Go Big's Ben Koren on COVID-19 impact, giving back – podcast

Go Big co-founder and co-CEO Ben Koren spoke with Food & Beverage Insider assistant editor Alex Smolokoff to discuss the impact COVID-19 is having on business, and how Go Big is giving back.

Alex Smolokoff, Editorial coordinator

April 20, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting businesses throughout the food and beverage industry, from upstarts to established giants. Issues with supply chains, retailers, manufacturing and more have forced brands to adjust on the fly to keep their businesses thriving during these unprecedented times. 

Go Big, an energy and wellness shot company launched in February, is experiencing the turbulence brought on by COVID-19 first-hand. From reprioritizing distribution channels to ensuring a stable supply chain, Go Big is going through the same period of uncertainty facing the industry at large. 

In this podcast, Go Big co-founder and co-CEO Ben Koren covers the company's reaction and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, steps the company took before the pandemic hit that are helping them now, and how these trying times have changed the company's outlook moving forward. With Food & Beverage Insider assistant editor Alex Smolokoff, this podcast addresses:

  • How, as a new startup, Go Big was in a unique position to change course as the current times demand;

  • Steps the company had already taken to ensure supply chain stability and why those steps are helpful now;

  • and what Go Big is doing to show their appreciation for those on the frontlines of the crisis. 


Alex Smolokoff, assistant editor, Food & Beverage Insider: I am Alex Smolokoff and welcome to another edition of the food and beverage insider podcast.

With me on the phone today I have Ben Koren, co-CEO and co-founder of Go Big energy and wellness shots. Thank you for joining us today Ben, I'm looking forward to having a conversation with you today about your business and mostly about how the current COVID-19 pandemic and it's far-reaching effects have impacted your business and maybe the industry as a whole a little bit, so thanks again for taking some time out of your day to join me today.

Ben Koren, co-CEO and co-founder, Go Big: Thanks for having Alex.

Smolokoff: I guess we'll start just with a quick overview in case anybody isn't familiar with your company. Could you just describe what is Go Big? What type of business do you do, what are your products like, just a brief overview of the business itself.

Koren: Yeah, Go Big is an all-natural energy and wellness shot. We are the first and only energy shots to deliver on the energy that most consumers expect from a shot. We are a new business; we just launched in February direct-to-consumer and through a number of gyms in the New York City area and obviously the time since our launch has been extremely eventful, so I'm happy to talk about any of that.

Smolokoff: So I guess let's just dive right into it. Could you kind of explain, you know, how has the pandemic impacted your business, especially as a business that A) launched so recently and B) you know, you said really does a lot of business in some of the areas in the country that have been hit the hardest. What has that impact been like on your business, whether it be total sales, trying to procure ingredients, maybe manufacturing and business slowdowns; what has that impact been like on the business?

Koren: So I'll take the supply side first because I know that's a huge issue in the industry right now. We were super fortunate, I guess, in our timing in one sense because we had just done an enormous run for our launch right beforehand, so that was before any of this happened. We have reached out to all of our suppliers regarding their status and it seems that most people are keeping supply chains open with our ingredients at least. I do know that a lot of other companies are having trouble though on the supply side.

On the demand side, you know, we launched direct-to-consumer. I think that was extremely fortunate because online shopping is doing well, generally, in the country. In terms of our product, it's actually been pretty incredible to see the response. People have been super leaning into the wellness aspect, or been attracted to the wellness aspect, of what we're doing. So sales have been…we blew through our projections in the first couple weeks, so we're really happy about that.

On the negative side, another big part of our strategy at launch was to partner with gyms and that was going great. In the first couple weeks we got a number of orders from some pretty cool places in New York and those were all put on hold. Our partners pretty much universally have been forced to close down temporarily and we really feel for them. I mean that's obviously totally understandable, so, you know, a lot of different things happening in the market, both positive and negative.

Smolokoff: To touch a little bit on the supply side of things, I know that you mentioned in a previous conversation you and I had that you have at least two suppliers lined up for every ingredient that you need. Was that done with the foresight of, maybe there would be future or possible disruptions in supply chain? What was the reasoning behind making sure that you had at least two suppliers for every ingredient, which I assume is something that has really paid off in times like these?

BK: Yeah that's really great question. So I can't take any credit for it at all. That’s my co-founder Vivi. She is the person that owns operations generally in our company. So she's Brazilian; I lived in Brazil, worked in Brazil for a number of years earlier in my career and Brazil is a country that deals with crises on a scale and a frequency that's much greater than what we deal with in the United States. That was something that she was just like, “We need to have two suppliers, at least, for every single ingredient in case something happens.” I think that was probably because of her experience working and manufacturing in Brazil. She owns that; I take her lead on it and I was like, well that sounds great. But in no way did we foresee any of this happening. She's just, she's just amazing so I mean clearly that was a great thing that that we did a bunch of work up front to do.

Smolokoff: That that's a really interesting; I never would have thought that maybe that type of experience could lead to such a, you know, in hindsight great decision on your end so that's really really interesting.

Koren: I didn't think of that until you just asked that question, but yeah that that’s all her so all credit to her.

Smolokoff: And then on the sales side of things, obviously I would imagine that when the country gets back to a state of semi-normalcy and gyms and things start to open up, that that end of the business will continue. But has this had any effect on maybe what your percentage focus on direct-to-consumer online versus supplying places like gyms, or do you think that your business might be changed moving forward because of what's happened here where maybe you'll have more of a focus online even into the future when it maybe it's less of a necessity?

BK: Yeah, so, online versus traditional retail channels, right? That's a big question that I think any company launching right now asks. The reason we launched online is because, you know, the way that we approach it is, our first goal is not sales – it’s really to get to know our customer. And we test, we iterate, we get as much feedback as possible. Really, you know, when you launch a company you have a thesis about who your core customer is, but then when you actually put it out to the world and people are buying, things can change. We found customers that are super passionate about our product that we literally never thought would be our customers, at least at this point in time. That direct customer relationship is really valuable in terms of the initial stages of just really figuring out your business. So that's why we launched direct-to-consumer. We do think that in five years though, this is a retail business. Our online business will be much smaller, especially when you consider our category. We think that our best customers will be subscribing online, but there are so many occasions for an energy drink purchase that is an impulse purchase, right? So that's the ultimate goal.

In terms of your question about how this impacts our plans going forward – so like the cancellation of Expo West is an enormous thing in this industry. Grocery stores are generally crushing it right now, but their entire innovation cycle has been completely disrupted, or interrupted rather, so new products are really not going to be coming to market for a number of months later than when they were going to. So we think there's actually a huge, pent-up demand right now for new innovative products, which I think we fit into. So we're actually, as a result of this, we're starting to think about going into traditional retail faster than we had originally anticipated. Originally, we weren't planning on thinking about that for at least a year or two, but it's something that we're exploring.

Smolokoff: Something that I found interesting in that response was that you said that maybe your initial idea of what your customer base would be has changed as you've actually gone into production and started selling your product. What was your initial assumption as to what type of customer you would be attracting and how has that changed?

Koren: So in the energy drink market there's an enormous white space as it relates to female purchasers. The industry has four or five companies that dominate it. Like the natural energy drinks, there a number of companies out there, but all together they represent less than 1% market share. It's really a market that's dominated by, you know, the Red Bulls, the Monsters, 5-hour Energy, this new company Bang, Rockstar, which just got purchased by Pepsi. And they're all, like, hyper masculine. And they're all just, like, you know, look at their ingredients list; I'll leave it at that.

If you look at the actual data behind who purchases energy drinks though, it is way more diverse than I think most people realize. About 45% of consumers are female. Our thesis always was that there's an enormous emotional whitespace. Our industry is just so far to one side we think that there's just, like, a lot to be explored from a branding perspective and then obviously with the cleaner ingredients, that trend is universal across grocery and CPG categories. But yeah, our thesis is that there's enormous white space, particularly with women. We though that our archetypal customer would be, at least in the very beginning because we have a premium product that's wellness focused, we thought that, you know, CrossFit would be a huge fit and then, you know, people in cities that maybe do Soul Cycle or go to the gym, people generally focused on fitness and what they put into their body. That has been proven true. But, the amazing thing about the Internet, right, and direct-to-consumers…we have customers in Wyoming, we have customers in Arizona, not just New York and L.A.

Basically, without going into too much detail, we're getting data points that truly suggest that this has mass market potential.  We didn't think we'd get there so fast, but to give you just like one anecdote, right: We have this one customer who works night shifts, I don't know exactly what her job is but she has subscribed and is buying boxes for all of her colleagues, some of whom don't have credit cards, because they're all trying to get off of 5-hour energy, which they all think is not healthy, and they found our product and they love it. So, it's been it's been really interesting.

Smolokoff: So it seems like as a new company, you’re really able to, and cognizant of the need to, sort of adjust on the fly, whether it's adjusting expectations of your consumer base or adjusting retail vs. online purchasing. Do you think that, as a new company, you might have actually been at an advantage as far as trying to adjust to some very difficult and unprecedented times that we’re in right now, as opposed to if maybe you were a more established company who had been doing this longer?

Koren: Yeah that’s a really great question. There is an enormous disruption I think, I mean obviously, in everybody's lives currently. I mean this is like one of those moments in history where things are going to be different afterwards, and the advantages of being small are that you are way more agile. That's like the main thing you have vs. the incumbents. I definitely think that in a moment of such disruption, agility and the ability to pivot and also just, kind of like the attention you have toward your customers…like we’re focused entirely on learning right now. You know, is Pepsi and Rockstar, do they have the same intense focus on learning every single thing about their customer? No. They've got way more customers, it's not a founder who only thinks about this 24 hours, seven days a week. I think there is a large advantage in that.

Smolokoff: And then just one last thing I want to make sure that we do touch on, which really really impressed me, was I know that during a previous conversation between you and I you mentioned that, while I would have assumed that a business like yours would be hyper-focused right now on really maintaining the business, making sure that you're hitting revenues, that you are making money, that you are doing everything you can to not have too much of a disruption as far as the revenue side of things, you mentioned that you're also working on making sure that you're giving back. And you mentioned that you're donating some of these energy shots that you produce to frontline workers: hospitals, healthcare workers. Could you just talk a little bit more about that initiative, what led to the decision to do that and sort of the ins and outs of how you're going about donating what you're donating, who you're donating to?

Koren: Yeah! So it's something that we're really proud of. Vivi, my cofounder, and I we met at Business School and, you know, Business School programs tend to be pretty international and we have a number of friends in Europe through Business School in common. And we got a text message from one of our friends who is living in Milan, slightly before it really got bad here in the U.S., explaining what was going on there and this situation in the hospitals and how overworked the whole system is but obviously the people, the first responders. So we were like, wow, alright, we should help.

We had a reserve of our inventory dedicated toward sampling in gyms which, again, as this whole thing unfolded now is not happening. So we decided to, you know, there's that one photo, I don't know if you remember, that went sort of viral early into the crisis here, kind of in the middle of the crisis in Italy, of the nurse who was like passed out at her desk, just so exhausted from just constantly attending to people. And we were like, I mean, there's an obvious way that we can help. It's a small way, but, you know, we should do it.

So we donated, will be donating, 10,000 shots for hospitals. We kind of put it out on social media and people started filling out, we had a form – still have a form – where people can sign up their hospital to get delivery of free shots and yeah, we've donated over 7,000 so far to a number of different hospitals across the country. The thing that was really cool that we saw was, you know, people, nurses and doctors, started receiving the shots and then they would tell their friends about it and kind of created this little buzz within the medical community. At a certain point, we saw that things were getting really really bad, worse than anywhere else at the moment, in New York so we started focusing more on sending a larger quantity of shots to hospitals in New York, especially the public hospitals where, from what we've been seeing and the people that we've been talking to there, that's where the crisis is the worst.

People are doing really amazing things and obviously going through a really difficult time but doing, obviously, incredible, heroic work. So yeah, like hospitals in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn. We will have donated 10,000 shots probably, you know, in the next week or two. And we're thinking about how we can extend that because I mean, obviously we want to help as much as possible.

Smolokoff: That's really great. I mean as a small business, knowing and realizing—very quickly it seemed—that there was something that you could do with, whether it be extra inventory that you had planned to use for some of these Expo shows that unfortunately had to be cancelled or the gyms that are closed, for you to be able to turn around and say,  “we can do something helpful with this extra inventory” and what you're doing I think is amazing. So that's just a really cool thing that you guys are doing and I'm glad that we were able to talk a little bit more in depth about it.

Koren: Thanks, Alex. I think we need your help in getting the word out as well.

Smolokoff: Yeah, you said that people can sign up to try and basically apply to have some of these shots sent to them, where can people do that:

Koren: Yeah there's a link in the bio of our Instagram account, which is gobigenergy.

Smolokoff: That's perfect; I'll make sure that people hear about that and, you know, if anyone out there is listening who this might apply to, definitely go try and sign up and get some free, delicious and very helpful energy shots.

Ben, thank you again so much for joining me, for answering some of my questions a couple of weeks ago for an article and for elaborating on those answers today. I think what your company is doing is really great and I think that it offers a really interesting glimpse into how small businesses in this industry can, and are, sort of trying to mitigate, again, an unprecedented time that we don't know when it's going to end and I think that the advice that you're able to give and the lessons that you're able to teach as to how to work around those and make the most of them is very important stuff. So, thank you for coming and sharing that with me today.

Koren: Thanks Alex, really appreciate you having me.

About the Author(s)

Alex Smolokoff

Editorial coordinator, Informa

After a career in sportswriting, Alex Smolokoff was on the editorial team at Informa Markets from December 2018 through spring of 2022, working on Food & Beverage Insider. In his free time, he enjoys watching his hometown Boston sports teams.   

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