Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)
NANTUCKET NECTARS CO-FOUNDER
When I graduated from Brown, my goals weren’t too lofty. I remember being influenced by bartenders. I would look at them and think, I want to live that life. I wanted to live a cool life, and to me that meant being in a fun, relaxed environment and not having to wear a coat and tie.
So I moved to Nantucket, lived in my car, and got a job driving a taxi. My dad used to say that I was kind of a bum—and it was true. I worked a ten-hour shift and would always arrive a few minutes late and leave a few minutes early. That’s just how I was. I barely did what was required, nothing more.
One day a friend asked if I wanted to try to sell muffins off a boat. The plan was to peddle to the other boats in the harbor. By this point, I had come to the conclusion that I eventually wanted to work for myself, and the idea sounded fun so I went for it.
When the Fourth of July rolled around, I planned to work instead of going out. My friends were incredulous. I realized that since graduating in mid-May I had worked every single day around the clock without complaint. I remember thinking, Not being a bum is actually fun! It reminded me of playing fort as a kid when my friends and I would pick a mission, devise a set of rules, decide who was going to be the captain and who was going to be the sergeant, and then organize everything to make it succeed. What we were doing was essentially creating imaginary jobs for ourselves. The grown-up version of the game—my floating store—didn’t feel too different. The excitement was still mostly in the interaction with other people.
Over the next two years, six of my friends joined in, and we dramatically expanded the scope of the business. Our slogan was “Ain’t nothing these boys won’t do.” One friend, Tom First, and I shared the same playful personality. One night he blended up a peach juice based on his memory of something he’d tasted in Spain. Within about seventeen seconds, we thought, This is what we have to sell off the boat! It happened that fast. We came up with the name Nantucket Nectars and spent the entire winter testing all sorts of fruity concoctions. We were obsessed.
During that first summer, we made our juices at home and sold them in a motley assortment of containers. We used everything from milk cartons and wine bottles to little wax-paper cups. We would keep hawking until we sold out, and then we would go home and make more. This was fine with everyone in the harbor, but when we finally approached stores, expectations were way different. The stores didn’t want to see us every day. They wanted to order a certain quantity and sell it over a prolonged period of time. We’d deliver what they requested, but then it would go bad. We were, like, “Oh, yeah, going bad. What do we do about that?” We realized that we had to pasteurize, and once that entered the equation, we stepped into another realm.
Our quiet game of fort rapidly evolved into an all-out war. We were now in an arena with competitors, Snapple, for instance, that I had never even heard of. We wanted to win the battle of who tasted the best, but we also had to compete on price, size, distribution, promotion, and advertising. We were constantly running low on money and we soon realized that in order to stay afloat and grow we would have to raise some. We literally went to the library and researched “how to raise money.” Since we had met some successful business people on Nantucket as customers, we started by pitching it to them. Later on, we went to the banks.
Nantucket Nectars was always on my mind. I worked seven days a week, usually until eleven p.m., for the first eight years. The only breaks I remember taking were to go out at night and blow off steam—but I never took days off. Not even Saturdays or Sundays. I never woke up and thought, Oh, man, I’ve got to go to work today. I didn’t feel that way. I chose to go.
But the larger our business grew, the more room there was for things to go wrong. And it seemed like almost everything did. Trucks crashed, bottles blew up, juice spoiled, factories broke down, and we were sued. There was one day when all the money we had in the world was sitting in a vat of incorrectly formulated orange-mango juice. We had used way more peach than was called for, and it turned the juice into this black brew that tasted of alcohol. If we threw it away, we’d go broke. We had to figure out a way to salvage it. I think we ended up adding a bunch of apples and mixing the juice into some new flavor that we could bottle and sell.
The bottom line was that in terms of distribution, sales, marketing, and manufacturing, we had taken on way more than we could handle. Our ship began to leak in a bunch of tiny little places, and before we knew it, we were hemorrhaging about $250,000 a month. That’s, uh, never good. I was super panicked. We had a line of credit with the Bank of Boston, which we needed in order to survive, and right around Christmas they pulled it. When the bank calls and says, “You can’t borrow any more money,” that’s it. People wonder what it means to “go out of business.” It usually means that you ran out of money. You literally can’t turn the lights on back at the office the next day. We were right at that threshold. And then I got another call from our main individual investor who pretty much bawled me out. I remember crying. Nighttime was the worst. Anytime you’re depressed, the night sucks.
But then a miracle happened. Fleet Bank swooped in and said, “We’ll back you, but you have three months to turn a profit.” It was part luck and part expectation that we had the potential of being a good story. With our young laid-back bohemian image, we had made a name for ourselves around Boston. If Nantucket Nectars did work out, Fleet could get mileage out of marketing us as one of their success stories—and that’s what happened. They ran ads in Newsweek and Time about how they helped us grow our business. It ended up being great for both of us.
So we had to turn a profit by the end of March—even if it was only a dollar. The thing I remember most about that time is that the X’s and O’s of what needed to be done were clear, but what wasn’t clear was how to execute them. The best part was that our employees were really dedicated and cared. One woman said, “I’m going to exercise every day until we turn a profit!” Another declared he would ride his bike to work every day until we did. (It was five miles, it was January, and it was cold.) I vowed not to shave. And we made it. We did it! I have no doubt that it’s because of those little goofball stories. Before that, I thought being a successful business leader was all about smarts and the ability to have a perfect view of the future. But I came to realize that while you need a decent view of the future what’s most important is being able to inspire your troops to be passionate, to believe what you believe, and to help you march in that direction.
My dad has been a huge influence on the way I go about things. He’s a former marine and an athlete who became a lawyer and started his own firm. He always believed in the American Dream. Whenever something went wrong, he’d say things like “You gotta get out there and try again!” and “You gotta believe.” That’s what I was raised with, and it absolutely stuck with me.
I was twenty-five or so the first time I heard somebody refer to me as an “entrepreneur.” I had no idea what that meant. That’s how uncommon the term was in those days. Most Brown graduates went down the more traditional career paths. My friends were at places in their lives where they had company cars, suits, and memberships to country clubs. It was tough when I would go home to D.C. for holidays. I didn’t have any nice clothes, and when I said I had started a juice company called Nantucket Nectars, no one had heard of us. I felt low, but at the same time this was a big motivator.
There was definitely a time when I thought that only supermen and superwomen achieved success. You know, people who had all this stuff that I didn’t. But a few small pivotal events convinced me that successful people were really just normal people. The one I remember most was when Tom and I met with the CEO of Pepsi. To my surprise, there was a lot about the beverage industry that we knew and he didn’t. We lived it on the streets day in and day out; he lived it in boardrooms day in and day out. It was two different sides of the same business. I remember thinking, He’s kinda like my dad. You know, just a normal guy. I understood everything he said, and I told him things that I believed and he agreed with me. I remember leaving the meeting thinking, Wow!
I saw Tipper Gore speak right around that time, probably around 1993. She said, “My husband and the president are completely ordinary men in an extraordinary situation.” That also stuck with me. I thought, That’s what’s going on here. We are all totally ordinary people with a chance to create extraordinary situations for ourselves. Being successful is a choice.
Jack Welch is a Nantucket guy, and I used to see him around the island. He also reminded me of my dad; they look alike, they talk alike, and they have a very similar tough style. I knew that Jack Welch ran General Electric, but in my mind that meant he had a few lightbulb factories. You know, big deal. But then I would hear people talk about him with such reverence. I was, like, “You mean that guy? That guy?” As time went on, I realized what a business legend he was, and for some reason, he would always pop into my brain as inspiration. I would think, If I don’t succeed, it’s because I don’t have the courage to make choices like Jack Welch. You know that expression, “What would Jesus do?” For me it became “What would Jack Welch do?”
I once heard the quote, “Everyone’s on the road to success, it’s just that most people step off.” That pretty much sums up how I see things. My decision with Nantucket Nectars was to not step off. I ended up creating an extraordinary situation for my regular self by staying on the road. I absolutely believe that.
When we first started the business, if the number 1 represented how hard I thought it would be, it ended up being more like the number 1,000. It was that much harder. But I think being naïve helped. Because I didn’t know what was coming around the corner, I didn’t live around the corner. I lived in whatever was right in front of me at that moment. If you start off focusing on everything you’ll eventually have to figure out, and all the problems you’ll eventually have to solve, it can be overwhelming, even debilitating. You don’t need to know all the answers right away. Everything has an organic time and place. Being patient can be a huge advantage.
When someone graduates from school and they ask, “What’s a smart business to get rich off of?”—I get nervous for them. You have to be passionate about what you do because when the forty million problems start you’ll need that energy to keep you going. If I didn’t love what I was doing, there’s no way I would have made it through the trying times.
Most business endeavors require some degree of teamwork. If you are going to partner up with someone, you should spend a great deal of time and energy getting to know their character. Intelligence and drive are important, but fairness, loyalty, and all around good morals are essential. Without those qualities, everything else is useless. I have not always gotten it right, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have established my partnership with Tom First. We used to tell each other, “I’ll focus on your money and you focus on mine,” because we knew that we would always look out for and support each other. The level of trust we built made both of us infinitely more capable.