“Don’t get discouraged by life’s little things, but get back up and spread your wings.” Those are pretty wise words from a 13-year-old, but Mikaila Ulmer speaks them with a sense of truth and maturity far beyond her years.
She’s the founder of Me & The Bees Lemonade, an Austin-based beverage company with products in more than 380 stores across the country, including Wegmans and Whole Foods Market. Her family has been working on building the business since 2009, shortly after Mikaila was stung by two bees in the same week. Her parents, Theo and D'Andra, encouraged her to turn that negative experience into a learning one by channeling her newfound fear and anger at bees into a research project. When Mikaila discovered the important role that bees play in the food system, she was concerned and wanted to help.
One thing led to another, and before they knew it, the Ulmers were launching a beverage business based on the flaxseed honey lemonade recipe of Mikaila’s great grandmother. In the years since, the young founder and her family have weathered a trademark dispute that led to an entire rebrand, secured a $60,000 investment during an appearance on ABC's Shark Tank and raised another $810,000 from a group of 10 NFL players.
But what hasn’t changed is that the bees are at the heart of the business. The company donates a percentage of profits to local and international organizations working to save the honeybees, and the Ulmers recently launched an effort of their own called the Healthy Hive Foundation, which funds research, education and preservation. Mikaila will share her story on the Natural Products Business School stage at Expo West on March 7. Here she talks more about the rebrand, and what she's learned in her startup journey.
A few year ago, you entirely rebranded your business from BeeSweet Lemonade to Me & The Bees. What was that process like?
Mikaila Ulmer: Our original name that I came up with when I was four years old was BeeSweet Lemonade. We used that company name for almost seven or eight years. But there was another company that had a name similar to ours and was in the food industry, and we got a letter in the mail saying that we had to change our name or we would either have to pay a fine or stop running our company.
Originally I thought, no, I’m not going to change it. This whole company—I had come up with it in kindergarten—why would I change it and start it all over again? I was not happy about it at all. We were trying to figure out how to keep our name, keep our logo and keep our brand, but what ended up happening was that we decided it’s better to lose the battle and win the war. So we changed our name, and we thought, if we’re changing our name, let’s make it way better. Let’s have it capture our story more.
Initially, I didn’t like the new name at all. But once we started talking about how this captures our company, how it uses me to say that every single person who’s drinking the lemonade is part of the mission and how there’s no other name like it, it started gaining on me. Eventually they showed me some brand presentations and how we could use all the graphic designing, and that was what really got me.
Me & The Bees has been our name for three years, and I actually really love it. We have used it to capture our mission more, capture the consumer more. I love the colors and everything.
So do you see that whole process now as being kind of a blessing in disguise?
MU: One of the main points of my presentation (at Natural Products Business School) is to turn a negative into a positive. As an entrepreneur, you’re going to encounter a lot of negatives. For me, it was changing my entire brand name. I had to take that and turn it into something amazing, just like I turned a bee sting into something amazing. It’s really important to use all of the negative things that are thrown at you when you’re running a new company and improve upon them.
The new brand really puts you at the center. Has that been helpful in communication your mission to save the bees?
MU: Definitely. Anybody could have a company named BeeSweet. But with Me & The Bees and the bright colors and my face on the bottle and the handwriting—that kind of defines me and shows that I am the person who started it, and I help with saving the bees and that’s my passion. I feel like our new brands helps us tell our story more, and helps consumers recognize us more.
What are some of your next steps or next goals for growing the company?
MU: Right now we’re trying to come out with some new flavors. And we’re hoping to go completely national, as well as get into more local stores. We just launched in New York and California and are hoping to go national with the W Hotel and Fairmont Hotels, so that’s also a goal. We’re hoping to save more bees—make a more measurable impact. I just launched my nonprofit, The Healthy Hive Foundation, and we’ve been funding bee apiaries, which are kind of like outdoor rooms with beehives. Kids and adults can suit up and go look in the hive, sample the honey and see how the bees work. And I’m hoping to do things like a bee bus, where we can travel and teach people about how to save the bees and their importance.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Catch Mikaila Ulmer at Natural Products Business School at Expo West.
What: Storytelling & Brand Equity: When Life Gives You Lemons, and Booth N2331
When: 11:10 a.m., Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Where: Marriott, Marquis Ballroom North
Register or upgrade your badge here.