we dig deeper into what that means, and why I was excited about it, how I got involved in Koia was I was investing while I was still at Fusion projects that for logo in better for you food and beverage. And there’s, there’s a quote in the book that really crystallizes why I was doing that. I remember at one point, we were having a meeting at Four Loko and we were going through line items from a cost saving exercise. And, and one item stood out it was high fructose corn syrup. And one of the people at the company kind of made a joke. And they said, Oh, man, we we, you know, we sell all this high fructose corn syrup so that we can eat organic. And it was a joke, right? But it’s stuck with me. And I was like, Oh my God, this doesn’t really sit well with me. And couple that with the fact that I was now married, my wife is a holistic nutritionist and is very, you know, adamant about what makes it in our household. I had one child at the time, my second was on the way and so life was just like looking really different. Right? I was getting into more health and wellness things I always worked out but like meditation, yoga, these, you know, but this is also 10 years ago, 15 years ago, right? And so, life was just looking really different. And I had a guy call me in Chicago, and he said, Hey, listen, you’re a beverage guy. I found this interesting plant based protein drink that we’re thinking of investing in, we take a look at it. And I did and it was called Raw nature five, essentially, I call that coil 1.0. And, and basically, I found the drink in a place I was working out and they had it in distribution in about 20 stores. It was in its essence what Koia is now it was P rice and chickpea protein at that time was hemp protein. In almond milk. It tasted good. I found it in my gym, I drank. And I was like, This is great. I invested in the product. About six months in my two, the two co founders were still running the company and it was on the verge of insolvency. I was transitioning out of out of fusion, and I was looking for my next thing what I was going to do. And I said I really feel like there’s something here like if you think back 910 years ago in Chicago, you know, typical meat potatoes town, I’m from the Midwest, like plant based vegan that was like device, right? That was like, it wasn’t inclusive. But this this idea of plant based was emerging. And this product was seemed to be selling in a small way. And it would fit with my lifestyle. Because my second son was born, he was having a lot of stomach issues. My wife dug deep. And we ultimately realized he was dairy intolerant. So we became a dairy free household. So I said, you know, I’m looking forward to my next thing. I talked to the two other co founders at Koia. Ron at your five at the time, and I said, Look, I’m gonna come in and fund it. And I’m gonna pivot this company, and I’m gonna run it. And we agreed to that. And that was the inception of coil. We pulled it off Ron at your five off the market for a little bit. And then came back and in 2015, nationally with whole foods. So that was a long winded answer. But that’s what coil is, as it sits today. Now, over the years, what’s happened is we’ve tested the boundaries of the brand. What is Korea mean? Right? We know it means delicious, we think that’s first, right? We know it means protein, plant protein in some way. We know it means low sugar. And talking to consumers, we started testing the boundaries. So we did low sugar smoothie lines, we did functional coffee lines, we did all these different things. And what we’ve come back to now, eight years in is that coin is truly about delicious. plant protein that’s low sugar at its core, right? Those are essential attributes. And that really helped us take off the restraints about what forms and channels quick and show up in so I mentioned to you prior to the call but we’re we’re after nine years, or eight years, finally going on Amazon because we have created tetrapack version shelf stable Tetra pack version of Koia 20 grams of protein, enhanced with vitamin, mineral and minerals. And that’s just the beginning of our expansion of the brand. So what it meant that then still what it means now maybe just showing up in different ways and in different places.

Kara Goldin 14:45
That’s awesome. Very, very cool. So where did the name come from then Korea.

Chris Hunter 14:50
So as we transitioned away from raw nature five that name wasn’t going to work. We engage the branding agency in our room Your requirement was we wanted something that was trademarked, right? You know how difficult that can be. And so we said, look, we don’t have any attachment to any particular name. And they came up with a list of them and Koia was one of them. And their reasoning behind the name was that the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica is one of the five blue zones in the world. And the blue zones have these kind of core tenant tenants, right? It’s primarily a plant based diet, not exclusive, right? Weaving activity into your daily life, not about like hardcore marathons or whatever it may be. It was about having a purpose that all these things and all those things kind of related to what we you know, want to koi it to be about, we’re not exclusive. I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat me, this is just the healthy alternative right to to dairy or whey protein. We’re not saying that you have to go run marathons or be Ironman to be healthy, you can just be active, right? And, and so that resonated. That was the inspiration behind Koia. And so that ended up becoming the name.

Kara Goldin 16:03
So how many SKUs? Did you actually launch with them? I mean, you were kind of doing it like a relaunch, right? You had sort of had something there some base, but then you were changing the name new packaging, everything. How many did you ultimately go to market with them when you were going out with Korea? Yeah,

Chris Hunter 16:22
there were Ezreal nature five, there were about 20 stores, mostly in Chicago, some in in Michigan that were selling the product, some of those were gyms, there was one whole foods. So when we pulled it off the market, there was a little recognition, a little proof of concept for us, but no real national awareness. We partnered with presents, if you remember, or if you know, Bill Weiland over there and that theme, and and when we launched, we launched with three flavors, which are two of them are still our top sellers. It’s vanilla bean, cacao bean, our number one and our number two, and it makes sense and protein. So good chocolate. Yeah, thank you. And and then we launched with coconut omen. And since then we have expanded out so we have 14 flavors in our protein lineup. So that whole foods, you can find all 14 flavors ranging from, you know, vanilla, cacao bean to banana cream, or we have the cereal flavors now fruity cereal we have, we have very indulgent flavors like chocolate brownie. And so that’s that’s kind of the SKU expansion in the 12 ounce refrigerated product.

Kara Goldin 17:27
So you touched on this a little bit, but relationships and partnerships. I mean, definitely, I think when you’re going for round two, as a serial entrepreneur, you learned a lot about those relationships. And you were able to go into Whole Foods and pitch this and get it going. And not to say that first time entrepreneurs can’t do that. But what did you know going in that you needed to show that, you know, maybe you wouldn’t have been able to show it’s a different alcohol versus, you know, plant based, obviously, very, very different. But what did you know that you needed to go in and sort of dot the i’s and cross the T’s this time that you didn’t maybe know, in your prior life? Yeah.

Chris Hunter 18:14
What I knew this time was that velocity is almost the only metric that matters. And so that false sense of security that I mentioned before, of selling into a distributor, or in this example, getting a national approval from whole foods, like those are high five moments you feel good about them. But those are not the metrics that are going to make you successful. And so looking back we had it was not a smooth introduction of the brand. We actually had our first production batch spoil the day, UNFPA was showing up to pick it up. And so we had to cancel the orders, we had to ask Whole Foods for support, we had to rebrand the product, figure it out, and then launch two weeks later. And if you you know, if you think about that, what it did is throw off the reset. And so it wasn’t like we were on every shelf all of a sudden, but we knew we were going to still be held to the same metrics of success that we would have if that had happened. And so we had to overspend on support to make sure the product made it to the shelf to make sure that we did demos to get people to try it to really build that story. And that can happen in in one to five stores or can happen in 400 Whole Foods but what I know now is that you have to take advantage of the opportunity you’re given and make it a success because that is what will propel you into additional distribution and success.

Kara Goldin 19:34
Yeah, definitely. So and how many stores are you guys available in now with Korea we’re

Chris Hunter 19:39
in over 30,000 stores now we’re in every every channel from natural to conventional to to C stores we recently went national with Starbucks at the end of last year which is very exciting distribution and and it’s been a great partnership with them and and ended up revealing something unknown to us. Is that cough Koia is actually relatively ingrained in coffee culture. Right. So we have a coffee SKU, we always thought that made sense caffeine and, and protein in the morning, and what better way to start the day and but it never really worked for us. And then about six months ago, our cold brew SKU started taking off became our fastest growing and our number four item. And around that same time we launched in Starbucks. And we also noticed this viral trend on tick tock, our Director of Marketing brought it to our attention, the hashtag was profit, protein coffee. And so we latched on to that multiple ways, by continuing to kind of grow our support of the coffee item that we had. And then also by highlighting both on our social channels, and on Starbucks social channels, this profit idea where you take two shots of expresso from Starbucks in a venti cup, you pour in your koi, and you have your breakfast on the go. And so that’s probably been our biggest and most recent expansion. And as I mentioned, what we’re really excited about is to finally have an option to sell on Amazon. Because, as you know, you know, beverages are very difficult to sell digitally, first of all, but then when you have to refrigerate them, there’s no way to make money. Yeah. So, you know, we get over 5000 requests a month on Amazon, our number one request is how do I buy in bulk? Our number two is how do I get it delivered? So, you know, our 12 ounce nutritional shakes that are in 12 packs are a solution to that we’re really excited to be

Kara Goldin 21:35
launching it. That’s super exciting. So when does that launching?

Chris Hunter 21:37
That’s launching early May. Oh, that’s,

Kara Goldin 21:41
that’s incredible. Very, very exciting. And the day. So how do you get the word out about building up your brand? I mean, you just mentioned tic toc. But what do you think is the key to getting people to really understand what you’re doing? I mean, using the terms plant based, there’s a lot of plant based things out there. How do you get people to actually try your product? And especially if maybe you’re not in Whole Foods, or you’re not in a store? Where they can come try it? Like how do you get the word out these days about your product.

Chris Hunter 22:16
I mean, I remember someone in the beverage industry, right when I was starting saying if you believe in your product, give it away. And that was always like, baffling to me. But I now it totally makes sense. If if I think which I do our product is delicious, and people are gonna like it, the more I can get them to taste it liquid to lips, whether that’s through a sampling event in a store, where they’re taking a little cup, or whether that’s handing them a full bottle at the end of a marathon, whatever it may be. I think that is the, the the best thing you can do in the early days, because you will find your cult followers, right, who will then become advocates, and in today’s world with social media, all you need is a few advocates to talk about your brand and amplify it digitally, right? So you know, getting a little more granular on that, I would probably say that doing it closest to the point of purchase is the most effective and efficient. So if you have five stores, I’d be sampling at all five of those stores, right and outside of all five of those stores. And as you get bigger and have wider distribution, you know, events and things like that, I will not discount. Social media though. I was one of the people who said what are we talking about with Tik Tok? Who cares about the kids dancing, whatever. And we had a director of marketing and an investor that really pushed us into it. And I’ll tell you that when we put some effort and money behind it, we did see the impact. We noticed that that retail

Kara Goldin 23:44
Yeah, definitely. And I think for your market too. And like you said, finding those bridge areas where you can start to find new audiences. Maybe it’s the coffee drinker that also likes protein, but you know, it’s definitely figuring out this not just new ingredients that could go hand in hand with your product, but also finding, you know, maybe it’s new diets or new, you know, health initiatives, or if you end up finding an influencer that is just obsessed with your product with him. We had many that, you know, we didn’t we weren’t paying people to do that. And they were talking about it. And we had memes that were developed around, which was really fun. And again, you end up just figuring that stuff out along the way. So it’s sometimes

Chris Hunter 24:38
just get lucky right? Sometimes you just get lucky like we were. We realized early on that our product actually fit the Keto lifestyle from a net carb perspective or protein or protein items worked. They weren’t perfect, but they work and and we saw that and so we we then innovated and came out with a Keto line that we always assumed would have like a certain timeframe, right we knew would be, let’s call it three, four years, but we’re going to take advantage of that to gain exposure. So those those specific diets or trends, or in the most recent case, the property trend like are really valuable to attach to. Another example of one of those is, there was this not long ago, this ninja creamy craze going on where there’s this machine, the ninja creamy, that you can freeze anything, and you can make ice cream, right. And again, our Director of Marketing came to me and she said, like, I think we should take advantage of this, let’s try something with it, we use some of our more indulgent flavors, and it was some of our most effective, you know, marketing campaigns that we’ve ever run. It’s just people were already doing it, we inserted the product into the conversation. That’s

Kara Goldin 25:45
awesome. And and you had fun with it, too, with these different partnerships, so that’s great. So what would you say is the most challenging aspect of founding and growing your company today, when you look at, you know, forget about the fact that it’s that you have to have a product that tastes good, you have to I mean, maybe people will try your product, but then they’re not going to come back and repurchase and want cases, like you’re saying, or they won’t write to you and have 5000 people asking, you know, for you to be on Amazon or whatever, you you definitely need to have a great tasting product, for sure. But any other thoughts on, you know, what is really, really tough about founding a company and scaling a company? I should say?

Chris Hunter 26:33
Yeah, I mean, much. Higher level, I think one of the most difficult things, at least for me as an entrepreneur is really staying focused, because I think entrepreneurs have a tendency to get very excited and passionate, and I’m speaking about myself as well, and want to do a lot of things. And that’s amazing at the beginning, because people are buying based on your passion, right? But as the company grows, and the product grows, and distribution grows, often it’s a lot of doing the same thing over and over, we know what works, you just have to go execute, you have to be patient, especially if you’re at retail, the retail cycles are long, and you know, resets take time. And so I would say for myself a bit of a surprise was just letting myself slow down and and remain focused, don’t go chase different things and distract our team. And and I think it’s probably underestimated and under discussed how difficult that can be. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 27:42
no, I totally agree. And sometimes, you have to almost have somebody else to kind of keep you in check, right to make sure that you’re not doing that to the rest of the team. So do you have a co founder in your business now.

Chris Hunter 27:56
So the original two co founders that I partnered with at the beginning are no longer involved. I brought the the former CFO at fusion. And I became really good friends, I had a lot of respect for him. He left and did a CEO role at another company and then joined me here as a CEO and president. And so I would say I don’t have a formal partner in that respect. But he’s basically my partner.

Kara Goldin 28:21
Yeah, that’s awesome. So getting back to your book, again, Blackout punch, so many stories, and so many lessons and, and the journey of, of building and I frankly, believe like, it’s the best way for people to learn is to read these books about the authentic books like yours is about really building a company and especially when you’re going to talk about the lessons and and, you know, the warts and all as you do, which is really, really incredible. So everybody’s definitely got to pick up a copy of the book. But what is kind of the biggest takeaway, like something that maybe was hard for you to talk about, but you think it’s really important for people to know and understand from your journey? That is a massive lesson for that for anybody who’s thinking about venturing into entrepreneurship? Yeah,

Chris Hunter 29:22
I think we tend to always hear the positive and glamorized stories about entrepreneurship. And I think that’s very exciting right at the beginning, especially, but it’s not the reality. And I feel like there’s often a stigma with sharing any setbacks and I don’t think that’s the right way to approach it. The biggest lesson for me is to be okay with the reality it is not a linear journey. It is not all you know, positive. There are definitely setbacks. You know, the biggest thing for me to look back on was like I had a partnership that fell apart and I was essentially fired from the company that I had started. And there was a short period where I was I had a hard time saying that and I think, look, I’m a pretty candid person. If you read the book, you’ll know I expose all the warts, right? I’m not trying to act like I’m anything different than I am. And I think people can learn from that. But that was hard to swallow and then to verbalize, but it was also freeing when I did another examples I talked about recently how we’re launching our Tetra pack on Amazon. And when I now stop and think about it, I’m like, we are three years late on this, I should have launched this three years ago, admitting the mistakes, both to myself and then to others is like, it’s, it’s okay. Right? It makes you human. It’s how you learn. And I feel like a lesson I learned was acting like you know, what are acting like you got it all under control and don’t need help does not work. It just puts you in a worst position.

Kara Goldin 30:54
Yeah, I totally, totally agree. So such a great, just incredible, incredible journey that you’ve that you’ve been on. And this book is super great. Koia is excellent. I’m so inspired by you and thankful for that you would actually go and write this and be so generous with your time just to be able to share with other people, because I think it’s super important. So everyone needs try Korea too, and very excited for it to be on Amazon as well and a shelf stable format. It’s quite excellent. And thank you so much, Chris. Really, really nice seeing you.

Chris Hunter 31:37
Thank you. I appreciate it. It’s good to see you.

Kara Goldin 31:40
Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review. And feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. I would love to hear from you too, so feel free to DM me. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my Wall Street Journal, best selling book undaunted, where I share more about my journey including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks for listening and good bye for now.