Clean Cause, a 4-year-old Austin, Texas, company, is taking a South American beverage known for its antioxidants and other health benefits and selling it in sparkling peach, blackberry, raspberry and lime flavors.
But what makes Clean Cause more than a wellness beverage company is its commitment to supporting alcohol- and drug-addiction recovery efforts. The company’s founder, Wes Hurt, overcame drug addiction himself, which is what inspired him to start a company with this mission. Half of the company’s profits go toward funding 30-day sober-living scholarships that help recovering addicts get on their feet after coming out of rehab, the streets or prison.
We talked to Wes Hurt about the company’s mission as well as the yerba mate category, which Industry Research Co. predicts will see 4% growth in the next several years.
How did you get into yerba mate?
More than 10 years ago I was turned onto [yerba mate brand] Guayaki by a friend. I actually knew that it performed better than the alternatives. I drink it more for the functional aspect as a cleaner pick-me-up with polyphenols and vitamins and minerals.
Tell me how your own personal experience led to the founding of Clean Cause?
I’m a self-proclaimed entrepreneur. I was a guy doing a lemonade stand every weekend when I was a kid or selling books door to door. I like to tell people, “Entrepreneurship chose me. I didn’t choose it.” I had a cupcake business before [Clean Cause] and it really did well. However, it didn’t have a grander purpose to it. That lack of direction, coupled with the acceleration of my drug addiction, was a terrible combination.
During the last couple of years of my cupcake business, that’s when I picked up opiates and it brought me to my knees pretty quickly. With a lot of support from family and friends, I had the opportunity to get on the road to recovery. When I did, I felt kind of empty and aimless.
Within a few months of being sober, the entrepreneurial spark was reignited, and I had this desire to help others and to have more of an explicit purpose. I said, “Hey, what’s our cause?” I want to do something relevant and I know there’s a need. It kind of snowballed from there to create a quality product that can stand on its own merit—but also have a cause that’s not an afterthought but part of the DNA of the brand. As the concept came to life, I felt it was important to have equal parts product quality and cause.
How did you get the business off the ground?
Someone purchased my cupcake business, so I had some startup capital. I started with 40 cases of bottled water that were branded Clean Cause Water in my garage and just started selling it up and down the street. Over time I realized it wasn’t a compelling enough offering, so we evolved.
How did you switch from water to yerba mate?
Bottled water is easy to get into relatively speaking. But it’s difficult to sell bottled water for more and give your retail less margin. That’s not a great selling proposition. The economics made it an easy decision that bottled water was not our lead product. In January 2018, we launched with yerba mate.
How many locations are you in?
We’re coming up on 6,000 locations. It’s going to be available in Whole Foods in March. We’ll probably be in 7,500 locations by then. Safeway, Target, 7-Eleven are some of the big ones we’re currently in.
What was your first retail account?
JuiceLand—my friend’s juice bar chain in Austin, Texas. It’s known to be the healthiest fast-casual juice bar in Austin.
How did you win retail shelf space?
The retail market is insanely competitive, cash intensive and highly fragmented. Being a no-name startup beverage brand without any significant pre-existing distributor or retailer relationships, we had to win one account at a time. CPG is not for the faint-hearted. You have to just hustle. The cause also moves mountains and helps us secure shelf space. Success begets success.
How do you share your story with retailers?
The goal is to convey my story and our brand’s mission through every touchpoint possible. Whether it’s our website, brand video, speaking engagements, coworkers or point-of-sale materials, the goal is that anytime someone encounters the Clean brand they walk away knowing the essence of our mission: to help inspire recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
Because of my story and background, I’m really working on refining a presentation that I can do. There’s no better way to engage people than in person so they can feel your passion and you can genuinely share with people in that room, which I make it a point to do. At the end of the day, we want to help. If anyone in this room is struggling or has a family member struggling, email me directly. Everyone knows when you can sell something you believe in, you hustle more.
How do you educate consumers?
Shelf signage, on our packaging and drink trays, and with other various point-of-sale collateral. We recently hired a marketing director and a sales director.
What has surprised you most about operating in the natural products industry?
How difficult it is to scale. What works in Austin doesn’t work in Dallas. I knew it was hard but was surprised at how fragmented it is.
What’s next for the company?
Scaling nationally and then innovation in new flavors. We’ll also be introducing a zero-calorie line in 2020.
What are the current trends in the wellness drinks industry?
The trends we’ve observed include “clean” ingredients, organic and/or non-GMO, low/no sugar, low/no calorie and carbonation/sparkling.