It's no secret that investment bankers like to unwind with a drink or two after a long day of work. But for brothers Courtney and Carter Reum, the art of the cocktail helped provide a new career path. Courtney, 32, and Carter, 29, left their jobs at Goldman Sachs in 2005 to launch VeeV Acai Spirit, now based in Los Angeles. The Brazilian berry has been hailed as a "superfood," thanks to its antioxidants, and usually comes in the form of smoothies and juices. That is, until the Reums put it in a spirit.
VeeV's Acai is sustainably harvested in the Brazilian rainforest, then distilled in eastern Idaho, using Rocky Mountain water and super premium Idaho winter wheat that is sourced from within a couple miles of the distillery. The finished product is a 60-proof spirit that mixes and drinks similar to a vodka -- and can now be found in bars and liquor stores in all 50 states.
But as the brothers Reum will tell you, starting a liquor company isn't about hitting up glamorous clubs and partying until the wee hours -- although they admit having your own bottle on the top shelf comes with some perks. For the first six months, Courtney and Carter sold VeeV out of their car, and to this day, they embrace couch surfing when they travel around the country spreading the VeeV gospel. VeeV has recently found some competition with Absolut Berri Acai, but the brothers say the emergence of a big player with a similar product is validation that they've devised a better way to drink. In fact, so much so, they made that their slogan. AOL Small Business Executive Editor Rod Kurtz recently caught up with Courtney and Carter at the Mondrian in Los Angeles.
You guys were both pretty young when you started VeeV. How did you finance the company and how are you scaling it now?
Carter: Our big thing from day one was -- and I think it is for any entrepreneur -- finding the balance of knowing how much to raise. So we talked to a lot of people, because we'd seen a lot of companies in the alcohol space raise some money and then they'd get a little traction and momentum, and then they'd be out fundraising again. So it was a lot of start, stop. Our goal was to have a lot of money at our disposal from angel investors, so we could give it a run for two or three years and see if we could be successful at it. Especially because you spend an excessive amount on lawyers and legal fees as a small startup.
You're brothers. What did your parents think when you told them about the idea for VeeV?
Carter: My parents kind of expect these things from Courtney. He's always been the one to say, "Mom and Dad, I want to talk to you about something" and he'd have some harebrained idea. When he persuaded me to do it, they kind of said, "Uh oh, now we have all our eggs in one basket!" But they're still supportive.
As brothers and business partners, how do you complement each other?
Courtney: When we first started, we tried to be interchangeable -- and then we realized that's not efficient. Now we try to separate areas because that way we can each run certain facets of the company. People still think we're so interchangeable and we probably agree 95 percent of the time, but how we get there can be very different, and that other 5 percent is what makes the world go round.
The liquor shelf is so crowded now. What makes the VeeV brand unique?
Courtney: Contrary to what marketing books would say, we actually came up with our platform -- "A better way to drink" -- before we decided what we were going to be. We said, "OK, we're going to be a better way to drink, now how are we going to do it?" Inside the bottle, we decided to use Acai, the Brazilian berry that's gotten a lot of publicity lately. When we first started three years ago, nobody knew what the berry was, so we were the world's first Acai spirit, while also trying to be the world's first sustainable, eco-friendly alcohol brand. In an industry that doesn't do much, we donate a dollar of every bottle we sell to the Brazilian rainforest to fund the Sustainable Farming Project, we're the first distillery that's powered by renewable wind energy and we have no carbon footprint for our business.
How do you make sure people know all of that, since there can be so much disconnect between the distillery and the customer at the liquor store?
Courtney: Events are always great, and if you think you have a great product, you want to get it in people's mouths. VeeV isn't a vodka, but you can mix it pretty much like a vodka, so you have to convey that while still letting people know that you're unique. And it takes a lot of effort to truly change people's minds. There's a huge spectrum from, "I've heard of Veev" to "I've tried Veev" to "I like VeeV" to "I will order VeeV if I see it" to "VeeV is my drink of choice." And "VeeV is my drink of choice" takes time. We're on our way, but you can't expect it to happen overnight.
I wouldn't know the first thing about harvesting a berry. How did you know where to start?
Courtney: In this day and age, the information is there at your fingertips -- you just have to figure out how to access it. We didn't know a single person in the alcohol industry when we started, but we got here just by asking around and talking to a friend of a friend and taking a hot lead. This industry is pretty small when you get down to it. No progress happens when you're standing still, so as long as you keep moving in some direction, you eventually figure it out.
Do you worry about having a brand that revolves around something so of-the-moment like Acai?
Courtney: The confusion about Acai has come from the companies and not from the berry itself. Acai is here to stay because it has proven nutritional value -- the healthful properties really are there. Plus, VeeV stands for more than just Acai.
Carter: We don't have berries on the packaging and it's not purple and we don't have Brazilian dancers at our parties. Obviously, we've benefited from the rise in popularity of Acai, but we're about a better way to drink and not hitching a wagon to a pony, for lack of a better term.
Absolut entered the Acai market with Absolut Berri Acai. How does that affect VeeV?
Courtney: The good thing is that it validated the Acai berry. It's like Coke and Pepsi -- everyone needs an antithesis. They have the advantage of scale, but for the most part, our sales have been nothing but strengthened by Absolut Berri launching.
Carter: Rather than panicking, we took a step back to figure out how to counter it and make it a positive. The key is, for the most part, educating someone to know why that product is different from ours -- price point and all the green, sustainable aspects -- and using that to our advantage.
Why did you venture into the alcohol industry in the first place?
Courtney: Given our backgrounds at Goldman Sachs, we got a lot of training in a certain, very narrow scope of business, and there's that whole other side -- marketing, strategy, branding -- that interested me. Intuitively, I thought we'd be pretty good at it, so this seemed like a good way to experience that.
Carter: What I love about alcohol is that it's not rocket science -- it's a very tangible consumer product. I don't know if we ever could have started a technology company, because we'd have had to rely on other people. But what's great about this is that, assuming you've got a great product and a bottle, it really comes down to execution and how good of a company you run.
What's the biggest misconception about this industry?
Carter: That the same business principles apply, even though you're selling booze. Sometimes people ask me, "What do you do? Like, what do you really do? On a daily basis?" And I have to explain to them, I still have HR issues and we still work on performance reviews and all the basic blocking and tackling. Certainly, it can be fun at times, but at the end of the day, it's no different than any other industry. You spend a disproportionate amount of time building the company and not the product. And having more employees requires you to put systems in place that will allow the company to grow. You always have to have an eye toward what you'll need six months or a year from now.
What's your favorite aspect of being in the liquor industry?
Carter: What's fun about alcohol is that it's the ultimate currency. It's like having cigarettes in prison. Everybody at some point needs alcohol, whether it's for this brand or that brand and this event or that event, so you get pulled into a lot of interesting stuff because they like your tasty booze.
What do you say to people who look at you and say, "Oh, here are two successful Goldman guys starting a liquor company," which has become sort of a hobby for rich kids?
Courtney: Last year, I traveled about 200 days and stayed at a hotel 20 nights. That translates to a lot of couch surfing. Part of what I wanted to experience was to start from nothing and build something.
Carter: We've been very thoughtful about everything from day one. We worked out of our house for two years and we delivered out of our car for six months. The first thing we didn't want to do was go out and get a fancy office. You realize you're not at Goldman Sachs anymore, you don't get to stay at the Four Seasons, you don't get a $75 dinner stipend. I think we'll look back as a brand and as a company and say the bad economy was actually the best thing to happen to us. It allowed us to push forward, invest and double-down while a lot of people who had no right to be in the industry went out of business. The recession acts as a leveler of sorts.
What's the next step for VeeV?
Courtney: It's really just managing growth. Three years ago, we were selling out of the back of our car, a year ago we were in 15 states and now we're in all 50. You forget how small this thing starts. It starts with us drinking it, and then our friends and then our friends' friends. We just hired five more people, so now we have about 25 employees and all of a sudden it's just about making sure we're executing things well.
Name: Courtney Reum and Carter Reum
Company: VeeV Acai
Age: 32 and 29
Location: Los Angeles
2009 Revenue: Just under $5 million
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 12/29/10.