An Entrepreneurial Summer

Michelle is a junior at Stanford studying Product Design, interested in the intersection of technology, design, and business. This is her third year in BASES and second year as co-VP of Marketing.

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On day one of my summer internship, I was given a team, a general “problem area”, and $25,000. This was the kickoff of the ZX Ventures Accelerator, which brought about 40 undergraduates, MBAs, and full-time employees together to launch beverage-focused companies. We were matched with teams and broad project directions, given a two-week bootcamp on Design Thinking and Lean Startup Theory, then set loose to create a company in 11 weeks. At the end of the program, we would be pitching to leadership of Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of ZX Ventures. If we created a feasible, viable, and desirable business, we would get funding to make this part of the AB-InBev portfolio.

My team’s goal was to help AB-InBev disrupt the health beverage industry. The first few weeks were categorized as the research phase. We dedicated our time to learning about the health drink consumer and pinpointing the problems in the industry. My main role was product strategy, so I interviewed hundreds of health drink consumers, conducted surveys and focus groups, and worked with research companies. We pivoted from our health benefit focus to taste and then to lifestyle. In the end, we found an exciting opportunity in the health drink space for a low-cost, high-benefit, shelf stable drink with a strong lifestyle component. We found the perfect solution in apple cider vinegar, the second fastest growing health ingredient. It had all the buzz and trendiness we needed (in surveys of our target audience, 95% knew what apple cider vinegar was!), but was currently a commodity. This left a huge opportunity for a large player to make it into a good-tasting premium lifestyle drink. With Anheuser-Busch’s resources and existing fermentation capabilities, we were perfectly positioned to do that.

Over the next few weeks, we learned how to brew and carbonate our own apple cider vinegar drinks by working with flavor houses. We learned how to create business models, P&L statements, websites with high click-to-purchase ratios, and sales action plans by talking with experts at AB-InBev and within our network. One of my proudest moments was, after several exhausting sales days running around NYC in the rain, I got my 15th grocery store to sign a letter of intent to purchase our product. Now, we’d validated our value to both consumers and retailers.

This is not to say that we didn’t go through our fair share of struggles as well. My teammates, Jake Heller and Danny Pantuso (a fellow BASES member!), were incredibly talented and driven, but all 3 of us were undergrads. Meanwhile, most other teams had majority MBAs and full time employees with 1 or 2 undergrads. At first, being the only all-undergrad team seemed like a disadvantage. We didn’t have any more resources than the other teams, and there were many times that we didn’t know how to approach a problem because we didn’t have 7 years of management consulting experience to train us to do it -- we just had ECON 1. However, we took advantage of the incredible resources around us and learned. We truly couldn’t have done it without all the experts in AB-InBev willing to offer their time and expertise to train us. It required more effort and reaching out to get to the same “square one” as others, but it also meant that we each got to take a larger role and learn a lot.

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The final few days were a rush to the pitch. I attended trade shows like the Fancy Food Show to get inspiration for our booth. We brewed, bottled, and hand-labeled hundreds of bottles, created design materials for our booth, and wrote a killer pitch that highlighted many of the things I wrote about in this blog post. I was fortunate enough to get to pitch (see the photo!). Our company got amazing reception at Demo Day -- we ran out of drinks! And, a few weeks ago, we got the exciting news that AB-InBev decided to move forward with our drink and fund our project with our ask of $700,000.

This was an incredible experience. I became much stronger in my product management and product strategy skills, and created a real product that is becoming part of the AB-InBev portfolio. I developed new skills in sales, web design, business strategy, and many other areas. After spending so much time learning about entrepreneurship through BASES and small projects at startups, it was incredible to actually get to build a company of my own. This was the embodiment of getting scrappy, failing early, but learning quickly. I wish I had more room to speak about my incredible teammates, who could probably all write blog posts of their own, and the mentors that helped us along the way (Al and Maisie)! I’m thankful for this experience and excited to see what’s to come.