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Inside View: Vita Coco

You've seen their hot Rihanna ads, now find out about careers at the break-out drinks brand that started when two American guys were hitting on Brazilian girls in a New York City bar!

This week we talk to Adam Savelli, UK Field Sales Manager at Vita Coco, the break-out drinks brand that specialises in pure and flavoured coconut water.

Started in the US in 2003, Vita Coco is creating a buzz around the health-giving properties of coconut water, as well as its delicious taste, in European markets where the drink was virtually unheard of 18 months ago. Those hot adverts featuring Rihanna in a bikini have definitely helped!

Vita Coco drinks are currently on sale in the UK at upscale retailers like Whole Foods and Waitrose, as well as through the Vita Coco website. Madonna, Demi Moore and Matthew McConaughey seem to think it's a good thing - they're all investors in the firm!

Savelli joined Vita Coco straight out of university, starting off as a "utility man", doing the tough sales assignments that no one else wanted to take on. But it sounds like he loved every minute of it, and now he's a key member of the team responsible for expanding the brand in Europe. He tells us what it takes to be successful at Vita Coco, a sales-focused company where everyone has to do their share of "grinding the streets" to win clients.

Who are the founders of Vita Coco?
Mike Kirban was a university drop-out, and Ira Liran a recent Columbia University graduate, when they decided to found Vita Coco in their mid-20s. Vita Coco was their first business working together and their first time working in the beverage industry -- resulting in another first: fresh coconut water sold in the U.S. in Tetra Pak. That started the coconut water craze that has turned Vita Coco into the best-selling natural coconut water in the US and the UK.
How did Vita Coco first get started?
It’s actually a pretty cool story. Back in 2003 Mike and Ira were flirting with two Brazilian girls in a New York City bar when they asked the girls what they missed most about Brazil. “Agua de Coco – the coconut water!” were both girls’ instinctive answers. The guys ended up visiting Brazil, falling in love with the stuff, and starting Vita Coco because they though everyone else would too. Mike is now Vita Coco’s Global CEO, based in New York, and Ira married the girl he met in the bar that night and lives with her in Brazil.
Did they get investment to start it?
Mike and Ira started Vita Coco with the profits they’d raised through a previous tech venture. Soon after, Verlinvest – a private equity fund known for spotting small brands with big potential – provided the investment that allowed us to make key hires in the company’s early stages. Since then Madonna, Demi Moore, Anthony Kiedis, and Matthew McConaughey have invested as well.
When did you join the firm?
I joined about four years back and was one of the company’s first 10 or 15 employees. One summer, while on break from university, I wound up getting a gig doing samplings for Vita Coco in order to raise money for a road trip I had planned. That summer I became their “utility man” – working multiple samplings each day, taking the last minute sessions when someone cancelled on short notice, or the really long or distant ones that no one else wanted. I guess they liked me because next thing I knew I was handling business development and account management in Brooklyn!
Once I graduated and began working full time I was lucky enough to be invited on several out-of-market blitzes, which are essentially short trips in which a few sales guys or gals travel to new markets and build the foundations for sustainable growth. This is when I realized that I not only liked selling Vita Coco but loved adapting my strategies to the unique local challenges posed by regional markets.
But after three years of working in New York it was time for a change. It was lucky for me that our European CEO, Giles Brook had just got Vita Coco up and running in Europe and was looking for people to build a field sales team and develop up-and-down the street awareness for the brand. Mike linked me in with Giles for a phone chat and we instantly hit it off. Nine months later I was here!
What is your professional background?
I don’t have one really! Vita Coco scooped me up before I was even done with university, where I studied political science and literature. I really had no interest in the business world whatsoever until I met Vita Coco. Before that I had done everything from handing out flyers in Lower Manhattan, to working at a One-Hour-Foto, to stocking shelves at several bookstores, to proofreading and editing for a start-up magazine in Long Island City, Queens.
It’s worth mentioning that I had a job selling ad-space for a magazine and hated it so much that I swore I would never work in sales again. It just goes to show that the right role, as part of the right team, in the right organization, can really bring the best out of someone. It’s all about finding something you can be passionate about.
I think it’s also very important to try a lot of different things, especially while you’re still young. No single job should be the Holy Grail and you should keep all your options open until finding a role that you love and that loves you back. Never settle for a job that isn’t right for you.
How did Vita Coco get started in the UK?
Giles Brook, the CEO of Vita Coco Europe, was Innocent Drinks’ Commercial Director and a major force in transforming them from a niche health store drink into a multi-billion pound brand. Once innocent was acquired by Coca Cola Giles left and was introduced to Mike Kirban, who was looking for someone to head up VC in Europe. From there Giles poached Pip Brook, his sister, from her job in Australia to run our Marketing and Operations and Vita Coco Europe was born.
What kind of people do you currently need in the business? What skills and abilities?
Since Vita Coco is the fastest growing drinks company in Europe we’re always looking for people of all different stripes. What I look for when recruiting for the sales team are motivated, articulate, passionate, creative, and FUN people. We’re a real work hard - play hard company. As a brand we don’t take ourselves too seriously, so it’s important that our team members don’t either! Energy is also key as it’s no longer enough just to educate consumers - you really need to get them excited.
What is involved in sales and marketing day to day?
Our brand of sales is a mixture of grinding the streets, getting face-to-face with clients and building relationships, and office-based e-mailing and data crunching. What we do in the office allows us to be very strategic about where and when we hit the streets, but the direct sales and in-person customer interaction is what sets us apart from other brands. Business is all about relationships!
Our Marketing Team focus on building awareness of the brand (and the category – after all it’s a totally new category in the beverage market so they’ve had a lot of work to do building awareness of what coconut water is), then driving trial and engagement. Sales and Marketing work hand in hand to drive awareness and ensure there is accessibility to the brand. Considering how small the category was just a couple of years ago, I think they’re doing a fantastic job. Just last week we won the 2012 World Food Awards Marketing Campaign of the Year award!
Vita Coco juice carton
What's your favourite place in the UK so far?
Ooh, tough one. London Fields on a Saturday, The V&A Museum on a weekday and the Bedruthan Steps (in Cornwall) during sunset are all strong contenders.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Managing Vita Coco sales for the Caribbean Islands … or hopefully starting a small business of my own.
How did you get Rihanna on board for those hot adverts?!
Rihanna found us! Being one of the busiest entertainers on the planet and finding the time to stay healthy isn’t easy. Being that she grew up in Barbados, Rihanna already knew that coconut water is super-healthy and packed with the natural electrolytes that will help you get through the six shows per week she performs. After asking for Vita Coco on her tour riders, her management reached out and asked us to ship her product directly. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship …
What is your favourite Vita Coco product?
I’m currently addicted to our new Coconut Water with Orange. It’s great first thing in the morning (or last thing in the evening with a little vodka), plus I love it post workout.

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