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CircleUp spoke with Paul Voge, Co-Founder & CEO of Aura Bora, to learn more about his founder journey and how the Aura Bora brand came to be. From launching the brand alongside his co-founder and wife, Maddie, to leading the movement to “Drink Weird Water”, Paul shares recent stories and learnings from his experiences in the CPG space.
About Paul Voge
Paul has been starting businesses since he was a kid, from baseball card auctioneering to a friendly neighborhood Christmas tree lot. After graduating from UCLA, Paul joined Saturn Five, a venture fund that launches, builds, and grows companies. Today, Paul is the Co-Founder and CEO of Aura Bora. Aura Bora’s sparkling waters are made from herbs, fruits, and flowers for earthly tastes and heavenly feelings. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, and co-founder, Madeleine.
CircleUp: What passions led you to become a founder and launch Aura Bora?
Paul: In terms of the things that led to me becoming a founder, I was one of those baseball card, lemonade stand kids to start, I even sold shirts in college. I was always “hawking something”, as my mom would say.
For Aura Bora it was much more about not being happy with the options out there. I was drinking a lot of sparkling water. My wife, Maddie, and I both grew up in homes that did not have soda, so we were both hooked on sparkling water at a young age. I had a job that had a fully stocked pantry of Kettle Potato Chips, Justin's Peanut Butter, Jeni's Ice Cream, and Sam Adams Beer on Fridays. Then we just had La Croix. It felt like, “something is off here” when we have all of these artisanal craft options in every category that are better for you, natural, come straight from the aisles of Whole Foods, but the thing we are consuming most from this pantry is sparkling water and all of us agree it’s just mediocre. We were still drinking six to ten cans of it every single day.
So we bought a Soda Stream, and started tinkering with wild flavors in our kitchen. As most CPG founders do, we started sampling it to friends and family. It goes from disgusting to tolerable to good to great over the course of many months of mixing things. Right at the end of 2019 we felt like we had five recipes we were really proud of, [and said,] “Let's can them”.
CircleUp: Aura Bora seems to be really ingredient focused, and comes across with clear, creative branding. Could you share more about the positioning choices behind your ingredients and branding?
Paul: It is part of why I mentioned some of those other brands, whether it is Kettle, or Sam Adams, or Jeni’s, all three are innovative in the way they thought to take flavors from different mediums and bring them into their category. Similarly, we thought, we can take flavors people know from other industries, other categories, like a lavender tea, or a peppermint watermelon salad, or a prickly pear margarita, and put those into this fast growing category of sparkling water. That was the impetus; we want different flavors.
I think there are three different kinds of consumers of Aura Bora: one, describes myself and my wife Maddie, if you are drinking ten of these a day, you want different flavors to keep it interesting; two, people coming from soda that are looking for an alternative; and three, those that are looking for a mocktail or cocktail mixer.
We wanted ingredients that would be different enough to be interesting, but not so different as to be intimidating. That’s always a subtle line. I’ll use the ice cream example. If you go into a new age ice cream shop, there are probably a few flavors you want to try while you're in there, and a few that you think are a little too weird. So our thought is that we want to be right in between those two.
The next point of differentiation was specific to the ingredients. If you have had La Croix, you know that you get this artificial taste at the back of your mouth that almost has a bitter bite. What you’re tasting is citric acid, not sparkling water. I can't tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say “I don’t like sparkling water” and what they really don’t like is citric acid. They’ve just never had sparkling water that didn’t use it. We were confident when we thought about the difference between our Soda Stream and a La Croix, we were just carbonating the water and that's it. It is no different than if you order sparkling water at a nice restaurant. Generally they are carbonating in-house without citric acid. This was a big point of differentiation. Since we were using these unique ingredients whether it's lemongrass, basil, or peppermint we wanted to use an herbal extract that gave it a more natural taste.
Lastly, on branding, if we are going to have these wild, whimsical flavors, we want our brand to be as fun as the flavors inside each can.
CircleUp: Aura Bora’s tagline is “Drink Weird Water”. What does it mean to you to be weird?
Paul: I believe it actually came from a negative review. Someone said that these waters were too weird for them. We followed up with the consumer; I just gave him a call with the number he left. If you’re reading this and leave your number on our website I might just call you. So I asked him, “What made this weird?”. He got the variety pack, tried all five of our flavors, and sure enough the ones that were more so fast balls down the middle he liked. He enjoyed Peppermint Watermelon and Lavender. He thought Cactus Rose was too weird and Lemongrass was too weird. In the conversation with him it was clear that he actually liked the flavors. He drank all of them, but he just thought they were weird. I think in that conversation we realized that’s what we are going for. The product delivered exactly what we wanted it to.
I’ll keep using the ice cream example. My sister runs an ice cream shop, Jojo's Creamery, where she makes all of her own ice cream flavors, and they are wild flavors. A big group of people will come into the ice cream shop. Certain people in that group gravitate towards vanilla and chocolate even though there are other options available. Other, maybe more creative or open minded people in the group, gravitate toward the popcorn or balsamic flavored ice cream. At Aura Bora we are selling to the weird folks at the back of the group that want to try the new experience. What we are going for is weird people, in the most positive way. Folks that don’t really fit the mold, that probably felt unique in their taste preferences in other arenas, or perhaps more adventurous or open minded.
With Aura Bora’s Lemongrass Coconut, it takes a leap of faith to take it off the shelf. We really found our niche, our group of people, we communicate to them in bizarre ways on social media and emails etc. We thought, if every time we send an email, or every time we come up with a new flavor, a more square individual who doesn’t have adventurous tastes is mad at us, we’re doing something right. That's the goal in everything we do.
CircleUp: There were a lot of words in your response, such as, “adventurous” and “open minded”, that seem to have percolated into how you communicate. Could you share more about Aura Bora’s unique communications strategy?
Paul: I married really well. My wife Maddie is a copywriter and a creative. Most of the copy is how she jokes, how she talks, etc. It makes it really easy when the human doing most of the writing can just write as themselves. We also found people love the feeling of being part of a special club, even if that club has very few members. We are an upstart sparkling water brand, we aren’t selling one hundred million cans a year, so they feel like they are part of this special club where they get the jokes.
An example of this, Maddie will sometimes post on Instagram seven pictures of frogs in hats. It doesn’t seem like the type of content you would expect from a seltzer company, but those that follow us can follow the line of thought from us using unique, earthy ingredients, and being part of 1% for the planet, and putting unique characters on our cans. Then it makes sense that we’re doing weird stuff like frogs in hats.
A lot of brands look every month at their social media follows and unfollows. We feel really good about a robust number of unfollows. There should be a lot of people finding this content so bizarre that they want more square, less interesting content elsewhere and they are welcome to go follow Evian or Poland Spring to get what they’re looking for.
CircleUp: We would love to hear a little more about what it was like at the beginning of Aura Bora when it was just you and Maddie? Then, as you’ve started building your team, what values or functional expertise have you tried to surround yourself with?
Paul: It was just Maddie and me for the first 16 months. We sold our very first can almost exactly two years ago. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2019. It was the grocery store closest to our house at the time. We hired our first employee in the spring of 2021.
Just between myself and Maddie it was really great to have complimentary skills. Speaking hypothetically, if there are two co-founders and one of them is extremely creative and marketing oriented, and one of them is more sales oriented, by far those are the two biggest gifts at the beginning. You can fill in the blanks with ops, finance, etc. At the very beginning in CPG when you have a product, you need to market and you need to sell and run as fast as you can.
In the last seven months we’ve hired 10 people. The phrase we often use, similar to the word weird in that we’ve made it our own, is “rag tag group”. By that we mean that we have some folks who are heavily seasoned in CPG. For example our Director of Sales was the Director of Sales at GT’s Kombucha, our Director of Ecommerce has been selling food and beverages on the internet for seven or eight years—we are no stranger to having experience and they have been awesome people for me to learn from because they have infinitely more experience than me. However, we also have folks who have never managed a social media account before, but now they’re a social media manager. We thought that they were funny, and we thought it would be a lot easier to teach someone the organization and analytics behind social media. It’s a lot harder to teach someone how to be funny, creative, and weird. There is a similar experience with our awesome customer experience lead, Kirsti, who never led customer experience anywhere, but is extremely empathetic, really interested in learning, and loves food and beverage. It’s really hard to teach someone to be empathetic, it’s a lot easier to teach them how to be an awesome customer experience associate.
Then of course there is no better example than Maddie and myself. We had never sold a can of anything before and we have the rag tag mentality of just figuring it out and being as scrappy as possible.
CircleUp: Looking ahead, what are you most excited for in Aura Bora’s future?
Paul: On the growth front, we ended last year in 706 stores and we will end this year in about 2,500. It was definitely a fast paced year. I always say there are three stages to selling a product. I don’t know if this is true, I may have made it up, but I feel this is true in our experience. The first few sales happen, not because they are interested in the product, but because I’m just harassing them. If I’m in your parking lot everyday at 2:30, eventually you are going to buy this product just to get me to stop showing up (If you’re a buyer reading this, jokes on you, I’m still going to show up after it’s on the shelf too. You didn’t really get rid of me.). The second phase was people actually buying Aura Bora because of the product, not because I’m just being annoying. Towards the end of this year, the last 60 days really, we’ve graduated to this third phase of retailers who want to buy the product, because they see the data from other retailers who buy the product. That is where you can start to see fast and robust growth. They aren’t just seeing our data on the shelf of a new retailer after 90 days, we’re giving them data from retailers where we’ve been on the shelf for almost two years.
As a result, for this upcoming year we’re really excited for that to continue by getting into new regions, further penetrating the natural channel, getting into some premium conventional chains to show that this isn’t just a product for the coasts or for Whole Foods. This product works in the middle of the country and it works at a lower price point store with lower income Americans. We expect the door count to climb and we’re really excited to announce some big retail partnerships in the next couple of months.
For retail we have multipacks, which was by far the biggest request we got from our community. We have pictures of people's shopping carts with eight cans scattered all over the place asking us to put it in one box for them. So we are selling six packs right now in about 300 stores, I hope it will be closer to 3,000 stores by the end of next year.
On the online side, probably the most exciting thing for us, because it’s so fun, we’ve been doing limited edition flavors. It has been so fun to watch the response, and it has been exciting to be able to offer retailers exclusivity on flavors. We did a Ginger Meyer Lemon flavor in the late summer, an ElderFlower Grapefruit flavor that just sold out, and in a couple of weeks we will do a holiday-themed SKU: a Chai Cranberry flavor. It’s been fun. We are trying to take flavors from other mediums and bring them to sparkling water.
CircleUp: We would be remiss not to ask: what have you found valuable about working with CircleUp?
Paul: When you have a product that people like, and you’re marketing and selling it, and running as fast as you can, it is a really hard industry to be net-profitable in and as a result we all rely on outside dollars, which can be extremely dilutive and time-intensive. There is a “Catch-22” where you need to be in more doors to get investors excited, but you need the cash from investors to get in more doors, which makes you wonder how anything is in a grocery store if it isn’t owned by Kraft, Pepsi, etc.
One huge unlock for us as a brand, and I think most brands as you get close to a million dollar run rate, is that options start to become apparent such as inventory financing, receivable financing, and balance sheet financing. CircleUp Credit Advisors has been an amazing partner as a counter to how long an equity fundraise can take. I think our total time with our first loan from CircleUp could not have been more than a week. Maybe it was five days from the forms we needed, taking a look under our hood, and then having the funds wired. It was almost scary fast. To have a [capital] partner who is cognizant and knows everyday you are without funds is a day you are delaying production or a day orders aren’t getting shipped, is super valuable. There are also a lot of debt providers that are industry agnostic, and as a result they don’t really know what they’re looking for, like trade spend, or spoilage: things that are very specific to CPG. What’s awesome about CircleUp is that there is nothing I could throw on a P&L that they would be surprised by and as a result I think that was why it was so fast. They basically said, “We know your customers, timelines, and payment structures, and we can front you the money. We just sent over the wire.” In summary, CircleUp is fast, knowledgeable, and can help you in a pinch, for sure.