Soul & Science
Soul & Science

Season 2, Episode 5 · 1 month ago

S2 Episode 5: Olipop Co-Founder & President David Lester | Breaking Your Way to Better Outcomes

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

There’s an alchemy to relationships, including the ones between co-founders. David Lester, co-founder at good-for-you-soda company, OLIPOP, first heard about his future business partner, Ben Goodwin, while he was quitting his 10-year job at global beverage giant Diageo. His then boss thought they’d work well together. The first meeting between entrepreneurs was memorable as Ben showed up with a bag of home-made soda. The pair went on to run a kefir beverage startup, followed by OLIPOP. Packed with healthy prebiotics and a tenth the sugar of regular, OLIPOP brilliantly markets taste, health and nostalgia while drawing 50% of revenues through online channels, just a few of Lester’s marketing feats.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Soda psychology is grounded in our earliest memories.
  • Three-quarters of the population is trying to make healthy adjustments.
  • When something seems stupid, that’s your cue to figure out a better way.
  • That humility will take you from knowing nothing to expertise.
  • Data science surrounds us, but your soul processes the insights

Brought to you by Mekanism.

Hi, I'm Jason Harris, and you're listening to Soul and Science fast forward your marketing mind in about twenty minutes. If you like our show, please take a moment to subscribe, rate, review, and share on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us across social platforms at Mechanism. Welcome to the podcast. I am joined today by David Lester, CEO of Ollipop. We're super excited to talk to Lollipop today. David Lester is the co founder of Lollipop, the first clinically back to consumer beverage combining the flavors of classic soda with scientifically proven elements to support digestive health. David brings to Ollipop nearly two decades of experience in the beverage industry. Following a decade with Diaggio and assignments in Sydney, Australia, sal Paolo Brazil and many others, David left the drinks giant and pursued an entrepreneurial career. David collaborated with this still current partner, ben to liech Obie Probiotic Soda, a line of water key for based sodas. After selling that business, David and Ben took their learnings that they gained and embarked on their second venture, which is known today as Lollipop. David's a strategic thinker with a passion for disruptive innovation, and he's on a mission to provide an affordable, delicious alternative to soda that delivers cutting edge health benefits to mainstream consumers. David is a creative and conceptual marketer with broad on the ground, international experience and commercial execution. Since launching Allipop in two thousand and eighteen, David has led marketing and sales strategy, growing the footprint to nearly five thousand points of sale nationwide, including Whole Food, Sprouted, Safeway, Wegman's and Kroger. David has also led the charge on Hollipops e commerce strategy, which has grown from zero to nearly half the revenue mix since the onset of COVID nineteen. We are excited to talk to him and here we go. Welcome to podcast David. What is the David Leicester origin story? How did you get into where you are now? Yeah? I grew up in the northwest of England in a fairly working class area just outside of Liverpool. My mom was a school teacher. My dad worked for the local councils, so you know, I didn't really have that much exposure to large business corporations, certainly nothing in the unds of VC funding. But my family is originally from Scotland and my grandfather on my mother's side was an entrepreneur. He ran a haliage stand drudging business on the east coast of Scotland. Hallage is a like doing trucks and managing trucks and lorries, um, so a pretty unglamorous business, to be honest, and that essentially, you know, pulled him out of kind of a working class into a middle class existence. He was able to send my mom to college for the first time. So I remember going and seeing his garage and the trucks and you know, how he ran his business and just the independence that he two, and that always really fascinated me. So I did about a decade with the ADEO. That was somewhat fortuitous that I got into that line of work. I had a loose idea like a lot of us do, when I left college around what I wanted to do. Marketing sounded fun and interesting, and the address seemed like a good company, and you know, it was a fantastic experience. I got amazing training to work with some really great people at the top of the show. I got to work in London four years, Sydney four years, and then a couple of years in so Pano and Brazil, and by that point I was just kind of ready to do my own thing. I found my learning curve and tapped out, and I didn't know what I wanted to do exactly, but I supposely just like looking for adventure and looking for meaning. I think in in my work to you know, having a a moment as a school teacher, and my dad managing parks and open spaces. You know, there were jobs that had a impact on people's lives, and I didn't necessarily feel feel that way about the work that I was doing. So my wife's American, we we just got...

...engaged and she wanted to go back to the stage from Brazil. And I told my boss is the j I was quitting, and she said, well, if your mind's made up, you might want to speak to this guy. He's looking for a business partner. And that turned out to be bent. That's incredible. So you quit a job instead of them getting mad, they set you up on your next course. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, as I said, it's a great company. And you know, my boss at the time was really cool and she could see that I was just sort of done with that line of work. And yeah, extremely fortuitous that I got to put in touch with Ben and I met him at a coffee shop in Palo Alto and he had a bag of sodas. I think he'd made them in soda stream and then you know, hand filtered them into little bottles and cap them. And I didn't know anything about the gut microbio and probotics, but I tried the sodas and he told me how to sugar was in them, and I was like, wow, this takes really good. I mean, Benn had been working on this for like five years. You know, it was a bit heavy lift on like the product formulation side. He'd done a lot of work getting the thing to where it was and then he was looking for a business Planet's help kind of fundre and bring it to life. And so that's sensual we did. And I got back from that meeting and I think I actually had an offer for another consulting job, and my wife was quite excited about that because we'd both be earning for the first time. She wasn't earning in Brazil, you know, about to get married. We could meet up as a young couple in San Francisco and have lunch together. And it got back from this meeting, she was like, now you're going to do this thing with this guy on and I said, um, yeah, you know it was super It was just you know, he had a real kind of purpose behind what he was doing as well, there's a reason for it, and extremely knowledgeable, super auto didactic guy. You know, we had three so years four years on Obie. That was classic first venture. Probably made all the mistakes she could possibly make, tasted some success, and came out the back end of it by the skin of our teeth with a modest exit, and you know, a bunch of learnings. And yeah, I actually had to do quite a lot of self reflection. I think, you know, starts up. A lot of people describe it as a as a personal journey as much as a professional one, and you know, I definitely agree with that. Well, I love that your partner was so supportive of you taking that leap, because it's not for the faint of heart when you're building a startup. Yeah, it is a challenge, and it seems like that entrepreneurial spirit you're kind of born into. Yeah, I think I think to degree it definitely. You know that my jobs at the edge and never really felt like real jobs to me because you so insulated. They're in a large company. I didn't feel fully exposed to kind of the you know, the ups and downs, you know, rigs, the business. Kind of careful what you wish for, because I certainly got that. I started working on Obie and probably was not adequately prepared for it. But you know in startup and they say you're either succeeding or you're learning, and you know kind of the privilege of entrepreneurship that you get the chance to do that. Do you think having a marketing background prepared you for the CEO road? Yeah. Actually in our company, Ben is the CEO and I'm president. But I think our partnership is quite a unique one actually, and today has been very effective. I think on Obie it wasn't. We didn't work together very well. We're very different people. We do have similar values, which is important, but we hadn't figured out how to work together I mean at the end of that, you know, we reflected on it. We're like, look, we didn't kill each other, so clearly there's there's some hope for us. But we do need to listen to each other more, and we do need to understand each other better. And if we're not aligned, like this thing is dead on arrival. You know, it's common issue I think with a lot of co founding teams is that you know, there's an arrogance that you think you can work around the other person or you know, just try and sort of shortcut something without running it by them.

And we learned the hardware that you can't do that. So UM, in terms of learning entrepreneurial skills around UM, you know, self sufficiency and skepticism required, you know, doing things and resilience. UM. You know, he had that in spades and definitely valuable for me to see the workings of a large CpG company and you know what's required. And also half of my career was spent in concept development, new product innovation. I launched probably tens of products, sort of vast majority of them failed, but you know, you learn from those lessons and so there's any so many ways that as CpG product can fail. So if you've seen ten of twenty of them, you start to see the patterns, and you know, I think that's helpful in allowing us to avoid some of the pitfalls as well. What do you think your creative or entrepreneurial superpower is. I'm certainly good at taking large amounts of complex data and information and finding a path forward, I think, which is important in entrepreneurial space. There's so many paths available to you, particularly when you're at the beginning of something. It's very hard to wade through the information and the data you're receiving and find a path. Um. I'd say, you know, for the errors that I've made, there's also an equal amount of resilience there too, you know, like a lot of people say, well, you guys went back again after that first experience, and yeah, I think a lot of people don't. And I respect that too, because you you know, you have to sort of understand what your boundaries are and what suits you and what doesn't. You know, Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I don't really like being told what to do. I don't like following rules that much. There's kind of a natural sort of disobedience in some way to kind of challenge things or And I think both Ben and I are quite science minded in the sense that we just want to find what the right answer is. When something seems stupid to us, we want to kind of figure out. We're like, there's a better way to do this. We're not just going to follow the rules because they're the rules. There's something that needs to be broke. Can here purposefully in order to find a better way to find a better outcome. You mentioned you can kind of wade through a lot of data and sort of find the right path forward. And I know you guys. Are you invested in a dedicated research team. Tell me a little bit about how that works in informing allipop. Yeah. I guess the first point I made when I refer to data, and like all kinds of data points, right, it might be something that someone said to you, or you know, something that you've read. You know, as you're trying to synthesize information. See what was most important specifically in relation to our health Advisory Board. Yeah, we work with some of the leading researchers and microbiologists in the country. We've recently done studies with Baylor and Perdue Medical colleges, and we got the initial results back from those studies at the beginning of this year, and that was a pretty nerve wracking experience because you know, these are top tier university academic institutions. You know, these are not people that you can pay to, so like, hey, we really want those things to come out this way. Can you just kind of point the data in that direction. It's going to come out how it comes out. And Ben is a really skilled formulator, He's done a lot of research, but until you get the dates back, you don't know. And so it was super validating for us to see those results showing that drinking ollipop increases microbial diversity and the gut. It increases the production of bit of bacterium, which is considered the human probotic present in breast milk, and it also showed an increase in the production of short chain flatty acts, which are the secondary compounds your gut producers when it's working properly. So they're typically very understated researches the academic institutions. They just kind of centered across with a I think this is what you're looking for, and we opened it and kind of freaked out because you know that the results were quite incredible. Where does the name come from? Naming, I think is the hardest aspect of any concept development. It's very, very difficult to land on the name. Ollipop comes from a Liga Sachrize, which...

...kind of the technical name for pro botic fibers. And then pop, just as in soda pop. So we wanted to kind of combine, you know, the science element and the fun element of what we're doing create a name that was kind of distinct, easy to say, and sounded like a soda you know, an audi pop. I think does that's a great name when you think about your audience when you first started out, who was the audience then and who's the audience now? Yeah, I think initially, you know, for health product you're always easiest going to like a wellness market first. You know, typically women quicker to pick these things up than guys, you know, as a generalization, and so you know, Instagram when we started four years ago, was a really important tool. Um it was also in point of being the right stores, so you know, everyone as a launch retailer for us in l A was kind of a key place for us to be. We're now in close to twenty doors. Actually at this point Um National, in Walmart, National, in Target. You know, that's opened up new audiences. I think over eighty percent of people buying Ollipop have never bought anything from the digestive health set before, which is kind of pretty cool. So this point, our consumer is really what we term the happy seekers. It's it's people who who are conscious about their health and somewhere they're trying to make some adjustment to their lifestyle and what they're eating. It actually represents nearly three quarters of the population at this point. Surprised me, but I guess it shouldn't be that surprising, given you know how much information we're getting around the importance of focus on health. You know, looking at some of the soda brands which you go to, like a sixty ninths bowl which people drink as a single surf, there's like seventies sometimes eighty grams of sugar in that. So Um. You know, we come in at like two to max five and nine grams dietary five, at eight different plant based botanical support digestive health. If you look at our ingredients panel, you'll you'll see that and consumers do and they're like, look, doesn't taste actually like coke, but it's pretty damn close and it's not sparkling water, and you know, I'm prepared to pay a little bit extra to kind of retain that soda experience and everything that comes with it, you know, the kind of nostalgia of drinking a root bit. In fact, we have lapsed consumers that haven't touched soda or a root beer in years and they drink one of ours and they're like, oh, this takes me back to sitting on the porch with my granddad or going fishing with my dad, or you know, whatever it is. Um, it's woven into the fabric of certainly American society and culture, probably global culture at this point. And that's why it's so difficult for people to give it up, because it's not a simple thing of just giving up a drink or a product you don't care about. People really care about this product. Do you have a harder time convincing people that it tastes good or that it's a supportive of digestive health and that it's good for you? Do you have which one is harder? I have? I've seen more focused on the former rather than the latter, because you know, you kind of look at a product you give even if you don't understand anything about pre poltics or five, but you at least see it's only got two gramling sugar in um, if you've got a basic understanding of nutritional panels. So the challenge is, like this taste good because most health products don't. We actually explored, like you know what we call this product, how we call this category. And you know when we tried healthy soda, people like, oh no, no, I definitely do not call it that. I do not want to be drinking healthy soda. That sounds awful. Um. You know, a lot of the focus of our marketing efforts, and we have some really exciting celebrity partnerships coming up when we recently just launched with Comeric Cabeo. Um, like you're competing with the super Bowl and you know these types of things. So if we want to go toe to toe with the major soda brands, which we do, we can't be talking about digestive health or a farm that the greens were grown on or found the story. You know, this category is about connection with funds. So that's where we're firmly positioning our marketing strategy,...

...and how do you think about the split between e commerce and retail. It's a it's a great question. We essentially developed a d C business through Covid kind of by necessity. I think we were going to be launching into kind of food service channel before Covid here, and then of course everything shut down, including the ability to sample your product in stores, which for a beverage startup is kind of essential, you know, to growing your brands. So we were trying to launch a product at a time when there was essentially no way to sample the thing other than online, and so that's where we double down on and you know, fortunately we discovered low cost of imagry and adds at that time too, and and quickly built quite substantial DeepC business that is now expanded into our omni channel business. So if you think about Coke and their stress to you of trying to get a coat within arms to each of every American, we've essentially done that within four years because of our omni channel approach. Like you can order Audi Pop online and I think in five to seven US metros you can get that same day on your doorstep, sometimes within hours of ordering it. Um, I think that's one of the things that business is really good at is taking on stuff we know nothing about and then very quickly with humility, kind of working through it too to become experts in it. Do you make decisions, you and Ben make decisions more in the head or more in the heart. You know, our brain does a lot of subconscious processing, right, So, um, you're well advised to listen to intuition on things at least understand understand it, you know. So, I mean what we focus on is self awareness so that you have to you don't need to be perfect, but you do need to understand yourself because none of us are perfect. But like, where is it that you particularly spike, Where is it that you you know, tend to derails? So when you have a instinct around something, where's that coming from? Is it coming from a derailer or is it coming from actually kind of good intuition? You know, we tend to do is we don't ignore any intuition that we have, but we do analyze it, and we do learn about each other and where we kind of balance each other out on those things and talk stuff through. I think that's really important, you know that inclusive with all of our team, specifically our leadership team as well. UM groups tend to get to better decisions for that reason, sometimes a little slower but a bit more robust decision making. UM Equal to that, we are pretty data driven as a business, but we tend to look at it on quite kind of a macro level. So I think you know, when you're moving fast in a startup, like you need to understand things like what your cost of goods are, the trajectory of the gross margin, and you know your sales data and which retailers are working and which on. But you don't need to drill down like fifty lay as deep on that or you know, start having all your decisions driven by kind of data and metrics per se. But we do have a perty type of focus on on data, certainly reliable data too. Sometimes you get data and you think it's because it's in a chart, it's reliable, but you've got to look at where's that, where's the inputs for that coming from? That's so true. How do you make the decision when something becomes limited? Addition to this has to be part of our permanent lineup, and then how do you decide, you know what new flavors to try out. What's that process like? So if the new flavors were very driven by Ben and his palette um as I mentioned, very skilled formulators. So we look at the major soda categories, right, it would be kind of crazy not to have a cola and not to have a root beer. So I think for the first few years we were just kind of knocking off those major soda categories, of which I think we've got most, if not all of them at this point. And then you know, some of it's just driven by Ben's palet, Like he just was really interested in making a strawberry cream...

...soda type flavor. It was actually based off strawberry cream saver that he used to eat when he was younger that you really love the flavor of. So it's not something that you would get from any kind of data. That is actually our top sell or second tip, depending on you know, where root beer sits. But again that was just off his kind of intuition and his palates. So and then in terms of you know, permanent flavors versus limited edition, you know, we recently did a limited edition with minions, which is pretty fun. You know, Universal approached us and said, look, we'd love to partner with you on the launch of this movie. And we said, look, this sounds really fun, and let's think about what we could do. And so of course we've got to do it, you know, flavor for this launch and millions are yellow, and so we're like, let's think of yellow fruits. And I know if you have familar with the millions or not, but you know, they're kind of obsessed with bananas. So we were like, what if we did like a banana like a banana soda, because it does exist, like I think in place like Thailand. It's actually pretty normal flavor. And coincidentally, Bennett been thinking about this because he was like, what's like the most challenging flavor I could try and do, And so he developed like this banana cream, which actually tastes amazing. Yeah, we try and sort of have slightly more flavors of push boundaries, a little bit that we can do for exclusive to keep the interest and intrigue of our consumers. And then you know, when you're putting something full scale into retail, you want to have a little bit more certainty around how that's going to work. So are you guys, like, are you doubling every year more than doubling at this point. That is that is a lot of growth. It's a great product, and Ben put a lot of thought into it, and I think that's sometimes overlooked, you know, on on innovation, like it is really important to get an amazing product, and say, Ben is a great formulator. A ton of thought went into developing this thing, but also a lot of empathy and trying to solve a real consumer need, like people love, so it's very difficult to give up. Our goal is to meet them where they are and say, look, get it. It's delicious. We're not going to kind of finger wag at you until you shouldn't be drinking soda just when try this one instead, Like we've worked really hard to make it taste delicious, and they're like, it does taste delicious, and you know, not only is it better for me, it's actually kind of good for me. Um. That momentum really just kind of snowballs. I think in startup and I found this on our first venture, Like your good decisions and your bad decisions compound, so we essentially found ourselves on our first venture, like boxed in in an impossible situation and when I speak to first time entrepreneurs, sometimes you can see that you're like, Okay, you just need to kind of fold back now because it's too hard to get out of where you've got to and having the discipline around that decision making is very, very difficult, particularly first time around. You need a bit of that kind of war wounds to to keep you on track, which so are I think we've done an okay job of in this second venture. Tell us a little bit about the mission side. Obviously you're helping people in a big way with an alternative. What else is the brand behind that's sort of bigger than the brand? Yeah, I think the mission is the brand, which is important. Um, you know, there is no bolt onto it. So Ben has a very authentic found his story. He had a quite a challenging childhood. He was overweight, eating standard American diet, and I think in his late teens he just kind of made a decision to change the course of his life and start eating better and he lost weight, but he also saw real cognitive benefits, like his mental clarity improved and he became really interesting, got brain connection so much so he dropped out of college to teach himself microbiology, and he was like, look, I got to take the benefits of this UM to a broader audience. I've seen so much upside from it...

...myself, and so that really has been his mission from that point onwards. You know, some of the emails response we get back from people are incredible, and our ambition is high, but also humble in the sense of like, you know, if we can give somebody a moment joining their day, if we can help them on a path to better wellness, increase their awareness around the digestive, help give them a substitute that gets some off, so to help them connect with somebody else, that I think is huge. And yeah, I think sometimes I see businesses faulting on overly ambitious parallel mission statements to what they're doing UM. For us, it's like, we just want to make the thing as big as we can and as accessible as we can as well. That's really important that we get this into the hands of I'm gonna turn into some David Lester questions, Now, what are some of your role models? I think the I mean my mom the was a major influence in my life. You know, I played a lot sports. She took me to sporting events, which wasn't that normal. Actually it was normally people's dads that were taking them. My dad just happened not to be as my mom loves soccer and my dad didn't really like it much. So my mom to me, Yeah, there's odd things. I was recounting someone the other day that I remember playing in a match for like the cub Scouts, which was probably not the playing with elite players in that team, and you know, I got a little prima donna about demanding the ball, and my mom immediately got the coach to sudden me off. Um, I got told off, and I had to apologize to the team at the end of the game as well. So, um, you know, with other people, good playing out, like why have you taken him off? You know, this is the best chance to win the game. But for her, it was the principle of it, and to me it seemed totally fair because more important to her than whether we want a match or not was the lessons I learned around integrity and how you show up and and so you know, there's constant examples of that. You know, in my childhood. The way that my mom ran the schoolship eventually became at principal included everybody. They used to give flowers to the staff that did the cleaning and run the kitchens at the year end, so they felt appreciated and you know, part of that community. And so you know, those things that had had a huge influence on me. You know, I do watch a lot of soccer still as well, So I like watching how managers kind of coach teams and stuff. I'm actually an evident supporter, but I I do really my young and club, the Liverpool manager, I like watching his management style. I think it's it's pretty interesting and for me, sport my chosen one in particular. It's a really good microcosm for management because it's so intense. You know, you see things in like hyper speed, but you don't have to wait years to see the outcome of decisions like you're seeing live and if it doesn't work and they get switched out whatever, So that type of stuff is is interesting. And all kinds of people around me, like you know, living in Atlanta now, I think, you know, Stacy Abrahams is a really interesting person in a way that she kind of chooses to present herself and like navigate the world is super admirable. So yeah, there's there's lots of amazing people out there. Do you have a favorite quote or mantra that you think about? Trying to think of one, and so I think I've got a lot. That there was one I quoted earlier to the top of mind for me, which is I can't remember who made it, but you know, tyran is the absence and nuance um certainly in today's world, and how we try to approach our business and our work is is to really understand more than nuance in the world. You know, work harder to meet each other where we are understand each other. I think I think it's really important, and it's very important in startup you kind of superficial analysis. You'll get to bad solutions to things, so really important to understand the nuance of the situation, what's really driving it, you know, everyone's perspective in the mix. Do you have a life...

...goal, a personal goal that you want to take off your list or that you're trying to accomplish. My goals is some more modest, and I'm very hedonistic as a person, so I like doing interesting things. You know, I think I'm conscious that it's kind of miraculous that we're here way over a short time, so like, why not do something interesting? And as soon as life gets boring, I start to kind of agitate and look for something interesting to do or more challenging. One of the reasons I like working with Bennett. I think things kind of the same way about things. You know, really it's just to get the most out of life and to extent you can, which is difficult, to positively impact the people around you. It's amazing how easy it is to do damage unintentionally, so you know, I think we all did that. It would be a pretty cool place to live in the world. I love that. Well, thanks for being with us. It was great chatting with you, and we really appreciate your time. Thank you apreciate that. Thanks so much for listening to Soul and Science and we'll see you next week. Soul and Science is a mechanism podcast produced by Maggie Bowls, Ryan Tillotson, Tyler Nielsen, Emma Swanson, and Literly Jablonsky. The show is edited by Daniel Ferrara, with theme music by Kyle Merritt and I'm your host Jason Harris.

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