How a Chattanooga entrepreneur grew a startup from mobile soda fountain to mass production
Pure Sodaworks co-founder Matt Rogers advises entrepreneurs to scale slowly for long-term growth.
When Chattanooga entrepreneurs Matt and Tiffany Rogers founded Pure Sodaworks in 2011, they had no idea how far — or fast — their craft soda startup would take them in just eight years. Their award-winning sodas have been featured everywhere from Garden & Gun’s Made in the South Awards to Pickler & Ben, and they recently landed a distribution deal with Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, a move that will promote their products nationwide.
We caught up with Matt Rogers at last year’s 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival to learn more about Pure Sodaworks and discuss the challenges he’s faced and lessons he’s learned as an entrepreneur in the product space.
A high-volume customer creates proportional challenges
It was the summer of 2017. After taking a step back to rethink Pure Sodaworks’ business model, Rogers was ready to start looking for his first high-volume customer.
Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel seemed like the perfect fit. “I basically just called them up and said, ‘Hey, we have this product. When is your category review for beverages? I’d love to pitch to y’all,’” Rogers recalled.
Through much “follow-up and persistence,” he got a meeting with Cracker Barrel’s buyers that fall.
“They sent us a purchase order a couple days before Thanksgiving,” Rogers said, “and they wanted the soda delivered at the end of January.”
Cracker Barrel now carries Pure Sodaworks products at 650 stores across the country. But while the deal was a game-changer for Rogers’s small business, it also presented a major production problem.
“We didn’t have a supply chain or anything,” Rogers said. “We had nothing set up for mass production, period. So that was a mad scramble.”
It takes a network to grow a business
Suddenly confronted by all that he didn’t know about mass production, Rogers dove into research and turned to his network to find people with experience and resources to assist.
“There’s no manual for this,” Rogers emphasized, “and it varies from industry to industry and case to case.” The process was difficult — but rewarding. The team muddled through until they found the right connections.
One of those key people was Pure Sodaworks’ bottle broker, whom Rogers had met in the company’s early days. A 40-year industry veteran, he was “a source of information and a shoulder to cry on,” said Rogers. The guidance proved invaluable as Pure Sodaworks grew.
“He had a ton of information helping me to manage my own expectations,” Rogers remembered, “and he was able to connect me with a couple other bottlers.”
Additionally, Rogers was able to work with his new contacts at Cracker Barrel to ensure that Pure Sodaworks would be able to meet production requirements.
“It was very spelled-out in terms of the types of facilities we could use,” Rogers explained. “Government regulations are just about preventing mass outbreaks of sickness; on the corporate side, they have to worry about mass outbreaks of lawsuits.”
Scale slowly to build long-term success
As Pure Sodaworks rushed to meet demand, some of Rogers’s most important resources were his own experiences as an entrepreneur developing his company from 2011–2016 — a period he now calls “Pure Sodaworks 1.0.”
“By 2016, what we had was this mess of a distribution network and a machine that wasn’t working as well for our product,” Rogers said. “We realized that what we had was an unsustainable business model, and that caused us to scale everything back, really go back to the drawing board.”
One of the biggest lessons Rogers learned from stepping back to reassess was not to grow a business before it’s ready. “We started off as a mobile soda fountain getting the product out by the cup,” Rogers said.
“People would do well to have a plan and know the direction they want to go in,” he said. “By all means establish that, figure that out, but don’t be afraid to take it easy and establish your actual product and your market before you start going after VC money and things like that.”
In the end, taking the time to understand the unique challenges of a business is key. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this,” Rogers emphasized. “You have to really look at it as a holistic thing.”