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Dr. John J. Mittel of Phocus: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand

An Interview With Vicky Colas

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing John J Mittel, M.D.

While in medical school at the University of Louisville, Dr. John Mittel grew tired of relying on sugar-laden energy drinks to fuel his constant study efforts. Energy drinks and sodas dominated the hospitals and University cafés despite the unhealthy ingredients. In 2015, he had the vision to develop a healthy alternative that would still provide a source of energy and focus; caffeinated sparkling water.

From late 2015 until 2017 he went all-in and committed his off hours to Phocus. John graduated medical school in 2018 yet deferred his residency to pursue Phocus full time. He currently resides in New York City supporting the sales and marketing distribution growth efforts in the Northeast.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky and was fortunate to grow up in a family with seven siblings. Throughout most of my childhood and teenage years, I was a competitive swimmer. I guess you could say I have always been an athlete at heart — and health and fitness have always been of interest.

Prior to entering college, I had always thought ‘I want to go to med school’ — yet, somehow, I feel in love with engineering. That’s when I decided I would pursue a degree in engineering. I attended the University of Louisville Speed School of Engineering and worked at GE Appliance Park and GE Industrial Solutions while in the Speed School undergrad program.

I guess you could say that sometimes ‘your dream never dies.’ While I was enjoying my engineering education, I soon realized that I still wanted to go to med school. I prepared and was accepted into the University of Louisville School of Medicine. I studied, I succeeded, and was ready to practice medicine…or so I thought…insert Phocus here.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

I was always a big fan of caffeine growing up, but never liked coffee (and I still don’t). So, when I needed a lift, I would go to diet soda, energy drinks, or energy shots.

By my second year of med school, I started to become more conscious about what I was putting in my body and began forcing myself to drink coffee. One night in the library around 8pm, I went to the vending machine looking for a lift to help me get about three to four more hours of studying done, but I found nothing. I mean, nothing. I ended up grabbing a water. As I sat at my table in the library, I thought ‘why not just put caffeine in water.’

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Leading up to the launch of Phocus, all I could think was — “we have a great product, there is no one else out there like us, this should be easy.” I thought for sure that all I had to do to get into Whole Foods, Kroger or Target was to walk into a store, speak with a manager, and we’d instantly be on the shelves.

I quickly learned how wrong I was. To get into a major retail outlet, we would have to pay for shelf space, pay for a broker, create a promotional calendar, set up distribution, hire a team to support placement, constantly advertise the product, and ultimately convince the customer to buy, try, and buy again. I soon learned the amount of planning and execution went into every single store placement and event.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food or beverage line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

The most common mistake I’ve seen is fully understanding the amount of money it would take to produce, sell, and distribute a consumer product and then effectively begin to build a brand. I recognize this mistake…because, I made it.

I think most people think, and understandably so, that once they have the idea and a way to bring that idea to life, the rest will take care of itself. With a little seed money, they’ll be able to sell enough to pay the bills, create more product, all the while supporting a small team. My advice is to plan out your goals, ask the experts, be willing to fail, and get up and try again. We don’t know it all and we shouldn’t act like we do. Be humble.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

There are few things more exciting than having a great idea and realizing how wide open the market is for your idea. Then comes the hard part — what next? In my experience in the F&B space, the willingness of fellow entrepreneurs and experienced “players” in my space to help has been nothing but eye opening. There is an incredible amount of good-will in the start-up space to share information — like do’s and don’ts, advice on how to get started, or even how to move forward with what comes next. So, ask for help! We don’t know what we don’t know.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who challenged me to create good ideas. And just like me, Tom O’Grady shared the passion for entrepreneurship and was ready to go all-in with me from the start; he is now my Co-Founder, and proudly so. If it wasn’t for him, I never would have been able to get Phocus off the ground, especially while in medical school.

That’s not to say that we went from idea to product in no time at all; it took us exactly two years from idea to finished product. My advice is to find someone, or a team, that shares the same vision, drive, and determination as you. Look for those with access to people, experience, and/or capital that can make your idea a reality.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Early on, we had our fair share of consultants come on board. But with a team that had no beverage experience of their own, I do believe that we were unable to fully utilize their expertise. As we continued to go through the process, they were almost unnecessary.

At the end of the day, we were able to identify our own manufacturing plant (co-packer) and finalize our formulation all on our own. Anything else we needed, such as sourcing ingredients or aluminum for the cans, our co-packer partner was able to help us at no extra cost. After nearly four years in business, we have been able to hire the right consultants, for the right needs, at the right time. We know who we need and what they need them for. We consider them true partners to Phocus.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

When the time is right to launch your product, you’ll know. You’ll find your “Tom” and it will become evident that the time is right to jump all in. Do research, compare your product to others in the industry, and determine the risk vs. reward equation. As entrepreneurs we are sometimes so in our own heads, we can’t get out of it. Trust the experts, accept advice and do what’s best for you.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

I was so naïve when it came to identifying and securing retailers and distributors in the beginning. Once I realized that I couldn’t get Phocus into a retailer by simply asking the manager, I decided to start with smaller locations and self-distribute Phocus.

What I realized pretty early on was that we had to create a “story” of success about Phocus. Why was that important? Because while our product, branding, and market segment fit most retailers, retailers and distributors do not often like to be the “first” to market with a new product; even to this day. Every new retailer and distributor is an opportunity for us to answer their question “Why Phocus?”

Once Phocus’ sales grew — and I mean astronomically, we found that not only did we have story for the larger retail players, we had caught the eye of local distributors interested in our products as well.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. The Right Product at the Right Time — When I brought Tom the idea for caffeinated water, soda/sugary beverage sales were beginning to decline to across the country…while the water category (specifically sparkling water) and the energy category were experience huge growth. This was the perfect storm for Phocus.
  2. Product originality or superiority — It is not a requirement to be the first in a category, but you definitely want to be the best. And not just best ingredients or branding, but the best in all aspects of the category while still being able to communicate your differentiation and superiority to the customer. In the case of Phocus, caffeinated water had been out for years, yet, no one had created a sparkling caffeinated water. Not to mention, no one had penetrated the market or been able to grow the category of caffeinated water as a whole, leaving this space wide open for Phocus. However, it was also challenging us to not only grow a brand, but to create a category all of our own.
  3. Inch wide and a mile deep — To this day, I am still impressed how much opportunity and awareness building we still have to do in Louisville, KY, the city where we launched Phocus and where our HQ is. In this business, the options that consumers have in the beverage category can feel almost infinite at times. This makes establishing a base of loyal, enthusiastic customers so very important when growing a brand. Aside from just buying Phocus, our customers are by far and away our best brand advocates, ambassadors, and sales team we have. We’ve done all of this by making sure any new territory we open that we go “inch wide and mile deep.”
  4. Cans in Hands — Assuming you’ve got a great product, the next step is getting it in peoples’ hands (and then their mouths). I think people have a tendency to think that they need to be advertising on TV or at big events…but often times, especially in the beginning, you’ll be advertising to “empty shelves”, meaning brands will spend the money to be a sponsor of an event or advertise with a large regional media company with the goal of raising awareness, all the while having limited shelves that carry the product they are advertising. Plus, all of these tactics are often expensive and no where as valuable as getting “cans in hands” and driving immediate trial by the consumer. Doing this in locations where you can direct the consumer to buy it if they like it helps build that story and create that base of customers.
  5. Always be improving — No one gets it right the first time. Whether that’s the name, formulation, or branding, there will always be room for improvement. Since our launch, we have gone through three iterations of our first packaging design and a complete brand refresh. We’ve incorporated feedback from our consumers, retailers, and distributors. We continue to develop and launch new flavors and innovate new products to grow Phocus. Always be improving.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

I think Jeff Bezos said it best when he said to always do what is best for the customer. For us, it is important that our fans are not only crazy about Phocus itself, but also every interaction they have with our brand or the Phocus team. From outstanding customer service to rewarding loyalty, we make sure to let our customers know we appreciate their support more than anything.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

From the beginning Tom and I created Phocus to be a product that people not only feel confident about putting in their body, but one they could enjoy without feeling like they were compromising on taste. Our goal is to give people a healthy alternative so that they can kick soda and other artificially-sweetened, unhealthy drinks.

When COVID-19 rampaged our country, we wanted to help in any way that we could. Our healthcare workers, first responders and educators were on the front lines of making sure that the health and safety of our communities was their first focus. Exhaustion has continued to this day. While we know we can’t ‘kick-COVID’ what we do know is that we can provide a healthy boost to the day of all of these much-appreciated individuals.

Over the last few months alone, we have donated hundreds of thousands of cans of Phocus to these service groups. We utilized our teams, and called on our partners to make sure that we could do the most good for the greatest amount of people during this difficult time.

One of my favorite programs was “Buy One. Gift One.” Where we donated a case of Phocus to deserving teachers around the country. For every case of Phocus purchased by a consumer, we donated one to their favorite teacher, free of cost to them. We hope to one day be in every community across the country, making an impact in a big way, and today, we’re taking small steps forward towards that mission.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The World Health Organization estimates that over 80% of chronic illnesses are caused by what we eat and drink — the primary culprit being sugar. It is the belief at Phocus that we are at war with sugar and that sugar is the tobacco of our generation.

We’ve heard countless stories to the benefits that Phocus has brought to customers. Lifelong soda drinkers say ‘no more’ in exchange for Phocus, lifelong coffee drinkers love the benefits that Phocus brings… and more. We only have one life to live — let’s make it our best and our healthiest.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Ray Dalio — I have read, watched, and re read almost everything I could get my hands on, especially in the beginning of Phocus. From his determination and ideas on “failing well and failing fast” to managing a team, Ray has personally helped me deal with the immense responsibility and challenges I’ve faced at Phocus.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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