Doing It Yourself With Carol Pak of Makku
The canned beverage space is increasingly competitive, with hundreds of new startup brands entering every year. So, if you're going to enter, you better have something unique to say. Therein lies Carol Pak, founder of SOOL, a Korean beverages company and owner of canned makgeolli beverage brand MAKKU, who is using her experience at ZX Ventures - ABinBev's VC arm - and passion for Korean rice alcohol to offer something fresh and exciting to the North American market. Although it hasn't come without its ups, downs and dozens of learnings, Carol had some great insights to share that can be applied to any small business owner, and of course anyone looking to dip their toes into the world of CPG. Check out some of the hot topics from the conversation below. In the summer of 2023, we noticed a big shift in the brand's social presence around Korean culture. Can you talk about that? At first, I didn't know how much I wanted to position ourselves as a Korean drink because I didn't want to isolate non Koreans. I wanted to be very welcoming, very approachable, and I didn't want to pigeonhole ourselves as a Korean drink for Korean occasions and for Korean customers. So I was very vanilla when it came to our marketing because I didn't want to sway too much but I felt like that really left us with no voice. Recently we did some consumer surveys and a resounding sentiment was, we would like to see more Korean stuff from Makku, whether it's in your packaging, your story, your marketing or your branding. That really motivated me to focus more on Korean culture in general. For us, the most natural area to focus on was the Korean drinking culture, which is a huge part of Korean culture. Later we can move into other segments like food or holiday traditions and things like that. As you grow, have you made any other big shifts in how the brand operates? When it comes to our sales, before, I was relying on our distributors to get into retailers, and they put us in any account that would take our product. We were growing in revenue, and it was great in the short term, but we were seeing a lot of turnover as we lost shelf space to new brands and other promotions. If you go down to your local bodega and offer a promotion for them to buy the case, a lot of times they'll say, yes, but it doesn't mean that's the right account for us. I recently realized that while distributors are our partners, the onus is still on us to steer direction and ensure execution. Another consideration is that these smaller accounts don't provide data on the national level. So if a large retailer will put our brand into scan data, nothing will show up, even though we're in over a thousand accounts. So the investment into the smaller accounts don’t build us much credibility for the larger chains. Can you talk about scan data? What does that mean? There are national companies like IRI and Nielsen that manage this. For accounts like Whole Foods and Total Wine and these other large retailers; if your brand is selling in these stores, they'll report the sales data to IRI or Nielsen. So, when you're trying to sell to other national retailers, they can put in your brand and they can track your growth, sales and all this other data about your brand that these retailers are supplying to them. Since we're mostly selling in smaller accounts or Asian chains that are not providing that kind of data, even though we've been in the market for four years, if an Albertsons or Kroger, looked up our brand in Nielsen or IRI, they wouldn’t be able to find much data. So, it just goes to show that an account is not always equal. I’ve learned we need to rely less heavily on our distributors to be selling on our behalf and instead build a sales team and then get into the retailers that we want to by pitching them directly. Is it daunting pitching to these big retailers? I didn't dare dream of trying to pitch national accounts at first. I just thought it wouldn't be possible without any sales data but I've seen a lot of brands launch after me, like years after me, and their first accounts were like Walmart, Target, Costco. There has been a trend of Asian products in stores and product differentiation is probably helpful there, but at the end of the day, you have to pitch them to know whether you get a yes or no. We just never pitched them. That all gave me confidence though. If you get in front of them, you'll at least be on their radar. You can ask them for information on what they're looking for, what data points they need to see for consideration, when to reach out next. Until you talk to them, you never know so just shoot all your shots. We can definitely see the hustle and passion that you have for the brand. I'm sure that helps when you work on growing the brand with partners? Yes, absolutely. If you're not so passionate about what you're doing and you just think of it as a business opportunity, you're not going to last. Undoubtedly, the best entrepreneurs at every level will still have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and I think the only thing that really keeps you in it is the passion. So, if it's not something that you love and you're happy working 80 hours a week, it's going be really hard. When investors, distributors, retailers and customers are talking to you, they're looking for passion and they can tell if you fake it. That is what makes the difference between the companies that make it and the companies that don't. Make sure to check out Makku's website to find out where you can pick some up and keep it locked to Pier Five for more interviews with entrepreneurs and small business owners coming soon!