Ben Weiss knows a billion-dollar idea. He’s had one—a $1.7 billion idea, actually.
When Weiss created Bai, he found a purpose for a product otherwise thrown away: coffee fruit, the conduit for those beans America runs on. Through sweat equity and homing in on consumer mindset—why call it coffee fruit when you can call it super fruit? Especially since the coffee association could be confusing. Consumers responded by putting it in their carts.
Dr. Pepper Snapple Group responded by giving him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Weiss now runs successful hard seltzer brand Crook & Marker from his Trenton office and is the host of Billion Dollar Idea, a Fox Business show where 15 entrepreneurs compete head-to-head with the hopes of getting Weiss’ $1 million investment while learning from his knowledge and expertise.
The producers reached out to him after coming across Basementality, his book about the growth of Bai. Like many entrepreneurs, Weiss had started his businesses in basements; and to him, basementaility “means you must combine desire with discipline and big dreams with painstaking effort.”
Billion Dollar Idea comes at a time when millions of Americans are venturing into entrepreneurialism, making it relatable. Nearly 5.4 million new businesses were registered last year, up 23% from pre-pandemic, per U.S. Census Bureau numbers. More of those businesses will fail than succeed. With the show, Weiss said he and the producers “really wanted to give viewers a better sense of how demanding the journey is — and how rewarding it can be, too.”
Weiss talked to NJBIZ in May in the midst of Billion Dollar Idea’s first season. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
NJBIZ: How do you know something is a good idea? You started Bai in 2009 and Crook & Marker in 2018 – what about them made you realize they were worth running with?
Ben Weiss: In the early days you need to ask yourself an important question – does the world really need this product? Does it address a problem or consumer need or is it a better mousetrap of something already in existence?
With Bai, I started by wanting to create a great-tasting drink using the byproduct of coffee fruit, which is rich in antioxidants. I was very into coffee culture growing up and had previously run a coffee distribution business, so I wanted to do something related to that space. When I started Bai, it was a mid-calorie drink and there was a lot of competition in this space. As I began to get directly in front of consumers by going store to store with a folding table sampling the product with my stepdad, I noticed that the first thing consumers did was turn the bottle around to check the nutritional label. It became clear to me that the quality of ingredients and what consumers were putting in their bodies was becoming increasingly important, especially for the millennial generation.
So I went back to formulation and found a way to create the same great-tasting drink with just 1 gram of sugar, 5 calories and no artificial sweeteners or ingredients. By doing so, I stumbled on the answer to the diet dilemma and Bai provided a necessary alternative to Big Soda, which is when Bai really took off.
After leaving Bai following the acquisition by Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, as I began to think about what I wanted to do next I had a major realization. The 80-million strong millennial generation that fueled Bai’s growth had just completely aged into alcohol – another industry that was ripe for disruption. Similar to soda, the beer industry was filled with sugary and high calorie drinks, but in this case, it was even worse because they weren’t obligated to disclose all their ingredients.
So I went back to my basement and created Crook & Marker, the first zero sugar organic cocktail portfolio of its kind … from quinoa, millet, amaranth and cassava. They contain zero sugar, zero artificial ingredients and are gluten-free and non-GMO — perfect for today’s more health-conscious consumers.
Q: What ideas did you have between the two that didn’t stick?
A: Crook & Marker was my first business venture following Bai, but throughout my 25-plus years as an entrepreneur I’ve definitely had more failures than successes. Some of my ventures that didn’t pan out included a coffee brand designed to raise money for volunteer firehouses and an all-natural energy supplement for beverages. They actually weren’t bad concepts, but they weren’t the right ideas at the right time, and I wasn’t able to build them into viable businesses. Through these experiences, I’ve realized that the key is to learn from your failures and apply those lessons to what comes next.
Q: How long should you try out an apparently failing idea before throwing in the towel?
A: I don’t think there is a one size fits all answer here — it’s a combination of factors. Did you do proper due diligence before starting the venture? Is the obstacle in your way something that can be addressed, for example support from a partner or retailer, or is it a lack of interest from consumers? I always advise entrepreneurs to start small and focus on building a proof of concept that you can leverage to grow your business and attract greater interest. When you’ve exhausted those avenues, or the business continues to drain your resources to a point of no return, there is a point when all entrepreneurs have to face the music and move on. But if you are a true entrepreneur, there is another idea waiting around the corner.
Q: One of the decisions you’ve made is not to include mention of coffee fruit in Bai’s advertising. Why’d you do that?
A: As I got in front of more and more consumers over the first couple of years after launching Bai, I learned that the coffee fruit angle was potentially confusing customers because they wondered if Bai would taste like coffee. So we kept it on the bottle but moved it to the back, making it more of an easter egg that consumers could discover as they got to know the brand more. That’s why I always tell entrepreneurs they need to get out in front of consumers, because you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t in a real-world application.
Q: Before Billion Dollar Idea, how much mentoring had you done?
A: I’ve always made it a point to help mentor and guide budding entrepreneurs – including companies that I have invested in. [On my] “Basementality Sessions” tour of major colleges and universities … I emphasized that grit and determination are much more important factors in entrepreneurial success than just an Ivy League MBA or an investment from a “Shark Tank” celebrity. When people ask about my education, I tell them “I majored in fight.”
Q: What’s more valuable – mentorship or investment?
A: Having a mentor or mentors is important but as an entrepreneur, especially in the early days of the business, fundraising needs to be your biggest priority. The other crucial piece of advice I give is to only raise what you need at the time and to continue that approach as you scale the business. This approach allows you to raise the money you need today and then raise additional funds at a higher valuation. Some entrepreneurs can get excited by a larger lump sum but often they don’t really need that full amount, or they end up not being as disciplined with how they invest that money.
Q: In starting your first company, how much of each did you get? By company No. 2, did you need/want/accept any of either?
A: My first venture in the early 1990s was a concept to sell coffee in movie theaters, long before that became commonplace. I got funding from Godiva as they were launching a new coffee line and met a Godiva executive named Michael Simon, who became a great mentor throughout my career and later became my chief marketing officer at Bai. I raised $60 million during Bai. In my book I described it as having $60 million shoulders, because I always felt like I was carrying around the weight of that investment as much of the early money I raised was from family and friends. I also used to wear a bracelet that had a USB drive in it, which contained my cap table. There’s a lot of responsibility that you bear as an entrepreneur between your shareholders and employees who are all counting on you.
Q: If you had to narrow down three to five personality traits of successful entrepreneurs, what would they be?
A: Be audacious: Do not subscribe to the prevailing wisdom — challenge it. Have the audacity to believe that truly passionate and original ideas often have nothing to do with the way things are “supposed” to get done.
Be obsessive: Make sure you sweat all the details and don’t compromise on your beliefs when you are developing a truly innovative idea.
Be tenacious: Hard work makes the difference between good and great. Be scrappy, aggressive and energized to deliver maximum effort.
Be authentic: Be true to who you are. Stay dedicated to the soul of a startup. Respect the grueling, unsexy work that nurtures a potentially contagious idea.
Inspire others to be great: Believe in the worth of your idea and your people so completely that they begin to believe in it themselves and become better than they ever knew they could be.
Q: What typically gets in the way of the success of a billion-dollar idea?
A: New brands aren’t created perfectly. They are like babies — they come out kicking and screaming and you have to nurture and guide them to maturity. In the first few years of a brand, you are going to come across inevitable potholes in your path and the difference between failure and success often comes down to how you navigate them. In each brand that I’ve created, I’ve typically made between three to five major pivots that have allowed me to avoid those potholes and reposition my brands for success. If you don’t, it’s typically where you get stuck. The potholes can represent numerous types of challenges such as production, branding or pricing issues.
Q: What can be done to mitigate those risks to best position your idea for success?
A: When creating a new brand or idea you should know your end game from the start. Too many entrepreneurs fall in love with their ideas and start businesses without really knowing what they’re trying to accomplish. Is it a big exit? Creating an iconic brand? Put your vision and goal down on paper and use them to guide your journey. Knowing your end game will allow you to make the right decisions that help achieve your long-term vision, versus making near-sighted decisions that may end up hurting you over the long run.
Q: What matters more – the idea or the entrepreneur?
A: I always bet on the jockey over the horse. With Bai, I was the right entrepreneur with the right idea at the right time, but there was a string of failures preceding that. If you have a driven entrepreneur who is committed to the fight and willing to take the jump and face their way through the inevitable 80 mph winds they will encounter — whether it’s this idea or the next that work out — that’s someone I am willing to bet on.