In our brand spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with Matthew B. Starr, Director of Operations of Rally Energy. Rally Energy sells caffeinated mints, is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and has been in business for six years. Shop mints here.
Abound: Why did you decide to start this business? Why this business and not a different one?
Matthew: I had trouble stopping myself at just one cup of coffee when I would make a full pot. I wanted something like a Keurig that would fit in my pocket, and when I started asking others they had a similar complaint. Being an engineering PhD, coffee always loomed large in my life and I knew I could make an impact there.
Something I love about CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) is how multi-faceted, multi-sensory it is. The look and feel of packaging, the taste and effect of product. Working in CPG uses every part of us that is human, in order to make things enjoyed by other humans. I love it.
Abound: How did you make your first prototype? What changes have you made to your product since then?
Matthew: I made my first prototypes out of cardboard tubes, projector transparencies, markers, exacto knives, honey nut cheerios and Chap Stick tubes. Eventually I was making prototypes by hand in machine shops, learning all about milling, lathing, and the mechanical, chemical, and surface finishes of different types of plastics.
The final versions of our prototypes look remarkably similar to the sale-ready, scalable product you see on store shelves today. In-fact, some of our promotional pictures still feature our prototypes, but no one seems to notice the difference!
Abound: How do you make your product? Yourself? A manufacturer? What’s your process like?
Matthew: We made the initial prototypes of our packaging at my kitchen counter, and eventually moved on to the Machine shop at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where I was a graduate student in Materials Science Engineering at the time.
The mint formulations also started in my kitchen but soon graduated to professional prototyping equipment at the Confectionary Pilot Plant at the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s food Science department. I worked with food scientists there to refine our initial mint’s formulation, look, and effect. It was most important to me that our mints worked, above all else, to deliver a quick caffeinated kick.
Once our prototypes were squared away, I established contracts with manufacturers in Wisconsin (100% of our product is made in the USA) for each part of our product.
The road to product was a little bumpy and, because of our custom packaging and product that is 100% made in the USA, relatively expensive. We made expensive mistakes (way overpaying for some things early on) but my mentors like to call it the cost of education.
Abound: What’s your day to day like? Do you have any favorite and least favorite parts?
Matthew: I like to stay very organized, everything goes on my calendar. I start each day with a list of follow-ups to our customers and vendors, and then I go to the gym (as often as I am able). I find that working out in the AM really frees up my mind the rest of the day, but sometimes I cannot afford the time. After that, every day is different.
Some days I will personally go check on accounts to make sure customers are happy and get a pulse for what is going on in the street. We have distributors for many of our stores but I feel that maintaining contact with a handful of them gives us information we couldn’t get any other way… and besides, many of the ones I call on were the first to take a chance on us and I like to pay them the respect of still servicing them personally.
Some other days I will be talking with prospective customers or brokers about our product, and trying to find ways of establishing win-wins. I am a big believer in living life with a win-win philosophy. I think you can totally ‘beat your competition’ without win-wins, but you’re honestly making the world a worse place for the rest of us and your priorities are messed up.
Many days I will be on-site with a vendor to troubleshoot a new product or packaging procedure, or ensure our customers needs are met on time even in the face of great challenges.
My favorite part by far is hearing directly from a customer who loves our product, or from a store for whom the product is selling really well. It’s a bit of an un-real feeling. It may sound weird, but I also love facing a huge challenge in the business, especially if it’s a challenge that could have (and may already have) effected other companies.
I have an anything-can-be-done attitude. I’ve found myself in many situations where challenges are piling up all over the place, where it seems like everyone is telling me that something can’t be produced, or can’t be produced on time, or flavor can’t be improved as much as I want it to be, etc.
Something I’ve learned again and again in those situations is the power of determination to get something done. It is so much easier to say “darn” or “ok, well I’m sorry that didn’t work out,” than to say “I understand the challenge we are facing… I’ll drive 10 hours and see you tomorrow first thing AM.”
I don’t know if either response is better or worse, it’s just how we choose to live our lives, but I am never more alive then when I realize that a clever fix or pure grit is all that’s needed to overcome a situation that others are shrugging at. I think that this is where my value to the organization really comes through.
As for my least favorite part, it’s probably the same as many others, paperwork, the dotting i’s and crossing t’s that are necessary to close deals and operate a company in today’s world.
Abound: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
Matthew: The initial product development process took about a year and a few thousand dollars. As a graduate student in engineering I was paid a stipend just above minimum wage, but I saved as much of it as I possibly could.
Abound: Where was the first place you started selling your product?
Matthew: Technically I pre-sold product first, into convenience stores around our founding city of Madison, Wisconsin. I cold-sold into stores around town with a point-of-sale display (prototype) full of our Rally Energy Caffeinated Mints packs (also prototypes).
Honestly, we put so much attention into those prototypes that the product looked 100% sale-ready. Triangle Market, MacTaggarts, and Stop_N_Shop in Madison were the first places we sold consumer-ready product, and then we expanded from there.
Abound: Where do you sell your product now?
Matthew: We sell our product in grocery stores (chain, independence and co-ops), convenience stores, and gas stations, primarily by checkout. We also sell our product online at multiple venues.
Abound: Do you have a favorite product? If so, which one?
Matthew: The product I love most is the one we are giving away for free, and that’s our brand. We haven’t done enough with it yet, but we have big plans. I am a huge fan of clever, creative work, work that took time, energy and passion to bring into the world. For me, that’s Rally.
It’s obvious from anyone who sees our packaging that we care about our product, our customers, and respect creativity and intelligence. I have no interest in pursuing the crowded space of worn-out brand tropes.
I’m an engineer who relishes working on hard problems and creating amazon work, and I have the utmost respect for artists, scientists, designers, comedians, and engineers who bring amazing things into this world and spend countless hours honing their craft to better themselves. A brand that stands for this creativity, this hard work, a brand that stands for powering your passion, is something I can’t wait to give the world.
Abound: What’s your marketing like for Rally Energy? Is social media an important part of your business?
Matthew: It will be a much more important part as we crystallize our brand promise and celebrate the awesome things we can all create together.
Abound: What are some of the most frustrating challenges and/or moments you’ve had with Rally Energy?
Matthew: I hate it when someone tries to take advantage of your information asymmetry. Whether it be in manufacturing, sales, or supply chain, this is a penny-wise and pound-foolish strategy, and smart people can smell it a mile away. I’m not that smart, hence why I got burnt a few times.
Another frustrating situation is when people default to the defaults in order to reduce their cognitive load, even when it is clear other parties involved are highly incentivised to set those defaults without your best interests in mind. You cannot expect disproportionate results from average behavior, and I am not looking for average results.
When I’m at a meeting and someone tells me we have three options, “A, B, or C”, the next word out of my mouth isn’t going to be a letter, it’s going to be ‘Why?’ I expect the people I’m working with to ask ‘Why?’ themselves and show up ready to do something amazing.
Most moments of frustration I’ve had stem from interactions with one or both of the above attitudes.
Abound: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with Rally Energy?
Matthew: When I started Rally, I wanted only to use ingredients that achieved the goals of the product promise and nothing else. I was told again and again that customers would want to see something like 10,000% of their daily vitamin B in there, and a whole menagerie of other ridiculousness.
Not only did this not sit well for me, but both my parents are physicians. There is no way they would let me get away with the marketing BS. I wanted something clean and effective, almost tactical in it’s design and implementation.
Double blind control studies make it clear what we needed to do, regardless of what the marketing hype was calling out from the cheap seats. That’s actually where our original slogan came from “No hype, just energy.” Years later now and we can see that this resonated with customers, ‘clean label’ has since come into the lexicon.
Something we emphasized early on was that the formulation and form factor of our mints needed to have a quick, caffeinated kick. This is an aspect of the product that drinks and pills you swallow simply cannot compete with, a properly formulated and manufactured caffeinated mint will always deliver you the rally in alertness you are looking for faster than any other medium (drink or pill), full stop.
What’s more, because of our mint’s form factor, we can achieve this effect with less caffeine than energy drinks. it’s an incredible achievement. However, there are flavor challenges with this form factor that need to be overcome. Early on, we were pressed again and again to relax our promise to customers on a quick caffeinated kick in order to achieve a easier-to-manufacture product. We stead-fast refused to give in and it elevated the performance of everyone at the table. The product is undeniably better for it.
Abound: What advice do you have for people who want to sell a product?
Matthew: Start as small and low risk as possible, test every assumption and build on your success. It is a slower path than most would like, but it is a great way to avoid scaling mistakes and paying big-time for the arrogance.
Don’t grow too fast, you will kill your company. Every aspect of your company (supply chain, manufacturing, quality control, sales, marketing, fulfillment) are interdependent, and whatever solution you use today for one aspect of your company (e.g. fulfillment) will be stress tested as you grow to the ‘next stage’.
Almost all solutions you have at one stage will break under stress testing at some other stage. This is not a failure of your company, this is a natural part of growing a company.
I sometimes get asked ” how fast should I grow “and the answer is (assuming you know your businesses’ numbers backwards and forwards) grow at the fastest pace you can which still allows you to fail at least once and come back from it. Lots of good products don’t make it to mass market because they never saved enough to survive the inevitable mistake.
Abound: Is there any business advice or quotes you’ve heard that you think about often?
Matthew: Fix mistakes when they are small, avoid scaling your mistakes.
Abound: What’s your favorite thing about owning Rally Energy?
Matthew: I get to solve interesting problems on a regular basis, and participate in creating a brand that I believe in.