Innovation, Disruption, Passion, Purpose, & Enemies...An Excellent Conversation with Ben Weiss, CDO*

By: Jen Reiseman-Briscoe

Innovation, Disruption, Passion, Purpose, & Enemies...An Excellent Conversation with Ben Weiss, CDO*

 

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For [the innovator] makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new.” —Niccolò Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), The Prince.

 

Last night, December 10, 2020, the MBS community enjoyed a genuine treat—an intimate, interactive, and down-to-earth conversation with Ben Weiss: relentless entrepreneur, New Jersey-based innovator, and founder of antioxidant beverage, Bai, a product he formulated in his basement in 2009, began distributing door to door, and from which he gained, in 2017, “access to the full complement of Dr Pepper Snapple's resources” via Bai’s $1.7 billion acquisition by Dr Pepper Snapple Group.

Weiss talked about leading Bai’s “basement-to-billion-dollar” journey—including the challenges he faced, the lessons he learned, the people who supported him along the way, and how he achieved extraordinary success by remaining committed to his vision—a process he chronicles in his new book, Basementality.

Dr. Deborah Silver—event host and Rutgers Professional Science Master’s program executive director—introduced Weiss as “a true unicorn” and American entrepreneur, and shared a connective bit of trivia from Weiss’s new book: one of Weiss’s first jobs was at a New Brunswick coffee shop, Café Newz, just steps away from the Rutgers–New Brunswick Campus.

This special event, part of MBS course 16:137:577— Current Regulation and Standards for Foods and Cosmetics in Domestic and International Tradewas moderated by the three industry experts (including an MBS alumna) who also serve as course instructors:

The moderators took turns posing to Weiss a series of questions related to their individual areas of expertise—litigation in the food and beverage industry (Levine), marketing, regulatory, and legal issues for consumer products companies (Armstrong), and product compliance, regulatory intelligence, and regulatory guidance (Goldman). They then invited students to ask questions in a chat box that was immediately overflowing with queries on topics ranging from regulatory issues to supply-chain challenges to knowing “when to hold’em and when to fold ‘em” in relation to either sticking to or abandoning a dream.

 

Host Deborah Silver, MBS executive director, and moderators Ron Levine, Nadine Goldman, and Steven Armstrong welcome author and entrepreneur Ben Weiss, who was named "Chief Disruptive Officer (CDO*)" following Bai Brands' $1.7 billion acquisition in 2017.

 

Ten Takeaways from the Evening: 
 

  1. Believe in your product. Weiss was firm and articulate about the value of his product, a flavorful beverage containing antioxidants, natural flavors, and few calories as opposed to empty calories, artificial flavoring, and refined sugar. When Walmart executives balked at selling Bai for $2 per bottle—a price point they insisted Weiss lower—Weiss walked out of the conversation, knowing that his product was well worth the cost. To create an antioxidant-infused drink such as Bai, says Weiss, you need to source quality ingredients, and Weiss wasn’t cutting corners. He remained firm about Bai’s value, and, ultimately, Walmart stocked its shelves with Bai...at $2 per bottle. Bai soon became one of Walmart's fastest-selling products. “You need the confidence [in your product] to walk out of the room" when necessary.
  2. Remain tethered to your dream. “The job of an entrepreneur,” says Weiss, “is to find and inspire people, and the only way to do that is to tether yourself to your dream.” If you believe in your product, purpose, and vision, says Weiss, then others who see your vision will follow. (This tethering is critical for #3)
  3. Find your people. Seek out like-minded individuals who share your vision. “Founding Bai,” said Weiss, “is not something I did alone.” Even after achieving incredible financial success, he says, “It's not the money you talk about but the war stories and the people you take with you on the ride.” These people will help you with #4.
  4. Have the guts, determination, and fortitude to endure “year zero.” It’s the hardest year by far, says Weiss, and it will make or break your new business. “'Year zero is the year that connects your vision and ideas with success,”' he says, adding, “it’s also the year that no one cares about your product.” You’re likely not turning any profit at this point. The success or failure of year zero, of course, can be determined—to a large extent—by the mentality of the people with whom you surround yourself; their ongoing belief in the product, their conviction of purpose, and their positivity go a long way. In hiring people, says Weiss, shaking his head, “I wish I had an exam to test their aptitude for surviving year zero.”
  5. Wear bifocals (“Bai-focals”) for success. Weiss and Silver interchangeably discussed the need for the sort of dual vision that allows you to see both the big picture and the finer details. “You need to focus on the short game,” says Weiss, but you also need to have marathon endurance for the long haul. Like a good golfer, you won’t be successful unless you are a master at both short-term, instant pivoting and overall, long-term strategy. Rutgers' philosophy and vision of "Jersey Roots, Global Reach" perfectly illustrates this point.
  6. Go to your basement—but don’t stay there too long. Weiss calls the basement “the perfect place to bring an idea to life.” In its quiet confines, he says, “you can block out the rest of the world, absorb yourself in your dreams, and begin chasing your envisioned future.” However, you can’t chase your dreams in a basement; you have to actually climb out of there to blaze a trail toward success. 
  7. Know when to keep the faith…and when to pull the plug. You’ve given life to your product. In time, says Weiss, “you get to understand the vital signs.” Weiss said that every once in awhile, during Bai’s early days, he’d “pull the plug” as a check to see how well Bai would do without “life support,” or additional investments of money for product development, marketing, distribution efforts, or other efforts. Little by little, he says, Bai began to breathe on its own. All entrepreneurs need to pull the same proverbial plug, he says; otherwise, they are wasting money and resources. “Especially if you don’t believe in your brand and your brand doesn’t respond,” he says. “That’s a dangerous path. If you are honest with yourself,” he continues. “you will know when to pull the plug" for a pulse check, and when to pull the plug for good.
  8. Do personal market research early and often. Weiss chalks up much of his success to doing his own market research and taking it to heart. He recalled how watching an “ideal customer”  interact with his product became a pivotal moment for the Bai brand. The ideal customer in question was an athletic young mother fresh from an exercise class (“complete with Baby Bjorn,” adds Weiss). He watched as she approached the shelf where Bai sat among other drinks. She picked up a bottle of Bai, looked at it, and then put it back on the shelf and grabbed an Honest Tea instead. Weiss noted that the Bai bottle had a black cap—it wasn’t visually outstanding from other brands. Weiss decided at that very moment that the black caps had to go, and took action that very afternoon to cease their production. “Focus groups are great,” he says, “but a focus group wouldn’t have inspired me to take action as quickly.” (Note to students interested in consumer behavior: It is definitely worth checking out MBS’s "Intro to UXD" class!)
  9. There’s no such thing as an instant hit or an overnight success. “No one ever hits it out of the park right away,” says Weiss, who had other entrepreneurial successes prior to founding and building the Bai brand. Success comes with time, with “year zeros” and with other peaks and valleys. “At the end of the day,” says Weiss, “the way you win (and propel the success of your product) is to get distributors and sales reps to care a little more about you and your product than they did when they first met you.”
  10. Innovation is not a democracyThis is a really important one, says Silver. “We at MBS stress the need for and value of teamwork, always, and the importance of getting everyone on board and moving in one direction," she says. "However, in order to actually move, someone has to take leadership and make bold decisions.” In other words, there needs to be a designated individual consistently willing to take charge, take the plunge, and take leaps of faith when necessary.

 

Years after Bai’s billion-dollar acquisition, Weiss is far from resting on his laurels. He's still blazing new trails in the beverage industry; this time, with his brand Crook & Marker. According to Weiss’s LinkedIn page, Crook & Marker is “challenging the alcohol industry to prove that people can feel better about what they drink while still having a good time. Our weapon? The world’s fully USDA Organic alcohol beverage portfolio with bold flavor you can trust.”

As for entrepreneurs and students pursuing careers in the beverage industry, Weiss had good news about the odds of success. The beverage sector offers plenty of space for innovation, he says (although there’s also an enormous beverage graveyard—more on that in his book). “One of the great things about the beverage industry,” says Weiss, “is that even with so many brands on the market, there’s always a way to break your brand out from the rest—even when the competition is robust.”

In closing out the session, Weiss said that what gets him out of bed in the morning is either fighting for something or fighting against something. Challenging other brands in the beverage industry—going up against “Big Sugar,” for one—fits that bill. “If you don’t have an enemy, then pick one,” he joked, which prompted Silver to share a favorite quote about innovation creating enemies:

“Innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new.” The quote (a smaller excerpt of the full quote at the beginning of this article), is care of Niccolò Machiavelli, who knew a thing or two about enemies. It just goes to show that disruptors to markets are nothing new; moreover, they generate the exact same resentment, suspicion, and awe among their fellow humans as they did 500 years ago: Machiavelli, who died in 1527, wrote his infamous book, The Prince, several years before his death.

Weiss offered to continue the conversation for any attendees who had further questions, and encouraged students to reach out with questions (we are assuming via LinkedIn). It was, indeed, a great evening, and we thank the MBS program, Dr. Silver, and moderators Steve Armstrong, Nadine Goldman, and Ron Levine for putting together such a wonderful event that was truly an honor to attend.