According to serial tech entrepreneur John Montague and business partner Jesse Parker, there’s a big problem in the sports beverage world. And no, it’s not that it’s unsettling to drink something the exact same color as Windex (though that was the problem, kind of!). As coaches and dads, they felt gross about giving their kids so-called sports recovery drink, chockfull of chemicals, dyes, sugar and who knows what else. So they created ASPIRE, an all-natural sports drink loaded with electrolytes, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. I talk to Montague about how ASPIRE went from a drawing on the back of a napkin to a un-junked sports drink that practically sells itself.
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What got you thinking about the sports drink industry? Seems like a big departure.
Back in 2007-2008, I was working on a project within the Mayo Clinic's obesity and diabetes area… I just got incensed that there was a health halo over sports drink products. If you take time to really break down the products and read the labels, you’re going to realize that sports drinks are the last thing a nutritionist, trainer or a doctor would ever recommend somebody guzzles in the name of sports.
Many ingredients in these products are fairly controversial. Like with the BVO [brominated vegetable oil; read about it here]. That ingredient has been banned in every other country in the civilized world. That’s really frustrating.
Why did you create ASPIRE?
We’re sick and tired of watching people drink junk. It’s crazy. And then we started looking at the kids we care about and it got really personal. So we decided to do something about it. Asking people to drink water wasn’t really a realistic solution because A) people want more taste than just water, and B) athletes need more than just water. There needed to be a better solution, so we created a sports drink that’s actually healthy and improves your performance.
I wouldn’t even know where to begin building a sports drink company. How’d you do it?
To be a successful entrepreneur, you don’t necessarily have to be an expert. Neither Jesse nor I were food scientists or nutrition experts... A lot of times, it just takes you to have the vision. We assembled a team of experts-- experts in sweeteners, electrolytes and hydration. We also needed athletes. Really, it came down to figuring out our objectives for the drink and finding the experts to help with each individual objective.
I’m sure there were lots of a-ha! moments throughout the process. What was a notable one?
Well, for years people have been trying to use natural fruit flavorings to make sports drinks taste good. The challenge is that people’s pallets are used to Gatorade and Powerade and all that stuff that’s artificially-flavored. We wanted to replicate that flavor using natural flavoring. We had to figure how to make a flavor profile that didn’t taste like fruit juice, but like a sports drinks.
Honestly, I stopped drinking sports drinks years ago because they seem like junk. I'm probably not alone in that, am I?
People always tell me sports drinks are too sweet, to sugary, give you a sticky mouth and cause gut rot. We hear about the aftertaste. People taste our product and say it doesn’t have the aftertaste, and wow, I can actually smell the fruit! Jesse and I are just thrilled that so many other people are falling love with it for the exact same reasons we did. There's a big void in the market that we came in and filled.
How long did it take for ASPIRE to go from concept to shelves?
I started doing the research for this in '07 or '08, but we really began in November of 2012. I sketched out the name and logo on a napkin. We had a finished product on the shelves at the end of April. We literally went from a concept on a napkin in November to product in stores in April.
What’s your plan for getting your product into the right hands?
We walked into Lund’s and Byerly’s with our drink in a clear bottle and a board with what our packaging would look like. We got a purchase order in our first meeting… Knock on wood, but Jesse and I have yet to have a sales meeting that ended with a no. We start every meeting with why we started this business. Once we start talking, everyone around the table is already shaking their head.
Ultimately, I think the quality and integrity of our product speaks for itself. With the Internet and social media, we live in a world now that’s just so transparent. Consumers are becoming more aware and health-conscious. It’s harder than ever before to fool people… Some brands have been selling people junk for years because it’s cheap, easy and profitable. They’re going to lose eventually; it’s just a matter of time.
We also have a huge competitive advantage because were compliant with the new USDA requirements. I think we are the only sports drink that meets the guidelines, which means we’re in a lot of schools.
So, have you tried pouring a cooler of ASPIRE over your head?
It’s refreshing and doesn’t stain your clothes!
Tips for other entrepreneurs?
Don’t be afraid. Every successful entrepreneur has experienced failure. You learn more from failure than success.
Also, stop talking about an idea and start acting on it. A lot of entrepreneurs have an idea or passion that they think about a lot. They analyze and analyze and analyze. They research something for years and will test and test, trying to get it just perfect. They don’t want to make a mistake. To borrow the phrase from Nike, just do it.
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You can check out my other Everyday Eleanor interviews in the archives. You know you want to.
Have you done something ballsy, like moved to a foreign country for work (or *gulp* love)? Flung yourself head-first into something people said couldn't be done? Given up all your worldly possessions and joined the circus? I want to hear your Everyday Eleanor story. Email me at email@example.com.