Imagine you've just had twins. You need to support your family and work. You're exhausted constantly. (And from experience, I can tell you baby exhaustion really does feel somewhere between death and stupid.) What do you do to keep going?
If you're Neel Premkumar, you start concocting coffee shots in your kitchen, playing around with organic coffee beans and cold brewing. While the mad scientist behavior might have been born out of necessity (what innovation isn't?), in a few months, Premkumar had found the ingredient and technique combination that worked. In fact, his creation worked so well, business bells started blaring in his brain.
The only problem? No money. (Cue the sad violins here.)
An option from inside the family
Fortunately for Premkumar, his father-in-law, Venkat Nemani, had some money--his life savings of $50,000. If Nemani would agree to give that and everything worked out, he wouldn't lose anything and could even gain. But if things didn't work out ...
It was a huge risk. But Nemani had faith. The money--all of it--went to Premkumar. And what's more, Nemani didn't even haggle over details the way other investors or bankers would have.
"I never formally outlined a plan to pay him back," Premkumar says, "past my good word that he'd be repaid!"
Premkumar recognized the trust. And, in return, he committed to the business full throttle.
"Failure was just not an option," he says. "I named my company Dyla, which is a combination of my twin girls' names. When I started, I thought to myself, 'If I name this startup after my kids, there is no way I could let it fail.' I think that as an entrepreneur, you just have to have a singular focus on success. What you're trying to accomplish is hard enough in taking on industry giants. Self-belief is paramount to success."
And so Forto was born. Premkumar started selling his coffee online, answering every customer email himself. He managed to find a base with the U.S. military, where the need for focus and energy is extraordinarily high.
"When Forto was selling well in every U.S. base, I realized this was going to be a big business," Premkumar notes. "I also saw signs of big changes in both the energy drink and retail coffee markets, with buying patterns shifting and a new generation of consumers demanding great coffee, in a convenient format that saves them time. That is where Forto fits in and why it has such a loyal audience."
From family loan to national brand
Even though having the money come from his father-in-law added personal stress, Premkumar's initial product success and market observation told him that asking for the loan had been the right choice. And, by staying laser focused, he managed to pay the $50,000 back in just 18 months.
Forto has skyrocketed, earning 400 percent year-over-year growth. It was named the Inc. 500's No 1 fastest-growing beverage brand in America for 2017. And while the shots are available in more than 50,000 retail stores, the company announced today that the product will also be on the regular coffee shelves at 3,700 Walmart locations. It's a massive win for Premkumar, as the entire point of the business has been to help customers boost their energy in a more convenient and inexpensive way.
Should you take the same risk to innovate?
Premkumar says he has zero regrets about the experience. But he points out that much of what made Forto work was just being in the right place at the right time. He came up with the shots right when people were changing the rituals they had around coffee, putting him in the ideal position to meet an emerging demand. And he and his team were serious about examining early adopters to understand why and when they downed the coffee. That allowed Premkumar to find and connect with more individuals for whom Forto was a great fit. Lastly, he didn't hire and scale until that consumer understanding--and the product message built on it--was solid.
"Everyone's tolerance for risk is different," Premkumar says. "For me, bringing Forto's two-ounce coffee shots to market was worth the risk, because I thought it provided a necessary solution to an everyday problem--a convenient coffee energy boost. I think fundamentally an entrepreneur's job is about risk mitigation. A startup begins with maximum risk, but every step you take building the company reduces your risk ever so slightly. I was never worried about the competition, more about my own ability to figure out how to meet the consumer need and communicate that correctly to them before the money would run out!"
As for specific money tips, Premkumar says you should borrow only from people you trust. Ideally, those people should be OK with losing the loan. You also shouldn't aim too high. Raising too much money can be a huge temptation to overspend, waste money, and hire more than or before you need to.
"If you do raise your first round from family or friends," Premkumar advises, "make sure they have nerves of steel like my father-in-law did. They might need it!"