Capturing Independence in a Bottle

Reed's Inc. CEO Chris Reed shares his story of independent sodas and keeping up with the industry's major players
TAGS: DIY, inspiration, soda
 Capturing Independence in a Bottle

Everybody already knows the big names: in the world of soda, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola dominate. But what about the other guys? Look beyond the global corporation names and you’ll find them. Independent soda brands are all around us, many started from scratch with little more than glass bottles, innovative flavors, and a good idea. The competition is steep, but quite a few indie soda brands make it to the big leagues – Reed’s Inc. is one of them, known for its potent ginger beers and Virgil root beer line. Founder and CEO Chris Reed is one of the successful ones – in just over two decades, Reed went from hand-bottling sodas and applying labels with stick glue to producing 2.5 million bottles a year. Who better to talk to about what it takes to keep up with the industry titans?


It’s All About the Idea

“First you have to start with something unique and fantastic,” says Reed. For him, it was a passion for ginger that led him to leave his job designing refineries for another calling. “It’s not just about soda for me. I’m a nut case: you’ve got to know that up front. I’m an advocate, an evangelist behind the use and consumption of ginger in one’s diet, and I’ve secretly disguised my soda. It’s my super tonic for people, it just looks like a soda.”

It seems like a no-brainer, but it can be very real trap for misguided entrepreneurs. “There are so many guys who go ‘oh yeah, I’m going to make soda, I’m going to sell a ton of it and I’m going to be rich,’” says Reed. “Most of those people fail.”

In contrast, a true passion for your product can mean the difference between staying strong and burning out. “I had to be dosing up a million pounds of fresh ginger in the US diet every year and growing rapidly,” he adds. “If that wasn’t happening, I don’t think I could keep myself behind it.”


Believe in Your Product (Even When the Marketplace Doesn’t)

Why is such passion necessary? Because even if you know you have a great idea, convincing the public to believe it is a whole other story. “Once you throw it [your product] in the marketplace it might sell like crap for a long time before it gets discovered,” says Reed. “Short of the big guys, who have so much horsepower and can launch a brand overnight, brands just take a lot of nurturing. It takes years before people discover you. You have to just say: ‘OK, I’m in it for the very long haul, and I’m going to stick behind it hell or high water.’ You have to be willing to believe in your product even when the marketplace doesn’t.”

According to Reed, that scenario happens more often than not. “No one recognized Snapple was going to be a big deal. Vitamin Water didn’t look like a success three years out, and it sold for $4 billion. It just takes a while to get consumers clamoring for it, and in all honesty you won’t really know if you’ve got a good thing or not until year five or ten. Most of it will be just how hard you’re willing to work on it.”

“I just broke even after 23 years,” he adds. “Not to say that we haven’t made money along the way, but we have big plans – so we put a big staff on and raised money and went public, and those are really painful things to do. But you have to believe in what you’re doing enough to pull it off. If you don’t have a lot of will and motivation behind what you’re doing, then it’s not going to happen.”


Team Up with the Little Guys

No matter what your product is, proper distribution is crucial. Reed found his first distribution partners in the health food sector on the basis of his ginger brews, but your mileage may vary. One thing is certain, though – there’s no route tougher than the mainstream route. “Don’t go for the big ones,” says Reed, referencing the likes of Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola.“The beer and soft drink distribution networks are very difficult to approach. They just get approached so much, and generally by people with a lot of capital behind their brand, all the guys who raise tons of money for doing it. You can always test the waters with them, but unless they’re going ‘wow, that’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen,’ you’ll have to find something else.”

A better bet requires some legwork, but can yield more promising results. “Go into a store and ask them where they’re getting their more boutique stuff,” Reed suggests. “They’ll say, ‘we’ve got this little guy with a van named Joe.’ Well, go get ahold of Joe. Go to the store and ask where they’re getting their more new cutting edge stuff, and sometimes that gets you the distributors who are more likely to be your friend.”


Take Care of Yourself Through it All

With so many pitfalls, how does a DIY soda entrepreneur keep his or her head on straight? It all comes down to staying focused – and positive. “You have to learn to be like a Buddhist monk and take it one moment at a time, one foot in front of the next,” says Reed. “Your mental state is more important than anything. A really positive mental attitude just fires up everybody around you – the stores, the consumers, everything. Be the spark: if you’re down and depressed, forget it. It’s done. Read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, or find some way to know that your own mental health and your upbeat attitude are the most important things underneath everything. Run, jog, breathe – keep yourself from burning out, take time off, and manage your mind. That’s the key to my success.” 

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