Sol founded Leilo, the world’s first relaxation beverage. Their mission is to de-stress a stressed-out world. They are currently at 8 full-time employees, 30+ sales reps, and brand ambassadors across the country and are on track to more than 10x last year's revenue.
Hi Sol! Who are you and what are you currently working on?
Hi! My name is Sol Broady, and I’m a 21-year-old senior at Columbia University in NYC.
For the past three years, I have worked as the founder and CEO of Leilo, the world’s first dedicated relaxation CPG. Simply put, we are on a mission to de-stress a stressed-out world. Everyone knows where to go when it comes to energy or caffeine--soda, coffee, tea, energy drinks...the list goes on and on. But what products can you turn to when you need the opposite effect? What are you doing to relax, take the edge off after a long day, or balance out your caffeine fixation?
That’s where Leilo comes in. Using all-natural ingredients known for their anxiolytic properties, we provide “calm in a can” whenever you need it most. Our star ingredient is kava, a root native to the South Pacific that has been enjoyed for millennia for the euphoric and relaxing sensation it produces.
Crucially, our proprietary formula gives consumers a tangible effect without using any alcohol or marijuana derivatives. When you consider this alongside the fact that Leilo is vegan, kosher, halal, non-GMO, and as low as 10 calories, you could say we’ve made relaxation responsible. We’re proud to have created a product that not only makes people feel good but one that they can feel good about drinking in the first place.
Since our first flavor launch in March 2020, we’ve enjoyed pretty rapid success on both the e-commerce and retail fronts. Though the pandemic presented some obstacles in getting off the ground, we pushed through and are happy to report that we’re currently sold across 200+ retailers in 20 states, and are adding more by the day! With some awesome new flavors and function-specific variants coming out soon, we can’t wait to continue spreading relaxation across the nation, now and for years to come.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
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 it was hectic balancing 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 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––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 was also playing quarterback for the football team; working towards college recruitment added its unique pressure on top of everything else, and the combination bordered on overwhelming.
When I started college at Columbia University, it had become clear to me that something needed to be done about the stress culture I’d witnessed everywhere I’d gone. 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 eventually buckling under its weight. Don’t get me wrong—I believe it’s very important to stay ambitious and goal-oriented. However, I noticed that oftentimes the partying, drinking, etc that my friends and I thought was “balancing” out our hard work was only decreasing our productivity and leading to more stress over time. To reach my own goals—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 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.
As crazy as it sounds, the eureka moment to create Leilo came the very first time I tried kava in 2018. I was on a random and fortuitous family trip to Fiji, 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 of days before. The warmth, generosity, and sincerity of the Fijians, which they largely attributed to the calming, regenerative powers of kava, 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 would be 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 that culture of friendship and optimism, with a greater audience. To everyone at the table’s surprise, including myself, I declared that I would find a way to make an RTD kava product and bring it to market. Though it was a fledgling idea, and though I had no experience in the F&B space whatsoever at the time, they believed in me. A lot of progress has been made since that moment of inception, but I am proud to say that it is those same people, my family, and friends in Fiji, who continue to be my closest advisers and supporters. As Leilo continues to expand, 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.
How did you go from idea to product?
It took me about two full years to go from idea to product. Before sinking a bunch of money into the company, I felt it was essential to do as much research and low-budget development as I could on my own.
When I was first playing around with prototypes, my primary objective was to mitigate the natural bitterness of kava. The word “kava” in Fijian means “bitter;” this reputation for unpalatability is one of the reasons why Americans especially are hesitant to try the ingredient for the first time. After much experimentation and research, 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 more interested in people’s 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 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 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 see many founders who are too apprehensive to release their product until they think it’s perfect. It’s a valid worry; criticism is scary and hits hard. However, I believed it was far more important to start collecting feedback and data than it was to wait for perfection in a vacuum. I knew that my horchata wasn’t the optimal presentation of what Leilo would eventually be, but 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 positive reactions, giving me the market validity I needed to pursue more professional development.
After all this experimentation, I finally felt strongly enough about my concept to take it to flavor houses for formulation and eventually co-packers for production. This was in late-2019/early-2020.
By March 2020, we were all set for take-off. But our launch turned out to be a complete disaster because I impeccably timed it with the initial COVID outbreak in NYC. We had retailers set up across Columbia University, launch events throughout the city, and lots of cool demos mapped out. The day before our scheduled rollout, we got evicted from our dorms and sent home. My team was suddenly scattered across the country, our retail agreements in LA and NYC fell through as those markets shut down for several months, and we had to immediately pivot to DTC sales almost exclusively. I think that was a valuable lesson in maintaining optimism and agility in the face of dynamic circumstances. You can create the most detailed business plans, but life rarely shakes out how you predict it. The pandemic is an extreme and unusual example in this regard, but looking back at it, being forced to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances gave me and my team the confidence to grapple with whatever surprises might come our way in the future.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
By far the most effective marketing strategy we employ is on-the-ground sampling and education. We certainly see a positive uptick from our work with micro-influencers, implementation of paid social ads, etc, but consumers are increasingly aware and averse to advertisements in their feeds.
With a new and unique product like Leilo, it’s hard to convey our entire value proposition in a 10-second video on Instagram. Consumers need to try our flavors, feel Leilo’s effects, and learn about our story from the people who built the company. While we continue to advertise digitally, we’ve allocated an increasing amount of our marketing spend towards person-to-person interaction, with in-store demos, pop-ups throughout our key markets, and event sponsorships, to give consumers a more holistic relaxation experience.
At the end of the day, it’s not the number of followers on social platforms that carries you, but rather the loyal customer base you cultivate who will consistently pick your product up off the shelves. While I understand the urge to focus heavily on e-commerce and social media capital, you can’t forget about the human element of marketing and growth.
How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?
I’m happy to say that business is booming at the moment. With retail opening back up nationwide and the Leilo community expanding rapidly through both word-of-mouth and dedicated marketing efforts, we are poised for a huge back half of the year and explosive growth in 2022. Currently, we are on track to more than 10x revenue from last year and have a chance to crush that multiple if a couple of our potential large deals in the pipeline close as expected.
Over the past 6 months, my team has transitioned from being composed of a couple of hungry college students to industry professionals who have scaled major CPG brands throughout their careers. Back in the early days, it was just me and my three co-founders from college, struggling day-in and day-out to get this business off the ground. Now with 8 full-time employees and 30+ more sales reps and brand ambassadors across the country, we finally have the personnel and experience to start flying.
Over the next several quarters, we have a couple of primary goals. The first is to leverage the success we’ve seen in the NYC area into new markets, including California, Texas, and Florida. Another is to debut several functional-specific variants that meet the needs of specialty demographics. I am particularly excited for Leilo Luna, our melatonin-infused nighttime product, and Leilo Sport, a super low-calorie product with added electrolytes and amino acids for athletes post-workout.
Beyond that, we are constantly looking for ways to build our brand holistically and tap into other industries. If we are going to be known as the trusted brand in relaxation, we have to bring more to the table than simply our products. To this end, we are extremely excited to announce we’ve teamed up with NYCFC as their Official Relaxation Partner. Leilo is the first “relaxation partner” in professional sports sponsorship history. We’re also venturing into the music and live event space as the title sponsor of several festivals and concerts throughout the US.
My ultimate goal is for Leilo to be the “Red Bull of Relaxation,” a brand synonymous with relaxation itself. We have a long way to go, but, at least so far, I believe we’re off to a promising start.
Since starting Leilo, what have been your main lessons?
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 products 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 this: “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” It is far better in my opinion to exercise patient and cautious spending 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.
What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?
Beyond the COVID launch debacle, the most amusing challenge we ran into was found in the manufacturing of our new flavors. We went through two months in early 2021 when each batch of our Raspberry Hibiscus flavor turned to a glob of jello overnight in the carbonation tank. I remember having to write a lengthy email to a group of our angry retailers explaining that as much as we wanted to fulfill their orders for the new flavors, they’d be even madder at us if we shipped them this gelatinous mess of a product. Despite how frustrating that situation was, my team never gave up and kept tweaking until we found a solution. Interestingly enough, it was the manufacturing processes that we ended up inventing over that crazy period that allowed us to patent our process. What’s more, Raspberry Hibiscus has been our top seller ever since it came out. It’s funny how great challenges like this if overcome, can often yield the greatest rewards.
Looking back at it, we went through a lot of unnecessary suffering on the production and operations side because I refused to spend money on veteran personnel in the early going. I know this cuts counter to the bootstrapping mentality 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 wrong. For instance, the first 15k cans of our Lemon-Ginger flavor were over-sweetened 10x with stevia and pretty much unusable in retail, setting us back almost a full quarter.
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. While it may seem expensive at the time, it is undoubtedly cheaper than screwing up successive production runs due to inexperience. Ultimately, you’ll be forced to hire a professional anyway, so I recommend doing this from the onset and saving yourself a massive headache and lots of money.
What tools & resources do you recommend?
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 an existing foundation for them to analyze and work off of.
For instance, I spent 6 months creating my 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 someone to fulfill a vision that I couldn’t even see clearly 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.
More broadly, I see a lot of people talking about entrepreneurship instead of living it. I didn’t wait for an accelerator, mentor, or club to approve my idea before I started pursuing it. I’m not saying these types of support organizations can’t have utility for start-ups, but a lot of people think they’re a necessity. They’re not.
At least for Leilo, my job is to sell relaxation products, not to speak hypothetically about selling them with some people invested in a much larger portfolio of other companies.
In my opinion, experience is the best teacher. You absorb information faster, and the lessons mean more when you learn them for yourself. Go out and meet with store owners. Talk to your customers. Get roasted. Revise your formula. Tweak your packaging and taglines. Stay hungry, stay practical, and keep moving forward.
Great book to read: The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz
A role model in the CPG space: Dietrich Mateschitz, Co-Founder of Red Bull. He’s a master marketer and articles, podcasts, and documentaries of his journey have been highly influential as I embarked on my venture.