Find the niche of the population where the education factor is mitigated — for Leilo, this was starting off with people familiar with kava or on the hunt for alternative botanical ingredients. Once you identify the demographic where your product clearly solves a problem, you know where to begin. This is the “aim small, miss small” principle I alluded to earlier. Once you’ve proven your concept with a core segment, let their energy and passion for the product guide you to the next one. In the same vein, I strongly suggest starting local versus attempting a regional or national launch from the onset.
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 Sol Broady.
As the CEO + Founder of Leilo, Sol Broady is on a mission to help de-stress a stressed out world. He took Leilo from prototypes in his dorm room to retailers across the nation in less than a year while at Columbia University.
Sol + Leilo’s story starts on the south coast of Fiji, where he was inspired by the easy-going nature of the Fijians and their love for kava. Sol assembled a team who all recognized how high levels of stress negatively impacted their lives and relationships. Together, they set out to create an appealing alternative to the unhealthy means of “letting loose” so common across universities. Although Leilo has come a long way since then, Sol has led his team in staying true to the belief that stress shouldn’t have to be constant. Calm is the key to unlocking our full potential, and Sol is making sure it’s only a can away.
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 backstory?
I grew up in Santa Monica, California with my parents and three younger siblings. From an early age, I’ve found myself in highly competitive environments that can often turn quite stressful. The school I attended through 8th grade, Brentwood, was pretty rigorous and my schedule was always hectic managing schoolwork with the sports I played. I was fortunate enough to have been surrounded by some great role models — my mom and dad, coaches, and teachers — who encouraged me to take on challenges and responsibility without sacrificing wellness or perspective. Nonetheless, I found it tricky to obtain this balance day in and day out.
For high school, I decided to set off on my own path to expand my horizons, leaving LA to attend boarding school at Hotchkiss in Lakeville, CT. Looking back on it, it’s wild to think that I made such a major life decision at the age of 14, but I’m glad I opted to push myself. Hotchkiss was very tough academically and despite the talent of the students there, I witnessed a lot of my peers burning themselves out by the end of it. At the time I played quarterback on the football team and was working to get recruited by colleges — this added another layer of pressure on me that bordered on becoming overwhelming.
By the start of college at Columbia University, it had become clear to me that something needed to be done about the stress culture I’d witnessed across the country. Though Brentwood, Hotchkiss, and Columbia are all very different places, I noticed a consistent thread of students engaging in the “work hard, play hard” mantra and buckling under its weight over the course of time. Don’t get me wrong — I believe it’s very important to stay ambitious and goal-oriented. However, I noticed that oftentimes the release or reward my friends and I viewed as “balancing” out our hard work — partying excessively, drinking alcohol, etc — was only decreasing our productivity and leading to more stress accumulation over time. In order to continue achieving my priorities — pursuing my major in Internal Relations and minor in Ancient History, playing on Columbia’s rugby team, and of course growing Leilo — I realized that my habits had to become more sustainable. That’s why I’m so passionate about our product; I use it every day to soothe my own anxiety and stay grounded, and I’ve seen it make a similarly positive impact in my community. As I enter my senior year of college, it is clear that Leilo has made a major and necessary difference in my life, allowing me to tackle the challenge of each new day with calmness and confidence.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
As crazy as it sounds, I had my eureka moment to create Leilo the day I tried kava for the first time in 2018. I was on a random and fortuitous family trip to Fiji, and hanging out with some locals I had befriended in a village near Pacific Harbour. We were sitting in a circle in one of their homes, sipping kava, and speaking like old friends even though we had met only a couple days before. It was the warmth, generosity, and sincerity of the Fijians, which they largely attributed to the calming, regenerative powers of kava, that really stood out to me, especially in comparison to my experiences in the States.
I felt extremely lucky to be included in this kava ceremony, but simultaneously saddened that I couldn’t share it with everyone back home. I remember sitting at dinner with my family an hour or so after the kava ceremony, the dilemma still gnawing at me. Though it’s hard to top enjoying kava from coconut shells on an idyllic beach in the South Pacific, there had to be some way to share the magical properties of kava, as well as the culture of friendship and optimism of the Fijians, with a greater audience. To everyone’s surprise, including myself, I declared that I would find a way to make a RTD kava product and bring it to market. Though it was a fledgling idea — I had no experience in the F&B space whatsoever at the time — they believed in me. Though lots of progress has been made since that moment of inception, I am proud to say that it is those same people, my family and friends in Fiji, who continue to be my closest advisors and supporters. As Leilo continues to expand at breakneck pace, it’s essential to me that my company does not stray from our roots and the hospitality, loyalty, and love that made all of this possible in the first place.
Can you share an amusing story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was first playing around with prototypes, my primary objective was to mitigate the natural bitterness of kava. In fact, the word “kava” in Fijian actually means “bitter”, and this is one of the reasons why Americans especially are hesitant to try the ingredient for the first time. After lots of experimentation, I discovered that dairy and spice were two viable masking agents. I knew the eventual Leilo product line would be a carbonated soda/seltzer, but I was on a limited budget and most interested in reactions to the functional effects of kava. So I started making these huge batches of horchata from scratch in friends’ kitchens at night after class and rugby practice. People would see me on the street carrying tons of milk, rice, cinnamon and sugar and be pretty confused. It was fairly labor intensive and there was certainly a learning curve, but I eventually got really good at making my kava horchata. I would then package each batch in little 8oz bottles and take them to Columbia parties with me. It was definitely amusing; I got lots of stares and snickers as I showed up with a backpack full of hand-made horchata when most people were drinking Bud Light. Some people dumped it out without trying, while others let it sit in their fridge for weeks until it separated and looked very unappetizing. A few people thought I was nuts; more thought I was wasting my time and money.
I bring up this comical and self-deprecating story because I notice lots of founders who are too apprehensive to put their MVP out there. Everyone wants to wait to present the ideal version of their product; criticism is scary and hits hard. I knew that my horchata wasn’t the optimal presentation of what Leilo would eventually be, and I recognized that not everyone would appreciate it immediately. However, I believed it was far more important to start collecting feedback and data than it was to wait for perfection. I figured that if I could get some consumers to appreciate an admittedly amateurish version of Leilo, I would only gain more believers in the product as I continued to refine and improve it. And the people who did try the horchata had really positive reactions, giving me the market validity I needed to pursue more professional development.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Expanding on the aforementioned point, a common mistake I see in food and beverage startups is an insistence on idealistic assets from day one. People want to get everything exactly right from the jump, even before they’ve tested their product out. If you’re Mark Anthony Brands of Anheuser-Busch, you can afford to spend tons of money on fancy focus groups and killer marketing campaigns even for a brand-new product. But this approach is bound to fail if you started like me with a very limited budget and unproven track record.
Scrappiness and ruthless self-criticism can take you a long way. Instead of a full-throttle launch, start small and controlled, leveraging your existing relationships for data collection. This sentiment is especially poignant for F&B startups as I’ve seen countless initial production runs go awry for brands, including my own. Young companies will commit to massive marketing spend and tie themselves to a major distribution partner only to see their first batch of product turn out subpar and, in some cases, unusable. The money is wasted and the distributor drops them, creating a tough situation to dig oneself out of. By placing all your eggs in one basket, you can kneecap your company’s entire future by overcommitting to a certain path when you’re not fully prepared for it in the first place. At Leilo, we always remind ourselves: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. It is far better in my opinion to exercise patience and caution in your spend in these early stages than to go all-in and hope for the best possible outcome, which honestly rarely happens. Focus your efforts on connecting with a reasonable number of individual consumers instead of attempting to conquer an entire regional market all at once. Afford yourself multiple opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them — once you are unwaveringly confident in your personnel, product, and ability to persevere, then proceed at full-force. While the cycle of development and redevelopment can be frustrating, you and your company will be better served by it in the long run.
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?
Is your product wholly novel to the market, or is it an improvement to current product offerings? If it is the former, consider why your idea hasn’t already been created and why you have the toolkit to overcome this barrier to entry. If it is the latter, hone in on the unique aspect of your idea that will differentiate your product from its competition.
2. Timeline and Scope
Analyze whether your idea harnesses an existing trend in the market, or whether you are attempting to set off a new trend on your own. If you’re tapping into a current movement, your process is naturally more time-sensitive, and you should critically assess if you can move fast enough to capture the market’s interest before the trend passes. Additionally, you must evaluate if the market is already too saturated for your entry. If, on the other hand, you view yourself at the forefront of a new trend, examine the necessitations this objective will have on education and marketing spend in order to sufficiently excite your movement. In either case, you must be honest with the projected scope and reach you hope to see from your product. Is it a niche, specialty item? Are you going for big-box retail? How often do you envision consumers using your product in a single day? In a week? Will its demand change seasonally, or is it all purpose? Answering these questions will go a long way in helping you determine your startup cost, personnel recruitment, and market-entry strategies.
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?
This is perhaps not the expected answer to this question, but I actually wouldn’t go out of my way to encourage anyone who is hesitant about starting a business. To be perfectly transparent, it is an immense grind each and every day which requires sacrifices across the board. In my opinion, the fire and drive necessary for success cannot be imparted onto you by another, no matter who they are or how inspirational their words. The reason for this is simple: it is not they who will be working on the idea past the honeymoon phase, it is you! My advice is to play with the idea over and over again until you are convicted that it is a winner, and that its pursuit has irrevocable meaning to you. For it is not the good days when you will need motivation and resolve; everyone enjoys running a venture when praise abounds and revenue soars. It is the moments in which you feel that you are slogging through the mud — a subpar production run, a retailer turning you down, a failed marketing campaign — when your idea and your commitment to it will be tested.
In times like those, your love for your product and insistent belief on better days ahead is what will keep you moving forward. As a founder, your energy and optimism — particularly in the early stages — is the engine that inspires growth. If that engine is not fueled by genuine devotion to your mission, you can only get so far. Take your time and do not force your product into existence before you are totally dedicated to it. You will know when the time is right when your idea consumes you to the point when ignoring it any longer is far riskier than failing in its realization. At that stage, you will be ready for whatever challenges await and equipped with a mindset that enables you to surmount them.
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?
As you can probably sense by now, I am a strong proponent of doing as much as you possibly can on your own before enlisting the help of consultants. That is not to say that these types of professionals are not necessary; you will come to a point where you need to bring them on. However, you will not maximize the skills of a consultant unless you have existing foundation for them to analyze and work off of.
For instance, I spent 6 months creating my own imperfect Leilo prototypes before I felt ready to hire a professional formulator — smoothies, horchata, sodas, you name it. By the time I began my conversations with them, I could present them with hundreds of feedback forms on various flavor combinations, functional dosages, and packaging types. By striking out on my own, I saved myself tens of thousands of dollars in development costs, but far more importantly was able to distill the vision for Leilo and present my formulators with a succinct and actionable agenda. In my estimation, this significantly increased the odds of my consultants creating a product I was happy with; if I had gone to them from the onset, I’d be paying money in the hopes that someone else could create something I myself had trouble articulating at that stage. There will always be an urge to bring in professionals; I say resist it until progress is unachievable without their help, and then pull the trigger with full confidence.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I think both are viable options, and highly dependent on the specifics of your businesses and appetite for risk-tolerance. So it’s a bit tough without knowing the situation you’re facing. What I can share is what my father told me as I was starting Leilo: “if you’re not willing to commit wholeheartedly to your dream, why should anyone else?”
I spent every penny to my name to get Leilo off the ground. Looking back on it, that was the impetus for the scrappiness I’ve been talking about throughout our conversation. When it’s not your money on the line, it’s far easier to skip to hiring that consultant, blasting a marketing asset you’re not totally infatuated with, pushing a new product out there before it’s quite ready. Leilo has been funded by myself and by friends, family, and angels to whom I feel personally and financially indebted. While this raises the pressure on my decision-making, I feel that it is a useful pressure. It is a constant reminder to me that my actions have consequences in either the positive or negative direction, not just for my company but for people I deeply care about. This forces me to be especially meticulous, hard-working, and unrelenting in realizing Leilo’s objectives. That being said, I’d never say never if the right VC offer came around… :)
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?
1. I have filed several patents over Leilo’s manufacturing process and formulations. Before spending on an IP lawyer, you need to clearly identify the differentiating factor for your product or process that will yield worthwhile competitive barriers. I see lots of people filing patents over claims that do not have practical value and likely won’t stand up in court. Put yourself in the position of a competitor who is trying to overcome your patent; if you were them, how would you circumvent it? Then, find a way to make that circumvention untenable. Let that call and response constantly inform the IP strategy you employ. Remember too that, while IP attorneys are knowledgeable and necessary, they won’t know your process half as well as you and your team do. You can’t just ask them to find the right claims for you — you need to present them with lots of ideas and allow them to parse the list down to the most effective ones.
2. I know this cuts counter to a lot of what I’ve been talking about, but ingredient sourcing and manufacturing — F&B-related operations — is something I strongly recommend finding prior experience for if you do not have it yourself. As I was starting Leilo up, I had total confidence that effort and common sense could make up for an industry hardened COO, and I was totally wrong. The replicable integrity of your product is everything once you hit the market, so it pays to have this set ahead of time by an expert. Find someone who can procure an impeccable supply chain and maintain steady production, and don’t let them go — they’re hard to find, but indispensable in our line of business.
3. In terms of finding retailers and distributors, this comes down to having confidence in your brand and putting yourself out there. Hit the ground with samples and energy, and look for places that cater to your target demographic. I would recommend starting with boutique and specialty retailers, not the big chains. With the smaller mom&pops, you can cultivate personal relationships and get your message across, whereas the big players really only care about velocity, which you won’t have at this point. If there’s one word that’s repeated ad nauseam at Leilo, it’s “leverage”. Scrap and claw for that first point of distribution, make sure the retailer really likes the partnership, and work your butt off to get your product moving off the shelves. This makes that ensuing conversation with the second retailer infinitely easier — you’re selling them on demonstrable success, instead of a shot in the dark with your products. Build up your base of these small retailers, and leverage that with a local distributor. Stay hungry, manifest success with that local distributor, and leverage that data with a regional player. Continue to aim small, miss small, and let the dominoes fall naturally; if you do your job right, it won’t be long before the national behemoths come knocking.
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.)
- An idea with staying power
It’s going to take significant time for you to get your product from ideation to execution in the marketplace, so you need to be certain that your concept will remain viable throughout that timeline, both personally and commercially. The barrier to entry in F&B is no joke, so you must be fully invested and in-love with your brand in order to stick with it through the development phase, which can seem like an eternity. Likewise, you must consider your product’s strength not in the market where it stands today, but in the future market down the line when you’re ready for entry. Hard seltzer presents a useful example: lots of startup drink companies saw the growth potential of the market when it was only Truly, WhiteClaw, and B&V in 2018 and began development of their own renditions. Yet by the time they hit shelves a couple years later, it wasn’t just those three anymore — Corona, BudLight, Spindrift, and numerous smaller players had significantly saturated the space. When you’re evaluating your idea, it’s not enough to be ahead of the curve. You need to be way ahead of the curve so that two or three years down the line, you still maintain that first-mover and developmental advantage over your competition.
2. A clear target demographic
At Leilo, we see our products eventually being enjoyed by anyone who ever needs to relax, for any reason. The same way that people turn to RedBull when they need energy, consumers will trust Leilo when it comes to relaxation. I know this sentiment is shared by almost every other F&B founder; we want our products to be loved and consumed by all! Unfortunately, that’s never how it works, particularly in the early stages. By going after every single type of consumer, you’re really going after no one at all. Your marketing budget and inventory is limited; only so many people can learn about your brand and try it, so you need to make sure those interactions count and produce positive results. Find the niche of the population where the education factor is mitigated — for Leilo, this was starting off with people familiar with kava or on the hunt for alternative botanical ingredients. Once you identify the demographic where your product clearly solves a problem, you know where to begin. This is the “aim small, miss small” principle I alluded to earlier. Once you’ve proven your concept with a core segment, let their energy and passion for the product guide you to the next one. In the same vein, I strongly suggest starting local versus attempting a regional or national launch from the onset.
3. A holistic branding message
Nowadays, it is not enough to merely have a strong product; consumers align with companies whose missions and values they resonate with. It is integral to your success that you flesh out your brand’s personality beyond just your products. What events or experiences in everyday life does your brand tap into? What emotions does your brand inspire? If your brand was a person, what qualities would it possess? By asking and answering these questions, you begin to flesh out the holistic nature of your company, and create an entity which consumers can interact with on multiple levels in their daily lives. As you hone and expand your brand in this manner, you concomitantly set a culture and expectation which informs the actions of your employees and the impressions of your customers.
4. A ferocious and positive-minded team
As you bring your product to market, you will quickly realize help is necessary and your company will only go as far as its personnel. You can have the greatest product ever invented, but without the team to execute it, you might not even be able to get it off the ground. Building a stellar team starts with an honest self-assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses. Look for people who can complement what you bring to the table, and trust them in this capacity; bringing someone on to fill a position only to micromanage their every move is a recipe for disaster. While there are certainly some industry specific qualities and experience you must seek out (ex. COO), I’ve found the most important overarching traits are passion and attitude. If you are a founder who has gotten to the point of hiring serious talent, it is likely that you have fought tooth and nail to get there. Look for people who bring this same ferocity of spirit to their work that you do — the employee who loves your brand, is more interested in equity than salary, and will move proactively to advance your collective aims. Create a group that does not shy away from adversity, but instead welcomes the challenge with optimism and an energetic attitude.
5. A willingness to adapt
Leilo’s original business plan was rendered useless by COVID within a week of it being formalized. It’s good to have a unified strategy — to be clear, I recommend this — but it’s even more important to retain a degree of flexibility. Especially in the digital age that we live in, opportunities arise and vanish quickly. We went from organizing launch events and tasting demos across NYC to a full-on DTC pivot because of the pandemic, and frankly wouldn’t have survived if we dogmatically adhered to our original plan. Stay agile in your assessments of the market, and be ready to pounce at a moment’s notice if the circumstances dictate it. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, but failing to react to the dynamic events unfolding around you is equally as dangerous. Often times, these nimble pivots don’t have to scrap the former plan of attack entirely, but simply adjust its timeline. For instance, as metropolitan retail begins its renaissance, we are now employing many elements of our pre-pandemic strategy, but have the added bonus of building up our DTC arm in the meantime.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Identify a product that fills a role currently left vacant in as many people’s lives as possible. To put it in simplified Leilo terms, it looks something like this: everyone is pumping themselves full of caffeine in the mornings, but what are they doing to relax in the evenings? There are a million soda, coffee, and energy drink brands, but there is not a single viable brand that does the opposite — helping people decompress, unwind, and balance themselves. Is this because people don’t want to relax, or because they don’t have great options to do so? If I were a betting man, which I am, I would put my money on the latter. And then do it!
I really don’t like looking for variations on existing product categories, though I know this can be lucrative in the right case. My style is more to search for existing and saturated concepts, and then cut against the grain to explore their opposites. In my opinion, people don’t go crazy for incremental improvements over something they already have; they go crazy for things they want but didn’t think they could have in the first place.
How have / would you use your success to make the world a better place?
I think my main responsibility is to ensure Leilo retains its core values as we continue to grow. Lots of companies start out with admirable missions, only to see these aims mired by corporate policy and politics over time. I work hard to maintain a culture at my company which promotes giving back, community building, and diversity of opinion.
As a couple examples, we partnered with food banks throughout Northeast during the pandemic to help relieve the stress of those hit hardest by it, we ran a variety of fundraisers assisting frontline COVID workers, and we’ve planted nearly 5,000 trees in the last couple months to offset our carbon footprint. Leilo is minority owned, and several of my top executives are female and LGBTQ — this is not at all why I hired them, but it is certainly to our advantage as we can always count on a plethora of opinions and perspectives as we form our strategy. Of course, these are small steps and there is an immense amount of work to be done in America and around the world, so I look forward to amplifying these efforts substantially throughout my career.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Within the current scope of my influence, I feel that Leilo really is the best mechanism to effectuate positive change. It makes all the hard work worth it when our customers tell us about the benefits of our products in their lives — we’re helping people drink less alcohol, calm down, and live healthier. I think the shift to sobriety is only in its infancy, and we’re committed to supplying the most premium option on the market, now and far into the future. Our goal is to de-stress a stressed out world, and, at least so far, I think we’re off to a promising start.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.