Stories of modern business.

Courier Weekly Friday 27 November 2020

Courier Weekly Friday 27 November 2020

This week, hot sauce and productivity drinks. Creative director Drew Wolf explains how and why he launched his brand, Kold Sauce, during lockdown, and James Beshara shares how a heart condition brought on by too much caffeine and stress led him to launch his company Magic Mind.

DANIEL GIACOPELLI: Hey guys, Danny here, editorial director of Courier. You’re listening to the Courier Weekly, a podcast all about working better and living smarter. This week, we meet two people who are building new companies – one’s a hot sauce, the other a drink brand – beyond the confines of their careers to date.

Later we’ll hear from Drew Wolf, an American creative director living in London who, during lockdown, ended up experimenting with fermentation in his home kitchen, and now finds himself running a pretty awesome hot sauce brand.

But, first, I’m with James Beshara. James was once a high-flying tech CEO and the brains behind Tilt, a social payments company that he founded and ended up selling to Airbnb. But all the long hours and stress mixed with a massive amount of daily caffeine ended up causing a pretty bad heart condition. The doctor told him he needed to limit his caffeine intake to less than one coffee per day.

As he explains, he took matters into his own hands, doing years of research into everything from adaptogens to amino acids to come up with his own morning concoction – a so-called productivity drink that he’s since turned into the fast growing brand Magic Mind, which is now set to do $1.5m in annualised revenue. I caught up with James from his home in Venice Beach, California.

JAMES BESHARA: I heard a UFC fighter one time say it takes confidence to take days off. And I was like, that's so interesting. With my previous company Tilt, I worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, burned into the ground, and was in the ER for a heart condition that I developed because of stress and drinking six to seven cups of coffee a day, which is the logistical genesis of Magic Mind. 

But I did it one way where I had absolutely no confidence in what we were doing, what I was doing as a CEO of this company with 100 employees. And there was no confidence. Even the decision to build something like Tilt was so like… it'll be Facebook, but with money! And I look back and that grandiosity, that ambition came from such a lack of confidence. Such a lack of internal self-validation that I was seeking it everywhere. And not just in a vain way – it was deeper than that; I just had no confidence in myself that I needed to validate it with this smart person, this smart person, this smart person, and then need to set these crazy expectations that we were just always behind the eight ball every morning. You're 20 miles behind the eight ball. And you wake up in five and a half years and you've just been going seven days a week and 12 hours a day. 

Fast forward to Magic Mind. It's like I don't need any validation from anyone on this thing. It's self-validating. It's maybe the benefit of a physical product, but it was self-validating to where I would take it every morning and kind of had to because of this trip to the ER and this heart condition. But I also just give it to a friend and they'd be like, ‘Holy shit, what's in that? Can I order it?’ And I would just send them the Google Docs and say, ‘Order this, this, this, this and stack it in the morning.’ And so it just didn't need any external validation outside of it being kind of revelatory in my morning ritual. And then I'd give it to you, Daniel, and you'd try and be like, ‘Holy shit, what is that?’ And I was never in this grandiosity, this world-domination type of ambition – it was just like: oh, this is pretty cool, let me give it to a few more people and then it's 15 hours a week. 

DANIEL: And it all started from when you were diagnosed with a heart condition…

JAMES: Yeah. So exiting just how different this company is being built and entering the story of magic. The short version is I was drinking six, seven cups of coffee a day. Every time I looked through my inbox at 40 emails, I was like: alright, that's a Red Bull or that's a cup of coffee away from getting done. In the voice in the back of my head, I was like: I don't think this is healthy. But then I would read some random CNN article when I would Google and I would be like: no, five cups of coffee a day is really healthy. And then I now look back at those stories and they're funded by, like, the Coffee Growers Association of America. 

DANIEL: Because you really see those every day. Coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you, coffee is good for you…

JAMES: Exactly! And I was so scientifically illiterate that I had no idea to look at the real nuts and bolts of the studies. And it would be like 25 participants over six weeks. 

DANIEL: Funded by the Colombian government coffee export society or whatever. 

JAMES: Exactly. And now in this realm of building Magic Mind, now I see how you can just fund these research studies. You fund five of them, they're 30 to 50 grand each. You wait for the one that you want to get the results that you want. You also structured it to get the results that you want. And then you have this headline you can push out and people will write about it. But it's total bullshit. It's as selective as a fictional story when you get to the nuts and bolts of how a lot of these research studies are crafted; there's no better word for it than that, the fact that they're crafted. 

But to their intention, I would just read and say: oh, five cups of coffee must be fine. So I would quell that voice in the back of my head year after year. And my wife would be like, ‘You really shouldn't. This is insane.’ Even at the office, it was kind of a joke that I would drink so much caffeine. And then for about one, two and three weeks in a row, I felt like I had butterflies in my stomach. And it was kind of like the feeling right before you go on stage to speak or something. And I was like, it's not going away after three weeks. 

So I went to see my doctor and my heart was beating at about 170 beats a minute, for three weeks straight. And it wasn't butterflies in my stomach, it was a heartbeat that was so fast… And 130 beats you feel it because it's pounding. But at 170 it's going so fast it feels like a flutter. So it was pretty alarming to hear that. And then the doctor said, ‘You have a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, which is brought on by stress and caffeine consumption.’ It can be stress, caffeine or alcohol consumption. But I don't really drink. So it was stress and caffeine. 

DANIEL: Did it exist at all prior to you consuming all that caffeine or it came about from it? 

JAMES: It was brought about by stress and caffeine. And what was interesting was the doctor laid it out in the first minute of telling me about this. That exchange I go back to in my head often seven years later. But he was basically like, ‘With your condition, you really can't consume more than 80 milligrams of caffeine. And the stress and caffeine that's contributing to your atrial fibrillation, which…’ – I was 26 at the time – he was like, ‘People get this at 66, at 76. It's very rare for a 26-year-old to get this. But with the stress you're under and the caffeine you're drinking, it's not that surprising. And relatedly, your caffeine consumption is spiking your cortisol, which is your body's natural stress hormone, and that's leading to the excess stress that you are feeling right now.’ 

I just had never understood or made the connection that the coffee that I was drinking to chug through my to-do list was leading to the stress that I would feel later in the day that would lead to a lack of sleep, not just from the caffeine, but also the stress that then would require more caffeine the next day – a very vicious cycle. 

DANIEL: Everything you're saying right now sounds incredibly familiar to me, by the way. I'm like: oh, that's me. 

JAMES: I was watching the Apple TV show, the Morning Show the other day. And the first episode, five minutes into this series – by now a bunch of people have seen the series, but I was just starting it – and she's waking up early in New York, Jennifer Aniston's character, she's brewing the coffee, drinking a Red Bull, barely surviving on the treadmill. And there's a reason it's the first five minutes of the show. It's so familiar to all of us. 

But, to fast-forward to the end of this anecdote, the doctor was like, ‘With your condition, you can't consume more than 80 milligrams of caffeine.’ And I was like, ‘What is that? Three cups of coffee? Two cups?’ He was like, ‘No, that's about half a cup of coffee.’ I was like, ‘There is no fucking way I can get through the day on half a cup of coffee.’ And he said this one thing that got lodged in my brain. On top of me going to the ER an hour later and hearing that I had this non-terminal but important diagnosis of a heart condition, the only thing that stuck with me that entire day was: you've got to limit your caffeine intake. Like a true addict, I was like: everything else sounds solvable – but there's no way I can get through the day on 80 milligrams of caffeine, half a cup of coffee. 

But he said, ‘Have you ever tried green tea? It has this compound in it, L-theanine, which will help extend your body's absorption of caffeine and it will help lower your cortisol response to consuming your caffeine.’ And that single thought... I didn't know what L-theanine was at the time, but my engineering mind was like: wait, I can add something to caffeine to extend its absorption? To basically maximise my consumption of it in the morning. And that single thought triggered six months, six years of diving into this entire rabbit hole of what can I add to my morning caffeine to get the absolute most out of it. And then, you know, fast-forward six years, seven years and I wrote an entire book on this whole strange subject. 

DANIEL: So give me the nutshell version of what you think I or someone else should take. I assume you documented this all in detail in the book, right?

JAMES: I mean the book is no James Joyce. It's just very encyclopaedic. But it's a list of all the compounds: the good, the bad and the really dangerous. And in the scientific literature, it's super clear that nature gives us these other compounds that, when coupled with caffeine – and some of them in place of caffeine – it's scientifically really clear that it's far healthier for us. And the one anecdote I'll mention there is caffeine doesn't give us any energy; it just blocks our nerve receptor that tells us we're tired. 

But things like cordyceps and mushrooms, six to seven days in, actually they induce the body to produce more ATP, the body's actual fuel currency, but it takes six to seven days. So 400 years ago, you wouldn't drink cordyceps, mushrooms, tea and feel anything. And so we just didn't have the scientific understanding of: oh, this thing that you drink and 30 minutes later you feel awake. It's actually not giving you any energy whatsoever. It's just blocking that you're tired and the fatigue is still building. Cordyceps, mushrooms or ashwagandha – fast-forward six days, seven days, you're much more energetic in a much more healthy, holistic way. But 200 years ago, you wouldn't wait six days to see the results.

DANIEL: Drew Wolf is originally from Cleveland, but like me, actually, he’s lived in London for the past 10 years. 

Drew’s a creative director and filmmaker. Back in March, when lockdown hit, he decided to get creative and experiment with fermentation and hot sauce. 

Lo and behold, all those late-night experiments ended up turning into a proper brand – he calls it Kold Sauce. It’s sold online and is stocked at lots of pretty cool indie retailers here in London.

Here’s Drew with the full story…

DREW WOLF: I think it was 11 or 12 years ago, I moved over to the UK and I was pursuing a master’s degree in marketing communications. I was in the States, I was in New York and I was working in content marketing and creative advertising, and I thought about getting a master's degree and it was quite expensive at NYU, it was for two years. And so I decided to take the leap and explore a programme at the London College of Communications where I got a master's degree. 

DANIEL: I feel like we have a very, very similar background, by the way, because I moved here to London from New York 10 years ago to get my master's degree here for the same reasons. It's a shorter programme and it's cheaper. 

DREW: Yeah. I had gone to a place career-wise in New York that I was very proud of, but there was a bit of a ceiling there because I think a lot of what young people do in New York is they work really hard, they're self-taught, and then they hit a bit of a wall. And you need to do a bit of theory behind some of what is common sense. And I felt like I needed to study a little bit more and learn a bit more and hone a craft. And also, creatively, London's a hub. I was a filmmaker. I was a creative. I was working with different brands on content marketing. And there was a real emphasis around craft. There was a burgeoning scene around online video here in London – that bubble had already burst a little bit in New York. So it was a good time to come in. 

And I think the day that I handed in my dissertation, which I think was on sneakers – I say I think; I know it was on sneakers! – I handed in my dissertation and I ended up getting a role with a big advertising firm. They had just launched a social firm within it. And I started as their first creative. And so where I was a little bit worried, I wanted to stay in London and continue working. Visas were an issue. And I think there was a window of around six months you had that you were able to work and, in fact, if you couldn't find a role within that six months, your visa would be up. 

DANIEL: Yup, the old post-study work visa. 

DREW: Oh, yeah, that's the one. Yeah, it's quite nerve-wracking, but it certainly keeps you on your toes. You need to go and find something good. And you'll have this from an emotional standpoint. When you leave home and you leave the States and you pack your little bag, you really want to go and accomplish something and make sure that the decisions that you've made are ones that will benefit you from your career. And so I was really keen to make sure that this idea, which seemed kind of crazy to go all the way to London to get a master's degree, actually provided options for me that fit in my career. So that ended up working out. 

And I spent the next 10 years working as a creative director for creative agencies, some of which are global agencies, we worked on really big brands; others were more alongside the publishers working with big social media publishing companies like Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook. And then through that process, over the years, I kind of developed a portfolio mainly around looking at how to develop new products, how to develop existing products and tie that into culture. So my USP as a creative director was always looking at how to make brands culturally relevant and how to work within the social media space and the social platforms and try to drive resonance to audiences that are actually hard to reach. 

And I think how that leads into, say, the birth of Kold sauce is kind of an interesting one. I think a lot of the corridors in which we were really successful in creating advertising or branded content or even just content in general that built relatively big audiences, some of those corridors were starting to close. Because audiences now more than ever are becoming aware of what is an advertisement, what is paid media and where their eyes are meant to go. And so they're sort of dictating where we can communicate to them. And I think some of the creative industry in that sense has shifted to more of an entertainment platform. And brands are finding it very difficult to to break through with messaging that's directly tied to their core product. 

So, for me, as a creative director, I was constantly trying to find over the last couple of years a new way to connect, a new way to be creative and a new platform to find an audience and deliver something that's meaningful. 

Earlier this year, just before lockdown, I parted ways with the ad agency that I was working with and decided to start doing a bit of freelance and consulting work. So working directly into brands and other agencies and picking up different briefs and doing creative work in that sense. But that's exactly when the first lockdown hit and the pandemic. And the freelance market went completely to zero. 

DANIEL: Were you questioning your career decision at that point?

DREW: I just thought there was some amazing timing there that speaks volumes to some of my decision making!

But I think what was interesting – and a lot of people have said this over the last couple of months – is that with this global pandemic and this lockdown, there was a moment there that everybody became a little bit smaller and started thinking about things differently and reevaluating what was important and having a bit of a moment to look back and say: what did I really enjoy about the last handful of years? What specific projects or what was I doing within those projects that actually drove the passion that I need in order to create. 

We pulled one project off of the shelf – it was this idea around producing fermented hot sauce. My wife and I had a passion. She started making kombucha in our house, which is a very weird-looking product. There are just jars of the stuff growing everywhere…

DANIEL: SCOBYs coming out of every corner…

DREW:  Exactly. I read a book by a guy named Dr Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation. And I found him to be incredibly interesting as somebody who was a ‘disco kid of the eighties – fell ill and moved to Nashville and basically healed himself through the art of fermentation and looking at how we as human beings have been eating for thousands of years and how the simple invention of the refrigerator has actually shifted the way that we eat completely and frankly is maybe not so good for us. 

So, in reading that book and thinking about how we were starting to do things at home and looking at how to make bread and kimchi and sauerkraut and kombucha, I started making what I really love – fermented hot sauce. And I'll spare you any visuals, but the first couple hundred batches of hot sauce weren't that great. And if you're trying to learn off of YouTube, you learn a lot of the wrong things. If you read a lot of recipes, they sort of skip over the fermentation side of things. 

So through that vigorous trial and error, and mainly error, we developed a process and a product that we became incredibly proud of, and that was something that I was really proud to share with friends and bottle it up and say, ‘Hey, look, this is kind of what we're up to.’ This is something interesting as a hobby at first. 

And when lockdown happened and the freelance market was pretty dry, I thought I had a bit of an opportunity there to look at that hobby and say: OK, what can I do for my professional past to apply to something that I care about that I think actually has legs and something that could be good?

We put those things together and sort of pulled that skill set off the shelf and wrapped a brand around it. So for me, it was: how do I look at some of my training in creativity? How do I look at my understanding of the social media platforms? And how do I develop a product that people actually would like? And so that was the idea around starting Kold Sauce. 

And then there's quite a few little interesting ideas as far as where the name came from. Kold Sauce, obviously it's a hot sauce, so there's a bit of irony and insight into my really basic sense of humour that I think it's funny to call hot sauce ‘kold sauce’, but ultimately it really speaks to the process. When you read about fermentation and its potential health, your gut health, a lot of hot sauces out there and so-called fermented products pasteurise their product in the very end. And when you do that, you're meeting certain standards that were put in place from hundreds of years ago. But, really, you're killing off all of the natural bacteria that's good for you and, frankly, changing the flavour profile massively. 

So, for us, we thought our product was much better when it was fermented naturally and still alive, meaning not cooked and still cold. And what was also interesting was that in all of that trial and error in the beginning, temperature played a big role. The temperature of the barrels and how high the temperature was, how quick it fermented, how much salt you needed, how much sugar you needed – the constant, a lot of times, was that temperature was an issue, and so I thought it was quite interesting to call it Kold Sauce. So, ‘kold’ really refers to our production, as well as a bit of tongue in cheek around cold hot sauce.

DANIEL: And now you're stocked in some pretty cool places across London. How did you get yourself in the door? 

DREW: Well, it's interesting. I looked at where a lot of hot sauce is sold and you can go down the aisle at Tesco or Sainsbury's or Waitrose and you can find quite a decent variety of international brands, a pretty low price point. But you turn those bottles around and oftentimes the ingredients, there's quite a lot there and it's a different product altogether. Whereas I took a lot of inspiration for this product through the burgeoning scene of natural wine and low intervention and the methodologies behind making that natural wine or kimchi or sauerkraut – it’s really put us in a different lane. And I saw that there wasn't really a product like ours in that space. 

So the initial stores and stockists that I spoke to were actually wine shops: places that had and sold low-intervention and natural wine, because I felt that the correlation between the production of our process and the making of wine was actually pretty similar. And the mindset of the consumer – myself, usually buying wine all the time – going into these wine shops, there's a romantic feeling there when you discover something new; the label there, the way in which it's made, the way it makes you feel, these are all really key elements into the purchase decisions of people walking into wine shops. And I felt that we could subvert that and have a product that actually met that audience with what they expected. 

DANIEL: Yeah, it's really clever. Rather than trying to get stocked in a BBQ shop or something like that, or a food shop, you try to get stocked in a store that shares your production values and the feeling it gives you – how it makes you feel.

DREW: Yeah, exactly. You know, my father is an art dealer, and he always told me – I used to work on the floor of his gallery, mostly packing boxes – that part of the idea in selling art or anything is having a digestible story, something that people can pass on. And I think with Kold Sauce, part of the idea was to arm the shop owners, the wine and cheese shop owners and some of the other stockists, with a quick and digestible story around why this hot sauce is different from others and also similar to the quality products that they sell. And that was the idea of the positioning of the brand in that sense. 

DANIEL: And that’s it for this week. As ever, get in touch with any comments or ideas: I’m [email protected]. The Courier Weekly’s back again next Friday. See you then.