Koia‘s CEO and Co-Founder Chris Hunter knows that high protein and low sugar content is a winning combination, especially for beverage products. So how did he go from co-creating Four Loko — a formerly controversial caffeinated and alcoholic energy drink that has now gone to market as a malt beverage since 2010 — to creating a healthy product designed with nutrition and taste in mind? Read on to get to know more about Hunter and his journey in the emerging beverage space.

ForceBrands: Tell us a bit about your background. You co-created Four Loko, which is a very different product than Koia. What inspired you to move in such a different direction?
Chris Hunter: Although each of my ventures is very different, I fell in love with the beverage space early on and figured out that finding products with a simple buzz factor that resonates with consumers is key. At 25, I co-founded Four Loko after seeing the huge popularity in combining caffeine and alcohol. A bit more mature, I found a similar concept with Not Your Father’s Root Beer. Now as a father of 3 boys, my middle son has a dairy intolerance, and my wife is a nutritionist so my personal buzz factors shifted which led me to Koia.

FB: Protein drinks are incredibly popular – how does Koia differentiate itself? What advice on standing out from the competition would you give to others who are interested in creating a new product within such a popular food or beverage category?
CH: Koia is a single-serve plant protein drink with a nutrition label that stands it apart from other brands in the space – every bottle has 18g of plant protein from brown rice, pea and hemp sources to provide a more complete protein, and only 4g of sugar. It’s also dairy-free, and gluten-free, but most importantly, it’s completely delicious. We also just launched Koia’s brand new packaging in bold, bright colors which helps us jump off the shelf.

Our research shows that high protein and low sugar are two of the most important attributes a product can have in this space, so we highlighted ours more prominently on the front of the package.

FB: Let’s chat about your team (because you can’t build a successful brand without one). What does your team look like and how have you gone about building it?
CH: When I was building out our initial team at Koia, I had to be a little creative. Instead of building the team from the bottom up, I choose to search for and hire experienced leaders who then had the autonomy to build their teams as they chose. This was a more expensive approach, but these individuals instantly proved their value and brought a level of experience and expertise that made our company better.

FB: Describe some of the key qualifications your most successful hires share.
CH: Something I’ve found consistent in all of our most successful hires is that they care about the product and stand behind it, inside and out. There also is an internal, instinctive drive to win and a level of independence they demonstrate (as all our employees are currently remote). It’s very important for our employees to be transparent and to communicate with one another on an ongoing basis to ensure everything is running smoothly. Despite pressures from some investors to establish an office, I think a remote culture is working well for us. Our team is incredibly productive and efficient, however, also has flexibility. I think this creates a happy, more balanced, and more motivated team and company

FB: Describe your team’s culture.
CH: At our stage in the company lifecycle, we have to be fast-paced. We have an energetic team that is excited about growing Koia, so we’re moving fast but also in a focused manner to ensure we’re not making mistakes. Our team is also execution driven. We love getting things done and making it happen for Koia. We also aim to be transparent – one of our company values – so from our communication all the way through to the way we make the product, transparency is key.

FB: Looking ahead, where do you see yourself and Koia in the next 10 years?
CH: Our vision at Koia is to become more than a product and evolve into a lifestyle that stands for ‘craveable’ plant-powered nutrition, which could take a lot of different forms. Right now, we know we appeal to the consumer who knows a bit about nutrition and shops in natural grocery stores. This year we’re focused on expanding our reach to a much broader consumer base by expanding our distribution and targeting our messaging. The great thing about Koia is the surprise factor – consumers pick us off the shelf because of our low sugar and high protein content and are then surprised by how delicious the product tastes. We strongly believe plant protein is the future, but it will only work if people love how it tastes. Koia is great for everyone – a tasty, nutritious protein drink that doesn’t compromise on flavor or ingredients.

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