Despite having been fully invested in the beverage game for north of three years with DrinkTru, I couldn’t help but still feel like a rookie in the league. Needing big milestones to venture foward, like Dorothy in her search of Oz, I set out for the famous Natural Products Expo West to find my answers.
Anyone in the world of food and drink will tell you that this event is the place you need to be to snag that first big-league retailer or partner with the national distributor who has been ignoring your cold calls for months. This event is where the stars align for three days in Anaheim, Calif. With potential investors within reach, I put my JetBlue and Marriott points on the line and grabbed a one-way ticket to LAX. Like a struggling actor heading west to Hollywood hoping to strike gold with his first big role, I was excited to level up in the industry. After six hours in the air and gobbling more than my fair share of free in-flight snacks, we hit the tarmac and I headed for the big show.
I decided to walk the floor instead of bankrupting our company, with a booth starting at a price-gouging level of $5k. I figured we could get some serious value by scoping out our competitors from the cheap seats. After unsuccessfully trying to gain entree as a member of the press by writing an article like this (my Glengarry Glen Ross impression fell on deaf ears) I paid a whomping $860 for a ticket. A seat in the Red Sox dugout during a pennant race would cost less, but over the next 72 hours I recouped at least half the cost by gorging on samples from the likes of Protes Chips and Alpen Dough Cookies.
Long story short, the check engine light on my beat up old Camry is going to be ignored for a few more months.
Since my primary goal was to network with as many people as possible, I headed to the most logical place: the bar. Just as I suspected, most of the decision makers and entrepreneurs were socially lubricating with a few Moscow Mules, engaging in genuine conversations and swapping stories of legendary shenanigans from the past years. I buried myself deeper in credit card debt purchasing rounds for the sake of “networking.”
The following morning I discovered the event was worth the price of the golden ticket to get in. After handing over multiple forms of identification to pass through layers of security I was finally allowed into the Fort Knox of the world’s most valuable collection of food and beverages. Veteran goers tried and failed to depict the magnitude of the operation: 3,300 companies under one roof battling for the attention of a handful of retailers. It was like going to a party with a 2,999 of your buddies and each of you is asking the same girl out.
Upon entering through the golden gates, I immediately felt a rush of excitement and anxiety. Hopeful entrepreneurs were hawking product like street vendors in Times Square. It was as though the 1.6M sq. ft. Anaheim Convention Center had temporarily seceded from the USA to form its own nation state populated with CPG enthusiasts bartering food. The competition for buyers and attention was fierce.
Each table had its own character. Some went with the noisy neighbor approach with blaring music. Others took the peacock approach, utilizing giant jumbotrons, dancing mascots and neon lights to let people know the bar was open. The distinctions between economic classes were clear. The big boys like Naked Brands boasted monstrous McMansions in the form of customized booths that rose floor to ceiling with meeting rooms on the second floor where dealmakers could escape the sea of people flooding the floor. The comfortable middle class boasted huge teams of ambassadors but lacked sky views or grandeur.
The people I admired most were the bootstrappers who put their mortgages and life savings on the line. These dreamers went all-in. Unlike the household brands represented by highly paid execs and rented fitness models, they bought a 10X10 booth and represented themselves. Many of these entrepreneurs flew in early to build their own displays and stayed after everyone else was gone to break it down. They smuggled in samples with travel bags from their hotel room rather than pay exorbitant fees to have new samples delivered to their booth. Founders told me this dictatorship handed out floor penalties freely and taxed small companies heavily by charging for everything from internet and electricity to trash and sample delivery.
On the flip side, the floor itself was a utopia of food and beverage. You could browse from one favorite cuisine to the next with only a few strides. Founders told the unique stories of what inspired them to build something from scratch, despite the tremendous odds stacked against them, while serving samples of dishes enjoyed around the world. I met a firefighter who retired after being injured during service. He decided to take his seasoned almond recipe, a firehouse favorite, to the masses.
It was like walking down my local supermarket aisle, except instead of reading the brand’s story on the box I heard it directly from the founders. There were young brands, old brands, rebrands. There were small startups and billion-dollar giants. Brands had come from all over the world representing everything from the best of cold brew coffee and kombucha to packaging companies and prenatal vitamins.
Expo West is high school all over again. Although there is certainly value in attending the nightly events put on by the show, the deals are made at the exclusive extravagant parties held by VCs at nearby venues like the House of Blues and Morton’s Steak House. Though I felt like the nerd at sleepover camp, I made it my life’s goal to meet the popular kids during my walk around the floor.
After five hours of trekking the floor like it was the Appalachian Trail, I hadn’t come close to seeing everything. My body begged to be horizontal. It was time to rest and recover so later I could dress in my Sunday best and put on my dancing shoes. Having made some great connections and reignited old friendships, I had solved Expo West’s dating game and secured dinner plans with some veterans from around the industry. Though the grind appears to take place from 10 am to 4 pm, while the convention floor is open, the real work is done at night.
I was easily the lowest person on the totem pole at the table with several founders who had raised seven figures. Each of these guys had a Rolodex that could change the game for any brand, but, to my surprise, they could not have been more welcoming. A formulation expert at the table shared his secrets on natural preservatives while brokers described upcoming trends in ingredients like nootropics. Regardless of our backgrounds or past lives, we were all united by an obsessive passion for beverages.
Unlike most business ecosystems, where valuable information warrants a tremendous price, the food world is a pay-it-forward society. Reaching out to fellow founders is smarter than hiring a pricy beverage advisory firm of self-proclaimed experts. I have learned more talking to beverage entrepreneurs in the trenches with me than I ever expect to by putting a firm on some crazy retainer so that they can pump my tires and waste my time with hypotheticals.
After a dinner of pad thai paired with a whiskey well, we all jumped into an Uber for a little shindig in the city. The liquid courage served me well for an evening of rubbing shoulders with execs from some of the biggest players in distribution and venture capital. I was pleasantly surprised by everyone’s willingness to lend an ear, share data and help a young entrepreneur forward. It takes a village to raise an entrepreneur. Although everyone in the room was striving to become the next darling to make a Cinderella exit like Vitamin Water, Bai or RXBar, the industry really does have a team mentality.
After an eye-opening night, I hit the feathers and awoke to the realization that people who win in this game are not the smartest, the fastest or even the most innovative. The truth, unlike all the clichés that “experts” constantly regurgitate, is that the people who win are idealistic and often illogical. They are blinded to barriers by deep love of their brand. It is more than passion, perseverance and grit. It is probably more aligned with crazy.
The rush of starting a business in this industry is addictive. Days off resemble a hangover. You only see possibilities when others think you have no way forward. Regardless of the countless rejections, you sense a tipping point around the corner. These entrepreneurs are another breed.
Although Natural Products Expo West boasts a Hall of Fame line up of keynote speakers, the biggest brands in the game and the young guns of the future, the real reason people attend is much deeper. At the end of the day, we are all outcasts taking an unfamiliar career path that transitioned into a lifestyle and eventually evolved into an obsession. We each said, “Screw it” and jumped in with limited experience and even less knowledge. We are gambling masochists, like colliers heading for the mines of the west in hopes of striking gold. We will cross the country to pay a premium price for a ticket so we can feel normal for three days a year. As the gym-dwelling founder of a bootstrapped shot company, these are my people. For three days, I felt at home. See you next year.