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Voices: A Route Interview Series feat. Steven Vigilante

Jan 14, 2021

It’s Steven from Olipop!

Steven Vigilante is the growth marketing manager at Olipop, a sparkling tonic that lends a hand to your microbiome and satisfies like soda (but without heaps of sugar and bad stuff).

Most of Steven’s career has been spent in consumer products and the health and wellness industry. He also spent 3 years investing in early stage brands, so he knows a thing or two about how to get disruptors like Olipop off the ground and into fridges everywhere.

Doling out a digestive health drink like Olipop is no small feat considering the absolute dominance of major soda brands, but this healthy bevvy with a whimsical vibe is thriving—and we want to dig into the strategies that got it there.

Q: What’s one thing you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago? 

A: I found a lot more happiness and ultimately personal success when I started working on companies and with people that I really liked and was really passionate about. I got down the Wall Street route originally out of college, just cause it was what I was supposed to do as a finance major with good grades, but I never jived with the culture. I didn’t really care about what I was doing, and I had always had this extreme interest in consumer products, so I found my way to this space.

Then, two years ago, I helped launch Olipop here in Los Angeles. It’s been such a gratifying experience to be working on a product that I truly believe in, care about, and love giving to people. I think that’s probably the advice I’d give myself five years ago: Find what truly interests you and do everything you can to work in that industry or as close to that industry as possible. 

Q: What does the future of ecommerce look like in your mind?

A: Currently there are two schools of thought revolving around the latest “10 years of growth in ecommerce in the last six months.” 1) Some people are expecting it to pull back a little bit, or 2) There are so many people who started shopping online for the first time during the pandemic and said, “I’m never going back, it’s way easier.” The latter is what I, personally, have thought—at least from my perspective when I talk to our customers.

I’m also interested in the future of ecommerce as it relates to retail. Some old malls are being converted into dark stores and distribution centers or ecommerce businesses that are more of a pickup or delivery-first retail store. I think that’s pretty fascinating.

Retail real estate as it relates to ecommerce is a super interesting topic. We actually worked with a company called Ohi that has these dark stories in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. We have same-day delivery set up with them. If you order through our site, it shows up in two hours and it seems like magic to the consumer. I know there’s a handful of other players in that space as well, and I think this format will soon start moving throughout the country.

Q: What is your best failure? 

A: I worked in early stage investing for a couple of years up in San Francisco, primarily focused on food and beverage startups, and I got to a point where I wanted to go to the operating side and specifically wanted to learn ecommerce. 

So, I pretty hastily made the jump from the investing side to the operating side and joined a meal kit startup here in Los Angeles. They had raised tens of millions of dollars and had pretty sophisticated investors behind them, but I didn’t really do enough due diligence on the opportunity.

I just jumped in head first and packed up my bags—San Francisco to LA—and the company ended up shutting down within seven months of me getting there. I had misjudged the situation pretty badly and it was a rough experience. As my first foray into the operating side of the world, I watched a company burn through $40 million within eight months.

I started to question everything I thought I knew about how to look at a business, analyze a management team, and everything that you’re trained to do as an investor. However, it also opened my eyes to how bad corporate culture could be and how poorly managed a startup can be. 

This situation definitely proved to me that raising money does not mean you’re successful. There are plenty of entrepreneurs and operators who are incredible fundraisers and storytellers, but they’re not good managers and operators. In retrospect, it was probably the most difficult period of my professional career by a lot.

I pretty much knew within a month or two that the business wasn’t going to survive. The economics didn’t make sense, the investors weren’t really supportive of the business, there had been some really bad hires, and there was a lot of turnover.

It was super tough to deal with. But, in retrospect, I learned a lot of good, hard lessons as a 26-year-old. Looking back, I’ve been able to take a lot of learnings of what not to do and reverse it into a much more real exercise in what to do.

Our corporate culture at Olipop is incredible, and we’ve had almost no misfires from a hiring perspective. We have incredible investors who are super supportive of us. And we’re ahead of plan by almost 50% for the year. We’re growing 1,000% year over year. It’s totally the opposite experience, but I think, partially, what has made me personally more successful in what I’m doing at Olipop is heeding the lessons learned before and not repeating history. 

Q: How have you pivoted strategy during the pandemic?

A:  I could spend a lot of time talking about this. As a beverage brand, we’re 100% focused on results. Olipop launched in September 2018, and we didn’t stand up a website until around October 2019. We really didn’t know much about ecommerce as a business.

We were solely focused on grocery and retail—then January rolled around and we closed our Series A. We brought in a paid ads agency, Red Giant Growth, and started running ads and getting some feedback on our pricing and our product. Before that point, none of has really sold Olipop outside of California.

We started speaking to consumers outside of our core demo and realized we had to fix our pricing. Then, on March 15, we made all these sweeping changes to our website to reflect what we’ve been learning. Just four days later, President Trump declared a national state of emergency and closed the border to Mexico.

It was almost serendipitous that we were in the right place, at the right time as far as getting our ducks in a row for ecommerce. We grew from just hundreds of orders every month, and soon, online sales went from 5% of our revenue to 35% of revenue (as of October 2020). That’s a big difference—the business as a whole is not small. We’re 35 employees strong now. 

It’s funny, because we’ve had to also pivot as a marketing organization. We had been focusing on demos and trade shows, handing out products in the street, and doing in-person events in Los Angeles and New York, and we can’t do any of those things now.

You can’t give out a couple products, so we’ve had to figure out what a digital marketing organization looks like. We’re now creating a complete flow of Facebook ads. We’re spending across Facebook, Instagram, Google, and Snapchat, and Podcast ads have been really big for us.

Painted political partnerships have been really big, too. It’s all stuff we never would have considered even in January. It was a dive off our radar, but we’re spending six figures a month across those channels now, which has been an amazing learning curve for me personally as the head of growth marketing.

It’s been awesome and super fun to test and learn across all these channels and meet all the different players in the mix. But overall, we’ve literally had to pivot from a retail-focused trade marketing organization to a digital-focused marketing organization.  It’s been an incredibly fun challenge—super challenging and super rewarding at the same time.

When I left venture capital to learn ecommerce, I was watching the brands that were really excelling and far surpassing their peers in the food and beverage space—and it turns out they all didn’t have any ecommerce expertise. I felt if I could go learn the ecommerce stuff, it’d be a really valuable skill set long-term.  

But Olipop’s been so fortunate. I feel fortunate that I have had an opportunity to be there for a business that found the silver lining around everything that’s happened this year. We were in the right place, at the right time, with a great product that was super relevant for a country that was hyper-focused on health, wellness, and immunity pretty much overnight.

We definitely play into those trends, and it’s been an absolute blast to be on an incredible team that didn’t have a ton of ecommerce experience beforehand. It’s a sight to be proud of when I look at the cohesive digital marketing engine running at Olipop now.

We’ve learned so many things about the power of customer service, like what Route does with post-purchase, and the journey between checkout and doorstep. That’s something I never thought about before, but it’s a big priority for us. We’re now very customer service-focused, and we even view customer service as its own marketing channel. Considering the times, putting people first  and considering those people-centric channels is how you’ve got to do it to build a best-in-class customer experience.

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